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Were There Two Irish Civil Wars, or Just One?

Ireland’s 1922–1923 was not an isolated incident. It was a direct continuation of the violence of the 1919–1921 war of independence, in which Irishmen killed Irishmen. The cycle of violence continued. It still continues in Irish hearts, until Irish people reckon with their past and embrace the countrymen that they consider enemies.
The Civil War

October 09, 2023 02:08 EDT

I have just finished reading The Civil War in Dublin by John Dorney. Dorney describes himself as an independent historian.

I have a minor quibble with the title of the book, which refers to “THE” civil war, suggesting that there was only one civil war. I would argue that there were in fact two Irish Civil Wars … the first one from 1919 to 1921 and the second one from 1922 to 1923.

Irish people fought for Britain, too

I would argue that the 1919 to 1921 war, the Irish War of Independence, was also an Irish civil war. I say this because Irish people fought on both sides in both wars. In fact, I believe most of the people who died on both sides were also in fact Irish.

The members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), who opposed the Irish Republican Army (IRA), were predominantly Irish (and Catholic too, if that matters). Failing to recognize the Irishness of the many natives of this 32-county island who fought on the pro-Union side in the war of independence is a barrier to the reconciliation of all the communities on this island.

If one looks up the excellent book The Dead of the Irish Revolution by Eunan O’Halpin and Daithi Ó Corrain covering the period 1916 to 1921, one can confirm that those killed by the IRA were predominantly Irish, such as magistrates, RIC members and supposed informers. Some of these people were Protestants or wanted Ireland to remain part of the UK, but this does not make them any less Irish!

The fact that Irish people fought on both sides in the 1919–1921 war makes it an Irish civil war. Those killed in the first military action of the war of independence in January 1919 were members of the RIC, James McDonnell from Belmullet and Patrick O’Connell from Coachford, County Cork. Both were Irish Catholics.

The first magistrate to be killed, Jack Milling from Glasson, County Westmeath, was an Irish Protestant. He was shot through the front window of his house on Newport Road in Westport, County Mayo, while he was winding up the clock. In his front room. His family subsequently settled in Armagh.

I make these points not as a criticism of John Dorney’s book but as a reminder that, if we want reconciliation on this island, we must recognize that those born on this island who profess allegiance to King Charles and who feel British also have an Irish birthright and are fully Irish. Some will find it difficult to come to terms with this, but it will have to be done.

The political vandals who opposed the idea of recalling by name, on a wall in Glasnevin Cemetery, the people who died on both sides in the 1919–21 war were promoting a version of what it is to be Irish that is deeply exclusionary. They were saying that, if you supported a continuing link with Britain during the 1919–21 war, you were not Irish and did not deserve to be remembered by name on a wall. They were telling the Irish people who fought on the other side that they and their beliefs were to be canceled (to use the modern term). If this attitude persists, we will never have lasting peace or reconciliation on this island

The Second Irish Civil War

We need a fair-minded presentation of painful historic events that forces people to reflect on their own prejudices. John Dorney does that in regard to what I will call the Second Irish Civil War, that from 1922 to 1923.

John Dorney is a graduate in history and politics from University College Dublin and a native of Rathfarnham. He manages a website on Irish history called “The Irish Story.”

The interim period between the truce of July 11, 1921, and the opening of the civil war almost a year later was one during which there was no clear and well-established authority in the state. People took the law into their own hands. Order had broken down and, without order, laws could be enforced. The longer that continued, the more respect for laws would have been eroded.

Something had to be done to restore unitary authority across the full territory of the state. To my mind, the civil war was fought to restore order and thereby make laws meaningful. What led to this situation?

A peace treaty had been signed between the UK government and an Irish delegation, led by Arthur Griffith, representing the Dáil Éireann (the lower house of the legislature) in December 1921. This treaty was approved by a majority in the Dáil Éireann on January 7, 1922. That should have settled matters. But a large part of the IRA membership did not accept the decision of the Dáil Éireann to accept the treaty.

The biggest objection to the treaty was that it required legislators to swear an oath of

 “allegiance to the constitution of the Irish Free State” (which was established under the treaty) and to be “faithful to King George and his successors.” It seems to me that the wording here creates the stronger tie to Ireland and its constitution, compared to the “faithfulness” to King George. In any event, it was not worth falling out over.

We know now, with the benefit of hindsight, that the treaty was capable of being amended (as are all treaties) and of being a stepping-stone to greater independence, as Michael Collins said at the time.

