The Three Stages of the Irish Revolution

Prelude to the Rising

Thomas Clarke was born in 1858 to an Irish family living in Hampshire in England. His father was in the British army and was briefly stationed in South Africa before the family returned to Dungannon in County Tyrone, where Clarke became involved in the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a secret society founded by the Fenians in 1858 to advance the cause of Irish separatism. Imprisoned for fifteen years for his role in an incendiary bombing campaign in London, Clarke emigrated to the United States, where he re-founded the IRB with Patrick McCartan and Denis McCullough. When Clarke returned to Ireland, he did so with the aim of cultivating a new generation of Irish revolutionaries, turning them away from collaboration with the Irish Parliamentary Party under John Redmond, whose influence was at its peak. In 1912 the British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith struck a bargain with Redmond, that Irish Home Rule would be granted if the IPP voted for his finance bill; effectively promising Ireland devolved powers within the British Empire. This set in motion a chain of events which would allow Clarke’s far more marginal organisation to eclipse Redmond’s in the struggle for Irish independence.

Once Home Rule was on the horizon, Irishmen loyal to the British crown, primarily but not exclusively in northern parts of the country, began to organise against its introduction. Leaders of the campaign — the barrister Edward Carson and politician James Craig — spoke at meetings of the Orange Order, a Protestant supremacist organisation whose founding dates back to the 1798 revolution and attacks which were conducted organisations allied with the United Irishmen. Carson and Craig encouraged the Protestant population to boycott their Catholic neighbours and stirred them up into rioting. On 28 September 1912 Carson led thousands of unionists to sign the Solemn League and Covenant, which pledged that all signatories would resist the introduction of Home Rule by any and all means. In 1913 these loyalist militias, armed and trained by British amy officers, were brought within the umbrella of the Ulster Volunteer Force. In response to loyalist activism Asquith declared any county within Ireland in which a majority of electors opposed Home Rule would be allowed to opt out and thus the foundations for the stifling of Irish democracy via partition were laid.

The IRB began to recruit a volunteer army to challenge this loyalist threat. Six months after it began accepting recruits, it had acquired almost 200,000 members and had succeeded in procuring 900 rifles. Redmond, concerned that his control over the national movement would be undermined by the Volunteers, demanded twenty-three of his appointees be placed on the governing committee. Though the Volunteers accepted Redmond’s ultimatum in order to prevent a split in the movement their magnanimity was not to be rewarded. Once the Home Rule bill was passed — accompanied by a suspensory act that required it to be ratified by Westminster an additional time — Redmond split the Volunteers himself by declaring that in order to prove their capacity for self-rule, the Irish should enlist in the British army and fight for Empire. More than 90% of the Volunteers did enlist but a more militant cadre repudiated Redmond and seized the Volunteer offices in collaboration with James Connolly’s Citizen Army, an organisation founded to protect striking workers from crown forces and armed scabs during the 1913 Lockout. In the general atmosphere of imperial sentiment that marked the outbreak of the war these Volunteers were regarded with bemusement and sometimes hostility. In his memoir Victory and Woe: The West Limerick Brigade in the War of Independence, Mossie Harnett writes that just a few weeks before the Easter Rising, soldiers’ wives threw rotten eggs at marching volunteers. In his memoir of the War of Independence, On Another Man’s Wound, Ernie O’Malley records his own scepticism, seeing them as insufficiently brave to fight overseas and therefore unlikely to fight at home.

As the mass slaughter on the western front began to dampen Irish enthusiasm for the war effort and the British began to consider moving against the Volunteers in order to more smoothly implement conscription, Clarke, together with other members of the IRB Military Council such as Éamon Ceannt, Seán MacDiarmada, Thomas MacDonagh, Padraig Pearse and Joseph Plunkett informed Connolly of their plans for an insurrection on Easter Sunday of 1916. The leader of the Volunteers, professor and Irish cultural nationalist Eoin MacNeill, would not have agreed to pre-empt conscription’s introduction and would only support engaging the British defensively. In order to force his hand, the IRB forged a document appearing to be an internal memorandum from Dublin Castle calling for the arrests of the Volunteer leadership. Once MacNeill learned that this document had been forged and that a shipment of German arms intended for the Volunteers had been intercepted by the British navy, he issued a countermanding order. This order went far wider than anyone on the IRB expected, MacNeill even succeeded in publishing it in the newspapers. The IRB decided to proceed with the Rising, but to postpone it until the following day. The IRB attempted to inform volunteers outside Dublin that the Rising had only been postponed, but this was in large part unsuccessful, many volunteers had already destroyed their arms or uniforms.

