Ireland’s Wars: The Battle For Dublin

The forces of the provisional government had eliminated the Four Courts garrison as a threat, even if it had taken far longer than they had hoped. In so doing, they would surely have hoped that Dublin would be secured, and maybe even that the anti-Treaty side would have had their ability to combat the pro-Treaty side neutered nationwide. But this was not to be the case. A much larger, and in the end much bloodier, battle for Dublin was now about to be fought, as a prelude to the violence that was going to engulf the country in the following weeks.

The National Army had thousands of men in the city, with artillery and armoured cars backing them up, a mixture of men from the more elite Dublin Guards and the more inexperienced 2nd Leinster Division. Despite popular perception, they were not commanded by Michael Collins, who spent the battle in Portobello Barracks or government buildings with the rest of the senior pro-Treaty military and political figures. Paddy Daly and Tom Ennis remained the main people in charge on the ground. The anti-Treaty forces in total probably numbered somewhere between 500 and 1000: a more precise number is difficult to arrive at. Not all of them were armed, and those that were were using an eclectic array of guns, including some of the Mausers that had been brought into Dublin at Howth nearly a decade earlier. They consisted of men from the anti-Treaty elements of the Dublin Brigade, whatever members of the 2nd Southern Division who were in town at the time, and willing to join in the fighting, elements of the Irish Citizen Army willing to break from the organisations official line and a few from the Communist Party of Ireland who throw their lot in with the anti-Treaty side. Oscar Traynor, in nominal command of the anti-Treaty forces, had issues getting men mobilised after fire had been directed at the Four Courts, but within two days his people were seizing buildings throughout the city, but predominantly in the city centre.

The epicentre of this effort was the north side of the city, and particularly Sackville Street. Hotels were a favoured target: Barry’s on Gardiner Row was Traynor’s HQ, while Hammam, Gresham’s and several others on Sackville Street were also seized: the buildings, in conjunction with several others in the area stretching to Amiens Street, would become known as “the Block”. The hotels were all on the east side of Sackville Street, with only the relatively small YMCA Club on the west side taken. Parnell Street and Square also saw a major concentration north of the Block. A seemingly random assortment of smaller positions south of the Liffey were also taken, including ones on the South Circular Road and York Street. It was a varied collection of Volunteers that took their positions and essentially waited for the provisional government to attack: fresh-faced youngsters were joined by the one-time grandees of the political movement, among them Sean T. O’Kelly, Cathal Brugha and Eamon de Valera, the latter of which joined his previous unit from the Easter Rising as a private. The commonality between them was a lack of arms and other supplies: O’Kelly allegedly arrived at his post with only an umbrella.

From both a tactical and strategic perspective, the takeovers had little in them that could, with hindsight, be deemed sensible. Traynor’s very vague idea was to try and put pressure on the National Army forces besieging the Four Courts, and to assist the garrison there, but what he choose to occupy accomplished neither aim. Indeed, the overriding focus on the eastern side of Sackville Street actively hindered those plans. Traynor and the anti-Treaty IRA there were reduced to relying on the bravery of Cumann na mBan messengers to stay in contact with the Four Courts, an altogether unreliable means of doing so. With such limited numbers of men and arms we should not judge Traynor too harshly, but what he appears to have set out to do in Dublin was not a winning formula. With the fall of the Four Courts there was even less point in staying put. Traynor appears to have considered the matter more one of honour than anything else, that the anti-Treaty IRA would look too weak if they left the city without a fight. So, the IRA hunkered down, awaiting support from units outside the city. The problem was, as mentioned in the last entry, the confused and uncertain communication channels to the country, where even if anti-Treaty units wanted to help in Dublin, they were not in an immediate position to set out. That would take time, and it was time that the Dublin IRA did not have.

De Valera’s involvement, after issuing a statement praising the Four Courts garrison when the fighting started, gave the anti-Treaty cause in Dublin a degree of political shine, but it was not a huge aid in the short-term. De Valera’s pronouncements on the heroics of the Executive IRA were all well and good, but less agreeable were his efforts to propel a largely stillborn peace proposal put forth by the Lord Mayor of Dublin, and members of the Labour Party. Even then, de Valera seemed unable to commit. In the ensuing fighting, there was no political direction for Traynor, simply because there was no political element above him. Erskine Childers would later claim that de Valera had advised surrender at this time, and lamented the inability of the anti-Treaty faction to form a working civilian authority. On the other side, there was no such indecision: the cabinet of the provisional government directed that the fighting continue until the “Irregulars” surrendered, unconditionally.

