The Irish Civil War (28 June 1922 – 24 May 1923) was a conflict that accompanied the establishment of the Irish Free State as an entity independent from the United Kingdom within the British Empire.
The conflict was waged between two opposing groups of Irish nationalists: the forces of the new Free State, who supported the Anglo-Irish Treaty under which the state was established, and the Republican opposition, for whom the Treaty represented a betrayal of the Irish Republic. The war was won by the Free State forces.
The Civil War may have claimed more lives than the War of Independence against Britain that preceded it, and left Irish society divided and embittered for decades afterwards. To this day, the two main political parties in the Republic of Ireland, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, are the direct descendants of the opposing sides in the War.
The Anglo-Irish Treaty arose from the Irish War of Independence, fought between Irish separatists (organised as the Irish Republic) and the British government, from 1919-1921. The treaty provided for a self-governing Irish state in 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties, having its own army and police. However, rather than creating the independent republic favoured by most nationalists, the Irish Free State would be an autonomous dominion of the British Empire with the British monarch as head of state, in the same manner as Canada and Australia. The treaty also stipulated that members of the new Irish Oireachtas (parliament) would have to take the following “Oath of Allegiance”
“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 His Majesty 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”.
This oath was considered highly objectionable by many Irish Republicans. Furthermore under the treaty, the state was not to be called a republic but a “free state” and it would be limited to the 26 southern and western counties of Ireland. The remaining six north-eastern counties, with their Protestant majority, would opt to remain part of the United Kingdom as Northern Ireland. The partition of Ireland had already been decided by the Westminster parliament in the Government of Ireland Act 1920 and was confirmed in the Anglo-Irish treaty. Also, several strategic ports were to remain occupied by the Royal Navy.
Nonetheless, Michael Collins, the republican leader who had led the Irish negotiating team, argued that the treaty gave “not the ultimate freedom that all nations aspire and develop, but the freedom to achieve freedom”. However, anti-treaty militants in 1922 believed that the treaty would never deliver full Irish independence.
Split in the Nationalist movement
The split over the treaty was deeply personal. Many of the leaders on both sides had been close friends and comrades during the War of Independence. This made their lethal disagreement over the treaty all the more bitter. Michael Collins later said that Éamon de Valera had sent him as plenipotentiary to negotiate the treaty because he knew that the British would not concede an independent Irish republic and wanted Collins to take the blame for the compromise settlement. He said he was deeply betrayed when de Valera refused to stand by the agreement that the plenipotentiaries had negotiated with David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill. De Valera, for his part, was furious that Collins and Arthur Griffith had signed the treaty without consulting him or the Irish cabinet as instructed.
Dáil Éireann (the parliament of the Irish Republic) narrowly passed the Anglo-Irish Treaty by 64 votes to 57 on 7 January 1922. Following the Treaty’s ratification, a “Provisional Government”, headed by Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith, was set up to transfer power from the British administration to the Irish Free State.
Upon the treaty’s ratification, Éamon de Valera resigned as President of the Republic and failed to be re-elected by an even closer vote of 60-58. He challenged the right of the Dáil to approve the treaty, saying that its members were breaking their oath to the Irish Republic. De Valera continued to promote a compromise whereby the new Irish Free State would be in “external association” with the British Commonwealth rather than be a member of it. In early March he formed the “Cumann na Poblachta” (Republican Association) party while remaining a member of Sinn Féin. On a speaking tour of the more republican province of Munster, starting on 17 March 1922, de Valera made controversial speeches at Carrick on Suir, Lismore, Dungarvan and Waterford, saying that:
“If the Treaty were accepted, [by the electorate] the fight for freedom would still go on, and the Irish people, instead of fighting foreign soldiers, will have to fight the Irish soldiers of an Irish government set up by Irishmen.” At Thurles, several days later, he repeated this imagery and added that the IRA: “…would have to wade through the blood of the soldiers of the Irish Government, and perhaps through that of some members of the Irish Government to get their freedom.”
In a letter to the Irish Independent on 23 March de Valera accepted the accuracy of their report of his comment about “wading” through blood, but deplored that the newspaper had published it.
