The Irish Civil War (June 28 1922 – May 24 1923) pitted supporters of the Anglo-Irish Treaty against its opponents. The treaty established the Irish Free State under British dominion and without the six counties of Northern Ireland. The Civil War claimed more lives than the War of Independence that preceded it and left Irish society deeply divided. Its influence in Irish politics remains evident today.
The Anglo-Irish Treaty arose from the Irish War of Independence, fought between Irish separatists (organised as the Irish Republic) and the British government, from 1919-1921. The treaty provided for a self-governing Irish state in 26 of Ireland's 32 counties, having its own army and police. However, rather than creating the independent republic favoured by most nationalists, the Irish Free State would be an autonomous dominion of the British Empire with the British monarch as head of state, in the same manner as Canada and Australia. The treaty also stipulated that members of the new Irish Oireachtas (parliament) would have to take the following "Oath of Allegiance"
"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".This oath was considered highly objectionable by many Irish Republicans. Furthermore under the treaty, the state was not to be called a republic but a "free state" and it would be limited to the 26 southern and western counties of Ireland. The remaining six north-eastern counties, with their Protestant majority, would opt to remain part of the United Kingdom as Northern Ireland. The partition of Ireland had already been decided by the Westminister parliament in the Government of Ireland Act 1920 and was confirmed in the Anglo-Irish treaty. Also, several strategic ports were to remain occupied by the Royal Navy.
Nonetheless, Michael Collins, the republican leader who had led the Irish negotiating team, argued that the treaty gave "not the ultimate freedom that all nations aspire and develop, but the freedom to achieve freedom". However, anti-treaty militants in 1922 believed that the treaty would never deliver full Irish independence.
The split over the treaty was deeply personal. Many of the leaders on both sides had been close friends and comrades during the War of Independence. This made their lethal disagreement over the treaty all the more bitter. Michael Collins later said that Éamon de Valera had sent him as plenipotentiary to negotiate the treaty because he knew that the British would not concede an independent Irish republic and wanted Collins to take the blame for the compromise settlement. He said he was deeply betrayed when de Valera refused to stand by the agreement that the plenipotentiaries had negotiated with David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill. De Valera, for his part, was furious that Collins and Arthur Griffith had signed the treaty without consulting him or the Irish cabinet as instructed.
Dáil Éireann (the parliament of the Irish Republic) narrowly passed the Anglo-Irish Treaty by 64 votes to 57 on January 7 1922. Following the Treaty's ratification, a "Provisional Government", headed by Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith, was set up to transfer power from the British administration and the Irish Republic to the Irish Free State.
Upon the treaty's ratification, Éamon de Valera resigned as President of the Republic and failed to be re-elected by an even closer vote of 60-58. He challenged the right of the Dáil to approve the treaty, saying that its members were breaking their oath to the Irish Republic. De Valera continued to promote a compromise whereby the new Irish Free State would be in "external association" with the British Commonwealth rather than be a member of it. In early March he formed the "Cumann na Poblachta" (Republican Association) party while remaining a member of Sinn Féin.
More seriously, the majority of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) officers were also against the treaty and in March 1922, their ad-hoc Army Convention repudiated the authority of the Dáil to accept the treaty. The Anti-Treaty IRA formed their own "Army Executive", which they declared to be the real government of the country, despite the result of the 1921 general election. On 26 April the Minister of Defence, Richard Mulcahy, summarised alleged illegal activities by many IRA men over the previous three months, whom he described as 'seceding volunteers', including hundreds of robberies. Yet this fragmenting army was the only police force on the ground following the disintegration of the Irish Republican Police and the disbanding of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) .
By putting ten questions to General Mulcahy on 28 April, Seán McEntee argued that the Army Executive had acted continuously on its own to create a republic since 1917, had an unaltered constitution, had never fallen under the control of the Dáil, and that: "the only body competent to dissolve the Volunteer Executive was a duly convened convention of the Irish Republican Army" -- not the Dáil. By accepting the treaty in January and abandoning the republic, the Dáil majority had effectively deserted the Army Executive. Then in a debate on defence, McEntee suggested that supporting the Army Executive "... even if it meant the scrapping of the Treaty and terrible and immediate war with England, would be better than the civil war which we are beginning at present apparently. McEntee's supporters added that the many robberies complained of by Mulcahy on 26 April were caused by the lack of payment and provision by the Dáil to the volunteers.