The main garrison occupied by the Volunteers was the General Post Office on O’Connell Street, Dublin’s main thoroughfare and the forces there were under the command of Connolly, Clarke, Pearse and Plunkett. The 1st battalion occupied the Four Courts, the 2nd Battalion Jacob’s Biscuit Factory, Eamon DeValera led the third battalion in Boland’s Mills and the fourth occupied the South Dublin Union. Connolly’s Citizen Army, who the countermanding order did not affect, were divided between Stephen’s Green, City Hall and the GPO. Telegraph wires were cut, bridges and railway lines blown up to delay the arrival of British reinforcements forces but by Tuesday crown forces had begun to come in from the Curragh and Dun Laoghaire. 

The original plan for the Rising was to form a circle around the Four Courts and to send out lines to connect with forces coming from other parts of country, but the reduction in Volunteer numbers had decided the Rising would be an unsuccessful confrontation with the British from the outset. By Thursday much of O’Connell Street was on fire due to the British gunship Helga on the River Liffey and the roof of the GPO was on the brink of collapse. All the women were evacuated, with the exception of Elizabeth O’Farrell, Winifred Carney and Connolly’s nurse, who all refused to leave. At a meeting of the Provisional Government of the Irish Republic at its new garrison on Moore Street, Clarke favoured fighting on, but in order to prevent further loss of life among the Volunteers, a surrender document was issued, signed by Pearse and Connolly to ensure the other garrisons would step down.

The newspapers variously reported the Rising as being communist, suffragette or German in nature. The executions of Clarke, Pearse and MacDonagh were cheered on by the bourgeois presses and William Martin Murphy, a business magnate whose anti-union practices had been challenged by Connolly’s Irish Transport and General Worker’s Union three years before, called for the execution of Connolly in particular. On 3 May Pearse, MacDonagh and Clarke were executed by firing squad followed by Plunkett the following day. On 8 May Ceannt and Connolly were shot and on 12 May MacDiarmada followed. The British initially planned to execute ninety Volunteers, but stopped as broader opinion began to swing in favour of the revolutionaries, with Redmondites branded as murderers for cheering on the terror. 

Sinn Féin Comes to Power

Though the Sinn Féin organisation founded by journalist and monarchist Arthur Griffith had nothing to do with the Rising, it was to be the primary political beneficiary as, not for the first or last time, the incompetent response of the British to Irish liberation struggles succeeded in installing otherwise marginal political actors in a pantheon of Irish patriots alongside Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmet. Three thousand Volunteers, teachers, writers, journalists and Gaelic Leaguers regarded as sympathetic to the cause of Irish separatism were imprisoned. Prison sentences were handed down to civilians carrying Sinn Féin flags or whistling rebel songs, further eroding the space that existed for the IPP’s pursuit of dominion status within the Empire. Count Plunkett, father of the executed leader of 1916, won a by-election in Roscommon in February 1917. While Plunkett seemed likely to secure a leading role in Sinn Féin, he was eclipsed by De Valera, who stood on a 1916 platform in another by-election in Clare. Joe McGuinness, a Gaelic Leaguer who was deported and imprisoned in Britain for his role in the Four Courts, was put forward as a candidate in a Longford by-election, beating the IPP candidate Patrick McKenna. In the 1918 election Sinn Féin won 73 of 101 seats, but instead of taking them in Westminster, they formed a new clandestine parliament in Dublin, aiming to appeal to the Paris Peace Conference for recognition of the Irish Republic over and above the heads of the British. As internees received amnesties large crowds gathered to meet them as they arrived in Dublin, underlining the extent of the support which now existed for Sinn Féin. When the IRB member Thomas Ashe, murdered in prison while on hunger strike for political status, tens of thousands of mourners attended his funeral. 