Not for the first time, not for the last time, the anti-Treaty strategy within Dublin was soon exposed as hopelessly sedentary. Before the conclusion of the Four Courts fight provisional government troops under Tom Ennis had already begun the larger clear-out by eliminating some of the outlying positions, before moving to those closer to Sackville Street. Fowler Hall in Parnell Square was an early battleground, having been held by anti-Treaty personnel since April: on the 28th a pro-Treaty armoured car raked it with fire, while soldiers hit it with rifle grenades. Like a Four Courts writ small, the buildings garrison held out until it caught fire, before they fled to the Block. On the same day, on the other side of the Liffey, firefights broke out in Leeson Street and St Stephen’s Green, with deaths on either side. However, after this there was only to be a limited amount of fighting on the southside of the city: IRA units there were slow to mobilise and had limited numbers. Aside from a few ambushes to try and slow the movement of National Army troops into the city centre, there was little they could do.

Between the surrender of the Four Courts and the start of a larger concerted pro-Treaty effort, two days elapsed, as the National Army rested soldiers and re-positioned others. It was a needed break as, despite their numerical advantage, the pro-Treaty had committed everything to had to active operations, with no reserve: there was reports of men on duty for two straight days falling asleep at their posts, and the Army was forced to rely on Cumann na Saoirse to feed the soldiers at points.

Regardless, once the 2nd of July came, the pro-Treaty side advanced quickly enough. The Bloc was reduced from the east and the north: artillery was used to drive IRA out of most of their Amiens Street positions, then Gardiner Street, then Parnell Street. Such things happened quickly enough , and had a similar pattern from point to point: the big guns remained a trump card that the anti-Treaty forces had little answer to. The pro-Treaty military had the freedom to move guns into position and rain shells down on the enemy positions, and follow up with the machine guns in armoured cars (one of them being the re-purposed Mutineer, now dubbed “The Ex-Mutineer”). Anti-Treaty opportunities to hit back were infrequent, and whenever they tried they were liable to do so in a hail of fire. The Executives would frequently abandon positions before they were forced out of them by infantry. There was still required, at that point and later in Sackville Street, some vicious urban combat, as pro-Treaty infantry cleared buildings with rifle and regular grenades, bored holes into the next one, and did it again.

By the end of the 2nd July the National Army was in a position to direct fire down Sackville Street, with what positions the anti-Treaty side had held in Rutland Square cleared out with the same combination of artillery and force of men as those that had cleared the eastern side of the Block. Anti-Treaty Volunteers fired back as best they could, but they were now hopelessly surrendered. I have not spoken much on casualties in the battle, but there where many, and the National Army took the majority, victims of sniper fire and hold-outs when the final advance on occupied buildings was made. But the tide could not be held back: soon enough Traynor realised that his position was completely untenable.

In the course of a few days of shelling and smaller arms fire, “the Block” suffered severe damage before the buildings began to catch fire, in a grim repeat of what had occurred six years before on the same street. With no sign of any relief and with options limited, Traynor ordered those garrisons that had to surrender to do so, and for those that could to escape. Remarkably, many vitally important and easily recognisable figures were able to slip through provisional government lines, owing to the chaos of the time and probably sympathy from certain quarters: they included Traynor, de Valera and Austin Stack.

After Traynor had left only around 15 or so men were left in the Hammam Hotel, under the command of Cathal Brugha. The group acted as a rearguard to cover the retreat of the others, ordered to continue the fight until it was impossible to so so. Brugha remained every bit the die-hard he had been at 1916, and allegedly ignored more than one order from Traynor, remarkably able to get messages through the cordon, to surrender. They maintained enough resistance that the pro-Treaty side was obligated to continue a high-intensity operation in Sackville Street, with artillery brought ever closer and armoured cars sent back and forth to rake the enemy positions with machine guns. For a time, Brugha’s men held out.

The shelling, small arms and fires took their toll though, and on the 5th July, enough was enough. Brugha ordered his men to surrender, and oversaw their evacuation out of the back of the burning building. He then left the Hotel armed only with a revolver, where he was confronted by a party of pro-Treaty soldiers. It’s unclear what his intention was, with some thinking he aimed to die firing and others that his revolver had no bullets. Regardless, he was shot in the leg, severing an artery. He would die two days later. It took a while for his passing to become widely known, with de Valera penning him a letter after his death criticising him for putting himself in danger.

