Ireland’s Wars: The Assault On The Four Courts

Whatever about the question on when we should exactly date the beginning of the Irish Civil War, the generally accepted time and date is the early hours of the 28th June 1922, when the anti-Treaty garrison holding the Four Courts complex on Dublin’s north quay was fired upon by pro-Treaty troops that had surrounded the building in the hours earlier. Thus began what we now call the Battle of Dublin, but it would take a few days for events to escalate into that larger battle. In those few days the fighting was marked by a sustained assault by the provisional government on the Four Courts, the capture of which would become a messy, and ultimately a very costly, operation.

The Four Courts is a large Georgian style building in Dublin’s city centre. Built in 1802, it comprises a central doomed structure with two extensive wings on either side. The natural barrier of the River Liffey in front gave it a degree of protection from a full-on frontal assault from that direction, and the narrow enough surrounding streets would make attack from those avenues similar difficult: moreover its height provided an excellent field of fire for defenders. The interior is/was fairly extensive, consisting of several floors and a basement. Several other buildings occupied the complex on which it stands, bounded by Chancery Street, Church Street, Chancery Place and Kings Inn Quay. These additional buildings included a separate northern block of the courts (the modern day Law Library) that the garrison referred to as the “Headquarters Block” (where most of their ammo and explosives were being stored), the Land Registry Office on the northern Chancery Street, the Public Records Office in the north-west corner (where a bomb factory had been set-up), and the Four Courts Hotel (the modern day District Court Licensing Office) to the west, which had been occupied by National Army troops before the fighting started, having been previously abandoned by the anti-Treaty side. The Bridewell police station to the north would also be a key pro-Treaty position. In this part of what would become the Battle of Dublin, the objectives were clear enough for the pro-Treaty side – to force the enemy garrison to surrender as quickly as possible – but less clear for the anti-Treaty side.

The anti-Treaty defenders, despite the ultimatums they had received in the hours beforehand, were still caught somewhat by surprise by the attack: some survivors subsequently attested that they had been preparing to leave the building a few hours afterwards, but never got the chance. The garrison consisted of roughly 180 men, mostly from the 1st and 2nd Dublin battalions, while several members of the IRA Executive were also inside. These included Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellows, Joe McKelvey and Ernie O’Mally. While the Volunteers were under the direct command of Commandant Paddy O’Brien of the Dublin Brigade, the larger leadership situation was fractured, and it was unclear for a time who exactly was in overall command, though O’Malley emerged in this role before the end of the fighting when O’Brien was wounded by shrapnel. The Volunteers had barricaded entrance ways, mined parts of the building and even had a captured armoured car, nicknamed “The Mutineer” on the premises. The Volunteers were well-armed, with a stockpile of weapons that included Thompson submachine guns. But there was a lack of a larger plan for the Four Courts defence. Holding out became an end in itself, and some may have thought that the longer they did so, the more good for their cause, perhaps imbuing it with the same aura as the week of fighting in 1916.

One thing that the anti-Treaty side most definitely did not have was artillery. The National Army wasn’t overflowing with big guns, but they had a few loaned 18-pounders that the British Army had been compelled to hand over, and now these guns were firing shells into the Four Courts complex. Irish proficiency with the weapons was almost legendarily poor in many cases, owing to a lack of adequate expertise or training in their proper use. High ranking commanders would have to take over the direction of their use at points in the growing Battle of Dublin, and there were plenty of instances of so-called “aiming down the barrel”, where the guns were literally pointed at their target so the shell would travel like a bullet, as opposed to the more conventional usage where they would be placed further away and the shells lobbed in an arc. On a few occasions, even this rudimentary approach was mis-judged, and shells went over the Four Courts to land close to British military positions in the Phoenix Park some distance away, a cause of some embarrassment for the provisional government. The gunner at the time was none other than Ignatius O’Neill, once of the Clare IRA: he had apparently been trying to hit a particularly troublesome sniper on the Four Courts roof.

The reliance on such tactics from the National Army exposed the artillery and its operators to counter-fire, but this couldn’t be helped: Emmet Dalton, in charge of the guns, placed armoured cars to the front to act as shields. The National Army charged with attacking the Four Courts also either had little patience or simple misunderstood the nature of the weapons they were using, expending their limited stock of high-explosive shells very quickly. This is not to say the guns were incompetently handled at this time – there is little record of shells missing their targets, and there appears to have no misfires due to mishandling – but there was little art in their operation, beyond making sure that shells did not hit obstacles like telegraph posts between them and the Four Courts.

