The Civil War

The Civil War was one of the bitterest episodes in the history of Ireland and impacted negatively on succeeding generations. The British saw the Treaty of 1921 as the final solution to the Irish problem. But for many Irishmen the terms agreed were anathema to all they held dear.

The Treaty gave Ireland dominion status within the Commonwealth, similar to Canada. It had control of its domestic affairs with its own army, navy and police force. It was not the republic the IRA fought for but ‘the Irish Free State’. The six counties of Northern Ireland (Fermanagh, Antrim, Derry, Down, Armagh and Tyrone) availed of the opportunity to opt out of this new arrangement.

Many nationalists believed the newly established Boundary Commission would see to that the wishes of the Nationalist majority in Counties Fermanagh and Tyrone to rejoin the Free State would be adhered to and that in time economic inviability would force the remainder to follow suite.

A far more pressing issue to some at the time was the question of an oath of allegiance to King George V. For Dan Breen, who instigated the War of Independence in 1919 the Treaty ‘was a negation of everything I ever fought for’ and let it be known he wasn’t going to ‘give allegiance to a foreign king’.
Michael Collins saw it as a matter of expediency, a mere symbol that could later be abolished. While the IRA was split over the merits of the Treaty, among the plain people of Ireland there was a sense of relief that the horrors of the previous three years were over.

Collins viewed the it as ‘the freedom to win freedom’ and the fact that was he who signed the Treaty made it easier for many to accept its less than satisfactory aspects. His control of the Irish Republican Brotherhood network gave him scope to disseminate this argument.

De Valera opposed the treaty and the fact that he didn’t travel to London as part of the negotiation team would indicate that he felt some compromise on republican demands was going to be necessary. He instructed the negotiators to consult with him before submitting to any deal. But at 2.10 a.m. on December 6 1921, under threat from British Prime Minister Lloyd George of ‘war within three days’, they signed.

On January 7 1922, Dáil Eireann approved the agreement by 64 votes to 57 and two days later De Valera resigned as President of the Dáil. On January 10 Arthur Griffith was elected in his place after De Valera and his supporters walked out.

Collins gave vent to his feelings in a letter to his fiancé, Kitty Kiernan; “I am really and truly having an awful time and am rapidly becoming quite desperate. Oh Lord, it is honestly frightful.” Things took a turn for the worse in the North where some of the Protestant population feared the Boundary Commission would undermine their new state.

Serious violence took place in the early part of 1922 and 138 died in Belfast in February, most of them Catholic, resulting in many Nationalists fleeing south of the border. Collins found himself in the ambiguous position of supplying arms to anti-Treaty IRA in Northern Ireland in order to protect the Catholic population, while his authority was being challenged by their comrades in the Free State.

As tension increased anti-Treaty forces prepared to go to war if necessary. On March 2 a consignment of arms from Germany were landed at Helvic Head, Co. Waterford. At the end of the month they captured a large quantity of explosives, guns and ammunition awaiting shipment to England at Cobh, Co. Cork.

In April Rory O’Connor led a take-over of the Four Courts and refused to recognise the pro-Treaty Provisional Government. When an IRA man was shot near Bandon, Co. Cork, ten Protestants were shot in a series of reprisals. On April 26, the Catholic hierarchy issued a statement declaring; “we think that the best and wisest course for Ireland is to accept the Treaty and make the most of the freedom it undoubtedly brings”.

Over £750,000 was taken in raids on branches of the Bank of Ireland by anti-Treaty forces during the month of May. As the situation in Northern Ireland worsened the death toll reached 450, over 10,000 Catholics lost their jobs, more than twice that number were forced from their homes and many Catholic businesses were destroyed.

On June 16 a General Election in the 26 counties of the Free State resulted in Pro-Treaty candidates taking 58 seats while their opponents gained 36, with 34 going to other candidates.
The Anti-Treaty forces made the Four Courts their headquarters. As the situation in the Six Counties deteriorated Sir James Craig, Prime Minister of Northern Ireland mobilised two new paramilitary police forces, the A and B Specials.

On June 22, his security advisor, the British Field Marshal, Sir Henry Wilson was shot dead on the steps of his home in London by two men acting on their own initiative. Six weeks later two Irishmen Reginald Dunne and Joseph O’Sullivan were hanged for the crime.

The British government wrongly assumed that Anti-Treaty forces had ordered the assassination and insisted that the Free State Government take action against the Four Courts or the Treaty would be void.

Collins stalled but provoked by the kidnapping of one of his generals by Republican Forces, gave the occupants of the Four Courts twenty minutes to surrender. When they refused he began shelling them with two field guns borrowed from the British at 4 a.m. on June 28. The Civil War had begun.

On June 30, Anti-Treaty forces abandoned the Four Courts, but not before blowing up the Public Records Office and with it centuries of valuable documents. For eight days fighting continued in Dublin. 60 people were killed and over 300 wounded and the centre of the capital was in ruins before the anti-Treaty side surrendered. Cathal Brugha, a hero of 1916, was one of the notable casualties. Refusing an order to surrender he was shot and died later.

