Ireland’s Wars: Henry Wilson And The Final Descent

After the election of the 16th June, things were up in the air in terms of Ireland’s politics and the prospect of civil war, but in many respects it must have seemed less likely than ever. Politically, the anti-Treaty side has suffered an enormous defeat at the polls, with their candidates only able to get just about a quarter of the votes, and it easy to imagine that some of the less gung-ho members of the Executive IRA thinking that starting a civil struggle without requisite popular support would be foolhardy. And on the military side of things, the anti-Treaty faction had just suffered its own split, between the more radical members who no longer wanted to have anything to do with Army unity talks, and Liam Lynch’s somewhat more conciliatory following, and his substantial 1st Southern Division. The IRA was already a house divided, now it was even sub-divided: hardly ideal for commencing large-scale military operations. But between the 16th and the 28th things spiraled out of control for the last time, and there would be no new negotiations to save the day, no last-second ceasefires or understandings. The final descent did not begin in Dublin though, instead commencing with an assassination across the Irish Sea.

Henry Wilson was the victim. From Longford by birth, he came from a landed Protestant family, that engendered in him strongly held unionist sentiments. During a life in the British Army he had held a number of senior positions throughout the First World War, having previously been involved in the Curragh “Incident”, very much siding with the mutineers and helping to force the political solution that resolved it. He had ended the war as the Chief of the Imperial General Staff – ie, the head of the Army – a position he held throughout the War of Independence. During that conflict he had adopted a firm approach calling for it to be prosecuted fully by the British military. He was unhappy with the use of forces like the Auxiliaries and the hesitancy to employ martial law: while condemning unofficial killings and incidents of military ill-discipline, he also continually urged that Ireland be flooded with regulars who could undertake a more high-intensity conflict with the IRA.

He was strongly opposed to both the truce and the Anglo-Irish Treaty, dubbing the former “rank , filthy cowardice” and the latter a “shameful and cowardly surrender to the pistol”. His antipathy towards the IRA and Irish republicanism was enormous, and led to a break with David Lloyd George’s government, the Prime Minister growing tired of Wilson’s tirades and needless dramatics, which included a threat to have Eamon de Valera arrested when he came to London after the truce. Few in the government were upset when Wilson retired from the army at the end of 1921, though they might have been when, soon after, he was elected unopposed to the new Northern Irish Parliament, and served afterwards as a sort of special advisor on security to the Craig government. Wilson continued to rail against Lloyd George, the Treaty, Dublin and the IRA when he wasn’t encouraging the expansion of the Specials or a plan for Northern security forces to invade the south. He viewed the growing tensions between pro and anti-Treaty as simply an inevitable conflict between “one set of murderers” against “another set of murderers”.

On the afternoon of the 22nd June, Wilson was returning to his London home after unveiling a war memorial when he was confronted by two armed men, Reginald Dunne and Joseph O’Sullivan. The two were members of the London IRA, and both were also British Army veterans: O’Sullivan had lost a leg at Ypres, before later being one of the men it was claimed was responsible for the execution of Vincent Fovargue. They pulled out guns and fired several shots at Wilson. Six hit him, two in the chest. Wilson died quickly, though some reports claimed he had the time to draw his sword (he had been in full uniform for the ceremony): more than likely an invention of a sympathetic press. Dunne and O’Sullivan attempted to flee but were surrounded by an angry crowd and eventually subdued, though not before they had wounded two policemen and a civilian. They would be tried, found guilty, and hung within a month.

IRA Volunteers had plenty of reason to hate Wilson, so in that context his assassination could not be viewed as an enormous surprise. The gut reaction would surely have been that it was the work of anti-Treaty elements, attempting to reignite the War of Independence. But there is evidence to suggest that the operation had the explicit support, if not outright direction, of Michael Collins, as revenge for the violence towards Catholics in Northern Ireland. His close associate Liam Tobin was in London at the time, allegedly delivering a message from Dublin to the local IRA, and Sam Maguire, one of Collins’ long-time friends, was also said to be involved. Joseph Sweeney, then a National Army general, would later claim that Collins had been delighted with the shooting, and told him “It was two of ours did it”. On the other hand there is evidence to suggest that the assassination was an ad-hoc affair: the lack of a proper escape route for the shooters is such an indication and, for the shooting to have been a sanctioned event, it would probably have needed the support of Rory O’Connor, who at the time had nominal authority over British IRA operations. There is no evidence to suggest he was involved, though of course he had limited time left alive to outline such involvement.

