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 wasnt 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 didnt
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
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
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
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,
In April Rory OConnor 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
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 OSullivan
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 wont 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
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 ÓMáille
was wounded. In retaliation the government executed Rory
OConnor, 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 OHiggins,
a member of Government, was best man at OConnors
wedding and asked at a Cabinet meeting: Is there no
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. OHiggins, father of Kevin OHiggins, 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
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
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 nations 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.