Yesterday marked the 90th anniversary of the shelling of the Four Courts with borrowed British artillery by Free State forces so I thought it was timely to post this lecture I gave in 2002:
A nation sundered: Ireland's counter-revolution
The title I have chosen for my lecture tonight is ‘A Nation Sundered’, for this in effect was the consequence of the bitter Civil War, or more correctly Counter-Revolution into which Ireland was plunged 80 years ago. The sundering of Ireland not only geographically but politically, the sundering of the wonderful sense of national unity which had galvanised a Nation during some of the most momentous years in its history between 1916 and 1921.To fully understand the past 33 years of conflict in Ireland, indeed to have any understanding of political development in Ireland North or South an understanding of 1922-23 period is essential. The signing of the ‘Stormont Agreement’ in April 1998 was but the latest in a series of attempts by Britain to consolidate the political structures which it imposed on Ireland by means of the Westminster ‘Government of Ireland Act’ in 1920 and the ‘Anglo-Irish Treaty’ of 1921, and its effect was similar in yet further dividing Republican\Nationalist opposition to British Rule in Ireland.
During the 1916-21 period Ireland enjoyed an unprecedented unity of purpose, particularly following the executions of the leaders of the 1916 Rising.
The mass of the people for the first time since the Land War of the 1880s or more particularly since 1798 threw their weight behind the forces of revolution, transforming Sinn Fein from a fringe organisation with the limited of aim securing self-government within the British Empire, into a nationally organised revolutionary body, adopting at it’s Ard Fheis of October 1917 the aim of: “Securing of International recognition of Ireland as an Independent Irish Republic”, Sinn Fein had, as the historian Brian Murphy put it, “a new Republican reality” . Likewise the months and years, which followed 1916, saw the rapid development and growth of the Irish Republican Army and other national organizations such as Cumann Na mBan , Na Fianna Éireann etc. All of this culminated in the historic 1918 General Election, which must be pointed out was the last All-Ireland Election, and which was in effect a plebiscite on Irish National Self –Determination, which saw Sinn Fein sweep to a dramatic and overwhelming victory, something which had been signposted in a series of by-elections during 1917, banishing the old so-called ‘Constitutional Nationalist’ Irish Party to the annals of history.
Armed with this mandate the newly invigorated forces of Irish Republicanism set about giving substance to and making a reality of the Republic proclaimed in 1916. On January 21 1919 24 of the 73 Sinn Féin Deputies elected in December 1918 came together in Dublin’s Mansion House, formally convening the first meeting of an independent All-Ireland Parliament, Dáil Éireann, the 26 Unionist and six ‘Irish Party’ deputies refused to take their seats.
Those assembled issued a ‘Declaration of Independence’ adopted a ‘Democratic Programme’ which declared that the:” The Nation’s sovereignty extends not only to all men and women of the Nation, but to all its material possessions; the Nation’s soil and all its resources.” An “Address to the Free Nations of the World” was also read. What all of this meant was summed up by Cathal Brugha, who had just been elected acting President in place of the imprisoned Eamon De Valera, when following the reading of the ‘Declaration of Independence’ he declared: “ Deputies, you understand that from what is asserted in this Declaration that we are done with England. Let the world know it and those who are concerned bear it in mind.” Britain’s answer to this manifestation of the democratic will of the Irish people for national self-determination was even more coercion as they attempted to militarily suppress the newly declared ‘Republic’.
Over the next two and a half years Ireland was locked in a life and death struggle with what was then the world’s leading power .In fact on the same day that the Dail met for the first time, a small band of IRA volunteers led by Dan Breen and Sean Treacy, at Soloheadbeg, Co Tipperary fired what were for all practical purposes the first shots of the ‘War of Independence’ or ‘Tan War’.
