227: Irish Civil War Pt. 4


The Irish-Civil War would come to an end in 1923, not with a bang but with a whimper.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 227. I would like to thank Norman for their Paypal donation. As a reminder, you can help support this podcast and get access to special Patreon only episodes over at patreon.com/historyofthegreatwar. After the Irish Civil War started in June 1922 there was serious fighting in various areas around the 26 counties of Ireland, however by early 1923 any major fighting had ended. That did not mean that all of the fighting was finished. After the early fighting had put the Republican Army at a clear disadvantage they had altered their strategy from one of somewhat traditional warfare to one that focused on smaller groups for more mobile and dedicated soldiers. Today we will be discussing the fate of those groups in 1923 as the Irish Civil War slowly came to an end. Then we will discuss some of the post-war political developments. These developments would see the future of Ireland solidified and would begin the process of transitioning from the Irish Free State into a fully independent Republic of Ireland.

While the fighting was still ongoing in late 1922, political developments continued to alter the situation on both sides. For the Provisional government this meant the opening of the Third Dail, which would begin meeting in September. Their first major item on the agenda was to move the constitution through the Dail so that it could be properly put in place, which would turn the Provisional Government into the Free State government. On the Republican side the opening of the Dail sparked off what would be a pretty major disagreement on the political side of the Republican movement. There were three paths that the Republicans could take. They could join in the government, which would be a statement that they recognized its authority and its legitimacy. Many of the republican military leaders spoke out strongly against this option. The second option was that they could create a new Republican government of some kind. In late September Earnie O’Malley would say to Liam Lynch, the Republican Army leader that, ‘We consider it imperative that some sort of a Government, whether a Provisional or a Republican or a military one, should be inaugurated at once. . . . It is indeed time to turn our attention to a constructive policy.’ De Valera was in favor of this path, but there were serious practical challenges to create a new Republican government and having it publicly meet. They were at this point not exactly in the good graces of the Provisional government, and so any official meeting of the Republican leaders would probably just end up in several of them being arrested. The third option, and also the default option, and also the one that the Republican would land on, was to just continue on, without a unified political leadership and a dispersed and uncoordinated military strategy. It was not ideal, but it did not entail the need for the Republican leaders to come to an agreement.

While the fighting in the country ebbed and flowed throughout the last half of 1922, in November the Provisional Government introduced a policy of executions for those who had been captured during the Civil War. Generally men who were arrested in Provisional controlled areas while trying to perform some sort of violence were the ones targeted for these executions. The first executions would be performed on November 17th, with five men who had been arrested in Dublin. These executions were divisive, even among the representatives of the Dail, O’Higgins and the others would defend these actions, saying that they were supposed to act as a deterrent against further violence. Obviously the Republican leaders did not look on them very kindly and the official Republican policy, as accepted and published by Liam Lynch, was for a series of the reprisals against Provisional leaders. However, there was little actual action taken on this policy. At a higher level there were concerns that if reprisals began, then they would just lead to more executions, which would demand more reprisals, which would lead to more executions. At a local level there was also resistance to reprisals due to the effect that they would have on local communities. In this resistance it is easy to point out the difference between the Provisional Government and the leaders of the small Republican military units. The Provisional leaders were, like many national political groups, detached from the situation on the ground. The leaders of Republican military units were often the opposite, they were heavily involved in local affairs, and any reprisals against local individuals would have been harmful to local communities, and probably would have brought upon those communities greater control from the Provisional Army. This all meant that instead of just outright killing people, many local Republican units instead turned to a policy of kidnapping of government officials and the destruction of government property.

