Thinking about Violence in the Irish Civil War

The Rotunda theatre Dublin, burnt by anti-Treaty IRA in November 1922
The Rotunda theatre Dublin, burnt by anti-Treaty IRA in November 1922

John Dorney on the logic of violence in the Irish Civil War, based on research for his forthcoming book on the Civil War in Dublin, to be published by Merrion Press. See also Making Sense of the Irish Civil War.

In what kind of war do rival sides fight over who can collect dog licences? What kind of war is it when more combatants are killed in executions than in combat?

Why would a government that apparently has an overwhelming military advantage introduce judicial executions to finish a war it has already won?

This essay is the result of research for forthcoming book on the Irish Civil War in the Dublin area. The conflict itself is often dismissed as form of madness, its violence, particularly the grim litany of executions, sabotage and destruction of property, portrayed as irrational and mindless.

The intimate history of the Civil War is often therefore dismissed as of little interest, as a mere state of anarchy or as an almost inexplicable outbreak of collective cruelty. A detailed look at Civil War violence as it occurred in Dublin however, shows that the war had its own internal logic, both sides with more or less coherent strategies that explain much of the violence that occurred.

Measuring violence

Fighting near the Four Courts at the start of the Civil War.
Fighting near the Four Courts at the start of the Civil War.

By my count there were at least 258 fatal casualties in Dublin city and its environs during the Irish Civil War, if we include the period from the start of 1922 to the end of 1923.

In some ways this looks like a small number, not only compared to other internal conflicts in the inter war years, but also given the numbers of armed men engaged.

At the start of the Civil War, some 2,000 pro-Treaty soldiers in the National Army, armed with plentiful small arms, armoured cars and some artillery, took on over  1,000 fairly well-armed fighters in the anti-Treaty IRA in a pitched battle in central Dublin.

In December 1922, at the midway point in the IRA’s guerrilla campaign in the city, the National Army, who clearly had good sources within the IRA, counted 300 men in the First Dublin Brigade, with 80 rifles 3 machine guns and 50 revolvers and in County Dublin the Second Dublin Brigade had 100 men with 50 rifles, 27 revolvers and 2 machine guns  -so a total of about 400 guerrillas split up into groups of about 8-10 for operational purposes [1].

In the Dublin area, at least 6,000 men and women combatants participated in the Civil War and about 260 people were killed.

By the close of the Civil War in May 1923, Dublin was garrisoned by 3,000 National Army troops, with 5,000 nearby at the Curragh as well as the CID, an armed police detective unit, over 75 strong, the related Protective Corps of 175 men charged with ‘protecting the houses and persons Government Ministers’ the Citizens’ Defence Force 150 strong (a pro-government plain-clothed militia) and some armed regular police.[2]

While the guerrilla columns of the IRA had been much reduced by this time, they both IRA Brigades (city and south county) could between them muster still muster about 250 men (140 men in Dublin 1 and 104 in Dublin 2) and about 50 rifles (with about 25 rounds each), 90 handguns and two Thompson submachine guns and a small amount of explosives[3].

Of the IRA, by my count, 84 men lost their lives – only 30 killed in combat, 43 executed or assassinated and the remainder killed in accidents or on hunger strike. It was far more common for anti-Treaty fighters and civilian activists to be arrested than killed. National Army figures show about 3,500 anti-Treatyites were arrested and interned in Dublin[4], a number borne out by Anne Marie McInerney’s research who cites 3,557 Dublin addresses among those interned in the prisons and camps in 1923. [5]

On the pro-Treaty or Free State side, there were at least 95 violent deaths but of these, at least 36 died in firearm or vehicle accidents, suicides or murders by their comrades rather than by enemy action (including one hanged for murder). As for civilians, I have counted 72 deaths attributable to Civil War fighting in Dublin, though most 50, were the result of crossfire rather than deliberate targeting. So in a city and county of nearly half a million people, with perhaps 9,000 armed men present at one time or another, there at least 258 but no more than 300 deaths (counting also 6 British soldiers and one RIC Inspector). [6]

Moreover the deaths that occurred in action are stacked towards the start of the Civil War, with nearly 200 dying between June 28th 1922 and the end of that year and only another 50 or so losing their lives in the city due to political violence between January 1923 and the IRA ceasefire in April of that year. A further 9 died afterwards due to Civil War related causes.

