In April 1922, anti-Treaty IRA men occupied the Four Courts in the centre of Dublin. But why did they take this step, and what was the response? John Dorney explains.

Early on the morning of 14 April 1922, a force of heavily armed anti-Treaty IRA men from the 2nd Southern Division in Tipperary, led by Ernie O'Malley, was brought to Dublin under cover of darkness to seize the Four Courts, the centre of the Irish legal system, in central Dublin. They encountered no significant opposition and 'rounded up’ a few unarmed Dublin Metropolitan Policemen.

‘After a few days’, Ernie O’Malley remembered, the Tipperary men went home and were replaced with ‘less sturdy Dublin men’ commanded by Paddy O’Brien, a railway worker from Inchicore. The majority of the Dublin Brigade, like the majority of the IRA rank and file countrywide, was anti-Treaty in sympathy.

Ernie O'Malley's 1916 mugshot
Ernie O'Malley, photographed here in 1916, led the forces that took the Four Courts. Image courtesy of Kilmainham Gaol/OPW 19PC-1A54-21

The Four Courts occupation by the anti-Treaty IRA was an act of open defiance of the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the Provisional Government installed to implement it. The anti-Treatyites had split from the pro-Treaty General Headquarters Staff at an IRA convention on 26 March 1922 and elected their own Executive, recognising the legitimacy neither of the Treaty, nor of the Second Dáil, which had ratified it.

The anti-Treaty IRA Executive, led by Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellows and Joe McKelvey, was duly installed in the Four Courts, which served them as both a garrison and national headquarters.

The anti-Treaty Volunteers barricaded the windows with heavy legal tomes, weighty ledgers and tin boxes filled with earth. The adjacent Public Records Office was converted into a munitions factory, where mines and grenades were made.

Why occupy the Four Courts?

The Four Courts occupation was a response by the anti-Treaty IRA to the takeover by the nascent pro-Treaty National Army of several barracks including Beggars Bush, Wellington and Portobello, and of other strategic buildings such as the Bank of Ireland and City Hall, vacated by the departing British garrison.

Free State soldiers marching into Beggar's Bush barracks
National Army soldiers march into Beggars Bush Barracks, Haddington Road, Dublin 1922.They are led by Captain Paddy Daly. Photo © RTE Photographic Archive

In the view of those IRA officers opposed to the Treaty, they were the true Republican Army, remaining faithful to their oath to the Republic declared in 1919 and now they were being quietly usurped by the ‘Free State Army’, who had surrendered the Republican ideal in favour of the Treaty and its compromises. A dangerous stand-off over the occupation of barracks had occurred in Limerick city in March, which was only defused when it was agreed that the rival factions would split between them the barracks vacated by departing Crown forces.

There were, as a result, high tensions and some shots fired when pro-Treaty troops began garrisoning the capital, especially from early April 1922. Vinny Byrne, for instance, a stalwart of Michael Collins's IRA 'Squad’ and now a pro-Treaty officer, drove down to the Bank of Ireland on College Green when he heard rumours that the garrison there was changing sides.

He and other officers ‘threatened to shoot any man who left his post’ and proceeded to drive around every other post in the city and addressed the men there to try to secure their loyalty. Shots were exchanged in subsequent nights between pro and anti-Treaty IRA at the Bank of Ireland, Beggars Bush and Wellington barracks.

Vincent Byrne in old age, standing in a doorway
Vincent (Vinny) Byrne, seen here in 1987, was a pro-Treaty officer who was determined to secure the loyalty of his troops. Photo © RTÉ Photographic Archive

At this point, in order to assert its own presence in the capital, the anti-Treaty IRA Executive began looking for a suitable building capable of garrisoning the men they had under arms in the city. It considered the Gaelic League Hall on Parnell Square but eventually settled on the Four Courts, whose green dome dominated the quays along the river Liffey.

Seizing the Four Courts - and more

The anti-Treaty IRA seized the Four Courts on 14 April and, on the same day, took over several other sites in the city associated with Dublin unionism, including the Orange Order meeting place at Fowler Hall on Parnell Square and the ‘high-Tory’ Kildare Street Club. In May they also occupied the Freemasons’ building on Molesworth Street and the Ballast Office on Westmoreland Street which regulated shipping in Dublin Port.

Young men in a window lowering the Union Jack Flag at Freemasons' Hall (1922)
Men from the anti-Treaty IRA lowering the Union Jack Flag at the Dublin Freemasons' Hall in 1922.
Photo © RTE Photographic Archive

While the anti-Treaty forces were later persuaded to leave some of these sites, the continued occupation of the Four Courts and other locations in Dublin enabled them to impede not only the legal system of the embryonic Free State, but also the operation of its police, military and even the commerce in Dublin in the Spring of 1922.

