Thunderous roar of artillery marked the beginning of Irish Civil War

National Army’s use of field guns in battle of Four Courts saved many lives

At 4am on Wednesday, June 28th, 1922, the thunderous roar of 18-pounder field guns, weapons more suited to the open, trenched battlefields of the first World War, marked the beginning of the Irish Civil War. Each shot was followed immediately by the thud of shells exploding against the thick, granite-faced walls of Dublin’s Four Courts, and the sound of glass shattering as windows within a 27m radius of the guns fell into the street. The cataclysmic noise woke and terrified the residents of surrounding tenements who had not already been awakened by the bustle in the streets of National Army soldiers engaged in creating a cordon around the Four Courts.

A little more than two months before, in the latest of a series of outrageous provocations, the anti-Treaty IRA had taken over the Four Courts complex and fortifying the buildings, established there the national headquarters of Óglaigh na hÉireann. The kidnapping of Gen Ginger O’Connell, the National Army’s second in command, by anti-Treaty men on June 26th and his incarceration in the Four Courts was the last straw for the Provisional Government, and it ordered the new National Army to remove the trespassers, by force if necessary.

At dawn on June 28th, with 500 troops surrounding the Four Courts, an ultimatum to leave was ignored by the anti-Treaty leaders, and Ireland’s Civil War began with the firing of the field guns, last used in Dublin, and indeed on the Four Courts, by the British during the rebellion of 1916.

The use of artillery to oust the anti-Treaty IRA from the courts was Gen Emmet Dalton's idea. Apart from his IRA service during the War of Independence, he had served in the British army in the first World War and, as a veteran of the Somme, he was no stranger to artillery bombardment. He believed that a sustained barrage from 18-pounders would soon frighten the garrison of the Four Courts into surrendering. Dalton probably selected the QF (quick-firing) 18-pounder field gun for its mobility and ease of use: clearly a versatile and successful weapon, it was introduced in 1904 and was still in service in the second World War. Although primarily designed to kill advancing infantry by exploding shrapnel shells over their heads, using high explosive ordnance it was very effective against buildings.


Obtain guns

Dalton had arranged to obtain the guns in a meeting with Alfred Cope, Britain's assistant under-secretary for Ireland, on June 23rd, a day before a British government ultimatum insisting that the Provisional Government bring the Four Courts occupation "to an end forthwith". The British army commander in Ireland, Gen Macready, initially refused to provide the artillery, and had to receive an official order from his government to comply.

Initially there were two field guns involved in the attack, located across the Liffey from the Four Courts, one at Winetavern Street and the other at Bridge Street. The gun at Winetavern Street fired first, and the gunners narrowly escaped injury as it recoiled violently: in the frenetic preparations they had forgotten to dig the tail of the gun into the roadway to bed it and absorb the recoil. One report says the first shell went careering wildly over the Four Courts to land in the grounds of the Capuchin Friary in Church Street. After this shaky start, however, the gun was properly bedded into the cobbled street and the crew settled down to firing one shell every 15 to 20 minutes, keeping under cover from intense sniper fire from the courts.

Although the National Army men selected as gunners had never fired 18-pounders before, and had only received minimal instruction before opening fire on the Four Courts, evidence shows that, after a little practice, they performed very well. They hadn't the time or the knowledge to calibrate the sights, the most complex aspect of these guns, so they probably opened the breech and sighted their target through the barrel. The courts were so large and so near with the closest building only 120m away, it was an effective method of aiming the guns. They were clearly concerned about shooting too high: with a more than 5,000m range, a shell fired over the Four Courts could travel as far as Fairview. Other than the shell that landed near Church Street, they erred only by aiming too low, twice hitting the parapet of the Liffey wall, only metres away.

At one stage during the battle, one of the guns, based in Greek Street to the north of the courts, was briefly taken over by a Clareman named Ignatius O'Neill, who attempted to elevate the gun high enough to tackle a sniper on the roof of the Four Courts. At least a couple of the shells he fired sailed over the building and onwards to land 1.8km away in the grounds of the British army headquarters at the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham. Dalton was summoned by telephone by an angry Gen Macready and as he arrived, another shell exploded in the saddling paddock. Gen Macready, furious, wanted to know why he was now under fire from his own guns. Fortunately, there were no casualties, and O'Neill was quickly relieved of his gunnery duties.

Although there were injuries, there were no fatalities among the Four Courts garrison from shellfire. As a testament to the care taken by the untrained gunners, neither were there any civilian casualties. The 18-pounders, however, subsequently played a part in the siege that probably saved many lives. The National Army were concerned to finish the matter as quickly as possible, before the rest of the anti-Treaty IRA, holding the east side of O’Connell Street, came to the assistance of the men in the courts, but small arms fire alone would never dislodge an organised garrison in such a sturdy set of buildings. After 24 hours of peppering the south facades of the courts with shellfire there was no sign that the occupants were particularly bothered by the barrage, so the only alternative was a direct attack by infantry.

Taken prisoner

Such an assault on the Four Courts, over the high cast-iron railings that ringed the perimeter and into the buildings through doors or windows against a determined defence, would have been very costly in casualties. On the second day, therefore, the gun crews were ordered to blow two breaches in the walls and railings on the west side of the complex through which troops could enter the buildings, one on the Church Street side of the Public Records Office, and the other at Morgan Place.

As many as 45 shells were used to punch a large hole in the Records Office: when the National Army troops burst in, two of the garrison were killed, but the rest, taking cover from the bombardment in a room in the east side of the building, were taken prisoner.

It didn’t take that many shells, apparently, to blow open the Morgan Place breach, creating a scree of rubble for the National Army troops to clamber up and into the building. The entry point, however, was overlooked by a defensive machine gun post, and the garrison inside were quick to engage the attackers after the bombardment. In the frenzy of close-quarters fighting, three of the National Army troops were killed. By evening, however, the west wing of the Four Courts and the Public Records Office had been captured.

The siege ended less than 24 hours after these infantry assaults, when, after fires and a great explosion, the garrison of the Four Courts surrendered, and were marched away into captivity.

Since June 1922 there have been claims that the National Army gunners were incompetent and that it was British army gunners that were involved in firing the 18-pounders. My research came up with no evidence whatever that the British army were involved in other than handing over the guns in the first place and delivering ammunition on one occasion. It has been suggested that it was National Army shelling that set off the fires in the Four Courts complex and the “great explosion”, but ballistic evidence indicates that shells from the 18-pounder positions could not have caused either the initial fire or the explosion. The novice Irish gunners followed their orders to the letter: for such an intense battle, there were comparatively few casualties and it seems clear that the use of artillery saved many lives.

Michael Fewer is an architect and the author of many books including The Battle of the Four Courts