Ireland’s Wars: Flashpoints And The Four Courts Seizure

While supplementary entries have put us past the point a while ago, this is the 400th numbered entry of Ireland’s Wars. We’re getting there, and who knows where we will be come #500 (hopefully at the Emergency at least, or maybe even into the Troubles). Thanks again to all readers, subscribers and commenters!

Having taken a look at the evolving situation in Northern Ireland, especially Belfast, and then the unpredictable nature of what was happening in anti-Treaty heartlands, we must now turn back to the east of the country, primarily Dublin, to discuss the next steps on the road to the Irish Civil War. In April 1922 it seemed more and more likely that all out hostilities between proponents and opponents of the Treaty would start imminently, but there were as many or more people trying to cobble together some kind of non-violent solution to the split as there were preparing for the perceived eventuality of conflict.

The Army Convention, now explicitly an anti-Treaty event, reconvened in Dublin on the 9th April. There, delegates narrowly voted against the idea of establishing a military dictatorship, but similarly opposed any moves towards a new general election, noises about which had been made by personalities on the pro-Treaty side for some time. Anti-Treaty leaders, even if they professed otherwise publicly, were fully aware that in a free and fair election pro-Treaty candidates would probably carry the day, in what would be the closest to a full national judgement on the Treaty possible. They were a minority in terms of population, but a large minority, and an armed minority to boot.

But the larger question then is just what the anti-Treaty side wanted. A week after this sitting of the Convention Liam Mellows wrote to the Dail outlining what we might call a loose raison d’etre for the anti-Treaty side, with a series of terms that he insisted must be taken up if Army unity was to be maintained. These included the continued existence of the Irish Republic and the Dail as its government, no elections, the disestablishment of the Civic Guard and that the independence of the Army Executive be recognised. Such terms were impossible for the provisional government to accept, most especially the last one: in essence, the anti-Treaty IRA were asking that they be allowed to be a self-governing armed force operating within Ireland, with no political direction at all. The lack of a more long-term strategy or plan indicates the many divisions within the anti-Treaty faction: if they wanted to maintain a “republic”, albeit one where they would be the sole arbiter of its direction, then they should have taken steps to enact this plan there and then, but remained paralyzed with indecision.

There was less indecision on the other side of the question. By now Beggers Bush were in the process of separating the, from their perspective, good from the bad. Officers and ranks in nominally pro-Treaty units who were not thought to have the required commitment to the provisional government’s cause were being frozen out, and replaced by more trustworthy men. Only a certain amount of pay was allotted to each division, which wasn’t one of the worst ways of finding out who was committed and who wasn’t. Experienced officers with experience in the British Army were being recruited to lead larger formations, and a bring a level of regular professionalism to a new regular army. Within a few months a new structure, based around regional “Commands” for the East (including the north), West and South would be established, before further divisions produced commands for the South-East and South-West.

More importantly, they were also getting a steady supply of arms and ammunition. Winston Churchill may not have been able to get British Army personnel fighting on the side of the provisional government, but he could certainly arm parts of the new Irish Army. By mid-October he would claim that over 4’000 rifles, 2’200 pistols and several machine guns had been supplied to the provisional government, but in the same breath would also be forced to admit that a proportion of them were no longer in their hands, the victims of anti-Treaty raids, or just a failure in distribution. More guns would follow though, and armoured cars, and artillery, and uniforms, and plenty of other material for war, as the British, fearful of what the Executive IRA could accomplish, attempted to even the odds ahead of open warfare between pro and anti-Treaty.

When it came to that expectation, there were a number of flashpoints in the month of April that could have led immediately to the beginning of all-out hostilities. On the 13th of that month British military evacuated their barracks in Dundalk, not all that far north of Dublin really. A few hours later, it was in the hands of Frank Aiken and men of his 4th Northern Division. That unit was in no way firmly anti-Treaty, something Aiken knew. His move to Dundalk may have been partially to appease anti-Treaty opinion, partly to prevent a similar stand-off in the town as had happened in Limerick and also a consequence of the increasing untenability of staying in Northern Ireland, whose government was making life difficult. Aiken appears to have held the barracks, for the moment anyway, in the name of neither side, allowing the town’s smaller police barracks to be taken over by anti-Treaty unit from Louth. The provisional government had neither the means or the inclination to try and force Aiken out, perhaps seeing him as the kind of man who could yet convince others in the anti-Treaty side to accept reconciliation.

