CIVIL WAR 100 YEARS: 'A terrible pass that two sections of fellow-countrymen have had to turn their guns upon one another'

At dawn on Tuesday, June 28, 1922, Provisional Government forces began the bombardment of the anti-Treaty garrison in the Four Courts commencing hostilities in what would become known as the Irish Civil War.

Events in Dublin were watched fearfully in the north west and reported closely by this newspaper.

On June 30, 1922 - two days after open warfare erupted between rival IRA factions in the capital - an editorial in the Friday edition of the ‘Journal’ lamented the ‘tragic situation in Dublin’.

“The first thought that must arise in the minds of all patriot Irishmen whose newspapers reveal to them tidings of the deadly conflict in Dublin will, we believe, be one of profound melancholy.

Dublin in flames following the shelling of the anti-Treaty garrison in the Four Courts by Free State forces.

“It is saddening in supreme degree to find that things have come to such terrible pass that two sections of fellow-countrymen have had to turn their guns upon one another with resultant loss of life and personal injury that are deplorable.

“However, the published statement for the Provisional Government declares the armed encounter had become inevitable.

“Indeed a crop of critics hailing from within Irish shores and others external to these shores have been protesting for weeks that the authorities in Dublin remained too long inactive.”

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Bonfires in nationalist Derry on July 11 as truce is declared ending the War of ...
A report on the outbreak of the Civil War in the Derry Journal edition of Friday, June 30, 1922.

The paper was referring to the occupation of the Four Courts by the anti-Treaty IRA under Rory O’Connor from April 1922.

The Provisional Government had until late June declined to take action against the republican garrison as Michael Collins believed that to have done so would have sparked a full-blown shooting war between former comrades - a forecast that would be proved correct in time.

It was the assassination of Henry Wilson, the Longford-born former Chief of Staff of the British Army by IRA Volunteers Reginald Dunne and Joseph O’Sullivan in Belgravia on June 22, 1922 that set in chain an escalation that precipitated the war.

Ironically there is some evidence the murder of Wilson was carried out on the orders of Collins himself due to the former’s role as a security adviser to James Craig’s northern government in Belfast which had been revelling in atrocities against the nationalist minority for months.

Yet the assumption at the time was that anti-Treaty forces were behind the slaying and the Provisional Government came under increasing pressure from the British to act.

Years later, in 1949, Joe Sweeney, the Burtonport-born pro-Treaty commander in Donegal, told Ernie O’Malley, the legendary republican commander who was in the Four Courts in 1922, that Collins had admitted ordering Wilson’s death.

“I met Collins in Dublin the day after Wilson was shot. ‘It was two men of ours did it’, he said.

“He looked very pleased. The last time I had seen him so pleased was when the District Inspector who had kicked Tom Clarke [1916 leader and signatory to the Proclamation] when a prisoner in 1916, and had ill-treated others, had been shot on his orders in Wexford.

“Wilson was planning locally as well as internally. ‘How do we stand about this shooting of Wilson?’ I asked Collins, and that was his reply. Collins promptly issued a denial of his men having taken any part in the shooting.”

Up until the tragic events of June 1922 in Dublin the situation in Derry and Donegal and across the northern half of the country had been tense as communities tried to come to term with the outworking of the divisive Anglo-Irish Treaty and Partition.

In the early months of 1922 the ‘Journal’ - like many papers in Ireland and Britain - was carrying regular reportage of unionist pogroms in Belfast.

A statement from the Belfast Catholic Protection Committee printed in the ‘Journal’, for example, related that from January 1 to June 21, 1922, 67 men, 13 women and seven children (87) people - all Catholics - had been ‘assassinated’ in Belfast; 166 Catholics had been murdered; and between Easter and June, 840 families had been driven from their homes.

The worst of many appalling atrocities perhaps occurred when a bomb was thrown among a group of children playing in the Weaver Street area, a nationalist enclave off the Shore Road, on February 13, 1922.

By any measure, serious conflict was already underway in the northern counties.

This included attacks by the IRA on the Ulster Special Constabulary (USC) and attacks by the ‘Specials’ on civilians. These were being regularly reported in the weeks leading up to June 1922.

