A new State of pride, euphoria and civil war

Today marks the 80th anniversary of the inaugural meeting of the Free StateParliament in Leinster House on December 6th, 1922…

Today marks the 80th anniversary of the inaugural meeting of the Free StateParliament in Leinster House on December 6th, 1922. Prof Dermot Keogh describes how events took place as the civil war intensified.

The commemoration of the birth of Saorstát Éireann [Irish Free State] must recognise a number of key dates, most notably the first meeting on January 21st, 1921, of Dáil Éireann, and the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty on December 6th, 1921.

The first anniversary of the signing of the treaty a year later in 1922 - the 80th anniversary of which falls today - deserves inclusion in that list of notable dates.

The reasons are listed in the Freeman's Journal in an eloquent editorial entitled "The Day - 6 December 1922":


"The much-abused Treaty had disestablished that domination and made Ireland supreme in the mastery of its own affairs. To-day begins the exercise of that mastery."

The editorial argued that "all the intrigues to make trouble over the new instrument of Irish Government" had fallen to the ground. That followed "upon the realisation that the British Parliament, despite all the supremacy claimed for it, could not change a word or a phrase in the Irish-made Constitution without Ireland's consent."

In the end "the three Estates of Great Britain have said ditto to Dáil Eireann, and the Irish Free State begins its life to-day."

The pro-unionist Irish Times made its peace on December 6th, 1922, in an editorial entitled "An end and a beginning".

It called the occasion an "almost bewildering moment of transition.To-day all things are made new. The Irish people, by their own deliberate choice, are left to their own resources. They will make their own laws, shape their own progress, establish their own traditions of government. Their future will be what they choose to make it, and the honour of success or the shame of failure will fall upon themselves alone. Within the next couple of years they must confound or justify the prophets of evil. This is the most solemn of all occasions in the nation's history, and no thoughtful Irishman will approach it lightly."

The midst of civil war was not the ideal occasion to celebrate the birth of a new state. December 6th, 1922, was the first day of issue of a 2d. stamp showing a map of Ireland without any border under the word Éire.

Symbolic of the nation's freedom, a new Irish flag, specially made for the occasion, floated over Leinster House.

The full political import of the occasion, reflected in the editorial quoted above, was not lost on William T. Cosgrave and those who supported the treaty settlement on the day the new constitution came into force.

OUTSIDE the Dáil the macabre civil war world, grotesque and violent, claimed lives, damaged property and corroded the democratic values on which the new state was founded.

There was objectively much to celebrate. The British were leaving. The coverage in the Freeman's Journal captured the political importance of the occasion, describing the inaugural meeting of the Free State parliament in Leinster House as marking "a turning point in the nation's history".

December 6th, 1922, was a date "doubly memorable". The entire scene, according to the Freeman's Journal, while devoid of the spectacular lost nothing of its significance.

The strangers' gallery had been closed to the public while the press gallery was crowded with journalists from all over the world. A small crowd had gathered in Kildare Street to watch the arrival of the deputies.

Kevin O'Higgin was the first into the Chamber "looking very serious". William T. Cosgrave took his seat punctually at five o'clock and was soon joined by Alfred Byrne, and by two prominent members of the Labour Party, William O'Brien and Thomas Johnson. There were, according to that paper, about 80 deputies present out of a total of about 88.

The appearance in military uniform of five senior army officers - among them Major-Gen Seán MacEoin, Adjutant-Gen Gearoid O'Sullivan and Gen Patrick Brennan, who were also elected to the Dáil - "lent a note of colour to proceedings that were very subdued and otherwise comparatively drab". Gen Eoin O'Duffy was present but wearing civilian clothes.

Before the bell rang for the proceedings to commence, Cosgrave crossed the floor to the opposition benches to talk to Thomas Johnson and other members of the Labour Party.

