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Irish Civil War

The War of Independence was initiated in January 1919 by a number of young, determined Volunteer leaders. They were convinced that a republic could only be gained by force. By necessity, they adopted a guerrilla campaign. They were organised initially into small independent units which launched frequent low-level surprise attacks. Michael Collins played a pivotal role. He provided the Volunteers with funds, arms and equipment. His most critical contribution lay in the provision of intelligence. However, given the nature of guerrilla warfare, it was the individual Volunteer units who made the greatest contribution.

During the war 15,000 Volunteers were actively involved, with around 3,000 in service at any given time. From the autumn of 1919 the force had sufficient strength to attempt more spectacular actions and now became known as the Irish Republican Army. The best known of these took place on 21 November 1919, ‘Bloody Sunday’, during which 19 suspected British Army intelligence officers were shot. By late 1920 the force had been organised into ‘flying columns’ – mobile units of about 100 men, based in remote camps or safe houses. By the middle of 1921 the British government became amenable to a political settlement and on 21 July a truce came into operation.

The Anglo-Irish Treaty, negotiated during the truce and signed on 6 December 1921, caused deep divisions within nationalist Ireland, and did not end the violence. The treaty effectively confirmed the partition of Ireland, setting up the Irish Free State in the south while Ulster remained part of the United Kingdom. Those who favored acceptance argued that the powers it granted made it worthy of support and the only alternative was renewed war with Britain. The Treaty’s opponents criticised it most for its failure to achieve the status of a republic for Ireland. Debates in the Dáil on the Treaty became bitter and personal.

Eamon de Valera had not been party to the Treaty and did not support it. When the Dail approved the treaty in January 1922, making way for provisional government under Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith, de Valera resigned and the nationalist movement split.

Many IRA officers were also against the treaty and established the Army Executive as the 'real' government. In April 1922 anti-treaty members of the IRA occupied the Four Courts in Dublin. The provisional government (in the process of building the National Army) was largely dependent on the IRA for policing and was unable to deal effectively with the escalating violence. In the same month the Cabinet decided to provide the provisional government with military assistance.

Winston Churchill, as Colonial Secretary, was increasingly angry about Collins' willingness to negotiate with de Valera. Collins made a pact with de Valera to form a joint government of republicans and pro-treaty members. At Cabinet meetings during May 1922, Churchill argued strongly that the provisional government should be forced to take a stand against republicanism. This caused a rift in the Cabinet as the Prime Minister, Lloyd George, advocated a more liberal stance.

On June 16 1922, Ireland went to the polls. The pro-treaty representatives took 58 seats and the anti-treaty seats took 35. However, shortly afterwards republicans killed the Ulster MP Sir Henry Wilson, a prominent opponent of an independent Ireland, and kidnapped a general of the Free State Army. Collins responded by attacking the republican-occupied courts in Dublin. The Anti-Treaty IRA seized barracks and public buildings as British civil servants and troops departed. Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson was shot in London on 22 June 1922 and as a result the British Government insisted that the Irish Government take action against the Anti-Treaty IRA or it would consider the Treaty to have been broken.

On 28 June 1922 the National Army, as the Pro-Treaty IRA now become known, bombarded the Four Courts in Dublin which was occupied by the Anti-Treaty forces leadership. The Civil War had begun. After a period of conventional warfare the Anti-Treaty side reverted to a guerrilla campaign. This was accompanied by assassinations and the destruction of buildings, bridges and other installations. The civil war progressed with increasing bitterness, but the anti-treaty faction did not have widespread support and the size of the National Army was increasing. The Provisional Government adopted special powers and executed 77 prisoners.

The opponents of the Treaty called a cease-fire on 24 May 1923. The war ended, but not before Eamon de Valera had been arrested and Michael Collins had been assassinated. As many as 4,000 were killed during the Civil War.

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Page last modified: 06-02-2013 18:58:38 ZULU