On May 3, two ‘Specials’ from Derry city, a Special Constable Hunter (a son of the caretaker of the Guildhall), and a Special Constable Heggarty, of Ferguson’s Lane, were killed when the IRA ambushed a patrol in Ballyronan on the ‘loughshore’ in south Derry

The ‘Journal’ reported how John Carolan and Denis Kilmartin , an uncle and nephew, were killed by ‘Specials’ near Dungiven on May 7. James McKeown, Thomas McKeown and Francis McKeown, were shot by ‘Specials’ in Magherafelt at home in front of their mother on May 11, 1922. James and Thomas died immediately. Francis survived despite being shot 16 times.

Inter-republican violence was already occurring in Derry and Donegal long before June 28, though it appeared incidental in nature rather than programmatic.

On May 4, members of the anti-Treaty IRA raided a bank in Buncrana. The ‘Journal’ reported on how a ‘terrible conflict [had taken] place ...between a small party of official IRA and a party of Irregulars, and in the course of the firing at least eight persons were wounded, some seriously’.

“The casualties chiefly took place among civilians, who were in the street when the fierce encounter occurred.” The paper noted that one of those killed in the crossfire was little Elsie Fletcher (9) who died in the Derry Infirmary from gunshot injuries.

Shortly after the bank raid a convoy of pro-Treaty forces were despatched from Drumboe Castle to Buncrana.

They were ambushed by the anti-Treaty IRA at Newtowncunningham and Free State officers John McGinley, Eddie Gallagher, Daniel McGill and Edward Murray were all killed.

At this time members of the IRA loyal to the garrison under O’Connor in the Four Courts were encamped at Skeoge from where they launched regular raids and searches on transports from Derry into Donegal and vice-versa.

Two anti-Treaty Volunteers tragically lost their lives in the area.

On May 31, Margaret (Maggie) McAnaney (18), a member of Cumann na mBan from Bluebellhill Terrace in the city, died at Burnfoot following the accidental discharge of a weapon at an IRA checkpoint. She was on her way to Inch for a picnic with friends.

Hugh Morrison, of Creggan Road, an anti-Treaty IRA Volunteer, was seriously wounded at Skeoge on Thursday, June 15, when a bomb he was handling exploded.

A week after Morrison’s death Wilson’s assassination in London led to a deterioration in both Anglo-Irish relations and relations between both IRA factions at a national level.

On Monday, June 26, two days before the bombardment of the Four Courts the ‘Journal’ carried a statement from O’Connor denying responsibility for the London attack.

“The shooting of Sir Henry Wilson was not done at the instance of the IRA. If it were the IRA would acknowledge the fact. The death of Sir Henry Wilson is to be deplored not because it occurred apparently at the hands of Irishmen, but because he is the victim of the Imperial policy pursued by the British Government in Ireland,” the statement read.

Whoever was responsible the incident ratcheted up tensions with the British putting pressure on the Provisional Government to act. On Wednesday, June 28, the ‘Journal’ reported on how the ‘Irish Situation’ had been ‘Placed under a cloud’ by ‘Mr. Churchill’s speech which ignores Belfast Pogromism and threatens to tear up the Treaty’.

The British Liberal Party Secretary of State for the Colonies Winston Churchill, had told the Westminster parliament that ‘if the Provisional Government did not deal with Rory O’Connor in the Four Courts, from which murderous outrages were planned, the British Government would consider the Treaty had been violated’.

The ‘Journal’ carried a summary of Churchill’s speech from the London ‘Times’ in which he ‘denounced the ambiguous position of the so-called IRA, intermingled as it is with the Free State troops’ as an ‘affront to the Treaty.’

The Liberal Party minister warned that if action was not taken the British would regard the Treaty as having been ‘formally violated and, ominously, that they would ‘take no steps to carry out its further stages and that they would resume full liberty of action’.

Regardless of British sentiment Collins was not openly going to take action against his former brothers-in-arms over the assassination of a hard-line imperialist like Wilson who he deemed partly responsible for the actions of the ‘Specials’ in the north. Yet, a pretext was soon provided.

An incident directly cited by the Provisional Government as a casus belli was reported in the same edition of the ‘Journal’.

