Sinn Féin won 73 out of the 105 Irish seats in Parliament in the post-war General Election in December, 1918. They refused to sit at Westminster and instead set up their own government called Dail Eireann on 21 January 1919. On that same day the War of Independence began. After almost three years of brutal warfare, with British atrocities on a civilian population that they felt supported the Dail, the British were beaten to the bargaining table and a treaty was signed. The treaty created the Irish Free State, a self-governing Dominion of the Empire; it was approved by the Dáil 64 to 57 on 7 January 1922. As with all Dominions, an Oath of Allegiance to the monarch was required, but the Irish Oath was different. It was an oath to the Free State and only a promise of fidelity to the Crown in its role in Ireland as defined by the treaty, not in terms of British rule. The wording came from three sources: the oath of the IRB, of which Collins was the secret head; the form used by other Dominions and a draft oath suggested prior to negotiations by deValera himself! It was notably indirect in its reference to the Crown, yet it was criticized by hard-line Republicans for making any reference to the Crown at all. The oath created two factions, both claiming to be Sinn Fein. On 14 April 1922, 200 Dissidents, led by Rory O’Connor, occupied the Four Courts and other buildings in Dublin hoping to spark a new war with the British, which they hoped would unite the two factions against a common enemy. However, Michael Collins and others knew they didn’t have the assets to sustain such a confrontation. They were determined to create the self-governing Dominion with enough subtle provisions in the constitution that would allow a future dissolving of the link with Britain.

The taking of Dublin buildings was an act of rebellion that the Free State had to put down. Dail President Griffith urged force against the Dissidents and appointed Collins as Commander-in-Chief of the new National Army. Dick Mulcahy, as Minister for Defense, began recruiting for the new army from British Regiments demobilized after the treaty. Ironically, almost half of the new army would be former British soldiers, though many were Irish. That meant that Collins’ former comrades among the Dissidents would be hunted by the same men who had hunted them during the War of Independence when they were on the same side, only this time Collins would be leading the hunt! To avoid violence against his former comrades, Collins left the Four Courts alone until an election could be held. He organized a pact with Dissident leader, Eamon deValera to campaign jointly in the Free State’s first election on 18 June 1922 and form a coalition government. He also established a committee to reach a compromise with a Republican constitution making no mention of the British monarch. Dissident leader Liam Lynch accepted this compromise but, the proposal was vetoed by the British as being contrary to the terms of the treaty. They threatened military intervention unless the treaty was implemented as written.

Collins had to agree. This undermined the pact between the factions and they went into the election in June as hostile parties, both calling themselves Sinn Féin. The Pro-Treaty Sinn Féin party won with 239,193 votes to 133,864 for Anti-Treaty Sinn Féin. A further 247,226 people, voting as other parties, also supported the Treaty except for a few votes from the Unionist Party. The election showed an overwhelming majority of the war-weary Irish electorate willing to accept the Treaty, but deValera refused to give in with the disturbing comment that, the majority have no right to do wrong! They challenged Free State control. The government now had to assert its authority over the Dissidents around the country and a particularly hard-line group in Dublin who now occupied several buildings in addition to the Four Courts. It was almost as if they were trying to replicate the failure of 1916 with the Four Courts as their GPO. There were several armed confrontations between the sides before the British finally lost patience on 22 June, when Gen. Henry Wilson, Chief of the Imperial Staff, was assassinated in London by Dissidents. Angered by the killing, Churchill issued an ultimatum demanding that the Provisional Government end the occupation of the Four Courts or face a full-scale military invasion. Collins was now under intense pressure to resolve the situation or they would come back and do it for him!

Collins knew that he had to avoid British troops on Irish streets. Yet, he couldn’t tell them he wasn’t capable of the job since the British, anticipating conflict, had supplied him with more than 3,500 grenades, 11,900 riles, 4,200 revolvers and 79 machine guns. What the British didn’t know was that Collins had redirected many of those arms to the IRA in Northern Ireland to support operations against the Stormont regime. The final straw for the Free State came on 26 June, when the Four Courts Dissidents kidnapped J.J. O’Connell, a U.S. Army veteran and a General in the new National Army. The Free State government ordered Collins to resolve the situation immediately. He gave the Four Courts garrison an ultimatum to leave. When that was ignored, he had no choice but to act! On 28 June at 4:30 AM, he ordered Gen. Emmet Dalton to shell the Four Courts with two 18-pounder field artillery guns they had received from the British. Some claim that the bombing of the Four Courts with British artillery was the start of the Civil War, but in reality, the Civil War had already started as clashes were taking place between pro-treaty and anti-treaty forces around the country. However, the bombing of the Four Courts was the ‘point of no return’ at which peaceful discussions broke down and all the country-wide fighting now became more organized; the Civil War was on. It ended less than a year later with more than 2,000 killed and the Free State victorious, but so many leading patriots were killed on either side like Liam Lynch, Sean Hales, Cathal Brugha, Harry Boland, Arthur Griffith, Erskine Childers, Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellows and Michael Collins himself! Ireland was now left to the politicians!

The Four Courts on fire in June 1922

The Four Courts on fire in June 1922

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