The Battle of the Four Courts
by Michael Fewer (Head of Zeus, £20/€28)
Easter Week in the GPO has been the subject of many books, providing a day by day, almost an hour by hour, account of what happened, if not why. The siege of the Four Courts in 1922 has not been so lucky. Yet studies of single events often illuminate the larger scene and the motivations of those involved in very revealing ways.
This account of the battle for the Four Courts is one of these. Michael Fewer is an architect by profession and he brings to account a trained eye on how buildings are made and how people move about in them.
This, in fact, is one of the best books of the huge crop of tomes about the revolutionary decade because in contrast to a wide range of time, it focuses on a much smaller period. If you read nothing else about the period, read Michael Fewer.
The seizure of the Four Courts by the Irregulars was intended very deliberately as a re-enactment of Easter week – posters to this effect appeared around the city centre at the time [picture]. But the strategic and military foolishness that led to the failure of 1916 was also repeated.
This is strange. After the disaster of 1867, “after the rebels were scattered and bate”, it was clear to the Republican movement that attempts to seize buildings and engage in fixed battles were a disaster. Only the “flying columns” that took to the hills had had any success, though not for long.
The lessons of history were there, but were not learned. The Irregulars seized the Liffey-side buildings, of which the Four Courts was the main one.
They allowed themselves to be besieged, with no real hope of breaking out or engaging their enemy in any real way.
When the Four Courts was taken a very ill-disciplined group moved in. There was no real firm chain of command, or obedience. This was not an army, but a bravura adventure of individuals.
Michael Fewer gives in this excellent book a carefully researched account of the day by day proceedings. He displays great expertise as regards to such things as the guns used by the Free State Army and their effectiveness.
At first there was perhaps a desire to not hit too hard, as those on the other side were old friends.
However within the Four Courts elements were smuggling in petrol and explosives and laying them about the network of buildings with intent to kill and destroy in the last event. That came, of course, and the explosion under the national Record Office (the State Papers were over in Dublin Castle), scattered the record of 1,000 years of Irish history in fragments of torn paper and vellum all over the city centre.
Talking about this to the ageing Peadar O’Donnell in the 1970s, who had been one of the extremists in the garrison, I felt there was a sense, not of shame, but certainly an unwillingness to face a harsh truth about an event he was a leading figure in.
From this disaster some escaped. One of these was Liam Lynch himself.
He was detained and questioned by Eoin O’Duffy. In a moment of aberration O’Duffy released him.
This was a gesture of good will perhaps. But it alloweed Lynch to escape to the South West and to fight another day. If only O’Duffy had kept him prisoner, the Civil War, and all the horrors it entailed, might not have been dragged out over not so much the next few months, but next few years.
The last act of the Irish revolution was the murder of Kevin O’Higgins in 1927 – that finally brought some of the Republicans into the Dáil. Those left in the wilderness have to all intents and purposes have remained there.
The Irish people in whose name all these people were acting decided for themselves they were sick of the fighting and dying, and settled for the boring grind, the necessary compromises of politics. Elections may not be quite as exciting as tearing a city apart, but it is what works in the end.
The story of The Battle of the Four Courts is an object lesson in Irish history.