As the argument raged in the early months of 1922 over the wording of the treaty, the IRA broke down into two factions. Each scrambled to occupy key installations in the capital and around the country. Attempts to heal the split failed.

Generally speaking, the anti-treaty side seized installations in the southern half of the country, and the National Army took control elsewhere. In Dublin, anti-treaty forces, led by Rory O’Connor, occupied the Four Courts and made it their headquarters. They also seized the Kildare Street Club, of which many Anglo-Irish gentry were members, as well as the hall where the Orange Order used to meet.

One has the sense that these buildings were chosen for their propaganda or symbolic value rather than for their military defensibility. Indeed, a preoccupation with symbolism underlay the problems of anti-treaty political thinking.

As said earlier, the majority of the IRA opposed the treaty. This was the case in Dublin too. Only 1,900 of the 4,400 IRA members in Dublin were pro-treaty. Yet when the fighting started, the National Army was able to dislodge the anti-treaty forces from their strongholds in Dublin quite quickly. The Four Courts was taken with the aid of artillery. The buildings held by anti-treaty forces in the vicinity of O’Connell Street were taken in a few days of building-to-building fighting, not unlike the fighting in Stalingrad 20 years later.

The National Army was able to mobilize the support of the country

Why was the war in Dublin over so quickly, when it dragged on in the rest of the country for 10 months?

The National Army may have been outnumbered at the outset of the war, but they were better equipped, with material supplied by the British. They also had much more support from the general public, which meant they had better intelligence.

They were better led, too. The Free State government had a clear sense of purpose, that of establishing the institutions of a new European state.

The anti-treaty side was, both militarily and mentally, on the defensive from the beginning, holding positions and waiting to be attacked rather than advancing to take positions held by the Free State.

The military wing of the anti-treaty formation, led by Liam Lynch, made the key decisions, and the civilian leadership of Éamon de Valera was almost completely sidelined. They were also fighting to defend something ephemeral, a republic proclaimed at the General Post Office in 1916, which had no government and no visible or tangible existence. It was an idea, not a reality.

In contrast, the Free State was established on the principle that civilian leadership was paramount over the army. When Michael Collins took over as chief of staff of the army, he handed over his position as president of the Executive Council to W. T. Cosgrave. Even when Michael Collins himself was killed in action in August 1922, there was a seamless transition of responsibilities.

Soon, as a result of intense recruitment, the National Army would have a huge numerical advantage over the anti-treaty side.

Why was the Free State able to recruit so many troops, so quickly?

Only a small proportion of the population had been involved in the war of independence, and not everybody had voted for Sinn Féin in the 1918 election. This left a large pool from which soldiers could be recruited by the National Army. The National Army was also able to recruit among the unemployed, including those who had fought in the Great War.

The human costs of the war were high

This was a brutal and cruel civil war. The anti-treaty forces wanted to bankrupt the Free State by blowing up its infrastructure. One such plan was to blow up all the road and rail bridges leading to and from Dublin. This was a failure, and numerous anti-treaty prisoners were taken.

This book gives an account of the execution without trial of anti-treaty soldiers. Some of these executions were part of a planned campaign to intimidate the opponents of the treaty and get them to give up their armed resistance to it. The policy on executions without trial may have shortened the civil war, but it undermined the case that the Free State was fighting for. It was hard to justify, and no one was held to account for it.

Other actions were undertaken, on an unauthorized basis, by groups within the National Army that were out of control.

The worst case, in my mind, is the killing of Edwin Hughes, Brendan Holohan and John Rogers. These were unarmed teenagers caught distributing a leaflet in Drumcondra calling for the killing of Free State soldiers. The bodies of these young boys were found the next day in a quarry near Clondalkin.

All urban centers had been secured for the Free State by the end of August, but the fighting continued on a hit-and-run basis well into 1923, using tactics refined in the 1919–1921 war against the British. Unarmed civilians were targeted by both sides.

The anti-treaty forces finally gave up in May 1923, and they dumped their arms.

Although this book is subtitled “The Civil War in Dublin,” it gives a fairly full account of developments outside Dublin. It is a comprehensive piece of work and I recommend it.

I believe the civil war flowed from the war of independence, which in turn flowed from 1916, which was a response to the militarization of politics by the Ulster Volunteers. Violence begets violence. It rarely serves any useful purpose.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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