The story of how the Irish State came into being 100 years ago this week

A momentous day was sullied by the violence of the Civil War, WT Cosgrave said when delivering the first speech in an independent Irish State

At the beginning of what had been anticipated as a historic week in Ireland, The Irish Times published an editorial. It appeared in the edition of Monday, December 4th, 1922. It was the week the Irish Free State was due to come into being, and the leader writer noted it would be happening without “exuberant demonstrations and no man needs to be told why such things would be out of place”.

The editorial noted that William Gladstone and Herbert Asquith’s Home Rule bills had been greeted with exultation across Ireland, yet the response to the much greater level of freedom afforded through the Anglo-Irish Treaty had been muted because of the impact of the Civil War.

The editorial continued: “The battle has been won, but at a tremendous cost. Only a year ago the outlook was more than encouraging. Since that time, however, the land has been devastated by a cruel warfare. Freedom comes to us at the last, not blithe or smiling, but with a countenance severe and even tragic. Therefore, we greet her cordially, indeed, and hopefully, but without exultation. Whatever comfort her cornucopia may hold, she comes to a sad abode.”

The country had been torn apart by the Civil War, which had been raging for five bloody months. As a military confrontation it was effectively over. The National Army had prevailed in all the major centres of population, but the anti-Treaty side resorted to guerrilla tactics which included targeting the homes of members of the government.


It is often assumed that the Irish Free State came into being with the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty on December 6th, 1921, but it only operated in provisional form for a year after that. The coming into being of the Irish State was provisional on four things happening, none of which were a given, and the British army remained in Ireland until the end of 1922 as a guarantor of the peace treaty.

The first was the ratification of the Treaty which was only narrowly passed by the Dáil by 64 votes to 57 in January 1922. This was followed by an agreement between the British and Irish sides over the Free State Constitution which almost did not happen when the British prime minister David Lloyd George rejected an Irish version which did not include the oath of allegiance to the king. Thirdly, there needed to be a general election, which was held on June 16th, 1922, and, fourthly, the Dáil had to pass the constitution which it eventually did on October 25th, 1922. The British government then passed the Irish Free State Constitution Act on December 5th, 1922.

On that day the offices of the viceroy and lord lieutenant were stood down, to be replaced by a governor-general, the first being Tim Healy. Only then was there no legal impediment for the Free State to come into being.

The Anglo-Irish Treaty was an all-Ireland affair. Northern Ireland would be incorporated into the Irish Free State unless it opted out. The unionist-dominated parliament duly opted out on December 6th, 1922, the day the Irish Free State came into being. The vote in the Northern Ireland parliament was unanimous as only unionists attended. Northern Ireland prime minister Sir James Craig said they acted in haste “in order that it may not go forth to the world that we had the slightest hesitation”.

It was a sober Dáil Éireann which met on December 6th, 1922. Members took the oath of allegiance to the king, the chief cause of the Civil War, WT Cosgrave was elected as the President of the Executive Council (Taoiseach) and Michael Hayes as the first speaker (Ceann Comhairle). Thirty members of the Seanad were appointed including the poet WB Yeats. As the anti-Treaty IRA boycotted the Dáil, the main opposition was provided by the Labour Party and its leader Tom Johnson.

The formalities over, President Cosgrave delivered the first speech in an independent state. He began by grasping the significance of the moment. “On this notable day when our country has definitely emerged from the bondage under which she has lived through a week of centuries, I cannot deny that I feel intensely proud to be the first man called to preside over the first government which takes over the control of the destiny of our people.”

Ireland had now been admitted into the group of free nations, he stated, but this momentous day was sullied by the violence of the Civil War “which had been inflicted upon our people at the behest of a small minority, inspired whether with vanity or I know not what”.

The fate of that minority which had opposed the Free State in arms would be clarified a day later. The Irish Free State was just a day old when TDs Sean Hales of Cork and Pádraig Ó Máille from Galway emerged from the Ormond Hotel following lunch to be driven to the Dáil. As they got into a waiting car, they were attacked by an unknown gunman who shot Hales dead and wounded Ó Máille badly.

The shooting was in revenge for the Public Safety Emergency Powers Bill, often erroneously called an Act, which was passed in September allowing for the execution of those who took up arms against the State. The ultimate punishment was necessary, Richard Mulcahy, the minister for defence, declared in the Dáil on November 17th, 1922, because “anything that will shock the country into realisation of what a grave thing it is to take human life is justified at the moment”.

In response the anti-Treaty IRA led by Liam Lynch published a list of the “murder members” who had voted for the “murder bill” and ordered their killing.

The response of the new Irish government to the killing of Hales, whose brother Tom had taken the anti-Treaty side in the Civil War, was swift and brutal.

The Irish Civil War had begun on June 28th, 1922, with the shelling of the Four Courts, then occupied by anti-Treaty rebels. The garrison surrendered three days later following the catastrophic fire which destroyed the Public Records Office. Four of the officers involved in the anti-Treaty garrison, Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellows, Joseph McKelvey and Richard Barrett, had been in Mountjoy Jail since that date and had played no part in the Civil War.

Nevertheless the Free State government was determined to make an example of them. On the morning of December 8th, 1922, the four men were shot in the execution yard at Mountjoy Jail. Though many of the 77 executions carried out by the Free State were of dubious legality, there was not even the pretence of legality about these killings. Among those who approved the executions was the minister for justice Kevin O’Higgins. O’Connor had been his best man at his wedding just the year before.

The official communique from the National Army headquarters stated that the men were executed as a reprisal for the murder of Brigadier Sean Hales “and as a solemn warning to those associated with them who are engaged in a conspiracy against the representatives of the Irish people”.

There was uproar in the Dáil. George Gavin Duffy, one of the signatories of the Anglo-Irish Treaty and a distinguished lawyer, accused the Government of pursuing a “Corsican vendetta” against its enemies. Did the Government know that it had to act within its own rule of law? Gavin Duffy asked rhetorically.

The most vehement condemnation of the executions came from Tom Johnson who, as Labour leader, was also the leader of the opposition. He had consistently opposed them and was horrified by the actions of the government.

“Two days have elapsed since there was a formal proclamation announcing the birth of this new State,” Mr Johnson said to President Cosgrave. “It was hoped that the course of law would be in operation henceforth. It was hoped that there would be some rehabilitation of the idea of law; and almost the first act is utterly to destroy in the public mind the association of the government with the idea of law.

“I am almost forced to say you have killed the new State at its birth. I cannot imagine that anyone who is thinking in terms of anything but vengeance can defend this action.”

Two days later the anti-Treaty side forces firebombed the home of TD Sean McGarry in Fairview, Dublin. His seven-year-old son Emmet died of injuries suffered in the attack.

Cosgrave’s home in south Dublin was burned out in January 1923. A Free State Army report from that month concluded: “With depleted numbers, lack of resources and unified control and almost complete ineffectiveness from a military standpoint, their [anti-Treaty IRA] policy of military action is slowly changing to one of sheer destruction and obstruction of the civil government.”

The State’s response of escalating the executions – there were 77 in total – eventually had the desired effect of bringing the Civil War to an end in May 1923. Given its inauspicious beginnings, the State’s survival is perhaps its greatest achievement.