Most of the tumultuous month of June 1922 was dominated by politics. But it ended in military conflict with anti-Treaty politicians left in the wilderness. The four weeks witnessed Anglo-Irish agreement on a Free State Constitution; continuing killings in the north east; two invasions of Co. Donegal by the British army; repudiation of the Coalition Pact by Michael Collins; an election result with mixed outcomes for the two sections of Sinn Féin Party; a controversial assassination in London carried out by two IRA members; threats of war by the British to the Provisional Government over their toleration of the Four Courts garrison; and incendiary arrests in Dublin by the opposing IRA sections.

Then, in the closing days the boom of artillery would be heard again in Dublin’s city centre. Fired by an Irish army, just six years after their British counterparts had devastated roughly the same areas.

While Custom House Men did not feature in press reports until the opening shots of Civil War early in the morning of 28 June, undoubtedly those who were active were busy with their military duties beforehand, while others got on with their lives.

In the view of this writer, so much happened at this time it can be a bit hard to process. Hopefully what follows will give a reasonable overview. The narrative does not follow in exact chronological order as we have tried to follow the various threads of history and link them for the Reader.

The Constitution

The Irish draft was rejected by the British as non-compliant with the Treaty and negotiations followed by joint re-drafting proceeded in London. A final version was eventually agreed by both governments, the British signing off on it only on 16 June, the date of the Irish General Election, meaning the electorate had no chance to study the document before voting.

How this came to be is interesting. Republicans claimed it was a deliberate underhand ploy of the Treaty faction to hide their treason in selling out to the British. But, according to Calton Younger, the Irish negotiators had delayed their draft to leave the British only a short time to consider it. This then backfired when the British refused to be rushed and took their own time.

As for the Constitution itself, the subservient position of the Free State under the Crown and the requirement for the Oath would prove a huge disappointment and a complete anathema to Republicans.

Nominations Close on 6 June for Election

Contesting the 128 seats in 27 constituencies would be:

  • 124 Sinn Féin Panel candidates of which 34 (17 from each side) were running unopposed (Notably, Dan Breen was on both panels).
  • 47 non-Panel candidates (18 Labour Party, 12 Farmers’ Party and 17 Independents) – all pro-Treaty.
  • 4 more Independents (Unionist) from Trinity College Dublin.

The Election Pact Repudiated

The Collins – de Valera Pact, the basis for the Panel of pro- and anti-Treaty candidates for a coalition Sinn Féin government, had been jointly promoted by Michael Collins and Éamon de Valera speaking on the same platform at Dublin’s Mansion House as late as 9 June.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Michael Collins

However, at an election rally in Cork city five days later and just two days before the poll, Collins told the attendance he expected them to vote for the candidates they thought were best regardless of whether they were on the Panel or not. This was viewed by de Valera’s grouping as breaking the Pact. Dev himself claimed Collins had done so “at the bidding of the English”.

It was true there had been anger at British government levels where the agreement was viewed as undemocratic (ironically, given their history of unwanted rule in Ireland). But it seems unlikely the attitude in London was the sole, or even most important factor in its scrapping. A discussion for another time, elsewhere…

Horror in South Armagh

Sectarian shootings and arson attacks continued in Belfast and there was bloodshed in Derry too. However, rural parts of the six counties also witnessed killings and other outrages. South Armagh was the scene of particularly horrifying events. On 13 June, two Catholic farmers, not in the IRA, were kidnapped from Bessbrook and their bodies dumped near Newry. Then during the following night there was a raid by eight A-Specials from Forkhill on the Catholic-owned McGuill’s pub in Dromintee during which Mrs Una McGuill, heavily pregnant, and her female servant were brutally raped and beaten. The pub was looted and wrecked. The owner, James McGuill, the target of the raid but absent at the time, was a noted republican and friend of Frank Aiken, O.C. 4th Northern Division.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Frank Aiken

Three days later a fourteen-man Specials patrol from the same barracks was ambushed at Dromintee by fifty IRA men led by Aiken, some of whom took up positions in McGuill’s pub. S/C William Russell died and another named Hughes was wounded. The pub was burned down by Specials not long afterwards.

