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Coming to Grips with Reality:  The Treaty, Civil War, and the Irish Free State - Mary E. Daly

25th November, 2021

Before exploring the difficult and divisive issues relating to the 1921 Treaty and civil war, it may be helpful to reflect for a moment on the remarkable achievement of Dáil Éireann in securing a ceasefire and a treaty with Britain, which was at that time one of the most powerful nations in the world. The very limited devolution that was offered in the 1914 Home Rule Act would have left an Irish Home Rule parliament with significantly less power than the current Scottish Assembly. By contrast the 1921 Treaty gave the new Irish state Dominion Status, similar to that enjoyed by Canada, and at a time when the Dominions were in the process of demanding and securing much greater autonomy, culminating in the 1931 Statute of Westminster.[1] The Treaty also granted the Irish state full fiscal freedom: the freedom to set taxes, including protective tariff and import quotas. This concession was of immense importance for Arthur Griffith, the head of the Irish delegation because for decades he had argued that Ireland should have the power to develop its native industries by means of tariff protection. 

The 1914 Home Rule Act and the 1921 Treaty both evaded the thorniest issue in British-Irish relations: Ulster, leaving the long-term settlement in terms of borders or all-island governance arrangements to be determined later. But it can be argued that the remarkable success of the Irish campaign, both domestically and internationally – a topic covered in Fearghal McGarry’s contribution – may have led to hubris: a belief that anything was possible, including an Irish Republic, however that was defined. Alvin Jackson suggests that in the Treaty negotiations ‘The Irish to some extent became victims of their own aspirations’.[2]

All negotiations involve compromise. De Valera appears to have recognised that some compromise would be needed if a settlement was to be agreed with Britain. In an interview that he gave in February 1920, while in the United States, to the British Liberal newspaper, Westminster Gazette, he countered the fears expressed by some US Congressmen, that an independent Ireland would represent a threat to Britain’s security, by suggesting that Britain could apply a variant of the American Monroe Doctrine to Ireland, stating that any foreign intervention in Ireland would be regarded by Britain as a hostile act.[3] This would have required an independent Ireland to accept the status of permanent neutrality.[4] De Valera’s proposal of External Association: that an independent Irish Republic would freely associate with the British Commonwealth and recognise the Crown as head of the Commonwealth, was a further attempt to reconcile Irish aspirations for independence, with British demands that Ireland must continue to recognise the Crown as its Head of State, but de Valera sat on the side-lines during the Treaty negotiations, and it is not clear that the Irish delegation fully comprehended or accepted the External Association option. 

There is no indication that the members of Dáil Éireann or the rank and file of the IRA were aware that the negotiations would involve some compromises by the Irish delegation, and neither was there any detailed discussion among the Dáil ministry as to what form these compromises might take. Although Dáil Éireann had existed as a legislative assembly from January 1919, meetings were irregular, and poorly attended.[5] For much of its existence members were in prison, on the run, or the Dáil was proscribed, but it would have been possible to debate these topics after the Truce in the summer of 1921, and the Dáil did hold private sessions where this could have happened.[6] Such sessions might have injected a much-needed measure of realism into expectations for the forthcoming negotiations. There were many signals that Britain would not countenance a republic, and that it would insist on residual ties to the Crown and to the Empire. As Fearghal McGarry has explained, Britain regarded these ties as essential, not just for British-Irish relations but to protect the Empire.  There was also a need to recognise that the Irish delegates were facing a team of experienced statesmen, whose negotiating skills had been honed at the Paris Peace Talks.

Britain, unlike Ireland, had determined in advance, through extensive Cabinet discussions, what they were prepared to concede, and what issues were not negotiable.[7] Furthermore, while Dáil Éireann and the struggle for independence had secured widespread international attention and sympathy, Russia, at the time a pariah state, was the only country that had recognised the Irish Republic. The failure to have Irish independence placed on the agenda of the Paris Peace Conference indicated that there was little prospect of securing wider international recognition, let alone support, for an Irish Republic, established in defiance of Britain.

