A heads up from the start – this is not intended as a detailed account of the opening conflict of the tragic Irish Civil War. It is at best an overview.
Our focus, as usual, is on the experiences of the Men who had burned the Custom House on 25 May 1921 and participated in the literally explosive events from 28 to 30 June 1922 in one Dublin city district.
As most Readers will know, what happened at the Four Courts 100 years ago had massive and lasting effects, politically, socially and economically on the history of the 26 counties – arguably on the islands of Ireland and Britain – to the present day. And has continued to divide opinions in the succeeding generations down to ourselves, all this time after.
On the centenary, there will be no official state commemoration, despite the current government being a coalition of political parties descending from the opposing Civil War sides. That of course means Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Where that leaves Sinn Féin will not be discussed here.
Suffice to say in hindsight, the insanity of the Civil War is exposed by the current political line-ups – three parties which branched out of a formerly united republican movement?
But the Four Courts 1922 will be marked and commemorated by some, such as the National Graves Association, as well as other groups and individuals.
There is also a free photographic exhibition in the Central Hall of the Four Courts itself, to run over the summer (from 24 June) with an accompanying mobile phone app (Four Courts 100) which includes some interesting movie footage. Both were launched with talks by several experts, including the writer Michael Fewer, last Friday.
And rightly so for such a momentous and divisive event in Ireland’s history.
Despite what some may claim about British influence or even involvement on the ground, all those who took part were fighting over Ireland’s future under the same disputed flag, the Tricolour. Each and every man and woman who participated at the Four Courts deserves respect for their active commitment – in some cases the loss of their lives or the shedding of their blood – for their patriotism and strongly-held beliefs.
We refer anybody interested in the Battle of the Four Courts and subsequent Fall of Dublin for the Republicans to several accounts of those chapters in Irish history (see footnote here).
In this article we will focus on some of the parts played by certain personalities – the Custom House Men, the subject of this blog.
The Four Courts
The Four Courts was the central seat of the judiciary in Ireland, containing the highest law courts as well as some other related government agencies. The complex is on the north quays of the Liffey, still made up of a number of buildings or blocks surrounded by railings, accessible now through security gates.
In 1922, security on the complex was minimal. The Executive IRA were able to occupy the entire complex and fortify it with no resistance. The legal eagles were dispossessed and evicted. The occupiers used some blocks as munitions factories and explosives and incendiary materiel storage facilities. Other parts became the Garrison’s headquarters and barracks living quarters.
Now all that’s out of the way; let’s look at who did what as far as we know. We welcome any inputs identifying men from the Custom House Fire Brigade – indeed any participants Readers know about – who are not mentioned below.
In the Garrison
Custom House Men known to have been in the Four Courts at some stage during its occupation were Joe Griffin (Director of Intelligence), Lieut. Paddy Brunton, Paddy Rigney, Billy Doyle, John Cullinane of No. 1 Section, Sgt. Bill Gannon (and his pal Lieut. Joe McHenry), Mick Walker (Adjutant) and Patrick Moore.
Showing how complicated allegiances were, three of those men had resigned from the Beggars Bush Dublin Guard and rejoined the IRA around the time the Four Courts was occupied.
Only Rigney and Griffin are known to have been captured at the Surrender. But then they grabbed a chance for freedom facilitated by Rigney’s old ASU No. 4 pal, Padraig O’Connor, by then a pro-Treaty Army officer.
While the captured Republicans were temporarily held in Bow Street Distillery, Rigney and O’Connor had a smoke and a chat before the latter pointed out an escape route via a door from which he had temporarily removed the guard.
Paddy Rigney did not need a second invitation. He was joined by future Taoiseach Sean Lemass, Ernie O’Malley and Joe Griffin, Director of Intelligence for the Executive IRA forces in the Four Courts.
The four successfully avoided National Army checkpoints and left the area to continue their fight for the Republic.
That was, of course, after an artillery bombardment and battle lasting three days.
Playing differing roles we know about with the attacking force were Tom Ennis, Paddy O’Daly, Padraig O’Connor, Jim McGuinness, Jim Slattery, Tom Flood, Frank Bolster, Mick Stephenson, Charlie MacMahon and Sean Sliney.
Brigadier Slattery was in charge of the Capel Street area to the east. Vice-Comdt. Flood was placed in charge of a unit in the Bridewell police station across the street to the north of the Four Courts. Lieut. Comdt. Stephenson was Adjutant. And Comdt. Bolster was ordered to lead a separate assault on another IRA strong-point on 28 June.