Raids on pro-Treaty police and military yielded an armoured car, rifles, machine guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition to arm the 200 men and women of the Four Courts garrison and a concerted series of bank robberies in Dublin and elsewhere in the days after the Four Courts occupation helped to pay for their now full-time garrison. Food was requisitioned from businesses to feed them.

The Four Courts garrison also imposed a boycott on businesses trading with Belfast and several buildings on Sackville (O’Connell) Street were seized to house nationalist refugees from the violence in the North.

Reactions to the occupation of the Four Courts

The press and large sections of the public were far from impressed by the Four Courts takeover and its anarchic aftermath. The Irish Independent, for example, condemned the ‘strange and startling events’ at the Four Courts, arguing that ‘the only alternative to the Treaty is a military dictatorship, military despotism or anarchy’.

A crowd of people watching the Four Courts siege
A crowd gather at the bottom of Parliament Street in Dublin in 1922, looking at the occupied Four Courts on the other side of the river Liffey. Photo: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

The Freeman’s Journal denounced the Four Courts takeover as ‘reason dethroned’ and condemned anti-Treaty political leader Eamon de Valera as ‘criminal and cowardly’.

The labour movement, condemning ‘militarism’ of both sides, called a one-day general strike on April 23 in protest at the prospect of civil war. Its speakers condemned the firing in Dublin’s streets and the presence of armed checkpoints by pro and anti-Treaty fighters.

A confused policy

Eamon de Valera, however, maintained that the Four Courts takeover was not ‘a coup d’état or the beginning of revolution’. It was, rather, a defensive measure by the Republican Army.

However, its policy was highly contradictory. An IRA Executive meeting of April 25th resolved that they would ‘maintain the existing Republic’ and said the IRA was now under the control of an ‘independent elected Executive’. But it also acknowledged the Dáil as the Government of the Republic. There should be no elections, it resolved, ‘while an English threat of war exists’ and called on the government to disband the Civic Guard, the new police force, but also called on the Dáil to pay the Army.

The apparent strategy of the anti-Treaty IRA Executive was to try to provoke the remaining British garrison in Ireland into hostilities, in the hope of collapsing the Treaty and re-uniting the independence movement.

British troops leaving Ireland 1922
British troops leaving Ireland in 1922. The anti-Treaty IRA hoped to provoke the remaining British forces into hostilities in the hope of collapsing the Treaty. Photo: Getty Images

Three British soldiers and an RIC Inspector were assassinated in Dublin in April and May 1922, most likely as part of that strategy. The British military, however, with a garrison of 6,000 men still in Dublin, was anxious not to be drawn back into conflict in Ireland.

From General Election to Civil War

Thus, the Four Courts situation was allowed to drift for several months until events in late June 1922 brought it to a head.

The Four Courts garrison responded to the anti-Treaty side’s defeat in the Free State’s first general election on June 16 by attempting to trigger a crisis that would collapse the Treaty, by publicly ‘declaring war’ on Britain, signalling the intention to attack Crown forces, either in Dublin or Northern Ireland. This split the garrison temporarily from the more moderate IRA Chief of Staff Liam Lynch, who was still attempting to avert a confrontation with the Provisional Government.

Against this background, two IRA members of uncertain allegiance shot dead British Field Marshal Henry Wilson in London, causing the British government to demand that the Four Courts garrison be forcibly dislodged by the pro-Treaty authorities.

Henry Wilson in army uniform
Henry Wilson, who assassination in London triggered the siege. Photo: Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Provisional Government prevaricated but did begin to clamp down on IRA members from the Four Courts enforcing the Belfast Boycott. Their troops arrested IRA officer Leo Henderson in the act of seizing cars from a garage on Baggot Street on 27 June. In retaliation, the Four Courts garrison seized pro-Treaty general J.J. O’Connell, to be exchanged for the release of Henderson.

It was the opportunity that the Provisional Government needed. Late on the evening of 27 June the cabinet resolved to have ‘Notice served to Four Courts and Fowler’s Hall to evacuate and surrender all arms or military action would be taken’.

The Battle begins

Even at this late stage the Four Courts leadership could not agree on a coherent policy. Ernie O’Malley, who described the Four Courts defences as ‘hopeless’, tried to arrange for snipers to ‘hold outposts around the Courts’. He was overruled by Joe McKelvey who insisted, ‘we must not fire a shot or give any provocation’. Thus, pro-Treaty troops were able to surround the Four Courts, disconnect the mines around the perimeter, block the main gate with an armoured car and even occupy the Four Courts Hotel next door.

The Four Courts garrison knelt and said the rosary, loaded up their weapons and prepared for a siege, but without adequate food and no means of re-supply of either food or ammunition, they were in O’Malley’s words, ‘like rats in a trap’.

This article is part of the Civil War project coordinated by UCC and based on The Atlas of the Irish Revolution edited by John Crowley, Donal Ó Drisceoil and Mike Murphy and John Borgonovo. Its contents do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.