Skip to main content

The Irish Civil War

 The Irish Civil War               Gerry OShea

The Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiated with British prime minister, Lloyd George, was signed in London in December 1921. The cabinet in Dublin narrowly accepted 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 the cabinet vote was reflected in the Dail debate when, after days of heated discussion, on January 6th, 1922, sixty-four 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. 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 leaders 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 Dail.

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 Dail 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 7th, 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 favoring immediate war against the emerging new state. Lynch was deposed and the new hardline executive, in an act of symbolic defiance, occupied the Four Courts Building in Dublin, the Irish judiciary’s administrative center.

On June 22nd, 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, - some historians now see it as having Collins’ imprint - and they instructed the British forces still in Dublin to capture that building. On June 26th Free State General Ginger O’Connell was kidnapped and imprisoned by supporters of the men 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 27th – 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 NA was hastily recruiting 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 eventually 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’ cortege, Cork, Tipperary, Monaghan, Meath and Kildare. They helped to distribute pro-Treaty propaganda literature, arranged dances and nursed injured members of the 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 bourgeoise supported the Treaty – middle classes, large farmers, business people, the Catholic Church, the commercial press, all parts of the establishment, sided with accepting the agreement. 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 Fein 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 10th, 1923. The army council under Frank Aiken reassembled in Mullinahone in County Tipperary and decided on a ceasefire with an order to dump arms coming the following month – a hundred years ago.

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

Gerry OShea blogs at wemustbetalking


Popular posts from this blog

Duffy's Cut: A Story for the Ages

    Duffy’s Cut: A Story for the Ages               Gerry OShea I attended the annual commemoration of the untimely deaths in 1832 of 57 Irish laborers who worked and died at a stretch of railway track in Chester County, Pennsylvania known as Duffy’s Cut. The service took place at Laurel Hill Cemetery located in the East Falls neighborhood of Philadelphia where a monument is erected in their memory. The ceremony was conducted by Dr. William Watson, a History professor in nearby Immaculata University, and his twin brother, Frank, a Lutheran pastor in Whiting, New Jersey. They were the driving force behind the research into the tragic happenings at Duffy’s Cut nearly two hundred years ago. After the vivacious Vincent Gallagher sang the anthems, the professor spoke, the priest prayed and they were both part of the piping tribute. Dr.William and a lady from the Donegal Society, author Marita Krivda, talked about the tragedy of the bodies of the young immigrants   dumped in an improvi

Anger in America

  Anger in America                     Gerry OShea Rage is dominating the American body politic. The culture has become so toxic that we can no longer just agree to disagree.   In April of this year, reputable pollsters revealed that 70% of Republicans declared that the presidential election was stolen and Donald Trump should be re-installed in the White House. A September gauge of opinion showed that the figure of Republican disbelievers in the Biden presidency has grown to a whopping 78%. It is important to explain that there is not a scintilla of evidence supporting this erroneous contention. Mr. Trump’s lawyers’ claims of electoral impropriety were considered by close to sixty judges, some of whom were appointed by the former president, and none of them even allowed the case to be heard because no evidence of wrongdoing was presented in court. The Supreme Court with a strong influence of Trump appointees refused even to consider the case. The Department of Justice under Wil

Perspectives on Irish Unification

  Perspectives on a United Ireland                 Gerry OShea A few months ago, my son-in-law, Jimmy Frawley, who lives in Dublin, brought two of his children, aged 10 and 15, on a weekend trip to Belfast. He wanted them to become acquainted with a part of the island that they had never visited and knew little about. Jimmy had read positive comments about the tours provided by the Black Taxi service, and, on arrival, he engaged one at the train station to provide a trip around Belfast. They were lucky to get a talkative and knowledgeable guide who showed the main sites of interest with stops at murals and drawings representing the culture of both traditions in the divided city. His script was balanced and fair. However, towards the end of the hour-long tour he mentioned that his brother and uncle were shot at by Republicans back in the troubled 1980’s. Coming to the end, my son-in-law asked him whether he thought that a United Ireland would happen after the border poll promised