Diarmaid Ferriter: The treaty passed and peace of Christmas 1921 shattered

Catholic bishops gave treaty crucial backing in Christmas day homilies

Some of Ireland’s leading Catholic bishops spent Christmas Eve 100 years ago preparing sermons with an edge. To address their congregations, they felt they had to find a balance between religion and politics; to celebrate the nativity but also impress upon the faithful the possibilities that might come with the birth of a new state.

Sinn Féin TDs in the Dáil had spent the previous week debating the Anglo-Irish Treaty but the Christmas recess until January 3rd allowed them time to go back to their constituencies. It has often been asserted that this break swung the vote in favour of the treaty, but that should not be exaggerated.

A few TDs subsequently referred to their minds being changed over Christmas; PJ Ward, representing Donegal, went home opposed to the treaty and listened closely to what he called “the voice of the best elements in the constituency” who urged acceptance and he relented.

Éamon de Valera was feeling sore, complaining two days after Christmas to his confidante in the US, Joseph McGarrity, that the church and press were 'hard at work' urging acceptance of the treaty

But for others, like Clare’s Brian O’Higgins, the trip home only confirmed their opposition as in his words, “the people who command the best influence in Clare” were anti-treaty.

Others made no bones about ignoring their constituents. Seán MacEntee admitted “the unanimous wish of Monaghan was that I should vote for the treaty”. He refused. Likewise, Harry Boland referred to the “chorus of approval” for the treaty from his constituents in Roscommon, but he believed this only heightened the contrast between his reliance on “conscience” and the hypocrisy of those who signed the treaty “with a mental reservation that it is not a final settlement”.

The determined bishops, however, also had their pulpits and took full advantage of their status. In Ennis Cathedral Michael Fogarty, Bishop of Killaloe, a vocal supporter of republicans during the War of Independence, surprised many with his pro-treaty stance: it would be, he insisted, “an act of national madness” to reject it.

In Tuam Archbishop Thomas Gilmartin suggested “it was not fitting to bring politics into the church” but “the saviour Child had come to bring peace to a sick world” and peace reigned in Ireland now: “Is this peace,” he asked, “going to last, is it God’s Christmas gift to Ireland or is it only the calm before the storm?” He believed “the good turn things had recently taken was due to prayer”.

Robert Browne, the Bishop of Cloyne, spoke to a “vast congregation” in St Colman’s Cathedral in Cobh and declared the people there were in favour of the treaty and must insist “their representatives in the Dáil vote in accordance with the mandate of their constituency”.

A major part of the Irish civil war legacy was silence, and that reticence was not necessarily ignoble

He added that it was “contrary to my principles and practices to introduce any mere political subjects into this cathedral pulpit” but the treaty “is not in the ordinary sense political, it is in the highest sense national”. He asserted “the people are the fountain and source of national authority...Ireland under this proposed treaty will be a Free State with untrammelled power to legislate for the Irish people in what concerns their welfare”.

No wonder Éamon de Valera was feeling sore, complaining two days after Christmas to his confidante in the US, Joseph McGarrity, that the church and press were “hard at work” urging acceptance of the treaty. The treaty was subsequently passed by the Dáil in January, 64 votes in favour to 57 against, and the peace of that Christmas was to be sadly shattered.

But Christmas 1921 had raised crucial questions that endured; for all the talk of the IRA as the best “fighting men”, or in Cathal Brugha’s phrase, the “men who count”, PJ Ward cut through these pieties with his insistence, “I will not speak of what the army thinks. For it is the civil population that decides this question now”.

Writer and 1916 veteran Desmond Ryan was later to refer to “the long wrestle between ghosts and realities” that characterised this era and the faultlines that endured. In 1997 Irish poet Noel Duffy and his father were browsing through an illustrated history of Ireland when Duffy senior stopped at a photograph of men trudging along a snow-covered mountain road.

The caption read: “IRA volunteers on the march in 1922.” His father studied the photograph intently and then said: “the man at the back is your grandfather.” Without looking up, he added, “he always told me he never fought in the civil war”.

Duffy’s grandfather’s refusal to acknowledge his participation was one way of internalising the trauma it generated. A major part of the Irish civil war legacy was silence, and that reticence was not necessarily ignoble.

Some were reluctant to speak of it for fear of reopening old wounds or because they did not want the passions and prejudices of 1922 to be inherited by subsequent generations. Others found it too difficult to relive the sundering of friendships or fractured families that became so pronounced after the uneasy peace of Christmas 1921.