Symbols mattered to both sides. For Britain the Crown was paramount, though by this time, the precise nature of the monarch’s authority in political matters, was ill-defined, but the symbolism mattered. Likewise, the Republic – equally ill-defined – but a term that conjured up the sacrifices of the 1916 leaders – was non-negotiable for many Dáil deputies, and members of the IRA and Cumann na mBan. The committee charged with drafting a constitution for the Irish Free State tried to reconcile these conflicting principles by excluding references to the oath of allegiance and the Treaty from the constitution and by limiting the role of the monarchy to Ireland’s relationship with the British Commonwealth.[8] Article 3 stated that ‘All powers of government are derived from the people of Ireland. All persons who exercise the authority of Saorstát Éireann, whether legislative, executive or judicial do so by virtue of the power conferred on them by the people’.[9] When the Provisional Government submitted a draft of the proposed Constitution to the British authorities on 27 May 1922 the British Prime Minister Lloyd George described it as ‘purely republican in character and but thinly veiled’.[10] The negotiations between British and Irish delegations over the draft Constitution, which lasted for almost three weeks, reprised many of the arguments of the Treaty negotiations. The revised Constitution, which was published on 16 June 1922, included a reference to the oath of allegiance and other symbols of British authority, that Britain had insisted should be inserted. Cahillane claims that these insertions ‘essentially tainted the document in the eyes of the anti-Treaty side’.[11] The irony is that within a decade almost all the residual powers of the British government and the monarchy over the Irish Free State had vanished, with the enactment of the 1931 Statute of Westminster, and in the 1940s, an independent Indian Republic was established which remained a member of the Commonwealth – a case of External Association for Slow Learners, (to mirror the terminology of the late Seamus Mallon).

Leaving Ulster aside, the clause in the Treaty which had the greatest potential to constrain an independent Ireland, was Britain’s retention of three naval bases. These were returned to Ireland in 1938. If that had not happened, Irish neutrality in WWII would not have been feasible.[12] But the implications of these bases for an independent Irish foreign policy were not widely discussed during the Treaty debates – except by Erskine Childers. Only nine out of 338 pages of the Treaty debates related to Ulster, with the contributions coming from deputies with Ulster connections, like Seán MacEntee or Ernest Blythe. Townshend comments that both sides in the Treaty debates detested partition, ‘but both sides expected the existence of Northern Ireland to be short one’.[13]

The extensive Treaty debates and how individual deputies voted have been subjected to detailed analysis by many historians and social scientists, seeking to explain the reasons why deputies voted as they did. It is clear that these decisions were complex, and they cannot be explained by reference to geography, social class, age, or other variables. There was only one coherent voting bloc: – all six women deputies voted against the Treaty. Some of the male deputies who supported the Treaty, dismissed the women as merely ciphers for dead male heroes – a criticism that fails to acknowledge that, with the possible exception of Margaret Pearse, mother of Patrick and Willie, these were women with proven records of involvement in the campaign for independence. The views expressed by the six women deputies were shared by a much wider cohort of women who were active in Cumann na mBan. Seventy-seven women were interned in the aftermath of the 1916 Rising; and approximately 600 were imprisoned during 1922-23, which was roughly ten times the number imprisoned by the British authorities during the War of Independence.[14] These statistics suggest that the years after 1916 saw a dramatic increase in female activism, with a disproportionate concentration of women on the anti-Treaty side. Some of these women are well-known: - Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, Mary MacSwiney, Constance Markievicz, Dorothy McArdle to name a few, but many have been forgotten, and their lives are only now being explored, with the release of the records of the Bureau of Military History and the Military Pensions Files. The strength and passion of women’s opposition to the Treaty suggests that for politically active women, the republic symbolised a break with the past and the promise of significant change.