More seriously, the majority of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) officers were also against the treaty and in March 1922, their ad-hoc Army Convention repudiated the authority of the Dáil to accept the treaty. The Anti-Treaty IRA formed their own “Army Executive”, which they declared to be the real government of the country, despite the result of the 1921 general election. On 26 April the Minister of Defence, Richard Mulcahy, summarised alleged illegal activities by many IRA men over the previous three months, whom he described as ’seceding volunteers’, including hundreds of robberies. Yet this fragmenting army was the only police force on the ground following the disintegration of the Irish Republican Police and the disbanding of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC).
By putting ten questions to General Mulcahy on 28 April, Seán McEntee argued that the Army Executive had acted continuously on its own to create a republic since 1917, had an unaltered constitution, had never fallen under the control of the Dáil, and that: “the only body competent to dissolve the Volunteer Executive was a duly convened convention of the Irish Republican Army” – not the Dáil. By accepting the treaty in January and abandoning the republic, the Dáil majority had effectively deserted the Army Executive. Then in a debate on defence, McEntee suggested that supporting the Army Executive “… even if it meant the scrapping of the Treaty and terrible and immediate war with England, would be better than the civil war which we are beginning at present apparently.” McEntee’s supporters added that the many robberies complained of by Mulcahy on 26 April were caused by the lack of payment and provision by the Dáil to the volunteers.
Descent into war
In the months leading up to the outbreak of civil war, there were a number of armed confrontations between the opposing IRA factions. In March, there was a major stand-off between up to 700 armed pro- and anti-treaty fighters in Limerick over who would occupy the military barracks being vacated by departing British troops. The situation was temporarily resolved in April when, after arbitration, the two sides agreed to occupy two barracks each. In April, a pro-treaty general, Adamson, was shot dead by anti-treatyites in Athlone. In early May, there was an even more serious clash in Kilkenny, when anti-treaty forces occupied the centre of the town and 200 pro-treaty troops were sent from Dublin to disperse them. On 3 May, the Dáil was informed 18 men had been killed in the fighting in Kilkenny. In a bid to avoid an all-out civil war, both sides agreed to a truce on 3 May 1922.
Delay until the June election
Collins established an “army re-unification committee” to re-unite the IRA and organised an election pact with de Valera’s anti-treaty political followers to campaign jointly in the Free State’s first election in 1922 and form a coalition government afterwards. He also tried to reach a compromise with anti-treaty IRA leaders by agreeing to a republican-type constitution (with no mention of the British monarchy) for the new state. IRA leaders such as Liam Lynch were prepared to accept this compromise. However, the proposal for a republican constitution was vetoed by the British as being contrary to the terms of the treaty and they threatened military intervention in the Free State unless the treaty were fully implemented. Collins reluctantly agreed. This completely undermined the electoral pact between the pro- and anti-treaty factions, who went into the Irish general election on 18 June 1922 as hostile parties, both calling themselves Sinn Féin.
The Pro-Treaty Sinn Féin party won the election with 239,193 votes to 133,864 for Anti-Treaty Sinn Féin. A further 247,226 people voted for other parties, most of whom supported the Treaty (although Labour’s 132,570 votes were ambiguous with regard to the Treaty). The election showed that a majority of the Irish electorate supported the treaty and the foundation of the Irish Free State, and that the Sinn Féin party did not represent the opinions of everyone in the new state, but de Valera, his political followers and most of the IRA continued to oppose the treaty. De Valera is quoted as saying, “the majority have no right to do wrong”.
Meanwhile, under the leadership of Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith, the pro-treaty Provisional Government set about establishing the Irish Free State, and organised the National Army – to replace the IRA – and a new police force. However, since it was envisaged that the new army would be built around the IRA, Anti-Treaty IRA units were allowed to take over British barracks and take their arms. In practice, this meant that by the summer of 1922, the Provisional Government of the Free State controlled only Dublin and some other areas like Longford where the IRA units supported the treaty. Fighting would ultimately break out when the Provisional Government tried to assert its authority over well-armed and intransigent Anti-Treaty IRA units around the country – particularly a hardline group in Dublin.
