Illuminations: The Four Courts

Illuminations:  The Four Courts
By:  J. Michael Finn

Since the first legal case was heard in November 1796, the Four Courts, located on the north bank of the River Liffey in Dublin, has been the center of the Irish legal system. It was built on the site of a 13th Century Dominican friary garden. The building was the joint effort of architects Thomas Cooley (who died before it was completed) and James Gandon. It was designed to bring together the various offices of the courts and the legal records into one Dublin building. 

Prior to the 17th century the courts sat in various locations around Dublin. The origin of the term Four Courts is medieval and linked to the four principal British courts of Exchequer, Common Pleas, King’s Bench and Chancery. In Irish the building is known as Na Ceithre Cúirteanna(pron: naa k-her-ǝ kurt-enna).

The dome of the Four Courts is one of the most recognizable features of the Dublin skyline. The complex is made up of four distinct buildings, the Four Courts, the Public Records Office, the North Block and the Land Registry Office.

While the Four Courts is well known as a Dublin landmark, it is also well known for the part it played in the Irish Civil War.  Following the ratification of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty by the Dáil (64 votes to 57), Éamon de Valera and his Anti-Treaty followers walked out of the Dáil.  Members of the Irish Republican Army split into Pro-Treaty and Anti-Treaty factions. 

The Anti-Treaty IRA called an army convention in March 1922 and reaffirmed their opposition to the Treaty. They repudiated the authority of the Dáil, claiming that its members had broken their oath to defend the Irish Republic, and declared their own Army Executive to be the real government of the country until the Republic was formally established.  The Pro-Treaty IRA disagreed and a brutal and divisive Civil War began.

On April 14, 1922, about 200 Anti-Treaty IRA “Irregulars,” led by Rory O’Connor occupied the Four Courts in Dublin.  Their goal was to initiate an armed confrontation with the British, which they hoped would bring down the Anglo-Irish Treaty, unite the two factions of the IRA against the British and restart an armed insurrection to create an Irish Republic. At the time the British Army still had thousands of soldiers concentrated in Dublin, awaiting evacuation.

British Prime Minster Lloyd George, Winston Churchill and the British Cabinet applied pressure on the Provisional Government to remove the rebels in the Four Courts.  Churchill said, “If it (the occupation of the Four Courts) does not end, and a speedy end, it is my duty to say the Treaty has been violated.”

The pressure fell heaviest on Michael Collins, President of the Provisional Government Cabinet and effective head of the regular National Army. Collins had resisted an open battle with the anti-Treaty militants since they had first occupied Four Courts.  His colleagues in the Provisional Government Cabinet, including Arthur Griffith, agreed that Collins must mount decisive military action against them. It would be three months before Collins acted.

Following the assassination of British General Sir Henry Wilson in London on June 22, 1922 (allegedly engineered by Michael Collins), British pressure on the Provisional Government increased. The British threatened to invade and re-occupy all of Ireland. On June 27, 1922 the Provisional Government Cabinet agreed to make an ultimatum to the Four Courts garrison to evacuate or face immediate military action.

The British offered a loan of British field artillery for use by the Free State Army, along with 200 shells.  The guns were provided.  They also offered to provide a crew to fire the guns, but the offer was declined by Collins.

Two 18-pounder field guns were placed on Bridge Street across the Liffey from the Four Courts complex.  After the surrender ultimatum was delivered to the Anti-Treaty garrison on the evening of June 27, 1922 the Free State Army commenced the bombardment of Four Courts at 4:00 a.m. on June 28.  In 2012, a British solder’s diary made the claim that it was a British gun crew that actually fired on the Four Courts.

By June 30, 1922, a fire was raging out of control in the headquarters block that also housed the Public Records Office. A huge explosion then rocked the city as the Public Records Office disintegrated into a cloud of smoke that rose 200 feet into the air.  Pieces of shredded legal documents floated in the air over Dublin. 

Both sides blamed the other for the explosion; however, a later study of the battle concluded that the explosion was caused by fires ignited by the shelling of the Four Courts. The fire eventually reached two truckloads of explosive stored in the building resulting in the massive explosion.

The explosion killed not just defenders but also members of the Free State forces who had just stormed the building.  Shelling and machine gun fire increased as holding the Four Courts became impossible. The Anti-Treaty headquarters staff that included Rory O’Connor and Liam Mellows decided surrender was their only option.

On June 30, 1922, the Four Courts garrison of 140 men, unconditionally surrendered to Free State Forces. Casualties consisted of three Anti-Treaty forces killed and eight wounded. Free State Forces lost seven killed and seventy wounded. Despite the Free State force’s success in taking the Four Courts, fighting continued in Dublin until July 5, 1922.

Four of the Anti-Treaty leaders captured in the Four Courts, Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellows, Joe McKelvey and Richard Barrett, were later executed by the Free State in reprisal for the Anti-Treaty side’s killing of TD (Member of Parliament) Seán Hales. The destruction of the Public Records Office resulted in the loss of many genealogical treasures including Irish census returns, original wills dating to the 16th century, and more than 1,000 Church of Ireland parish registers filled with baptism, marriage and burial records.

In addition to the loss of valuable records, the interior of the Four Courts was seriously damaged and the central dome had been collapsed. For a decade following the destruction, the courts used the old viceregal apartments in Dublin Castle.

In 1932, a rebuilt and remodeled Four Courts was opened; however, much of the decorative interior of the original building had been lost and, in the absence of documentary archives (and lack of funding) the highly decorative interior was not replaced.

Today, the Four Courts contain the Supreme Court, the High Court, and the Dublin Circuit Court. A separate building is currently being built to house the Supreme Court and is scheduled to open in 2020.

*J. Michael Finn is the Ohio State Historian for the Ancient Order of Hibernians and Division Historian for the Patrick Pearse Division in Columbus, Ohio. He is also Chairman of the Catholic Record Society for the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio. He writes on Irish and Irish-American history; Ohio history, and Ohio Catholic history. You may contact him at [email protected].

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