Growing Up - (1923 – 1939)

After the Civil War ended the anti-Treaty side, the main opposition, took no part in the political life of the new state. Refusing to take the oath of allegiance, politicised republicans were excluded from the Dáil. With over 11,000 Republicans in prison, including Eamon de Valera who was arrested during the course of the General Election campaign in August 1923 and detained for 11 months, the government’s main aim was the maintenance of the Treaty.

In the election, the pro-Treaty Cumann na nGaedheal party won 63 seats, with the main anti-Treaty party, Sinn Féin landing 44. All Government ministers were returned, but de Valera scored an easy win in Clare. When the Dáil met in September, William T. Cosgrave was elected President of the Executive Council. The Sinn Féin TDs absented themselves from the Dáil as they refused to take the Oath of Allegiance to King George V. In the same month, the Free State joined the League of Nations.
As the new Government set about rebuilding the country a terrible seam of bitterness remained. When the bodies of those republicans executed by the state were handed back to relatives no church would take them in and the traditional ‘wakes’ had to be held in a theatre.

In the aftermath of the Civil War some republicans believing their dream to be over emigrated leaving two factions to soldier on. The IRA regrouped to fight for a united island totally free from Britain while De Valera took a subtler route.

Several hundred Republican prisoners went on hunger strike and two died before the protest was called off in November. In the same month W.B. Yeats became the first Irishman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature and received his prize in Stockholm the following month. A measure of the tension that still existed was the renewal of the Public Safety Act in January 1924, which allowed for imprisonment without trial.

In February, the Executive Council proposed cutting the numbers in the Army from 60, 000 to 35, 000 and in an ensuing Mutiny, army officers demanded removal of the Army Council, an end to demobilisation and a declaration of the Free State Government’s intention to achieve an Irish Republic. The Mutiny ended within a week and a committee of inquiry was established to examine the administration of the army.

W. T. Cosgrave had two meetings with Sir James Craig, Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, but failed to agree an amicable settlement of the territorial division between the two states. As a result Cosgrave requested the setting up of the Boundary Commission under the terms of the Treaty. Craig refused to nominate a representative on the Commission and the British Government appointed J.R. Fisher, while Eoin MacNeill represented the Free State.

An adjustment of the Border ‘in accordance with the wishes of the inhabitants’ could have led to major realignment of the boundary as Nationalists held sway in considerable parts of Tyrone and Fermanagh, as well as parts of Derry, South Down and South Armagh. On the other hand, there those in parts of east Donegal and North Monaghan who wished to be incorporated into Northern Ireland.

The Commission met until December 1925 when it was shelved in return for the cancellation of certain financial obligations on the Free State to the British Government. The existing border between Northern Ireland and the Free State remained and Cosgrave declared publicly; “today we have sown the seeds of peace …”

A period of stability and consolidation was underway in the infant state, but the issue of partition didn’t go away. Speaking in Dáil Eireann, Kevin O’Higgins ruefully reflected on the impact that civil strife in southern Ireland had on the Protestant population of the North; “we had an opportunity of building up a worthy State that would attract and, in time, absorb and assimilate those elements …. We preferred to burn out our own houses, blow up our own bridges, rob our own banks, saddle ourselves with millions of debt for the maintenance of an army …. Generally we preferred to practise upon ourselves worse indignities than the British had practised on us since Cromwell … and now we wonder why the Orangemen are not hopping like so many fleas across the border in their anxiety to come within our fold and jurisdiction …”On January 1, 1926 Radio 2RN (later known as Radio Eireann) began broadcasting and later that year transmitted the All-Ireland Hurling semi-final between Kilkenny and Galway, reputed to be the first ‘live’ transmission of a sporting event anywhere in Europe.

Eamon de Valera resigned as President of Sinn Féin in March. In the same month Minister for Finance, Ernest Blythe and Winston Churchill, British Secretary of State for the Colonies signed the Ultimate Financial Agreement whereby British Treasury waived some financial claims against the Free State in return for payment of land annuities and payment of pensions to former members of the RIC.

In May De Valera took a further step towards a return to mainstream constitutional politics by setting up the Fianna Fáil party. But the IRA let it be known that they hadn’t gone away and launched attacks on several Garda barracks leading to the deaths of two members of the force in November. Before the end of the year George Bernard Shaw became the second Irishman to win the Noble Prize for Literature.