In the last month of 1922 and then the first few months of 1923 the situation Ireland would drastically change. On December 6th the House of Commons in London would pass the act officially creating the Irish Free State. At this same time the military situation for the now Free State Army was beginning to greatly improve. Part of this improvement was due to the improvements made to the Free State Army since its inception, this included a reorganization of the army’s commands. Several of the larger army commands were split into several, and a new Western Command was created. This upset some of the longer serving Army leaders, especially those that traced their service back to, and had been close with, Collins in the pre-Anglo-Irish War IRB. The government’s ability to push through the reforms against the wishes of these officers represents and important turning point when the political leaders were able to fully control the military. Along with these high level reforms, several smaller reforms were put in place to increase the effectiveness of the military units, like a more formal officer training program and a properly disciplinary code. These changes in the Free State army represented just one part of why the military situation in Ireland would shifting, the other was the continued deterioration of the Republican position.

By the end of 1922 the new structure of small military columns was in place, but it was also beginning to experience difficulties. Several of the columns in the regions that should have seen the strongest Republican support had been destroyed either by the Free State Army or due to simple disintegration. This included areas like South Tipperary and Cork where, if things were going well for the Republicans, their support should have been strongest. This wastage of Republican strength made any large military action impossible, and there was little prospect of this situation swinging back in favor of the Republicans. Supplying and financing the columns was becoming more difficult, and this pushed more men to give up the fight entirely. With prospects looking so bleak for the Republicans, it was only natural that many of its leaders began to look for some sort of negotiating position with the Free State leaders. Generally the political leaders on the Republican side, those like de Valera, were the strongest supporters of improving relations with the Free State. De Valera himself was already beginning to prepare other Republican leaders for compromises that he knew they would have to make. Always on the other side of these discussions was the Republican military leader, Liam Lynch. Lynch was a hardcore, whatever it takes, no compromises, Republican, and he was also maybe in some amount of denial about just how bad the situation was for the Republican cause. Given his position within the movement, and the loyalty of the military to him, he was always in a position to block any proper peace overtures, but then on April 10th 1923, he was killed. On that day, near Newcastle in Tipperary he and several other Republicans were surrounded by Free State troops, and carrying nothing but sidearms they tried to flee up into the hills. Lynch would not make it, and he was hit by a bullet, dying later that night. Lynch’s death completely changed the makeup and outlook of the Republican leaders, and it moved the pro-peace leaders into a much more prominent position.

It would also give those political leaders far greater control, control that was officially put in place by a meeting on April 20th. At this meeting, Frank Aiken, who took over to Lynch as the Chief of Staff proposed that they begin negotiations with the Free State government. In his wording this negotiations would be based on the idea that ‘The sovereignty of the Irish Nation and the integrity of its territory is inalienable.’ This motion would pass, and de Valera would be put in charge of the negotiations. While the acceptance that negotiations were necessary was an important step, the Republican demands in these negotiations were far beyond anything that the Free State leaders would accept. They were unwilling to compromise on the constitutional issues, which were a core part of the Republican position. de Valera refused to even sign a document acknowledging that the Free State was the legitimate government of Ireland. With such a vast chasm between the two positions, an agreement was never really possible at this first meeting. After this failure the Republican leaders would meet again on May 13th, and after much discussion Aiken would publish an order, which would be distributed on May 24th. It would order all of the military units to stop fighting, to hide their arms, and rejoin society. Along with this order de Valera would send out a note saying ‘Further sacrifice on your part would now be vain and continuance of the struggle in arms unwise in the national interest. Military victory must be allowed to rest for the moment with those who have destroyed the Republic.’ These orders, necessary in retrospect, did meet with resistance from some of the remaining Republican military officers. de Valera would answer one of these complaints, from May MacSwiney, by saying “You speak as if we were dictating terms and talk . . . of a military situation. There is no military situation. The situation now is that we have to shepherd the remnant of our forces out of this fight so as not to destroy whatever hope remains in the future by allowing the fight to peter out ignominiously.” With these orders the Civil War, just kind of stopped. There was not an official negotiated peace between the Free State and the Republicans, the Republicans just sort of stopped fighting.

