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Machnamh 100: Seminar IV ‘The 1920s’ – Of the Experience ‘from Below’

Áras an Uachtaráin, 25th November, 2021

In my contribution to Machnamh IV, and having heard a fine introductory paper, and responses of an equally fine order, I seek to look at the period ‘from below’, as it were, from the perspective of the varying circumstances of the enlisting volunteer, the fellow family member, with whom the efforts for the achievement of independence were shared; the same family member who might become later the opponent in the Civil War, the circumstances that would lead to one serving the new State through the National Army, and for the other experiencing incarceration in Tintown in the Curragh.

One cannot help wondering if the great flaw in the political discussion of the period is the absence of a discourse as to how minorities are to be catered for in the context of majority rule, be it North or South. There were good grounds for the defence of conscience that a diverse Protestant set of peoples might rightly have held, one that consisted of a resistance to what might be discerned as a strengthening clerical authoritarianism and absolutism of belief in what was to be the Free State.

There was much more than this, however, to what became in Northern Ireland a project of establishment and consolidation of a sectarian state, one with exclusions directed at the minority in terms of the very essentials of life – housing, employment, education and participation itself in the changes in the basic right to vote.

The World War was over, and empires were in flux. Member peoples from various forms of dominion had fought together, including Irish people, under the flag of empire. The majority of those who fought from Ulster now located the defence of all their interests, and indeed privileges, within a victorious empire.

South of this was a state that was, and had become, more clericalist and conservative by the day since 1829 and the achievement of Catholic Emancipation, that by the 1930s would have a profile that could be evaluated as indeed contradicting the individual principles of conscience, not only as might be perceived in the North but by any citizen dreaming of the values of a republic.

The forming of the Volunteers in the North, the import of arms, and the British Government’s acquiescence to it, suggested that a legitimation for a specific form of separation was available. Volunteers were, in response, organised in the South on a wide basis.

What was the class composition of the Volunteers, and how did it differ North and South? When I look at those historical photographs, such as those which appear on the cover of Padraig Yeates’s book, A City in Civil War: Dublin 1921-4, Lorcan Collins’s Ireland’s War of Independence 1919-21, or those other books which depict ‘the fighting column’, I am struck by their youth but also by their dress. The gap between their form of dress with their shirts and braces-supported trousers, the occasional cap, and the later photographs of those hatted representatives sent to London, or delegated later to go to Dublin, to debate the Treaty, is striking. Then, too, there was some self-selection in those who went to Dublin. Back down in the rural areas, among the ranks of the Volunteers or the Flying Columns, it is doubtful if the nuance of all the distinction in forms of separation from empire, or independence, was being discussed by those in such pictures.  

As I look, I cannot help asking how many among them are likely to become proprietors of a farm? How will they, as siblings or neighbours in the future, react to their having being divided, not only by sides taken, but in terms of prospects for the future? In the moment of the photo of the Flying Column they are united, both in circumstance and purpose as well as dress. This bonding will not last, however, and when their stories are recovered, when the War of Independence and Civil War are over, they will tell of more than a great scattering. They will give evidence of the consequences of an inheritance pattern as to land that required not only a scattering, but of lives with different roles. Life as a “relative assisting” would be a lesser life than proprietorship.  

After the War of Independence and the succeeding Civil War, new class divisions will be created, old ones reinforced. Some will go home to make something of their meagre acres. Others will have no choice but to emigrate. Others again will seek some form of employment in the town or with large farmers. Others will sink into poverty.

Some will go on to prosper in the following decades, secure in land, having acquired more, status and reputation, become pillars of society, guardians of respectability, not only for themselves, but as a necessary imposition on others seen as feeble in moral fibre terms, or suspect as to class, and thus deficient in relation to the values the qualifying orthodoxy demanded, sought to impose.

A powerful element that remains as part of the context of the period is land. There is a huge proportion of land from estates yet to be divided. There are those who have identified parts of estates for which they have aspirations of ownership, an ownership not needed quite the same as before for survival, as a previous ancestor might have sought, through a plot for potatoes.

This is hardly surprising. After the Land Acts, proprietors have moved beyond the securing of the plot for survival. It is now about having the means of making a living, of being secure within the confines of respectable status, of aspiration to have even greater respect in the next generations, even perhaps to advance to a position in the diocesan clergy, take advantage of the openings in the civil service, make a breakthrough to the rank of the native gentry in the professional classes, get to bring one’s horse to the hunt – at the basis of it all was land.

Ownership of the farm, having been given to one family member, one female released by an incoming dowry, meant the surplus family members had to become ‘relatives assisting’ or find employment away from home, or indeed emigrate. This was the experience of those such as my father, like so many others from large families. Siblings are united, however, in the War of Independence, sharing a reaction and abhorrence to acts such as those of the Black-and-Tans, and sharing, too, the long memory of the exclusions and humiliations recalled through the generations.

