The year 1922 was in many ways Ireland's annus horribilis, as the country seemed to move inexorably along the road towards civil war. And on the night of April 13th, 80 years ago, it passed the major milestone on that rueful road, writes Brian Maye
On January 7th, 1922, Dáil Éireann had voted to accept the Articles of Agreement for a Treaty agreed by its delegates with the British government over the previous three months. Five days later, a group of IRA officers, including Rory O'Connor, Liam Mellows, Oscar Traynor and Liam Lynch, wrote to Richard Mulcahy, the Minister for Defence, demanding the summoning of an army convention. Their intention was to give overall control of the army to an executive of its own choice. This, in effect, would mean that it would be independent of the civil authorities.
Mulcahy's instinct was to refuse the demand but, knowing the convention would be held anyway, he finally decided to accede and it was agreed that a meeting would be held within two months.
Black and Tans
In the early months of 1922, the first visible signs of the end of the long centuries of British rule began to become apparent in Ireland. British soldiers marched away from their barracks for the last time. The hated Black and Tans and Auxiliaries returned to England. The disbandment of the Royal Irish Constabulary was begun and a new unarmed Civic Guard was recruited to replace the former police force.
But these outward and visible signs of the reality of Irish independence also contained the seeds of the fratricidal strife to come. British military depots and barracks were usually taken over by local IRA forces as soon as they were evacuated but it was unclear at times whether these were pro- or anti-Treaty.
At the end of February and the beginning of March, Limerick provided an example of the potential disasters in this lack of clarity, when two opposing IRA contingents disputed control over the town. A settlement was patched up at the last minute, averting open fighting, but it was a portent of things to come.
In March, two events threatened the position of the pro-Treaty government. Eamon de Valera re-emerged on the political scene with what appeared to be a new political party - Cumann na Poblachta - but it consisted in reality of most of his supporters in the Treaty debates. To mark the event he went on a tour of Munster, speaking at Dungarvan, Carrick-on-Suir, Thurles and Killarney from March 16th to 19th. According to his friends, these speeches were warnings against the dangers of widespread violence and civil war, but to his critics they seemed to be advocating that very policy.
On March 16th, the day after founding the new party, he condemned the Treaty as barring the way to independence and proclaimed: "It was only by civil war after this that they could get their independence." On three occasions over the next three days, he reiterated that the fight would go on if the Treaty were accepted, even if that fight meant Irishman killing Irishman. One example is sufficient:
"If they accepted the Treaty, and if the Volunteers of the future tried to complete the work the Volunteers of the last four years had been attempting, they would have to complete it, not over the bodies of foreign soldiers, but over the dead bodies of their own countrymen. They would have to wade through Irish blood, through the blood of the soldiers of the Irish government and through, perhaps, the blood of some of the members of the government in order to get Irish freedom."
In any circumstances this would have been dangerous language. In circumstances where he was addressing excitable young men, many of them armed, it seems foolhardy to the point of recklessness.
The second crucial event in March brought the crisis within the IRA to a head. Mulcahy prohibited the holding of the promised army convention at the last moment, fearing it would lead to the establishment of a military junta.
O'Connor, self-appointed leader of the anti-Treaty IRA, summoned a press conference on March 22nd, during which he said it was in their power to forcibly prevent an election on the Treaty being held. Notoriously, when asked, "Do we take it that we are going to have a military dictatorship?" he replied: "You can take it that way if you like."
Despite Mulcahy's ban, the convention took place in Dublin on March 26th. While pro-Treaty IRA men didn't attend and some officers who did still hadn't given up hope of reaching some sort of agreement with the government, it was dominated by out-and-out anti-Treaty militants. The convention invested all authority over the IRA in an executive of 16 officers.
Less than three weeks later, on the night of April 13th/14th, executive forces led by O'Connor and Mellows seized the Four Courts and other buildings in central Dublin and converted them into strongly fortified military posts. The action taken to dislodge them, some two-and-a-half months later, sparked off the terrible civil war which blighted Irish public life for more than a generation.