One might conclude therefore that Dublin was not a terribly violent place during the Civil War of 1922-23, that the conflict effectively ended thereby early 1923, that it had few lasting consequences and that the Free State’s keeping so many men under arms in the city was simply paranoia and that the state’s use of official and unofficial executions was needless cruelty.[7]

All of these assumptions are however, mistaken. To take the first, local studies have generally found low casualties for all areas of Ireland in the Civil War. Tom Doyle’s Kerry in the Irish Civil War for instance found 170 fatalities[8] in that county, while Peter Hart’s study of County Cork found 180 Civil War dead[9]. A rough count of my own found around 130 fatal casualties in County Tipperary while elsewhere casualties are reported to have been lower still – some 48 in Sligo according to Michael Farry[10], 45 in Kildare according to James Durney[11] and only 22 in Offaly according to Phillip McConway’s research[12].

These figures are likely to be underestimates, and future studies are likely to find more victims due to the expansion of sources now available, especially the National Army Pension Records, which have been released recently, but they are unlikely to be very large underestimates.

So comparatively, Dublin suffered more than its fair share of Civil War violence in what was, in terms of lives lost, a low intensity conflict.

However, assessing the Civil War’s course and severity solely in terms of casualties is mistaken, for two reasons. First, it misunderstands the kind of conflict the Irish Civil War was. Secondly it overlooks another important factor; the ways in which people died and how their killing was perceived by their surviving comrades.

Practically over by late 1922?


Civilians being evacuated from the fighting at Gardiner Street, July 1922.
Civilians being evacuated from the fighting at Gardiner Street, July 1922.

It is certainly true that the highest intensity fighting in Dublin occurred in the first week of the war, June 28th to July 5th 1922, in which the anti-Treaty forces were routed from the Four Courts and other fixed positions in the city.

At least 81 people lost their lives and at least 274 were wounded in this battle including 15 Republicans, 29 National Army soldiers and 36 civilians the damage to property amounted to many millions of pounds.

And it is also true that the majority of the remaining casualties were inflicted in a four month period from August to December 1922 when most of the larger guerrilla attacks in around Dublin took place. Thereafter the constant stream of arrests and seizures of weapons by Free State forces and perhaps the terrorising effect of executions, made it increasingly difficult for the anti-Treaty IRA to mount effective military attacks.

Why did the Free State think they were losing the by late 1922?

However, neither the pro-Treaty government nor the anti-Treaty IRA leadership believed the war, in Dublin or elsewhere, to be over by January 1923.

Indeed, Liam Lynch the IRA Chief of Staff, sounded a confident note in early December 1922 stating that economic warfare and sabotage would bring the Free State to its knees; ‘the Free State is on the verge of collapse’ he wrote to his ‘President’ Eamon de Valera.While he later wrote, ‘we cannot hope to overthrow the enemy unless there is a big desertion or complete change of the people to our side’ what I hope for is to bring the enemy to bankruptcy and make it impossible for a single Government Department to function. The enemy has to waste half his troops defending railway lines, officials’ houses, depots etc’ [13]

The expense of this, he hoped along with an assault on the Free State’s taxation system would bankrupt the state in short time. To this end he ordered his commanders to ‘smash up  the revenue system of our opponents’, a task of the utmost importance but of relatively little risk’. Free State tax collectors should be given formal warnings to desist.[14]

Lynch has often been accused of over optimism, even self-delusion, in his assessments of the war’s progress and certainly there is some truth to such assessments. His Director of Intelligence, for instance, (and the Dublin Brigades themselves) did not share his rosy view of republican prospects by the spring of 1923. Yes, the IRA Director of Intelligence Michael Carolan wrote to Lynch, the Free State’s budget was in deficit, but ‘credit is the important thing and this is still good enough to enable him to carry on’. In the meantime the overwhelming Free State military force meant that t was ‘suicide’ to carry out more assassinations of Government Minister as Lynch wanted.[15]

But the Free State civilian and military authorities were also in fact deeply pessimistic about the future in the winter of 1922-23. Cabinet Minutes of December 1922 show that ‘State funds are almost exhausted’ and the President, WT Cosgrave, ‘had to go to the Bank of Ireland to ask for more loans’. [16] In a more earthy manner, National Army officer Paddy O’Connor later told Ernie O’Malley of the situation in late 1922, “we were losing the support of the people, our men were war-weary and the going was too heavy for us. Our men had no grub, no uniforms and no pay’.[17]

Patrick Hogan the Minister for Agriculture wrote in January 1923, ‘In my opinion the civilian population will surrender definitely before too long in the Irregulars are able to continue their particular form of warfare… Two more months like the last two months will see the end of us and of the Free state’.[18]

Why was this, given that it can be shown that the anti-Treaty IRA as an effective military force, in Dublin and much of the rest of country as well, was largely broken by this time?

