Four Courts still in headlines 90 years after attack
Analysis of cabinet notes supports claims British soldiers were directly involved in pivotal Civil War act
Lance-Bombardier Percy Creek had no intention of trying to overturn one of the State’s foundation stones when he sat down decades afterward to write of his time in the British army.
Last week sections of his memoir were published. In these he claimed that he and other British gunners were employed to shell the Four Courts in the opening chapter of the Civil War.
Despite the rumours then, and later, it had always been generally accepted that Michael Collins used British equipment and ammunition, but not troops. Creek’s account calls into question this version of history, however. Despite Creek’s doubters last week, and there were many, his account is backed by British cabinet minutes from late June 1922.
Open University academic William F Sheehan, formerly of University College, Cork, examined the cabinet papers for information that would support, or cast doubt, on Creek’s account.
Faced with the killing of Gen Henry Wilson in London, London demanded immediate action against the Four Courts, held by anti-treaty forces since April. During a meeting before noon on June 28th, ministers were told that the British commander in Ireland, Gen Nevil Macready, did not then believe Collins would ask for troops.
“(Lord Cavan, chief of the imperial general staff) thought it was a great pity that the provisional government had not asked the imperial troops to carry out the task for them,” the minutes record.
By 7.45pm, British ministers were back in conclave. The news from Dublin was not good: four 18-pounder guns had been lent, but they were now short of ammunition. New supplies could be shipped, but they could be 24 hours away: “The danger of delay was that reinforcements might arrive from other parts of Ireland for Republican forces,” the minutes record.
Lord Cavan reported that a Royal Artillery officer “had, at the request of the provisional government been giving its forces advice on how to use 18-pounder guns. However, 18-pounders “were not of much value for this kind of fighting” and “heavier ordnance” was needed “against such solid buildings”.
Michael Collins, however, was “not willing to employ it, apparently because the use of such material would require the employment of the regular (ie British) troops”.
Believing that Collins and the provisional government could yet fall to anti-treaty forces, British ministers feared that the delay in seizing the Four Courts could force it to act. “If the British troops had to undertake the task in the end, it would now be much harder and a new plan would have to be formed,” the June 28th minutes record.