On the same day, in retaliation for the murder of the two farmers, several small groups of IRA simultaneously carried out attacks on Protestants’ houses in the townlands of Altnaveigh and Lisdrumliska, near where the dead Catholics had been found. Six people – five men and one women – were shot dead, a dozen were wounded and twelve house burned or bombed. The episode became known as the Altnaveigh Massacre.

Invasions in the North-West

Late May and early June had seen clashes and exchanges of gunfire in several areas along the Border between southern and northern forces. On the northern side houses were shot at or burned in a campaign of harassment of Catholics. The Border was largely ignored as the IRA made incursions northward looking for Specials and spies and the Specials crossed in the opposite direction. There were reports of casualties among the Specials on several occasions.

One sector on the Donegal-Fermanagh border – known as the Belleek-Pettigo Triangle (or ‘Salient’ to the British) – on the banks of Lough Erne became the hottest spot. A chain of events starting with an invented “kidnapping” of four Specials by the IRA, the local presence of IRA garrisons plus men from units from the north on R&R and several failed incursions by Specials, led to the largely forgotten invasion and holding of both towns, Pettigo and Belleek, by the British.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
The “Triangle” on the border of Fermanagh and south Donegal

The whole situation does appear (to this writer) to have been contrived by the hostile mindset of the sectarian leadership in Belfast – perhaps an illustration of the ‘Ulster Siege Mentality’? Craig’s administration sought to portray Border clashes as a cause of the continuing violence in northern cities. They claimed the “Orange Terror” was in retaliation for an IRA campaign when, in fact, the reverse was true. Even a correspondent for the British Daily News who visited the area wrote “The crisis has been deliberately manufactured for political purposes [by the northern administration] … Incidents have been greatly exaggerated … Provocation to war is coming … from the forces on the Ulster side of the frontier.” However, it is likely that some in the IRA unwittingly played into their hands, as the pressman also noted. In fact most of the British Press criticised Churchill’s bellicosity and lack of judgement while sympathising with the difficulties facing the Free State’s government. They compared the Provisional Governments’ resolve very favourably in comparison to Craig’s failure to tackle far worse problems in the north.

In any event, Churchill’s strong support for the unionist administration was the deciding factor in taking military action – against the better judgement of Lloyd George who wanted to avoid another war in Ireland over “the swamps of Fermanagh” and viewed the situation as minor skirmishing across a new Border which would calm over time.

On 4 June a strong force of British troops advanced towards Pettigo, the largest part of which is sited in Co. Donegal. They claimed their troops were fired on while on the northern side of the Border by anti-Treaty IRA men. Without any warning they used artillery to fire at least eight shells at the IRA positions. Two Volunteers from Co. Tyrone were killed by shrapnel – William Kearney (aged either 25 or 35) and Bernard McCanny (26) from Drumquin – while local lad Vol. Patrick Flood (18), son of a local merchant, was shot dead during the IRA withdrawal. The British may also have lost one or two men but remarkably no civilians were hurt. However, four days later IRP man William Deasley (29) died at the IRA base in Donegal Workhouse of a gunshot wound apparently received at Pettigo.

Dublin GHQ strongly refuted the British claims and stated the fatalities were their soldiers, killed in a totally unprovoked attack. Collins denied either his or any IRA forces were involved in hostilities against the north. Only he and a select circle knew he was really playing a dangerous double game as regards the six counties, maintaining an official line of non-aggression and peaceful obstruction while secretly organising and arming the IRA “Northern Offensive” in conjunction with anti-Treaty forces. Pro-Treaty O.C. of 1st Northern Division Joe Sweeney and his troops were among the large attendance at the funerals of the Pettigo victims.

The whole town, including the Donegal portion, was occupied by the British military. Michael Collins protested strongly to London, demanding a joint inquiry (which was not immediately refused but never took place as Craig would not agree).

