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Seizing the Capital

Michael Barry

A City in Civil War: Dublin 1921-1924, by Pádraig Yeates, 368 pp, €27.99, ISBN: 978-0717167265

This is the latest in Pádraig Yeates’s series of books on the history of Dublin city. He has so far charted the cataclysmic times from the Lockout through the Great War, 1916 and the War of Independence. The Civil War in turn had no less a cataclysmic effect on the city, socially, politically and physically.

Yeates tells the story of the city in great detail, in all its manifestations including the trade unions (rather a lot on these), the church, economy, housing, and Dublin Corporation (which was dissolved in 1923). He has an unerring skill in unearthing the most interesting, such as: the Provisional Government troops travelling to a confrontation in Kilkenny with anti-Treaty forces being seen off at the railway station by a band playing The Red Flag or some republican women prisoners incarcerated in Dublin sending clothes home for the family servants to wash. He reveals the extraordinary fact that Eoin MacNeill, minister in the Provisional Government, noting the sabotage by what he called the “Irregulars”, advised giving priority to the execution of culprits, notwithstanding the fact that his anti-Treaty son Brian had been very recently murdered by government troops when he was captured on Benbulben.

The book is perhaps a little too granular in form: it could have benefited from more editing to give the mass of detail a better flow. It would also have benefited from an occasional brief chronology of important moments of the Civil War in the country (an important background to the Dublin story).

A City in Civil War covers the run-up to the outbreak of the conflict in June 1922. In a key move, the Provisional Government’s Army took over the barracks in Dublin – this laid the seeds of victory. Even though anti-Treaty forces seized many barracks across the country, control of Dublin was the key. The fighting at the Four Courts and then, in early July, in Sackville Street, is covered. The republican forces then assembled at Blessington and faded away. The war now moved to the country.

Yeates asserts that by the time of Griffith’s death in early August “the Civil War was won in military terms and would increasingly become a policing operation”. General Richard Mulcahy, sitting in Portobello Barracks, just beginning the task of capturing the south and west of country, might have disagreed. However, he is correct in asserting that the anti-Treaty side had lost the war by the end of 1922. Many people do not realise that the British maintained a large garrison of troops, concentrated in an arc around Dublin city, during most of the Civil War. By and large these did not intervene (although the Royal Navy did vigorously support the pro-Treaty Army along the west coast, a story that has yet to be explored). The book tells how the British government, confident in the eventual victory of the Free State, decided to withdraw these last units from Dublin in December 1922.

Following the Blessington debacle, the anti-Treaty IRA had, in early August 1922, planned a major assault to destroy Dublin’s bridges, north and south of the city. However, a volunteer had been captured earlier with details of the planned assault, which backfired when the units were intercepted and many captured. The IRA attacked Wellington Barracks on November 8th, 1922. Machine guns raked the troops assembled for morning parade. A soldier was killed, but two IRA volunteers died in the round-up that followed. Historian John Dorney is recorded as considering that the attack was the most effective action by the IRA in the city. If this skirmish was the best they could do, it illustrates that not much was achieved in the city by the anti-Treaty forces after July 1922. There were a lot of lethal hit and run attacks, and equally vicious retaliations by Free State troops, but nothing of any strategic importance.

While militarily the war did not amount to much in Dublin, the city became a focus for brutality. The CID in Oriel House, on Fenian Street and Westland Row, a shadowy entity, staffed by many of Collins’s former “Squad” members began a campaign of unofficial murders of suspected republicans. From the teenage republicans whose bodies were dumped at the Red Cow in October 1922, to the abduction and slaying of Noel Lemass in mid-1923, estimates of these (still unexplored) murders amount to around two dozen. Witnesses at the Lemass inquest were intimidated; nevertheless, the jury concluded that he had been “brutally and wilfully murdered” and they were convinced that “the armed forces of the State have been implicated”.