Lieutenant-General J.J. ‘Ginger’ O’Connell, a Free State Assistant Chief of Staff, was ‘kidnapped on Monday night while proceeding in uniform and unarmed from a friend’s house in Leeson Street to Beggar’s Bush Barracks. It is understood General O’Connell was removed to the Four Courts, where he is at present detained.’

Though not reported at the time one of the senior IRA commanders in the Four Courts, the aforementioned O’Malley, had seized O’Connell in retaliation for the arrest of Leo Henderson, who had led an IRA raid on a car showroom in Baggott Street on Monday, June 26.

On the night before the shelling of the Four Courts the official government directly cited this incident in justifying ‘definite official measures to ensure public safety’.

A statement from the Provisional Government was carried in the ‘Journal’ on the morning the war began.

“It is the duty of the Government to which the people have entrusted their defence and conduct of their affairs to protect and secure all law-respecting citizens without distinction, and that duty the Government will resolutely perform.

“Yesterday, one of the principal garages was raised and plundered under pretext of a Belfast boycott. No such boycott has any legal existence and if it had it could not authorise or condone the action of persons responsible in seizing private property.

“Later in the same evening Lieutenant-General O’Connell, Assistant Chief-of Staff, was seized by some of the persons responsible for the plundering of the garage and is still held in their hands.

“Outrages such as these against the nation and Government must cease at once and cease for ever.”

The die was cast and in the early hours of the next morning the IRA in the Four Courts received an ultimatum from Thomas Ennis, commander of the ‘Free State’ forces. Upon their refusal to surrender the shelling commenced.

All of this was reported in the next edition of the ‘Journal’ on Friday, June 30, under the headlines ‘Deadly Conflict in Dublin-Law Courts Besieged by Dáil Troops-Over 40 Hours’ Constant Fighting-Spread of Street Battles-Heavy Casualties’.

“Following upon refusal to comply with an ultimatum for release of Lieutenant-General O’Connell, directed to the Armed Forces in occupation of the Law Courts in Dublin since April 14, fire was opened on these buildings at ten minutes past four on Wednesday morning. The fire was returned from Courts.”

Thus Ireland’s ‘war of brothers’ began.

The ‘Journal’ reported: “Subsequently the action rapidly developed and all the morning and evening the rattle of musketry and machine guns, intermingled with the deeper thunder of artillery as shells were fired, reverberated through the streets of the Irish Capital.”

Telegraph, telephone and rail communications had been knocked out, leading to some difficulty in securing timely information. Dozens of casualties were nonetheless reported. The newspaper carried a ‘semi-official statement’ from the Provisional Government dated Wednesday, June 28:

“At three o’clock this morning an ultimatum was presented to the people in the Four Courts ordering them to immediately release Lieut-General O’Connell, who had been kidnapped on Monday, and whom they had no legal authority to arrest. They were given an hour in which to release him, and were told that if they failed to do so they would, at the end of the hour, be at once attacked.

“At the expiration of the hour, the order not having been complied with, fire was - at 4.10 precisely - opened upon them. A military cordon was drawn around the Four Courts cutting off all access to those buildings.”

A communiqué from O’Connor gave a slightly different version of events with respect to the exact timing.

“We received...a note, signed by Tom Ennis, demanding on behalf of ‘the Government’ our surrender at 4am, when he would attack.

“He opened the attack at 4.7am [sic] in the name of the Government, with machine and field pieces. The boys are glorious and will fight for the Republic to the end.

“How long will our misguided former comrades outside attack those who stand for Ireland alone? Three casualties so far - all slight.”

In Derry and Donegal the immediate result was the evacuation of encampments at Skeoge and Raphoe by the anti-Treaty IRA to new bases at Inch Fort and Glenveagh.

In an editorial on July 5, the ‘Journal’ reflected on ‘the sanguinary struggle’ in the capital where it was estimated sixty had been killed with a further 325 wounded.

“The prospect of further loss of life through these armed operations in Ireland is unquestionably a most repellent one to the people, though it has to be said for the Irish Government that efforts at compromise and persuasion in Dublin were tried to the point of exhaustion - all with the view to setting the distracted country once more on its feet and affording it scope to traverse the paths of settled industry and peace.”