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‘Interpreting the Period 1922 to 1926 in Irish History:  Influences and Consequences’

Machnamh 100 – Seminar V, 26th May, 2022

The events of the period 1922 to 1926 are among the most important in modern history – not only in terms of how they fell out, and the consequences that flowed from them, but in what they tell us about the assumptions they carried, about independence, of the balance between parliamentary possibilities and military action, of the hold of empires and the force of a mythic dream of independence.

Where a balance was won, had to be struck, it was one too that accommodated overt and covert strategies, and within each an ongoing tension as to the value of radical or accommodating projects in relation to the release from empire, or accommodation within it.

One cannot avoid, I feel, reflecting on what lives might have been saved, relationships allowed to survive and develop, had the express will and vote of the vast majority of the people of the island for independence in 1918 been accepted and acted upon. 

We have our independence because it was fought for.  Yet neither the war with an empire, that the majority had voted to leave, nor a later civil war on the implications of the conclusion of The Treaty, was inevitable.

The decisions on the forms of independence were not strictly for the making by Irish people, with their differing perspectives.  They were being influenced by imperialist thinking, one that saw the cohesive value of loyalty to a crown, a perspective perhaps underestimated in Irish negotiations. 

There was too a huge difference, beyond geography, between those who had, within empire, experienced the benefits of an industrial revolution and its class conflicts, and those struggling for survival, for land, within a landlordism, that while it held ownership of land, in part as a means of status advancement in the society at the heart of empire, a society that viewed them as landowners to be on occasion visited in their demesnes, but not, on any terms, to be regarded as equals.

As to understanding the period, we are fortunate to have available to us now a rich vein of new scholarship, from new or neglected perspectives that can be added to the seminal work of Irish and American scholars in leaner times of publication.

In preparing my own contribution, I have drawn on some of these, having had of course the benefit of a brilliant, scholarly, informed, original paper from Professor Brendan O’Leary of the University of Pennsylvania, and excellent responses from Professor Henry Patterson of the University of Ulster, Professor Lindsey Earner-Byrne of University College Cork, and Dr. Theresa Reidy, also of University College Cork.

I have been enormously indebted to Eileán Ní Chuilleanáin’s work on the diaries of Joseph Campbell 1922/1923 entitled, As I Was among the Captives, published as part of the Irish Narratives series edited by the late David Fitzpatrick.

I immediately state a personal interest, as my father, John Higgins, was interned in Tintown in the Curragh and released at the same time as Joseph Campbell in December 1923.

I should say that my father’s brother Peter was, at this time, in Renmore Barracks, Galway, in the National Army.  My aunts were on a small farm in County Clare. 

They did not take sides in the Civil War but sent parcels with cakes, cigarettes and items of food or clothes to those interned, while also seeking news of possible releases from local senior Free State figures.

I believe Joseph Campbell’s Diary is incredibly important.  As Eileán Ní Chuilleanáin points out in her introduction, it is written by somebody who “was already a well-known literary figure at the time of his imprisonment and the writing of the diary”.

Born in Belfast, he had spent time in what was the South-Ulster Gaeltacht, and had experience too of all of the current literary movements, including modernism, which he discussed in the huts with Seán a Chóta and Francis Stuart, fellow prisoners.  Older than most internees, he was also exceptional in educational or social background terms. 

The majority of those interned were, for the most part, experienced in the underclass of city life – insecure non-inheriting sons from small farms, the trades, with bar and grocery strongly represented.

It is from being among them, including the sharing of their lost hopes, that Joseph Campbell has left us a daily account that is sensory, deeply moving.

It demonstrates the influence of his knowledge of, and respect for, works such as that of Dostoevsky.  His references to James Joyce’s method of recording the minutiae of sensory experience is contemporary to Joyce.

I was particularly interested in the period of the diary from Frank Aiken’s announcement of the end of the Civil War, on 24th May 1923.  All is lost for the internees.  On 3rd June 1923 there is an outburst of recrimination as to bad leadership and tactics, from Seán a Chóta, himself of course a diarist in the Irish language.

However, it is the experience of the month-long unsuccessful hunger strike in 1923 that reveals most the vulnerabilities on the part of internees, and the incredible cruelty on the part of those running the internment camp.

For those incarcerated, and who have lost, what concerns them most in 1923 is the uncertainty of their position.  Rumours of release circulate.  Newspapers are scrutinised for a hint.  Sometimes the rumours have been circulated by the authorities, such as the rumour during the hunger strike that if those remaining on it go off it, all internees will be released. 