In overall command was Major General Ennis, O/C 2nd Eastern Division who had overall responsibility for clearing the Four Courts. Orders were issued in the evening of 27 June to surround the Four Courts.
The allegiance of some National Army troops was still precarious. About twenty men at Beggars Bush refused to mobilise against fellow Irishmen and were placed under arrest. The remainder of the men followed their orders.
Six hundred of Ennis’s troops formed an outer cordon around the Four Courts area – on both sides of the river – while an inner cordon was made up by a further 500 men of the Dublin Guard – including Cpl. MacMahon and Pte. Sliney – destined to carry out an assault which was to come on the third day of what became the Battle of the Four Courts.
The National Army set up their HQ in the Four Courts Hotel. It stood at the southwest corner of the Four Courts complex, a short distance away, only separated from its west wing by Morgan Place.
Two 18-pounder field guns had been obtained at about midnight from General Macready, the British commander in Ireland, by Major General Emmet Dalton. One was positioned at the lower end of Winetavern Street, the other at the bottom of Bridge Street, both on Merchant’s Quay, across the Liffey from the Four Courts. The guns diametrically faced the south east and southwest corners of the complex.
Ennis himself was the signatory of the official ultimatim delivered by a military courier to the occupiers at 3.40 a.m. on 28 June:
TO THE OFFICER IN CHARGE
I, acting under the order of the government, hereby order you to evacuate the buildings of the Four Courts and to parade your men under arrest, without arms, on that portion of the quays immediately in front of the Four Courts by 4 a.m.
Failing compliance with this order, the building will be taken by me with force, and you and all concerned with you will be held responsible for any life lost or any damage done.
O/C 2nd Eastern Division
This document was received by Thomas ‘Skinner’ O’Reilly who later said “I went up to the Central Hall under the dome and gave the note to Rory O’Connor. He went into a huddle with Liam Mellows and some of the others and then told me to go back to the gate and tell the dispatch rider there was no reply.” Skinner followed his orders.
At some point after, an armoured Lancia tender was driven up to block the main gate of the Four Courts and then disabled and abandoned by its National Army crew. There was no response from the Four Courts garrison who were under strict orders not to fire the first shots.
At seven minutes past four in the morning the attack commenced with an onslaught of rifle and machine gun fire and a first shrapnel shell crashed against the granite wall of the Four Courts. The IRA in the Four Courts responded in kind, using rifles and machine guns, including the one mounted on the ‘Mutineer’ armoured car. It is believed that Custom House Man Paddy Moore may have been on the vehicle’s crew.
About an hour after firing commenced, the first combatant was killed. A tender carrying four IRA men sped down the north quays past the Four Courts. Passing the Ormond Hotel, shots were exchanged with an outpost of National Army troops. Vol. (or Comdt.) Joseph Considine, a native of Co. Clare, was hit in the head. The tender rushed the casualty to Jervis Street Hospital where he died shortly after admission.
The artillery bombardment proved ineffective as a ‘shock-and-awe’ tactic and did not cause any collapse in morale among the Four Courts men, many of whom were young lads. However, conditions in the building deteriorated and the occupants were in constant danger from bullets and had to endure the noise and shock from shell-bursts. Several were wounded. But they continued to fight back despite being surrounded and over-looked by some National Army positions in taller buildings like the tower of St. Michan’s Church. Shelling went on during the night although ammunition was scarce. Emmet Dalton felt he had to keep up some semblance of a ‘bombardment’ for fear his men would just melt away.
The bombardment struck not only the walls of the Four Courts, but the imagination of at least one artist, Norman Teeling, who created some striking images.
Typical of nosy Dubliners, large crowds of curious citizens had gathered to watch the battle unfold. They were kept back from the immediate Four Courts area by National Army cordons.
Also among the interested spectators were a group of Black and Tans/RIC awaiting disbandment in Dublin Castle.
No progress had been made by the attackers as a second day dawned. The defenders of the Republic stuck it out and still resisted.
Two additional field guns and further artillery shells, including a large quantity of high explosive rounds, arrived from the British.
One of the extra guns (labelled No. 4) was placed in Hammond Lane, west of the Four Courts; and the other temporarily at the corner of Greek Street and Chancery Street, northeast of the complex.
This latter gun’s crew were wounded by Four Courts snipers and the position had to be protected by a sandbag wall. The gun was later withdrawn as a reserve in case of an attack from its rear by Oscar Traynor’s forces around Capel Street in the east.
In the Four Courts, ammunition and other basic supplies were in short supply despite the efforts of women from Cumann na mBan and nurses who smuggled in bullets along with food and carried messages out.