All the while the newly established Dail Eireann set about constructing what the historian Arthur Mitchell has described as a”counter-state”. During the ‘Treaty Debates’ and subsequently it was the contention of those who supported the ‘Treaty’ that the ‘Republic’ never really existed. In fact the ‘Republic’ established its own functioning Government departments, covering all areas of the nation’s life, such as ‘Finance’, Justice or ‘Home Affairs’, Foreign or ‘External Affairs’, which had accredited representatives in a number of countries throughout the world. Its law courts and police had supplanted the British legal system in the people’s eyes by the time of the Truce in July 1921.The Dail also created a propaganda Department and established a committee assigned with the task of formulating “a general scheme of National Education.” Whilst also enjoying the support of the vast majority of local government bodies in the country.
What is clear is that the ‘Irish Republic’ was not merely aspirational but a living and functional reality, leading Dorothy MacArdle to write in her history of the 1916-23 period The Irish Republic: “Whether the Irish Republic ever existed has been disputed not only by jurists and not only with words. For the Irish people the Republic was, for a few tense years, a living reality, which dominated every aspect of their lives. Its existence was a fact of human history, if not of logic or of law.”
Britain reacted not only militarily to this ever growing demand for Irish Nationhood but also introduced its ‘Government of Ireland Act’ in 1920 which partitioned Ireland, establishing Northern and Southern Parliaments with jurisdictition over the Six North Eastern Counties of Ulster and the remaining 26 Counties respectively, under a form of Dominion Home Rule. All of this was simply ignored by the Dail as it set about its task of supplanting the British system of Government in Ireland. By the early summer of 1921 the British Government had come to the realisation that it was not possible to pacify Ireland militarily without alienating world opinion, particularly the United States.
And so on July 11 a truce was finally agreed as a prelude to negotiations.
The complex series of talks and negotiations which led ultimately to the signing of the ‘Anglo-Irish Treaty’ or ‘Treaty of Surrender’ on December 6 1921 would be the subject of a lecture in themselves and so I do not intend to deal with them tonight.
From a British perspective the ‘Treaty’ was a masterstroke, as the historian Michael Hopkinson points out in his history of the Civil war or Counter-revolution:” The Treaty’s signing was the decisive event which led to the Civil War. No document could have more effectively brought out into the open divisions in the philosophy and leadership of the Sinn Fein Movement. If it had offered a little more or a little less, it may well have unified opinion for or against it.” As I pointed out at the beginning the effect was to sunder the nation, driving a wedge through the forces of revolution behind which the people had united since 1916, divisions which remain with us to this day.
Immediately following the Dail’s narrow ratification of the ‘Treaty’ by seven votes in
January 1922 a situation was created which was in the words of Dorothy MacArdle: “Intricate and ambiguous.” She goes on: “To do more than approve the Treaty and thus recommend its acceptance to the Electorate was not within the competence of the Dáil. No mandate had even been given to Dáil Éireann by the Irish people to abdicate or to transfer its functions or to organise any other governmental authority on Irish soil. It was obligatory upon Dáil Éireann to continue as far as possible, to function in accordance with its mandate, its oath and its Constitution, as the Government of the Republic, unless and until people should disestablish the Republic by their vote. No other government could have any democratic sanction in Ireland until a general election had been held.
“The Treaty, however made no allowance for an appeal to the electorate before the Governmental change, no acknowledgment of the democratic position of the Government of the Irish Republic: on the contrary, its terms regarded that Government as non-existent, Article 18 requiring that the Treaty should be submitted forthwith to a ‘meeting summoned for the purpose of the members elected to sit in the House of Commons of Southern Ireland.’ That assembly was, under Article 17, to elect the ‘Provisional Government’ to which the British Government should transfer certain powers and machinery. Dáil Éireann was ignored.
“In consequence of its vote, Dáil Éireann had placed itself in an impossible position; whilst continuing to function as the Government of the Republic and to safeguard the Republican position until an election could be held, it had to countenance the summoning of a rival assembly (which would mainly, in personnel, be a portion of itself); countenance the recognising of one government in the North and the setting up of another government in Dublin, both with the subversion of the Republic and the supplanting of Dáil Éireann as their immediate aim.”
