On 15 April 1922, three months after the Anglo-Irish Treaty had been ratified by the Dáil, an IRA force opposing the Treaty occupied the Four Courts complex in Dublin, disrupting the operation of the Public Records Office, the Land Registry Office, and the highest courts in the land.
Led by Rory O'Connor and Liam Mellows, they established the Óglaigh na hÉireann General Headquarters there, and set about planning the destruction of the Treaty with Britain and military operations to undermine the new Northern Ireland state. The Solicitors' Block, behind the main building, was selected as the Headquarters offices, and the Public Records Office was chosen as a factory for making hand grenades and mines. Hoping to find an agreement that would re-unite the country, the Provisional Government delayed taking action against them, but by the end of June the decision was taken to oust the trespassers, by force if necessary.
Planning the attack
On the evening of Tuesday 27 June, some of the leaders in the Four Courts IRA became convinced an attack was imminent, and Liam Mellows arranged for many boxes of Headquarters files and a large amount of cash, much of which had been seized from Irish banks, to be removed from the courts into the care of the Capuchin Friary in Church Street. Ernie O'Malley remembered members of the IRA executive sitting in a circle that evening on the marble floor under the great dome, a place normally bustling with solicitors, barristers and clients, discussing their options should shooting begin.
In addition to some of the IRA executive, there were about 110 IRA men ready to defend the courts. They were scattered through the Four Courts themselves, the Public Records Office and the Solicitors' Block behind them, and the Land Registry Office along the north side.
Although the garrison had over two months to prepare for attack, little had been done other than sandbagging windows and laying barbed wire and a few mines. The garrison commander, Paddy O'Brien, knew he had insufficient men to defend the long perimeter and, although he had made recommendations to Liam Lynch, Chief of Staff of the IRA Army Council, about what was needed to properly defend the complex, his suggestions were ignored.
Shelling the Four Courts
Late on the night of Tuesday 27 June, in misty humid weather, a force of 500 men of the newly formed National Army, under General Emmet Dalton, began to surround the Four Courts. Two eighteen-pounder field guns, borrowed from the British Army, were wheeled into place across the Liffey from the courts; their National Army crews had never fired such guns before and had only received two hours of instruction.
At dawn on Wednesday, after demands to vacate the courts were ignored by the garrison leaders, the peace of Dublin was shattered by the boom of field guns and the crack of rifles as the National Army opened fire. The Irish Civil War had begun. Emmet Dalton, a veteran of the First World War, believed that while a carefully laid artillery barrage would cause little damage to the buildings, it would terrify the occupants, who would soon surrender.
When the shooting began, some of the weak points in the garrison's defence quickly became clear. A National Army Lewis gun in St Michan's church tower raked the flat roofs of the Land Registry Office and the Public Records Office, sending the defenders there scurrying downstairs – some of them were trapped and were unable to escape until nightfall.
At the beginning of the battle, however, there was a reluctance on behalf of most of the fighters on both sides to cause harm to their opponents; they had been, after all, staunch comrades-in-arms for the previous four years. The truth of this can be seen in the extraordinary low casualties of the battle, despite an enormous expenditure of ammunition. Records show that one of the four field guns fired as many as 375 shells during the battle, but not one member of the garrison was killed by shellfire.
Cumann na mBan supported the anti-Treaty IRA, but they were greatly respected by all, and were freely allowed in and out of the courts by the National Army. One of them, Máire Comerford, related how a National Army man had slipped her a handful of rifle ammunition for 'the boys' inside! On Wednesday afternoon, however, a National Army officer became suspicious of a nurse who wanted to be allowed through the cordon; she turned out to be the anti-Treaty IRA leader Tom Barry, dressed in his wife's clothes, and he was quickly arrested.
As the hours went by it became apparent that the gaps between the court's buildings were exposed to National Army fire, and it was difficult to pass safely between them: tunnels they had begun to dig between them had not been completed in time. Different defensive positions, therefore, could only be re-supplied with ammunition, food and water under cover of darkness. Some of the men hardly ate at all during the sixty hours of the battle.
During the siege the Liffey quays were thronged with crowds of onlookers, and it was an action that was widely filmed and photographed.
A change in tactics
In spite of the inexperience of the men manning the field guns, for twenty-four hours they peppered the south façade of the Four Courts with well-aimed hits. The big guns, however, did little to frighten the garrison, so, on Thursday, Dalton and his officers had to change tactics. It was decided that the courts could only be taken by an infantry assault, and the gunners were asked to create two breaches in the walls, one in the Public Records Office and one in the west wing. In spite of a number of difficulties, this they quickly managed to do, and on Thursday afternoon, to the sound of bugles, National Army troops poured into two gaping breaches. During the fierce fighting at close quarters in the dust-filled labyrinthine corridors of the Four Courts, three National Army men were killed, and in the Public Records Office two members of the garrison died.