The bombardment went on. By the second day (Thursday), GHQ had recognised the need to send in the infantry and plans were made to invade the Four Courts complex. Two large breaches had been made in the walls and the outer railings demolished at the west wing of the Four Courts block on Morgan Place and the Public Records Office (PRO) on Church Street.
At 3 p.m. National Army buglers sounded the cease fire and two simultaneous infantry assaults began.
The one on the west wing was carried out by about 100 men led by Comdt. Joe Leonard under the command of his close friend Brigadier Paddy O’Daly. Leonard soon fell, shot in the knee and the man next to him was also hit but the advance continued under Lieut. Downey. Corporal Charlie MacMahon, still with a bullet in his brain from the Custom House, was in this assault and suffered wounds to his face, arms and hands from glass splinters and shrapnel. Private Sean Sliney managed to avoid injury.
The attackers entered a scene of destruction in a dimly-lit maze of rooms, corridors and stairwells. Heavy fighting at close quarters took place and several invaders were wounded. The advance stalled as the survivors secured the area. But overwhelming firepower had overcome the defending IRA who put up stiff resistance until many of them ran out of ammo. Thirty-three prisoners were taken. They, along with the casualties, were removed from the building.
Major-General Dermot McManus who had been fighting from the tenements occupied in Church Street, conferred with Padraig O’Connor and went to assist in the west wing. He, assisted by Comdt. Tom Flood, took command and rallied the troops after their bloody battle and had them search every room for hidden defenders, arms and munitions. A room full of explosives was discovered and removed off-site. But there was still plenty of explosive and flammable materiel within the complex.
Also at 3 p.m., Padraig O’Connor, Jim McGuinness and their men moved out from positions off Hammond Lane across Church Street to clamber over the rubble into the PRO. Their experiences are graphically described in O’Connor’s memoir Sleep Soldier Sleep.
They encountered no opposition but found a small number of shaken young Na Fianna defenders who were made prisoner and taken away to a nearby holding place. Shortly afterwards two other young anti-Treaty men were shot in the courtyard outside the building. Vols. John Cusack and Tom Wall died in the Richmond Hospital.
National Army troops were now in possession of the PRO building and the west wing of the Four Courts block while the IRA defenders withdrew to what they termed the Headquarters Block opposite the Bridewell and the remainder of the main Courts Block to the east.
On Friday at 5 a.m. the artillery recommenced firing from Winetavern Street, concentrating on the anti-Treaty positions in the east of the Four Courts.
At the other end Jim McGuinness and his men were now in possession of the PRO. They kept up heavy machine gun fire from the top floor windows on the anti-Treaty armoured car in the courtyard below. The ‘Mutineer’ was rendered immobile and had to be abandoned by its crew. The courtyards were now relatively safe for the attackers to cross. In the building, which had been used as the Munitions Block by the anti-Treaty occupiers, they found large quantities of explosives.
At about 11 o’clock a fire began in the Headquarters Block.
Padraig O’Connor had returned to the scene after carrying out various duties elsewhere. He picked fifteen men from the PRO to attack that Block as ordered, but it was now in flames. O’Connor decided to go for the main Court Block instead and his unit were lined up ready to go with fixed bayonets. At this point, about 12.30 p.m., a huge explosion rocked the entire complex. The west end of the Headquarters Block was totally destroyed, throwing O’Connor and his men up in the air like rag dolls. They all survived, stunned, deafened and very shaken, with cuts and bruises but none seriously hurt.
McGuinness had his own lucky escape. In the smoke-filled building, he fell through a hole bored through an upper level floor. Yet he landed on his feet on the ground floor totally unhurt.
In all, between 50 and 70 National Army within the complex were wounded, some seriously, in the detonation. They staggered or were helped out of the place. Of course many of the defenders were also shell-shocked or hurt but had to remain.
Controversy and arguments persist over the cause of this initial explosion. We will not go into them here but Michael Fewer’s 2018 book The Battle of the Four Courts provides by far the best forensic analysis to date.
And, of course, the subsequent massive fire notoriously destroyed tons of archived historic documents stored within the Record Office in the Four Courts complex. While a major reconstruction project Beyond 1922 has been amazingly successful with many ancient documents, perhaps the biggest loss to us ordinary Irish folk were the early census records and Church of Ireland registers. This article gives an overview of which of those was – and wasn’t – burned in 1922.