The Treaty split and the ensuing civil war threatened the existence of the Irish Free State. The bitter divisions within Sinn Féin and the violence and destruction that followed, gave comfort to those who believed that the Irish people were incapable of self-government. In 1919 the editor of Notes from Ireland stated that ‘The cold truth is this: Ireland was not fit for self-government and was never less fit that it is to-day’.[15] Many commentaries, written from a unionist perspective, described the conflict as evidence of Irish barbarity and propensity to anarchy.[16] In the spring of 1922 the British authorities drew up contingency plans for a limited blockade of major Irish ports, cutting off essential fuel and other supplies, to be implemented if the anti-Treaty forces had prevailed.[17] It seems probable that Ireland’s business elite would have welcomed the collapse of the new state and a reversion to some form of subordinate status to Britain. In the years 1922-23, as Ronan Fanning showed, the Irish Free State received more practical support from the British Treasury when it was running out of money, than it did from Irish banks.[18]

            At issue also was the survival of a parliamentary democracy. The history of Ireland during the years 1912-23 is a dialectic between parliamentary democracy and physical force.  The tension between these two strands was evident in the years 1919-21 when an elected assembly, Dáil Éireann, co-existed with the IRA, but the Dáil did not exercise effective control over the military. There was also a secret organisation – the Irish Republican Brotherhood lurking in the background. The results of the 1922 election indicated that many voters wanted to return to some form of normality; it is estimated that over 78% of votes went to parties and candidates that supported the Treaty,[19] though as Diarmaid Ferriter noted, up to 75% of IRA volunteers were reported to have opposed the Treaty settlement.[20] 

For many young men who were active in the war of independence, and were perhaps feted as heroes, normality meant returning to life working on the family farm or family business – subject to the dictates of their parents, or working as urban labourers, perhaps facing unemployment, so it is perhaps not surprising that some were prepared to continue the fight. They were not unique. In the immediate aftermath of World War I, there were many demobilised soldiers scattered throughout Europe, seeking a new role and some new excitement. [21] The Black and Tans were recruited from ex-servicemen,[22] and the large numbers recruited into the Irish national army in 1922 following the outbreak of the civil war included many Irishmen who had fought in World War One.[23] Government victory in the civil war did not end the threat of violence from the IRA and its offshoots or from demobilised and disenchanted members of the national army; this remained a recurring prospect throughout the first decades of the new state. 

There were no real winners in this conflict, with the possible exception of Sir James Craig and the government of Northern Ireland, who were granted the time and space to consolidate unionist rule, including the abolition of proportional representation in local elections, and postponement of the Boundary Commission, while nationalist Ireland fought a bitter war. The emotional and physical consequences of this conflict were momentous, as evident in the stories that Diarmaid Ferriter has related. The cost of repairing the physical damage – on top of the destruction caused during the war of independence, was a crippling burden on the new state, and one that forced the government to adopt a policy of austerity with respect to spending on social and economic development. Mary Cullen noted that ‘one of the most striking features of post-treaty politics in the Irish Free State was the sudden disappearance from the public political arena of many of the women who had become prominent there’.[24] I believe that the intellectually-purist stance taken by so many talented and committed women – who stood by the republic, not just in 1922 but again in 1927 and later – reiterating their determination not to take their seats in Dáil Éireann, had serious long-term consequences for women’s place in Irish politics. Their abstention made it possible for male politicians to indulge in outbursts of misogyny, stereotyping women as incapable of participating in democratic politics. In 1924 P.S. O’Hegarty described republican women as ‘unlovely, destructive-minded, and begetters of violence, both physical violence and mental violence.  Historian Margaret Ward claims that his assessment ‘was shared by each member of Cosgrave’s Cabinet: “We know that with women in political power there will be no more peace”’. [25]

If I had to summarise the story of Ireland in the early 1920s in one word – it would be ‘disillusion’. The heady expectations that were associated with the Irish Revolution – the 1916 Proclamation; the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil; the promises of an end to the degradation of a British-style poor law, and the hopes of landless labourers and non-inheriting farmers sons that they would acquire land, faded away as the new state and its people struggled with the realities of unemployment, poverty, and emigration. One of the phrases that has been widely referenced in the commemorative events held over the past decade, is the emphasis on ‘shared histories’. The history of the Treaty and its bitter and violent aftermath was shared by those who supported the settlement and those who opposed it – evidence that shared histories are not always happy or harmonious. However, from the perspective of a century later, we should all express empathy for the passions that drove those who were involved in the Irish Revolution and their families, and the challenges that they faced when those heady days were over, in adjusting to the mundane and often grim realities of 1920s Ireland.


