The IRA's `cultural murder' at the Four Courts, 1922


Historical misinformation is rather like a computer virus. Once a "story" becomes a "fact", it becomes well-nigh impossible to eradicate it from the historical record and the popular consciousness. Such factoids include: Theobald Wolfe Tone's not committing suicide (he did); Robert Emmet's final lines including the phrase "until my nation takes it place among the nations of the world" (they didn't); Patrick Pearse's alleged homosexuality or unconscious paedophilia (unproven); the anti-Protestant oath taken by members of the Irish Republican Army, a factoid cleverly dubbed a canard a l'orange by Conor Cruise O'Brien many years ago. Some of these and similar pseudo-facts have been exhaustively researched by historians but continue to surface in public discourse.

One such healthy survivor is the following factoid: "that the Republican garrison of the Four Courts, led by Rory O'Connor and including in its membership Ernie O'Malley and Peadar O'Connell, did not blow up the Four Courts and send its priceless historical records to oblivion, and that this example of intellectual and cultural vandalism was actually caused by a Provisional Government shell, or by `fires' ignited by the bombardment."

It is the case that the IRA, a group which was clearly neither republican nor an army, engineered the destruction of the Public Record Office in the Four Courts, and did so knowingly and with malicious intent, in June 1922. It is also evident that it tried to evade public responsibility for its actions afterwards.

On June 28th, partly because of British pressure following the assassination of Field-Marshal Wilson on the orders of Collins, the Provisional, or nascent "Free State" government began shelling the Four Courts complex. The IRA garrison surrendered on June 30th, and all surrendered uninjured.

The staff of the Public Record Office had, over the previous 20 years, carefully centralised many county administrative records in the strong room in the Four Courts. What was emerging would have been the jewel in the crown of the National Archives of Ireland. Hugh Kennedy, first Attorney General of the Irish state, relates in a contemporary note that Rory O'Connor, an employee of Dublin Corporation, had been apprised by the Society of Antiquaries that the entire social history of the country for the previous two centuries was in his care.

It was explained that the records had "historical importance and (an) irreplaceable character". He was warned that "the greatest care should be taken to preserve these documents". It is believed that O'Connor replied to the letter stating that he was aware of the value of the documents. C.P. Curran followed up the letter by speaking to O'Connor personally and "told him that it would be inexcusable if anything should be allowed to happen to them, especially in view of the extensive cellarage under the main building to which the documents might be removed to safety. He made no reply."

Several explosive caches were indeed detonated by fires during the shelling, but no one was injured, and the crucial Record Office survived and was occupied by government forces. At least 13 wired and booby-trapped mines were disarmed by Irish Army soldiers after the surrender, but one cleverly concealed "connected mine" was accidentally triggered. The mine dutifully went off, maiming 20 soldiers and blowing the Strong Room of the Public Record Office and its precious national records to molecules.

Ernie O'Malley expressed his regret afterwards that the IRA hadn't got more of the Staters. Incidentally, without a scratch on him, in government custody, he had sat on the steps of the Four Courts as the history of his country came down around him in ashes. He seems not to have known, or else did not care, that the contents of the Public Record Office of Ireland, containing the social, political and cultural history of the island, lovingly accumulated by scholars, were being distributed in burnt fragments all over the city. He imagined that the records consisted mainly of accounts of payments to informers. Actually, he was witnessing a premeditated cultural murder by the IRA.

The enormous cultural loss to the Irish nation perpetrated by this extraordinary act of cultural destruction can never be reversed; effectively it constituted an attempt to murder the nation as a collective entity with a collective memory.

O'Malley's brilliantly written On Another Man's Wound stops short of giving an account of the final explosion, leaving off at the surrender before the destruction of the Public Record office; in the book he and his comrades appear to have had no responsibility for the crime of destroying Ireland's national archives. This is a perfect example of a republican lie of silence. His sequel, The Singing Flame, does not refer to this crucial event either. An unspoken shame may have been operating here. In old age, that good man Peadar O'Donnell expressed private regret at the destruction of the Four Courts. Winston Churchill remarked acidly that it was better to have a state without an archive than an archive without a state.

It is interesting to note that the ideological and temperamental heirs of O'Connor and O'Malley, the Provisional IRA, have tried to burn down public libraries as easy and evidently hated targets in Derry and elsewhere. They narrowly failed to burn down the Linenhall Library in Belfast, with its magnificent and internationally admired historical collection of historical pamphlets, including many diatribes emitted over the decades by various varieties of Sinn Fein.

Ex-IRA leaders in power in independent Ireland often became enthusiastic censors, in what was possibly a related expression of anti-intellectualism and dislike of mental freedom.

A subconscious hatred of intellectual freedom and books appears to lie behind this addiction to book-burning. A wish to control people's thoughts combined with an inability to compete in argument with those who are better equipped to write articles and books also evidently fuelled the "republican" hatred of reasoned argument, civilised eloquence and the word in general. The Provos over the years have echoed the old Nazi love of cultural destruction and hatred of any real learning; after all, the Provos, the INLA and similar gangs describe themselves as both nationalists and socialists. The German acronym for such an ideological combination is, of course, Nazi.

In 1930s Germany, it was famously remarked, echoing Heine, that where books are burned, people would eventually be also burned. Irish national-socialist authoritarians have richly demonstrated the truth of this proposition in the 20th century.

Tom Garvin is professor of politics at University College, Dublin. His forthcoming book, Mythical Thinking in Political Life, will be published by Maunsel later this year