In this short address, I must leave over the detail of what is little less than an anthropology of those from all parts of the island of Ireland who, for a variety of reasons, were incarcerated for the danger they were perceived as representing to the new State. 

Their prospects on release were grim.  If, a decade later, in preparation for power in 1932, representations from a newly-constructed Fianna Fáil would be sent to every parish to seek out IRA activists who had aspirations to get additional land, there would be no land on offer in 1924 for internees, nor for many, such as my father, would there be any prospect of a return to their jobs in the trades.

Responding to this, many of those trained in bar and grocery, for example, sought, after release, to rent a space to open a small business, thus making a job for themselves.  Representations by fellow workers for them to be allowed to return to work had fallen on deaf ears.

It would be similar in relation to the agricultural workers who had lost their employment, with the division of demesne land, the flight from, and the burning of, big houses.

Emigration was the option envisaged by many, but not easily accessed, and a change had to be forced in the permit system run by the IRA.  Without permission it was forbidden, seen as being "unpatriotic", to emigrate – and organisations like Clann na nGael in the United States were instructed that only those with IRA permits should be ‘allowed in’. 

This prohibition, despite letters from Seán Moylan and others, would prevail until July 1925 when the haemorrhage of those leaving was so great, thousands had left, that the Ard Cómhairle had to give way.

For those who stayed, unemployment was what beckoned.  Worse than unemployment itself was the fact that their character was blackened.  Their names would be handed in to the newly-formed police as suspects for the land agitation which was spreading and which the Churches as well as conservative politicians were titling ‘Bolshevism’.

For this reason my father had to leave his home parish and experience his unemployment of 1924 elsewhere.  The hunger for land, any land, more land, was widespread.

Professor Terence Dooley draws on the statistical sources on land ownership for the period.  By 1923 there were around 114,000 farms, comprising roughly 3,125,000 untenanted acres still to be transferred.

Professor Dooley quotes Kevin O’Higgins’s speech in the Dáil of 14th June 1923 when he spoke of ‘land grabbers’:

“They cannot have law and violence.  They cannot have an Act and their own plunder and, insofar as it can secure it, I will see that they do not have it […]

and by the time this Bill reaches its final stages, I hope to be able to assure the Dáil that there is not in any county over which we have, for the time being, responsibility and jurisdiction, one acre of land in the possession of any person but the legal owner.”

Terence Dooley’s Burning the Big House: The Story of the Irish Country House in a time of War and Revolution is a valuable, detailed, scholarly study of the experience of those in the country houses during the conditions of the War of Independence, when some were burned, and the Civil War when many more were burned. The context in which the occupants of those houses found themselves is well traced.

However, the immediate threats of the 1920s have to be placed in a larger and longer context of decline that begins with the first of the Land Acts in 1881.

Professor Dooley gives us a picture of landlordism in the 1880s.

Using K.T. Hoppen’s 500-acre threshold for admission to the landlord class, and drawing on a return of Irish landowners for the 1870s, Dooley enumerated and categorised landlords in Ireland as follows:

Those owning between 500 and 1,000 acres: 2,683 persons;  

1,000 to 2,000 acres: 1,788; 

2,000 to 5,000 acres: 1,225;

5,000 to 10,000 acres: 438;

above 10,000 acres: 303.

While this structure of ownership was carrying huge debt, it could never be sustainable.  Its decline is in stages from the 1880s. 

That decline will also be affected by those leaving, and by the loss of inheriting sons in the World War when it comes.  Then, too, a decrease in the release of funds from the British Government for land purchase, during the war, made it difficult to agree terms of purchase, with bonds yielding less than the War Bonds.

By the end of the 1920s, the agricultural labourers are now being opposed by organised large farmers.  Many labourers have of course emigrated.

Those agitating are being referred to, from such ranks as the graziers and others, as ‘Bolshevists’. 

The graziers, who have deflected the fury of those yet to get land on to the undistributed demesne lands, are themselves increasing their holdings.

Former militants in particular are angry, and they have their advocates in the Dáil.

Professor Dooley quotes a Dáil speech of the time:

“There is one class who seems to be nobody’s children and they are the ex-army men of the Old Volunteers.  I think if any class of people are entitled to consideration as regards land, they have first claim, because the Act of 1923 would not have been in existence at all, and we would not be here, were it not for them.

They seem to have been forgotten in every department, and I hope when the Minister sends his inspectors out that he will give them directions to have these men given special consideration.”

How much land was involved?

We do know, Professor Dooley tells us, referring to a British Government’s 400-page return of untenanted lands in the rural districts of Ireland in 1906, which distinguished 1,679 demesnes on which there was a ‘mansion’ and calculated that their owners – the vast majority of whom were aristocrats as defined here, with a respectable smattering of gentry, clergyman, merchants and professionals – continued to hold approximately 2.6 million acres of demesne and untenanted lands across the 32 counties. 