The British response to the Rising was of course not the sole reason for this transformation of the political landscape. The work of Irish Republican women in Cumann na mBan did much to create the situation in which 80 new branches across the nation seeking affiliation with Sinn Féin were established. Crucial too was a longer process of cultural development through organisations such as the Gaelic League and the Gaelic Athletic Association, through which folk memories of cultural difference and an anti-imperialist tradition were preserved and renewed. Harnett refers to an awareness he had growing up of an ancestor Muiris Ó’h-Airtnéide who was in involved in Fenian resistance to the Famine. Dan Breen recalls his neighbours’ ‘exultation over the victories gained by the Boer Generals…how thrilled they were by the British defeat at Spion Top’. Education provided by Irish-speaking teachers or older relatives are often cited by military leaders within the IRA as formative, though there were others who came from more apolitical backgrounds. Tom Barry describes joining the British Army not because Redmond had told him to, but because he wanted to see what war was like. O’Malley’s background was middle-class and seonín. The political development of these men took place in the years after the Rising, amidst mass campaigns and general strikes against conscription. O’Malley describes reading in Republican newspapers about what the men of 1916 had fought for and Connolly’s Labour in Irish History while Barry records his repudiation of his education dominated by British monarchs, reading about Eoghan Ruadh, Patrick Sarsfield and John Mitchel.

The number of Volunteers rose to over 100,000 in response to the renewal of internment on the pretext that the Volunteers were fifth columnists loyal to the Germans. The British also banned the GAA and arrested Sinn Féin’s most prominent leaders. In De Valera’s absence the influence of a Corkman named Michael Collins on the Supreme Council of the IRB grew. The presence of a secret society at a high level within the Republican movement was an ongoing point of contention for a number of senior figures within the IRA, including Breen and 1916 veteran Cathal Brugha. Sinn Féin organised itself to outflank the British, misdirecting authorities through decoy meetings and building institutional power in the form of a functioning administration through courts, tax collectors, a postal service and a civic police force in areas from which the British had been ejected. Sentences from these courts varied from fines, to a demand that both sides agree to shake hands, to parading the guilty outside chapel gates on Sunday with their offences written on pieces of cardboard tied around their necks. All this was sustained through subscriptions, sporadic donations secured from the population, obtained with varying degrees of willingness or consent, as documented in Patrick O’Sullivan Greene’s Crowdfunding the Irish Revolution. Representatives of the Irish Republic also presented themselves abroad; once his escape from prison had been arranged De Valera toured the United States in order to raise money and draw on the support of Irish Americans. Cumann na mBan members such Nora Connolly, Margaret Skinnider and suffragette Hannah Sheehy Skeffington were central to these endeavours, using speaking tours as a rallying point for anti-imperialist activism in the United States. These diplomatic missions were rarely successful; even with the help of the labour movement the American administration valued its relationship with Britain far more than the nascent Irish Republic.

Breen was one of the Volunteers in the 3rd Tipperary Brigade who, impatient with the moderate and constitutional approach of Sinn Féin, engaged the British militarily at Soloheadbeg towards the end of January. Two British soldiers were killed in the course of the ambush, which was planned in order to intercept a consignment of gelignite. Sinn Féin initially offered no support; Minister for Defence Richard Mulcahy referred to the men as murderers. Breen admits that there was no majority in favour of fighting the British at this stage, but once crown forces began to mete out draconian punishments upon the broader population in response to IRA ambushes, this began to change. When Constable Michael Enright and Sergeant Peter Wallace were shot during the rescue of Seán Hogan from the custody of Royal Irish Constabulary, a Kilmallock jury in Limerick refused to return a guilty verdict demanding instead self-determination for the Irish people. This dynamic, whereby the Sinn Féin leadership would find themselves out of step with a broader and more Republican mass sentiment, was to become a fixture of the Irish Revolutionary period. There was often suspicion among the small farmers and workers who in large part waged the armed campaigns of the party bureaucrats in Dublin whose primary interest was in maintaining Sinn Féin as a constitutional force. The determination of local leaders to not have to take orders from central government was another, more concrete reason for this contradiction.