[1] David Harkness, The Restless Dominion:  The Irish Free State and the British Commonwealth of Nations, 1921-1931, (London: Macmillan, 1969) The 1931 Statute of Westminster abolished the right of the British Parliament to legislate for the Dominions.

[2] Alvin Jackson, Ireland, 1798-1998, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), p.  259.

[3]  Michael Doorley, Irish-American Diaspora Nationalism.  The Friends of Irish Freedom, 1916-1935, (Dublin:  Four Courts, 2005), pp 116-8.

[4]  Joseph M. Curran, The Birth of the Irish Free State, 1921-23, (University of Alabama Press, 1980), pp 44-45.

[5] Mary E. Daly, ‘The First Dail’, in John Crowley, Donal O Drisceoil and Mike Murphy (eds), Atlas of the Irish revolution, (Cork: Cork University Press, 2017, pp 334-9.

[6] Thomas P. O’Neill, (ed), Private Sessions of Second Dáil: Minutes of proceedings 18 August 1921 to 14 September 1921 and report of debates, (Dublin, 1972).

[7] Ronan Fanning, The Fatal Path. The British Government and the Irish Revolution, 1913-1922, (London: Faber, 2013), pp 256-76.

[8] Laura Cahillane, Drafting the Irish Free State Constitution, (Manchester: University Press, 2016), pp, 33-34.

[9] Curran, The Birth of the Irish Free State, p. 202.

[10] Cahalane, Drafting the Irish Constitution, p. 51.

[11] Cahalane, Drafting the Irish Constitution, p. 63.

[12] Michael Kennedy, ‘The Anglo-Irish Treaty, in Crowley et al.(eds), Atlas of the Irish Revolution, pp 642-8.

[13] Maureen Wall, ‘Partition: the Ulster Question, 1916-26, in Desmond Williams, (ed.) The Irish Struggle, 1916-26, (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul); Charles Townshend, The Partition.  Ireland Divided, 1885-1925, (Allan Lane, 2021), p. 209.

[14] Leanne Lane, Dorothy McArdle, (Dublin: UCD Press, 2019), p. 30. John Borgonovo, ‘Cumann na mBan in the Irish civil war’, in Crowley et al. (eds) Atlas of the Irish revolution, pp 698-702.


[15] David Fitzpatrick, Politics and Irish Life, 1913-1921.  Provincial Experience of War and Revolution, (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1977), p. 80.

[16] Frances Flanagan, Remembering the Revolution.  Dissent Culture and Nationalism in the Irish Free State, (Oxford: University Press, (2015), pp 13-14.

[17] Curran, The Birth of the Irish Free State, Appendix IV, p. 294.

[18] Ronan Fanning, The Irish Department of Finance, 1922-1958, (Dublin: Institute of Public Administration, 1958), pp 80-96.

[19] Jackson, Ireland 1798-1998, p. 264.

[20] Diarmaid Ferriter, Between Two Hells. The Irish Civil War, (London: Profile, 2021), p 21

[21]Robert Gerwarth, The Vanquished.  Why the first World War failed to end, 1917-1923, (Oxford: University Press, 2016)

[22] D.M. Leeson, The Black & Tans.  British police and auxiliaries in the Irish war of independence, (Oxford: University Press, 2011), pp 68-71.

[23] Gerry White, ‘Free State versus Republic: the opposing armed forces in the Civil War’, in Crowley, (eds), Atlas of the Irish Revolution, pp 691-2.


[24] Mary Cullen, ‘Women, emancipation and politics, 1860-1964’, in J.R. Hill (ed.), A new history of Ireland. Vol VIII. Ireland 1921-1984, (Oxford: University Press, 2003), pp 864-5.

[25]Margaret Ward, Hanna Sheehy Skeffington. A life, (Cork: Attic Press, 1997), p. 264.