Analysis: just six years after the 1916 Rising, the capital city's main street was once again the epicentre of armed conflict and bombardment

By Daithí Ó Corráin and Gerard Hanley, DCU

On June 28th 1922, the long anticipated Irish Civil War began when the National Army shelled the Four Courts, which had been occupied by the anti-treaty IRA since April 13th. During the bombardment, Dublin No. 1 Brigade IRA took over various buildings elsewhere in Dublin in a haphazard fashion.

The choice of Barry's Hotel on Gardiner Row as headquarters suggested that the brigade was ill-prepared for civil war. The hotel was not well located to relieve the besieged Four Courts and it had insufficient accommodation.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's History Show. Liz Gillis talks about Annie Farrington, the proprietor of Barry's Hotel in Dublin, and her experience of the outbreak of the Irish Civil War

This prompted brigade commandant Oscar Traynor to commandeer the Hammam, Gresham, Granville and Crown Hotels along with other buildings, such as the Dublin United Tramway Company offices, on the east side of O'Connell Street on June 29th, effectively the entire block between Earl Street and Parnell Street. Two buildings on the west side of O’Connell Street were also occupied.

When the Four Courts garrison surrendered after two days, the National army focused on O’Connell Street, which was the scene of fierce bombardment in the opening days of July 1922. On June 29th, Cathal Brugha, Éamon de Valera, Robert Barton and Austin Stack supported the anti-treaty forces by re-joining the IRA as privates and reported to Traynor for duty. Seán T. O'Kelly was already there armed with an umbrella. Ten members of the Dáil (many future members of the Fianna Fáil front bench) were present along with doctors, nurses and four priests, who appeared to be inspired by patriotic as much as religious motives.

National Army troops fire an 18 pounder field gun from the top of Henry Street, Dublin at anti-treaty IRA targets in the Gresham hotel in July 1921. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Brugha, the former Minister for Defence, was quickly promoted to staff commandant in charge of O’Connell Street block. The interconnecting walls of the four adjacent hotels were breached to allow movement between the buildings. The billiard room in the Hammam Hotel was designated as the garrison’s hospital and the hotels were well stocked with food. The garrison comprised 70 men and 30 women.

A sustained attack by the National army on July 3rd forced most of the insurgents to evacuate the garrison. De Valera, Stack, Traynor and others were smuggled out and taken across the city to Mount Street. Brugha was left in command of the diminished garrison of 17 men and three members of Cumann na mBan: Kathleen Barry (older sister of Kevin Barry), Linda Kearns and Muriel MacSwiney (widow of the late lord mayor of Cork, Terence MacSwiney).

Capuchin priest Fr. Albert Bibby arrives at O'Connell Street, Dublin on July 1st to minister to the wounded. Photo: Independent News And Media/Getty Images

Barry recalled that the women were almost driven to mutiny in their determination to stay. At approximately 10pm, Emmet Dalton, who commanded the National army forces, sent a message that a further attack would be launched if Brugha did not surrender. A reply in Irish came two hours later: 'Not dammed likely'. The simple plan was for the garrison to defend their position for as long as possible before surrendering with no loss of life if possible.

The evacuation of families from tenements to the rear of the garrison on the evening of July 4th indicated that a more ferocious attack was looming. Effective sandbagging of each of the garrison’s floors helped repel heavy rifle and machine-gun fire. This was followed by the arrival of armoured cars with artillery, which forced the anti-Treaty IRA to evacuate several buildings.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Today With Claire Byrne, Prof Diarmaid Ferriter from UCD on the early days of the Civil War

The Hammam Hotel was shelled by an 18-pounder gun from the corner of Henry Street and the force of the explosions smashed many windows in the surrounding area. Once the shells cut through the hotel walls, armoured cars pulled up outside and poured fire through the breach with Lewis machine-guns. This pattern of shelling followed by close quarter machine-gun fire was repeated. Some 25 shells were fired at the republican garrison, causing enormous damage. Despite the obvious danger, hundreds of onlookers watched the final hours of the siege, and several were injured by sniper fire. The attack continued until midnight.

By the morning of July 5th, much of the O'Connell Street block was engulfed in flames. This forced Brugha’s small garrison from the Gresham and Hammam Hotels into the Granville Hotel. Brugha had no intention of complying with an order from Traynor to quit the building. Fire soon engulfed the Granville which was subjected to volleys of rifle and machine-gun fire. Above the din of the firing, the crash of falling masonry resounded and clouds of sparks and glowing debris were hurled into the air.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, historians Eve Morrison and John Dorney discuss the start of the Irish Civil War

Remarkably and defiantly, the garrison fought on, even as a portion of the roof collapsed. As flames encircled them on three sides, Brugha and his small contingent were forced to retreat to a yard at the rear of the Granville. Their position no longer tenable, he ordered them to surrender and, led by Art O'Connor, the former Minister for Agriculture, they entered Thomas’s Lane with a white flag. At about 7.30pm, they surrendered to Lieutenant Cranny.

Moments later, Brugha, ‘the embodiment of the assailed Republic’, stepped out into the laneway which was crowded with National army soldiers and members of the fire brigade. There are varying accounts of what happened next. Linda Kearns described how Brugha had ‘a revolver in each hand and he kept on shouting "no surrender"’. He was struck by a single bullet in the left thigh which ruptured his femoral artery.

Devastated by fire and bombardment in 1916, O'Connell Street was once again the epicentre of armed conflict and bombardment

However, most witness accounts clearly state that Brugha did not fire a shot. He died in the Mater Hospital on July 7th, the first high profile fatality of the Civil War. The republican resistance elsewhere in the city quickly dissipated, with posts such as York Street, the centre of anti-treaty resistance on the south side, evacuated before they came under a sustained siege. The appetite to hold fixed positions had evaporated.

Devastated by fire and bombardment in 1916, O’Connell Street was once again the epicentre of armed conflict and bombardment just six years later. The scale of the damage in 1922 was, however, much smaller and largely confined to the upper eastern side. In 1924, £283,000 was awarded to various businesses in compensation. Of the four hotels occupied on O’Connell Street, only the Gresham reopened as a hotel in April 1927. The Hammam Building replaced the original hotel and preserved a link with the Civil War in that one shop unit was occupied by Kingston’s Outfitters owned by Cathal Brugha’s wife, Caitlín.

Daithí Ó Corráin and Gerard Hanley are the authors of Cathal Brugha: ‘an indomitable spirit’ published by Four Courts Press

Dr Daithí Ó Corráin is a lecturer in history in the School of History and Geography and is chair of the MA in History programme board at DCU. Dr Gerard Hanley is a Research Fellow at the School of History and Geography at DCU.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