The British proscribed the Republic’s institutions and began recruiting ex-servicemen into auxiliary units in 1920, once the extent to which the RIC had lost their legitimacy had become clear. These auxiliaries, or Black and Tans, aimed to choke off the IRA’s access to accommodation, food, intelligence and assistance from the civilian population by driving into towns, firing randomly, ordering civilians out of doors, stripping men and beating them with rifle butts, commandeering food, torturing IRA members, destroying farm equipment, confiscating vehicles or just shooting and lynching civilians for fun. The wanton sadism of the auxiliaries only served to boost Sinn Féin’s legitimacy further among a population, who became increasingly willing to feed and shelter revolutionaries and uphold boycotts of the police or businessmen sympathetic to British rule. 

The IRA, making no effort to emulate the structure of a conventional army, adopted an elastic structure, dividing into companies and then sections, which varied in seize from fifty to one hundred, depending on population, terrain, personnel and available resources. Officers were elected by ballot and military engagements were embarked upon only when it was more or less certain that more casualties would be inflicted than sustained. As is usually the case in irregular warfare the civil and political aspects of the conflict took on a greater importance. Barry’s account of the countryside in West Cork emphasises the class composition of the area, particularly with regard to the Big Houses of the Protestant Ascendancy, a cohort of large merchants and landlords. These were not only concrete historic documents of the acquisition of land and labour by imperial conquest, their social position secured by the Penal Laws and the Act of Union, but also one of the primary means through which the British gathered intelligence in the area. Beneath the Ascendancy there were the smaller merchants, among whom were some Catholics afforded a share in the dividends of Empire, as well as retired British naval and army officers. Billeting and procuring food and accommodation at loyalist homes allowed the IRA to monitor potential British assets and alleviate the pressure on more sympathetic elements of the population where food, shelter or warmth were more likely to be scarce. Barry established a habit of having the men manoeuvre in demesne land to rid them of a taught deference to the landed gentry, underlining some of the more pragmatic aspects of decolonisation understood as an internal or psychological process. Barry records instructing those who were identified as spies and informers to leave the country within 24 hours, their land divided into the hands of the landless labourers or taken into the Republican administration, although there were also many instances in which they were summarily executed. The benefits of these sentences, cutting off the Brits from their intelligence networks as well as setting an example to others unsympathetic to the Irish Republic, had to be balanced against maintaining sympathy among the broader population; mercy could and sometimes was shown to British soldiers who were known to have not executed or mistreated any prisoners. Fortified posts as well as buildings commandeered by the Black and Tans were obvious targets for the IRA though unlike most volunteers, the Black and Tans had experience of warfare and ample resources in the form of artillery, machine guns or armoured vehicles. The extent of the achievement of a largely unarmed unprofessional army, its leaders deriving what expertise they had via military textbooks or journals, training in secret, carrying out successful operations on fortified posts using the few arms they had acquired, sometimes without ammunition or unreliable grenades improvised from tins with scrap metal and gelignite, under the acute stress brought about by hunger, long marches across rough terrain and weather is almost unbelievable.

Sinn Féin in Power

Sinn Féin had been an umbrella movement which, under very specific circumstances, had brought together monarchists, nationalists and Republican separatists within a single unified front for national liberation. Once serious discussions about the precise nature of the Irish state being struggled for began to be posed, as in the Treaty negotiations which followed May 1921 truce, these different factions within the organisation entered into open conflict. Cumann na mBan member Mary MacSwiney detected a more conciliatory tone among the leadership around this time, noting that Collins did not make any reference to the Republic while delivering a speech in Armagh. Those Republicans who were later to take up arms against the Free State recall the appearance of newspaper articles outlining the benefits of dominion status, the nature of the Commonwealth membership enjoyed by Canadians and the impossibility of renewing the armed struggle. Republicans such as O’Malley and Dinny Kelly who fought in Tipperary, record similar sentiments being broadcast among those who had joined the army after the ceasefire; these factions were referred to as ‘truceleers’.

