Church’s excommunication of anti-Treaty combatants in Civil War left ‘bad taste’, says Archbishop

Catholic hierarchy’s 1922 letter was used by pro-Treaty side to provide moral justification for ‘sinful and criminal behaviour’

The Catholic Church made a mistake in not condemning atrocities carried out by government forces during the Civil War, the Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of all-Ireland, Eamon Martin, has said.

Archbishop Martin acknowledged the Church’s staunch support of the government while excommunicating anti-Treaty activists had “left a long lasting bad taste”.

While most of the clergy supported the IRA during the War of Independence, the bishops were near unanimous in condemning the anti-Treaty side after the Civil War broke out in June 1922.

In October of that year, the hierarchy issued a pastoral letter condemning the anti-Treaty side in the strongest terms possible. They did so a week after the provisional government offered an amnesty to those who had taken up arms against them – to surrender and recognise the new authorities.


The letter stated that the “legitimate authority” was the provisional government – which became the Free State government in December 1922 – and there was no justification for taking up arms against it.

“No one is justified in rebelling against the legitimate government, whatever it is, set up by the nation and acting within its rights.”

Those who did were “guilty of the gravest sins” and were not to be “absolved in Confession nor admitted to Holy Communion”, which was a serious penalty to devout Catholics at the time.

Speaking at the Catholic Historical Society of Ireland annual conference, Archbishop Martin said the pastoral letter was used by the pro-Treaty side to provide moral justification for “un-Christian, sinful and criminal behaviour. And the bishops failed to publicly respond to that.”

He stressed that the bishops at the time would have believed they had good reason to support the new state. They, like the people at that stage, were weary of war and destruction.

They supported the Free State government as they believed it would be the best means of ending partition and that the Civil War would only deepen divisions on the island.

Archbishop Martin acknowledged the pastoral letter left the hierarchy open to accusations of “political expediency and manoeuvring for political power and influence”.

Many bishops had accepted the morality of the republican struggle during the War of Independence. There was, as a result, “dismay and disgust” among many republicans at the bishops’ position during the Civil War, he believed.

The then archbishop of Dublin Edward Byrne told the government that many of the 81 executions carried out during the Civil War were “morally unjustifiable” but he had only done so in private, instead of making a public statement about it. It suggested they were “not impartial towards violence and destruction”, Archbishop Martin commented.

He added: “In contrast to their explicit condemnation of crown forces and the British regime only a few years previously, the bishops’ failure to name and shame the atrocities being committed by the pro-Treaty side fed the narrative that they spoke with two voices: that the Free State government could act with impunity, whilst those continuing the armed struggle for an all-Ireland solution could do no good.”

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times