Brugha is regarded as the last casualty of what is dubbed the Battle of Dublin, with subsequent violence in the following week commonly regarded as a separate issue. The surrender of the various anti-Treaty positions was a dodgy issue owing to anti-Treaty mines and other IED’s, and with numerous claims of false surrenders. In line with accusations of the Red Cross flag being used as part of ambushes, the pro-Treaty side was able to paint their opponents as “dirty fighters” a description that the largely pro-Treaty media was happy to pick up on. Regardless, by the end of the week, the city was secured by the provisional government.

Nearly 30 National Army soldiers had been killed, with four times that number wounded, while 15 IRA Volunteers were killed with an indeterminate amount of wounded. Over 750 anti-Treaty figures were also taken prisoner, packing out gaols and prisons in the city. Lackadaisical guarding allowed many of these to escape in the coming days and weeks, while others were simply let go. One of these was Liam Lynch, who had been arrested shortly after the fall of the Four Courts. After a conference with Eoin O’Duffy he had been let go, with the understanding that he would continue to be a moderate, conciliatory voice for non-violent engagement. But Lynch has been suitably radicalised by what he had seen in Dublin, and upon leaving the city would rapidly become the main figurehead for the entire anti-Treaty cause.

There was also a huge amount of civilian casualties. Dublin did not shut down as it had in 1916, with reports of business’ and restaurants continuing to operate, while both sides of the conflict had issues with crowds gathering at inopportune times to observe what was happening. 36 civilians are recorded as having been killed during the battle, though the number was probably higher as hospitals struggled to keep up with the casualties. The fact that the anti-Treaty IRA could be indistinguishable from civilians at times also exacerbated this problem, but was a boon to the anti-Treaty side otherwise, as it allowed many of their fighters to dump their arms and then melt away without capture. Like 1916 the city centre was left gutted, but unlike 1916 there was little reports of looting: a degree of law and order was maintained during the fighting. This was partly due to support for the pro-Treaty cause by a majority of the civilian population, with many anti-Treaty accounts describing their operations hindered by hostile locals, or their positions pointed out to the enemy.

The Battle of Dublin can be regarded as the saving moment for the provisional government. Up until that point there had been a perception in Ireland of anti-Treaty advantage should things be brought to the point of military confrontation, owing to their numbers of men nationally, and perhaps commitment. Dublin exploded that idea. The provisional government utilised their local advantage in men and more obvious advantage in artillery and armoured cars to eliminate the anti-Treaty position in Dublin in the course of a week. In the process they secured the continuity of the government, deflected British concerns about their viability, and showed the rest of the country that they could be militarily victorious. Notwithstanding issues with the use of that artillery or cases of ill-dsicpline among National Army ranks – the YMCA position was evacuated as a result of a fire caused by Army soldiers firing at it for sport, having not realised the IRA were inside – the pro-Treaty sided ended the Battle of Dublin in a much stronger position than what they had entered it with.

For the anti-Treaty side, the battle had been little short of disaster. Owing to a lack of decisive leadership, tactical nuance or an overarching strategy , they had turned the battle into something like a micro-1916, only without the subsequent perception of heroics. At nearly every stage they had ceded the initiative to the pro-Treaty side, and never looked likely to hold their points in the capital, let alone expand them. They had demonstrated no answer to the use of artillery and armoured cars, and there had been almost no coordination with anti-Treaty units outside of the city.

Moreover, any pretensions that the anti-Treaty side had of military victory faced the impassable wall represented by the British military presence in the city. Over 6’000 Regulars, with artillery, armour and air support, were based at several barracks, and were in a position to intervene should the anti-Treaty side have prevailed somehow. It is unlikely the IRA could have withstood such an attack. However, British intervention was exactly what the anti-Treaty IRA wanted, so outside of the martial question such an event would have been in the favour of their movement.

Some senior provisional government figures, including Michael Collins, optimistically hoped that the fighting in Dublin would be the end of that matter, that now the anti-Treaty would be forced to realise that they had nothing to gain from a continued military confrontation. They were to be disappointed. Even while the Battle of Dublin was continuing, another fight, in the area around the city showed that anti-Treaty resistance would continue long after the capital fight was over.

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

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10 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The Battle For Dublin

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