Irish Civil War

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The Irish Civil War (Irish: Cogadh Cathartha na hÉireann; 28 June 1922 – 24 May 1923) was a conflict that followed the Irish War of Independence and accompanied the establishment of the Irish Free State, an entity independent from the United Kingdom but within the British Empire.

The civil war was waged between two opposing groups, the pro-treaty Provisional Government and the anti-treaty IRA, over the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The forces of the Provisional Government (which became the Free State in December 1922) supported the Treaty, while the anti-treaty opposition saw it as a betrayal of the Irish Republic (which had been proclaimed during the Easter Rising). Many of those who fought on both sides in the conflict had been members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) during the War of Independence.

The Civil War was won by the pro-treaty Free State forces, who benefited from substantial quantities of weapons provided by the British Government. The conflict may have claimed more lives than the War of Independence that preceded it, and left Irish society divided and embittered for generations. Today, two of the main political parties in the Republic of Ireland, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, are direct descendants of the opposing sides of the war.

Dan Breen's appeal to Free State troops to join the Anti-Treaty IRA forces
National Army soldiers during the Civil War
The Treaty is already vindicating itself. The English Die-hards said to Mr. Lloyd George and his Cabinet: "You have surrendered". Our own Die-hards said to us: "You have surrendered". There is a simple test. Those who are left in possession of the battlefield have won. ~ Michael Collins
Anti-Treaty IRA unit in Old Parish area of Waterford in 1922
A prisoner under escort by Free State troops on 22 July 1922
From across the river, the National Army opened fire with artillery- the first shots rang out in a cruel civil war which was to last for two years, but whose effects were to be felt for much longer. ~ Donald MacCarron
Commandant Charles McAlister with the National Army soldiers and the armoured car The Fighting 2nd outside the Talbot Hotel in 1922
Seldom in the history of any country has a single unlucky bullet so utterly altered the course of events. Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to say that Ireland suffers the consequences to this day. ~ James Mackay
Had Michael lived, it is highly probable that he would have brought the civil war to a speedy conclusion and succeeded in healing the breach with the North, leading to the removal of partition which few politicians, from Lloyd George and Churchill downwards, regarded as anything other than a purely temporary measure in 1922. After Michael's death, however, the South had no one with the breadth of vision and the negotiating skills to tackle Sir James Craig, and as time passed, the breach between North and South widened. ~ James Mackay
Major General Ennis (with Thompson gun) and Comdt. McCreagh or McCrea
Two of the Rolls-Royce Armoured Cars used by the National Army in 1922, The Big Fella and The Fighting 2nd

Quotes[edit]