What this all meant in effect was a reversal of what had occurred between 1919-21,the creation of a rival state to that of the All-Ireland Republic. Despite frantic efforts by some on both sides of the ‘Treaty’ divide to preserve some semblance of unity both politically and within the Army of the Republic, the IRA, the insistence of the British to strict adherence to the terms of the ‘Treaty’ most pointedly in the drafting of a constitution for the new 26 County State made armed conflict almost inevitable. The reluctance to face this inevitability of armed conflict was most evident with those who remained loyal to the All-Ireland Republic, writing of this period Ernie O’Malley had this to say:” there was no attempt to define a clear cut policy. Words ran into phrases, sentences followed sentences… A drifting policy discussed endlessly in a shipwrecked way.” The result of this was to allow the emerging Free State to consolidate itself, with the active assistance of the British Government, both politically and militarily. As with the ‘Stormont Agreement’ all the forces of the of the establishment from Church Hierarchy to the national and provincial media, rallied in support of the ‘Treaty’. Support for the ‘Treaty’ was most evident in the more prosperous eastern half of the country, whilst in contrast opposition to it was most marked in the West and South West. This is reflected in the strong support for the ‘Treaty’ amongst the moneyed and propertied classes. The “stake in the country people” as Liam Mellows described them. Indeed Mellows was to the fore in the Republican leadership in seizing on the importance of this. Peadar O Donnell in his book There Will Be Another Day alludes to this: “For a little while on the morning of the attack on IRA Headquarters, Four Courts, Dublin, 28th June 1922, Liam Mellows and I shared vigil at one of the barricaded, upper windows and watched the city bestir itself, within our arc of vision, to the noise of rifle and light artillery fire. We thought our thoughts. Two men, obviously workmen making their way along the quays to their jobs, started us speculating on what role the trade unions would have been guided into were James Connolly alive and the Republic under attack. It was the first time I heard Mellows on the play of social forces in the crisis of the Treaty. I was present at the Dáil Éireann session when he made his speech against the Treaty, but while what he said impressed me greatly it gave no indication of the pattern of ideas he uncovered now.” In his ‘Notes from Mountjoy’ written in the weeks leading up to his execution in December 1922, Mellows was to more fully develop these ideas.
“In our efforts now to win back public support to the Republic we are forced to recognise – whether we like it or not – that the commercial interest, so called, money and gombeen men are on the side of the Treaty, because the Treaty means imperialism and England. We are back to Tone – and it is just as well – relying on that great body ‘the men of no property’. The ‘stake in the country’ people were never with the Republic. They are not with it now – and they will always be against it – until it wins. We should recognise that definitely now and base our appeals upon the understanding and needs of those who have always borne Ireland’s fight.”
The slide into war was accelerated when Collins at the insistence of the British broke the ‘Pact’ or voting arrangement which had been agreed with De Valera in the lead up to the election called for June 16, between a panel of candidates put forward by the Pro and Anti – Treaty wings of Sinn Fein. And so on June 28 the opening shots of what was to be a savage and brutal war of brothers were fired from artillery borrowed by the Free State from the British Army, on the Four Courts in Dublin, which had been occupied and used as their Headquarters by the Forces of the Republic since the previous April. It was a war that would prove costly to Ireland on a number of levels, materially the damage caused would amount to £30 million, and on a deeper level it would rob Ireland of the brightest and best of a unique revolutionary generation.
Men such as Liam Mellows, Rory O’ Connor, Liam Lynch, Erskine Childers, Cathal Brugha and Harry Boland. On the Pro – Treaty side Michael Collins. All of them left an indelible mark on Ireland and still had so much more to contribute.