Three days later there was a major clash near Belleek, most of which is in Co. Fermanagh. A large force of British infantry from Enniskillen with lorries, armoured cars, tanks, artillery and supported by aircraft approached the town. They claimed fire was opened on them from the old Battery (fort) on the Donegal side from which the Tricolour flew. It was manned by about 70 pro- and anti-Treaty IRA united against the old foe despite their now-split allegiance. Two howitzers were brought into use by the British. After 22 shells were fired, the IRA were forced to quit their positions. The large British force took over the entire village including the Battery Fort on the Donegal side of the Border and ran the union jack up the flagpole there.

Despite reports claiming thirty to forty IRA were killed, there are no records to be found of any deaths. Most sources say there were no fatalities or really serious casualties on either side but it appears a Special named Thomas Dobson serving as a driver for the British was shot dead after the shelling. The vehicles captured at Pettigo by the IRA were re-taken and sixteen IRA prisoners were hauled away to Belfast by the British and jailed until 1924.

Collins commented to a US journalist: “British troops, who have hesitated with commendable patience for months against savage anti-Catholic mobs in Belfast, have shown an astonishing readiness to become involved with our troops on the six-county boundary-line.

A highly detailed account of the Pettigo and Belleek events including lots of photos can be found here. And a short TV news feature about the centenary is here.

Republican Fractures

In Dublin on 10 June, three members of the Army Executive – Sean O’Hegarty, Tom Hales and Florence O’Donoghue – resigned “on the issue of an attempt to forcibly prevent the holding of a general election”. Their replacements were Tom Derrig, Tom Barry and Pax Whelan. Militancy was becoming stronger within the Four Courts grouping. Yet some, like their Chief of Staff Liam Lynch were working very hard to achieve a peaceful outcome and re-unification of the IRA.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Liam Lynch

Then a breakthrough seemed to take place with the announcement of a basis for Army unity between the two sides. It was agreed that pro-Treaty Eoin O’Duffy would be Chief of Staff, with anti-Treaty men Liam Lynch and Liam Deasy as deputies. But this was rejected at a meeting of the Executive on 14 June.

Liam Deasy

A resolution was passed (1) instructing their officers to cease negotiations with Beggars Bush; (2) stating that all necessary steps would be taken to defend the Republic against British aggression; and (3) no offensive would be mounted against Beggars Bush troops. The Executive also set up a sub-committee to look at the possibility of an immediate attack on the remaining crown forces in Ireland.

The situation would get more serious four days later when the third Army Convention met. During discussions on the agreed sharing of the top army posts, Tom Barry proposed a motion to discuss, instead, the resumption of the war against the crown forces in Ireland (At this point, only a few barracks in Dublin – although garrison numbers amounted to about 6,000 – and in the six counties were occupied by British troops). The motion was put to a vote and narrowly defeated by 118 votes to 103.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Joe McKelvey

The unsuccessful minority of hardliners withdrew from the Convention and returned to the Four Courts where they formed a new IRA GHQ. Liam Lynch was deposed as Chief of Staff, replaced by Belfast officer Joe McKelvey. Lynch and his 1st Southern Division men moved their HQ to the Clarence Hotel, across the Liffey, not far downriver from the Four Courts.

The anti-Treaty IRA were now split, with twelve out of the sixteen members of the Executive in the Four Courts.

Unionist Hero Assassinated

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Illustration in a French magazine
Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Reginald Dunne

22 June saw a major incident affecting Anglo-Irish relations which still echoes through the history of this island. Sir Henry Wilson, Military Advisor to the Belfast administration, was shot dead on his doorstep in London by Reggie Dunne, O. C. London Battalion, IRA and Joseph O’Sullivan, his Battalion Intelligence Officer – both first-generation Irish and ex-British army WW1 veterans.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Joseph O’Sullivan

Because O’Sullivan had lost a leg in the war, escape proved impossible despite Dunne staying with him and making heroic efforts to help him. They were surrounded and attacked by an angry mob. After wounding two policeman and a few civilians in their desperate bid to get away, both men were arrested.

