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The Irish Civil War – A brief overview

John Dorney lays out the need-to-know facts about the Irish Civil war of 1922-23. For more detailed articles see, The Irish Story, Civil War archive.

The Irish Civil war was a conflict between Irish nationalists in 1922-23 over whether or not to accept the Anglo-Irish Treaty.

The Treaty came about as a result of both political agitation and guerrilla warfare by the Irish Republican movement, organised respectively in Sinn Fein and the Irish Republican Army between 1918 and 1921.

In 1918, Sinn Fein won a general election on the basis that it would withdraw from the British parliament, declare an Irish Republic and secede from the British Empire – rejecting earlier offers of Home Rule or limited self-government for Ireland. For the following three years, but especially from the middle of 1920 until the summer of 1921, both IRA insurgency and British repression, in what is now called the War of Independence, produced about 2,000 deaths in Ireland.

The Treaty

In July 1921, a truce was arranged between British and Irish republican forces, negotiations were opened and ended in the signing of the Treaty on December 6 1921. The Treaty gave the 26 southern counties of Ireland – now the Irish Free State – a considerable degree of independence – the same within the British commonwealth as Australia and Canada. The British military garrison was to be withdrawn and the RIC police disbanded.

However the settlement dissolved the Republic declared in 1918 and pledged Irish TDs or members of parliament to swear allegiance to the British monarch. The British retained three naval bases along the Irish coast at Cobh, Bearhaven and Lough Swilly. It also confirmed the partition of Ireland between North and South, which had already been instituted under the 1920 Government of Ireland Act.

The Treaty gave most of Ireland substantial independence but dissolved the Republic declared in 1918

For all of these reasons, the Treaty was viewed as a step backwards by many Irish Republicans and nationalists. It was narrowly passed by the Dail or republican parliament in January 1922, but the President of the Republic, Eamon de Valera and two of his ministers resigned in protest. Having declined to take part in the Treaty negotiations, de Valera promoted a revision whereby Ireland would have ‘external association’ with the British Commonwealth. Those who had signed the Treaty, headed by Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith formed a Provisional Government to oversee the handover of power from the British to the new Irish state.

However, what brought about civil war was the split in the ranks of the IRA. From February 1922, Collins began building a new National Army from pro-Treaty IRA units. In March 1922 the IRA called a convention and the majority repudiated the right of the Dail to dissolve the Republic. The two sides almost came to blows over who would occupy Limerick. In April a hardline anti-Treaty IRA group under Rory O’Connor occupied the Four Courts, the centre of the courts system in Dublin, in defiance of the Provisional Government and the Treaty. Michael Collins managed to avert bloodshed in the short term by organising a pact with Eamon de Valera to re-unite Sinn Fein and a similar initiative with the anti-Treaty IRA, which proposed joint operations against Northern Ireland.

In June 1922, the first elections were held in the Free State. Just before the elections were held, the pact between pro and anti-Treaty sides broke down over the inclusion of the British monarch in the Free State’s constitution. Michael Collins’ pro-Treaty Sinn Fein won a majority of seats.

Outbreak of War

Just ten days later, a confluence of events conspired to spark civil war out of the tensions over the Treaty. First a retired British general, Henry Wilson, was shot dead in London by two IRA members, who were later hanged. It has never been proved who ordered the killing but the anti-Treaty IRA certainly had nothing to do with it and it may even have been ordered by Collins himself in revenge for Wilson’s role as military advisor in Northern Ireland. The British blamed the IRA group in the Four Courts and threatened Collins that they would attack the Four Courts, using the 6,000 British troops still in Dublin,  if he did not do it. Secondly, pro-Treaty forces arrested an anti-Treaty IRA officer Leo Henderson and in response the Four Courts garrison abducted a Free State officer, JJ Ginger O’Connell.

War broke in June 1922 out due to a culmination of tensions that dated back to the anti-Treaty IRA occupying the Four Courts in Dublin April 1922.

Michael Collins and the Provisional Government gave the Four Courts garrison a final chance to surrender and hand back O’Connell or they would attack the Courts. The ultimatum ran out and pro-Treaty troops opened fire on the Courts with artillery borrowed from the British on June 28, 1922. This action caused IRA units around the country to take sides and most, especially in the south, sided with the anti-Treaty faction, now headed by Liam Lynch. Eamon de Valera initially rejoined the IRA as an ordinary volunteer but later, in October 1922, set up a clandestine republican government to oppose the Free State.

Both sides developed rival narratives to support their position. The pro-Treaty or Free State line was that the Dail had voted for the Treaty and the people had endorsed their decision in an election in June 1922. They were therefore upholding democracy, the, ‘will of the people’, and the ‘people’s rights’ to establish an Irish government under the Treaty. Those in the IRA who opposed them had mutinied against their civilian authorities and were ‘mutineers’ or ‘irregulars’.