Regardless of any of those faults, the impact of the artillery, literally and metaphorically, was enormous. As we have already seen, and will surely see again, artillery was a step above anything that most of the IRA had ever experienced. The Four Courts had thick walls and a large interior, so it was not especially easy to make breaches in its exterior or to physically harm the occupants with shells provided they took basic precautions, but the psychological impact of the shelling would have been substantial. Even when the provisional government ran out of high explosive and were obliged to use shrapnel shells begrudgingly provided by Nevil Macready – shells designed specifically to attack troops in the open, and essentially useless when attacking a building like the Four Courts – the noise alone and the sense of being under an intense bombardment, with shells fired every 15 minutes at least, was effect enough. That psychological impact extended to the National Army too, with some commanders fearful that if the big guns stopped firing the ranks could grow discontented and liable to desert.

For three miserable days the anti-Treaty garrison withstood the bombardment, forced to rely mostly on inaccurate rifle fire and snipers as a countering move, with every approach guarded. The lack of connections between the buildings meant that any movement was the subject of rifle fire from the neighbouring structures, that the anti-Treaty side had not occupied. There were sporadic exchanges of fire between the complex and those neighbouring buildings, especially the Four Courts Hotel, but such displays of firepower were ineffectual for both sides. The resistance was much to the frustration of pro-Treaty commanders. No one wanted to order an all-out infantry assault for fear of massive casualties and the anti-Treaty garrison, while rattled, made no indications they were prepared to surrender after the initial bombardment, with many of them taking adequate shelter in the basements or deeper interior of the Courts.

They were probably hoping for some manner of relief from other anti-Treaty units in the city, but in the first few critical days men like those under Liam Lynch remained sedentary, perhaps because the provisional government did not make moves against them, hoping to take advantage of the split they still thought was in effect. There were small-scale ambushes and isolated firefights between the opposing sides in different parts of Dublin, and on at least one occasion soldiers holding the perimeter around the Courts had to deflect a large group of anti-Treaty fighters that got too close for comfort, but there was no concerted effort to relieve the Courts. Traynor had a loose plan that involved the detonation of mines to blow a hole in the National Army cordon through which the garrison could withdraw, but it did not go much further than the realm of thought.

The surrounding of the Four Courts also meant that communications between this de facto HQ of the anti-Treaty cause and everyone else, in the city or out, were severely curtailed. It was difficult to know precisely what was going on, and numerous anti-Treaty commanders in the country at large only fully understood what was happening in Dublin when it was too late to do anything to assist the Four Courts. Within Dublin, the anti-Treaty forces not already in the Four Courts lacked strong leadership – most of the officers were on the other side – and those that were there, like Oscar Traynor, were seemingly opposed to 1916-esque tactics of building seizure and defence |(though in practice Traynor would do the opposite). For the first few days the men under his command were largely directionless, operating their own patrols, and coming nowhere near the implementation of a unified strategy to defend or relieve the Four Courts.

After the first day, the British supplied more big guns and additional shells so that the bombardment could be maintained, and Churchill went ever further, offering to use the few RAF assets in the area to bomb the Four Courts from the air. Collins turned this offer down, fearful of air power causing civilian casualties and of the optics of British made and British crewed aircraft fighting on the provisional governments side. Certainly, there were no qualified Irish pilots available if the aircraft were just to be loaned like the artillery. The Irish also turned down the offer of a 60 pound artillery piece, which could have levelled the Courts, fearful of the damage it could cause if misused. The British military, though watching with a keen interest, stayed where they were for the time being and left the National Army to their work. The anti-Treaty garrison, unable to move, busied themselves sending proclamations of their resistance out via messengers, where they extolled their own cause and encouraged the National Army troops to desert.

On the second day, the National Army forces committed to a partial infantry attack on the structure. Guns were moved to focus on specific parts of the Four Courts rather than a more general bombardment, and with enough shells hit at selected spots breaches were made, in the Public Records Office and in the west wing of the Courts proper. There remained an element of a relationship between the two sides, as a brief truce was agreed at the end of the 29th so that wounded could be evacuated. Allegedly when Paddy Daly and Liam Mellows met to agree on this, Mellows asks Daly when he would come in to the Four Courts to join the anti-Treaty side, to which Daly replied: “Tomorrow, with bayonets”.

The next morning troops were sent in and the Records Office stormed, and cleared of anti-Treaty defenders, and the same done to the west wing with a brave dash across a bridge. In the brief firefights that resulted, three of the National Army were killed and over a dozen wounded, but the buildings was taken. The anti-Treaty side were able to withdraw with two killed and maintain their hold in the rest of the complex, but they were now hard-pressed. Their ability to fire back was getting more and more hamstrung, exemplified in the case of the Mutineer. Capable only of driving back and forth in the same narrow section of the complex, it allowed a Lewis gun to impede the pro-Treaty infantry attack, but now pro-Treaty soldiers were close enough to blow out its tires, after which it was abandoned.

