This article was originally published in the Bar Review, April 2016
Apart from the great magazine in Phoenix Park, most of the buildings seized by the rebel forces during Easter week 1916 were not defended buildings, in the sense that Dublin or Ireland was under threat or that its public buildings required that they be defended by armed men. Dublin was generally at peace in the weeks before that Easter. It was a holiday weekend and even up at the castle there was very little in the way of an occupying armed force, patrolling, on high alert for insurrection. The castle was hardly defended at all, with virtually no soldiers in residence, and a routine bank holiday weekend guard of soldiers, carrying weapons but without ammunition. The only man killed there was the unarmed policeman on the gate, Constable O’Brien of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, and it seems clear that it was a lack of audacity, discipline and daring that prevented the rebel force from successfully seizing the very centre of British Rule in Ireland.
At the Four Courts there was another DMP constable on duty. At the Judge’s gate on Chancery Place. The Four Courts rebels were more organised and disciplined than those at the castle and did not find it necessary to shoot the unarmed constable, he was, after all, like O’Brien, more of a caretaker than a guard. He quickly agreed to hand over the keys, being well persuaded by the advocacy of a gun barrel. And suddenly, without a shot being fired, the rebels had the Four Courts and were in.
It is a vast building, a complex of buildings, a campus as the courts service now refer to it, with multiple entry points each of which had to be barricaded. Commandant Daly, the rebel commander had little enough in the way of men. An anticipated force of 400 rebels was down to about 130 although many more would join as it became clear during the week, that the Rising had begun. He was required to spread his men rather thinly. In addition to holding the Four Courts, with which we are principally interested in, he had also to garrison strong points over a wide area, Church Street, North King Street, the Jameson Distillery and up at the Broadstone railway station. Barricades had to be erected to slow any British advance, three on Church Street alone, and more on Brunswick Street and North King Street and numerous side streets. Some of these barricades were fourteen foot high. First Aid posts were established in the Father Mathew Hall and in the Four courts itself. And he sent a team up to seize the Linen Hall barracks, near Kings Inns which they did with some ease, and burnt the barracks to the ground, marching captured soldiers, mostly pay corps clerks, to captivity. The barracks burned for the whole week of the Rising, providing a dramatic fiery background to the unfolding events. Some of the fiercest fighting of the Rising would occur around his satellite strong points, particularly on North King Street. But the Four Courts itself would also see plenty of action.
At around lunchtime on Easter Monday (24th April) a British army horse drawn convoy of munitions, escorted by some 50 mounted lancers, came trotting along the North quays making their way towards the magazine at Phoenix Park. As they came abreast of the Church Street junction they came under fire from one of Commandant Daly’s barricades, the leading lancer fell dead and several others were wounded and dropped from their horses, but the lancers were disciplined professional troops and they managed to wheel the two heavily laden wagons and gallop for cover into the side streets, coming under fire as they did from the rooftop and windows of the Four Courts. More volunteers dashed out of the Judge’s yard, up Chancery Place and opened fire on the retreating lancers. They wheeled into Charles Street and those that could made a forced entry into the rear of the Medical Mission building, managing to carry the munitions into the Mission and turning over the empty wagons to form a barricade. Wounded lancers, clinging to their houses ran wildly through the streets. One lancer, isolated from his comrades, found himself galloping up Church Street towards another of the Daly’s barricades, lowering his lance he charged in a valiant if suicidal attempt to break through. He was shot dead in his saddle, by Commandant Daly himself, who took careful aim using the shoulder of a comrade to steady the shot. The lance was taken from the trooper’s body and with a tricolour attached it was wedged in triumph into a manhole at the junction of Church Street with North King Street. Other lancers were captured and taken prisoner, some taken to the Father Mathew Hall and others into the Four Courts itself. Yet more of the lancers had taken refuge in the Bridewell police station immediately behind the Four Courts. The locks to the station were shot open and two more lancers captured and taken to the Four Courts. They also found some two dozen Dublin Metropolitan constables hiding in the basement and they too were taken into captivity. A couple of lucky prisoners in the cells were let go.
Inside the Medical Mission the lancers barricaded themselves in and prepared to fight. Its windows, to the front of the building, overlooked the Chancery Place entrance to the Four Courts and an intense gun battle developed between the lancers in the Mission and the rebels in the courts. The Cavalry officer in command in the Mission was shot dead in the ferocious exchange and one of the Four Courts volunteers, running out of the Judge’s yard and attempting to lob an incendiary grenade into the Mission fell, badly wounded on Chancery Place,, shot by a lancer from one of the windows of the Medical Mission.