More seriously was a death that occurred in Athlone that month. George Adamson, a former British Army officer and one time second in command of the Athlone IRA, was one of a number of officers who followed Sean Mac Eoin into the new National Army, taking the rank of brigadier general, but a larger portion of the other ranks sided with the anti-Treaty faction. That made things tense in the town, with Mac Eoin ordering a party of 50 anti-Treaty Volunteers to leave the Royal Hotel, their HQ, at gunpoint earlier in April. They later re-occupied the hotel, leading to Mac Eoin’s pro-Treaty soldiers to occupy nearby buildings. Local clergy were able to hammer out a loose agreement to prevent bloodshed, but on the night of the 25/26th, after an anti-Treaty vehicle had been commandeered by the provisional government forces, a party of Regulars was confronted by a party of Republicans. However it turned out exactly, Adamson was shot in the head, dying a few hours later.

A furious Mac Eoin surrounded the Royal Hotel again, this time demanding nothing less than surrender. The anti-Treaty commander, claiming that four IRA men unknown to him had arrived earlier and must be responsible, felt he had no choice and agreed, passing into confinement in the local barracks. Subsequent investigations threw up competing theories: that Adamson had been the victim of a brutal assassination; that anti-Treaty IRA men defended themselves from an attack after their car had been stolen, and that Adamson died this way; that the entire affair was just a blundering encounter in the dark, with neither side knowing who the other was until it was too late; and, most sensationally, that Mac Eoin had killed Adamson himself, for whatever reason.

The last is a popular bit of local legend, but lacks any strong evidence: it certainly outraged Mac Eoin, who claimed a close friendship with Adamson, and gave an oration at his funeral, and not for the last time in this period was such an event a massive affair, with mourners from all sides attending. Many observes noticed a marked change in Mac Eoin’s attitude towards the escalating hostilities from this time, with less inclination to compromise and, later, a hard-line stance towards prosecution of the war. As it was, the death of Adamson could easily have led to the start of hostilities – the death of another General in a few months would certainly be one of the last straws – but the manner in which the Royal Hotel garrison allowed themselves to be taken into captivity appears to have prevented this.

Adamson’s death allows us to have a look at more general feeling at this time, through the finding of the inquest into his killing, which read as follows: “We desire to express our abhorrence of this and other un-Irish acts, now of too common occurrence, and while trying to be impartial, we desire to protest against the robberies, raids, stealing from trains, and stealing of motor cars in this district, and we call on the authorities to put it down at once.” It would seem as if the majority of the people were, in line with a general appreciation of the Treaty over other options, not gung-ho about the prospect of another bout of violence engulfing their lives. Taking a look at that which is quoted above, it reads very much like the cry of a populace who just wants stability and peace. It can be forgotten, in all of talk purely of the military and political forces involved, but it is vitally important. More and more, the people were looking for law and order, and were less inclined to support those who were offering the exact opposite, even if they had been supporters of the same less than a year previously. Everyone has their limits. It was getting a political voice to a point too, in the form of the gradually growing Labour Party of Thomas Johnson. A general strike, with the aim of forcing both sides of the Treaty divide to reach a peaceful conclusion, took place in April, with the Labour leaders heavy involvement.

But of course by far the biggest flashpoint of the truce period had already taken place, on the 13th. That day, a substantial force of anti-Treaty Volunteers, 200 or so led by Rory O’Connor and including among their number men like Ernie O’Malley and Liam Mellows, forcibly entered the Four Courts building on Dublin’s quays, along with several other locations in the city of lesser note: the Masonic Hall, Kilmainham Gaol and the Kildare Street Club, among others. They were under orders from the Army Council to do so, and were mostly from the 1st battalion of the Dublin Brigade. They quickly went about fortifying the old Georgian building, activities that would include the laying of mines in certain sections.

Their goal was to provoke a response, but not from the provisional government: O’Connor hoped that his action would horrify the British government enough that they would order their own military to deal with it, thus re-igniting the War of Independence and re-uniting the IRA. One can easily see the echoes of 1916 in their actions as well, in taking over one of that rising’s central operational points, one of Dublin’s most prominent buildings and challenging the authorities to evict them. The symbolism was not hard to miss, and may have been among the reasons why O’Connor and his garrison won immediate praise from certain quarters, such as Eamon de Valera. There was also the simple desire to undermine the authority of the provisional government, by showing that the anti-Treaty side could, of their volition, easily occupy some of Dublin city centres most notable and imposing structures: the failure of anti-Treaty forces under Oscar Traynor to take over the Bank of Ireland before it was reinforced, after its nominally pro-Treaty garrison mutinied, on the 26th March may have been in the memory also.

But the Four Courts takeover was a failure: in the first, short-term, instance, because the British did not attack as O’Connor and the others had hoped. Churchill certainly considered it, but men like General Macready were fully aware that an intervention was what the IRA wanted, and that such a thing should be a last resort, if even that. Collins and Griffith managed to quell understandable British alarm for the time being, and began what would be a multi-month project to try and get the anti-Treaty side to stand down, though no formal demand that they evacuate the Four Courts would be made just yet. The provisional government was not of a mind to try and force the anti-Treaty men out, the act of which would inevitably turn the city centre of Dublin into a war zone. Besides, as men like Richard Mulcahy reasoned, the takeover provided cover for the provisional government’s continued build-up to the planned northern offensive.

