The Irish Civil War can be a difficult one to approach. It was a strange conflict in many respects: a mixture of regular fighting and guerrilla warfare, fought to its most significant degree only in a few select areas of the country, and one where the political aspects to this day exist in something of a fog. It was the direct result of vague commitments made by Sinn Fein to its membership and the Irish people before and during the War of Independence, in its efforts to enact a broad tent of nationalists with competing ideologies: once the Treaty was signed, such broad tents were no longer viable. And while it would be an exaggeration to say that the Irish Civil War was inevitable from the moment the Treaty became manifest, it certainly would have been difficult to avoid. The resulting war has come to define Ireland in many ways, the conflict that birthed nearly a century of political alignment, and brought a final, albeit indefinite, conclusion to the revolutionary period. In this entry, I want to take an effort at summarising the conflict, from the perspective of how it unfolded, the success and failures of both sides, examining why the victors proved so, and how the Civil War continues to resonate today.
From my own study, I would say that the Irish Civil War evolved into five distinct phases. The first was the initial conventional war, which we might call the period between the beginning of the war in late June 1922 to the start of the provisional government’s offensive into Munster. This was a hectic few weeks that was marked by the jostling of both sides for initial position, in the way that key urban centres were seized and initial movements out of Dublin took place. This phase includes the start of the war and the Battle of Dublin, the fighting in Kildare, Louth, Donegal and Wexford and the initial pro-Treaty advances into the Midlands and Connacht.
The next phase was the more large-scale National Army advances, especially as it pertained to the “Munster Republic”. This period was marked by a constant series of pro-Treaty victories as they took all anti-Treaty towns and cities in a relatively short period, backed up by their advantages in technology and manpower, and aided by the static nature of IRA strategy. This phases includes the Battles of Limerick and Kilmallock; the takeover of Waterford, Tipperary and Kerry; and the final fall of the Munster Republic in Cork.
What followed was the beginning of the guerrilla section of the conflict, which for me proceeded in three distinct phases. The first was the anti-Treaty offensive, my own term of a loosely connected series of IRA successes in the short term of August, September and October 1922, as the National Army struggled to get to grips with a new kind of war to fight and the fatal disadvantages that the republicans suffered from were not yet apparent. This phases include’s Michael Collin’s death and IRA operations expanding in Leinster, Kerry, Cork and the West to varying degrees.
From that point to the end of 1922 was the fourth phase, namely the beginnings and execution of the provisional government’s true counter-insurgency campaign. Here is where the war was really won, as National Army shortfalls in so many areas were either rectified or adequately covered up, in pursuit of an enemy that was increasingly unmanned, short on all critical supplies and losing what little of the popular will they had on their side. This phase includes major sweeps, the institution of the execution policy and the improvement of the position on the railways.
Finally there is fifth phase, which we can say encompasses all of 1923 as far as the war lasted. This was a period marked by the disintegration of the IRA war effort as it proved increasingly incapable of combating the National Army in any form, outside of a few select areas, until the conflict could no longer be maintained. This phase includes the intensification of the war in Kerry, a string of pro-Treaty atrocities and the final divides within the anti-Treaty movement that ended in Liam Lynch’s death and an acceptance of military defeat.
Taking the sides of the conflict in turn in terms of a tactical, strategic and political evaluation, let us look first at the pro-Treaty faction. We must put all things in a relative context, but from a tactical perspective the war really did belong to the National Army. They proved totally successful in both the conventional and guerrilla phases of the conflict, even if it took a while in the second case. With advantages in the number of men employed throughout the conflict, the number of guns to hand to arm then with, artillery, armoured cars, boats and other machinery of war, it should not be too surprising that the pro-Treaty side was consistently able to defeat their enemies in the field. National Army deficiencies in experience and discipline did not lead to a collapse in their war effort, and it was only on rare occasions that anti-Treaty fighters were able to inflict significant defeats on their enemies.
In the strategic sense, the war can only be viewed as a major success for the pro-Treaty side also Their ability to seize vital points at the start of the conflict, and then the drive to destroy the Munster Republic, were all marks of better planning and executions of those plans than could be generated by the anti-Treaty side, Later, having absorbed the initial fightback of the IRA when the guerrilla phase began, the National Army was able to utilise its many advantages and fight a successful counter-insurgency campaign throughout the country, one that led to a condition of near total victory by April 1923.
The real standout success of the war from the pro-Treaty perspective though was in the political arena, wherein they were starkly contrasted with their opponents. The provisional government were able to demonstrate a political side to the movement that was naturally attractive to much of the Irish population, through the perception of the Treaty as an avenue to peace, security and Ireland’s ability to prosper on its own merits. The institution of local government and the facilitation of a sense of normality in daily life were key aspects of the way that the pro-Treaty side had such little war to fight in large stretches of the country, and their propaganda department did enormous damage to the anti-Treaty cause in the manner in which they were painted as a threat to law and order, and the instigators of a chaotic never-ending conflict.