With Dublin now under the control of the Pro-Treaty forces, a War Council was appointed with Collins as its Commander-in-Chief. He set about breaking the pockets of resistance in parts of the west and south.

Within a month the cities of Limerick and Waterford were under government control and on August 10 Free State troops sent round by sea set about taking the anti-Treaty stronghold of Cork, and found slogans on walls declaring: “Collins marches through Cork. Why not through Belfast?”

The following day anti-Treaty forces evacuated the north Co. Cork town of Fermoy, the last urban area under their control. On August 12, Arthur Griffith, exhausted by overwork, died of a brain haemorrhage aged 51. Collins returned to Dublin for the funeral.

Before returning to Cork for a tour of newly won Free State positions, one of his military aides, Emmet Dalton, expressed concerns for his safety. But the Corkman replied confidently: “Sure, they won’t shoot me in my own county.”

Around 7.30 p.m. on August 22 as the convoy in which he was travelling between Macroom and Bandon was fired on by anti-Treaty forces at Béal na mBláth. Collins was shot and died at the scene. What actually occurred remains a mystery and attempts to implicate Eamon de Valera in his demise appear unfounded.

What appears to have happened is that as the firing abated and the ambush appeared to be over Collins stood up in the road and was hit by a sniper from the ridge above or by a ricochet. He was just 31. It is a measure of how bitter the conflict had become that there was rejoicing in some quarters at his premature passing, but thousands turned out six days later for his funeral in Dublin.

William Thomas Cosgrave succeeded Collins as Chairman of the Provisional Government and was elected President of the Executive Council when the new Dáil assembled on September. Cosgrave was condemned to death for his part in the 1916 Rising, but was reprieved. He died in 1965 at the age of 85 and his son Liam was elected Taoiseach in 1973.

With Griffith and Collins now gone and the anti-Treaty deputies implementing a policy of abstentionism, the new government set about the task of maintaining law and order. On September 28 an Emergency Powers Bill was passed empowering military courts impose the death penalty, after a period of grace to allow for surrender, any republicans caught with arms.

The law came into force on October 15 and 77 Republicans were executed between November 17, 1922 and May 2, 1923. The new Constitution of the Irish Free State was enacted around this time and came into force on December 6, 1922, on the first anniversary of the Anglo-Irish Treaty.

An alternative Dáil composed of those opposed to the Treaty elected Eamon de Valera as its ‘President’. Erskine Childers, who was caught in possession of a revolver given to him by Michael Collins, was executed in November. The author of the spy novel, “The Riddle of the Sands” had a son of the same name who was elected President of Ireland in 1973.

The anti-Treaty side declared that any member of the Dáil who voted for the Emergency Powers Bill was liable to be shot on sight. On December 7 two TDs (members of the Dáil) were shot. Seán Hales died and Pádraic Ó’Máille was wounded. In retaliation the government executed Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellows, Joseph McKelvey and Richard Barrett, who had been imprisoned since the fall of the Four Courts, five months earlier.

The executions had added poignancy in that Kevin O’Higgins, a member of Government, was best man at O’Connor’s wedding and asked at a Cabinet meeting: “Is there no other way?”

The anti-Treaty side were by now reliant on the guerrilla tactics that had served Collins well during the War of Independence. An arson attack on the home of Seán McGarry T.D. led to the death of his son. Before the end of the year seven more Republicans were executed.

The pattern continued into 1923. The home of William Cosgrave was burnt down, while the Senator, surgeon and author Oliver St. John Gogarty escaped from the anti-Treaty IRA by jumping into the River Liffey. 34 republicans were executed by firing squad in nine different towns in January.

The anti-Treaty campaign continued with the destruction of the homes of prominent Senators including Gogarty. Dr. T. F. O’Higgins, father of Kevin O’Higgins, was shot dead at his home in Stradbally, Co. Laois after the government issued an amnesty to all who surrendered with arms by February 18.
On March 7 eight Republicans were killed at Ballyseedy, Co. Kerry, while tied to a log, when Free State soldiers threw a mine amongst them. A month later, Liam Lynch, Chief of Staff of the anti-Treaty IRA was shot and fatally wounded by Free State soldiers in the Knockmealdown Mountains, Co. Waterford and died later in nearby Mitchelstown, Co. Cork aged 33.

As the Civil War continued, the government was also in the process of getting the new State up and running and by April the fiscal systems of the UK and the Free State were separated and Custom and Excise barriers between the two countries were introduced.

In the same month Dan Breen and Austin Stack were captured by Free State troops and on April 27 De Valera offered terms for negotiation to end the war which were rejected. But time was running out for the anti-Treaty side and on May 24 De Valera issued the order to dump arms.

In doing so he declared: “Soldiers of the Republic, Legion of the Rearguard … Military victory must be allowed to rest for the moment with those who have destroyed the Republic” but added “other means must be sought to safeguard the nation’s right”. Thereafter, de Valera resorted to constitutional means.
The Civil War was over and just as Tom Clarke forecasted on the eve of his execution, Ireland had been through hell, but the bitterness it engendered remained.