Liz Gillis on the fighting around the Four Courts
The National Army (NA) decided that the best way to limit the fighting in Dublin was to isolate the Four Courts from the other anti-Treaty IRA garrisons. On 27 June NA troops took up positions in O'Connell (Sackville) Street, Middle Abbey Street and Dame Street, effectively cutting any link between the anti-Treaty IRA positions. At the same time, from his headquarters in Barry's Hotel Oscar Traynor ordered the rest of the Dublin Brigade to mobilise.
At the Four Courts the NA blocked the front gates with Lancia cars. Two eighteen-pounder guns were placed on the south side of the Liffey, firmly fixed on the building. The NA occupied the Medical Mission and the Four Courts Hotel, covering both flanks of the Four Courts and the Bridewell prison to the rear. NA snipers were placed in the tower of St Michan's church and Jameson Distillery in Smithfield. The Four Courts were completely surrounded.
The IRA garrison in the courts numbered roughly 180, divided into six sections scattered throughout the complex. The orderlies Section, made up of Na Fianna Éireann, was in the Public Records Office (PRO), while the headquarters block was at the rear of the courts. Both were isolated from the central building and dominated by the NA positions in the Bridewell and later Hammond Lane. A tunnel had been created between the headquarters block and the main building, but the IRA did not have enough material to complete it. An escape tunnel was dug leading to Patterson's match factory, but again was not completed.
The reluctance of the IRA executive to seize the initiative when it had the chance was a fatal mistake. The NA had the upper hand. For three days the courts were bombarded by eighteen-pounder guns, machine-gun fire and rifle fire. On the afternoon of 30 June two massive explosions occurred. The PRO and the central building lay in ruins. At 4 p.m. the garrison had no other option but to surrender.
Map from the Atlas of the Irish Revolution (CUP, 2017). Click on the map to zoom in.
By Friday morning the Public Records Office had been taken and the garrison was forced back into the eastern end of the Four Courts building. According to Ernie O'Malley, Paddy O'Brien vowed to destroy the Four Courts rather than hand it over, and for this reason barrels of petrol and paraffin had been placed in the Solicitors' Block.
When O'Brien was injured and taken out by ambulance, someone must have fulfilled his wish: by mid-morning this building was ablaze. In the western end of the block, large amounts of a home-made explosive nicknamed 'Irish Cheddar', together with what was referred to as 'tons' of TNT and gelignite were stored for use in the 'munitions factory' in the nearby Public Records Office. Just after midday, an enormous explosion occurred, the largest ever seen in Dublin, as these munitions detonated.
While it has been suggested that they were deliberately, electronically, detonated, the characteristics of the damage caused, and its extent strongly suggests that they were set off by the heat of the fires. No-one was killed in the blast, but a large number of National Army men were shocked, bruised and cut by broken glass.
The explosion and the destruction it caused stunned the combatants and, except for some desultory sniper-fire, the fighting came to an end. What remained of the garrison was crowded into the basement of the Four Courts' east wing. Some wanted to break out and attempt to get to O'Connell Street, held by the anti-Treaty IRA under Oscar Traynor, but, after much discussion, a decision was made to surrender.
Almost sixty hours after the first shots were fired, the garrison marched out into Chancery Street and down to the quays, led by Rory O'Connor, Liam Mellows and Ernie O'Malley. The Freeman's Journal described the men as looking 'bedraggled, faces black with dust, fatigued but undaunted'. There they were surrounded by National Army troops.
A battle that had begun tentatively, however, nearly came to an ugly end. As the garrison lined up, one of the National Army commanders, General O'Daly, arrived. He was furious; according to one witness, he wanted to shoot them all. He had acted very fairly during the siege, arranging access for ambulances to take wounded from the courts, but he believed that the great explosion had been a deliberate attempt to kill as many of his men as possible. His fellow officers calmed him down, however, and the defeated garrison was marched away.
Meanwhile, the fires had spread to the Public Records Office, and within hours, despite the attendance of Dublin Fire Brigade and the fact that the fires in this building could have been tackled safely from Church Street, priceless records of Ireland, some dating back to the twelfth century, were destroyed. At about 7p.m., the great dome of the Four Courts crashed to the ground, bringing an end to the first action of the Irish Civil War.
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, Mike Murphy and John Borgonovo. Its contents do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.