Ireland’s Wars: The Road To The Irish Civil War

We begin now what is called the truce period, that time between the coming into existence of the truce that ended the Irish War of Independence on the 11th July 1920, and the beginning of the Irish Civil War, generally held to be the 28th June 1922. In this nearly year-long period, many events of great significance to Irish military history took place: they include truly major things like the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the split at all levels of the Republic and various offensives in the north of Ireland. But there were also events that garner less historical attention, like ongoing sectarian violence in Ulster, continuation of combat from the War of Independence and various minor steps on the road to the fatal shots of June 1922, and these all deserve some consideration. In the following entries, we will attempt to form a reasoning behind why the Irish Civil War came to be, with a particular, though not singular, focus on military matters.

First, we must do a quick retread of something I have said on several occasions, but which bears repeating owing to its importance. There was no single unified idea of what a post-war settlement looked like for those who identified with the general entity we describe as “the Republic”. In various different measures, members of the Dail, the IRA, Cumann na mBan, Fianna Eireann, the IRB or the Catholic Church would have expressed satisfaction with only a 32 county sovereign republic; with a 32 county self-governing state with Dominion status; a 26 county self-governing state with Dominion status, with an ingrained acceptance of partition; a home rule settlement on a 32 or 26 county basis; or perhaps something even closer to the British Crown in a few select cases. There was no significant agreement on what should be the stated demand of the Republic’s representatives in any possible talks with the British, and on what should be settled for. From the ordinary rank-and-file Volunteers all the way to the men in charge of the Dail and GHQ, opinions varied hugely from person to person. It was a recipe for disillusionment and disappointment.

One group of stakeholders that were getting comparatively little attention from such quarters were the people themselves, that is the vast majority of the population of Ireland. Most civilians had greeted the truce with jubilation, and unlike much of the IRA had no wish for, or expectation to see, the war re-starting. War exhaustion was very much a factor in Ireland in the summer of 1921, and motivated much of the popular opinion of how things should now progress. Media sources expressed similar sentiments. In response to that was a growing sense of anti-civilian thinking from certain key figures in the IRA and the Dail who had little regard for the primacy of the people over the government and the army: sentiments that had not just sprung into life, bur which were going to be very important in understanding certain decisions to come. Indeed, going as far as to the end of the Irish Civil War, the treatment of civilians as a herd to be led around by one side was something that was going to be a contributing factor to the final result.

In more practical terms, the maneuvering for position after the truce got well underway with the the visit of a Dail delegation to London three days afterwards. Led by de Valera himself, it was a momentous occasion, with the de facto Prime Minister of the Dail treated as such unofficially by David Lloyd George, though he would never dream of doing so formally. Such recognition was at the heart of the whole reason that the war had been fought, and was a victory in itself. But that was as much of a victory as it was: in a series of meetings Lloyd George offered the possibility of Dominion status for the 26 countries, and made some veiled threats of large-scale military action of a sort not yet seen in Ireland if the offer was refused. It was in these meetings that the concept of an “Irish Free State” in place of a Republic was made, with Loyd George fixating on the literal translation of “Saorstat Eireann”.

De Valera responded by beginning what would be a lengthy, confused and frustrating series of efforts to push different forms of greater sovereignty for Ireland, with the allowance that whatever the exact word, it would remain in “association” with Britain. Lloyd George wasn’t interested. A more formalised offer of a qualified Dominion status – which allowed for an Irish state with its own army and navy, but which also included partition – was rejected by de Valera and his cabinet. Letters began to go back and forth between the two leaders, but things were at a stalemate.

Meanwhile, the business of the truce was gotten on with. Arrested TD’s began to be released and, while the British initially resisted owing to his wartime record, this did eventually include Sean MacEoin, whose freedom became a point of principle for both de Valera and Collins. For the first time, the Dail was able to meet without fear of censure and arrest and, with the exception of the unionist representatives, most showed up. At its sittings, de Valera, soon going by the official title of “President of the Republic”, indicated he would be willing to form an “association” with Britain, but still stuck to the idea of the Republic. A new cabinet was picked that almost immediately began to divide on aspects of the negotiations with Britain and soon enough would be split down the middle: the important positions to note in this context were Arthur Griffith for Foreign Affairs, Collins for Finance and Cathal Brugha for Defence.

The armed forces too were going through a difficult period. No-one knew how long the truce would last, or if the war was really over, and this meant the IRA had to remain nominally on a war footing even though there was no fighting to be had. Caught in this unpalatable limbo, boredom, dissatisfaction and ill-discipline were inevitable, despite efforts to get a regime of training camps going. Disdain for GHQ, always a recurring problem in parts, increased and an attempted re-organisation of the IRA at this time fell apart after mass non-compliance in the individual divisions. At the very top, Brugha and Mulcahy fell out hugely over civil powers to appoint general staff and what Mulcahy deemed Brugha’s tactless manner in investigating perceived shortcomings in GHQ, which resulted in Mulcahy’s temporary removal from his position. The conflict between the civil and military was apparent there – Brugha was determined to wrest control of the army away from the likes of Mulcahy and Collins, the latter of whom he had come to outright despise – and at a smaller level, such as various county councils that had become dominated by Volunteer officers.