Yeates writes of the killing of IRA man Bobby Bonfield in March 1923. “He encountered WT Cosgrave with his bodyguard at St Stephen’s Green … (the) bodyguards seized Bonfield and took him in the general direction of Oriel House. Next day his body was discovered at Red Cow.” As an aside, surprisingly, there is no mention of this episode in the recent biography Judging WT Cosgrave, by Michael Laffan, which leads one to conclude that not all the evidence was presented for that book to live up to its title. Unexplored territory indeed.

Yeates touches on the agile career of Joe McGrath. He was in charge of Oriel House in its early days. Years later, he transformed his fortune by his involvement in the Irish Hospitals Sweepstakes – using his old revolutionary contacts to create a network of agents, particularly in the United States. In the 1930s he was reconciled with Sean Lemass, despite Oriel House agents’ murder of his brother.

Not all the hard men were in Dublin. Paddy Daly, late of Collins’s “Squad”, was in Kerry, leading his Dublin Guard, harshly dealing with the numerous anti-Treaty forces there. This culminated in the atrocities of Ballyseedy, Countess Bridge and Caherciveen (spurred by the earlier trap mine explosion at Knocknagoshel, where some of Daly’s Dublin Guard colleagues were killed).

Executions of republicans captured with weapons were carried out in Dublin and across the country from November 1922 under the Army Executive Powers Resolution. Erskine Childers was the most prominent victim. The execution of four leading republicans as a reprisal after the shooting of a TD marked a low in this bitter conflict. Another low was when Emmet McGarry, aged seven, died when his pro-Treaty father’s house was set on fire at Philipsburgh Avenue in December 1922.

The anti-Treaty IRA fought for an ideal, the shining principle of the Republic. However, as Pádraig Yeates correctly points out, their leadership had “no political or military strategy beyond seeking to make the Free State ungovernable”. Liam Mellows (one of the four leaders executed without trial in December 1922) was an exception: his “Notes from Mountjoy” raised the flag of socialist republicanism.

All aspects of life in the city are dealt with in Yeates’s volume. The economy of the Free State was in a parlous condition. There was high unemployment, along with high inflation. Gas prices in Dublin had risen to be double those in Belfast. Ironically, a major benefit of the Civil War in Dublin was that it helped ease unemployment. With his extraordinary skill in unearthing telling minutiae, Yeates reveals that while the local authorities in Ireland built 4,128 housing units in that time, (British) soldiers’ and sailors’ trusts built 1,927 (of which 526 were in Dublin). Of these, 465 houses were built for ex-servicemen in Killester. The author notes the interesting fact that separation payments to wives of British soldiers saw the greatest transfer of wealth into the Dublin tenements.

A proposition has emerged that those who served in the British army were badly served in the new Free State. In reality while they may have (wisely) kept their previous activities quiet, they did enjoy many benefits from the British forces’ welfare system. Later, the spectacular and stunning War Memorial Gardens were completed at Islandbridge in 1939, infinitely greater in size and architectural excellence than any other memorial in Ireland to those who fought for Irish independence, or to those of the Irish Defence Forces, even to this day.

Towards the end of the book Yeates makes the point that a highly conservative form of parliamentary democracy triumphed. The prevailing view in Irish historiography has been that all British intervention in Ireland has been bad. However, Yeates makes an interesting point, from a social point of view. He considers that for the working poor, the new Free State was a harsher place than its more secular and interventionist British predecessor. He also considers it to have been a bleak place: “Like any conformist society, the Free State was not only a boring place to live in but a hostile one for minorities or dissidents of any type. It would be fifty years before significant cracks appeared in the edifice.”

If you wish to read an intimate description of Dublin life during the period 1922-23, against the backdrop of the Civil War, this is the book. Pádraig Yeates, a master of detail and insight, skilfully portrays a rich panorama of city life during one of the most seminal periods of Irish history.

1/10/2015

Michael Barry's latest book is : Courage Boys, We are Winning, an Illustrated History of the 1916 Rising

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