Ireland’s Wars: The Split

The Anglo-Irish Treaty was passed, but the divide in the nationalist movement, from top to bottom, was only widening. Some, on either side that that divide, may have hoped that reconciliation could be found to prevent a civil war from breaking out, and there were to be some ample opportunities in the next few months to prevent the larger conflagration that would erupt in the summer of 1922. But what we know simply as “the split” would be too hard to overcome for too many. In this entry, I want to take the time to examine the dynamics of this split, from the cabinet of the now ailing revolutionary Republic to the individual units of the IRA itself, and take a look at where some of the most significant personalities of the period were landing.

At the highest level, there was a sharp divide between the leaders of the movement, as we have seen. The cabinet of the Dail was split fairly evenly: Arthur Griffith, Michael Collins and W.T. Cosgrave supported the Treaty, Eamon de Valera, Cathal Brugha, Austin Stack and Robert Barton opposed it. In the larger Ministries Kevin O’Higgins, Desmond FitzGerald, Ernest Blythe supported the Treaty, Count Plunkett, John J. O’Kelly, Art O’Connor, Sean Etchingham and Constance Markievicz opposed it. It was impossible for such a situation to continue long past the passing of the Treaty, especially with the a majority in the Dail against de Valera’s stated position.

After the passing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty there was an argument over whether it was possible for de Valera to continue in his role as President: on the 10th January he resigned and then was proposed to fill the role again, but this motion was defeated by only two votes in the Dail. Griffith instead was chosen to take up the leadership of the Dail, but was elected after anti-Treaty TD’s walked out in protest, a moment that engendered a great deal of bitterness in the chamber. Collins especially seems to have finally lost his composure at the time, as the split became concretely manifest, exchanging insults with Markievicz: later Griffith, usually unflappable, would refer to Erskine Childers as “a damned Englishman” when questioned. The two perhaps felt affronted by some of de Valera’s most militant words ever in the chamber earlier, when he said that if the new government did not uphold the Republic, he and his allies would have to treat them the same as agents of Dublin Castle has been treated. The implication could not have been more obvious.

The Dail proceeded with a new cabinet, with Collins retained as Finance Minister, George Gavin Duffy for Foreign Affairs, and Richard Mulcahy replacing his nemesis Brugha in Defence. Other significant figures included Kevin O’Higgins for Economic Affairs, and Cosgrave for Local Government. At the same time, the Provisional Government of the Irish Free State, as dictated by the Treaty, came into being. Collins served as its Chairman, and the Ministers of the Dail fulfilled the same roles in the provisional government. It was a strange situation in many ways, with two different governments operating at the same time, with the same people, one for the Republic, and the other for the Free State: the inherent conflict was not lost on many. The provisional government was ratified by a meeting of the Parliament of Southern Ireland on the 14th January, the only time that body met in full, its membership only pro-Treaty TD’s and Unionists.

Of course, the anti-Treaty TD’s who had walked out of the Dail took no part in such things, and appear to have not made any efforts to form any kind of competing assembly initially: it was a recurring element of the anti-Treaty side that the military aspect of the movement was complete dominant in contrast to the political. There would eventually be a loose party, Cumann na Poblachta, founded by de Valera, and an assembly of anti-Treaty figures in March, that ran the gauntlet from TD’s to IRA officers, but it existed mostly just to appoint an executive to run the IRA. More on that in time.

The Irish Republican Brotherhood too split over the Treaty, though by then it was so dominated by Collins and his loyalists that the divide was not quite as acute as it was elsewhere. In a meeting of its Supreme Council after the Treaty was signed, 11 members to four expressed approval of the terms: the four included Harry Boland and future de facto leader of the anti-Treaty movement Liam Lynch. From then the IRB, minus splinter groups in Munster, operated primarily as a support to the pro-Treaty side, especially in terms of getting members of the IRA involved in the new National Army. Anti-Treaty voices then and since routinely decried the IRB as a secret society that, controlled by Collins, resulted in the Treaty being successfully adopted and its opponents silenced, but the IRB was in a waning state at the time, and its influence should not be exaggerated. Indeed, before too long those on the pro-Treaty side would have little use for the organisation, which would have last day in the headlines in 1924, a topic to come, before vanishing for good.

Women in the Dail had been universally against the Treaty, and indeed were some of its fiercest critics. Cumann na mBan followed this trend, though largely against the wishes of most of membership: at a convention in early February its leadership was purged of pro-Treaty elements, which split off to form their own organisation, Cuman na Saoirse. Women would go into play, arguably, a more prominent and active role with the anti-Treaty IRA than they had in the War of Independence.