The takeover was also a failure in a longer term sense as well, as the anti-Treaty IRA took its most high profile step in, essentially, choosing to play by the provisional governments rules. Taking and holding buildings in an urban setting essentially surrendered the IRA’s key strengths in freedom of movement and intangibility in favour of something altogether more regular. They may have been trying to present themselves just as legitimate in military terms as the new National Army, but O’Connor’s IRA was not that kind of military: when push came to shove and the Civil War did fully start, this willing turn to being sedentary would be revealed as a fatal flaw. In this, from the off, political considerations were at play. The neighbouring Four Courts Hotel for example, was abandoned by the IRA when it was realised its owner was the Mayor of Limerick, whom they did not wish to offend: this abandonment significantly weakened the Four Courts as a defensible position, and points to a certain naivety in the men responsible.

That kind of thinking, and lack of really substantial long-term strategic planning, was evident throughout the country from the anti-Treaty side. Arms were being landed from abroad, barracks’ were being seized in some areas, were not being seized in others, but there was no higher direction coming to point the way for local units. Ernie O’Malley had been greatly encouraged by the Four Courts seizure, but later expressed dissatisfaction, as the movement’s military leadership became too focused on that garrison, and largely left individual units in the country to their own devices.

Efforts continued apace to find some kind of meeting point between the two sides. Collins and Griffith traveled the country, sometimes at great peril, to address meetings where they encouraged people to support the government but also warned against the spectre of civil war: at some of these meeting gunfire broke out to try and disperse crowds, and in the case of a Griffith speech in Sligo Town two large armed camps from either side came dangerously close to an outright confrontation. But it was always averted, usually by last minute negotiations. There was still little appetite for a conflict, and in that an opportunity existed.

A few weeks after the Four Courts takeover a group of IRA officers from either side of the divide – Collins, Mulcahy, O’Duffy, Breen, Hales – issued a declaration that called for army unity and elections, on the basis that the majority of the people accepted the Treaty and a government should be formed that reflected this. It didn’t go through the Army Executive, and was promptly disowned by them, but it does show the degree of disunity that existed in the anti-Treaty side, between those more willing to potentially compromise and those who weren’t. Both the Dail and the IRA would go onto form committees that sought to find some manner of equal ground between the two sides, and there was enough in these moves that temporary truces – a truce within a truce some might say – were agreed. But in the end no firm agreement could be reached, especially on whether an election should be held or not: the pro-Treaty side insisted acceptance of the Treaty had to be the key basis for unity, something most of the anti-Treaty side refused to contemplate. It was a similar story for any suggested plebiscite on the Treaty itself

The situation couldn’t hold, and later in May Collins and de Valera were able to hammer out an agreement of sorts, between known today as Collons/de Valera election pact. The two agreed that an election would take place, with Sinn Fein to run candidates as a single entity. Seating TD’s would not be opposed by either pro or anti-Treaty counterparts. In the following Dail, the two sides would form a coalition government. Both sides got something out of the idea: the anti-Treatyites deferred a national judgement on the Treaty they were bound to lose, pro-Treatyites would maintain their overall control of government (and diminish the chances of losing seats to other parties, like Labour, who planned to contest) and a measure of unity would be achieved. But the pact was controversial as soon as it was made public, causing a rift between Collins and an appalled Arthur Griffith, criticised as a giveaway by other pro-Treaty voices, and denounced by the British government as undemocratic. It did seem though, at that moment, to be the best way of ensuring peace. The election itself was set for a month afterwards, on the 16th June 1922. The next major political task was the wording of a proposed Free State constitution, that some hoped would circumvent the ideals of the Treaty by having an open republican ethos: due to be published before the election, many eyes now fell on Collins for his role in the creation of this document.

Collins would have been happy about the Pact, because he had plenty to occupy his mind, such as his planned offensive into the North, which was going to have a very mixed execution. But before we get to that, I want to take a brief step backwards, to take a closer look at one of the pre-Civil War flashpoints, a multi-day armed encounter between the provisional government and the anti-Treaty forces that, somewhat miraculously, did not result in an immediate break-out of open hostilities. It was a fight that indicated the pattern of the early days of the Civil War in many ways, and the location would be Kilkenny.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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4 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: Flashpoints And The Four Courts Seizure

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The Civil War Deferred In Kilkenny | Never Felt Better

  3. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The Northern Offensive | Never Felt Better

  4. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: British Pressure, A Second Split And The 1922 Election | Never Felt Better

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