The Pro-Treaty Sinn Féin party won the election with 239,193 votes to 133,864 for Anti-Treaty Sinn Féin. A further 247,226 people voted for other parties, all of whom supported the Treaty. The election showed that a majority of the Irish electorate supported the treaty and the foundation of the Irish Free State, and that the Sinn Féin party did not represent the opinions of everyone in the new state, but de Valera, his political followers and most of the IRA continued to oppose the treaty. De Valera is quoted as saying, "the majority have no right to do wrong".
Meanwhile, under the leadership of Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith, the pro-treaty Provisional Government set about establishing the Irish Free State, and organised the National Army -- to replace the IRA -- and a new police force. However, since it was envisaged that the new army would be built around the IRA, Anti-Treaty IRA units were allowed to take over British barracks and take their arms. In practice, this meant that by the summer of 1922, the Provisional Government of the Free State controlled only Dublin and some other areas like Longford where the IRA units supported the treaty. Fighting would ultimately break out when the Provisional Government tried to assert its authority over well-armed and intransigent Anti-Treaty IRA units around the country -- particularly a hardline group in Dublin.
The British lost patience as result of an action ordered by Collins. He had Henry Hughes Wilson, a retired British Army field marshal, assassinated in London on June 22 because of his role in Northern Ireland.
Winston Churchill assumed that the Anti-Treaty IRA were responsible for the killing and warned Collins that he would use British troops to attack the Four Courts unless the Free State took action. In fact the British cabinet actually resolved to attack the Four Courts themselves on June 25, in an operation that would have involved tanks, howitzers and aeroplanes. However, on the advice of General Nevil Macready, who commanded the British garrison in Dublin, the plan was cancelled at the last minute. Macready's argument was that British involvement would have united Irish Nationalist opinion against the treaty and instead Collins was given a last chance to clear the Four Courts himself. The final straw for the Free State government came on June 27, when the Four Courts republican garrison kidnapped JJ "Ginger" O'Connell, a general in the new National Army. Collins, after giving the Four Courts garrison a final ultimatum to leave the building, decided to end the stand-off by bombarding the Four Courts garrison into surrender. The government then appointed Collins as Commander-in-Chief of the National Army. This attack was not the opening shots of the war as skirmishes had taken place between pro- and anti-treaty IRA factions throughout the country when the British were handing over the barracks. However, this represented the 'point of no return' when all-out war was ipso facto declared and the Civil War officially began.
Collins had accepted a British offer of artillery for use by the new army of the Free State (though General Macready gave just 200 shells of the 10,000 he had in store at Kilmainham barracks). The anti-treaty forces in the Four Courts, who possessed only small arms, surrendered after two days of bombardment and the storming of the building by Free State troops (June 28-30 1922). Two hours after the surrender, some time-delayed bombs exploded, wounding soldiers and destroying much of the interior, including the Public Record Office. Pitched battles continued in Dublin until July 5, as Anti-Treaty IRA units from the Dublin Brigade, led by Oscar Traynor, occupied O'Connell Street -- provoking a week's more street fighting. The fighting cost both sides 65 killed and 280 wounded. Among the dead was Republican leader Cathal Brugha, who made his last stand after exiting the Grandville Hotel. In addition, the Free State took over 500 Republican prisoners. The civilian casualties are estimated to have numbered well over 250. When the fighting in Dublin died down, the Free State government was left firmly in control of the Irish capital and the anti-treaty forces dispersed around the country, mainly to the south and west.
