Despair, defiance and democracy: Ireland in 1922

Part of the challenge of this year’s centenary is to confront the silences around 1922

Armed anti-Treaty members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in Grafton Street, Dublin during the Irish Civil War. Photograph: Walshe/Getty Images Armed anti-Treaty members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in Grafton Street, Dublin during the Irish Civil War. Photograph: Walshe/Getty Images

Civil War: 1922Opens in new window ]

Following the crucial Dáil vote on January 7th, 1922, when Sinn Féin TDs voted 64:57 in favour of approval of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the president of Sinn Féin Eamon de Valera broke down while referring to the previous “four years of magnificent discipline in our nation”. The last words of that emotional Dáil session went to Cathal Brugha, the minister for defence: “So far as I am concerned I will see, at any rate, that discipline is kept in the army.”

These words were in vain; keeping the IRA united in face of the Treaty split was beyond the capabilities of politicians and soldiers and the struggle to maintain discipline became increasingly unwinnable. The rupturing of the republican movement, however, did not occur for want of effort. The first few months of 1922 witnessed a flurry of activity as various people sought to bridge the gap between both sides and prevent civil war. While the shelling of the Four Courts occupied by anti-Treatyites in late June 1922 provided one of the defining images of that year, it should not occlude the attempts to prevent war.

The efforts at dialogue and the determination to put the foundation blocks of a new state in place included a committee closeted in the Shelbourne Hotel drawing up a new constitution, the taking over of Dublin Castle by the new provisional government and the chairman of that government, Michael Collins, meeting Northern Ireland prime minister James Craig. Arthur Griffith was regularly in London to persuade the British government to be patient, while the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin Edward Byrne and Lord Mayor of Dublin Laurence O’Neill brought the pro and anti-Treaty sides together in the Mansion House to try and keep dialogue going. There was also the disbandment of the RIC and creation of a new police force, and a general election that saw pro and anti-Treaty Sinn Féin win 38.5 per cent and 21.2 per cent of the vote respectively.

Women activists against the Treaty were vocal and unrelenting and were castigated, not just because of their politics and commitment but because they were regarded as betraying their sex

In parallel, ominous clouds gathered during these months, as reflected in Cumann na mBan’s emphatic vote against the Treaty, the defiant anti-Treaty IRA convention in the Mansion House, sectarian killings in Belfast, standoffs between pro and anti-Treaty IRA members about the taking over of evacuated barracks, the audacious occupation of the Four Courts by the anti-Treaty IRA and the assassination in London of Sir Henry Wilson, former chief of the imperial staff of the British army. Winston Churchill, the secretary of state for the colonies, told the provisional government it “must assert itself or perish and be replaced by some other form of control”, a typical Churchillian bullying flourish and a reminder of the British threat that hung over Ireland in 1922. Then came the new realities of Civil War, including battles in Dublin, Limerick, Waterford and Cork, the death of Griffith, the sensational killing of Collins, the Catholic Bishops’ denunciation of the republican campaign, incarcerations, hunger strikes, executions and hearts that were, it seemed, turning to stone.


1922 was partly about the gulf between those who could find flexibility in defining national self-determination, and those who struggled to or resolutely refused to abandon unqualified republicanism. Sinn Féin TDs were also representing a war weary electorate; of 2,344 people who died in Ireland due to political violence between January 1917 and December 1921, 919 or 39 per cent were civilians.

How the Civil War was foughtOpens in new window ]

In 1996 political scientist Tom Garvin’s reflections on this period, in advance of the 75th anniversary of the Civil War, were strident. Pinpointing 1922 as the “birth of Irish democracy”, he argued that “moderate and realistic” nation-builders had triumphed over militant republicans contemptuous of “democratic principles of legitimacy”. The pro-Treaty leaders were “unconditional democrats and they killed people for the nascent Irish democracy that they saw menaced by the anti-Treatyites” who saw the Republic as a “transcendental, moral entity”.

Such a hero and villain school of interpretation is inadequate, a point forcefully underlined by David Fitzpatrick in 2011 when he wisely advised those commemorating the revolutionary period to “avoid the use of simplistic and exclusive dichotomies, or facile attributions of motive”. His stance was strongly influenced by his research for a biography of Harry Boland, one of the prominent anti-Treatyites killed in 1922. Fitzpatrick characterised him as “at once a dictator, an elitist, a populist and a democrat...whether we consider that he was driven by a laudable conviction in the inalienable rights of nations, or a grotesque delusion, the sincerity of his struggle cannot be impugned”. Boland, according to Fitzpatrick, had “never abandoned the dream of negotiating the growing political and military split through the restoration of fraternal unity”.

