The Irish Civil War

By Gerry O’Shea

The Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiated with British prime minister, Lloyd George, was signed in London in December 1921. The cabinet in Dublin narrowly approved it by a vote of 4 to 3 with strong disapproval expressed by the president of that executive, Eamon de Valera.

His opposition and the ominous closeness of this cabinet vote was reflected in the Dail judgement when, after days of heated debate, on January 6 1922, 64 representatives voted for it with fifty-seven opposed. Some historians believe that if the vote had taken place before the Christmas break the Treaty would have been defeated. The clear holiday message from many Irish people was that they did not want a renewal of war.

Michael Collins argued that the agreement ended British rule in most of Ireland after more than 700 years of occupation, but Eamon de Valera pointed out that they had fought for a republic and the Treaty requirement to pledge fealty to the British monarch ran completely counter to this commitment.

De Valera was not a Republican ideologue, but he was fixated on the status of the new state, and he felt that the agreement reached did not reflect the republican ideals embraced by the revolution started in 1916. For Collins, however, the terms of the Treaty provided a solid basis for the future achievement of full independence.

Mr de Valera had developed an ingenious alternative proposal, called Document No. 2, which split the difference with the British on the crucial issue of sovereignty – for all internal, domestic matters the new state would function as a republic while Britain would have effective veto power in dealing with external matters.

Michael Collins presented this idea, also called External Association, on three separate occasions during the London negotiations, but it was firmly rejected by the British side who insisted that any settlement had to be within the Empire.

A group of TDs led by the indomitable Mary MacSwiney, sister of the hunger strike hero, was dismissive of Dev’s Document and would certainly have opposed it, but with unanimous approval by the cabinet – Cathal Brugha and Austin Stack who voted against the agreement in cabinet, were on board with External Association – the treaty would have sailed through the Dáil.

De Valera was president of the Provisional Government and the acknowledged political leader of the revolution. His imprimatur would have marginalized the absolutists who were only willing to settle for a 32-county republic. Document No 2 was a sincere effort to accommodate a wide swathe of public opinion which would have avoided a serious civil war.

Back to reality, emotions ran high, and while a razor-thin pro-treaty majority in the cabinet and in the Dáil ensured legal acceptance of the deal, it also guaranteed vocal opposition by men and women highlighting their devotion to the symbolic Irish republic.

The narrow democratic victory should have been respected. Based on that historic vote on January 7, the Free State was set up and prevailed, despite the opposition of the Republicans who opposed it verbally and, beginning in June, militarily, in a disastrous civil war. 

In late March the IRA, under the leadership of Liam Lynch, held a convention in Dublin. They couldn’t agree on strategy between a moderate group led by Lynch who wanted to continue negotiations with the pro-treaty leaders and a faction headed by Rory O’Connor and Liam Mellows who favored immediate war against the emerging new state. Lynch was deposed and the new hardline executive in an act of defiance occupied the Four Courts building, the Irish judiciary’s administrative center.

On June 22, Sir Henry Wilson was killed in London by two IRA guerillas. The British Government believed that the orders for his death came from the Four Courts, and they instructed the British forces still in Dublin to capture that building. On June 26 Free State General Ginger O’Connell was kidnapped and imprisoned in the Four Courts.

In response to these happenings, Michael Collins felt he had to dislodge the occupiers, and he ordered the National Army (NA) to do so, beginning on the night of June 27 – the starting date of the Irish civil war.

Early on, an opportunity existed for the anti-Treaty IRA to achieve a military victory. A majority of the men active in the War of Independence opposed the agreement, and the National Army (NA) was recruiting heavily to bolster its ranks. Instead of engaging in battles to control Dublin, the leaders were holed up in the Four Courts where they were bound to be attacked by forces with superior armaments. In fact, their resistance collapsed quickly after two days of bombardment.

In Limerick city in early July the NA had just 400 men with 150 rifles while the anti-Treaty forces, gathered from Cork, Kerry and Limerick, under the re-instated leadership of Liam Lynch, were very much on the offensive with 700 well-armed experienced fighters.

NA reinforcements from Galway and the midlands led to nine days of intense battles with neither side giving ground. The arrival of some heavy artillery boosted the government forces and when they captured the Strand Military Barracks the republican forces had to surrender bringing an end to the Battle of Limerick. Six members from each side were killed as well as eleven civilians.

Cumann na mBan also split on the Treaty. The six female members of the Dail, led by Mary MacSwiney, voted against the agreement, although four of them lost their seats in the national election in June. They held a convention in Dublin a month after the Dail vote, and 86% of the 419 delegates opposed the Treaty. While there is no doubt about the republican sentiment dominating Cumann na mBan, these numbers did not reflect the opinions in many branches.

Leading pro-treaty members like Alice Stopford Green and Louise Gavan Duffy set up an alternative women’s organization, which they named Cumann na Saoirse. They were strong in Dublin, where seventeen branches marched in Michael Collins’ funeral, Cork, Tipperary, Monaghan, Meath and Kildare. They helped to distribute pro-Treaty government propaganda literature, arranged dances and entertainment for NA forces but they were far less involved in military matters than Cumann na mBan.

Allowing for the caveat that accompanies any generalization, it is fair to assert that the bourgeoisie supported the treaty – middle classes, large farmers, business people, the Catholic Church, the commercial press, all parts of the establishment, favored the Treaty. On the other side were the men of no property from the lower strata of society, small farmers and laborers who tended to respond better to the republican ideal. Significantly, the Labor Party supported the Treaty.

Collins and de Valera both strongly opposed a civil war, but finding some way to avoid it presented a major challenge. Prior to the June election, they formulated a Pact where representatives of both sides would appear on the Sinn Féin voting list. The results saw 58 pro-Treaty TDs returned and 36 on the other side.

Liam Lynch, a devoted idealist, was killed in the Knockmealdown mountains on April 10, 1923. The army council under Frank Aiken reassembled in Mullinahone in County Tipperary and decided on a ceasefire with an order to dump arms in the following month – one hundred years ago.

There was a horrible intimacy about the war as former comrades turned their arms and hatred against friends and colleagues. It lasted for ten months, surely the saddest period in Irish history.

Gerry is a retired teacher and school counsellor. He lives in Yonkers, NY. He blogs at wemustbetalking.blogspot.com

Ref: Atlas of the Irish Revolution, 2017

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