The proclamations from Aiken and de Valera, which called for an end to the fighting, were generally followed and there was little fighting after they were issued in late May. This caused the Republican movement to enter a moment of crisis, without a clear path forward, and with some members continuing to look back to try and determine how they have failed. The point of greatest criticism on this path was the failure of the Republican military, but they also had to start moving forward. The question became, how to move forward, and in this they were, as usual, split into two camps. There were those, who I would categorize as more diehard members of the Republican movement that stuck strongly to their policy of non-recognition of the Free State government. IN this view they could not participate either in elections or the government in general, because to do so would provide the government with de facto recognition. It was among these republicans that the idea of taking back up their arms at some point in the future was held onto the longest, a possibility introduce by Aiken’s order to hide their arms instead of surrendering them to Free State authorities. de Valera would instead advocate for participation in the elections of August 1923. He admitted that taking this action would be to recognize the Free State authority, but he tried to be pragmatic about it, saying “To declare them illegal and to stand aside is dictated by the idea of the continued existence of the Republic, but as a practical political policy to my mind it is not the best. The more progress we make at the coming elections, the more certain will be our victory at the subsequent elections.” Even if they were elected, it was unlikely that Republican members of the Dail would actually participate in the government, since doing so required that they take the oath of allegiance. Those that were elected would instead opt to maintain the old Sinn Fein abstention policy. With de Valera certain that participating in the election was the correct path, he now had to find a way to make that happen. AT this point the Republican leaders were still in hiding, but then on August 15th de Valera made a public speech in the town of Ennis. de Valera was pretty sure he would be arrested, and so the goal was to make sure that if he was arrested, the Free State would have to do so while he was speaking in public at a meeting regarding the Free State elections. This would provide him with a great angle of attack against the government that went to great lengths to maintain that they were the legitimate democratically elected Irish government. As he suspected, de Valera would be arrested and he would spend the rest of 1923 in prison.

While the remaining Republican leaders were trying to determine the future of their movement, there was one aspect that they did not control, and that was the future of the Republican prisoners that were still being held by the Free State. By the end of May 1923 there were about 12,000 Republicans in prison. This caused lengthy debates among the Free State leaders about when and how to release them. There would always be those leaders who advocated for holding onto these prisoners for a longer period time, out of far that if they were released too soon then it might reignite the fighting. However, continuing to detain them increased tensions in prisons around the country, and eventually this tension would begin to cause its own problems. In October the prisoners would take the step of beginning a hunger strike. The hunger strike would begin in the Mountjoy prison, at that the beginning it was strictly to protest conditions in that prison. When news of the actions in Mountjoy spread other prisoners in other prisons joined in the hunger strike as well. Republican leaders would claim that 8,000 men would join in the strike, although the number was probably a bit smaller. Hunger strikes were not a new form of protest, and they had been effective in the past. But they had to be executed by dedicated individuals, and if properly thought out they made for an incredibly powerful public statement. This hunger strike was not well thought out. There was general confusion about the specific objectives of the strike, who could call it off, and who should join. This meant that in many cases the strike began to break down after about 3 weeks. Some men wanted to continue, but others decided to end it, and this cause strife among the prisoners. Eventually, with various individuals and various prisons having already taken food, it was officially called off on November 23rd. This led to more confusion, especially among those who were still game for continuing, like one Cork man who would write ‘I would rather have faced the firing squad than call it off, but there was [sic] Divisional Officers ordering their men off.’ Overall, I think that much like the small column strategy, the hunger strike was initially led by very dedicated individuals, but it was a concept that was difficult to execute on a larger scale. Hunger strikes depend almost entirely on individual dedication, you need people who, and this sounds a bit morbid, are willing to go all the way. To do this, for an idea, requires a very specific type of person, and when the strike spread out to the prisons many joined who probably did not fully understand what they were opting into, being pulled along by events, and only later did they discover the intensely personal aspect of the struggle. The Free State would try to take advantage of the event, and used it to apply pressure to get prisoners to sign pledges of loyalty in exchange for both food and freedom. Overall the strike would be a failure, but it did also make some changes to Free State policy, it forced those leaders to accelerate their plans to release prisoners, although they would only do so in stages out of fear that if they released too many too quickly it would appear that such actions were caused by the strike. By the summer of 1924, 7 months after the strike ended, the only prisoners who remained were those that were actually convicted of criminal acts during the fighting.