The killing of such a significant figure, and the first murder of a sitting MP in over a century, produced widespread outrage in British society. The cabinet of Lloyd George met quickly to discuss what the response should be, as soon as the identity of Wilson’s killers were identified. Crosshairs were quickly placed on the anti-Treaty faction of the IRA, and from that point the British government was no longer willing to tolerate the situation happening in Dublin regards the Four Courts, and other positions held by the IRA throughout Ireland.

It was agreed, at the very least, that the provisional government should be pressed to deal with the situation. But many, including Churchill, wanted to go further. Plans for the British military still in Ireland to deal with the Four Courts garrison were discussed, and for anything needed beyond, which could have included the military occupation of Dublin, and maybe territory beyond that. General Nevil Macready was summoned to London to discuss such options. He reported that a takeover of the Four Courts by the Army was perfectly possible but he personally advised against it, reasoning that such an action would inevitably result in large civilian casualties and would only unite the IRA factions against an older enemy. Macready was privately scornful of the cabinet’s reaction to Wilson’s death – Churchill had locked himself in his attic on the night of the shooting – but it didn’t matter. The cabinet was intent on some manner of retaliatory gesture, if the provisional government did not act.

Arthur Griffith, Collins and Richard Mulcahy received the British demand for action on the Four Courts but prevaricated for a few critical days, unwilling to commit to an attack, despite offers of artillery from the British military for the purpose. Collins would have been as keenly aware as Macready that attacking the anti-Treaty positions would lead inevitably to an increase in popular support for them, aside from setting off a larger civil war the provisional government had no guarantee of winning. The pro-Treaty side may have hoped that the Four Courts garrison could yet be convinced to withdraw without resort to bloodshed. The delays were not to the liking of the British government, and on the 24th Lloyd George went as far as ordering Macready to enact the plan to attack the Four Courts the following day. Macready pleaded for this order to be rescinded or at least delayed, and on the 25th Lloyd George agreed, when every military officer consulted seemed to be in agreement with Macready. But pressure was ramped back up on the provisional government, with Churchill declaring openly in Parliament that the Anglo-Irish Treaty could not be enacted if the Four Courts garrison was not cleared. The message could not have been much clearer.

Inside the Four Courts, there was a dispute about what exactly to do next. Some wanted to follow-up on Wilson’s assassination by attacking British forces in Dublin, thereby provoking the very response that elements of the British cabinet wanted to make. Others wanted to send Volunteers northward to join the IRA in the fight against the Craig government, and vehicles were being seized and petrol stockpiled within the Four Courts garrison for this purpose. There was comparatively little appetite for an attack on the provisional government forces in the city, or on seizing additional ground or buildings. Here the lack of unity of command within the anti-Treaty IRA was showcasing itself yet again.

One thing that most would have agreed upon however was the need for some kind of rapprochement with Liam Lynch and his sub-faction ahead of any hostilities. Whatever about the difference over Army unity and the pursuit of it, going to war with the British Army required all republicans to be onside with each other. It just so happened that Lynch was still in Dublin at the time, staying in the Clarence Hotel with a number of his officers. Contact was established and messages back-and-forth would lead to Lynch agreeing to meet the leaders of the Four Courts garrison on the night of the 27th June.

Before that, on the 26th June, things in Dublin has escalated sharply, in the form of arrests made by either side of the split. That morning a patrol of anti-Treaty Volunteers had attempted to raid a depot of cars in a garage on Lower Baggot Street, with the aim of enforcing the Belfast boycott on the imported vehicles (and requisitioning more transport for a potential move north). A unit of the National Army intervened to prevent this, and in the course of the non-fatal encounter, the leader of the anti-Treaty party, Leo Henderson, was arrested. When the Four Courts garrison heard of this, there was fury. A tit-for-tat response soon presented itself when General J.J. “Ginger” O’Connell, then the Deputy Chief-of-Staff of the National Army, was spotted in Leeson Street. He was arrested by the IRA and taken inside the Four Courts: a surety for Henderson’s safety, only to be released when the anti-Treaty man was let go.

