Friday, 23 May 2014

Reason or Faith

The Military History of the Irish Civil War. The Fall of Dublin. 28th of June to the 5th of July 1922. Liz Gillis. Mercier Press, Cork. pp 157.

This review was written on April 5th 2014

The Civil War started on 28th of June 1922 with the attack on the anti-Treaty IRA in the Four Courts by the National Army. This book describes this initial event of the War in Dublin and with the early defeat of the anti-Treaty forces there. The uneasy peace between the anti-Treaty military leaders and the representatives of the Provisional Government had dragged continuously on from January to the end of June in efforts to avoid a conflict on the issue of the Treaty but the final breakdown was inevitable because of the failure by Rory O’Connor and Liam Mellows and their immediate supporters to reach a compromise with the Government and the leaders of the National Army.

Liam Mellows
Rory O’Connor and Liam Mellows were the most intractable opponents of the Treaty settlement within the IRA. They had been two of the four members of GHQ during the War of Independence who opposed the Treaty. The other nine members of GHQ supported the Treaty. I believe that, if O’Connor and Mellows had joined their colleagues who were anxious to reach a settlement with Mulcahy and Collins and the other military and political leaders supporting the Treaty, the Civil War havoc might have been avoided or might have been confined to modest limits in Cork and the more intractable members of the active IRA members there.

Rory O'Connor
Apart form their unwillingness to compromise, O’Connor and Mellows and the anti-Treaty colleagues close to them had occupied the Four Courts from April, more than two months before the War. Later several other important commercial buildings and hotels in central Dublin were occupied by their comrades.  Well before June 1922 some of the leaders of the Government pressed for an attack on the anti-treaty forces but there was reluctance on the part of the National Army leaders to face the more numerous and well armed anti-treaty forces until they were confident that they could match their strength.

The Four Courts were occupied by more than one hundred supporters of O’Connor and Mellows since April and its leadership was of course a significant threat to the welfare and the prestige of the Provisional Government. The attack by the National Army was finally precipitated by a number of circumstances: the political pressure of Griffith and the British Government, the assassination of General Wilson in London and particularly by the kidnapping of Ginger O’Connell, a prominent and popular officer within the National Army. The general disorder created by the IRA members in Dublin included the theft of equipment and motors and the occupation of some important commercial buildings and hotels in O’Connell Street, Parnell Squire and their environment as well as the Four Courts.

By the end of June the National Army had established its headquarters in Beggars Bush barracks and by this time had gathered a disciplined cohort of officers and men to proceed against the irregulars. Some of its members had been ex-army soldiers in the Great War and it was, of course, obvious that they were assisted by equipment supplied by a helpful if somewhat reluctant departing British Army. The irregulars were handicapped by their immobility, being confined to their buildings, and by poor communication between their different centres within the city. There was a clear lack of a central command.  They must have also been psychologically handicapped by the lack of public support.

The Four Courts was attacked by shells delivered from a battery provided by the British and was manned by an ex-British army member of the National Army.  It took 3 days for the occupants to surrender. In the meantime the building was reduced to a shell by an assertive and determined army. The occupants of the Four Courts surrendered or escaped, and the destruction of the building included the loss of a huge collection of historical records stored there which went up in flames.

Explosion at the Four Courts
Among those who left the Four Courts before it was attacked was Liam Lynch. He was greatly admired by my father as a leader of the IRA in Cork during the War of Independence. He was opposed to the Treaty, was outspoken in his views but during the immediate post-Treaty period he appeared to be a moderate during the attempts at a settlement between the two sides of the IRA until the start of the Civil War. My father released him from detention before the Four Courts event, thinking that he might have a moderating influence on the more intractable irregulars but on this issue my father was sadly mistaken. Lynch escaped the Dublin events and returned to the South where he was appointed chief of staff of the irregulars. He was to prove totally opposed to surrender long after the anti-Treaty cause was obviously lost.  His recalcitrance was to prolong the war unnecessarily and he was to die a lonely figure in the Knockmealdowms in the hands of the National Army, still convinced that the Treaty would be rejected by the Irish       people through the influence of his military intervention.

The next few days after the fall of the Four Courts saw a vigorous attack on all the other occupied buildings in the O’Connell Street area which were finally cleared of all irregulars. The action in Dublin was over after eight days fighting.

Three of the Four Courts garrison were killed while ‘’at least’’ seven Free State soldiers died, mainly by mines left in the Four Courts after the surrender. Eight irregulars were injured while 70 Free State soldiers were injured. Surprisingly, there were about 60 deaths among the citizens and many injured.

Cathal Bruagh lying in state
Among those killed among the irregulars in O’Connell Street was Cathal Brugha, Minister for Defence in the pre-Treaty cabinet, a heroic survivor of the 1916 rebellion but a dedicated opponent of the Treaty settlement. He joined the irregulars on O’Connell Street when the Four Courts was attacked.  For the second time in six years the centre of Dublin was in shambles. It is fortunate that, despite the destruction of the GPO, The Custom House and the Four Courts during the six years of the revolution these buildings were subsequently restored as were many other commercial buildings in the capital.

Press release from Rory O'Connor at the Four Courts
Before the outbreak of the Civil War the numerous British barracks outside Dublin were occupied partly by the anti-Treaty IRA, particularly in the South, and otherwise by National Army personnel. However, by September all irregulars had been dislodged and the viable barracks and all small and large towns and cities were in the hands of the Provisional government. For the following eight months the Civil War had degenerated into a scattered country-wide campaign dominated by widespread destruction of private and public property, destruction of the railways, arson, bank robberies, criminality and a total lack of central republican control. And some of the counties which my father as chief of staff had found wanting during the War of Independence, to wit Wexford and Kerry, were far from inactive during the Civil War.

The lack of a police force was a major factor as regards local disturbances. Public control was entirely in the hands of the National Army. My review The Army and the Railway, published formerly in my blog will remind the reader of some of the major problems facing the army at this time.

Final letter from Liam Mellows to his mother.
Clearly the Civil War should have finished by September or October with the control of all towns and cities in the hands of the Government. The following seven or eight months of civil disturbance was to lead to an increase in mutual bitterness and  disillusionment among the population and to a serious and lasting blow to the economic and commercial standards of the 26 counties.

Liam Mellows
The actions of the irregulars literally petered out in April or May 1923 with little formal ending and the dumping of arms ‘’perhaps for a renewal of arms at a later day!’’. The failure to finish the war earlier can be attributed to Lynch’s implacable resistance to surrender but can be at least partly attributed to poor political leadership on both sides. De Valera in particular and some of his closest colleagues such as Seán T O’Kelly, Jim Ryan  and Frank Aiken, should have intervened when all was obviously lost while the Provisional Government leaders were at fault by making a strict rule to make no contact with the political leaders on the other side. My father, as head of the Army, and with the approval of Eóin McNeill, met De Valera in September, despite the cabinet’s decision not to contact the opposing leaders, but the meeting was futile because Dev refused to intervene. He said according to my father

Some men are led by faith and some men are led by reason. Personally, I would tend to be led by reason, but as long as there are men of faith like Rory O’Connor taking the stand that he is taking, I am a humble soldier taking after them.

When he reported his meeting with Dev to the cabinet he was criticised, at least by O’Higgins and probably Cosgrave.

The Mercier Press has published several other local accounts of the Civil War which can be recommended to students of the Civil War, this ‘’compound disaster’’ as it was described by my father.

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