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.
Then come the paragraphs that back Creek’s version of events. He says he and his unit were first shipped to Fermanagh and then told to march by night to Dublin.
“Information was received just before the meeting that the provisional government were willing to employ British gunners and to utilise 60-pounder guns,” according to the minutes. Indeed, the Irish were discussing accepting troops.
The provisional government “must be supported in every way, and the operation must not be allowed to fail”, British ministers agreed. Emergency stores of 18-pounder ammunition were to be sent.
A few hours later, British ministers convened again, sending a telegram to Collins: “By all means use the 300 18-pdr high-explosive shells as soon as they arrive, but this will be little use without heavier guns and good gunners. Do not fail to take both. Both are available. It is essential to take the 60-pdr, its gunners and it is ammunition and most desirable to use the six-inch howitzers as well and all together.”
Later that day, the Four Courts was briefly, but heavily, shelled and “the greater part of the building” captured by Collins’s forces, who were now titled Free State, not provisional government, forces.
However, Churchill was concerned about charges in Dublin already circulating that Collins had acted “at the behest” of the British , which had “reacted adversely on public opinion”.
Addressing fellow ministers, he said they should “dwell on the fact that they should avoid any suggestion that the Free State government was acting on British inspiration, and to lay stress on the fact that they have undertaken the task on their own initiatives”.
The cabinet minutes lack a definite declaration that Creek and his men were deployed, but Sheehan believes that, together with Creek’s account, they make a compelling case.
Responding to this week’s criticism, he told The Irish Times: “It is interesting that something from 90 years ago is capable of making news in this generation.
“It makes us revisit and revise everything that we know about the period. History is something that is constantly debated by historians and the nation. New material that advances knowledge is a good thing.”