Michael Duggan on Shakespeare and gunfights on the streets of Dublin
The Battle of the Four Courts
By Michael Fewer,
Head of Zeus, 320pp, £20/$30
Michael Fewer’s The Battle of the Four Courts is an account of the first three days of the Irish Civil War in June 1922. For over two months the judicial buildings in the centre of Dublin had been occupied by around 180 soldiers of the Irish Republican Army opposed to the Treaty partitioning the island. They now came under assault from the new National Army of the Irish Free State, using artillery loaned by the British.
These were febrile times. Kevin O’Higgins, who, at the age of 30, became the first minister for justice of the Free State, would later describe the Provisional Government in its early days 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”.
Fewer is not a historian seeking to bend the arc of history in a new direction. He is more of a fact-checker, someone wanting to put the record straight. In my eyes, this makes him more interesting than a flashy revisionist. His introduction calmly records some of the errors made about the siege of the Four Courts by previous Irish historians, perhaps with their eyes more on erecting grand narratives than investigating concrete realities. The rest of his book meticulously explains exactly what went on in those momentous days as old comrades turned on one another.
Meticulously, that is, but not pedantically. Fewer tells the story with clarity and verve, depth and breadth, from build-up to dénouement to aftermath. He takes us to the heart of the combat, following groups of fighters racing across courtyards, firing down corridors, clearing stairwells. He examines building plans and the science of explosives to work out what happened when and where. The early chapters, meanwhile, might double as a way in for newcomers to this period of Irish history.
As often with war, mingled with the tragedy there are surreal moments and even some doses of humour in the way in which the combatants tried not to hurt one another in the early volleys. We encounter the men who were there at each successive roll of the dice in the agonising progress towards Irish freedom and statehood: Michael Collins and Éamon de Valera, of course, but others too, such as Emmet Dalton. Dalton fought in the British Army throughout the First World War, was awarded the Military Cross by King George V for bravery at the Somme, and rose to the rank of Major. He then returned to Ireland and fought against the British during the War of Independence. Aged 24, as an officer in the National Army, he was put in command of the artillery assault on the Four Courts. Michael Collins would die in his lap at the Béal na Bláth ambush two months later. Later in life, Dalton became a film producer and helped to make The Blue Max and A Lion
And then, on the other side, there is Ernie O’Malley, a treasured volume of Montaigne in his pocket, reading aloud Shakespeare’s Sonnet XXV (“Let those who are in favour with their stars …”) amid the rubble of surrender.
The Battle of the Four Courts resurfaces elements of the story that are easy to forget when focused on the central, fratricidal quarrel: the dire position of Catholics in post-Treaty Northern Ireland, for instance, which led to trains from Belfast bringing refugees, “women and children mostly, carrying their personal effects in pathetic paper parcels”; or the narrowly averted British Army assault on the Four Courts, which Winston Churchill, then secretary of state for the colonies, had been urging; or the Capuchin priests who came and went during the siege, meeting the spiritual needs of the “Irregulars”.
Crucially, the Four Courts complex contained the Public Records Office, an immense store of priceless archives, covering vast stretches of Irish history. The oldest document was said to be a papal grant of AD 916, creating the Chapter of Christ Church in Dublin. Rory O’Connor, in charge of the Four Courts garrison, was quoted as saying that he understood that archives were irreplaceable and that they would be safeguarded. This, unfortunately, is not how things turned out.
Just as in the aftermath of the Easter Rising in 1916, the siege of the Four Courts was followed by executions. O’Higgins signed the death warrant of O’Connor, who had been best man at his wedding 14 months before. The short ensuing Civil War was at times a traumatic descent into savagery. However, while democracy sunk to its knees across Europe in the 1920s and 30s, it survived in Ireland. No small achievement.
The whole story, nearly a century old now, loses none of its mesmerising power in Michael Fewer’s hands. We put his book down all the wiser, all the sadder.