A stunned silence descended and firing and activity ceased for about half an hour. When an expected surrender did not come, the attackers re-opened fire. Defensive fire was not possible at that point and flames were spreading throughout the complex. Around 2 p.m., medics were allowed in to remove wounded and a general withdrawal of National Army personnel took place. The remaining defenders were now gathered in the east wing, including the cellars. Word was received via a friendly fireman from Oscar Traynor that he could not reach them from his positions to the east and advising surrender.
Conditions for the defenders were now unbearable and they made feelers for a cessation of hostilities. Capuchin Father Albert Bibby acted as intermediary, bringing news that unconditional surrender was demanded by the surrounding enemy forces.
There were lengthy discussions and arguments among the IRA about surrendering, breaking out or fighting on. No less than could be expected of Republican leaders like Liam Mellows, Ernie O’Malley, Rory O’Connor and Joe McKelvey. Indeed, views were mixed among all ranks. However, in the end they agreed surrender was their only option, fired off their last ammo and burned their weapons.
At about 3.30 p.m. a white flag was flown through a window, the cease fire was sounded by their opponents and unarmed men began to emerge from the east wing of the blazing Four Courts. Others needed assistance after their ordeal.
A contingent of National Army marched down to accept the surrender and take prisoners. After some confusion over who was in charge of the garrison, O’Malley as acting IRA O/C signed the official surrender for O’Daly who was National Army O/C on the scene.
One notable Republican who had exited the Four Courts only hours before it was attacked was allowed leave the city for his base on Cork on the night of the Surrender. Liam Lynch’s release by Eoin O’Duffy after being arrested by Emmet Dalton would come back to haunt the Provisional Government and its army.
And what of the senior GHQ officer ‘Ginger’ O’Connell whose kidnapping by the Four Courts men had been a factor in leading to the attack?
Well, he emerged dirty and disheveled like the rest but otherwise safe and well, complaining to pressmen only about the noise from the bombardment and the shortage of food as the battle had progressed. He had lived to return to his post as second-in-command of the National Army GHQ Staff.
Several parleys between the opposing sides during earlier ceasefires had been polite, almost friendly in nature. Paddy O’Daly had represented the attackers. However, when the battle was over, the tone had changed. O’Daly was convinced the IRA had set off a mine intending to kill all his men in the complex and was infuriated. He wanted to shoot them all and had to be calmed down by his fellow officer Tony Lawlor before he accepted the surrender signed by O’Malley. Ernie was the only IRA man still armed and boasted of offering his handgun to Lawlor before flinging it over his head into the river.
The two protagonists, O’Malley and O’Daly (both had added the prefix O’ to their birth surnames) by all accounts personified a sudden entrance of hatred and spite between former comrades now irretrievably divided politically, if not idealogically. Judging by reported comments and the attitudes of both at the surrender, there seems to have been no fear but mutual loathing. Their diametrically opposing Civil War paths defined the two men for life. To Republicans, the name O’Daly recalls atrocities while O’Malley is a diehard icon. They also illustrated the opposing allegiances of most Custom House Men, Dublin allies of Collins, compared to the majority of other pre-Truce IRA.
The inability of Oscar Traynor, Dublin Brigadier, to influence the Four Courts battle despite commanding larger manpower was in stark contrast to what his former junior officers like Ennis, O’Connor and McGuinness managed to achieve using more powerful materiel assets and no little skill and bravery.
About 140 men were arrested and marched away under escort to Wellington Barracks in two groups, the most notable thirty followed by the others carrying a Tricolour. They were all later brought to Mountjoy Prison. This is one page from the jail register showing some famous and lesser known Republican prisoners.
Four would be later extra-judicially executed by the Provisional Government (coldly noted on right above). A few others would escape from custody while most would be interned for the duration of the Civil War.
The Republicans killed have been named above. One senior IRA man badly wounded was Comdt. Paddy O’Brien from Inchicore, Dublin and O/C of the Four Courts Guard. He had been manning a Lewis machine gun and was hit in the head by shrapnel at some point. He had been removed by ambulance during an earlier ceasefire and taken to hospital. His ambulance driver was fireman Joe Connolly, a fellow anti-Treaty man who had featured in the Burning of the Custom House on 25 May 1921. Connolly waited for O’Brien to be treated then spirited him away to fight again. Sadly Paddy O’Brien would die on 11 July after a gun battle with the National Army in Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford less than a week after escaping the Four Courts. A number of other Garrison members, including Rory O’Connor, were less seriously wounded in the course of the battle and received first aid treatment.