Liam Mellows, veteran of the abortive 1916 Rising in Galway, expected negotiations with the British to break down and continued his work in procuring arms from overseas. This wavering of confidence in the capacity of the constitutional movement to deliver the Republic was present also among the leadership, with Brugha refusing to form part of the Irish delegation. Collins, Griffith, Secretary of State Robert Barton, E.J. Duggan, T.D. for the constituency of Louth-Meath and Gavan Duffy, T.D. for Dublin County, ultimately formed the delegation. President De Valera’s reserve status allowed him to periodically intervene to make demands upon the plenipotentiaries, to their frustration. There were further divisions within the negotiating team itself; confidential discussions took place between Collins, Griffith and the British cabinet and on certain issues they made common cause with the British against the others, as when Griffiths corresponded with Lloyd George about the role the British monarch might have in Irish affairs. Much has been written on whether or not De Valera, having some sense in advance that the British would not grant a Republic, sent Collins and Griffith so that blame for the inevitable compromise would fall on them, but no direct evidence of such arithmetic exists. I personally find De Valera’s naive faith in his legislative hypothetical of ‘external association’ a more convincing explanation for his actions than Machiavellianism. 

The objectives of the British cabinet were obvious; allowing the Irish to leave the Empire would strengthen the hand of independence movements in India and Egypt. The British had also been pro-active in securing their position in the north up to this point; the 1920 Government of Ireland Act created the statelet of ‘Northern Ireland’ from the counties of Antrim, Armagh, Derry, Down, Fermanagh and Tyrone. The loyalists’ demand for six counties, as opposed to the nine counties of Ulster, was based on their calculating that they would not be able to maintain control of the Catholic majorities beyond those of Fermanagh and Tyrone. Over the summer of 1920 loyalist leaders had encouraged pogroms against Catholics which began in Belfast and continued sporadically over a number of weeks. By the end of the summer 16 Catholics had been killed and nearly 200 houses and shops burned. A boycott of goods from unionist firms in Belfast was passed in the Dáil.

The Articles of Agreement placed significant limitations on Irish self-determination. They allowed Britain to retain control of Irish ports, required all parliamentarians in the Dáil to swear an oath of allegiance to the British monarch and did not bring about any change in the imposed border. Personal allegiances, loyalty to regional commanders as well as opinions expressed by constituents, were as important as political principle in deciding what side one came down on as opposed to another. Many accounts report the saying ‘What is good enough for Mick Collins, is good enough for me’ entering into general circulation. De Valera and Brugha were the most prominent anti-Treaty figures within Sinn Féin, though they were in no way leading this tendency; Republicans who took against the Treaty were hugely divided. Mellows rejected both the Treaty and De Valera’s proposed compromise of external association on the basis that the Republic and the 1919 election was an authentic mandate now held hostage by British propaganda and threats of an invasion: ‘The people are being stampeded, in the people’s minds there is only one alternative to this Treaty and that is terrible, immediate war. That is not the will of the people, that is the fear of the people’. Mellows, together with O’Connor and O’Malley, advocated renewing the struggle against the British, while others, such as Breen and IRA Chief of Staff Liam Lynch, vacillated between this position and the prioritising of army unity. That Frank Aiken, an officer who had fought in Louth and Armagh, initially declared neutral will provide some indication of how differentiated the strategic orientations among the Republicans. 

Cumann na mBan was the first Republican organisation to oppose the treaty and one of its members, Constance Markiewicz, spoke during the Treaty debates in terms of the precedent this treaty would establish for national liberation struggles elsewhere, ‘if we pledge ourselves to this thing, whether you call it Empire or Commonwealth, that is treading down the people of Egypt and India’. P.S. O’Hegarty identifies this as the point at which more middle-class elements, such as merchants, cattle dealers and manufacturers, began to take the upper hand within the movement in the name of social stability. They were uninterested in the Republic which had been fought for, but recognised Sinn Féin as as ascendent social force. On the character of this new establishment O’Malley wrote: ‘Socially they had little status. Instead of building their own background, they often tried to ape the mannerisms of the relicts of the garrison, and to develop the ambition to belong to a class which had another social fabric to their own’. Their interests were perfectly compatible with those of the southern unionists, who Griffith met in the course of the debates. Markiewicz asked Griffith on the basis of what democratic mandate he had done so given that southern unionists belonged to a class who had enjoyed the dividends of British imperialism.