Monopolies of force


The house of MA Corrigan, Cief Stat Solicitor, at Rathmines, blown up by anti-Treaty forces in January 1923.
The house of MA Corrigan, Chief State Solicitor, at Rathmines, blown up by anti-Treaty forces in January 1923.

The reason is that the Irish Civil War was not only, perhaps not even primarily about armed conflict between military groups.

Rather, it was a competition between on the one hand the pro-Treatyites who wished to set up a viable state under the Treaty’s terms and on the other side, the anti-Treatyites, who wished, first to block this and if possible to resurrect a state of their own, the Republic declared in 1919.

So the true contest was not force of arms but whose state functioned effectively. What does this mean?

The primitive state, Charles Tilly once wrote is like a ‘protection racket’. [19] What this means is that armed bodies of men ‘extract’ taxation from a civil population, in return for protection from other armed groups or individuals.

The course of the Civil war was really about rival attempts to impose state power in the form of law and extracting taxation.

But in practice this is a rather blunt definition. Max Weber the father of sociology, defined a state as ‘the monopoly of legitimate force within a given territory’.[20] In other words, a state is indeed ‘bodies of armed men’, but it also represents the monopoly of legitimate force. In other words, it is a body that enforces its laws, extracts taxation to fund itself but also has these processes accepted by the majority of the citizenry.

In modern state since the 19th century this legitimation process includes a codified legal system, equality before the law and representative government. And such processes have certainly made states fairer and better run than before. However, it is important to grasp that elections, a legal code and constitutions cannot exist without the basic core of the state, the control over violence, the ability to enforce its laws and the ability to extract taxation to fund its servants.

Both sides in the Irish Civil War were acutely aware of this, a fact that helps to explain both Lynch’s optimism and Free State pessimism in late 1922 an early 1923. For by that time the anti-Treatyites’ arms were only rarely used in direct assaults on the Free State’s armed forces. Rather they were used to do two things; to wreck the Free State’s economy and tax collecting apparatus and thus its ability to raise revenue; and secondly to impose a rival system of ‘law’.

The assault on the Free State’s taxation and infrastructure system took the form of burning income tax offices, robbing post offices and mail trains, blocking roads and blowing up railway lines. To take a typical example the operations reported by the First Dublin Brigade (city) for the week ending February 17 included; raiding the house of an applicant to the CID, seizing the mails, cutting don telegraph poles and blocking roads.

Third Battalion (south side of the Liffey) was the most active with gun attacks on Free State posts at Beggars Bush, Brunswick Street and Ballsbridge Post Office. Sixth Battalion in the north county area blew up the Civic Guard Barracks at Skerries and also exploded the railway station at Howth. The Brigade’s Active Service Unit (ASU) intimidated workmen repairing telephone wire that had previously been cut, burned the van of a baker supplying Free State troops with bread and detonated a mine at a Government office on Parnell Square. The Intelligence Department for its part got its men to throw a bomb through the window of the Government stationary office on Fleet Street in the city centre.[21]

So by this time we can see that only some of the anti-Treaty guerrillas’ efforts went into attacking well armed and more numerous National Army troops. Rather most attacks were aimed either at destroying the workings of government or intimidating civilians away from cooperating with them.

A destroyed railway bridge, in this case in Ballyvoyle, County Waterford.
A destroyed railway bridge, in this case in Ballyvoyle, County Waterford.

The attempt to destroy the Free State’s system of law and order was done by a number of means, destroying police stations for one, for instance, Skerries and the Rathfarnham and Dundrum police barracks were all blown up in January 1923 by the Second Dublin Brigade – in both cases after first removing the unarmed policemen.

A second method was by intimidating civilians who cooperated with Free State security forces. In many Civil Wars, such tactics result in the majority of casualties being civilians killed for collaborating with the other side.

This was true to a degree even in the War of Independence, which saw far greater killing of civilians than the Civil War. In the Civil War itself however, it was far more common to intimidate civilians than to kill them. For instance the First Dublin Brigade, first Battalion reported in March 1923,  visiting the house of one Mrs Maher on Richmond Road, Drumcondra, whom they suspected of being an informer; ‘after many threats she swore that she would not do anything that would harm us again’.[22]

Thirdly in early 1923, the IRA embarked on a sustained, though mainly non-lethal attack on the Free State’s civilian supporters, to show that it could not provide them with security. Late 1922 saw two assassinations of pro-Treaty politicians in Dublin (Sean Hales and Seamus Dwyer) as well as a much more widespread arson campaign against the homes of TDs, Senators and other Free State supporters.