  • We beat them in the cities and we whipped them in the streets.
    And the world hailed Michael Collins, our commander and chief.
    And they sent you off to London to negotiate a deal
    And to gain us a Republic, united, boys, and real.
    But the women and the drink, Mick, they must have got to you,
    'Cause you came back with a country divided up in two.
    • Black 47, Big Fellah (1989)
  • We had to turn against you, Mick, there was nothing we could do
    'Cause we couldn't betray the Republic like Arthur Griffith and you.
    We fought against each other, two brothers steeped in blood,
    But I never doubted that your heart was broken in the flood.
    And though we had to shoot you down in golden Béal na mBláth,
    I always knew that Ireland lost her greatest son of all.
  • Black 47, Big Fellah (1989)
  • Fairly restrained by international standards, the Irish Civil War was nonetheless an intense and often cruel war; there is evidence that victims and perpetrators knew each other, and the community's complicity in violence was central to the success of the killing or forcible displacement of the target.
    • Gemma Clark, Everyday Violence in the Irish Civil War (2014), p. 195
  • There is no British Government anymore in Ireland. It is gone. It is no longer the enemy. We have now a native government, constitutionally elected, and it is the duty of every Irish man and woman to obey it. Anyone who fails to obey is an enemy of the people and must expect to be treated as such. We have to learn that attitudes and actions which were justifiable when directed against alien administration, holding its position by force, are wholly unjustifiable against a native government which exists only to carry out the people's will, and can be changed the moment it ceases to do so. We have to learn that freedom imposes responsibilities.
  • The Treaty is already vindicating itself. The English Die-hards said to Mr. Lloyd George and his Cabinet: "You have surrendered". Our own Die-hards said to us: "You have surrendered". There is a simple test. Those who are left in possession of the battlefield have won.
  • After the executions, the families of the dead men were sent a typed pro forma notification. The note for the Cassidy family read as follows: 'I am to inform you that Peter Cassidy was tried by a military court on 8 November 1922. That he was found guilty of possession of a firearm without lawful authority and that he was sentenced to death. This sentence was executed on the morning of 17th November 1922. This practice was challenged in the Dáil but continued throughout the civil war and it became common for parents to learn that their son had been executed through a press release or a typed memo shoved through the letterbox. In Dublin, the public and the Dáil learned of the first executions in the afternoon papers. Later that day there was an emergency debate in the Dáil and the decision to execute was hotly challenged by the Labour opposition and other deputies. Mulcahy justified what was done by what he called the need ti 'stem the tide' of lawlessness. 'These men,' he told the Dáil, 'were found on the streets of Dublin at night carrying revolvers and waiting to take the lives of other men.' They had certainly been tried and convicted of possessing loaded revolvers. It is a reasonable inference that they were not charged with the attack on Oriel House because it could not be proved against them. To be tried for one reason and executed for another would become a common scenario during the war.
    • Seán Enright, The Irish Civil War: Law, Execution, and Atrocity (2019), p. 34
  • The country moved towards the end of 1923: impoverished and riven with bitterness. Control was maintained through censorship and special powers of arrest and internment of those thought to be a danger to the newly established order. The state was still just about in charge of the army but now in the pocket of the Catholic Church hierarchy. It was still not a nation that cherished all its citizens equally and would not be so for very many decades to come.
    • Seán Enright, The Irish Civil War: Law, Execution, and Atrocity (2019), p. 118
  • One of the most contentious policies was the suspended death sentence experiment tried out in Kerry and then apparently abandoned. Very quickly it became clear that the emerging policy was to amass a bank of prisoners under sentence of death: about 400 were under sentence of death at the end of the war. All of these men were hostages for the good behavior of others. When attacks on the National Army took place, the Army Council searched around the bank of prisoners and fixed on those most closely connected with the attackers: executions followed. By the end of the war, eighty-three prisoners had been executed. Most of the executed prisoners were in their twenties or still teenagers. Most held low rank or no rank in the anti-Treaty faction. Apart from the Mountjoy executions only one other prisoner of high rank was executed. Others, like Liam Deasy, were spared because they signed the form and encouraged others to give up the fight. Ernie O'Malley was spared because of his record, although it was said by some that he was so ill that an execution might have drawn unfavorable comparisons to the execution of James Connolly. Pax Whelan, Michael Kilroy and many others of high rank were also spared.