The Four Courts along the River Liffey quayside. The building was occupied by anti-treaty forces during the Civil War, whom the National Army subsequently bombarded into surrender. The Irish national archives in the buildings were destroyed in the subsequent fire. The building was badly damaged but was fully restored after the war.
On 14 April 1922, 200 Anti-Treaty IRA militants, led by Rory O’Connor, occupied the Four Courts and several other buildings in central Dublin, resulting in a tense stand-off. These anti-treaty Republicans wanted to spark a new armed confrontation with the British, which they hoped would unite the two factions of the IRA against their common enemy. However, for those who were determined to make the Free State into a viable, self-governing Irish state, this was an act of rebellion that would have to be put down by them rather than the British. Arthur Griffith was in favour of using force against these men immediately, but Michael Collins, who wanted at all costs to avoid civil war, left the Four Courts garrison alone until late June 1922. By this point the Pro-Treaty Sinn Féin party had secured a large majority in the general election, along with other parties that supported the Treaty. Collins was also coming under continuing pressure from London to assert his government’s authority in his capital.
The British lost patience as result of an action secretly ordered by Collins. He had Henry Hughes Wilson, a retired British Army field marshal, assassinated in London on 22 June because of his role in Northern Ireland.
Winston Churchill assumed that the Anti-Treaty IRA were responsible for the killing and warned Collins that he would use British troops to attack the Four Courts unless the Free State took action. In fact the British cabinet actually resolved to attack the Four Courts themselves on 25 June, in an operation that would have involved tanks, howitzers and aeroplanes. However, on the advice of General Nevil Macready, who commanded the British garrison in Dublin, the plan was cancelled at the last minute. Macready’s argument was that British involvement would have united Irish Nationalist opinion against the treaty and instead Collins was given a last chance to clear the Four Courts himself.
The final straw for the Free State government came on 27 June, when the Four Courts republican garrison kidnapped JJ “Ginger” O’Connell, a general in the new National Army. Collins, after giving the Four Courts garrison a final ultimatum to leave the building, decided to end the stand-off by bombarding the Four Courts garrison into surrender. The government then appointed Collins as Commander-in-Chief of the National Army. This attack was not the opening shots of the war as skirmishes had taken place between pro- and anti-treaty IRA factions throughout the country when the British were handing over the barracks. However, this represented the ‘point of no return’ when all-out war was ipso facto declared and the Civil War officially began.
Collins had accepted a British offer of artillery for use by the new army of the Free State (though General Macready gave just 200 shells of the 10,000 he had in store at Kilmainham barracks). The anti-treaty forces in the Four Courts, who possessed only small arms, surrendered after two days of bombardment and the storming of the building by Free State troops (June 28-30 1922). Shortly before the surrender of the Four Courts, a massive explosion destroyed the western wing of the complex including the Irish Public Record Office, injuring many advancing Free State soldiers and destroying the records of several centuries of government in Ireland. It was alleged by government supporters that the building had been deliberately mined. Historians dispute whether the PRO was intentionally destroyed by mines laid by the Republicans on their evacuation or if the explosions occurred when their ammunition store was accidentally ignited by the bombardment. Pitched battles continued in Dublin until 5 July, as Anti-Treaty IRA units from the Dublin Brigade, led by Oscar Traynor, occupied O’Connell Street – provoking a week’s more street fighting. The fighting cost both sides 65 killed and 280 wounded. Among the dead was Republican leader Cathal Brugha, who made his last stand after exiting the Granville Hotel. In addition, the Free State took over 500 Republican prisoners. The civilian casualties are estimated to have numbered well over 250.
When the fighting in Dublin died down, the Free State government was left firmly in control of the Irish capital and the anti-treaty forces dispersed around the country, mainly to the south and west.
The opposing forces
The outbreak of the Civil War forced pro- and anti-treaty supporters to choose sides. Supporters of the treaty came to be known as “pro-treaty” or “Free State Army”, legally the “National Army”, and were often called “Staters” by their opponents. The latter called themselves “Republicans” and were also known as “anti-treaty” forces, or “Irregulars”, a term preferred by the Free State side. The Anti-Treaty IRA claimed that it was defending the Irish Republic that had been declared in 1916 during the Easter Rising, that had been confirmed by the First Dáil and that had been invalidly set aside by those who accepted the compromise of the Free State. Éamon de Valera stated that he would serve as an ordinary IRA volunteer and left the leadership of the Anti-Treaty Republicans to military leaders such as Liam Lynch, the IRA Chief of Staff.