Prof Michael Hayes, the Speaker, came forward. He informed the House that the Governor General, Tim Healy, had sworn him in earlier that day. He announced that he had been empowered to administer the oath to deputies.

At that point, Cosgrave came forward and took the oath of office. It took about 30 minutes to complete that part of the proceedings. All took the oath. However the leader of the Labour Party, Thomas Johnson, read a short statement stating that his party members had taken the oath under protest.

Cosgrave was then re-elected President, Prof Michael Hayes was voted in as Ceann Comhairle and Padraig O'Malley as Leas Ceann Comhairle.

Returning thanks for his election, President Cosgrave "expressed pardonable pride in being the first man called upon to preside over the first Government set up under the Treaty".

He then read his nominations for the Executive Council which were agreed. Kevin O'Higgins was Vice President and Minister of Home Affairs. Gen Richard Mulcahy was appointed Minister of Defence; Desmond Fitzgerald as Minister of External Affairs; Prof Eoin MacNeill as Minister of Education; Joseph McGrath as Minister of Industry and Commerce; and Ernest Blythe as Minister of Local Government.

Four other appointments, the Minister for Agriculture, the Postmaster-General, the Minister for Fisheries and an assistant minister were to be made by a committee of the Dáil.

Cosgrave, who could select half the Upper Chamber, listed his nominees for the Seanad. The Dáil completed the list. The names of the new senators included William Butler Yeats, Sir Horace Plunkett, the Earls of Mayo, Kerry and Dunraven, Lord Monteagle, Lord Powerscourt and Lord Glenavy. It was clear that the government wished to signal that religious minorities and unionists had a vital role to play in the new State. The inaugural meeting of the Seanad was to take place on December 11th, 1922.

Tim Healy, a distinguished parliamentarian, had been sworn in on December 6th as the first Governor General of the Free State. Did anyone celebrate the fact that the Irish government had shown its political independence and strength of will by making its own selection for the post?

The Irish Tricolour flew over the Viceregal Lodge on December 21th to mark the arrival of the new incumbent. The Freeman's Journal carried a photograph on December 15th of "the first National soldier to be placed on sentry at the Viceregal Lodge"

Another showed a shot of a company of the Third Northern Division shortly after taking possession of "the late home of the British Viceroy". That significant historical moment was recognised by the Freeman's Journal.

But for the anti-Treatyites, in rebellion against the new State, that had little import. The Viceregal Lodge, over which the Tricolour fluttered, was disparagingly referred to as "Uncle Tim's cabin", remaining a symbol of British presence in Ireland.

There were many photographs in the press of the military change-over. The British were leaving as "an epoch ends" headlined an editorial in the Freeman's Journal on December 18th, 1922.

The tone of the paper was euphoric as the last detachments of the British army evacuated Dublin on December 17th and Irish soldiers "now occupy all the barracks and fortresses of the garrison".

"Through seven centuries the Irish people strove unavailingly to be masters in their own house. This chapter in our history has been ended by the Treaty.The roll of English drums in Dublin streets yesterday signalised the end of an epoch.

"A subject race, dragooned by force for centuries, has shaken off the last of its shackles. To-day Ireland stands a free nation amongst free nations."

THE sight of British troops marching to the docks in Dublin was difficult for many contemporaries to assimilate. It was a time to celebrate symbol and substance.

Yet the anti-Treatyites had, according to the Freeman's Journal on December 18th, "professed to scoff at what they called its [THE TREATY]paper guarantees" as it was claimed that "not a regiment...would be moved as a result of the Treaty", and that "English troops were pouring in instead of marching out", professing that "not pen and ink, but steel and blood, must provide the solution".

But, the paper asked, could the "unscrupulous propagandists" explain away the evacuation and deny "that the Army of the people holds Ireland to-day for the Irish people?"

Tone, Emmet and Mitchell, who had failed through no fault of their own, would, according to the paper, "have hailed its [THE TREATY]makers as men who have worthily upheld their traditions, and translated into fact their cherished dreams".