By contrast, the Free State government managed to expand its forces dramatically after the start of the war. Michael Collins and his commanders were able to build up an army which was able to overwhelm their opponents in the field. British supplies of artillery, aircraft, armoured cars, machine guns, small arms and ammunition were much help to pro-treaty forces. The National Army amounted to 14,000 men by August 1922, was 38,000 strong by the end of 1922 and by the end of the war, it had swollen to 55,000 men and 3,500 officers, far in excess of what the Irish state would need to maintain in peacetime. Collins' most ruthless officers and men were recruited from the Dublin "Active Service Unit" (the elite unit of the IRA's Dublin Brigade), which Collins had commanded in the Irish War of Independence and in particular from his assassination unit, "The Squad". In the new National Army, they were known as the Dublin Guard. Towards the end of the war, they were implicated in some notorious atrocities against anti-treaty guerrillas. Most of the National Army's officers were Pro-Treaty IRA men, as were a substantial number of their soldiers. However, many of the new army's other recruits were unemployed veterans of the First World War, where they had served in the Irish Division of the British Army. Former British Army officers were also recruited for their technical expertise. The Republicans made much use of this fact in their propaganda —- claiming that the Free State was only a proxy force for Britain itself. However, in fact, the majority of the Free State soldiers were raw recruits without military experience in either the First World War or the subsequent Irish War of Independence.
With Dublin in pro-treaty hands, conflict spread throughout the country. The war started with the anti-treaty forces holding Cork, Limerick and Waterford as part of a self-styled independent "Munster Republic". However, the anti-treaty side were not equipped to wage conventional war. As a result Liam Lynch was unable to take advantage of the Republicans' initial advantage in numbers and territory held. He hoped simply to hold the "Munster Republic" long enough to force Britain to re-negotiate the treaty.
The large towns in Ireland were all relatively easily taken by the Free State in August 1922. Michael Collins, Richard Mulcahy and Eoin O'Duffy planned a nationwide Free State offensive, dispatching columns overland to take Limerick in the west and Waterford in the south-east and seaborne forces to take counties Cork and Kerry in the south and Mayo in the west. In the south, landings occurred at Union Hall in Co. Cork and Fenit, the port of Tralee, in Co. Kerry. Limerick fell on July 20, Waterford on the same day and Cork city on August 10 after a Free State force landed by sea at Passage West. Another seaborne expedition to Mayo in the west secured government control over that part of the country. While in some places the Republicans had put up determined resistance, nowhere were they able to defeat regular forces armed with artillery and armour. The only real conventional battle during the Free State offensive, the Battle of Killmallock, was fought when Free State troops advanced south from Limerick.
Government victories in the major towns inaugurated a period of inconclusive guerrilla warfare. Anti-Treaty IRA units dispersed and held out in areas such as the western part of counties Cork and Kerry in the south, county Wexford in the east and counties Sligo and Mayo in the west. Sporadic fighting also took place around Dundalk, where Frank Aiken and the Fourth Northern Division of the Irish Republican Army were based.
It took eight more months of intermittent warfare before the war was brought to an end. This period was marked by assassinations and executions of leaders formerly allied in the cause of Irish independence. Commander-in-Chief Michael Collins was killed in an ambush by anti-treaty Republicans at Béal na mBláth, near his home in County Cork, in August 1922. Collins' death increased the bitterness of the Free State leadership towards the Republicans and probably contributed to the subsequent descent of the conflict into a cycle of atrocities and reprisals. Arthur Griffith, the Free State president had also died of a brain hemorrhage ten days before, leaving the Free State government in the hands of W. T. Cosgrave and the Free State army under the command of General Richard Mulcahy.
In October 1922, Éamon de Valera and the anti-treaty Teachta Dála (TDs, Members of Parliament) set up their own "Republican government" in opposition to the Free State. However, by then the anti-treaty side held no significant territory and de Valera's "government" had no authority over the population. In any case, the IRA leaders paid no attention to it, seeing the Republican authority as vested in their own military leaders.
The Anti-Treaty IRA were unable to maintain an effective guerrilla campaign, since the great majority of the Irish population did not support them. This was demonstrated in the elections immediately after the civil war, which Cumann na nGaedheal, the Free State party, won easily. (See Irish general election, 1923 for the results.) The Roman Catholic Church also supported the Free State, deeming it the lawful government of the country, denouncing the Anti-Treaty IRA and refusing to administer the Sacraments to anti-treaty fighters. On October 10 1922, the Catholic Bishops of Ireland issued a formal statement, describing the anti-treaty campaign as,
The Free State government had started peace negotiations in early May which broke down. Without a formal peace, holding 13,000 prisoners and worried that fighting could break out again at any time, it enacted the Emergency Powers Act on 2 July by a vote of 37 - 13.
