A century ago this month, two icons of Irish history – Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith – died as a result of the Civil War.
Numerous events commemorating the Civil War will be held in the coming weeks.
Today is exactly 100 years to the day since the death of Griffith, a man described by Leo Varadkar as “a thought leader and among the founders of the Irish state, he was truly the ‘father of all'”.
The Tánaiste also said Griffith was “a man devoted to Irish liberty, and at last laid down his health and his life. He was a tireless, thoughtful and relentlessly determined leader who literally worked himself to death to liberate Ireland.”
He added: “His untimely death was truly a ‘disaster for Ireland’ as described by Michael Collins who of course joined him shortly thereafter in that desperate fate.
One of the brave dreamers of the Irish state
“Today we remember him as one of the brave dreamers of the Irish state, a man with a vision of what Ireland could be and the courage and determination to work to make it happen.”
Collins died in an ambush by IRA men who were comrades weeks earlier, while Griffith died of a series of health problems caused by deep despair over the growing conflict, which was dividing families and communities.
Like most complex tangles, it can be broken down into many intertwined but simple parts.
1. The contract is accepted
After two and a half years of fighting between Great Britain and Ireland, an armistice was agreed on July 11, 1921, which led to negotiations in the autumn. The Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed on 6 December 1921 and was narrowly adopted by the new Cabinet – by a vote of four to three – and in the Dáil by a vote of 64 to 57.
But a significant minority of IRA activists vehemently opposed the settlement. The road to civil war, which few on either side wanted, was mapped out.
2. How to avoid “a war of brothers and sisters”.
Many of the men and women who engaged in the struggle for independence had been comrades for years, even decades. There were strong family, marital, school and local ties, and few wanted to fight each other. There were talks and even an electoral pact between the two sides for a general election on June 8, 1922.
But those opposed to unity with Britain were convinced it was “a betrayal” of everything everyone had fought for. Some anti-Treaty forces seized the Four Courts on April 13, 1922. Under British pressure, the Free State Army reacted against them at 4 a.m. on June 28, 1922, beginning the Civil War.
3. The “Oath and dominion”
The anti-treaty side had three major objections to the settlement: Ireland would not be a republic as proclaimed at Easter 1916; it would be a Free State with Dominion status within the British Empire, comparable to Canada, Australia and other countries; and the British monarch would remain head of state and Irish officials would swear an oath of allegiance to the crown.
The Partition of Ireland, which ceded six northern counties to the United Kingdom, was also annoying. But that was already political reality. The partition received little mention and was seen by many as “temporary”.
4. Death and Destruction
There is no official death toll from the Irish Civil War, which began in June 1922 and ended essentially in May 1923. Early estimates of up to 4,000 dead have since been revealed to be exaggerated.
The destruction of roads, bridges, railroads and other infrastructure was colossal
The new Irish national army – defending the government and the treaty – has seen around 800 dead. The number of deaths among “irregular” or anti-treaty fighters was estimated at 400.
Historians say this appears to match official records of murders, which put the number at nearly 1,200 during this period.
Also note that the population of the new state was less than three million people. The destruction of roads, bridges, railroads and other infrastructure was colossal and placed an enormous additional burden on an impoverished fledgling state.
5. The “Women and Children” faction.
Most who unsuccessfully resisted the treaty, including Éamon de Valera, withdrew from the Dáil. The women’s section of the IRA, Cumann na mBan, had played a major role in the Revolutionary War.
Cumann na mBan was the first major Republican group to reject the treaty. Leading members included wives and relatives of martyrs of the struggle such as Kathleen O’Callaghan, wife of assassinated Limerick Mayor Michael O’Callaghan, and Mary MacSwiney, sister of hunger striker Terence.
Another leading figure was Erskine Childers, born in England but to an Anglo-Irish mother. As the debate turned sour, supporters of the treaty derisively dubbed their opponents the “women and children’s faction”. This chauvinism was to haunt the new state for generations.
6. Collins vs. Dev
Éamon de Valera was the last surviving commander of the 1916 rising and an automatic leader of the Irish independence fighters. His conduct during this period is often bitterly criticized for being a nominal leader of the anti-treaty people but not taking an active part in the civil war.
Michael Collins signed the treaty with great reluctance but staunchly defended it as a means of gaining full independence.
He was killed in an ambush in his native West Cork a century ago this month, aged just 32.
One of the prominent legacies of this era is a recurring debate about the two men.
7. Mutual atrocities and summary executions
When people start killing their own relatives, things quickly escalate into atrocities, followed by another atrocity in retaliation. There are accounts of horrific murders in the annals of the Civil War.
A total of 77 people were killed without trial
Two random examples happened in Kerry, but similar things happened in many other places. In September 1922, two Kenmare pro-contract brothers, Thomas and John ‘Scarteen’ O’Connor, were killed in their home. In March 1923, eight Republican prisoners were killed by Free State bombs in a particularly brutal incident at Ballyseedy, outside Tralee.
Free State Government Attorney General Kevin O’Higgins ordered the execution of prisoners violating the treaty. A total of 77 people were killed without trial. These atrocities were burned into the nation’s soul.
8. The contract was “dismantled”, but the division remained
The only feature of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1922 that endured was partition. British Prime Minister David Lloyd George promised a Boundary Commission would resolve any issues surrounding the creation of Northern Ireland’s six counties.
The commission reported in 1925 and recommended only minimal changes. The division was to remain while the other big issues – dominion status and oath – were downplayed and eliminated.
The actual political consequences were not recognized in 1922.
9. Lasting legacy a century later
The Treaty schism gave Ireland its political party structure, with the pro-Treaty Cumann na nGaedheal, later Fine Gael, and the anti-Treaty Fianna Fáil. Three generations later, these political giants still commanded eight out of ten voters.
Even today, stories of atrocities still stir anger
The party structure remains the same, at least in nominal terms, but an important change occurred in June 2020 when both parties joined a coalition government for the first time.
Bitter memories lingered well into the decades that followed, and even now tales of atrocities evoke anger.
10 A Difficult Commemoration
We are nearing the end of a decade of centenary commemorations for the years 1913-1923, which largely celebrated the path to Irish citizenship.
There is little to celebrate and much to lament about the Civil War. Let’s hope the lessons are approached honestly but with some kindness.
https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/the-only-10-things-you-need-to-know-about-the-irish-civil-war-41906519.html The only 10 things you need to know about the Irish Civil War