The Civil Warin Dublin: the fight for the Irishcapital, 1922–24

Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 1 (January/February 2018), Reviews, Volume 26

JOHN DORNEY
Merrion
€19.99
ISBN 9781785370892

Reviewed by John Gibney

John Gibney is Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade 100 Project co-ordinator with the Royal Irish Academy’s Documents on Irish Foreign Policy project.

One of the great set pieces of the Irish revolution is the outbreak of the Civil War in Dublin in June 1922—the occupation of the Four Courts, the iconic destruction of the Public Records Office and the fighting in and around O’Connell Street. The defeat of the anti-Treaty forces in the capital is generally taken as a starting point for attention to be diverted to other theatres of the Civil War (especially Kerry), with the capital playing an incidental role thereafter in relation to events such as the funerals of Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith or the notorious reprisal executions in Mountjoy Jail on 8 December 1922, not to mention dark hints of the sinister activities of former members of the IRA who became a law unto themselves in Free State uniform. The Civil War in Dublin has been the subject of two books in recent years: Liz Gillis’s The fall of Dublin examined the fighting at the outbreak of the war, while Padraig Yeates, in A city in civil war, concluded his trilogy on revolutionary Dublin with a synoptic social history. To these can be added John Dorney’s very impressive new book, at the core of which is a close and unprecedentedly detailed exploration of the military and political dimensions of the Civil War in the capital, though the book casts light on a good deal else besides.

Dublin had been deemed a key theatre in the War of Independence precisely because of its symbolic importance as the Irish capital; it was here that the IRA and Sinn Féin could most publicly challenge the British. Dorney adopts a wide definition of the Civil War, and the substance of the book begins with the Treaty debates in Earlsfort Terrace, which laid bare the political divisions that led to the conflict. Dublin was also the location of the new political and military establishments of the nascent Free State, and so the book explores the lead-up to the Civil War in considerable detail. The battle for Dublin is explored minutely, and the most interesting and unfamiliar sections of the book are those that deal with the Civil War in Dublin after July 1922, which takes up perhaps 40% of the text. Dorney reveals the sordid reality of the conflict, with members of Collins’s former ‘Squad’ emerging as a brutal and lawless faction responsible for numerous extra-judicial killings in the Civil War, often perpetrated outside the city limits to avoid possible police investigation. This has often been hinted at but is explored here in greater and more scholarly detail than before. Dublin between July 1922 and April 1923 is evoked here as a dark and dangerous place, a militarised city that was contested politically and which remained the venue for low-level, if often brutal, insurgency and counter-insurgency.

The venues of the Civil War in Dublin are expanded from the Four Courts and O’Connell Street to include Portobello Barracks (National Army HQ and the venue for a number of executions) and Wellington Barracks (Military Intelligence HQ), along with prisons such as Mountjoy and Kilmainham. The book is particularly strong on exploring the nuts and bolts of events on the ground and is a testament to what can be discovered when people take the trouble to look. Dorney’s book is extremely thoroughly researched, making extensive use of material in the Military Archives and UCD Archives. He uses it in a fair-minded way, being prepared to criticise the pretensions of both sides. One quibble is that the focus on Dublin sometimes wavers, as Dorney expands on wider issues in the conflict in persuasive and illuminating chapters on the nature of the political divisions and the use of propaganda. That said, the reality was that Dublin was a focal point for political issues that had a wider resonance outside the capital, and the book is much the stronger for tackling such issues. His provocative and intriguing suggestion that the Civil War could be seen to consist of Dublin invading the rest of the country is far less tongue-in-cheek than it might sound.

The Civil War comes at the end of the ‘Decade of Centenaries’ and, by its nature, is the elephant in the room; the reality of what it consisted of is not the stuff from which celebrations are made. Elements of the 1916 centenary suggested a willingness to engage with the messier realities of the revolution (the most successful book arising from the centenary, after all, Joe Duffy’s Children of the revolution,dealt primarily with civilian casualties), and this will surely become a greater imperative as we move into the War of Independence and the bleak vista of the Civil War. Works such as this, which offer a clear, fair-minded and thoroughly researched account of what actually happened, remain essential in understanding this aspect of our history on its own terms. The Civil War in Dublin is an impressive piece of research and analysis and a good read, in a lucid and fluid style that clips along at a good pace, and which is well presented at an affordable price by the publisher.

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