The Irish Civil War Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Irish Civil War

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In order to better understand the context of this entry, it is suggested that readers familiarise themselves with the events of the 1916 Easter Rising and the Irish War of Independence.

The Anglo-Irish Treaty

By 11 July, 1921, when the ceasefire of the War of Independence was declared, the IRA and the British Army and Police Services had fought each other to a standstill. The IRA was running out of manpower and weapons, while the British government were quickly losing the support of the British public. Both, at the time, wanted a signed peace treaty. The IRA were sure they would gain the control of all of Ireland, save the counties of Antrim, Down and Armagh. They believed that these three counties weren't strong enough to support themselves, and even the IRA could see that a post-WWI Britain wasn't going to care much about three northern Irish counties. They were in for a shock.

The Irish representatives at the signing were completely outclassed by the British ones and in the end Britain got the favourable deal. Their territory of Northern Ireland comprised, in addition to Antrim, Down and Armagh, the counties of Tyrone, Londonderry and Fermanagh - despite those counties' large Nationalist population. Even the British representatives, though, recognised that the treaty wasn't going to go down well with everyone in Ireland, because the treaty confirmed that Ireland was still part of the British Empire.


The signing of the treaty was greeted with widespread relief by the Irish public, who were tired of conflict. On 8 December, the Dáil1 Cabinet accepted the treaty, four votes to three. Griffith, Collins, Barton and Cosgrave voted in favour, while de Valera, Brugha and Austin Stack were opposed. Afterwards, de Valera issued a public statement rejecting the treaty.

The Dáil Debate on the treaty began on 16 December and comprised heated arguments both for and against:

We have brought back the Flag; we brought back the evacuation of Ireland after 700 years by British troops and the formation of the Irish Army. We have brought back to Ireland equality with England.
- Arthur Griffith
Not the ultimate freedom that all nations aspire and develop, but the freedom to achieve.
- Michael Collins2
The Welfare of the Nation must take precedence over political creeds and theories.
- Kevin O'Higgins
It gives away Irish Independence; it acknowledges the head of the British Empire as direct monarch of Ireland.
- Eamon de Valera
[The Treaty Ports3 are] the most humiliating condition that can be inflicted on any nation claiming to be free. Irish ministers will be the King's ministers.
- Erskine Childers
There is not power enough in the whole British empire that could make me take that oath. I took an oath to the Irish Republic, solemnly, reverently, meaning every word. I shall never go back.
- Kathleen Clarke, widow of 1916 Rising leader Thomas Clarke

Later, the debate became bitter and divisive as some TDs4 resorted to verbal attacks on those who disagreed with them. Over Christmas a number of TDs changed their minds on the treaty because of pressure from their constituents, who wanted peace. On 7 January, 1922, the Dáil ratified the treaty, 64 to 57. After the vote, de Valera and the anti-treaty TDs walked out and refused to recognise the Irish Free State.

The split in the Dáil was mirrored in the IRA, as it soon divided into the Irish Free State National Army (The Regulars), who were pro-treaty, and the anti-treaty Irregulars. The Irregulars were led by Liam Lynch, Tom Barry and Rory O'Connor.

Civil War

Early in 1922, the British began to withdraw from Ireland. On some occasions, the British handed over barracks to Irregular forces. Violence became widespread as these anti-treaty forces raided banks, post offices and weapon stores. In April, the Irregulars, led by Rory O'Connor, occupied Dublin's Four Courts.

A General Election was held in June 1922, and demonstrated by its results that the public supported the treaty. The results were:

  • Pro-Treaty - 58
  • Anti-Treaty - 35
  • Labour - 17
  • Unionist - 4
  • Other - 14

After the execution of the deputy chief of staff, JJ O'Connell of the National Army, Collins demanded the surrender of the Irregulars in the Four Courts. When they refused, he used artillery borrowed from the British to shell it. This marked the beginning of the Irish Civil War. Collins became the Commander in Chief of the Free State Army.

A series of battles erupted in Dublin, fighting taking place up and down O'Connell Street. Two days after the shelling, the Irregulars in the Four Courts surrendered, burning the Public Record Office as an act of revenge5. In the following months, the National Army took control of most of the country, except for the 'Munster Republic', where the Irregulars had the most support6. This area was invaded and Limerick, Waterford, Cahir and Clonmel were captured. Free State Forces captured Cork, Kenmare and Tralee after sea-borne invasions.

Meanwhile, on 12 August, Arthur Griffith, leader of the Free State, died following a brain haemorrhage. Ten days later, Michael Collins was killed in an ambush at Béal na mBláth. His death was mourned by both friend and foe. No one knows who ordered the attack. It is suspected that de Valera might have had something to do with it, but chances are that he didn't.

After the death of Collins, the conflict changed fundamentally. Instead of the pitched battles between Regular and Irregular forces, the Irregulars reverted to the guerrilla tactics that they had used during the War of Independence. They blew up several buildings and railways. The Free State government, now led by Cosgrave and O'Higgins, adopted much tougher methods.

National Army Tyranny

The Dáil passed a law which gave the National Army the power to set up military courts. People found in possession of guns were liable to be shot. Erskine Childers was executed for having a small show pistol which Collins had given to him. After Sean Hales, a pro-treaty TD, was shot by the Irregulars, the government ordered the execution of Rory O'Connor and three other Irregulars as a 'reprisal and as a warning'.

The cycle of ambush, terror and counter-terror continued. More than 70 prisoners were executed7. During this time, the Ballyseedy Massacre took place: eight IRA men were rounded up by the National Army, tied to a log and thrown into a pit; a land mine was thrown in after them. Only one man survived, blown clear out of harm's way. In April 1923, the National Army killed Liam Lynch, the Irregulars' chief of staff, but a month later his successor, Frank Aiken, issued an order to dump arms. A ceasefire was declared on 24 May, 1923, bringing the Civil War to an end.

Repercussions of the Civil War

It is estimated that 4,000 people died in the ten months of the Civil War, about two times the number that died during the War of Independence. Damage to infrastructure exceeded €4 billion in present-day terms. It nearly inflicted a fatal blow on the Irish economy. The Civil War divided families, pitching brother against brother, father against son and husbands against wives. It became a very divisive factor in Irish politics. The two biggest political parties in the Republic of Ireland were born from this struggle, de Valera's Fianna Fáil being the anti-treaty party and Cosgrave's Cumann na nGaedheal8 the pro-treaty faction.

1Irish Parliament.2Collins' argument is often paraphrased as 'Freedom to achieve freedom'.3The treaty ports were three ports, Lough Swilly, Berehaven and Cobh, that were declared to be still under British rule. They were ports of great strategic importance to the British.4Teachtaí Dála, the Irish equivalent of Members of Parliament.5This makes it very difficult for Irish people nowadays to trace their ancestry.6County Cork is still known as the 'Rebel County'.7Known as 'The 70 Martyrs'.8Later Fine Gael.

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