The most famous moment of this encounter was yet to come however. As the National Army troops were preparing to advance again between buildings, an enormous explosion suddenly erupted, sending up a massive mushroom cloud that dominated the Dublin skyline. A huge portion of the Four Courts complex was reduced to rubble or badly damaged, most notably the Public Records Office and much of its historical documentation, some of which dated back to the Norman Conquest. Over forty provisional government soldiers reported injuries, though none appeared to have been killed. The damage sustained by the complex, and the fires that resulted, were some of the reasons that anti-Treaty resistance rapidly subsisted.

What exactly happened has been the subject of some debate. It was long claimed that the anti-Treaty side had placed some manner of mine underneath the Public Records Office, and that this was detonated as the pro-Treaty side advanced. Such claims generally lay a judgment on the act as cowardly or otherwise unworthy, especially in the context of the documents that were destroyed. However, more modern investigations show that the explosion could not have originated from the Records Office, which was damaged but not totally destroyed as it surely would have been. Instead, the explosion originated just to the east.

The explosion had a less deliberate cause. On the morning of the 30th, the Headquarters Block had caught fire from the shelling, and the conflagration could not be put out. In what was a grim replay of events in the nearby GPO during Easter Week, the buildings defenders spent more time fighting the fire than their military opponents, but it was a losing battle. After midday the fire reached the explosives store in the western end of the building, the exact constitution of which varies from teller to teller, but was substantial nonetheless. When the temperature got too high, the explosives went up. The proof is in the examination of the Four Courts afterwards, with this western portion of the Headquarters Block completely annihilated in comparison to the badly damaged, but still standing, structures around it, though some of these were subsequently gutted by the fires the explosion caused or spread. But the idea of an anti-Treaty mine took root quickly enough in the aftermath, to the extent that it has become a commonly believed aspect of the Four Courts battle even today.

The anti-Treaty held grimly on for a few hours after the explosion, but the damage to the complex, the ongoing fires (with the National Army preventing Dublin’s fire brigade from doing too much to stop them), the lack of ammunition, the paucity of other supplies and the limited prospect of relief meant that further resistance was no longer a viable option. Morale was at a low ebb, with the garrison far too small to continue. O’Malley described their positions as that of “rats in a trap” and when the possibility of digging an escape tunnel or using sewers to get out of the cordon were discounted as impossible, the only question was whether the garrison should fight to the death or give in. Traynor, who had begun seizing other positions in the city as the larger Battle of Dublin began in earnest, was unable to give the Four Courts much comfort, and sent a message ordering them to give up, with the strategic excuse that it would free up other units that were nominally preparing to try and relieve them. The defenders began smashing or burning their weapons. Just after 3.30PM, with the various buildings in the complex collapsing if they hadn’t already, O’Malley formally surrendered himself and the garrison to Paddy Daly, and he and the rest of the garrison went into captivity. Within a few hours, the dome of the Courts fell into the interior, after another explosion, probably the rest of the last of the anti-Treaty stockpile going up. It would take ten years for the structure to be rebuilt.

Eight National Army soldiers and three IRA Volunteers had been killed, with many more wounded to various degrees. A number of civilian casualties had also occurred. Several notable men went into captivity: Ernie O’Malley, Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellows, Joe McKelvey and even Tom Barry, who was caught by the National Army when trying to sneak his way into the Courts after firing had started, allegedly disguised in women’s clothing. But in the confusion that reigned in the immediate aftermath, some members of the garrison were able to slip away from their ad-hoc captivity, potentially aided by sympathetic pro-Treatyites: O’Malley had such good fortune, escaping alongside future Taoiseach Sean Lemass to rally anti-Treaty personnel outside of the capital. Others would get the chance to escape later, but still others would not ever see freedom in the brief time they had left. JJ O’Connell, whose arrest was one of the final inciting acts before the attack, walked free from the Four Courts without any harm.

The Four Courts assault showcased much of the common narrative that would emerge throughout the conventional phase of the Irish Civil War. The anti-Treaty IRA attempted to take ground and hold it, but lacking strong, decisive leadership and a strategy to make best use of their numbers, experience and positions, they were easy prey for the more numerous provisional government troops and the weapons they were able to bring to bear. Vital buildings around the complex had not been taken, nor adequate preparations made for a withdrawal. But for the explosion that rocked the complex on the 30th the Four Courts battle would have little to implant it in the popular consciousness. The National Army went about its business with caution, and probably could have done more to take the positions faster than they did, but could say they had neutralised the heart of the anti-Treaty movement in Dublin at the cost of only a few killed. The IRA could claim they had held out for days under a heavy bombardment, which was not an inconsiderable achievement, but they did little to aid the larger cause, in Dublin or in the rest of Ireland.

The first phase of the Battle of Dublin had ended, and while it had taken longer than they would have liked, it had ended with total pro-Treaty victory. But now the harder task emerged. At different points in the city, but with a cluster right at its heart, anti-Treaty fighters were seizing buildings and positions, ready to make a fight over ownership of the capital. The result of that fight will be the subject of the next entry.

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

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8 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The Assault On The Four Courts

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