The census of 1926 revealed that the population of the Free State was 2,971,992 (down more than 5% from the previous census in 1911) while the population of Northern Ireland was 1,256,561. The majority of the people had little stomach for violence and the IRA lacked widespread support.

The anti-Treaty side took a further step down the road of constitutional politics the following year. Fianna Fáil won 44 seats, just three less than Cumann na nGaedheal, in the General Election and might have won more, but many of their supporters voted for the Labour Party as they took a fuller part in the affairs of state.

When the new Dáil convened De Valera and some of his fellow elected supporters tried to gain admittance, but left when asked to take the oath. However, the assassination of Kevin O’Higgins by three members of the IRA, acting on their own initiative, on July 10 indirectly led to a change of heart by the Fianna Fáil leader.

The introduction of the Electoral Amendment Bill required Dáil candidates to declare their intention to take the Oath before nomination for Election. After describing the oath as an empty formula, De Valera led 42 of his TDs into the Dáil for the first time in August. A second General Election that year saw Fianna Fáil increase its representation to 57 seats, five less than the government party.

The new Free State currency was issued in 1928 and enjoyed parity with sterling until 1979. Seán Lemass reminded the Dáil of Fianna Fáil’s republican credentials when describing it as ‘a slightly constitutional party’, adding, “our objective is to establish a republican government in Ireland. If that can be done by the present methods we have, we will be very pleased, but, if not, we would not confine ourselves to them.”

De Valera too made comments sympathetic to the ambitions of the IRA. But the Fianna Fáil leader failed in his attempts to petition the Dáil seeking a referendum to eliminate the oath and shortly after the government abolished the right to referendum under the Free State constitution.

Away from politics the new state continued to progress. The hydro-electric power station at Ardnacrusha on the River Shannon was officially opened in July 1929, the same year that the new bank notes featuring the portrait of Lady Lavery were first issued. The following year the government introduced a tax on imported butter.

As the IRA continued to target members of the Garda Síochána, it and 11 other organizations were declared illegal in 1931. As the world recession brought about by the Wall Street Crash of 1929 continued to bite the government was forced to increase the duty on petrol and the rate of income tax.
It also imposed additional taxes to stop the dumping of cheap foreign goods in the Free State. Toward the end of the year the Statue of Westminster was passed allowing any member of the Commonwealth repeal or amend any act of the British Parliament which was part of Dominion law.

A General Election was called for February 16, 1932 as part of their manifesto Fianna Fáil pledged to stop paying land annuities to the British Government which Irish farmers had been paying to purchase the lands they farmed. The IRA canvassed on behalf of Fianna Fáil and on the day of the election adopted tactics similar to those employed in the 1918 General Election leading to widescale impersonation. The result saw Cosgrave ousted after ten years in power his party trailing De Valera’s by 15 seats, 57 to 72. When the new Dáil convened some members of Fianna Fáil turned up with guns but such moves proved unnecessary.

One of De Valera’s first moves was to release political prisoners. However, only those members of the IRA who committed crimes on their own initiative were not released. In March the order declaring the IRA illegal lapsed and was not renewed. Then the new President of the Executive Council set about removing the Oath of Allegiance. He then struck the first blow in the Economic War with Britain, which lasted until 1938, by withholding payment of land annuities to Britain worth £1.5m. The British Government retaliated by imposing a 20% tax on Irish agricultural products imported into the UK.

The 31st Eucharistic Congress was held in Dublin in June 1932 and included a commemoration of the 1,500th anniversary of St. Patrick’s arrival in Ireland. The Free State was represented at the Olympic Games for the second time, with Dr. Pat O’Callaghan winning a second gold medal (he also won in Amsterdam in 1928) in the hammer, while Bob Tisdal won gold in the 400m hurdles.

The undercurrent of tension still remained. The Army Comrades Association was formed by Commandant Edward Cronin as a benevolent society for former members of the Free State Army. In August 1932 Dr. T. F. O’Higgins (brother of Kevin) was elected as its President and pledged its support to “the lawfully constituted government of the state’. It extended membership to those wishing to uphold freedom of speech.

