Sunday, January 12, 2020

The shameful stain of an Irish Civil War

Dublin Castle, the seat of Norman/English and later British rule from 1204-1922 was handed over to the Irish on January 16, 1922 by Lord FitzAlan-Howard, the last Viceroy of Ireland. Michael Collins, the 31-year old chairman of the Provisional Government of the Irish Free State, is pictured 'bouncing’ out through the Chief Secretary’s door after the handover. Collins is preceded by Kevin O'Higgins, who had been appointed Minister for Economic Affairs in the previous week. The new government issued a statement which said, ‘"The Members of the Provisional Government received the surrender of Dublin Castle at 1.45 pm today. It is now in the hands of the Irish nation." A unit of the Royal Corps of Engineers remained at the castle until August 1922. (Image courtesy of the National Library of Ireland)

The controversy this month about a proposed official commemoration for members of the British era Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) police forces who lost their lives in the Irish War of Independence of 1919-1921, is a foretaste of the upcoming centenary commemorations of the formation of the Irish Free State in 1922 and the shameful Civil War that it triggered.

At 2:20 am on December 6, 1921, British and Irish delegations signed an Anglo-Irish Treaty in 10 Downing Street, London, which provided for dominion status for an Irish Free State comprising 26 counties of Ireland, with a similar status as "the Dominion of Canada, the Commonwealth of Australia, the Dominion of New Zealand, and the Union of South Africa," in the British Empire. The British Government of Ireland Act 1920 had provided for the partition of the island and Northern Ireland comprising 6 counties in the northeast had its own parliament since June 1921.

The Treaty (officially named Articles of Agreement for a Treaty) was a stunning development with an agreement on a framework that surpassed expectations of Home Rule, which had been promised by the British for many decades.

For the first time since the devastating defeat of Irish and Spanish forces by the English on January 3, 1602* at Kinsale on the coast of West Cork, representatives of the Gaelic tradition would have political power on most of the island of Ireland.

The Anglo-Irish Treaty established the Irish Free State as a self-governing dominion with independence in most matters of practical government, together with complete control of its resources.

The momentous development for Irish people was reflected in the front-page banner headline of The New York Times of Wednesday 7, 1921.

On January 18, 1922, two days after the "surrender" of Dublin Castle, a group of about 200 unemployed men seized the Rotunda Concert Hall (now the Gate Theatre) off O'Connell Street in central Dublin. They hoisted the Red Flag and proclaimed a communist soviet republic.

The group was led by Liam O'Flaherty (1896-1984), a First World War veteran, who would become a noted writer.

After 4 days the putative republic surrendered as the Red Flag had incited an angry mob that threatened to storm the Rotunda.

There would soon be blood spilt about a mythical republic and symbols but social and economic issues wouldn't matter.

Anglo-Irish Treaty and Civil War

In the British General Election of December 1918, Sinn Féin, the Irish republican party, won 46.9% of the vote and 73 of 105 Irish seats in the House of Commons. The Irish Unionist Party won 25.3% of the vote and 22 seats while the Irish Parliamentary Party, which traditionally represented Catholics on the island, won 21.7% of the vote, losing 68 seats and plunging to just 6 seats.

On 21 January 1919, Sinn Féin formed a breakaway government (Dáil Éireann or Assembly of Ireland) and declared Irish independence.

Éamon de Valera (1882-1975) who was a school teacher, commanded Irish Volunteers at Boland Mills by the Grand Canal Dock in Dublin during the 1916 Easter Rising — some of his former colleagues later highlighted his tactical ineptitude, indecisiveness and hyperactivity. In the aftermath de Valera was not executed like other leaders as he was an American citizen. He was one of 90 people sentenced to death by the British and one of the 75 whose sentences were commuted to penal servitude.

At the age of 3, de Valera's Irish mother sent him from New York to her family in County Limerick to be reared.

De Valera's Easter Rising status resulted in his selection as president of Dáil Éireann.

In June 1919, Éamon de Valera left Ireland for the United States where he called himself president of the Irish republic. He would spend 18-months there fundraising and seeking recognition of Irish independence.

There was almost $6m raised and more than a decade later de Valera would use some of the funds to give his family control of the Irish Press Group according to Tim Pat Coogan, former editor of the Irish Press newspaper, and author of 'Michael Collins: a biography' (1990) and 'Eamon De Valera: Long Fellow, Long Shadow' (1993).