Documents allegedly found on Reggie Dunne (not revealed at the time by the British despite demands by Collins) connected them to the IRA.

The killing of the Great War General, later Field Marshal, M.P. and recently retired Chief of the Imperial War Staff caused outrage in Britain.

There were angry anti-Irish outbursts in the Westminster Parliament and opposition demands for severe government action and resignations.

In a charged atmosphere of recrimination and retribution the British jumped to the conclusion that the Executive IRA were responsible.

Election Results

Meanwhile in Dublin, the outcome of the poll on 16 June was announced on 24 June.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

The election was, of course, not supposed to have been about the Treaty. But naturally pro-Treaty Sinn Féin viewed the result as a mandate for them to form a government, while the Party’s anti-Treaty section viewed it as an approval for the Pact and a Coalition Sinn Féin government.

Further comment, analysis or interpretation of the figures above is beyond the scope of this article and best left to other forums!

London Still Looms Large

On the same date, the British cabinet made a decision to clear the Four Courts on the following day and orders were telegraphed to their commander in Dublin, General Macready who had been reconsidering his earlier agreement to an attack. He and his staff were now seriously worried. A senior staff officer, Colonel Brind, was sent to London with a letter arguing against the attack (mainly because it would give rise to increased public support for the men in the Four Courts and, more importantly, might unite the pro- and anti-Treaty factions). Brind put the case strongly to Lloyd George and, following similar advice from the Imperial General Staff, the British government did a u-turn and cancelled the attack order.

Instead of military action, they warned the Provisional Government in writing to remove the IRA garrison from the Four Courts or the Treaty would be regarded as violated. That, of course, meant re-occupation and a resumption of war in Ireland by the British. This was announced by Churchill in the Westminster Parliament the next day and a subsequent vote on an opposition motion calling the government’s Irish policy a failure was won comfortably by Lloyd George’s administration.

Questions and Conspiracy Theories

What really led to Wilson’s shooting continues to divide opinion. Reggie Dunne wrote a statement he planned to give in the dock – but was prevented – that he blamed the “Orange Terror” in the six counties on Wilson who had recruited the marauding Specials. However, some claim Wilson was killed under a Michael Collins order going back to Treaty-negotiation times which had never been rescinded. Others hold that Collins ordered it (with IRB Council backing but without reference to his government colleagues) just two weeks before the shooting was carried out. Joe Sweeney, pro-Treaty O/C. of 1st Northern Division in Co Donegal later said Collins acknowledged to him, shortly after news came through of Wilson’s killing, that it had been an authorised assassination.

More importantly, Republicans then and now hold that the British reaction to the Wilson killing and the Irish government’s capitulation to their threat of resumed war led directly to the attack on the Four Courts by Provisional Government forces on 28 June. An example is de Valera’s first reaction on hearing of the shelling “England’s threat of war – that and that alone – is responsible for the present situation. In the face of England’s threat, some of our countrymen yielded”.

Uncountable words have been written on the above subjects, some more coherent than others! One excellent account and analysis is contained in a recent book by Ronan McGreevy, Great Hatred – The Assassination of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson M.P. We will not add to the volume of debate here.

Other reasons to clear the Four Courts?

Possibly the strongly perceived need to demonstrate a capacity to govern the twenty-six counties and the kidnapping of a senior GHQ officer by the Executive IRA were also major factors in Provisional Government thinking and motives? The added British pressure then made it a Perfect Storm aimed at the Four Courts…

The IRA had been increasingly bold, continuing to commandeer transport and provisions around the country. On 17 June, Four Courts men under Ernie O’Malley seized arms in a raid on the Civic Guard barracks armoury in Kildare with the co-operation of some police mutineers. In many cities and towns anti-Treaty forces dominated or occupied strategic positions. Around the country there were instances of woundings and killings of ex-RIC and former British servicemen. In the early morning of 22 June, Robert McDowell (25) – reported as being an Ulster Special holidaying in Co. Wicklow – was taken outside and shot dead by three masked men. The victim was actually working in Lurgan as a butler and left a young widow. No doubt there were other innocents among the toll of dead civilians killed in those times.