    • Seán Enright, The Irish Civil War: Law, Execution, and Atrocity (2019), p. 119-120
  • In the space of a few months, thousands of anti-Treaty prisoners and those suspected of being so were interned without trial in makeshift prisons and camps. Many of the prisoners were bent on disruption and escape, and their National Army guards had no training for the role of gaoler. Conditions were primitive and chaotic and ill treatment of internees became routine in the civil war. At least four were shot dead during escape attempts and perhaps that is not surprising in a conflict such as this. Four more prisoners were shot dead in prison for infractions of prison rules where there was no suggestion of an attempt to escape or use force against their captors. In addition, seventeen prisoners were killed in the Kerry landmine massacres.
    • Seán Enright, The Irish Civil War: Law, Execution, and Atrocity (2019), p. 123
  • Following the Truce in July 1921, with few exceptions, the officers and men of the three Kerry brigades rejected the Anglo-Irish Treaty. After the Free State army's attack on the Four Courts in late June 1922 at the start of the Civil War, these men again took up arms in defence of their Republic. In a campaign marked by brutality, summary executions and massacres, the Civil War dragged on bitterly for ten months. By the time of Frank Aiken's dump arms order in May 1923, Republican forces in North Kerry had been driven underground. In South Kerry they remained largely intact while fighting a guerrilla war with the invading Free State army which had reached a bloody stalemate. Ultimately the defence of the Republic failed. The defeated Republicans were precluded from employment under the new Free State administration and many disillusioned men to emigrate, largely to America. Those that remained regrouped into various factions. Most followed de Valera and his Fianna Fáil party into the constitutional politics of a twenty-six county state in 1927, while others remained resolute in their commitment to the Republics of 1916 and 1919 and, in the words of Liam Lynch, would 'serve under no other law'.
    • Tim Horgan (editor), The Men Will Talk To Me: Kerry Interviews (2012) by Ernie O'Malley, p. 18
  • As the Treaty terms were being hotly debated in the Dail Eireann- the Irish Parliament- the split in the ranks of the Irish Republican Army widened and flared into open war in the last week of June. Anti-Treaty forces (the 'Irregulars') had occupied the judiciary complex at the Four Courts by the Liffey, and were defying the Provisional Government and refusing to budge. From across the river, the National Army opened fire with artillery- the first shots rang out in a cruel civil war which was to last for two years, but whose effects were to be felt for much longer.
    • Donal MacCarron, Wings Over Ireland: The Story of the Irish Air Corps (1996), p. 15
  • While the buildup of men and machines continued, BF.I was taking an active part in the conflict. Observer/gunners were readily available, these were men who had never flown before but were well experienced in guerrilla warfare, some being veterans of the 1916 Rising. Russell was partnered by a former member of Collins' elite Active Service Unit, when he took off on the first sortie to support ground troops in Wicklow. The aircraft was armed solely with a standard infantry Lewis gun with which the observer engaged the Irregulars, firing it from his hip while dangerously balanced in his cockpit. The lack of armament on this and a second aircraft obtained from the RAF, perhaps underlined the original peaceful plans for the Air Service: its founders had refused guns, ammunition and bombs, which somewhat puzzled the donors. However, after the first sortie, warlike stores were accepted, once it became apparent that a real war was brewing up.
    • Donal MacCarron, Wings Over Ireland: The Story of the Irish Air Corps (1996), p. 15
