Anniversary of the Irish Civil War

The Irish Civil War began on June 28, 1922. It was fought between the provisional government of Southern Ireland (which became the Irish Free State on December 6, 1922) and the IRA members who were unwilling to accept the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921, which had formally established the Irish Free State. The IRA chose to oppose the Treaty because, under it, Ireland remained part of the British Empire, an option they found unacceptable after having made a commitment to establishing the Republic of Ireland. To them, the Free Staters were breaking their oaths to uphold the Republic that had been declared in 1919 by the Dáil (revolutionary parliament).

The Civil War came on the heels of the Anglo-Irish War, which lasted from 1919 until 1921. This war had been fought by the IRA, which was heavily influenced by the leadership of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). The mastermind behind the IRA’s terror campaign against the British and their supporters was Michael Collins, the Minister of Finance for the Dáil, Director of Intelligence for the IRA, and President of the IRB. This was the birth of modern guerilla warfare and it was terribly effective. The war ended on July 11, 1921 with a truce between the British and the IRA. By December the two sides had negotiated the treaty whereby the 26 southern counties formed their own government, separate from direct British rule. The 6 counties that now make up Northern Ireland were given the option of joining the Free State; the decision to remain separate was controversial, but the British obviously did not object to the Treaty not being fully followed.

The sticking point for the IRA’s members was the oath of allegiance Irish citizens would have to swear to the British crown; Ireland would remain part of the Empire. They had fought to establish the Republic in a unified Ireland, not to see it partitioned and under foreign rule. The Free Staters argued that they could not possibly win a longer war against Britain and that the establishment of the Free State was the first step towards the establishment of the Republic. Historians have since described this of a clash of idealism against pragmatism.

The IRA was led by Éamon de Valera, the President of the Republic of Ireland that had been declared in 1919. It seems that, to some degree, he was overwhelmed by events. He had ordered the delegates sent to Britain to negotiate the treaty to send the terms to him for review before signing the Treaty; they did not. Upon their return, the Treaty was ratified by the Dáil (revolutionary parliament) and Arthur Griffith, one of the lead negotiators, was elected President. Michael Collins became Chairman of the Provisional Government and Commander-in-Chief of the National Army. It does not seem that de Valera wanted civil war, but he was unable to stop it.

On April 14, 1922, 200 members of the IRA seized the Four Courts building in Dublin. Collins wanted to avoid civil war at all costs, but with the British threatening military action if he did not act, Collins was forced to begin bombarding the Four Courts building in June 28th, beginning the Civil War.

On August 12, 1922, Arthur Griffith died of heart failure. On August 22, Collins was assassinated while attempting to negotiate a peace between the provisional government and the IRA. It was not until May 24, 1923 that the IRA finally laid down their arms and surrendered. Somewhere between 2,800 and 3,800 combatants were killed, as well as an unknown number of civilians. In 1932, de Valera became Prime Minister of the Free State and set in motion the events that would lead to the establishment of the Republic of Ireland in 1937. The Free Staters had been correct in 1922; the Anglo-Irish Treaty had led directly to the realization of the Republic of Ireland. However, many of the authors of that treaty did not live to see their dream realized.

6 Responses to Anniversary of the Irish Civil War

  1. Anonymous says:

    My parents were in Ireland before the Anglo-Irish Treaty as my Father came to America in 1921 and my Mother in 1924.My folks had many stories about the ‘Black and Tans’ a terroist group that fought the Irish Republlican Brotherhood led by Micheal Collins.
    My Godmother and first cousin Sister Jean d’ Arc C.S.J wrote her thesis for her Doctorate on Micheal Collins.
    As a child I thought the “Black and Tans were terrible.

  2. Steve says:

    Very nice synopsis. Thanks Andrew.
    Era is well depicted in the film “The Wind That Shakes
    the Barley.”

  3. Andrew says:

    And to the British, the IRA (and IRB) were the terrorists. I guess it’s all a matter of perspective. Though for the most part, the IRA only killed “collaborators” and British personnel; the Black and Tans opened fire on civilians a few times.

    I think it is worth keeping in mind that the British soldiers who fought the IRA during the War of Independence had just spent 5 years watching their friends die on the Western Front and in Turkey. Not that Irish units didn’t serve as well (I’ve written about that before). It just provides some perspective on why the British were so harsh in their response.

    And yes steve, “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” is an excellent movie. As is “Michael Collins.” They both provide different perspectives on the same time period. We watched both as supplementary material in a course I took on Irish history.

    Here are the respective trailers if anyone is interested:

  4. Steve says:

    I was in Dublin when Lord Mountbatten was blown up on the fishing boat-1979 or 80.
    A friend from Sligo, nearly in tears, reminded me that there was a young boy from Sligo working on the boat. “What did he do to deserve to die?” Later, a bomb went off on a train. I asked an old relative “What was the point? Why that train?” She complained bitterly that “In Michael Collins’ day, you knew why people died. If you were a spy for Dublin Castle or directing armed men against the people, there was no place for you to hide. Collins’ men would kill you. Now they just kill anyone and no one knows why.”

    Thank God things began to change after Omagh.

  5. sjmcnamara says:

    Nice summary Andrew. Brings back memories from my Irish History Class at SSC in 1990. My professor theorizes that De` Valera was behind the assasination of Collins to remove a potential rival to allow him consolidate political power. DeValera then became the dominat political figure for the next 30+ years in Ireland.