While de Valera was frequently pilloried by supporters of the Treaty, with much justification given his refusal to accept the vote of the Dáil and his “wade through blood” rhetoric, he was also suspect in the minds of some of the more militant anti-Treatyites. Consider his fond but exasperated letters to Cork TD and vociferous opponent of the Treaty Mary MacSwiney; he told her he could not, like her, “keep on the plane of Faith and Unreason and maintain that position consciously”. He clearly struggled to make common cause with some of those on the anti-Treaty side, a reminder that the divisions of 1922 were not just between those who voted for and against the Treaty, but within those two blocs.

Certainly, some IRA members regarded politics as moribund, or irrelevant, and saw themselves as “in charge”. In historian Peter Hart’s words, “the guerrillas thought of themselves as sovereign... they had brought the republic into being... nobody else had the right to give it away”. If the Dáil was prepared to jettison that declared republic, many in the IRA did not regard themselves as answerable to it and, as Liam Lynch, soon to be chief of staff of the anti-Treaty IRA, stated: “The army had to hew the way to freedom for politics to follow.”

That mindset was understandable; after all, it was violence that had forced the British to negotiate, and the 1916 rebels had not waited for endorsement from the public, but it was also passionately argued that opponents of the Treaty needed to respect both the Dáil vote and public sentiment. Deep emotion ran through defiant declarations as friendships frayed and distrust grew. But what of those who wavered in between, or opted out of the Civil War? In 2015 Jimmy Wren traced the political progression of some veterans of the 1916 Rising; of 572 people identified as active with the General Post Office garrison that year, the largest single portion, 41 per cent, were neutral during the Civil War.

Thunderous roar of artillery marked the beginning of Irish Civil WarOpens in new window ]

Tom Garvin was correct in suggesting that “an insecure and inexperienced elite found itself presiding over a population that wanted unheroic things”. There was much appetite for a focus on bread-and-butter issues, captured in the conclusion of historian FSL Lyons: “Most people, I suspect, do not live by the hard, clear light of abstract dogmas, explicitly stated.” As leader of the Labour Party, Thomas Johnson cited a figure of 130,000 unemployed men and women, and in the general election the Labour Party performed impressively well, winning 17 seats and 21.4 per cent of first preference votes, with The Irish Times declaring the party had “arrived as an important and highly organised factor in national affairs”.

Women activists against the Treaty were vocal and unrelenting and were castigated, not just because of their politics and commitment but because they were regarded as betraying their sex. Consider the contempt that prompted Cork Sinn Féin TD Liam de Róiste to record in his diary in late 1922 of Mary MacSwiney, who went on a three-week hunger strike as a republican prisoner that generated national and international coverage and great embarrassment for the government in November, “I do not regard her or some of the other women engaged in public affairs as normal beings, with normal human mentality. They are monomaniacs…there is a moral sore in the soul of Ireland”. Others grew tired of dogmatism and began to feel detached; interned writer Frank O’Connor, for example, initially resolute (saying of himself “I rarely thought, I felt”), came to decry those who insisted “the Irish Republic was still in existence and would remain so, despite what its citizens might think”. Patriotism was both an expensive currency and a contested, confused concept in Ireland in 1922, and no side of the Civil War had a monopoly of it. Writer and 1916 veteran Desmond Ryan was later to refer to “the long wrestle between ghosts and realities” that characterised 1922 and the fault lines that endured.

Many in the new Northern Irish state felt abandoned, and the division between South and North was a heavy burden for them to carry. The Civil War further dissipated hope and enfeebled Ulster republicans; as one of them put it about the prioritisation of southern objectives in 1922: “We were sadly disappointed.” In attempting to divert focus from the divide over the Treaty and generate unity of purpose in the IRA by destabilising the new Northern Ireland state “we had started something which we could not hope to carry out successfully alone”. Antrim Volunteers during the Civil War he lamented, “filtered back to be arrested or allowed to resume their ordinary lives under stringent enemy conditions”.

Many drank from the well of 1922 for decades afterwards, but often privately and silently. When, 75 years after the Civil War, Irish poet Noel Duffy and his father were browsing through an illustrated history of Ireland, Duffy senior stopped at a photograph of men trudging along a snow-covered mountain road. The caption read: “IRA volunteers on the march in 1922.” His father studied the photograph intently and then said: “The man at the back is your grandfather.” Without looking up, he added, “he always told me he never fought in the Civil War”. This refusal to acknowledge participation was one way of internalising the trauma it generated.