Such hyperbole must be seen in the context of a civil war that had witnessed anti-Treatyites smash up the presses of the Freeman's Journal on March 29/30th, 1922 and attempt to intimidate its proprietor, Martin Fitzgerald, and members of the journalistic staff to flee the country or be killed.

A letter was sent from a Dublin branch of the IRA and dated December 6th. It was published in the editorial space of the paper. Ignoring the threat to murder him, Fitzgerald attended the first meeting of the Seanad two days later. It took courage to carry on life as normal in such violent times.

Even a brief sketch of events in late November and early December will reveal why the government was not in a celebratory mood.

Cosgrave and his colleagues were focused upon winning a civil war that had entered a deadly and decisive phase. The time had come to draw the sword. The Executive Council had decided to use draconian measures to break the will of the anti-Treatyites.

Four young men from Dublin were executed in Dublin on November 17th, under the Special Powers Act. Erskine Childers was shot on November 24th despite last-minutes pleas for leniency from leading members of the Catholic Hierarchy.

INTERVIEWED by the Freeman's Journal, William Cosgrave predicted on November 27th that there would be an intensification of irregular activity over the next 10 days: "After that the collapse will be gradual, if not almost a sort of 'flop'."

He felt that the situation was improving from a military point of view. They had made many important captures, more than had been the case in the previous two months. But there would be no change in the government's course of action. It had laid down a policy and meant to carry it out. More executions, much as he regretted them, would be necessary.

When asked by a French journalist whether he expected to be shot, he replied laughing that there was a chance of that "but that would not make any difference".

It might have made a difference if ministers had been shot in August at the time that Michael Collins had been killed. There were others now to step in and take their place.

The spiral of civil war violence entered a murderous phase. The anti-Treatyites widened their list of targets, sending a message to the Speaker of the Dáil on November 27th denouncing the parliament as an illegal body and promising drastic action. [That letter was censored and did not appear in the press until December 8th.]

On December 7th, the anti-Treatyites killed Sean Hales TD and wounded the Deputy Speaker, Padraig O Maille TD, as they left the Ormond hotel in Dublin on their way to Dáil Éireann. This attack was described on the same day by the Commander-in-Chief, Gen Richard Mulcahy, in a proclamation by the Army Council, as part of a conspiracy to assassinate members of the nation's parliament that had already claimed two victims. It laid out the conditions under which a sentence of death would be carried out on anyone found guilty of being in possession of bombs and firearms.

On December 9th, 1922, the press carried the following report from Army headquarters:

"The execution took place this morning at Mountjoy Gaol of the following prisoners taken in arms against the Irish Government: -

Rory O'Connor

Liam Mellowes

Joseph McKelvey, and

Richard Barrett

as a reprisal for the assassination on his way to Dáil Éireann on the 7th December of Brigadier Sean Hales, Td. And as solemn warning to those associated who are engaged in a conspiracy of assassination against the representatives of the Irish people."

Space does not permit to dwell on the issue of the legality or the morality of executions carried out "as a reprisal". Suffice it to say that the action shocked and appalled many contemporaries who were not unsympathetic to the government.

Those included the Archbishop of Dublin, Edward Byrne, who drafted a letter to Cosgrave: "It was with something of dismay that I sawthat the four men were executed as 'reprisals' for the death of General Hales. Now, the policy of reprisals seems to me to be not only unwise but entirely unjustifiable from the moral point of view."

The Irish Times, in an editorial on December 9th, was critical of the action: "The Free State Government has committed itself to an act of 'reprisal' which eclipses in sudden and tragic severity the sternest measures of the British Crown during the conflict with Sinn Féin."

The paper felt that such actions in the future required the permission of parliament. "After all, nobody can claim a greater interest in the protection of deputies than the deputies themselves."