There were also some ominous signs of sectarian violence in the 26 counties. In Dromineer on Lough Derg in Co. Tipperary there was a horrific gang rape of a Protestant woman by four anti-Treaty men on 16 June. One fled and three were prosecuted but acquitted. In Dundalk, Co Louth shots were fired into six unionist occupied houses causing some families to flee. Other things like widespread armed robberies, various industrial disputes, operation of some worker soviets and land seizures were happening as well. The new proto-state was still in a very precarious and generally lawless situation without a strong police presence nationwide. The IRA Executive were against a new civic police force, seeing the role as theirs.

It was plain to the Provisional Government that tough action was needed – and, perhaps more importantly, needing to be seen to be taken.

Kevin O’Higgins

To the likes of Kevin O’Higgins, very much a law-and-order politician, it was vital and overdue. He and Arthur Griffith had been arguing in favour of a move against the Four Courts since its seizure.

This was in contrast to the reluctance of those such as Michael Collins and Richard Mulcahy who felt an affinity to former IRA comrades and still held hopes for a re-unification. Indeed, most of the opposing Four Courts and GHQ senior officers would have shared their view. Very few wanted to “wade though Irish blood“, the highly contentious phrase Dev had used in an election address back in March.

Arthur Griffith and Eamon de Valera in happier times

Griffith was probably also highly motivated by his strenuous efforts to secure the Treaty and the danger that the setting up of the Free State was all going to unravel because of a minority group of militants. He viewed clearing the Four Courts as the key to ending the continuing unrest. If a group who would not recognise the Government or GHQ could hold a key public building in the capital under the noses of the Government, what message was that sending to the population in general? Or the World at large?

Some historians believe Griffith also felt deeply that an Irish breach of the signed Treaty would be a national dishonour and would prove, to British minds, their stereotype prejudice against the Irish as unfit to govern themselves was correct all along.

Intriguingly, in The Irish Republic, Dorothy MacArdle refers to a Manchester Guardian report of a meeting on 23 June between Griffith and Major-General Emmet Dalton and British Assistant Under-Secretary for Ireland Andy Cope along with two British officers to discuss the continuing occupation of the Four Courts. The paper added “the proceedings were secret“. You, the Reader, can take what you will from that…

Then another two incidents occurred which strengthened the hands of Griffith, O’Higgins and others seeking action.

Two Counter-Arrests

At the time, the Executive IRA was still enforcing the Belfast Boycott which had been cancelled by the Provisional Government. Goods originating in the six counties were being seized and destroyed by IRA units and businesses in the 26 counties trading in them were warned to desist. One firm defying the embargo was the Belfast motor dealers Harry Ferguson Ltd. which had a saleroom and garage at 134 Lower Baggot Street in Dublin.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
GHQ troops at Fergusons

Comdt. General Leo Henderson was the Four Courts’ Director of Boycott. During the morning of Monday 26 June, he led an armed party to the premises, accusing the staff of breaking the Boycott. The IRA held them up and seized fifteen cars for use to transport men to the six counties. Word was sent to GHQ Beggars Bush and troops from Wellington Barracks under Col. Comdt. Frank Thornton were ordered to protect the motor dealers.

Courtesy of NLI-London News Agency

Accompanied by one or two armoured cars, they surrounded the place and demanded the surrender of the occupiers. After a tense stand-off and guns being pointed, Henderson and his men came out; he was arrested and taken to Mountjoy Prison while the rest of his party were dispersed.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
‘Ginger’ O’Connell

In retaliation, after 11 pm that evening, the Four Courts kidnapped ‘Ginger’ O’Connell, Deputy Chief of Staff, Beggars Bush GHQ. Ernie O’Malley was one of those involved (Sean McBride was another) and described how O’Connell, off-duty but in uniform – resisted but was bundled into a car at gunpoint.