With the fighting and some of the political aftermath settled in the south it is time to turn our eyes back to the north, just briefly. During the fighting the Northern counties had been almost entirely untouched, and we discussed some of the reasons for this last episode: basically, with the support from the south cut off during the fighting the Northern IRA essentially went into forced hibernation. After the fighting was over the Northern IRA was back, but it was in an awkward position. Some of its strongest supporters had been among the Republican leaders, who were obviously in no position to influence Free State policy. This was coupled with an official change in Free State policy, with the southern government basically no longer questioning Northern legitimacy. They also made the decision to no longer openly support subversive obstruction of the Northern government. The Free State Government could not take the next step of officially recognizing the Northern government, but they mostly just stopped helping those who were actively fighting against it. These changes were not popular with the Northern IRA, who now felt that they had been abandoned by the Free State. These changes would lead into the Boundary Commission. If you remember back to our earlier episodes, the theory behind the acceptance by the Southern leaders of the existence of northern Ireland was the future Boundary Commission. At the time they hoped to be able to use this commission to peel off some pieces of the 6 northern counties. This, in theory, when combined with the actions of the Northern IRA would destabilize the Northern government. However, when the commission actually began in 1924 the situation had changed, and the Northern government had solidified its position. The initial draft of the Commission was met with extreme skepticism when it leaked to the press, and so instead of putting into effect the commission retracted it, and did not put anything in its place. With this action Northern Ireland became an established fact, but none of the problems that made it so contentious were solved. Instead of peace in Northern Ireland, there would instead be decades of uncertainty, with the unionists and nationalists never fully resolving their disagreements.

The elections that would take place in 1923 would be remarkably positive for the Republicans. During these elections they would gain 44 seats, against 63 that would be gained by the, and I apologize for this, Cumann na nGaedheal (cumann ney nihl) party, which was the party that represented the Free State government from during the Civil War. While they were obviously in the minority, 44 seats was still pretty good for a party that had, just months before, been in open revolt against the government. If anything it proved that the Republican cause had widespread support among the 26 counties, even if it did not enjoy that support during the Civil War. This was great for the Republicans, there was just one small problem if they wanted to enter the Dail, they had to take that oath of allegiance to the king. This would prevent any Republican representatives from participating in the government for years to come. The oath had been the foundation of the Sinn Fein abstention policy and this tradition would be continued in the Free State by the Republicans, who were still using the Sinn Fein name. For three years the Cumann na nGaedheal would not face any official opposition, for at least from the largest opposition group.

The problem of the oath would be very divisive among the Republican leaders. Once again the battle lines between the two groups had de Valera on one side and Sinn Fein absolutists on the other. These disagreements would eventually lead de Valera and his supporters to walk out of the 1926 Sinn Fein annual conference. They would then go on to found Fianna Fail, which in 1927 would join the Dail, taking the oath which they claimed was meaningless. With Fianna Fail (Feeanna Fahl) participating in the Dail, 1927 would mark the years when Irish politics would begin to revert back to something approaching normality. In 1932 the Fianna Fail would win the majority in the Dail, and de Valera would become Prime Minister, an office he would occupy for the following 16 years. During that time he would be able to make some changes that from the perspectives of the 1920s would have been very radical. In 1937 the Free State would be abolished and a new constitution was adopted, creating the Republican of Ireland. At that point, the dreams of the Republican supporters during the Civil War were realized, albeit in a way that they never could have imagined. In the end it would be politics and not violence that would see the Republic created, under the guidance of de Valera who was at one point imprisoned due to his views on the government. History is really full of twists and turns sometimes.