The occupation of the Four Courts by Anti-Treaty forces in April 1922 makes real the threat of violence that has existed only as a subtext to the treaty debates. That real fighting does not break out until the subsequent decision by the Pro-Treaty forces to forcibly retake the position in June 1922 shows just how reluctant the parties are to engage in more violence.
However, once the decision to fight is made neither side show much restraint. The shelling of the Four Courts and the ferocity of the fighting around the rest of Dublin during the initial phase of the war shows that neither side will balk at killing former friends if that is what is required.
Tragically, on the morning of June 30, a massive explosion destroys the western wing of the Four Courts and the Irish Public Records Office which houses official documents, archives, and artifacts from almost 1,000 years of Irish history. The explosion is thought to have been caused by fires from the artillery bombardment setting off munitions stored there. Free State troops, however, claim that the building is mined.
After two days of heavy fighting that sees the complex more or less destroyed, the Anti-Treaty forces, at this point under the command of Ernie O’Malley after Paddy O’Brien is wounded by shrapnel, surrenders. Their surrender is at the order of the senior commander of Anti-Treaty forces in the city, Oscar Traynor, who sends word that he cannot break through to help them.
They march out of a burning and wrecked Four Courts a compelling symbol for the damage the Civil War is to bring to the young state over the upcoming months and years. Members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) Army Executive Liam Mellows, Rory O’Connor, Joe McKelvey, and Dick Barret are among the prisoners, but O’Malley himself escapes.