Following a truce in the Irish War of Independence in July 1921, de Valera travelled to London and he met David Lloyd George, the British prime minister.

However, in September 1921 when a team of negotiators was being prepared for crucial negotiations with the British government in London, de Valera shocked his cabinet colleagues by announcing that he would stay in Dublin.

De Valera was recorded as arguing to his Dáil colleagues:

"that while they recognised themselves as a republic, no one else did. It was vital he believed that the symbol of the republic should be left untouched. It should not be compromised in any sense by any arrangements which it might be necessary for our plenipotentiaries to make. He was sure the Dáil realised the task they were giving to them – to win for them what a mighty army and navy might not be able to win for them. It was not a shirking of duty, but he realised the position and how necessary it was to keep the Head of the State and the symbol untouched and that was why he asked to be left out."

De Valera was hedging his bets while the British side saw that Arthur Griffth, founder of Sinn Féin in 1905, and Michael Collins, who had destroyed British intelligence in Dublin, were the two key players in the negotiations.

Even though the Irish delegates were termed plenipotentiaries, meaning that they had the power of making decisions, de Valera expected that there would be ongoing consultations with Dublin.

This, of course, would have made real-time negotiations a nightmare.

Besides Lloyd George, the British prime minister, the Irish were facing a seasoned group of senior politicians including Winston Churchill. Negotiations began on October 11, 1921.

The final agreement was endorsed by the Irish delegates without consulting de Valera who had wanted an external association with the British commonwealth. The British government had issued an ultimatum to sign or return to a war situation.

The Treaty included a provision for a Boundary Commission and the Irish delegates hoped that the majority Catholic counties of Fermanagh and Tyrone in Northern Ireland could be transferred to the new Irish Free State.

De Valera rejected the Treaty as Ireland would not be a republic but the majority of the Dáil cabinet supported it. He highlighted the claimed requirement for members of the of Dáil to take an oath of allegiance to the king. However, it was an oath to the Constitution of the Irish Free State with recognition of the king as head of the British Commonwealth of Nations.

"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 H.M. 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."

Ronan Fanning (1941-2017), the late professor of modern history at University College Dublin, described in his 2015 book, 'Éamon de Valera: A Will to Power' how de Valera’s behaviour in the immediate aftermath of the Treaty was petulant, inflammatory, ill-judged, and profoundly undemocratic.

Prof Fanning said on de Valera's rejection of the Treaty, "He opposed the Treaty not because it was a compromise but because it was not his compromise.” Thus the mercurial leader “was largely responsible for the dimensions, if not for the fact, of the Civil War.”

In the Treaty debates in Dáil Éireann, Arthur Griffith (1871-1922), the Irish leader of the negotiations with the British, said:

"This Treaty gives the Irish people what they have not had for centuries; it gives them a foothold in their own country; it gives them solid ground on which to stand; and Ireland has been a quaking bog for three hundred years, where there was no foothold for the Irish people. Well, reject this Treaty; throw Ireland back into what she was before this Treaty came — I am not a prophet, though I have listened to many prophets here, and I can't argue with prophets; but I know where Ireland was twenty or thirty years ago, I know where Ireland was when there was only a few dozen of us up in Dublin trying to keep the national idea alive, not trying to keep it alive, because the Irish people never deserted it, but a few of us who had faith in our people and faith in our country, stood by her — you are going to throw Ireland back to that; to dishearten the men who made the fight and to let back into Irish politics the time-servers and men who let down Ireland before, and who will, through their weakness if not through dishonesty, let down Ireland again. You can take this Treaty and make it the basis of an Irish Ireland. . .."

Michael Collins (1890-1922) said:

"Deputies have spoken about whether dead men would approve of it, and they have spoken of whether children yet unborn will approve of it, but few of them have spoken as to whether the living approve of it. In my own small way I tried to have before my mind what the whole lot of them would think of it. And the proper way for us to look at it is in that way. There is no man here who has more regard for the dead men than I have (hear, hear). I don't think it is fair to be quoting them against us. I think the decision ought to be a clear decision on the documents as they are before us — on the Treaty as it is before us. On that we shall be judged, as to whether we have done the right thing in our own conscience or not. Don't let us put the responsibility, the individual responsibility, upon anybody else. Let us take that responsibility ourselves and let us in God's name abide by the decision (applause)."

Prof Fanning noted that de Valera "plumbed the depths of democratic contempt for majority rule in seeking to maximise his support among the extremists in a notorious speech" on January 6, 1922.