The Civil War split the IRA. When the Civil War broke out, the Anti-Treaty IRA (concentrated in the south and west) outnumbered the pro-Free State forces by roughly 15,000 men to 7,000 or over 2-1. (The paper strength of the IRA in early 1922 was over 72,000 men, but most of them were recruited during the truce with the British and fought in neither the War of Independence nor the Civil War). However, the Anti-Treaty IRA lacked an effective command structure, a clear strategy and sufficient arms. They started the war with only 6,780 rifles and a handful of machine guns. Many of their fighters were armed only with shotguns. They also took a handful of armoured cars from British troops as they were evacuating the country. More important still, they had no artillery of any kind. As a result, they were forced to adopt a defensive stance throughout the war.
By contrast, the Free State government managed to expand its forces dramatically after the start of the war. Michael Collins and his commanders were able to build up an army which was able to overwhelm their opponents in the field. British supplies of artillery, aircraft, armoured cars, machine guns, small arms and ammunition were much help to pro-treaty forces. The National Army amounted to 14,000 men by August 1922, was 38,000 strong by the end of 1922 and by the end of the war, it had swollen to 55,000 men and 3,500 officers, far in excess of what the Irish state would need to maintain in peacetime. Collins’ most ruthless officers and men were recruited from the Dublin “Active Service Unit” (the elite unit of the IRA’s Dublin Brigade), which Collins had commanded in the Irish War of Independence and in particular from his assassination unit, “The Squad”. In the new National Army, they were known as the Dublin Guard. Towards the end of the war, they were implicated in some notorious atrocities against anti-treaty guerrillas. Most of the National Army’s officers were Pro-Treaty IRA men, as were a substantial number of their soldiers. However, many of the new army’s other recruits were unemployed veterans of the First World War, where they had served in the Irish Division of the British Army. Former British Army officers were also recruited for their technical expertise. A number of the senior Free State commanders such as Emmet Dalton John T. Prout and W.R.E. Murphy had seen service as officers in World War One, Dalton and Murphy in the British Army and Prout in the US Army. The Republicans made much use of this fact in their propaganda — claiming that the Free State was only a proxy force for Britain itself. However, in fact, the majority of the Free State soldiers were raw recruits without military experience in either the First World War or the subsequent Irish War of Independence.
The Free State takes major towns
With Dublin in pro-treaty hands, conflict spread throughout the country. The war started with the anti-treaty forces holding Cork, Limerick and Waterford as part of a self-styled independent “Munster Republic”. However, since the anti-treaty side were not equipped to wage conventional war, Liam Lynch was unable to take advantage of the Republicans’ initial advantage in numbers and territory held. He hoped simply to hold the “Munster Republic” long enough to force Britain to re-negotiate the treaty.
The large towns in Ireland were all relatively easily taken by the Free State in August 1922. Michael Collins, Richard Mulcahy and Eoin O’Duffy planned a nationwide Free State offensive, dispatching columns overland to take Limerick in the west and Waterford in the south-east and seaborne forces to take counties Cork and Kerry in the south and Mayo in the west. In the south, landings occurred at Union Hall in Co. Cork and Fenit, the port of Tralee, in Co. Kerry. Limerick fell on 20 July, Waterford on the same day and Cork city on 10 August after a Free State force landed by sea at Passage West. Another seaborne expedition to Mayo in the west secured government control over that part of the country. While in some places the Republicans had put up determined resistance, nowhere were they able to defeat regular forces armed with artillery and armour. The only real conventional battle during the Free State offensive, the Battle of Killmallock, was fought when Free State troops advanced south from Limerick.