Many would have to go, at a distance, from where they were born. In the 120 years since the Act of Union in 1800, 8 million Irish people had emigrated. In 1901, of those born on the island of Ireland, a majority lived abroad.

In the decade under review, the 1920s, acts of violence, when they occur in relation to land agitation, will be consistently condemned, but the responsibility for them after the Civil War will be frequently attributed to, among others, the newly released detainees after the Civil War, to such an extent that they will be forced to leave their home parishes. This, too, was an experience my father shared.

Through 1924, the numbers seeking to find work abroad chose to opt for the United States, some with permits from the IRA, others without. Emigrating was seen by the IRA as ‘unpatriotic’ and, as Gavin Foster’s work shows, among others, Eamon De Valera was urging Clan na Gael in the United States that non-permit-holders not be allowed membership of such emigrant organisations as itself, with all the ensuing hardship and loss of friendships, and networks of employment, that this involved for such non-IRA-permitted emigrants. This was despite the entreaties of Sean Moylan in 1923, to whom my father would later be writing as to the endless bureaucracy of the pensions system.  

A new Ireland is emerging in the 1920s, and the shape of what will be the 1930s and its extreme authoritarian excesses are what are already discernible. The reformative, inclusive agenda of the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil might indeed be invoked later by De Valera as one of the five campaigning principles for later elections, but that will be a different time, with emigration having become established as an undeniable fact.

There had been a clear mandate given for independence in the 1918 Election, one that was not respected. That Election reflected the public response to the executions, the attempt at introducing conscription, the perceived neglect in terms of health, the poverty of life.

Reflecting on the Truce declared between the British government and the insurgent Irish Republic on the 11th of July 1921, senior civil servant Warren Fisher remarked, “better late than never, but I can’t get out of my mind the unnecessary number of graves”.

Indeed, there were many missed opportunities on the road to the Treaty. Perhaps chief amongst them, war having broken out, was the intervention to mediate by Bishop Joseph Clune, of Perth, Australia, in November and December 1920, which almost led to a ceasefire. The Bishop had extensive talks with senior civil servants and had met Michael Collins in secret.

However, the talks stalled, not so much on the political questions, as on the manner in which violence would be ended before real negotiations could begin. An agreement was almost reached for a ceasefire in December 1920, but foundered on Lloyd George’s insistence that IRA arms be surrendered before any negotiations could start, prisoners would not be released, and existing sentences were to stay in place.

The effective rejection of the Clune proposals was based, too, on the advice of General Macready in Dublin Castle insisting that intelligence was suggesting that a military victory was possible.

The result was six more bloody months, carnage, in which well over a thousand more people would die in the midst of the violence in Ireland. At least half of all casualties in the War of Independence between January 1919 and July 1921 were suffered in those first months of 1921. Weary from war, and the effects of the misnamed ‘Spanish Flu’ of 1918-1920, from the house burnings, shootings, beatings, in particular the rampage of the Black-and-Tans, undisciplined as they were, and the Auxiliaries who were ‘professional’ officers, there can be no doubt that most Irish people were worn out and wanted peace. Yet in families, great risks continued to be taken to support those in dug-outs, in flying columns, or on the run.

The decisive intervention on the road to truce is perhaps that from South African Prime Minister Jan Smuts, who was approached by the Irish to mediate in May. Urging negotiation on both the sides of the Irish Republicans and on the British, it was he and Lloyd George who jointly drafted the widely quoted ‘conciliatory’ speech made by King George V at the opening of the Northern Ireland Parliament, which expressed the hope that “today may prove to be the first step towards an end of strife”. This opened the door to the final negotiations for an end to hostilities.

Smuts, along with southern unionist leader, Lord Middleton, brokered the formal truce, agreed following negotiations between General Macready, Eamon De Valera, Cathal Brugha, Robert Barton and Eamon Duggan in Dublin’s Mansion House on the 8th of July. Both sides agreed to an end to armed attacks, arrests, destruction of property and ‘provocative displays’, to come into effect on midday on the 11th of July. There was, however, to be no release of prisoners, nor evacuation of Crown forces.

As historian John Dorney has pointed out, the Truce did not end violence overnight:

“Indeed in the North, where loyalists feared a sell-out of their position, as Belfast IRA officer Roger McCorley acidly remarked, ‘the Truce lasted six hours only’. In fact, the day before the Truce came into effect was nicknamed ‘Belfast’s Bloody Sunday’ such was the violence there.”

Seventeen people were killed or fatally wounded in Belfast on the 10th of July, and a further three were killed or fatally wounded before the truce began at noon on the following day.

However, in most of Ireland, fighting did cease, and the way was cleared for negotiations. The Truce between the IRA and the British was, in many ways, a long-delayed arrival at a destination mapped out well beforehand.