A memorable, rare and succinct comment by former Taoiseach and Civil War veteran Seán Lemass was voiced in response to a question from journalist Michael Mills in 1969. Lemass uncharacteristically welled up: “Terrible things were done by both sides,” he finally said; “I’d prefer not to talk about it.” Part of the challenge of this year’s centenary is to open the conversation about 1922 to confront the silences. For some, this involves a deeply personal quest to know more about parents, grandparents or great-grandparents. Many were left with scraps of information, if they even got them.

1922 proved to be a cruel lottery. Lemass survived and thrived with a rewarding political career. Liam Ó Briain, a 1916 veteran who was incarcerated for much of the second half of the War of Independence, supported the Treaty and took no part in the Civil War, yet 1922 left him, in his own words, “a permanently disappointed man”. But as professor of romance languages in UCG, there was much comfort to be found in what he described as “42 years of peaceful professorship” and he became a pillar of Irish academic and cultural life. He was another of the fortunate ones, but for those from both sides of the Civil War divide without a meaningful stake in the new state, a bleakness calcified and for far too many the Civil War’s afterlife was brutally disordered and fractured.

We were flattened. We felt the Irish public had forgotten us. The tinted trappings of our fight were hanging like rags about us

The release of archival material in recent years, notably the files of the successful and unsuccessful applicants for military service pensions in the decades after the conflict, underlines the scale of the disappointments and sense of betrayal. A government memorandum in 1957 revealed that 82,000 people applied for pensions under the main 1924 and 1934 pensions acts; of these, 15,700 were successful and 66,300 were rejected. How to define and prove active service remained contested and contentious. Consider, too, the fate of those bereaved and the gulf they felt existed between the cause that had been died for and the reality of their post 1922 existence. In 1942 the list of the contemporary positions of John O’Neill’s fellow 1922 anti-Treaty IRA column members in Cork made for stark reading:









O’Neill was awarded a low-grade military pension of just under £80 per annum for almost eight years’ active service, and eventually, a disability pension of £150 per annum. Ten years after the end of the Civil War, and only seven years after his marriage, now a father of three children, O’Neill was suffering “breathlessness on exertion, weakness, spitting of blood and inability to do work of any kind” and had “severe heart disease”. But he still had to engage in protracted correspondence with the minister for defence: “I am a complete wreck, living with three children on 10 acres of ground...I ask you in the name of honour, in fair play and as far as charity’s sake.” At the age of 49, O’Neill died of “chronic endocarditis, cirrhosis of liver. Disease attributable to service in IRA”.

Women faced additional barriers. Sheila Humphreys, one of the Civil War prisoners released after a 31-day hunger strike, left us with this image: “We were flattened. We felt the Irish public had forgotten us. The tinted trappings of our fight were hanging like rags about us.” Ellen Walsh, active in Cumann na mBan in Kerry, had been assessed by a doctor in 1920 as being “in perfect health, robustically so, with a fine genial disposition, an ideal specimen of womanhood”. But when examined in 1924 another doctor found Walsh “in a very depressed and worn down condition of health which I attributed to hardship and exposure during the troubled times”. Her health by that stage was “abnormal for an ordinary young girl” and the “outlook for improvement was very doubtful”. Walsh died in Lexington Avenue in New York in 1927, her mother attesting that “she had to emigrate as she could not do any work”.

As he faced death in the 1950s, IRA veteran Ernie O’Malley recorded that the British were no longer his enemies: “Each man finds his enemy within himself.” He was able to explore and write about that personal interior deeply, helped by an annual military service pension of £258 from 1934 and an annual disability pension of £120 which was hard earned. The National Army soldier killed during O’Malley’s capture in Dublin in 1922 was Peter McCartney, the eldest of nine children aged 10-23 at the time of his death, from a farm comprising 30 acres of poor land in Leitrim. In 1923 his father Patrick was awarded a £40 gratuity for Peter’s death; as a self-described “poor man” he pleaded for decades for more: “People having plenty of money seldom think of the son left his employment for the freedom of the State.” As an 86-year-old in 1955, Patrick was still corresponding with the pension authorities, to be told the £40 from 1923 “was in full and final settlement of your claim”.

We need to appreciate and understand the depth of conviction that drove people in Ireland in 1922, but also how, for many, the idealism became so cruelly compromised.

Diarmaid Ferriter is professor of modern Irish history at UCD and an Irish Times columnist. His book, Between Two Hells: The Irish Civil War, was published last year by Profile Books