As for their opponents, things are not so clear. Several National Army men were killed in the city during the days of the Battle of the Four Courts. Records are lacking and reports are contradictory in many cases. A few were shot in the northside district between the Four Courts and O’Connell Street, for example Pte. John J. Lewis at Williams & Woods factory (Parnell Street/Bolton Street), Coy QM Sgt, Patrick Lowe at Capel Street, Pte. Daniel Brennan at the Ballast Office just south of O’Connell Bridge.
And on O’Connell Street itself, Pte. Richard Reid and an ambulance driver Pte. Thomas Bernard Hogan were shot dead. Closer to the Four Courts, Pte. James George Walsh, was apparently in the Bridewell or at a barricade near the back of the complex when mortally hit. A Pte. William Long, was supposedly shot dead in Chancery Street beside the Four Courts (but no record found). James Langton’s book The Forgotten Fallen is excellent for details of the National Army fatalities in 1922-23.
Conflict had already spread to several parts of the city on both sides of the river. As an example, on 28 June two National Army officers from Engineering Survey, Col. Comdt. Thomas Mandeville and Staff Capt. Michael Vaughan, were killed and two privates wounded in a gun and grenade ambush on their car at Leeson Street Bridge on the southside.
However, inevitably and tragically, a higher number of civilians – men, women and children – than combatants had already become fatalities or been wounded in the Four Courts neighbourhood and at the scenes of fighting elsewhere around the town. A selection of the citizens shot dead were 77-year-old fish merchant James Shine from Lower Grangegorman, domestic servant and widow Hanna McGowan (42) from Bolton Street, publican John William Murphy (26) of North Cumberland Street, Patrick Joseph Cosgrave (14), a Messenger from Lower Dominick Street, little Margaret Byrne from Thomas Court aged just 2½, Mabel Lynn (mid-twenties) from Talbot Street and 54-year-old widow Elizabeth Gorman of North King Street. An attendant in the National Museum, Thomas Daly was shot dead looking out the window of his home on Eden Quay and his wife was hit in the arm. Mrs. Margaret Kelly, a dealer aged 43 of Chancery Street right beside the Four Courts, died from shock and heart failure. Many others were wounded by bullets from snipers or simply by stray rounds.
If we need any modern reminders of large-scale non-combatants deaths as the inevitable results of urban conflict, look no farther than Ukraine in the summer of 2022. One hundred years ago in Dublin, the toll of uninvolved ordinary people as casualties would sadly rise as the battle for the city continued.
The Four Courts complex was totally gutted by fire. Amazingly there was little collateral damage of a serious nature to the surrounding neighbourhood. However, almost all windows were shattered and roofs damaged by the blast from heavy guns and the explosion of munitions stored in the Courts. The material damage would be repaired in due course, but the impact on lives and bereaved families would last for generations.
Slattery Clears Capel Street
Republicans occupied several premises on Capel Street, located between the Four Courts and O’Connell Street. They were surrounded by National Army troops and in the evening, after the Four Courts fell, had little option but to lay down arms and give up. Custom House man Jim Slattery, now O/C of GHQ Dublin Brigade, was the officer who accepted the surrender of the IRA garrisons.
Another Target for a Custom House Man
At the same time as the Four Courts attack began, National Army forces also moved against Republicans occupying the Orange Fowler Memorial Hall on Parnell Square.
It was one of four posts which had been taken over by anti-Treaty IRA still occupied by them on 28 June (The Four Courts, 41 Parnell Square and Kilmainham Gaol were the others).
Comdt. Frank Bolster led this operation with support from an armoured car. The premises was riddled with bullets and stoutly defended by the well ensconced defenders from their sand-bagged windows.
The firing and siege went on for more than four hours. No attempt seems to have been made to invade the building and the papers reported there were no National Army present when the IRA evacuated the building at around 12.30 p.m. GHQ’s plan may have been to bottle up the defenders and prevent them reaching the Four Courts.
There were several casualties among civilians, with at least one man being killed, and a National Army private, James Kavanagh of the Machine Gun Corps was reportedly shot dead (but no death record found) at Parnell Square.
The IRA evacuated the Hall through the rear and successfully withdrew after setting fire to the building. It and an adjoining premises were severely damaged but saved from total ruin by the Dublin Fire Brigade.
The Fowler Hall garrison and their comrades were already in occupation of many more positions around the city including several hotels.
The Four Courts had fallen but the Republicans were far from finished.
The Battle for Dublin was to go on until 5 July and Custom House Men would continue to be in the thick of the fighting in the city centre. Soon some of them would be moving to flashpoints outside the capital.
To be continued…