Smuts had proposed that the speech to be given by King George V in Belfast to open the Northern Ireland Parliament on the 22nd of June should be used to send a message to Sinn Féin, be an act of conciliation. The King readily agreed, and the delivered speech demonstrated a shift in language from the Crown that could be described as little less than a volte face. For almost exactly six months earlier, in a speech in the Westminster House of Commons, the same King had used strong words to attack, what he termed, “the campaign of violence and outrage by which a small section of my subjects seek to sever Ireland from the Empire”. This reflects the importance of the concept of ‘The Empire’ and indeed the symbolism of its Head, something which would later be perhaps under-estimated by De Valera.

The ceasefire that was brokered on the 9th of July, and came into effect on the 11th, was of course widely welcomed. Yet, the Truce was not three weeks’ old before the IRA was warning units to keep amassing ammunition supplies; IRA Commander-in-Chief Richard Mulcahy addressed men in the training camps, warning them that the shooting war would recommence should the talks fail.

Yet, the Truce did hold, and August-September saw the Truce summer give way to the Treaty autumn.

The Treaty debates when they came were difficult, but also impressive in that they comprised a wider and robust stock-taking of the position by the contending parties, through which their differing views of the efforts of the past, parliamentary and otherwise, were laid bare and their hopes for the future were made public.

The focus was placed on the possibilities and limitations of the constitutional options available, but little mention was made of the economy, nor of society in terms of how life would now be impacted, for either the majorities or the political minorities of the population, North or South. It would be much later, too, while he was preparing for entry to the Dáil, that Eamon De Valera would make reference to the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil, indeed perhaps to outflank the Labour Party rather than an indication of any conversion to social radicalism. The fate of southern unionists, too, was essentially ignored in the Treaty negotiations.

Though Sinn Féin had also campaigned to preserve the Irish language, relatively little use was made of this issue in the Treaty debates. The majority of the female TDs – aware of, or anticipating, the fact that what they would now be conceded would be a less than equal role – included some strongly in favour of continuing the war until a 32-county Republic was established.

Personal bitterness also developed at times during the debates, with Arthur Griffith remarking of Erskine Childers: “I will not reply to any damned Englishman in this Assembly”, and Cathal Brugha reminding everyone that the position of Michael Collins in the IRA was technically inferior to his.

The main dispute was centred on the implications of the status that would be attached to ‘dominion’ (as represented by the Oath of Allegiance and Fidelity), rather than existence as an independent republic, but partition, too, was a significant matter for dissent. Ulstermen like Seán MacEntee spoke strongly against the partition clause. The Dáil voted to approve the treaty, but the objectors, including MacEntee, refused to accept it, resulting eventually in a civil war, behind which stood the shadow of a threatening, non-departed and very proximate Empire.

The Treaty itself, for some few observers who had been interested in the general international independence movements, was described as having been procured by coercion and duress. It was, they agreed, being proposed with a view to bringing peace to Ireland, but as we know now, it did not bring peace. Shapurji Saklatvala, MP for the Labour Party and Communist Party, had been the only British MP to speak in the House of Commons against the Treaty. Speaking as an anti-imperialist, he defined the Treaty as an act of British imperialist coercion.

On the King’s Address to Parliament, on the 23rd of November 1922, Saklatvala remarked:

“Either we are actuated by the motive of restoring thorough peace in Ireland or we are doing it as partial conquerors in Ireland. Everyone knows that the Treaty has unfortunately gone forth as the only alternative to a new invasion of Ireland by British troops. As long as that element exists, the people of Ireland have a right to say that the very narrow majority which in Ireland accepted the Treaty at the time, accepted it also on this understanding: that if they did not accept it, the alternative was an invasion by the Black-and-Tans of this country. The Irish Treaty all along continues to suffer in Ireland from the fact that it is not a Treaty acceptable to the people as a whole.”

Republican socialist Peadar O’Donnell was another of those who opposed the Treaty on such structural grounds as the unfinished and unequal nature of land distribution.

It is striking how there has been, in the early historiography, such little space given for structural analysis, change or its debate. North and South, there seemed to be more traction from a politics of fear. In the 1930s, the politics of fear would come to full assertion with the threat of Communism becoming a shared tactic of Church and constitutional politics.

O’Donnell believed that the IRA should have adopted the people’s cause and supported land re-distribution and workers’ rights. He blamed the anti-Treaty republicans’ lack of support among the Irish public in the Civil War on their lack of a social programme. This was indeed a view supported by some republicans, notably Liam Mellows.

It is striking, however, how the structural forces of land, commercial and professional prosperity, respectability of status, belief and behaviour, bears none of the inclusiveness of Wolfe Tone’s or the Young Irelanders’ vision of what a Republic in the French sense, in terms of values, might constitute.  The authoritarian tendencies of the projects North and South had similarities, but were moving in the composition of their fundamentalisms ever further from each other – to give space to the excesses of each, as it were.