The stated reason for such attacks was that some landowners had become Free State senators. Among the prominent senators whose homes were attacked were: Palmerstown House near Naas which belonged to the Earl of Mayo, Moore Hall in Mayo (the house of Oliver St John Gogarty ,who also survived an assassination attempt), Horace Plunkett (who had helped to establish the rural co-operative schemes), and Senator H.S. Guinness of the Guinness family.
However, in addition to their allegiance to the Free State, there were also other factors behind Republican animosity towards the old landed class. Many, but not all of these people, had supported the Crown forces during the War of Independence. This support was often largely moral, but sometimes it took the form of actively assisting the British in the conflict. Such attacks should have ended with the Truce of July 11 1921, but they continued after the truce and escalated during the Civil War.
In addition, many of the landlord class were the focus of rural class antagonism that had been simmering since the Land War of the 1880s. Though the Wyndham Act of 1903 allowed tenants to buy land from their landlords, much untenanted land remained and some Republicans followed Michael Davitt's policy that all land should be made available to 'the nation'. This made the former landlords' post-independence situation difficult, and in the anarchy of the Civil War, they became easy targets. Sometimes these attacks had sectarian overtones, although most Anti-Treaty IRA men made no distinction between Catholic and Protestant supporters of the Irish government.
The Free State made efforts to protect Protestants and their property, most notably in County Louth, where a special police force was set up specifically for this purpose. Controversy continues to this day about the extent of intimidation of Protestants at this time, but many left Ireland during and after the Civil War.
However, it has also been argued that the human cost of the Irish Civil War could have been far worse than it actually was. The numbers killed were relatively modest by the standards of other contemporary civil wars - for example in Russia or Spain or even Finland. Moreover, the new police force, the Civic Guards (later the Garda Síochána), was not involved which meant that it was possible for the Free State to establish an unarmed and politically neutral police service after the war.
The cost of the war and the budget deficit it caused was a difficulty for the new Free State and affected the Boundary Commission negotiations of 1925, which were to determine the border with Northern Ireland. The Free State agreed to waive its claim to predominantly Nationalist areas in Northern Ireland and in return its agreed share of the Imperial debt under the 1921 Treaty was not paid.
In 1926, having failed to persuade the majority of the Anti-Treaty IRA or the anti-treaty party of Sinn Féin to accept the new status quo as a basis for an evolving Republic, a large faction led by de Valera and Aiken left to resume constitutional politics and to found the Fianna Fáil party. Whereas Fianna Fáil was to become the dominant party in Irish politics, Sinn Féin became a small, isolated political party. The IRA, then much more numerous and influential than Sinn Féin, remained associated with Fianna Fáil (though not directly) until banned by de Valera in 1935.
In 1927, Fianna Fáil members took the Oath of Allegiance and entered the Dáil, effectively recognising the legitimacy of the Free State. The Free State was already moving towards independence by this point. In 1931, under the Statute of Westminster, the British Parliament gave up its right to legislate for members of the British Commonwealth. When elected to power in 1932, Fianna Fáil under de Valera set about dismantling what they considered to be objectionable features of the treaty, abolishing the Oath of Allegiance, removing the power of the Office of Governor General (British representative in Ireland) and abolishing the Senate, which was dominated by former Unionists and pro-treaty Nationalists. In 1937, they passed a new constitution which made a President the head of state, did not mention any allegiance to the British monarch and which included a territorial claim to Northern Ireland. The following year Britain returned without conditions the seaports it had kept under the terms of the treaty. Finally in 1948, a coalition government, containing elements of both sides in the Civil War (pro-treaty Fine Gael and anti-treaty Clann na Poblachta) left the British Commonwealth and re-named the Free State the Republic of Ireland. Thus, by the 1950s, with the exception of the partition of Ireland, the issues over which the Civil War had been fought were largely settled.
However, the breakaway IRA continued (and continues in various forms) to exist. It was not until 1948 that the IRA renounced military attacks on the forces of the southern Irish state -- now the Republic of Ireland. After this point the organisation dedicated itself primarily to the end of British rule in Northern Ireland. Up until the 1980s the IRA Army Council still claimed to be the Provisional Government of the Irish Republic declared in 1918 and annulled by the Treaty of 1921. Some people, notably Michael McDowell, claim that this attitude, which dates from the Civil War, still underpins the politics of the Provisional Irish Republican Army.