Today, if you were to stand outside the Judge’s gate and look towards the Mission building you can see that the major bullet damage to the upper floor has been repaired with a sort of half-white filler/cement, leaving the red brick work looking, wounded, as if it were wearing plasters. Up close you can see that almost every brick in the building has gunshot damage, bearing eloquent witness to the ferocity of the fighting. There is no corresponding damage from the intense gunfire on the walls of the Four Courts as all traces of the battle would have been obliterated when the building was destroyed in 1922. However the photograph of the corner of the Four Courts which shows the damage inflicted by British Artillery firing from Essex Street also shows heavy gunshot damage, some of which probably came from the Medical Mission gunfight.
The Four Courts was now under fire from virtually all directions. There were British soldiers in the church towers and on the roofs of high buildings across the Liffey, there was a Lewis machine gun on a tower in the Jervis Hospital, and soldiers constantly infiltrating across the Liffey bridges into the maze of side streets. An 18 pounder artillery piece was sited on Essex Street, near the Sunlight building, and opened fire on Chancery Lane corner of the building. Fortunately they only fired some four or five rounds although it is clear that had they so wished they could have systematically reduced the building to rubble.
From the direction of Smithfield Royal Dublin Fusiliers were making their way towards the Church Street side of the courts complex, sweeping the western side of the buildings with machine gun and rifle fire. Dubliners firing on Dubliners. You can still see some of the bullet damage to the lower stone walls of the building, as you walk up Church Street.
From inside and on the roof of what is now the Court of Appeal, and was then the Registry building, rebel volunteers returned fire on the Dublin Fusiliers. It was here that Volunteer Lt. Thomas Allen was mortally wounded on the staircase landing. There are conflicting reports in the Bureau of Military History as to how he was hit. Volunteer Thomas Smart claimed he was caught in a burst of machine gun fire and there are certainly still, this hundred years later, the evidence of dark stiches of machine gun damage across the upper windows of the Court of Appeal building. They can be seen most clearly from the overlooking windows of Court 18 in Áras Uí Dhálaigh. Volunteer Sean Kennedy has him in a room on the first floor landing, behind a barricaded window and being caught by a sniper’s bullet that went through the elbow of another volunteer before striking Allen in the left breast. Both are agreed he was mortally wounded and was taken by stretcher to the Richmond Hospital where he died of his wounds.
As the battle raged in North King Street and Church Street, the Four Courts became a place to where battle weary volunteers might get some respite, a hot meal prepared by members of Cumann Na mBan, soup or tea, a bed, some much needed sleep. There was a kitchen established in the basement, exactly where is not certain but it was towards the back of the building opposite the Bridewell police station, perhaps in the solicitors building where their café still has that old black range on the back wall. They were feeding up to 70 volunteers and a whole range of captured prisoners. There was a first-aid post, also manned by Cuman mBan that treated their wounds. Seriously injured men would be carried by stretcher to the Richmond Hospital.
One volunteer, records sleeping in the law library, using a law book for a pillow, one might hope that he found it more appropriate to lay his head upon a volume of the Irish Reports rather than the All England reports. Dr. Bridget Lyons Thornton, of the Cumann na mBan, working as a nurse in the Four Courts, recalled falling asleep wrapped in the scarlet and ermine of judge’s robes.
The most important office in the Four Courts was probably that of the Lord Chancellor of Ireland., Sir John Ross. His office was forced open but the rebels inflicted no damage, leaving alone his papers his wigs and his gowns. He recalled sitting in his garden at Oatlands, (now Oatlands College) in the spring sunshine reading Plutarch and listening, now and then, to the distant sound of machine guns and cannon.
Commandant Daly spent most of the Easter week up at the Father Mathew Hall, but he was constantly going round the outposts and coming back to the Four Courts. In effective command in the building was Frank Fahy. He was joined, later in the week by his wife, a member of Cumann na mBan, after she had firstly placed the family cat and canary with a sympathetic neighbour.
After the surrender some nineteen men of the garrison were tried by court-martial and sentenced to death. All the sentences were commuted to penal servitude except that of Daly. His court martial, on May 3rd, lasted just a few minutes, he had no counsel and no solicitor. He was found guilty and shot by firing squad early the next morning the 4th May.
For further reading on the role of the Four Courts in the Rising read Paul O’Brien’s book: Crossfire – The battle of the Four Courts 1916, published by New Ireland Press.