Government victories in the major towns inaugurated a period of guerrilla warfare. After the fall of Cork, Liam Lynch ordered Anti-Treaty IRA units to disperse and form flying columns as they had when fighting the British. They held out in areas such as the western part of counties Cork and Kerry in the south, county Wexford in the east and counties Sligo and Mayo in the west. Sporadic fighting also took place around Dundalk, where Frank Aiken and the Fourth Northern Division of the Irish Republican Army were based and Dublin, where small scale but regular attacks were mounted on Free State troops.
August and September 1922 saw widespread attacks on Free State forces in the territories they had occupied in the July-August offensive, inflicting heavy casualties on them. In this period, the republicans also managed several relatively large-scale attacks on rural towns, involving several hundred fighters. Dundalk, for example was taken by Frank Aiken’s Anti-Treaty unit in a raid on 14 August, Kenmare in Kerry in a similar operation on 9 September and Clifden in Galway on 29 October. There were also unsuccessful assaults on for example Bantry, Cork on 30 August and Killorglin in Kerry on 30 September in which the Republicans took significant casualties. However as winter set in the republicans found it increasingly difficult to sustain their campaign and casualty rates among National Army troops dropped rapidly. For instance, in County Sligo, 54 people died in the conflict of whom all but 8 had been killed by the end of September.
In October 1922, Éamon de Valera and the anti-treaty Teachta Dála (TDs, Members of Parliament) set up their own “Republican government” in opposition to the Free State. However, by then the anti-treaty side held no significant territory and de Valera’s “government” had no authority over the population. In any case, the IRA leaders paid no attention to it, seeing the Republican authority as vested in their own military leaders.
In the autumn and winter of 1922, Free State forces broke up many of the larger Republican guerrilla units. In late September, for example, a sweep of northern county Sligo by Free State troops under Sean MacEoin successfully cornered the Anti-Treaty column which had been operating in the north of the county. Six of the column were killed and thirty captured, along with an armoured car. A similar sweep in Connemara in county Mayo in late November captured Anti-Treaty column commander Michael Kilroy and many of his fighters. December saw the capture of two separate Republican columns in the Meath/Kildare area. Intelligence gathered by Free State forces also led to the capture on 5 August of over 100 Republican fighters in Dublin, who were attempting to destroy bridges leading into the city and on 4 November Ernie O’Malley, commander of Anti-Treaty forces in Dublin was captured when National Army troops discovered his safe house. Elsewhere Anti-Treaty units were forced by lack of supplies and safe-houses to disperse into smaller groups, typically of nine to ten men.
An exception to this general rule was the activities of a column of Cork and Tipperary Anti-Treaty IRA fighters led by Tom Barry. In late December 1922, this group of around 100 men took a string of towns, first in Cork, then in Tipperary and finally Carrick on Suir, Thomastown and Mullinavat in county Kilkenny where the Free State troops surrendered and gave up their arms. However, even Barry’s force was not capable of holding any of the places it had taken and by January 1923 it had dispersed due to lack of food and supplies.
Despite these successes for the National Army, it took eight more months of intermittent warfare before the war was brought to an end. The guerrilla phase of the war was marked by assassinations and executions of leaders formerly allied in the cause of Irish independence. Commander-in-Chief Michael Collins was killed in an ambush by anti-treaty Republicans at Béal na mBláth, near his home in County Cork, in August 1922. Collins’ death increased the bitterness of the Free State leadership towards the Republicans and probably contributed to the subsequent descent of the conflict into a cycle of atrocities and reprisals. Arthur Griffith, the Free State president had also died of a brain hemorrhage ten days before, leaving the Free State government in the hands of W.T. Cosgrave and the Free State army under the command of General Richard Mulcahy.
By late 1922 and early 1923, the Anti Treaty guerrillas’ campaign had been reduced largely to acts of sabotage and destruction of public infrastructure such as roads and railways. In January 1923 the Great Southern and Western Railway released a report detailing the damage Anti-Treaty forces had caused to their property over the previous six months; 375 miles of line damaged, 42 engines derailed, 51 over-bridges and 207 under-bridges destroyed, 83 signal cabins and 13 other buildings destroyed. In the same month, Republicans destroyed the railway stations at Sligo, Ballybunnion and Listowel. It was also in this period that the Anti-Treaty IRA began burning the homes of Free State Senators and of many of the Anglo-Irish landed class.