For the anti-Treaty side, just about every facet of the war was a failure in the end. At a tactical level they proved incapable of going toe-to-toe with the National Army on a conventional basis, though it is only fair to point out that the defensive strategy of holding in place was a serious detriment in that regard. They had much more success as a guerrilla force, which should come as little surprise really, but even in that regard the IRA struggled more and more as the war went on, with their ability to utilise the tactics of ambush regressing into late 1922 and 1923, and too often relegated to distant sabotage or IED usage. In line with the inability to replicate the same conditions of support that existed between 1919 and 1921, it meant that the republicans as a fighting force in the field were diminished throughout the war, and by the end of it incapable of military action.
Strategically, the anti-Treaty side was all over the place, with the key weakness of their war effort coming down to a lack of direction and planning for what they wanted to accomplish with the conflict. From the conventional phase when they committed to a sedentary approach of defending fixed positions to the point of near destruction, to a guerrilla phase where too much of the country was inactive and what was in a fighting position was unable to assert themselves on the enemy to the degree required, the IRA struggled with this aspect of war-making throughout the Civil War. Much of that has to be laid at the feet of poor leadership and leadership structures: lacking any kind of effective political control which could direct the movement towards a tangible goal, and with Liam Lynch too prone to engaging with fantasies instead of practicalities, the anti-Treaty faction was hamstrung from on high throughout the period in question.
Politically of course, the Civil War was a total failure for the IRA. Their political position was vague at best, usually little more than a stated effort to uphold “the Republic”, and at worst was actively derided by the leadership. Efforts to establish a political aspect to the movement came far too late and were ineffective when they were made. The opinions of “the people” were something that too many within the republican faction had little time for, and worse too many were happy to enunciate such a viewpoint publically. The IRA in the Civil War were an army without clear political direction or leadership, and this too played its part in its overall lack of success.
So, why did the pro-Treaty side win the Civil War? There are a lot of reasons, but for me it boils down to three key elements. Firstly, from a perspective of sheer military practicality, the National Army was better armed and equipped in the totality of the war, with factors like artillery and armoured cars critical in the conventional phase, and useful in the guerrilla phase. Such things ensured that the IRA was unable to maintain a “regular” resistance, and stymied them hugely during the later parts of the war. Secondly, the pro-Treaty side was better led. Some may find that debatable but from my study I have found that the actions of men like Michael Collins, WRE Murphy, John T. Prout and even Eoin O’Duffy managed the sort of pro-active, aggressive operations needed to sweep the republicans away in the early months. That was before a succession of capable, if sometimes not entirely competent, leaders – MacEoin, O’Daly, Lawlor, etc – utilised the provisional government’s many advantages to win the guerrilla war. Thirdly, the pro-Treaty side was able to bring a political aspect of their movement to the fore that ensured it retained the support of the majority of the civilian population. In so doing, they crippled the IRA’a ability to maintain their war effort.
I suppose we should also view the question from the perspective of asking why the anti-Treaty side lost the war? Firstly, they were unable to properly fight the conventional war, and indeed so much of what the republicans attempted during those first few months was wasted effort. Secondly, they were badly led in terms of the highest levels, with men like Lynch unable to make the best use of tactical or operational level commanders who had some successes to forge a truly national strategy to prosecute the war. Thirdly, the IRA themselves allowed much of the civilian support to slip through their fingers, through the absence of a political wing of the movement of any relevance, a disdain for democratic norms and ill-discipline that the National Army shared but could offset through military victory elsewhere. Fourth, and last, the combination of all these things left the IRA at a low ebb in terms of morale and cohesion. Such situations can not create viable military movements.
But what did the war mean long term? We will discuss the fallout of the conflict in coming entries, but it suffices to say that the Irish Civil War casts an extremely long shadow on Irish society, politics and military history. The defining political schism of the 20th century carries on into the modern day in the traditionally two largest political parties, the status of partition that remains to this day was borne from the conflict’s genesis and even today the issue of commemoration and remembrance of the war are liable to be stormy ones.
But more in the moment it meant that the forces that represented a more conservative class of Irish nationalism were triumphant, and were now in a position to direct the evolution of a self-governing Irish state. These were the voices that were willing to compromise with Britain on the matter of true independence, on the division of the country and on the continued occupation of parts of the Free State’s territory by the British military, which was anathema to so much of the other side of the spectrum, that had entered into the War of Independence seeking full independence and a much greater societal change. In many ways the movement that had sprung up after 1916, and especially during the Conscription Crisis, was always destined to fragment. In the Civil War, it fragmented violently, and opposing sides did battle to determine who would inherit the mantle of leadership. The pro-Treaty side being victorious, Ireland, in whatever form we wish to call it, now embarked upon a less radical course of existence.
The Irish Civil War was a brutal conflict, that quite literally pitted brother-against-brother in some cases. It saw what could be argued to be Ireland’s last ever battles, with nearly every major urban centre torn apart to some degree, and etched in the national memory the names of places like Beal na mBlath, Ballyseedy or the Knockmealdown Mountains. It was a war marked with atrocity and needless bloodshed, that provided the Irish revolutionary period with a tragic third act that will continue to resonate on this island, one suspects, for some time to come.
It is the larger Irish revolutionary period that has concerned us for some time. Before we move on, it is appropriate I feel to take one entry to look at that period as a whole, ahead of Ireland’s Wars’ shift to the post-revolutionary Ireland. We’ll do that next week.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.