  • Less lethal loads were also carried: leaflets were dropped to the Irregulars encouraging them to surrender, while copies of the Army journal, An t-Oglac, were showered on friendly troops. Russell established that the racecourses at Limerick Junction and Waterford would be suitable as advanced landing grounds, and he also flew reconnaissance missions from the Fair Green in Limerick City. Here, a landing mishap caused slight damage, which put the 'Brisfit' out of action for several weeks, before a Baldonnel team repaired it expertly in the open. To replace this aircraft, the SE.5a fighter was dispatched to Limerick but, suffering from a faulty compass and falling oil pressure, it landed off course in County Cork. While the pilot, Fred Crossley, sought help, Irregulars came on the scene and, having first removed its machine guns, ignited the aircraft which promptly blew up- it was carrying two 20lb (9kg) bombs! Thus unded the short career of the lone SE.5a, but shortly thereafter, the conflict in the Limerick area ended in victory for the regular troops.
    • Donal MacCarron, Wings Over Ireland: The Story of the Irish Air Corps (1996), p. 15
  • Meanwhile, the base at Baldonnel was singled out for a coup by the 'Irregulars', whose fortunes in the Dublin area were on the wane. They planned to seize the air base with the help of some sympathisers among the garrison. The jumping-off point for the attack was a wood close by the aerodrome, where 25 armed men were to rendezvous with a larger number of unarmed personnel, their task being to transport captured supplies. With the aerodrome secure, a former wartime pilot nicknamed 'The Deacon' (he had advanced to that stage of the Holy Orders before espousing the Republican cause) with an assistant, would commandeer an aircraft and attack Government buildings. The raid completed, the aeroplane was to land on Merrion Strand. In later years, the 'bomb aimer' described the plan as high farce. When he queried his pilot on various matters, 'The Deacon' always had a suitable reply, but when asked about the state of the tide at the time when they would be landing, he confessed that he had forgotten to check. Not surprisingly, when the raid on Baldonnel was cancelled, the young bomb aimer elect was greatly relieved because he had come to the conclusion that 'The Deacon' could not really fly an aircraft! However the aborted raid did result in casualties, three members of the Baldonnel garrison who deserted to the Irregulars for the planned operation, were subsequently captured, court martialled, and shot.
    • Donal MacCarron, Wings Over Ireland: The Story of the Irish Air Corps (1996), p. 15
  • From the beginning Michael was targeted by the anti-Treaty faction and as the sessions wore on the issue became not so much the Treaty itself, but the personal standing of Mick Collins. In the end, and to a very large extent, the voting reflected the love or hatred for him- there could be no half measures- of the individual deputies. During the stormy sessions, Michael was for the most part calm and dignified, even stoical at times; but now and then his famous temper would explode. Strangely enough, or perhaps characteristically, what seemed to rouse his ire most of all was the inability of deputies to arrive for each session on time, there by delaying the start of proceedings. With immense forcefulness he reminded them that punctuality was a great thing. Two factors were immediately apparent: the disagreement was set to divide opinion right across the country, and if Michael were the chief target of opprobrium he was not going to take it lying down.
    • James Mackay, Michael Collins: A Life (1996), p. 230-231
  • Seldom in the history of any country has a single unlucky bullet so utterly altered the course of events. Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to say that Ireland suffers the consequences to this day. Had Michael lived, it is highly probable that he would have brought the civil war to a speedy conclusion and succeeded in healing the breach with the North, leading to the removal of partition which few politicians, from Lloyd George and Churchill downwards, regarded as anything other than a purely temporary measure in 1922. After Michael's death, however, the South had no one with the breadth of vision and the negotiating skills to tackle Sir James Craig, and as time passed, the breach between North and South widened. Michael would almost certainly have prevented the Ulster boundary crisis of 1925, with its tragic consequences for Anglo-Irish relations over the ensuing seven decades. This arose when the report of the Boundary Commission was published, revealing that not an inch of Northern Ireland was to be ceded to the Free State, despite the wishes of at least a third of the inhabitants of the Six Counties. This bombshell reopened old wounds and almost triggered off a renewal of civil war in southern Ireland.
    • James Mackay, Michael Collins: A Life (1996), p. 302
  • The curlew stood silent and unseen
    In the long damp grass
    And he looked down on the road below him
    That wound its way through Beal Na mBlath
    And he heard the young men shouting and cursing
    Running backwards and forwards
    Dodging and weaving and ducking the bullets>br>That rained down on them
    From the hillside opposite.