When a Cumann na nGaedheal meeting at Kilmallock, Co. Limerick was attacked by some 200 Republicans the new organization flexed its muscles and beat off the attackers. In November, the IRA’s Frank Ryan stated; “while we have fists, hands and boots to use, and guns if necessary, we will not allow free speech to traitors.”

When the Eighth Dáil assembled after the 1933 General Election Fianna Fáil had its first overall majority having won 77 seats, while Cumann na nGaedheal had slipped to 48. General Eoin O’Duffy was removed as Commissioner of the Garda Síochána and soon after was elected leader of the Army Comrades Association, now known as the National Guard. In the same year the organization earned the nickname Blueshirts, after adopting a new uniform of blue shirt and black beret.

The Oath of Allegiance was removed from the Constitution and the National Guard was declared an unlawful organization. Gardaí began collecting guns from private houses after an order cancelling all firearms certificates was issued.

O’Duffy side-stepped the ban by renaming his organization the Young Ireland Association, but the government outlawed it also. O’Duffy then dissolves the Young Ireland Association and went on to form the League of Youth.

In September 1933, Cumann na nGaedheal, the National Centre Party and the Blueshirts formed the United Ireland Party with O’Duffy at the helm, later to become known as Fine Gael.

Any doubts some Republicans had about De Valera’s regime were assuaged when in 1934 pensions were issued to those IRA members who fought in the Civil War. A special auxiliary police force formed the previous year to counter the threat of O’Duffy’s organization recruited from IRA ranks and became known as the Broy Harriers after its first commissioner.

O’Duffy, who had earned the hatred of militant republicans for the manner in which he as Garda Commissioner implemented Cosgrave’s anti-terrorist laws, was seen by some as a potential dictator even within his own party and he soon resigned as leader of the United Ireland Party.

Trade relations between Britain and the Free State improved with the signing of the Anglo-Irish Coal Cattle Pact in 1935 under which the British government agreed to increase imports of cattle from by one-third and in return the Free State agreed to buy its coal from Britain. The Criminal Law Amendment Act banned the importation of contraceptives.

The Aliens Act defined as such all those not born in the Free State, while exempting UK citizens. Those born in Northern Ireland after December 6, 1922 were regarded as citizens of the Free State up to the age of 21, when they ceased to be so unless they declared for citizenship.

Following the murders of three civilians, the government outlawed the IRA in June 1936. In the same year the United Ireland Party (Fine Gael) severed its links with the Blueshirts and later Eoin O’Duffy went off to fight on the side of General Franco in the Spanish Civil War. A few weeks later Frank Ryan led a group to fight on the Republican side in the Spanish conflict.

The removal of the King from the Constitution and the abolition of the post of Governor-General paved the way for the introduction of the new constitution in 1937. The census of 1936 showed a further decline in the population of the state, down by about 3,500 to 2,968,420 from 1926.

The first transatlantic flying boat landed on the River Shannon at Foynes, Co. Limerick. De Valera’s Constitution was passed by the Dáil and later by the electorate in a referendum held on the same day as the General Election, which returned Fianna Fáil as the largest party once again. The new constitution came into effect on December 1937.

In April 1938 an Anglo-Irish agreement was signed by De Valera and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain ending the ‘Economic War’. Irish ports retained by the British Government under the terms of the Treaty were returned and Éire, as the state was now officially known, paid £10m in settlement of all financial claims between the two governments.

Trade tariffs were withdrawn, but protection was allowed for certain goods. The UK cattle market became more accessible to cattle from Ireland while the return of the ports allowed Éire to remain neutral during the Second World War.

In an attempt to force a withdrawal of British troops from Northern Ireland, the IRA began a bombing campaign in England. Under terms of the Prevention of Violence Bill all Irish citizens living in Britain had to be registered and were liable to deportation. This didn’t prevent an explosion in Coventry on August 25, which killed five people.

The day before Germany invaded Poland, De Valera informed the German Ambassador in Dublin that although Éire desired peace with all nations his government would have to show some consideration to Britain for geographical and economic reasons. When war Britain and France declared war on September 3, a state of emergency was declared by the Éire government and the country was officially neutral.