To quote Dooley:

“Big Houses did not look out of place as long as they continued to be surrounded by hundreds of acres of demesne and parkland.”

By way of contrast, and the contrast explains much, in relation to land hunger and land agitation, it is worth noting that by 1917, of the 572,574 holdings in Ireland, 112,787 were less than 1 acre, while 123,129 holdings were comprised of more than 15 but less than 30 acres.

Land hunger was of course a constant.  In the 19th century George Bermingham could write of a shopkeeper replying to his question as to how the vote on Home Rule had gone in the Commons the night before.

The reply was quick – “To hell with Home Rule.  It is the land we are after”.

While politicians in Dublin hurled abuse about forsaken principles and fealty to the British Crown, in rural Ireland people waited for the sanctioned transfer of their farms, and many more for the redistribution of untenanted and demesne lands. 

Some became impatient, as Dooley notes:

“At the beginning of the Truce period, the County Inspector of Tipperary reported: ‘The hunger for land is great, those who are landowners want more, while those who have none and who have been gunmen, believe that the estates of Loyalists, such as Kilroy, once cleared, will be divided amongst them’.

Standing as background then to the events of 1922-26 are a number of forces that would influence the choices made, policy and responses to a change that was imposed rather than chosen.

Of these the hunger for land is prominent.  Yet, there is too the huge variation in what was sought as independence.  There was an obvious difference among those seeking it, as to the means by which it would be achieved.

It was not a binary choice between parliamentary or military means.  Within each was a spectrum of radical or accommodating positions and projects in relation to achieving an exit from empire.

Development of a policy of full separation, on the releasing of any of its dependent parts, was not an attribute of empire, even when formally conceded. 

Institutional legacies too are left, not perceived as any detritus by those who now hold power, but rather as essential aspects of a gifted modernisation that is not to be questioned.

Following Memmi it is not difficult for the colonised and the coloniser to see their reflection in each other.  The insults exchanged in the Civil War demonstrate this, with the former comrade now an enemy.

It can be seen as the reflection of the coloniser lodged in both former comrades, now fighting, antagonists, who previously avoided this lodgement in each by having a shared enemy. 

A striking feature of those interned is their marginalisation, be it in terms of their occupation, their language.  They are from the edges of the property-owning clericalist society that now defines what is "respectable".

The gap between the ethos, the discourse, of the formal talks, be it from Truce to Treaty to surrender of arms, and the daily experience and discourse of those incarcerated, seems unbridgeable.

The diary entries of Joseph Campbell or of Seán a Chóta show this.  They reveal a resentment at the recollected absence of formal military leadership which was a source of failure.  This recollection will, in time, be countered by later texts which offer a heroic version of events, events which are not recalled in any similar way by those incarcerated.

This experience of 1923 to 1924 will not be followed by any reaching out, effort at inclusion of the broken, the losers.  The processing of the later pension applications is humiliating.  We get a minimalism that is forced on applicants by the bureaucratic structure of the application process, one which excludes any full narrative of events.  That bureaucratic ritualism is there in the questions.  The applications will, until the intervention of a concerned senior civil servant, be conducted as a box-ticking exercise. 

Understated in the history perhaps is the reference by the applicants to the poverty that they, the applicants are experiencing. 

The role of women in the independence struggle, far from being recognised, is revelatory of a misogyny which is exposed, not only in the treatment of pension applications, but in the interpretation of the revolutionary women’s speeches and their vote against the Treaty. 

One might reasonably speculate indeed if that is not an explanatory factor in the long delay on according rights to women, including within the context of the Constitution.

Is there any evidence of a transcending vision such as that allowed in the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil?

The vision that predominates is for the stability sought for property ownership, acquiescence in clerical control, respectability in the person, the family, the community.

Constitutions frequently come out of revolutions, and accordingly they tend to deal not just with the relatively prosaic matters of government organisation, but they have often, too, attempted to encompass a people’s spirit and values, a sense of the nation and of its citizens, as well as setting out the fundamental principles which were to govern the state’s laws and institutions.  An alternative view, such as that of Sartori, is that brevity in constitutions achieves certainty in an easier way. 

The Democratic Programme of the First Dáil had a visionary character.  However, as enacted in 1922, the Constitution of the Irish Free State was dictated in form and content by the requirements of the Anglo-Irish Treaty that had been negotiated between the British government and Irish leaders in 1921.

Saorstát Éireann consisted of 83 separate articles, totalling just 7,600 words.

