The Judge’s Son Who Shelled the Four Courts, 1922

28-30 June 2022 marked the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Four Courts, the central event of the Irish Civil War, which resulted in severe damage to the original Four Courts building. The image above (via Dublin City Digital Archive) shows the extent of this destruction, which precluded any resumption of legal business on the site until the 1930s.

The extent of involvement of British forces in the Battle of the Four Courts has often been speculated on. The following unattributed newspaper clipping in the archives of Boston College has been kindly forwarded to this site by Killian Woods:


The following information in regard to the actual commencement of hostilities in the present conflict is derived from an absolutely reliable source.

At the last visit Mr Collins paid to London he was ordered back immediately by the British authorities, and it was said that there would be no further conferences held with him until he got the ‘Irregulars’ out of the Four Courts.

The time given him to have that accomplished expired at 12 midnight on June 27.  But as he had not yet made an attempt to get them out, he was allowed another four hours up to 4 am on the 28th.

Failing that, Colonel Boyd – who was in charge of the British military in the Phoenix Park, and who from 12 midnight was in command of a large detachment of troops – infantry and artillery – was to move with his troops against the Republicans in the Four Courts.

These men under Colonel Boyd were under arms from midnight and ready to march at a moment’s notice.

At 3.40 a.m. the ultimatum was sent by T Ennis in the name of ‘the government’ to the Republicans, to evacuate the Four Courts by 4 a.m.  As the Republicans took no notice of this message the Free Staters opened the attack at about 4.05.  This obviated the necessity of Colonel Boyd and his troops doing so.

At 1.30 a.m., the 28th, that is about two hours previous to the attack on the Four Courts, a body of Free State soldiers called to the British military camp in the Phoenix Park and got from the English military two large field pieces, together with shells for them.  These were signed for by ‘General’ Owen O’Duffy.

The Free Staters were bombarding the Four Courts from 24 to 30 hours without doing much material damage to the building; then the Free State officers who had received the two field pieces wired directly to the British government authorities in London accusing the British military in the Phoenix Park of having supplied them with ‘dud’ shells.  The London authorities wired the complaint back to the British authorities in the Phoenix Park.  At once a British officer and two British gunners were despatched from the Park to the Four Courts to examine the shells supplied by them.  On examination it was found that the Free Staters had not fused the shells, ad that, it was pointed out, was the reason why they proved ineffective.

The two British gunners and officers returned immediately to their headquarters in the park and as a result of their statement to the officer in charge there, four British gunners were at once sent back to the Four Courts.  They took over the working of the field pieces which now came to tell with deadly effect on the building and these four British gunners remained in charge of the bombardment until eventually the fortress went into flames on Friday shortly before midday.”

The ‘Colonel Boyd’ referenced above was in fact the son of one of the Four Courts’ best-known figures, Mr Justice Boyd. His obituary, published in the Belfast Newsletter of 5 November 1943, not only corroborates the above report, but goes further and suggests that the Colonel himself, dressed in the uniform of the Free State Army, may have been one of the British officers involved in firing the guns:

“Shelled the Four Courts

Lieut-Colonel HA Boyd CMG DSO, whose death is announced, was an officer of the Royal Artillery, with a distinguished record in war and in sport.  The third son of the late Mr Justice Boyd, he is reputed to have had the unique experience of shelling the Four Courts, Dublin, the main scene of his father’s long career.  This episode occurred after the establishment of the Irish Free State, but before then Colonel Boyd was in action on the streets of Dublin when his battery took part in the quelling of the Sinn Fein rebellion of 1916.  He was then Major Boyd, and it so happened that he was among the remnants of the British Forces that were left in Dublin when Michael Collins ‘took over.’ Not long afterwards, Collins had to face a rebellion on the part of some of his former comrades, a gang of whom seized the Four Courts.  This building was shelled by British guns (ostensibly in charge of Free State soldiers) and the story goes that Colonel Boyd was in command, camouflaged as an officer of the new Free State Army.  He was a fine golfer and won the Irish Amateur Championship on several occasions.”

One notable feature of the bombardment was that it left the Chief Justice’s chambers completely undamaged. Colonel Boyd would have been intimately familiar with the layout of the Four Courts. Could this have been his way of paying respect to the judicial regime of which his father had formed part?

Mr Justice Boyd, the Colonel’s father, was, like his son, a man of action – a noted yachtsman, unafraid, where necessary, to take the law into his own hands by apprehending malefactors on the street outside the Kildare Street Club.

A photograph of the Boyd family in its prime, including the youthful Colonel (with pet seagull) may be seen below.

Image of the Boyd family at Howth in the late 19th century, via Whytes

Author: Ruth Cannon BL

Irish barrister sharing the history of the Four Courts, Dublin, Ireland, and other Irish courts.

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