    Just as quickly as it started the firing stopped
    And a terrible silence hung over the valley
    A lone figure lay on the roadside
    In the drizzling August rain
    Dressed in green cape coat, leggings,
    And brown hobnail boots
    That would never again
    Set the sparks flying from the kitchen flagstones
    As he danced his way through a half-set/

    A hurried whispered act of contrition
    And the firing breaks out again
    The curlew takes to flight
    And as he flies out over the empty sad fields of West Cork
    With his lonesome call
    He must tell the world
    That the Big Fellow has fallen
    And that Michael is gone.
    • Irish singer Johnny McEvoy, in his song Michael (1989)
  • Candles dripping blood, they placed beside your shoulders
    Rosary beads like teardrops on your fingers
    Friends and comrades standing by, in their grief they wonder why
    Michael, in their hour of need you had to go
    Michael, in their hour of need, why did you go?
    • Irish singer Johnny McEvoy, in his song Michael (1989)
  • As the conflict spread many IRA men simply opted out of the fight. Those who remained active found a public that was significantly less supportive than they had been during the opposition to British rule. Another blow to the Republican cause was the attitude of the Catholic Church. While some individual clergymen offered their support to the Republicans, the Catholic hierarchy was extremely hostile to the IRA during the Civil War and actively and publicly supported the Free State.
    • Cormac Ó Comhraí (editor), The Men Will Talk To me: Galway Interviews (2013) by Ernie O'Malley and Cormac K.H. O'Malley (editor), p. 58-59
  • Men reacted differently to their experiences of revolution and rebellion. Recriminations followed defeat in the Civil War and morale collapsed in IRA units. One internal report on the local organization found that 'there is a lot of discontent down there and a lot of it purely personal'. Some still bore the physical scars of conflict. For example, Thomas 'Sweeney' Newell, who was shot by the British during the War of Independence, recalled, 'I was still wearing a steel body jacket with a steel rod attached to it and running down to the heel.' Many veterans spoke little to their families about the events they had been involved in. The son of one IRA volunteer learned about a major aspect of his father's past while reading a book in university. Other veterans veterans devoted considerable time and effort to ensuring that recognition and pensions were received by those who, it was felt, deserved it. For many, bonds of intense loyalty had been created and feelings of respect that lasted decades, even across the bitter Treaty divide.
    • Cormac Ó Comhraí (editor), The Men Will Talk To Me: Galway Interviews (2013) by Ernie O'Malley and Cormac K.H. O'Malley (editor), p. 62-63
  • Many IRA officers also became involved in politics and Fianna Fáil, particularly, continued to be dominated by IRA veterans until the 1960s. Intensely nationalistic, even into old age, a twenty-six-county state failed to satisfy the aspirations of many veterans, even if few took part in or actively supported later IRA campaigns. Referring to partition, Petie McDonnell was to write: 'the cause for which they fought and were willing to give their lives, lives on'.
    • Cormac Ó Comhraí (editor), The Men Will Talk To Me: Galway Interviews (2013) by Ernie O'Malley and Cormac K.H. O'Malley (editor), p. 63-64
  • In comparison to the War of Independence, there was relatively little activity in Clare during the Civil War, but nonetheless Claremen were active on both sides during that conflict. The very first Republican fatality of the Civil War was a Clareman: IRA Volunteer Joseph Considine from Clooney was shot dead by Free State Army soldiers in Dublin on 28 June 1922, shortly after the 'Battle of the Four Courts' began. At least ten IRA Volunteers and three Free State soldiers were killed in Clare during the Civil War, while Commandant Con MacMahon and Volunteer Patrick Hennessy, both natives of Clooney, were executed by a Free State Army firing squad at Limerick Jail on 20 January 1923.
    • Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc (editor), The Men Will Talk To Me: Clare Interviews (2016) by Ernie O'Malley, p. 19-20
  • By the spring of 1923 it was clear to the Republicans that the Civil War was all but over and that the Free State had won. Frank Aiken, the IRA chief of staff, ordered all IRA Volunteers to dump their arms and to cease hostilities against the Free State Army from 30 April. The announcement of the ceasefire was not enough to save the life of Patrick O'Mahony, an IRA Volunteer who was executed by the Free State Army at Ennis Jail the morning after it was announced. Nor did the ceasefire save Christopher Quinn and William O'Shaughnessy, the last two Republicans killed in official Free State executions. Quinn and O'Shaughnessy were shot by a firing squad at Ennis on 2 May 1923, two days after the Civil War had ended.
    • Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc (editor), The Men Will Talk To Me: Clare Interviews (2016) by Ernie O'Malley, p. 20