The drafting committee had considered the inclusion of economic and social rights in the Irish constitution.

American labour lawyer Clemens James France, who assisted in the Constitution’s drafting, proposed, for example, provisions to ensure state control of natural resources, and further proposed that the state would capture the “unearned increment” arising from land value increases, thereby impeding speculation in land and promoting investment in industrial development.

Then too during the parliamentary debates on the constitution, Labour TDs such as Tom Johnson and T.J. O’Connell proposed the inclusion of modest welfare measures as well as provisions to protect children’s rights.  These proposals met with opposition.

UCD professor of economics, George O’Brien, as well as others, including Archbishop John Harty of Cashel, both questioned the social provisions’ economic and political viability, stating that such provisions carried the potential to alienate conservative, land-owning supporters of the Treaty.

Agitation by the landless across Europe and their seeking of the overthrow of authoritarian structures, their many expressions of emancipatory possibilities were known to each other by actionists across Europe and beyond. 

The Church was already directing labels of Bolshevism at the Labour and Trade Union Movement.  Tom Johnson’s or Labour’s condemnation of non-judicial executions brought, not any thanks, but death threats, from Liam Lynch on behalf of anti-Treatyites.

Issues of land remained omnipresent.  The Land Commission continued to redistribute farmland in most of Ireland, with untenanted land subject to compulsorily purchase orders, lands which were nominally to be divided out to local landless families, but in the execution this was applied unevenly across the State, with an emerging movement from IRA networks claiming that they who had driven out landlords were being ignored.

As to the 1922 Constitution itself, British law officers, operating under Lloyd George’s government, had further objected to the “Soviet character” of the Constitution’s declaration of “economic sovereignty”.

Ultimately, in what can only be interpreted as a significant missed opportunity, with lasting and far-reaching consequences on Irish society for decades to come, but in so many senses unsurprising, the Provisional Government dropped the offending provisions.

As to social policy then, the 1922 Constitution was limited to two “programmatic declarations” only, one specifying a pre-existing right to elementary education (Article Ten) and the other providing for the possibility of state ownership of national resources (Article Eleven).

It is important too, in our decade of commemorations, to realise that while there has been a reluctance, in the early days of the State, to put the events of this period through a formal commemorative lens in the fullest sense of recovering all of the pain, the violence, avoidable and unavoidable, the experience was real and damaging.  It stayed on in the lives of those impacted. 

Their pain was passed on in many cases, generating consequential pain suffered frequently in silence.  That silence would be contradicted by those who addressed their experience in a secondary way, in fiction yes, but really not at much of a distance.

I believe that Síobhra Aiken’s Spiritual Wounds: Trauma, Testimony and the Irish Civil War more than adequately disposes of the over-generalised suggestion that silence on the Civil War was general.

Her work, be it on the fiction, biography or stories of the decades that followed the Civil War, gives further strength to my own long-held belief that there are just so many instances where literature gives us the lived and sensory experience that a narrowed theoretical model in the social sciences, or indeed the historiography, has allowed. 

Her critique, for example, of the work of Annie M.P. Smithson, including the career of how Walk of a Queen was received, is an example of this.  So much of what was written was an indirect attempt to recover, imagine, compensate perhaps, or even transact what was experienced but, given the social milieu, had better be left unsaid. 

It was not only among the landless or the unemployed ex-internees that division would be sown, opportunities for solidarity lost.

In cities like Belfast, where one of the positive consequences of the industrial legacy was a strong working class culture that had within it a trade union militancy that sought to prevent and reduce sectarian action against fellow workers.

However, that working class culture too would come to be divided, and significant parts of it captured by bigotry, with appalling consequences for the minority, and indeed a bigotry that would be a poison transmitted, resurrected, but now, thankfully, being rejected.

In the South, an authoritarian version of religion was claiming obedience in matters not only of the spirit, but of the body and life itself, and having it conceded to it, influence and hegemony in many of the institutions of the State. The appalling 1930s would be indeed a carnival of reaction, small-mindedness, repression and abuse.

The authoritarian abuses North and South were moving the people ever further away from each other.  The shell of each of the authoritarian systems was hardening, seemed impermeable.

Change has come, if too slowly, too late, for many.  We must welcome and sustain those cracks that have let in the light, that have led to communities beginning to see and understand the incubus for violence which these authoritarianisms constitute.

We are ceasing to see the necessity for abuses to be directed at each other.

We are beginning to appreciate the need and satisfaction that comes from narrative hospitality and decency in discourse.  All of that is precious.  It is what offers hope.  

Go raibh míle maith agaibh.