Rival protection rackets?


Rathfarnham police barracks, destroyed January 1923.
Rathfarnham police barracks, destroyed January 1923.

Finally and intriguingly the anti-Treaty IRA also took some steps towards attempting to replace the Free State as a collector of taxes and enforcer of laws (or at least a punisher of criminals).

In Dublin itself during the War of Independence, a Republican Police Corps had been set up under Sean Condron to battle organised criminals at the same time as the IRA’s Active Service Units were destroying the existing system of law enforcement in the capital.

In the Civil War this was rarely possible in the city itself, but in the hills around Blessington, some 30 km outside Dublin, where a column from the Second Dublin Brigade under Neil Boyle was active, Liam Lynch reported in February 1923 that the area, was under the effective control of the guerrillas of the Second Dublin Brigade. The area, he wrote to de Valera, was ‘mostly in our hands’. ‘The Free State only functions when they come in lorries’ and ‘even unionists prefer our armed men’ who he claimed protected them from robbery.[23]

Both sides reported that the countryside around Blessington, 30 km south of Dublin was in anti-Treaty hands as late as April 1923. The same was true of many districts around the country.

The National Army version differed only in emphasis. In January 1923, around 350 National Army troops under Hugo MacNeill with two armoured cars, 8 Lewis guns swept the mountains around Blessington. No IRA columns were found and no arrests made.[24]

Thereafter the IRA column which had gone to ground in the hills during the sweep returned to the villages around Blessington and according to a National Army report of May 1923, despite the installation of a permanent Army post of 60 men in Blessington itself the ‘fairly well armed ‘Irregular’ column of ten men was still ‘terrorising the locals’, taking food, clothing and bicycles. The locals they said ‘are afraid to talk to the military’. The area was not pacified until Boyle and his column were finally cornered in a cottage at Valleymount. Boyle himself was killed, according to the IRA while attempting to surrender and 11 of his men were captured on May 15th. [25]

Whether we go along with Lynch’s version, that the guerrillas were popular because they were providing security in the hills south of Dublin, or whether we go with the National Army version, whereby the guerrillas were a predatory band who had successfully intimidated the civilian population, the result is basically the same. For much of the Civil War the area was out of Free State hands, despite few instances of combat in the area after the close of 1922. This scenario, so close to Dublin, was replicated very widely over the country as a whole in districts as far apart as south Kerry, north Leitrim and south Wexford.

Throughout the War of Independence against the British, the IRA had collected unofficial ‘war taxes’ in many localities from the civilian population, a practice that continued into the Truce days of late 1921 an early 1922. In December 1920 Richard Mulcahy, at that time IRA Chief of Staff, ordered each IRA Company around the country to collect money over three or four days and to lodge it with the Brigade Quartermaster in order to buy arms[26]. In the Truce period when the IRA could act with more impunity, Mulcahy worried that such levies were not voluntary. Levies he warned ‘may not be imposed’ by force or threats. [27]

In the early days of the Civil War, when the anti-Treatyites held most of the south of Ireland they regularised what was effectively a system of taxation by control of the Customs and Excise office at Cork city, and collecting duties on goods imported into Ireland. This of course was brought to an end by when the National Army retook Cork and the rest of the Munster towns in the summer of 1922.

However, even during the guerrilla campaign in late 1922, in Dublin the Free State’s capital, the IRA made some attempt to collect its own taxes. Lynch wrote to Austin Stack that republican tax collectors should be assigned and paid to collect levies, particularly on alcohol. Revenues raised were to go to the IRA, ‘contraband goods’ of those who refused to pay were to be seized.[28]

The IRA printed off thousands of dog licences in the name of the Irish Republic and informed its Volunteers that they were expected to collect them from dog owners. Liam Lynch acknowledged that this was as much for propaganda value, to show that an underground Republic existed, as to raise revenue, and in practice many of the republican ‘tax forms’ were seized in a raid on a republican printing press in early 1923. [29]

But the point is clear, the Civil War was in essence a completion between two armed groups both seeking to impose systems of law and to extract taxation.