A History of the Irish Naval Service (1994)[edit]

Aidan McIvor, A History of the Irish Naval Service (1994)

  • The Irish Civil War was not characterised by pitched battles fought between field armies; rather it was quite similar to the previous Anglo-Irish War. However in this campaign the anti-Treatyite fighters faced an Irish army which had the support of an increasing percentage of the population, especially among prosperous farmers and the middle classes who yearned for an end to the anarchy. Most importantly, the Provisional government had the support of the Roman Catholic Church. In this campaign the Army Council exhibited a great deal more tactical and strategic resource and guile than the British in the Anglo-Irish war. In addition, the Provisional government introduced draconian measures to suppress the rebellion, for example, summary execution of suspects without right or recourse to a trial. Seventy-seven Irregulars were executed (twice the number shot by the British), one of whom was Erskine Childers, the man who masterminded the Howth gun-running and who later attended the Anglo-Irish peace talks in London.
    • p. 40
  • The Provisional government's military goal was unambiguous, namely the suppression of armed rebellion by the republicans against the new Free State. To achieve this aim the 4000 strong National Army was quickly expanded to a strength of 60,000. Ten thousand British rifles were handed over to what Winston Churchill called "trustworthy Free State troops." Recruitment was not difficult as the onset of the post-war economic slump had created very high levels of unemployment. Nearly one thousand volunteers a day were recruited, many of whom had former service in the British Army. It was primarily an infantry-oriented army, although separate support arms and services were established.
    • p. 41
  • The first recorded use of military aircraft in the civil war was an air sortie against rebels in Dundalk in August 1922. The Air Service also undertook coastal patrols; the whole coastal area from Waterford to Kenmare Bay was constantly patrolled by Air Service aircraft. The day before the seaborne landings at Cork, Col. C.F. Russell flew over the city to reconnoitre the positions of anti-government forces. The use of military aircraft allowed the Dublin government to patrol the coasts of "rebel Cork," as well as to maintain contact with isolated garrisons, regardless of disrupted inland communications. The anti-Treatyites did not have any military aircraft in service.
    • p. 42
  • Initially the military balance was perilous as the Irregulars held sway over most of the west and south of Ireland. Even in Dublin, they had not been decisively defeated, rather they had gone to ground. The Free State's two main port cities, Limerick and Cork, were under the control of the Irregulars, and the River Shannon was beyond the Dublin government's control. It was General Michael Brennan, the Free State military commander in the Limerick area, who correctly summed up the situation: "the Shannon was a barricade and whoever held Limerick held the South and the West." Gen. Brennan firmly believed and with much justification that the outcome of the Irish Civil War turned on Limerick. The Irregulars, although numerically stronger and in possession of most of the Free State territory, did not move on Dublin. They surrendered the initiative to the National Army's forces and embarked on a systematic plan of destruction of all communications and anything that might be of assistance to the Free State army. In the course of this campaign of destruction, which in the words of the Conference of Roman Catholic Bishops "wrecked Ireland from end to end", the country's transport infrastructure was devastated: 236 bridges were damaged, 468 railway locomotives, carriages and other rolling stock were destroyed. The great railway viaduct over the Blackwater at Mallow linking Cork with the north was blown up. The reign of anarchy, which left factories and creameries destroyed and period mansion houses with their priceless art treasures burnt out, obliged the Provisional government to restore order as quickly as possible. In order to avoid a zone of isolation being created beyond the effective jurisdiction of Dublin, military formations were to be moved by sea thus avoiding a long and possibly costly overland advance.
    • pp. 42-43
  • During the Civil War consideration was given by the British government to using the Royal Navy to help the Free State Army. However, it was decided that such an action was unnecessary and would only embarrass the Provisional government in Dublin. The Royal Navy remained aloof during the conflict, although its presence dominated Ireland's coastal waters.
    • p. 46

External links[edit]

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