Following the surrender of the Four Courts garrison and the end of the battle for O’Connell Street, in which most notably Cathal Brugha was to lose his life, the fighting cantered on Connacht and Munster. In Munster a line from Waterford to Limerick would mark the boundary of the last bastion of Republican resistance to the Free State, the so – called ‘Munster Republic’. Following the deaths of Griffith and Collins in August 1922 the Free State under the leadership Cosgrave, Mulcahy and O’Higgins prosecuted the war in new and more ruthless fashion. Dropping all pretence of operating as a normal democratic government they set about using every and all means at their disposal to crush resistance to the Free State, including the torture and mutilation of prisoners, summary executions, in many cases without even the semblance of a trial or court martial as in the case of Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellows, Joe McKelvey and Dick Barrett. Despite being prisoners of war for almost six months the four men were executed on the orders of the Free State cabinet on December 8 1922, as a reprisal for the killing of a Free State TD the previous day. By May of 1923 the Free State had executed 77 Republican prisoners, Brian O’Higgins in his ‘Wolfe Tone Annual’ of 1962 lists 113 “unauthorised murders” or executions carried out by the Free State. In Kerry , at Ballyseedy, Countess Bridge and Baghas , unarmed prisoners were tied to mines and blown up. The prisons and internment camps were swelled with 12000 Republican prisoners. Following the death in action on the Knockmealdown Mountains of IRA Chief of Staff Liam Lynch on April 10 1923, the remaining IRA Executive under its new Chief of Staff Frank Aiken decided further military resistance under the prevailing conditions was impossible. And so on May 24 the order to ‘Dump Arms’ was issued. In contrast to the decision of the Provisionals to ‘Decommission Arms’ over the last number of months, the decision of the Republican leadership in 1923 was guided purely by military considerations and in no way constituted a political surrender.
The Counter – Revolution like all such wars was marked by its sheer brutality, leading
the Commander of British Forces in Ireland General Neville Macready to comment that Republican Resistance had been crushed “by means far more drastic than any which the British Government dared to impose during the worst period of the rebellion.”
Yet despite all of this in the 26 County elections of August 1923, in the face of censorship and coercion and despite the fact that the majority of its candidates and election workers were imprisoned or on the run, Sinn Fein had 44 candidates returned, polling a total of 286000 votes. As Michael Hopkinson observed : “The election results demonstrated the continuity of Republican support which had been obscured by the war’s unpopularity.”
The ‘Treaty of Surrender’ and the war of Counter-revolution which it spawned has served to retard the normal social, economic and political development of Ireland North and South. In the Six North Eastern Counties, and due to the promises made in the ‘Treaty’ about the role of a ‘Boundary Commission’ all of which served to relegate regime and the question of partition in the ‘Treaty’ debates to a side issue, it put in place a state, whose foundations were naked sectarianism, discrimination and bigotry, all of which have only been further entrenched by the ‘Stormont Agreement’ , as evidenced in the streets of Belfast, Portadown and Lurgan. Meanwhile the 26 County State in its 80 years of existence has been characterised by its endemic corruption, failing in its primary duty to provide for the mass of its citizens, for many years using , just as the British had done before, the emigrant boat and plane as its safety valve. It also fulfilled the prophecy made by Liam Mellows during the Dail ‘Treaty’ debates when he forecast the the Free State Government would become the “barrier government between the British and the Irish people.” In decades which have followed it has continued to use the gallows, the firing squad, the internment camp, political police and censorship to suppress the Irish people’s legitimate demand for National - Self Determination. Again as Mellows pointed out, the ‘State’, for those who have supported it came to surpass Nation as the ultimate expression of Irish identity, and its defence and preservation more important than Ireland’s inalienable right to unfettered Nationhood. If Irish history teaches us anything it is that a British withdrawal and the dismantling of both ‘Treaty’ states are essential stepsin the building of a New Ireland based on the All-Ireland democracy as embodied in the All – Ireland Republic.