Making Sense of the Irish Civil War – A Conversation with Gavin Foster

armcar sligo fs
Free State troops in an armoured car in Sligo.

Professor Gavin Foster of the Department of Canadian Irish studies at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec in conversation with John Dorney about the Irish Civil War of 1922-23.

For an overview of the civil war and what caused it see The Irish Civil War – A Brief Overview for our archive of articles to date on the conflict see The Irish Story Civil War Archive.


The Irish Civil War, as Gavin Foster comments in the interview, ‘has still not been digested’. That is although people will still argue about it passionately, there is little real understanding of why and how it happened. As we have argued before on The Irish Story people preferred largely to forget the final phase of the Irish independence struggle altogether – in which Irish nationalists fought each other over the Anglo Irish Treaty – as not only too painful but also in hindsight, meaningless.

We discuss whether any sense can in fact be made of the conflict, or if, as Tim Pat Coogan once wrote, it was,  ‘one of the most superfluous and wasteful conflicts experienced by man since the war between Big Enders and the Little Enders that Dean Swift described in Gulliver’s Travels’


Two things feature prominently in debates over the split over the Anglo-Irish Treaty, signed in December 1921 between the British Government and representatives of the revolutionary Irish Republic declared by Sinn Fein in 1919.

The first of these was the degree to which the new Irish Free State would be independent of Britain. The most potent symbol of this was the ‘Oath of Allegiance’ which future Irish parliamentarians would, under the Treaty, have to take to the British monarch.  It read;

I… do solemnly swear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of the Irish Free State as by law established, and that I will be faithful to His Majesty King George V, his heirs and successors by law in virtue of the common citizenship of Ireland with Great Britain and her adherence to and membership of the group of nations forming the British Commonwealth of nations.

The idea of a civil war fought over something so abstract as an oath is often derided, but as we discuss, the Oath, ‘stood in for’ or represented the issue of where sovereignty would really lie in independent Ireland – in the people – as classical republican theory would hold – or in the person of the British monarch. Moreover, if as pro-Treatyites and many later commentators would argue, the Oath was irrelevant, we pose the question of why the British negotiators insisted on it unyielding during and after the Treaty negotiations.

Was the civil war fought over ‘a form of words’?

The second major issue we discuss is that of partition and the separation of the six north eastern counties as Northern Ireland. While popularly held to be the cause of the southern Civil War, it in fact played an important but highly complex and indirect role in the outbreak of the war. Both sides claimed to be anti-partitionist and it was in fact the pro-Treaty side under Michael Collins who were to the forefront in a clandestine military assault on the six counties in early 1922. Due to this, the Free State side managed to win over much of the Northern IRA, some of whom paradoxically helped to put down the anti-Treatyites in the South in 1922-23.

We also discuss however, how the Civil War by forcing the southern state to prioritise its own survival ahead of unification of Ireland, in fact copper fastened partition, to the extent that by 1923 the anti-Treatyites could plausibly claim they were the only ones who really stood for a united Ireland.

We also discuss the vexed question of whether the war represented a battle between pro-Treaty ‘democrats’ and anti-Treaty ‘militarists’ and ‘dictators in waiting’.

The Nature of Civil War Violence

Gavin Foster argues that, although not especially bloody by the standards of other civil wars (the death toll in its nine months is believed to be about 1,500)  the Irish Civil War did witness a disturbing series of atrocities, revenge killings and widespread destruction of property.

We talk about the question of why the violence between former comrades became so vicious but also why it remained on the whole of relatively low intensity and scattered geographically.

We discuss the anti-Treatyite’s military weakness and their inability to wage conventional war. They found it impossible to coordinate large numbers of fighters and to plan any operation larger than a big raid. But one point that comes up in discussion is that due to British support of the pro-Treaty government, conventional military victory was never a realistic possibility for the anti-Treatyites anyway. Guerrilla warfare and attempts to subvert the state rather than destroy its army therefore were rational – if the long term self destructive – tactics.

We discuss why the civil war was as bad as it was but also why it was not worse.

The prevalence of assassination also explains many of the war’s reprisals and atrocities. We refer to, rather than discuss the massacres of anti-Treaty prisoners in Kerry in 1923 at Ballyseedy and elsewhere and the ‘murder gang’ attached to Free State forces in Dublin.

The Free State policy of executions from November 1922, Gavin argues provoked short term shock and outrage among the public, but as it went on, generated indifference – to the extent that by March 1923 the republicans mounted a campaign against public entertainments in protest at the people’s disinterest in the plight of their ‘murdered’ fighters’.

We argue that the executions did indeed act as an effective ‘terror tactic’ but that Free State military operations were characterised much more by arrest and imprisonment than by killing.


Social and criminal violence also plagued the country in the months of civil war. Gavin argues that an important strain of civil war violence should be understood as the new Irish state imposing its authority on a country which for the previous five years had been largely outside of all state control due the revolt against British rule.

Troops were used not only to put down the anti-Treaty guerrillas but also to police strikes and land occupations, to arrest poteen distillers and to collect taxes – none of which the new police force (The Civic  Guard, now the Garda Siochana) was able to do.

Did 1923 see the Irish revolution triumphant or betrayed?

While many republicans argued at the time and later that the land question – the redistribution of land to those who worked it – should have been a means of rallying poor farmers to their side, we argue that like partition, in the short term the pro-Treaty side made this issue their own, passing a Land Act purchasing the remaining landed estates and selling them to small farmers, in mid 1923. At the same time, the Special Infantry Corps of the National Army put down, sometimes violently strikes of agricultural labourers. The farming class therefore emerged to a large extent as the victors of the Civil War.

On the question of whether the civil war left the Irish revolution triumphant or betrayed, Gavin Foster argues that, while much was achieved in terms of Irish self-government, 1923 saw not elation but disillusion on all sides. Not only had Irishmen killed each other but  it was already clear that independence alone would not solve issues such as emigration, poverty and land hunger.

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