The initial high of the truce, when Volunteers were feted by their communities as they came out of hiding, soon transitioned into a more delicate situation. Local communities that had been happy to support the IRA during the war was less inclined to give up food and lodgings for free now that the war was over, and when the IRA took them resentment grew. Efforts to cut out the collecting of “levies” had mixed success, and the Irish government departments struggled to finance the army. Overindulgence of alcohol was a consistent problem. Some good fighting men suddenly found themselves needing to return to their former lives as farmers and laborers, sapping the IRA of needed experience. Restless companies sometimes attempted to expel unpopular officers, such as the Cratloe Volunteers in East Clare, whose actions in doing so were described as mutinous.

An influx of new recruits, men who were happy to join the IRA when it looked like the fighting was finished, created additional problems: the so-called “Trucileers” were despised by many, seen as men who wanted the prestige of IRA membership without any of the danger others had been exposed to. Ernie O’Malley put it glibly that “The Irish Republican Army was in danger of becoming popular”. The new men were hard to train and arm, with guns and ammunition remaining at a premium throughout the truce period.

The war also did not come to an immediate halt either. There were constant accusations from both sides that the other was breaching truce terms. Sporadic violence continued in the south, such as a when an RIC barracks was burned in Passage East, Waterford in October, or shootings in Tipperary, the result of local emnity that the truce could do nothing to stop, or IRA units and Volunteers who were not inclined to respect the truce. Such things never broke out into a wider conflagration, but they were an ever-present facet of the truce period. Where the war never really ceased at all was in the north. There, the wave of fighting that had characterised the final official weeks of the War of Independence was only briefly effected by the truce, if at all, and the pattern of sectarian-minded attacks and counter-attacks simply continued.

There were so many instances in just the period between the truce and September that a brief summation is perhaps more apropos than a more detailed examination. The day after the truce someone was killed in Belfast, and it only got worse the following month. Two people were killed on August 5th in Belfast, two more on August 27th, nine more on August 30th, nine more the day after. The manner of the deaths is often described simply as “disturbances”: usually sectarian-led rioting and clashes of civilian groups, including the firing or bombing of homes, sniping from either side and the odd involvement of the RIC and IRA, though efforts continued to keep the truce between those two organisations.

The various strands of the Republic were at loggerheads over how to approach the north, whose dug-in Protestant unionists community were, days after the truce, declaring they would happily enforce partition at gunpoint if needs be. Some members of the Dail, like Michael Collins, attempted to initially walk a conciliatory path in public when it came to such matters, and it is fair to say that much of the republican political leadership at the time were willing to accept partition in the short-term if nothing else. But sometimes the situation could be all too easily inflamed: when, at a rally in Armagh in September, Eoin O’Duffy threatened “to use the lead on them” in reference to unionists, he was removed from his position of northern liaison officer (he would later suggest, to the distaste of others in GHQ, that the 72 hour notice period when it came to ending the truce should be ignored if the treaty negotiations stalled). Such changes of position would not allay unionist fears that upcoming negotiations would lead to a fatal weakening of their position, if anything was conceded to nationalists.

This was the situation when, after that drawn out exchange of letters between de Valera and Lloyd George, agreement was made for more formal negotiations to take place between members of the British cabinet on one hand and designated representatives of the Dail on the other. The British still refused to contemplate complete separation – Lloyd George’s wording on the purpose of the proposed conference was “to ascertain how the association of Ireland with the community of nations known as the British Empire can best be reconciled with Irish national aspirations” – and de Valera stuck with his own insistence on that separation. There was still plenty of maneuvering left, like leaks to the press from both sides on how the discussions were going, in the British case to make clear how generous they saw their proposed terms, and how Irish refusal to accept them should be seen an intransigent implacability. In the end, though the British never accepted the proposed delegation as the representatives of a sovereign state, de Valera agreed to send them, backing down only to the point where he said “Our respective positions have been stated and understood”.

The nature of those negotiations, the make-up of the Irish delegation and the final, fatal, result of the whole exercise will be the subject of the next few entries. This is where things stood entering October 1921: a country in the midst of a critical transition, an armed force of militant republicanism at a defining point, a province still engulfed in violence and divides evident at the very top table. The coming months would be some of the most important in the history of island, and not least in a military sense. The Dail, the IRA, the Republic itself were on the road to the Civil War, even if they didn’t know it yet.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

This entry was posted in History, Ireland, Ireland's Wars, War and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The Road To The Irish Civil War

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The Treaty Negotiations | Never Felt Better

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