The logic of Civil War violence


Until the Free State could effectively do both of these things, they had not won, a fact which brings a lot of Civil War violence into sharper focus. The anti-Treatyite campaign against state property, economic targets and the state’s revenue was not mindless vandalism as it has sometimes been painted. Rather it was a calculated attempt to paralyse the Free State and most of it was ordered from the top of the anti-Treaty IRA

Similarly the Free State’s recruitment of such a large army and the proliferation of paramilitary armed groups such as the CID and CDF was not the result of paranoia, or as has been argued an attempt to alleviate unemployment.[30] Garrisoning every vulnerable point of the state’s infrastructure was the only way to protect its financial infrastructure and to impose its laws effectively.

The Irish Civil War may have been futile but the belligerents were not senseless.

Furthermore, the State’s use of executions, both official and unofficial is best understood as a means of terrorizing an opponent that increasingly refused open battle but which continued to nibble away at the state’s life support, into submission. They were not, or at least not only, vindictive or revenge killings, rather, like republican violence, they had a point.

In both cases, one can argue that such strategies were misguided. The anti-Treaty campaign to destroy the infant Irish state, its economy and fiscal apparatus would, at best have left the republicans in charge of a failed state, unable to support itself. The pro-Treaty policy of executions was arguably less effective in ending the war than what they eventually developed a more coherent system of intelligence leading to high level arrests, would have been. But neither strategy was necessarily illogical in pursuit of their short term goals.

We may conclude that the Civil War over the Treaty was a terrible mistake, and that the violence that accompanied it was therefore futile, but it was not senseless.


[1] Military Archives, National Army Eastern Command Intelligence Reports,  December 1922-January 1923 cw/ops/07/15

[2]Memo to Joseph McGrath by AS O’Muieadhaigh 13 October 1923, National Archives TAOIS/S3331

[3] Twomey papers P69/22 Dublin 1, (city)’s inventory was reported by National Army intelligence on May 2 1923. National Army archive cw/ops/07/16.

[4] Irish Times reports 450 taken after July 1922 battle. NA file (CW/P/3/5) gives 187 names arrested in ‘bridges job’ August 1922. Same file gives 310 names of prisoners processed through Wellington Barracks to Prisons/Camps in August 1922. C. 300 names processed through in September 1922 C 100 in October 1922 Data for prisoners missing for November and December 1922 and January 1923 (CW/P/03/06) Arrested in Dublin, 13 February 1923 – July 1923 gives 226 names. Above gives c 1,300 arrested and interned in Dublin,  File (CW/P/03/01) gives over 2,600 names arrested and mostly interned in Dublin command December 1922-July1923, Tentative total c 3,500 arrested and interned.

[5] Figure given at Talk, 15/10/15, citing Military file ie/ma/cw/p)

[6] See Appendix for details

[7] Padraig Yeates, for instance in his recent, Dublin, A City in Civil War 1921-23, states that ‘the civil war was effectively over in Dublin by January 1923’. QUOTE AND PG NO

[8] Doyle, The Civil War in Kerry, p328-331

[9] Hart, The IRA and its Enemies, p 121

[10] The Irish Revolution: Sligo 1912–23

[11] James Durney, the Civil War in Kildare, p14-15

[12] McConway, The Civil War in Offally, Offally Tribune, 2 January 2008.

[13] De Valera Papers, UCD p150/1749 De Valera-Lynch correspondence 14 December 1922 and 28 December 1922

[14] Lynch to Austin Stack February 21, 1923, De Valera papers p150/1749 UCD

[15] DI to Lynch 30 March 1923 Toumey Papers UCD /69/11

[16] Cabinet Minutes December 20, 1922, Mulcahy Papers UCD P/7/B/245

[17] O’Connor, Connolly, Sleep Soldier Sleep, p131

[18] Cited in Michael Hopkinson, Green Against Green, the Irish Civil War, p 222

[19]  Charles Tilly, War Making and State Making as Organised Crime,

[20] Max Weber, Politics as Vocation (1919)

[21] Dublin Brigade weekly report February 17 1923 Toumey Papers UCD, p69/20

[22] Ibid. Report 21 March 1923

[23] Lynch to de Valera, 12 February 1923, De Valera Papers, UCD p150/1749

[24] National Army Dublin Command reports February 1923  (CW/OP/07/01)

[25] Dublin 2 Brigade reports, 16 May 1923 Toumey Ppaers p69/22

[26] IRA General Orders 3/12/1920 Mulcahy Papers UCD p/7/a/45

[27] Ibid. 7 October 1921

[28] Lynch to Austin Stack February 21, 1923, De Valera papers p150/1749 UCD

[29] IRA Director Publicity to AG 30/12/1922 Twomey papers P69/79

[30] As Gavin Foster argues, in my view mistakenly in his fine book The Irish Civil War and Society, p63

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