THE superior general of the Calced Carmelites, Peter Magennis, wrote to a friend from the US: "I received the news of the shooting of four amongst which was dear friend Liam. That has given me a turn I am almost afraid to contemplate. I know those fellows were contemptible curs, but it never occurred to me they were such vampires. Drunk with this sudden greatness their one idea is to revel in human blood. However, for the present I must keep quiet until we meet."

The legality and morality of the action was a matter of contemporary debate and remains an issue of contention today. Donal O'Sullivan, in his The Irish Free State and its Senate, described the executions of the four as "entirely illegal". In his view it had caused "much misgivings in the minds of many, both in the Dáil and outside it, whose support for the Government in all legitimate measures against the Irregulars, however drastic, was not in doubt".

Historian John Regan describes the executions of the four as a "brutal and an utterly ruthless act without pretence of legality". Cahir Davitt, a contemporary, would not agree.

On a related matter, historians continue to debate whether or not the policy of executions shortened or lengthened the civil war. If pressed, I incline towards the latter hypothesis.

What is not in dispute, however, is the ferocity of the onslaught that followed the Mountjoy executions.

On Sunday, December 10th, attacks were carried out on, according to the headline in the Freeman's Journal, "houses of senator, Dáil members and government official".

Capt Sean McGarry's home in Fairview was set alight and his wife and two children were taken to hospital, one of the children with serious burns. The house of the postmaster general, J J Walsh, was attacked, as was also the home of the acting secretary to the government, Michael McDunphy. The Irish Farm Produce Company, owned by Senator Nancy Wyse Power, was badly damaged.

The Freeman's Journal, in an editorial on December 11th, wrote under the title "The New Horror" and condemned those who had "disgraced Ireland's name in the eyes of the world". The actions were those of men with "the catch-words of idealism upon their lips" but they knew in their hearts "that this is not war but savagery".

"Since when," it argued, "has the burning of innocent children become part of tactics of clean fighting?"

It was hard to preserve a sense of normalcy in such confusion. Brig Sean Hales was buried with full military honours in his native Cork, remembered as one of the most prominent guerrilla leaders in the war of independence.

On December 12h, the Governor General Tim Healy made his first address to the Oireachtas. Labour deputies and senators absented themselves when the speech was being given.

He said:"Today in the name and with the authority of the people of Saorstát Éireann, you enter into the fullness of your partnership in liberty with the nations co-operating in co-equal membership of a great commonwealth of free peoples."

The Adaptation of Enactments Act, adapting British acts in force on December 6th, 1922, to the circumstances of the Free State, was introduced into the Dáil on December 13th and was passed on 18th. An Irish parliament had legislated after 123 years, according to the Freeman's Journal.

However, the killing continued and peace in the country appeared far off as Christmas 1922 approached. A former member of Dáil Éireann, James Dwyer, was shot dead in his spirit and grocery shop in Rathmines on December 20th.

He had been a Sinn Féiner in days when to be a Sinn Feeiner "was neither safe nor profitable", wrote the Freeman's Journal, which described his murder as "purposeless as it was brutal".

Like Sean Hales, he had been chosen to represent the pro-Treatyites in the peace negotiations of spring 1922, he was shot through the heart at pointblank range.

OTHER terrible deeds followed, including the murder of the father of Kevin O'Higgins at the family home in February 1923, and the shooting of his son on July 10th, 1927, near the Catholic church in Booterstown, Dublin.

Some 80 years later, it is important to stress that the survival of the Irish State in winter 1922 was neither guaranteed nor predetermined. The leaders of the Free State at that juncture did not lack valour if, on occasions, they may have lacked judgment. Cosgrave and his fellow ministers rose to the professional task of State-building with creativity and courage. Throughout the 1920s they laid the foundations of the Republic in a painstaking, mundane and unspectacular way. They did their job well.

Prof Dermot Keogh, head of the history department at University College Cork, is the author of Twentieth Century Ireland and was an adviser and contributor to the award-winning Seven Ages television series.