Though the Four Courts on Dublin’s Inns Quay was one of the main buildings occupied by the Irish Volunteers in 1916, it escaped the destruction that devastated the city centre. It wasn’t so lucky six years later, when it was occupied by Republican Forces opposed to the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, and destroyed on 30 June 1922 in a massive explosion that rocked the city and saw the start of a bloody civil war. It was also home to the Public Record Office, and this burned fragment of a 1737 tax roll from Askeaton, Co. Limerick, was presumably picked up on the streets afterwards, and donated to the museum in 1937.
On 6 December 1921, the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed, bringing an end to the War of Independence and establishing the Irish Free State, a self-governing dominion of the British Empire. Opinion within Sinn Fein was immediately split, with the pro-treaty members believing this to be a step towards a fully independent state in a situation where continuing the war with England would lead to complete defeat, and anti-treaty members viewing the terms, which included retaining the Oath of Allegiance to the British Crown and the separation of Northern Ireland from the south, as unacceptable. Tensions grew, and on 16 April 1922 about 200 men under the command of Rory O’Connor occupied the Four Courts in the hopes of creating a situation which would make the Treaty unviable and restart the fight for an all-Ireland Republic. From there high profile assassinations and kidnappings were carried out, including the murder of Field Marshall Sir Henry Wilson on 22 June.
The pro-treaty candidates won the majority vote in the 1922 general election, and formed a Provisional Government led by Michael Collins. Under increasing pressure from Britain to crush the rebels, the Free State forces received two 18 pounder artillery guns and other weapons and set up a cordon around the Four Courts area. At 4.07 in the morning of Wednesday 28 June the shelling of the building began from across the Liffey, now officially seen as the beginning of the Civil War. Dan Breen, a member of the 3rd Tipperary Brigade and author of ‘My Fight for Irish Freedom’ wrote that the headlines in the British newspapers the following morning read ‘Collins shells the rebels; Collins makes good’.
Two days into the fighting there was a large explosion in the western end of the complex, destroying it and the large central dome of the Courts. The western block housed the Public Record Office, and was used by the Republican forces to store munitions. This explosion led to the eventual evacuation and surrender of the garrison.
Patrick Kelly, a Lieutenant in the anti-treaty I.R.A. describes the moment of the explosion from his position around the Capel Street area in his witness statement to the Bureau of Military History. ‘At this point there was a terrific explosion and a column of smoke and flame shot several hundred feet in the air. The Four Courts had blown up. The explosion shattered windows all around us and debris of all sorts fell into the street’.
Cumann na mBan had also splintered over the Anglo-Irish Treaty, when it adopted a new constitution taking an anti-treaty stance in 1922. Officer Annie O’Brien remained with the anti-treaty faction, and was staying with friends in Kildare when news of the fighting in Dublin reached her. She made her way back, determined to take up her position at a First Aid post. She describes coming down Winetavern Street and watching a Free State soldier loading a shell into an 18 pounder gun, who then ordered them out of the danger zone. ‘We went down along the south quays as far as the Metal Bridge, but it was manned also. Just then the shell was fired at the Four Courts and we saw the dome collapse and our hearts nearly collapsed too when we thought of all our friends there. We saw a shower of papers rising from the building. We thought none of the garrison could have survived. The shop where we were standing shook from the terrific blast’.
Geraldine O’Donell, the proprietress of O’Donell’s Nursing Home on Eccles Street was inside the Four Courts caring for the wounded when the explosion occurred. She reported that from quite early in the fight the garrison were tunnelling an escape route, fearing they would be trapped, and that just as the tunnel was practically finished the explosion took place that destroyed the dome. She speculated that it was caused by a shell that touched off the ammunition stored there.
It is unclear what actually caused the explosion. Reports vary from the building’s fires reaching the store of explosives, a Free State shell hitting the store, and the rumour that the Republican forces deliberately mined the area. We will probably never know the exact cause, but we know that nearly a thousand years of irreplaceable Irish archives were lost on this day as they burned and scattered across the city. 18th and 19th century census records, court records, military, parish and legal records which would have been such an important resource for historians, researchers and other members of the public will now never be studied. Ernie O’Malley, in his book ‘The Singing Flame’, describes seeing ‘leaves of white paper; they looked like hovering white birds’. This fragment of a tax roll from Askeaton was one of those leaves of white paper, and its partial remains give us a hint of what was lost in the mere seconds of the explosion that destroyed the Four Courts that day.