COME THE DARK – PART THREE – THE FINAL FAIRWELL

Cathal Brugha, the wounded hero of the Battle for the South Dublin Union, was released from the Frongoch camp, under the General Amnesty granted at the end of 1917. He walked with a permanent limp from the 14 bullet wounds he had received, along with the shrapnel that could not be removed. The First Dáil meeting in January, 1919 was presided over by Brugha and the War for Independence was officially declared. It ended in a truce, in July 1921. This in turn resulted in a Dáil vote, which was in favour of signing the Treaty, by 64 votes to 57, but splitting their members in the process. Brothers-in-arms just weeks before could find no common ground or appreciation for their opponent’s beliefs. Cathal spoke for 90 minutes passionately against the Treaty, joining Eamon De Valera’s walk out of the provisional government and both sides toured the country, whipping up support for their side, in the now named Irish Free State.

An agreement between De Valera and Collins arranged that no action would be taken until the Treaty was put to the populace, in a General Election. Voters supported the Treaty by two-thirds to one-third, but in land that they controlled, the anti-Treaty side controlled almost twice as much of the country. Both sides realised that whoever held Dublin would eventually win the coming civil war. Collins controlled all the instruments of power and the intelligence centre that was Dublin Castle. In a show of strength and to retain a claim on the city, the opponents of the Treaty, now calling themselves The Irish Republican Army (IRA) decided to occupy the Four Courts, the seat of justice and historic records for Ireland. A standoff resulted for the Spring of 1922, with Britain demanding that Collins deal with the occupants. Meanwhile, Brugha prepared his men for Civil War. He took control of the Republicans that were occupying buildings on the eastside of Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street). For a week they prepared their defences, again creating internal rat-runs through the buildings.

(Shelling the Four Courts, June 1922) As with all Civil Wars, each side became hateful of their opponent’s beliefs, simply because they are held by the opposition. For Cathal Brugha, Michael Collins’s Free State Army (FSA) were wearing uniforms and using the equipment supplied to them by the British. They believed that the Free Staters had changed over to the British side, leaving the Anti-Treaty side as the true fighters for a single Independent Irish Republic. In April 1922, about 200 IRA men led by Rory O’Connor occupied the Four Courts, facing their former colleagues across the river Liffey. The stalemate could not continue indefinitely and, under pressure from London, Collins ordered the forceful eviction of the men in the Four Courts. British artillery was supplied by Winston Churchill, ironically used against Collins in the 1916 Rising. It was now crewed by Collins’s own Irish soldiers and fired into the Four Courts. The Irish Civil War had officially started, and the date was June 28, 1922. The attack on the Four Courts was to be dragged out, by the easily defended nature of the complex building. Two more British 18 pounders were added to the assault and offers of 60 pounder howitzers and even the fledgling Royal Air Force were given by Churchill. But that is all for a different book. We need to move east for half a mile to find Cathal Brugha and the IRA garrison in Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street). Their preparations involved turning the east side of Sackville Street, opposite the General Post Office headquarters of 1916, into a single, defendable fortress. They incorporated the Gresham, Crown, Granville and Hammam Hotels. The Easter Rising ruins of Clery’s Department Store and other buildings restricted them to Upper Sackville Street.

(Cathal Brugha Mass Card, in old Irish script) The Four Courts finally surrendered on June 30 after the artillery shelling had started fires and Free State troopers had breached the walls. A few hours later, the IRA’s ammunition store exploded and 1000 years of priceless Irish archives went up in smoke! Still, the FSA had to fight their way to Sackville Street. There was a further few days of ferocious fighting along the north quays, until the Provisional Government’s troops reached Dublin’s main thoroughfare. Cathal Brugha was prepared for the coming conflict and had done everything he could to get his men and buildings ready. He had initially around 500 fighters, but over half refused to shoot at other Irishmen, so those available to Brugha were probably less than 200 men, and included 30 women from the Cumann Na mBan. General Tom Ennis of the FSA commanded the attack against Cathal Brugha’s force. By July 1, 1922 they were clearing the streets around Sackville Street and bring up the artillery to attack Brugha’s fortifications. Under an agreed plan, all bar Brugha and 15 IRA men left on an agreed escape route, south to Blessington in county Wicklow. By July 5, they were holed up in the Hammam Hotel, next to Clery’s ruin. One must record the presence of Marie Comerford among the remaining personnel. She had firstly joined the Four Courts Garrison, opened a first-aid station and riding her bicycle along the bullet-swept streets as a messenger. Marie had then joined Cathal Brugha at the Hammam Hotel and was there for the end.

(Positioning the artillery to shoot at the Hammam Hotel, July 1922) That end occurred on July 5, 1922. The FSA controlled the opposite side of the street from Brugha’s men. 18 pounder artillery pieces were brought to the junction of Henry Street and Sackville Street and up to O’Connell Bridge. They opened fire, eventually setting fire to his buildings, making further resistance suicidal. Cathal ordered his men to surrender. Having convinced the FSA of their intention, they disarmed and walked out of the hotel into Sackville Street. Cathal Brugha stayed behind; so did Marie Comerford. They were alone in the burning building for about 3 minutes.

(Brugha emerged from the Hammam Hotel, through the last door on the right)

This is the point where I think of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid! There was a known of what would happen, even if the reason was blurred. I imagine a Hollywood director shouting, “Action!” 5pm; with Cathal Brugha holding a revolver in each hand. He exited the hotel entrance to see a line of government soldiers, rifles raised on the opposite footpath. He fired continuously, and so did they. What he must have thought, as he was continuously hit by British bullets in Irish rifles we can only guess. His legs were shot away as he went sprawling onto the street. He fell, even as Marie Comerford rushed to his side. She held a vital artery closed while screaming for medical assistance. It proved hopeless, and he died from blood loss two days later. Brugha’s body was taken to the Mater Hospital mortuary where he lay in state, given an honour guard by 3 Cumann Na mBan women. It was July 7, 1922 and the Civil War was only a week old. He was 11 days short of his 48th birthday.

(Cathal Brugha lies in State, with a Cumann Na mBan honour guard.)

Everyone stopped with the shock of what had happened. Both sides attended his funeral, with half of Dublin lining the route past the ruins of 1916. He was only the first in a long line of bright Irish minds to be killed, or probably better to state they were murdered, during the Irish Civil War.

The centenary commemorations of the Civil War will be a very difficult time for this country. This is because, like a savage domestic dispute, it has been left to fester under the carpet for almost 100 years. That has influenced the country at every turn and cast a shadow over our relationship with the world. However, that was all in the future for the mourners at Cathal Brugha’s funeral.

(Mrs Caitlín Brugha, Cathal’s widow)

His funeral cortage was followed by his widow, Caitlín Brugha, 95 clergymen and leading politicians and officers from both sides of the civil war. Sadly, the barbaric horror that was to quickly descend across Ireland was only a moment away, and at least he did not have to witness that.

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