Ireland’s Wars: 1923 After The Civil War

The Irish Civil War is traditionally taken as ending on the 24th May 1923 when the new IRA Chief Of Staff Frank Aiken issued orders for the IRA is stop their operations. The republicans did not fully admit that they had been defeated, but acknowledged that victory in the field had to be considered as belonging to the Free State for the time being. What arms the IRA still held were dumped, and their Volunteers that were not in internment camps went home where they could. The Free State government and the National Army were left to pick up the pieces in the aftermath. It was a critical period, with much to sort out: not least of that was determining the exact path that the Free State was to take, with immediate friction between the civilian side of things and the military.

The war might have been over, but the Free State and the military was disinclined to stop treating republicans as an enemy to be dealt with. In the weeks following the suspension of IRA operations, many of its Volunteers were arrested in mass round-ups, as they attempted to return to their homes and some semblance of normal life: among the most high profile was Eamon de Valera, arrested while engaged in political campaigning in Clare in August. In July the courts proclaimed that the Free State’s right to hold republican prisoners without trial – over 13’000 of them were being held in internment camps at the time – had expired with the wars end, leading to the rapid passing of new Public Safety Acts to permit the continued confinement. The worry was that a mass release of prisoners could re-ignite the fighting, which was perhaps not entirely unreasonable, but the continuation of internment only made the bitterness of the Civil War divide deeper.

Some republicans saw opportunity in the situation, perhaps thinking of Frongoch and other examples of nationalist activities behind bars. The crowded ranks of prisoners were existing in often squalid conditions, with any privileges liable to be removed without much ceremony; it was was relatively easy in such circumstances to create a camaraderie even between camps, before you consider the political ideology that united many of the prisoners. As a result in October the decision of one camp to enact a wide-scale hunger strike of its internees spread to others, with as many as 8’000 people taking part at one point or another. Such strikes had occurred beforehand relatively recently, most notably with female prisoners during the Civil War. The objective was obviously to use the tactic in the same way as parts of the IRA had done during the War of Independence where, whatever about the morality of the act, it had achieved spectacular results from a propaganda perspective.

But on this occasion the effort was much less successful. There were a variety of reasons for this, not least the Free State’s efforts to stifle media reporting of the issue, but there was also a lack of public support: with this lacking for the hunger strikers to the same degree that it had been present between 1919 and 1921, the same groundswell of outrage did not materialise in 1923. Perhaps more relevantly, the strikes was not undertaken with the same die-hard feeling as it had before, and some IRA leaders would later criticise the decision to have so many people striking, as too many had a tendency to not carry the act out with the strictness required. The strike would last just under a month-and-a-half before it was called off, with three men dying beforehand, and others suffering health effects that certainly resulted in premature deaths later. In a sign of how things had changed, Denis Colahan, the Bishop of Cork who had praised Terence McSwiney, ordered the doors of churches to remain closed to the body of one of the three, Denny Barry.

But the strikes were successful in one way, with the release of prisoners undoubtedly accelerated as a result even if those released were in many cases forced to sign documents pledging peaceful allegiance to the Free State before being granted their liberty. Cosgrave’s government certainly did not want to have a hand in creating more republican martyrs The releases occurred in dribs and drabs, and a certain number remained imprisoned into 1925, and 1926 north of the border, but the majority were out by 1924. The released men and women came into a different Ireland insofar as their prospects were fundamentally lowered, with civil jobs closed to them, employment opportunities elsewhere limited and harassment from pro-Treaty organisations frequent: emigration rose sharply as a result. In essence it is enough to say that the pro-Treaty side in its various forms did little in 1923 to attempt to provide any manner of healing for the divide that had wrecked the country, and still treated its political enemies as ones who were liable to become military ones at any moment.

All of this meant that the issue of law and order was firmly on many minds. In August the Civic Guard completed its transformation into An Garda Siochana – the Guardian of the Peace – with most of its structure, membership and leadership, in the form of Eoin O’Duffy, maintained. It remained an unarmed police force, and evolved from that point into a respected institution, with O’Duffy’s abilities as an organiser critical in those early years. He led the force with a religious fervour and deliberately cultivated a Catholic ethos, so as to more easily differentiate the Garda from the old RIC. Of course some of O’Duffy’s other predilections, most notably his more obvious than ever right-wing views, were to cause trouble down the line, and bring the police into some disrepute. But for the time being, they helped to institute a postbellum period that was not marred by constant breaches of the peace.

On a political level, Cumann na nGaedhal – loosely translated as “Society of the Gaels” – was founded in late April to formalise the pro-Treaty TD’s as a new political entity. Led by W.T. Cosgrave and with a decidedly centre-right outlook, the party would dominate the first ten years of the new state. In August of 1923 they contested a general election to form a new Dail, one where their victory was essentially assured before a vote was cast: Sinn Fein’s candidates, which included people still in prison, were committed to abstention from the Free State Dail. Cosgrave’s party would win 63 of the 153 seats available, to Sinn Fein’s 44; in reality their actual opposition was Thomas Johnson’s Labour Party and Denis Gorey’s Farmer’s Party, who could muster barely half of Cumann na nGaedhal’s seats. Cosgrave retained his position as “Head Of The Executive Council” with Richard Mulcahy and Kevin O’Higgins retained as Ministers of Defence and Home Affairs respectively.

Alongside a host of other problems for the new government to tackle was the incredibly sensitive issue of the National Army. This had grown to an enormous size during the Civil War, with as many as 55’000 men enrolled by the time it ended: such a force was justifiable in a wartime situation, but could no longer be credibly maintained the further the Free State got from active operations against the IRA. The Army’s maintenance was an enormous drain on public finances, which were hardly in good health. Furthermore, too much of the Army’s make-up was of men who had barely been trained, and who lacked adequate discipline to be part of a full-time standing army. The only answer was demobilisation.

How to handle this was a tricky question, but vital to establishing the democratic credentials of the Free State and the primacy of the civil over the military. It can be hard to imagine, but at the time it was in no way clear that the Free State was about to become a functioning democracy where the heads of the political system maintained control over the military entirely: many feared that the power of the National Army had grown too large, and that they could institute some manner of military dictatorship, with Mulcahy at its head, whenever it pleased, or whenever the government had the temerity to challenge it. There had already been much unhappiness over efforts spearheaded by Kevin O’Higgins to institute a tighter control over the activities of the Army and that tension was only growing. Early in 1924 it would explode into a major crisis, where the constitutional integrity of the Free State would be on the line.

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

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4 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: 1923 After The Civil War

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

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The Army Mutiny | Never Felt Better

  3. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The IRA After The Civil War | Never Felt Better

  4. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Fianna Fail, The 1927 Elections And The O’Higgins Assassination | Never Felt Better

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