Friday 14 December 2018

The Battle of the Four Courts: Reconstruction draws from eye-witness testimonies, photographs and 3-D digital models

History: The Battle of the Four Courts, Michael Fewer, Head of Zeus, hardback, 310 pages, €24.99

A confetti of documents: The Four Courts explosion in June 1922 is remembered as a great act of cultural vandalism
A confetti of documents: The Four Courts explosion in June 1922 is remembered as a great act of cultural vandalism

On the morning of June 26, 1922, an IRA convoy led by Leo Henderson raided a car showroom in Dublin's Lower Baggot Street. As they tried to remove 16 vehicles and machinery worth £9,000, an army unit sent by Michael Collins' Provisional Government arrived in lorries and arrested them. One of the eye-witnesses was English journalist Clare Sheridan, who wrote afterwards that a man in the crowd had said to her: "Something'll sure happen soon; it's working up for a scrap!"

This turned out to be a bit of an understatement. Henderson's men had come straight from the Four Courts, which was being occupied by around 200 IRA troops implacably opposed to the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Just two days later, the Provisional Government began to shell them out, effectively firing the first shots in a civil war that would last 11 months and cost at least 1,500 lives.

Michael Fewer's new account of this seminal battle is really a happy accident. It began when he was researching a biography of his fellow architect TJ Byrne and found a report about buildings in the Four Courts complex following the siege. According to most historians, it was an explosion in the basement of the Public Record Office's Treasury that destroyed many priceless historic documents held there - but Byrne recorded that this area had in fact escaped the fire largely unharmed.

Fewer's discovery convinced him that the whole subject needed to be investigated from scratch. His reconstruction draws not only on the standard eye-witness testimonies, but also photographs and 3-D digital models that provide a much better sense of what actually happened. The result is a compelling blend of political and military history that places readers right at the heart of the action.

Wisely, Fewer devotes almost half of his 310-page narrative to setting the scene. He depicts Dublin in early 1922 as a powder keg waiting to explode, with British army, National Army and IRA diehards all roaming the streets. The 30-year-old Justice Minister Kevin O'Higgins summed it up well by describing his government colleagues as: "Simply eight young men in the City Hall standing amidst the ruins of one administration, with the foundations of another not yet laid, and with wild men screaming through the keyhole."

One of those wild men was the IRA commander Rory O'Connor. As a sign of just how well the two sides knew each other, he had been best man at O'Higgins' wedding only a few months previously. When asked at a press conference if his only alternative to the Treaty was a military dictatorship, he gave the ominous reply: "You can take it that way if you like."

O'Connor's occupation of the Four Courts on April 15 had some eerie parallels with the Easter Rising. Just as in 1916, these hardline republicans took over a building in central Dublin and turned themselves into sitting ducks. However, there was method to their madness - they wanted to provoke a British attack that would re-unite nationalist Ireland against its common enemy and start the War of Independence all over again.

It might have worked. Prime Minister David Lloyd George was all for bombing the Four Courts without delay, but his Commander-in-Chief Nevil Macready persuaded him not to take the bait. Michael Collins also held fire, hoping that his former comrades would eventually see sense and leave the area peacefully.

O'Connor, however, was not for turning. Clare Sheridan visited the Four Courts to interview him and asked: "Surely you will not stay here? They will blow the walls and roof down on your head. You haven't an earthly chance." O'Connor replied: "Then I'll go down in the ruins, or in the flames."

With so much violence in the air, something had to give. A key turning point came on June 22 with the IRA's assassination of arch-unionist Field Marshal Henry Wilson outside his house in London. After that, Lloyd George ordered Collins to take action and the assault began six days later with Irish troops using borrowed British artillery.

Fewer's blow-by-blow description of the conflict is highly technical in places, even at one point explaining how a Lee-Enfield rifle was fired. Thankfully, he also includes plenty of colourful details that bring the combatants to life.

One injured rebel read a cowboy book called Curly: A Tale of the Arizona Desert as he waited for his foot to be amputated. The future Taoiseach Seán Lemass fell into a sewer while trying to devise an escape route. A pro-Treaty sniper entered a tenement flat, where the resident old woman offered him tea and eggs on toast - but when he started firing, she smashed the teapot over his head.

As for the crucial explosion, Fewer's forensic analysis suggests that it probably took place in the Land Judges' Court roughly 20 metres away from the Public Record Office. This may strike some readers as a moot point, since the end result was the same. In the author's own words: "A great shower of papers, legal documents and records of all kind was thrown hundreds of feet into the air… and began in time to fall to earth, like giant confetti, over a large area of the north inner city." Irish historians have been lamenting this catastrophic act of cultural vandalism ever since.

The only real downside of Fewer's book is that it leaves you wanting more. There is very little here about the fighting on O'Connell Street that immediately followed O'Connor's surrender or the executions without trial of him and three other Four Courts leaders a few months later. As the centenary of Ireland's Civil War approaches, however, this is a superb starting point for anyone who wants to commemorate it in the best way possible - by learning the truth.

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