"...whenever I wanted to know what the Irish people wanted I had only to look into my own heart and it told me straight off what the Irish people wanted. I, therefore, am holding to this policy first of all because I was the only man in Ireland left of those of 1916 — as I was Senior Officer left — ...I hope when I die that I will get a Fenian grave."

On Saturday evening, January 7, 1922, Dáil Éireann approved the Treaty by 64 votes to 57.

On the issue of Irish unity and the Treaty, Prof Diarmaid Ferriter of UCD in 2011 ahead of the 90th anniversary, referred to research by the historian Maureen Wall (1918-1972), "which revealed that the treaty debates in late 1921 and early 1922 had witnessed relative silence on the subject of Northern Ireland. Of the 338 pages of the debates printed in the Dáil report, only nine referred to partition."

On March 16, 1922 de Valera warned of civil war and said:

"If they accepted the Treaty, and if the Volunteers of the future tried to complete the work of the Volunteers of the last four years had been attempting, they would have to complete it, not over the bodies of foreign soldiers, but over the dead bodies of their own countrymen. They would have to wade through Irish blood, through the blood of the soldiers of the Irish government and through, perhaps, the blood of some of the members of the government in order to get Irish freedom."

A week later Rory O'Connor, the head of the anti-Treaty IRA (Irish Republican Army), told a press conference in answer to a question, "Do we take it that we are going to have a military dictatorship?," "You can take it that way if you like."

In mid-April O'Connor led a seizure of the Four Courts and other buildings in central Dublin.

On June 16, 1922, the Provisional Government won a public mandate in a general election. The anti-Treaty TDs then boycotted the new Dáil.

The British put pressure on Michael Collins to end the occupation of the Four Courts, in particular after the June 22, 1922 assassination in London of Irish-born General Henry Wilson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff.

On June 28, 1922, the shelling of the Four Courts began with borrowed artillery from the British Army.

The Civil War had begun.

The Four Courts, Dublin late June 1922

As time went on the National Army established dominance and Prof Eunan O'Halpin of Trinity College Dublin, author of 'Defending Ireland: The Irish State and its Enemies since 1922' (1999) noted that after Liam Lynch (1893-1923), an IRA leader, had abandoned the barracks at Fermoy on August 11, the anti-Treaty forces held no military installation.

Irishmen fight Irishmen in central Dublin, July 1922

On August 22, 1922, Michael Collins was assassinated in an ambush in his native West Cork.

A month later the Government introduced a Public Safety Act providing for military tribunals with possession of arms a capital offence.

Liam Lynch issued an order that members of the Dáil and supporters of the military tribunals including newspaper editors and judges, were legitimate targets.

On December 6, 1922, the Irish Free State was formally established by an Act of the British Parliament and the remaining British troops in Dublin left before Christmas.

On December 7 elected politicians Seán Hales (1880-1922) and Pádraic Ó Máille (1878-1946) were in Dublin City on their way to Dáil Éireann when they were targeted for assassination. Hales died and Ó Máille was badly wounded.

On December 8, the Free State Government had Rory O'Connor (1883-1922) and 3 other anti-Treaty prisoners summarily executed as a reprisal.

In April 1923, Frank Aiken, the successor to the dead Liam Lynch and more pragmatic, issued an order for the IRA to dump arms.

Civil wars are common?

Civil wars were common in the 20th century following two devastating world wars; the end of several empires; the end of colonialism and the United States and the Soviet Union supporting factions within countries during the Cold War. Then the Soviet Empire collapsed freeing several countries while the Yugoslavian confederation in the Balkans ended with lots of blood-letting and ethnic cleansing.

In many regions, there were conflicts between ethnic groups but in West Asia, Turkey, the successor of the Ottoman Empire, succeeded in preventing Kurdistan from having a state, that it was promised in 1920, and its area was divided between 4 other states.

Besides ethnic issues, control of commodities such as oil and copper in Nigeria and the Congo were also important factors in wars within borders, that had been drawn up by colonial powers.

The Irish Civil War was relatively unique as it was between people of the Gaelic tradition, while Protestants in their main population concentration on the island of Ireland had been given a UK regional parliament.

In Ireland, there was neither a big economic nor social gulf between the two sides.

Civil Wars — Our World in Data


Deaths in the reckless war were estimated to be up to 2,000. The population of the Free State was about 3m compared with 6.5m for the same area in 1841.

