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In a tumultuous world, we should be wary of taking even our robust democracy for granted

Does Richard Mulcahy’s view that the ‘ordinary people of Ireland would always get their politics right in the long run’ still hold true?

“Sacred heart o’ Jesus take away our hearts o’ stone, and give us hearts o’ flesh.” These were the words uttered by Juno after the death of her son Johnny in Seán O’Casey’s play Juno and the Paycock, first staged at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin 100 year ago this month. Lady Gregory, co-founder of the Abbey, was delighted with the play and the response, recording in her journal “the theatre crowded, many turned away, so it will be run on next week. A wonderful and terrible play of futility, of irony, humour and tragedy.”

The Civil War was over at that point, but some of its ashes still smouldered. As O’Casey challenged theatre audiences about the Civil War’s meaning and legacy, the government the same month faced what became known as the army mutiny, when Free State army officers Liam Tobin and Charles Dalton issued an ultimatum demanding the removal of the army council, headed by the minister for defence Richard Mulcahy. They also insisted on the suspension of army demobilisation as a prelude to a meeting with government to discuss their interpretation of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which they had accepted “only as a means of achieving a republican form of government in this country”. Invoking the ghost of Michael Collins and his famous stepping stone interpretation of the Treaty was a red flag to the Cumann na nGaedheal bulls who, in the words of historian Joe Lee, “craved assurance that history would vindicate their sacrifice in drinking the bitter dregs from the cup of compromise” that the treaty represented. Those threatening mutiny maintained a hostile Irish Republican Brotherhood clique was ruling the army council and, in response, had formed the Irish Republican Army Organisation.

This alarming episode did not escalate to an unmanageable crisis. It was partly about a battle for governmental control of an army aghast at demobilisation and with a flabby command structure, factions and weak discipline. The government demanded the resignation of the army council, but rather than using his humiliation to create further destabilisation and challenge the attempts by Kevin O’Higgins, the minister for justice, to assert his dominance in government and over the army, Mulcahy voluntarily resigned the defence ministry. O’Higgins presented his mission as vindicating civilian government and democracy. While there was some substance to that characterisation, it was not the full story. Mulcahy had firmly rejected, in his own words, any attempt “to involve the army in a challenge to the authority of the government” and had told head of government WT Cosgrave in January 1924 he wanted an efficient and politically impartial army “that would be absolutely responsible to even a de Valera government, if such a government were returned”.

According to Tom Garvin, Mulcahy “consistently held to the view that the ordinary people of Ireland would always get their politics right in the long run”. Mulcahy believed those with a “Ballsbridge complex”– academics and professors turned politicians – were condescending towards those with a background in army service. Acting as a referee of sorts was Cosgrave; two years previously, this newspaper had characterised him as a politician keen to stay out of the limelight: “He is neither a wild eyed revolutionary nor a lank haired poet. He . . . looks rather like the general manager of a railway company. His manner is most unassuming. Unlike so many of the new school of Irish politics, he does not believe in talking and has an excellent capacity for work.”


It is true he and his colleagues were keen for historical vindication. They got it in some ways. When, 40 years ago, the great Irish travel writer Dervla Murphy came to write her account of contemporary Ireland, she painted a pained portrait of this State’s many failings, but was moved to assert: “Although I was born only ten years after the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty and seven years after the ending of the Civil War, in which my parents’ families took opposite sides, I grew up never having to question the legitimacy, stability or integrity of the nation to which I belonged. That says a lot for the architects of the Free State, who in so brief a time had left such firm foundations.”

It also said a lot for their opponents, who built on and further secured those foundations relatively quickly after the Civil War. Those structures include a durable Constitution that is still taken very seriously. Amid all the competing claims about last week’s referendums – and the turmoil that is wreaked internationally by those who are not remotely serious about politics, deride those who are serious and trade on attacking democratic institutions and their defenders – we should not forget that. But we should also consider how much we take our robust democracy for granted, to the point that well over half the electorate did not bother to vote last Friday.