In decade of centenaries, we should hold on to the sense of those hopeful early days

Posted on: 14 January 2022

From the Skibbereen Eagle to the New York Times, editors around the world made the same comparison – the hand-over of Dublin Castle was the “downfall of a Bastille”, writes Dr Anne Dolan in this piece that was originally published in The Irish Independent.

Before Judge Johnston heard the first case of the day at the Clones Quarter Sessions on January 18, 1922, he announced: “I cannot let the occasion pass without making some reference to it.”

For Judge Johnston, the events of previous days marked the beginning of a new era. “We rejoice with all our hearts that peace and order dwell once more amongst us, and that the night of darkness has passed. I am absolutely convinced that a great future is in store for our beloved land,” he said.

With that flourish out of his system, he convened his court and presided over a dispute about a will. What prompted the judge’s raptures was neither the Treaty brought back from London by Michael Collins and the other plenipotentiaries in early December 1921, nor the ratification of that agreement by a narrow margin in the Dáil a few days before.

Instead, it was the handover of Dublin Castle to the Irish provisional government on January 16, 1922. This “vast and sudden change” in what Judge Johnston termed “the constitution and government of this country” marked the end of British rule.

It meant, as the Irish Independent’s editorial put it, the demise of “the sinister influence and the arrogant sway of Dublin Castle”, that “the old and hateful regime gives way to a government representative of and responsive to the Irish people”.

From the Skibbereen Eagle to the New York Times, editors around the world made the same comparison – the hand-over of Dublin Castle was the “downfall of a Bastille”.

That such a comparison seemed fitting says much of what Dublin Castle had come to symbolise. That three companies of Auxiliaries were stationed there during the worst of the War of Independence; and that Peadar Clancy, Dick McKee and Conor Clune died the type of death they did there in November 1920, added another gruesome chapter to the Castle’s perceived history of bureaucracy, jobbery and misrule.

But the comparison with the fall of the Bastille also captures something of the sense of hope the handover of Dublin Castle seemed to represent in those January days. Hope doesn’t have much of a history in Ireland. Maybe because we know how 1922 went on to collapse into civil war, because we know its costs, it’s hard to share the enthusiasm of the many thousands who stood outside the gates of the Castle on a cold Monday morning in January 1922, who cheered the provisional government going in and coming out and who stayed on those streets until 11pm.

To assume their perseverance and their cheers were simply expressions of support for the Treaty would be to accept too readily that the split that had divided the Dáil so intensely was already clear and emphatic among the wider public by January 16, 1922. Even those who loathed the Treaty might have taken some satisfaction in seeing Collins enter Dublin Castle and come out, as the Kilkenny People put it, “with its title deeds in his revolver pocket”.

What those people hoped for their own future, what that moment of the handover may have signified for them, is impossible to know; but the high-flown phrases used in the next morning’s newspapers suggest some of what they were being encouraged to expect of an Irish-governed Ireland now that the Castle’s day was seemingly done.

There was to be prosperity, probity, “fair play all round”. They were promised an Ireland “without distinction of class or creed”, an Ireland where the divisions of unionism and nationalism would end.  

The more pragmatic may have read with greater interest which minister was to take charge of which of the Castle’s departments and boards, of the bodies that structured life, from the registration of a birth to the recording of a death, from the workings of the Land Commission to the inefficiencies of the Local Government Board. And hope might have come in the shape of how all of that might change.

Of those early days of 1922, the Australian writers Joice Nankivell and Sydney Loch said: “Ireland is in the hopeful present”. As we move from centenaries of the Treaty to the split and then inevitably on to civil war, we might do well to remember that sentiment, that sense of a “hopeful present”, and that for some like Batt O’Connor, standing “amongst a crowd of sightseers at Dublin Castle, I witnessed the greatest event in all my life”.

To mark that moment, a free two-day conference hosted by Trinity College Dublin and part of the Decade of Centenaries Programme will be live-streamed from Dublin Castle tomorrow and Saturday. (For further details see

This article was originally published in the Irish Independent on Jan 13, 2022.