De Valera was in jail with about 12,000 others and up to 90 IRA men had been executed.

The Irregulars as they were called had destroyed much of the infrastructure in the nascent state and triggered two generations of bitterness and hatred in Irish politics.

Some of the Irregular recruits were young fools who had never fought the Brits but they were ready to destroy the lives of their neighbours.

Michael Collins correctly forecast that the Treaty could be a stepping stone to further freedom. The final stepping stone was the declaration of the republic in 1949 by a Fine Gael-led government.

What type of republic did the extremists want when they entertained the idea of a military dictatorship?

Seán MacBride 1904-1988 — who is believed to have been involved in the 1927 assassination of Kevin O'Higgins (1892-1927), the Minister of Justice — was Minister for External Affairs in the Fine Gael-led government in 1948-51 and the former chief of staff of the IRA in the 1930s, abjectly tugged the forelock to John Charles McQuaid, Catholic archbishop of Dublin. See here and here.

Both parts of Ireland developed as sectarian states.

While Irish writers are celebrated in Ireland today with a dose of hypocrisy to promote tourism, many were hounded out of Ireland after independence.

In 1942, the Irish born writer Eric Cross (1905-1980) documented in 'The Tailor and Ansty' the conversations and seanchas (folklore) of a West Cork tailor and the interventions of Ansty, his wife. Tim Buckley (1863-1945, born Kilgarvan Co.Kerry) and his wife Anastasia (1872-1947) lived very near the stunningly beautiful Gougane Barra, in the Cork Gaeltacht.

The Censorship Board, which used the volunteer puritan members of the Catholic Truth Society to mark indelicate/alleged smutty passages in books, declared the Cross book as "being in its general tendency indecent."

In his introduction to the second edition (1948) of the still banned book, Frank O'Connor (Michael Donovan) 1903-1966, described the effect of the banning and the harassment of Tim Buckley and his wife. O'Connor denounced de Valera's "educated Government" and described how 3 priests had visited the tailor's cottage and forced him to burn his copy of the book.

Seán O'Faoláin (1900-1991), who had also known the tailor, wrote the short story,'The Silence of the Valley,' in 1947, in tribute to him.

In the 1960s, the archbishop of Dublin had John McGahern (1934-2006), sacked from his teaching job after the publication of his second novel.

With the Irish in the Free State fighting amongst each other, Article 15(d) in the Anglo-Irish Treaty, "Safeguards for minorities in Northern Ireland," was ignored and it would take over 44 years for the prime ministers of the two Irish jurisdictions to officially meet.

The Boundary Commission never reported but Winston Churchill, Chancellor of the Exchequer, agreed to waive the provision in the Treaty that the Irish Free State would be allocated with a percentage of Britain's national debt.

If the Dáil had rejected the Treaty, was the IRA ready to resume war?

The late Prof David Fitzpatrick (1948-2018) of Trinity College Dublin, wrote in 'Politics and Irish Life 1913-1921' (1977), "By mid-1921 the IRA had reached an impasse. Despite its vast improvement as a fighting force since the days of close-order drilling after Sunday Mass, it was too poorly armed to have much hope of dislodging the enemy from his heavily fortified strongholds . . . But the opposing forces, and the government behind them, had also reached an impasse. On July 11th, 1921, both sides acknowledged defeat by agreeing to a Truce."

David Lloyd George, the British prime minister, represented part of a split Liberal Party in a coalition government and the Tories had two-thirds of the seats in the House of Commons. George resigned in October 1922. Ireland would have had to then deal with a Tory Government sympathetic to Unionists.

Finally, de Valera appeared to have been jealous of Michael Collins and on the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising, he is reported by Tim Pat Coogan to have been asked by a US congressman, "Mr President, what's the story of your involvement in the death of Michael Collins?"

De Valera replied: "I can't say a thing John butthat fellow had it coming to him."

Ireland as a post-Second World War refuge for Nazi War Criminals

*The Irish and the Spaniards used the calendar adopted by Pope Gregory XIII 19 years previously and the date of the Battle of Kinsale was January 3, 1602, whereas the English date for the battle was December 24, 1601, in accordance with the old Julian calendar dating from 45 BCE, when Julius Caesar was the Pontifex Maximus, the pontiff or chief priest of pagan Rome.

The Irish Independent, December 7, 1921


Irish Conflict: An American tourist's view of the "so-called" Civil War