The anti-Treatyites, or republicans argued that the Treaty had been imposed by the British under threat of war, that there could be no free vote while there was British threat of re-occupation and that the Treaty did not represent true Irish independence. They claimed that the Provisional government was really a ‘military junta’ doing Britain’s bidding.

The pro-Treaty forces took Dublin after a weeks’ fighting and then proceeded to secure the other towns and cities held by the anti-Treatyites. Anti-Treaty strongholds in Cork and Kerry were taken by sea in a series of landings in July and August 1922, meaning that by the end of that month, it appeared that the pro-Treaty forces had won. British supplies of armoured vehicles and artillery effectively decided the war’s conventional phase in their favour.

Guerrilla war

However the anti-Treaty IRA attempted to wage a guerrilla campaign against the Free State like that which they had mounted against the British. In August 1922, this claimed its most prominent victim when Michael Collins, head of the Provisional Government and Commander in Chief of the National Army was killed in an ambush in his native Cork. Arthur Griffith had also died of a stroke not long before. WT Cosgrave became President of the Provisional Government and Richard Mulcahy the Army Commander in Chief.

The anti-Treaty IRA’s guerrilla campaign gave the Provisional government a serious security problem which it eventually put down throught internment and execution of anti-Treaty fighters.

In the autumn of 1922, the guerrilla campaign caused serious losses to the National Army and disruption of  the establishment of the new government. In an effort to crush this campaign, the government embarked on a policy of executions of captured guerrillas. The first were executed in Dublin in November 1922, followed by senior anti-Treaty propagandist Erskine Childers.

In reprisal the IRA assassinated pro-Treaty TD (member of parliament) Sean Hales and in revenge for that, four IRA leaders who had occupied the Four Courts – Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellows, Joe McKelvey and Richard Barret – were summarily executed. In all between 77 and 81 republicans were officially executed and another 100-150 assassinated or summarily killed in the field. The worst instance of this occurred in Kerry, where, in reprisal for a bomb attack in March 1923 that killed 5 National Army soldiers, within a week, 17 prisoners were killed in three separate incidents after being tied to landmines which were then detonated.

By the spring of 1923, the republicans’ campaign had been reduced mainly to destruction of property – such as the railway lines and the houses of the old landed elite. A great number had been imprisoned – around 12,000. When Liam Lynch, the anti-Treaty IRA leader, was killed in action in April 1923, his successor Frank Aiken, at the urging of civilian republicans under Eamon de Valera, called a ceasefire and then in May 1923 ordered their remaining fighters to ‘dump arms’ and return home – effectively ending the war. No surrender was called however and no formal end to the war was ever negotiated.

Aftermath

An election was held in August 1923 which the pro-Treaty party, now organised as Cumman na nGaedheal, won. Many republican candidates, though allowed to participate, were still imprisoned. Some 8,000 of the 12,000 or so anti-Treaty internees went on hunger strike in November 1923 and three died but the prisoners were not released until mid 1924.

Aside from the military confrontation between pro and anti-Treatyites, the absence of effective government and policing throughout the civil war saw a great deal of social and criminal violence. Three of those executed by the Free State were armed criminals rather than guerrillas. The Army was also used to disperse the pickets of a strike by postal workers in September 1922 and in mid 1923 a Special Infantry Corps was deployed to break up farm labourers’ strikes across the south east. After the conflict however, the Free State managed to establish an unarmed police corps, the Garda Siochana.

The civil war left many damaging legacies and remained taboo in Ireland for many years

After the end of the war in March 1924, several senior National Army officers threatened a mutiny in protest against demobilization of the army and the lack of progress towards a united Ireland.

The war left the Irish nationalist parties highly polarised and embittered.  The total casualty list has still not been definitively determined but appears to be about 1,500 killed with some thousands more injured. The anti-Treatyites entered politics as Fianna Fail in 1927 and came to power peacefully in 1932 – despite widespread rioting between the IRA and the pro-Treaty Blueshirt movement. By 1939, most of what they considered the objectionable features of the Treaty had been removed by acts of parliament. They and Fine Gael (pro-Treaty) dominated Irish politics for most of the 20th century.

The legacies of the civil war were many, but among them were; hostility between the Irish state and what remained of the IRA, the enactment of extensive repressive legislation authorising internment and execution in emergency circumstances, the stripping of local government of much of its powers and their centralisation in Dublin.

The civil war was long considered a taboo subject in Ireland and was little commemorated or studied until relatively recently.

See also Making Sense of the Irish Civil War.

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