These acts pushed things to the brink. That afternoon the leaders of the provisional government, civic and military – Griffith, Collins and Mulcahy – met, where it was later reported that agreement for an attack on the Four Courts was reached. By then the National Army had been supplied with nearly 12’000 rifles, 80 machine guns, plenty of artillery and armoured cars, and while they were still outnumbered by anti-Treaty Volunteers, they certainly were not outgunned. After weeks and months where Collins had done everything he could to prevent a war from breaking out, he may finally have been satisfied that the pro-Treaty side was in a position to win such a fight. The provisional government also believed that the anti-Treaty side was still riven in two, and as such it might have been the perfect time to launch an attack. Lynch and his men were unlikely to stand idly by, but at least the Four Courts could be potentially neutralised without hope of relief. And there remained the possibility that, when confronted with an imminent attack, the anti-Treaty side might back down as they had done before.

On the 27th things stills waxed back-and-forth. The provisional government made a definitive decision to go ahead with an attack within 24 hours, while the Four Courts garrison vacillated between attacking the British, sending men to the North and the continued efforts to reach agreement with Lynch and his men. As stated, Lynch was inside the Four Courts in the late hours of the 27th and early hours of the 28th: whatever was said, the rift that had split the anti-Treaty faction was healed, and they could once again present something close to a common front. Lynch left the building sometime around 1 am, somewhat fortuitously for him.

At 10PM messengers had arrived at the Four Courts with an ultimatum: for the garrison to surrender by midnight, or face the consequences. The men inside mulled it over, weighing the possibility that the provisional government was bluffing. Oscar Traynor, commanding the anti-Treaty Dublin Brigade, was consulted, and he agreed to mobilise what men he could in the event of fighting breaking out, though in the end he had limited success. Midnight came, and went. By then, National Army troops, with artillery, had surrounded the Four Courts. They included Dublin Guards under Paddy Daly, portions of the 2nd Eastern Division under Tom Ennis, with overall command given to Emmett Dalton, all three men veterans of the Dublin IRA who represented some of the best officers to go over to the pro-Treaty side, but whose soldiers, especially outside of the Guards, were relatively untested.

One final ultimatum was sent to the Four Courts, this time demanding that they evacuate by 4AM on the 28th. This was probably both a last ditch effort to prevent fighting, and a play for time so that the National Army could secure their position: it must be remembered that while the Guard was probably the best unit the pro-Treaty side had, the Army’s practical experience with artillery was limited. The anti-Treaty side appears to have done nothing to interfere with the pro-Treaty preparations, unwilling to strike the first blow. 4AM came and went without a response. Finally, at 4.15, the final orders were given. Artillery opened fire. The Civil War had begun.

Of course, it seems somewhat arbitrary in a sense to date the beginning of that conflict to this exact time and moment. As we have seen the IRA and the provisional government had already fired at each other on multiple occasions, and killed each other as well, without a more formal conflict beginning. But this was the beginning of sustained conflict I suppose, and for that reason is as good as any date to put as the definitive point when the Irish Civil War began.

A larger question is was the Civil War inevitable, at least from the moment that the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed? In my opinion the answer is yes. Anti-Treaty opposition was so high in certain ways, so militant, that a fight was almost a certainty, and would have started much earlier but for a variety of circumstances: the divide in the anti-Treaty faction over how to proceed, Collins and Lynch’s efforts at maintaining Army unity, the distraction of Northern Ireland and more than likely the doubts of either side that they could prove victorious in such a battle. Now, both sides were about to find out, in a conflict that, more than any other fought over the previous few centuries, was going to determine the future course of the new Irish nation.

Ireland’s Wars will take a break next week as I continue plotting out the manner in which I will approach the Civil War, but will return the week after for an examination of the Four Courts assault, and then everything that came after. Until then.

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

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2 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: Henry Wilson And The Final Descent

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

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The Assault On The Four Courts | Never Felt Better

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