As to the legacies of the fighting, with all of the peace options having been lost, the War of Independence had resulted in the deaths of approximately 2,300, and the succeeding and devastating Civil War resulted in perhaps as many as another 2,000 casualties, with a legacy on all sides of some appalling violence on civilians as well as combatants.

Those who left the army on both sides were left in a perilous pecuniary state, often deeply disenfranchised, with some returning into farming small and often poor plots of land, others returning to the trades, where it was allowed for them to return.

When consideration of pensions for service in the War of Independence commenced, the State set about devising ways in which to define what we might call ‘deservingness’, a concept John Whelan has developed in his book, Welfare, Deservingness and the Logic of Poverty: Who Deserves?. Pensions were denied to many of those who had fought, often on the grounds of gender, class or political allegiances. This ‘deservingness’ may have been a Poor Law legacy, but it could also now be a mask for clientelist and discriminatory practices.

As to gender, for example, women, who had played an important, perhaps even decisive, part in the War of Independence, were pushed aside after the independence struggle in which they participated. The large majority of Cumann na mBan members who were against the Treaty is perhaps to some extent a reflection of this, or perhaps their radicalism is like that of the women of the Land League who knew what form of inclusive independence was meaningful for families.

Inequality widened in all the decades that followed. Some did well, finding employment within the State, where advancement could be clientelist, including also those in the professions, governed by networks of access and class. For others, the employment might be in the trades, or working for larger farmers who were now organising and who were given the support of the IRA on occasion to oppose the demands made by trade unions on behalf of agricultural workers for better conditions. Trade unions were leading opposition to the wage cuts being demanded by some organised large farmers in places such as Waterford.

Others less fortunate had stark choices: emigration or enforced poverty. Patterns of land inheritance and distribution, now enforceable by title, resulted in, as Professor Joe Lee put it, “families giving way to fields”. Pat McNabb in the Limerick Rural Survey has given details of how the non-inheriting males resented this system and discussed among themselves the consequences of their inferior status, even in martial prospects, to the sons of labourers. Emigration was, thus, now widely seen as an alternative to a lower status existence on land with which they may have had a familiarity, but could never be their own. It would be several decades more before Church or State would define their views on the acceptability of emigration.

The Civil War divided my father’s family, all of whom served in the War of Independence in Counties Clare and Cork. My uncle Peter went on to serve in the National Army from 1922 to 1925, taking part in the handover of Renmore Barracks, Galway. My father would spend most of the year 1923 as an internee in what was known to the prisoners as Tintown 3, in the Curragh camp. The Pension files record his long and exhausting battle for a small pension, which was eventually granted in 1956, eight years before his death and almost 22 years after his first application, in 1935.

What were the choices of those who were not allowed to return to the practice of their trade? There was always the option of the boat, or if you could get a previously indentured rental space, you could use those skills acquired on an indentured apprenticeship to bar, grocery or retail trade to attempt to become a publican, open a shop, and maybe find a way out of poverty.

In the new circumstance it would seem to be important to recognise the distance that now prevailed between those perceived as being the reasonable beneficiaries of the new arrangements, and those regarded as ‘the wild ones’, of whom conservatives would suggest defects of character should have been recognised so much earlier when they were being identified as ‘irregulars’.

It was easy to marginalise those now divided, who were previously brothers, and in families there were those who would have to survive, now in the new circumstances, that meant they could never again be brothers in the way that they had been as youngsters, sharing those memories of recounted humiliations, borne through the generations, transmitted to them, and those times too when together they shared the hopes of a time to come, of shared joy, music, dancing and marriage perhaps, and the requirements of achieving independence. It would be future generations that would be given such opportunities, together with new challenges, disappointments and hopes. Yet their lives and their efforts were the ones that led to an independence that was neither gifted nor conceded easily.

Yes, we must revise our history, continually, endlessly, taking on board new facts and perspectives. However, we must not abuse the process in any way such as would allow either evasion or misuse of history. We must accept the challenges of our time, exercise our freedom to make an inclusive present and sustainable future, unburdened we must be of any distortions or abuses of versions of the past.

Respecting the past in its full complexity and diversity of interpretation, the allowing of respect where it has been earned at a cost, is a necessary preparation for a shared, ethical, inclusive future for us all. We have to take responsibility for our own present and its enabled future in our present complexity.

As we continue to remember this period in our nation’s history, and seek to do so ethically, and with moral purpose, let us do our recall in a manner that allows for an inclusive reflection, open to all sides, including those who left our shores, those left below, and those who were left in a minority status, North or South, to suffer discrimination in any aspects of life.

Míle buíochas is beir beannacht