Perhaps more importantly in relation to this series, the republican military was also split, and split badly. At the highest level, in GHQ, most senior leaders – men like Collins, Mulcahy, O’Duffy, and others – accepted the Treaty, and began preparations for the creation of a new “regular” army, which throughout the country was to have a core of already serving Volunteers augmented by new recruits. But there was a sizable enough group of dissenters, most notably Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellows and Sean Russell.

Within days, these men were essentially operating outside of the normal chain-of-command and, in line with a number of divisional commanders, were calling for the IRA to repudiate the authority of the Dail and to instead reform a Volunteer Executive to be its ultimate leadership. O’Connor demanded an Army Convention for the purposes of discussing and potentially enacting this idea. Mulcahy resisted, knowing full well that such a convention would likely be dominated by anti-Treaty voices, but eventually promised that such a convention would be held within two months. A committee of men from either side of the divide was formed to try and hold the IRA together in the meantime, but was a largely pointless exercise. The IRA was split, and these efforts, in hindsight, were just to try and delay the split from becoming violent.

The larger IRA, in its divisions, brigades and companies, was just as divided. Many have focused on the divisional level when examining the split here, with the anti-Treaty cause carrying many formations from an “official” standpoint. The 1st and 2nd Southern in Munster, the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Western in Connacht, the 2nd and 3rd Northern in Ulster (the 4th, under Aiken, maintained a neutral position), the 2nd and 3rd Eastern in Leinster, were all divisions whose leaders would, then or in a short enough time, come out as anti-Treaty. In this we can already see a Republican heartland forming in Munster. They were opposed by the 3rd Southern, 1st Western, 1st and 5th Northern, 1st Midlands and 1st Eastern, who followed Collins into the pro-Treaty side.

But it must be realised that this is an over-simplification: all of these divisions split to some degree, with copious amounts of their manpower ending up on either side, the pro-Treaty inclined incorporated into the new structures of the nascent National Army. Many simply choose neither side, and retired from duty instead. The pro-Treaty side would also end up succeeding in terms of recruitment of new recruits, trucileers or no. They got the benefit of the confused weeks and months after the Treaty’s ratification: in truth, the anti-Treaty IRA had a huge opportunity to December and January that was not taken. It would appear as if, in terms of sheer numbers, they had a decided advantage at that time and, if their leaders had moved to end the Treaty and the provisional government by force, they may well have succeeded where they later failed. But men like O’Connor, Lynch and others were convinced to wait and buy into the idea of a deferred Army Convention: in so doing, they may well have passed up their best opportunity for victory.

Why a particular IRA Volunteer would pick one side or the other could come down to many different things. There were hardcore believers who either truly believed in the Treaty as Collins described it, or were willing only to accept the Republic they thought they had been fighting for for years. There were pragmatists who thought that one side or the other would win out, and wanted to be on that winning side for their future prospects. In areas that had seen most of the fighting from 1919-1921, there was distrust of GHQ and embittered reactions to politicians agreeing to a Treaty that Volunteers had made possible, while even in areas where there had been little fighting some units turned their back on GHQ for perceived slights during the conflict. Local matters also played their part, whether it was squabbles with the IRB, or feuds between officers, such as in Clare. There was financial motivations of course, especially for new recruits, as there always is in time of war. And sometimes, it really did just come down to which officer, pro or anti-Treaty, a man or group of men ran into first: the bigger the name, and the more magnetic the personality, the more Volunteers they tended to retain for their side. Examples would include Liam Lynch in Munster, Sean MacEoin in the midlands and, Tom Ennis in Dublin, the kind of leaders that inspired loyalty and whose names were an argument in and of themselves for or against the Treaty.

On that pro-Treaty side, military leaders like Mulcahy realised quickly that the provisional government and Free State would not have a hope of being viable if a new National Army was not formed, and not formed quickly. Things moved rapidly after the Treaty vote, and only a few days later the British administration was commencing its withdrawal. The next arena in the chess game that was the Truce period was in the handover, of places like Dublin Castle and the various British military installations around the country. Battle lines for the Civil War were being formed, even if the people forming them didn’t quite realise it yet.

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

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6 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The Split

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

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  4. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The Opposing Forces And Initial Strategy Of The Conventional Civil War | Never Felt Better

  5. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Beal Na mBlath | Never Felt Better

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