End of the war
By early 1923, the offensive capability of the IRA had been seriously eroded and when, in February 1923, Republican leader Liam Deasy was captured by Free State forces, he called on the republicans to end their campaign and reach an accommodation with the Free State. The State’s executions of Anti-Treaty prisoners, 34 of whom were shot in January 1923, also took its toll on the Republicans’ morale.
In addition, the National Army’s operations in the field were slowly but steadily breaking up the remaining Republican concentrations. On 18 February, Anti-Treaty officer Dinny Lacey was killed and his column rounded up at the Glen of Aherlow in Tipperary. Lacey had been the head of the IRA’s 2nd Southern Division and his death crippled the Republican’s cause in the Tipperary/Waterford area. A meeting of the Anti-Treaty leadership on 26 February was told by their 1st Southern Division that, “in a short time we would not have a man left owing to the great number of arrests and casualties”. The Cork units reported they had suffered 29 killed and an unknown number captured in recent actions and, “if five men are arrested in each area, we are finished”.
March and April 1923 saw this progressive dismemberment of the Republican forces continue with the capture and sometimes killing of guerrilla columns. Among the more well known of these incidents was the wiping out of an Anti-Treaty IRA column under Tim Lyons (known as “Aeroplane”) in a cave near Kerry Head on 18 April. Three anti-treaty IRA men and two National Army soldiers were killed in the siege of the cave and the remaining five Republicans were taken prisoner and later executed. A National Army report of 11 April stated, “Events of the last few days point to the beginning of the end as a far as the irregular campaign is concerned”.
As the conflict petered out into a de facto victory for the pro-treaty side, de Valera asked the IRA leadership to call a ceasefire, but they refused. The Anti-Treaty IRA executive met on 26 March in county Tipperary to discuss the war’s future. Tom Barry proposed a motion to end the war, but it was defeated by 6 votes to 5. Éamon de Valera was allowed to attend, after some debate, but was given no voting rights.
Liam Lynch, the intransigent Republican leader, was killed in a skirmish in the Knockmealdown mountains in County Tipperary on 10 April. The National Army had extracted information from Republican prisoners in Dublin that the IRA Executive was in the area and as well as killing Lynch, they also captured senior Anti-Treaty IRA officers Dan Breen, Todd Andrews, Seán Gaynor and Frank Barrett in the operation. It is often suggested that the death of Lynch allowed the more pragmatic Frank Aiken, who took over as IRA Chief of Staff, to call a halt to what seemed a futile struggle. Aiken’s accession to IRA leadership was followed on 30 April by the declaration of a ceasefire on behalf of the anti-treaty forces. On 24 May 1923, Aiken followed this with an order to IRA volunteers to dump arms rather than surrender them or continue a fight which they were incapable of winning.
Éamon de Valera supported the order, issuing a statement to Anti-Treaty fighters on 24 May:
“Soldiers of the Republic. Legion of the Rearguard: The Republic can no longer be defended successfully by your arms. Further sacrifice of life would now be in vain and the continuance of the struggle in arms unwise in the national interest and prejudicial to the future of our cause. Military victory must be allowed to rest for the moment with those who have destroyed the Republic.”
Thousands of Anti-Treaty IRA members (including Éamon de Valera on 15 August) were arrested by the Free State forces in the weeks and months after the end of the war, when they had dumped their arms and returned home.
The Free State government had started peace negotiations in early May which broke down. Without a formal peace, holding 13,000 prisoners and worried that fighting could break out again at any time, it enacted the Emergency Powers Act on 2 July by a vote of 37 – 13.
In October 1923 around 8,000 of the 12,000 Republican prisoners in Free State gaols went on hunger strike. The strike lasted for forty one days and met little success. However, most of the women prisoners were released shortly thereafter and the hunger strike helped concentrate the Republican movement on the prisoners and their associated organisations. In July de Valera had recognised the Republican political interests lay with the prisoners and went so far as to say:
“The whole future of our cause and of the nation depends in my opinion upon the spirit of the prisoners in the camps and in the jails. You are the repositories of the NATIONAL FAITH AND WILL.”