It was on 28 June 1922 that the newly formed army of the Irish Free State opened cannon fire upon the Four Courts, a large neoclassical building dominating the quayside in central Dublin. Their aim? To dislodge former colleagues from the Irish Republican Army who had occupied the building. The attack on the Four Courts was the beginning of the Irish Civil War.
Why did former comrades turn on each other? The answer can be found in divisions over the agreement that ended the Irish War of Independence — the guerilla war that the Irish Republican Army had been fighting against the British authorities in Ireland since 1919. It was a bloody and brutal conflict, marked by many atrocities and civilian casualties, but one which had brought about no clear resolution. A truce was agreed in July 1921 and a delegation from Sinn Féin (the Irish republican party that had won the overwhelming number of Irish seats in the 1918 general election) was sent to London to negotiate with the British government.
Sinn Féin and its supporters found the eventual agreement (usually called the Anglo-Irish Treaty) difficult to swallow. The ‘Irish Free State’ envisaged by the Treaty fell far short of the all-Ireland independent republic they had unilaterally declared at their first meeting in 1918: the country would remain part of the British Empire, with its elected representatives having to swear an oath of allegiance to the King; Britain retained control over certain policy areas and also over some military facilities in Ireland; and the north-east part of the island would have the option of withdrawing from the Free State and remaining a full part of the United Kingdom (which it was almost certain to do).
From late December 1921 to early January 1922 the members of the Dáil (the assembly of pro-independence Irish MPs which met in Dublin and was in Irish eyes the legitimate government of the Irish Republic) met to decide whether to ratify the Treaty. The debates were impassioned and often ill-tempered. There was argument over whether the Irish representatives had signed under duress (the British Prime Minister having threatened a renewed military campaign) and over whether they even had the right to sign: their credentials gave them the power to do so, but they had received conflicting instructions to the effect that they should consult with the Dáil’s cabinet before signing — which they somehow forgot to do. Furthermore (and for those present it was more than an academic issue) did the Dáil have the right to effectively vote itself and the Irish Republic out of existence without consulting the Irish people first?
The five signatories were themselves divided over the merits of the Treaty (some had only signed to avoid a damaging public split in the delegation) but the two senior figures, Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins, defended what they had agreed to.
‘I signed that Treaty not as the ideal thing, but fully believing, as I believe now, it is a treaty honourable to Ireland, and safeguards the vital interests of Ireland [ … ] We have done the best we could for Ireland,’ said Griffith in his opening remarks.
Opponents of the Treaty condemned it as a sell-out and a betrayal of all those who had lost their lives fighting for Irish independence.
After two weeks of debating the merits of the Treaty and the possible outcomes of rejecting it, a vote was taken: 64 in favour, 57 against. The breach came almost immediately when Éamon de Valera, President of the Dáil, who had opposed the Treaty, offered his resignation and then called a meeting of all anti-treaty members for the next day.
The rift affected not just the leadership of Sinn Féin and the IRA but went right through both organizations. Various attempts to reconcile the two sides over the following months proved fruitless.
In the meantime, implementation of the Treaty continued. A ‘Provisional Government’ was set up to oversee the transition; British troops started withdrawing. Their deserted barracks and other military facilities were taken over by local IRA units, some pro-treaty, some anti-treaty. The country was now a patchwork of different allegiances. There were occasional skirmishes and robberies of weaponry or money but for the time being neither side was willing to take the final step that would mean war over the Treaty.
The Provisional Government had swiftly built up loyal military forces in Dublin. Worried lest they cede the capital through inaction, the anti-treaty IRA took over the Four Courts, Kilmainham Jail and a few other sites in the city in April 1922. The Provisional Government, still anxious for reconciliation, did not try to prevent them.
An election in June settled nothing. Both pro- and anti-treaty sides lost votes when compared to the last election. The advocates of the Treaty claimed they had the majority of the people behind them; their opponents had already discounted this in the Dáil debates. ‘A war-weary people will take things which are not in accordance with their aspirations,’ de Valera had argued.
Then, on 22 June, an event not in Dublin but in London forced matters to a head. Sir Henry Hughes Wilson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff and a hardline Unionist who had only recently become MP for North Down (in Northern Ireland), was shot dead outside his house by two Irishmen. Outraged, the British government accused anti-treaty elements of being behind the attack. The evacuation of troops was suspended. The British pressed Collins and Griffith (now the heads of the Provisional Government) to act at once. Collins was unwilling — not only did he still hope he could talk the Treaty’s opponents round. It has been suggested but never conclusively proven that Collins had in fact issued the assassination order himself some time before. It was never rescinded but had not been acted on — until now.
The British continued to insist on immediate action, telling Collins and Griffith that if the Provisional Government would not act, then the British Army would do the job instead.
The Four Courts
Reluctantly, Collins gave in. In the early hours of 28 June, troops surrounded the Four Courts. Heavy artillery was moved into position and opened fire. The weaponry had been loaned to the Provisional Government by the British military — an irony that surely was not lost on any of the participants. Indeed, many Dubliners assumed that it was the British who were attacking — for why would the Irish attack their own?
There were about 180 men inside the Four Courts, which had been fortified with sandbags, barbed wire, trenches and mines. They held out against the attackers for three days. On the third day the bombardment caused fires to break out. It was impossible for the Dublin fire brigade to put them out in the midst of the fighting. The conflagration spread out and eventually reached some ammunition stores. The resulting explosion killed not just defenders but also members of the pro-treaty forces who had just stormed the building.
Surrounded and with no prospect of escape or of the siege being relieved, the Four Courts garrison destroyed their weapons by throwing them into the flames and then surrendered. The Four Courts stood a still–burning shell. The building had housed the Irish Public Records Office, and the fire and subsequent explosion destroyed 800 years worth of historical documents as well.
The capture of the Four Courts was not the end of the fighting, however. On hearing of the attack, the anti-treaty forces had mobilized. There would be another five days of fighting in Dublin before the Civil War moved southwards towards the anti-treaty strongholds in Munster. The conflict itself was to last until May 1923, when the anti-treaty IRA ceased armed operations. It would be hard to say the Provisional Government had achieved ‘victory’: Collins and Griffith were both dead (the former killed in an ambush, the latter by stress and overwork), the country had suffered terrible damage as well as loss of life (exact figures have never been established), and the new state was left with a legacy of division and bitterness that affected it for decades afterwards.
See Bruce’s Irish History Compressed.