O’Malley then ordered his companions to put O’Connell – who was a big powerful man – on the floor of the car and sit on him to stop his struggles to escape. Ginger, a respected and popular officer, was taken to the Four Courts. O’Malley’s action came as a surprise to his senior officers.

O’Connell was to be held as a hostage for the release of Leo Henderson and five IRA men captured at Drogheda, Co Louth. O’Malley phoned O’Duffy at GHQ to advise them of his demands.

This move by the anti-Treaty men angered many officers and men under Beggars Bush command. Some who had wavered in their loyalties had their minds made up.

Government Declaration in Response

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Earlier that afternoon the Provisional Government and National Army leaders had met to discuss the national situation, ongoing activities by the anti-Treaty IRA and the threats from the Four Courts to attack the crown forces still in the country. It was claimed a decision (although not unanimous) to clear the Four Courts and other buildings in Dublin held by the Executive IRA was as good as made at that meeting, but a final decision was deferred to the next day.

Late that night they heard the added bad news that Ginger O’Connell was being held hostage. Early next morning orders were given to Beggars Bush GHQ. The Executive IRA were to be ordered to evacuate their strongholds. A refusal would result in immediate military action. Significant troops were available in Dublin, even if outnumbered by the hostile local IRA Brigade.

At that stage it appeared to the Provisional Government and GHQ that the IRA in the South would not be opposing them in arms; it seemed a good time to strike while the anti-Treaty side was divided; and fighting could be confined to Dublin and be ended rapidly.

Republicans Reunited

The grouping in the Four Courts had two main priorities around that time – to send a force to protect the Catholic population in the six counties and to restore good relations with Liam Lynch, head of the largest IRA Division in the whole island, who was still in Dublin.

On Sunday 25 June, the Executive decided to send a section under Peadar O’Donnell to the north. Preparations for their departure would take a couple of days.

During that period Liam Lynch, repudiated by the Executive as recently as 18 June, was contacted and told he was welcome again at the Four Courts.

The pro-Treaty side had no knowledge of that crucial healing of the well-publicised divide among the anti-Treaty forces when they decided to clear the Four Courts. Their intelligence failed on this point and it would have huge ramifications.

On 27 June Liam Lynch and some of his men visited the Four Courts at about 10 pm. They had discussions with Liam Mellows before leaving for their lodgings in the Clarence Hotel.

An Ominous Silence…

Before the storm of fire to come…

Rumours had been circulating of an impending attack on the Four Courts. Information was still flowing between former comrades despite their current allegiance to different IRA HQs. In fact off-duty officers and soldiers wearing National Army uniform could regularly be seen outside the Four Courts chatting with old pals and debating their respective positions. There was little bitterness between most pre-Truce IRA at that point.

There were also men at Beggars Bush with strong leanings towards Republicanism keeping their ‘opponents’ up to date with developments such as troop movements and orders. Others sympathetic to the Executive men probably also passed on things they heard concerning the plans of the Provisional Government and Beggars Bush.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Liam Mellows

Yet when Mellows saw Lynch’s party to the gates and bid them goodnight, the streets around the Four Courts were quiet. No hostile action was evident to them and all seemed normal at one o’clock in the morning of Wednesday 28 June. They could not have known that National Army forces were already assembling for an assault and in the process of obtaining artillery from the British. Or that a Civil War nobody in the 26 counties wanted would begin just over three hours later.

When the opening shots of the Battle for Dublin were fired, Custom House Men would figure prominently.

To be continued…

Des White


Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

The IRA assassins of Sir Henry Wilson were tried in the Old Bailey, found guilty (after just three hours deliberation) on 18 July and sentenced to death.

Reggie Dunne and Joseph O’Sullivan were hanged on 10 August at Wandsworth Prison.

Their remains were eventually repatriated and re-interred in Deansgrange Cemetery, Co. Dublin in 1967.

They are commemorated with a Celtic cross and on the nearby IV and IRA Roll of Honour memorial stone erected for the Easter Rising Centenary.