In the months before the summer election Collins met with Craig, now head of the regime in the six counties and pledged to end the Belfast boycott in return for assurances that Catholic workers who had been chased from their jobs would be re-instated. Meanwhile Lloyd George established the Ulster Special Constabulary, or B-Specials, a paramilitary colonial police force modelled on Mussolini’s fascisti. Under the dictatorial powers Craig secured in the special powers act the B-Specials were indemnified against prosecution while Sinn Féin, the IRA and Cumann na mBan became proscribed organisations. By mid-1922 there was one armed policeman for every two Catholic families and during the first months of 1922, 171 Catholics were killed. 

Though the role of the British in copper-fastening partition and inflicting terror on the Catholics in the six counties has been relatively well-documented, the extent of the involvement of the British in the establishment of the Free State is often understated. Winston Churchill demanded an election be held on the Treaty as soon as possible, but with anti-Treaty sentiment in the army standing at around 63% by Florence O’Donoghue’s estimate, Mulcahy adjourned a decisive convention, at first for one day and then for three months, on the basis that Collins would draft a Free State constitution in the interim period, which was to be Republican in character. The IRB also postponed further discussion on this basis. On 16 March Griffith proclaimed the scheduled army convention. Officers who opposed the treaty such as Oscar Traynor, Sean Russell, Mellows, O’Malley, O’Connor and Lynch formed their own military council, establishing a new headquarters in Parnell Square, aiming to wrest control of the army from the Free State. In an interview given to a newspaper, O’Connor explained that in passing the treaty, the Dáil had effectively abolished itself as it had no mandate to abandon the Republic. The army, which had remained loyal to the Republic declared in 1916, had de facto, become the Republic’s legitimate government. In April they established a garrison in the Four Courts and occupied a number of buildings around Dublin but they remained divided between those who wanted to initiate an attack on the British immediately and those who were more interested in preserving army unity. This latter faction entered into negotiations with Mulcahy and though they had no authority from the Executive to do so, and were denounced by O’Connor and Mellows, no discipline was imposed. Florence O’Donoghue recalls the aimlessness of the debates: ‘It never had a common mind or a common policy. There was not time. Many matters, not strictly the concern of the army, obtruded in discussions, social theories were aired and debated, projects were considered in an atmosphere of unreality, stresses developed which weakened the fabric of authority’. These divisions on strategic orientation and wrangling over the scheduling of conventions worked to the advantage of the Free State which had time to plan for a decisive confrontation once it arose. 

Those in favour of the Treaty were far more focused in their aims and in anticipation of an inevitable confrontation began to transfer arms from areas dominated by anti-Treaty army units. While Griffith was more forthright in denouncing Republicans, accusing Erskine Childers of being a British agent, Collins and Mulcahy spoke and acted in more conciliatory terms, allowing representatives of the Republican military council to attend Free State army meetings. Collins also gave the appearance of being more Republican in inclination, organising the assassination of Henry Wilson, Chief of the Imperial Staff who had personally arranged to keep troops in Dublin, had been involved in the Belfast pogroms as well as well as in organising the B-Specials. Collins also formed an electoral pact with De Valera, which sought to replicate the composition of the second Dáil by offering the electorate a panel of Sinn Féin candidates in identical proportion to the existing Treatyite and anti-Treatyite balance of forces, effectively postponing an electoral decision on the matter. Collins and Griffith were summoned to London a number of times and informed by Churchill and Lloyd George that the pact with the Republicans violated the Treaty, that the withdrawal of British troops would be suspended while it remained in place and began to pressure the Free State government to take decisive action against the Four Courts garrison. That Collins repudiated this pact three days before the election and his promised Republican constitution, published on the day of the election, was subordinate to the Treaty and illegitimate insofar as it contravened it, suggests that he regarded all these overtures to Republican elements within the army as stalling tactics. The pro-Treaty faction of Sinn Féin won 58 seats and the anti-Treaty faction under De Valera took 36. Twelve days after the election the Free State army began to shell the Four Courts with arms obtained from the British. Giving further indication of how detached the Republican’s understanding of the situation was from reality, Mellows cautioned against using too much ammunition against the Free State army as they would need them for the British. Once the Four Courts garrison and the Republican Executive had been dismantled, the Free State had a freer hand to recruit among ex-British soldiers and draw on the support of more overtly anti-Republican elements in Irish society as well as the large pool of unemployed, offering twenty-five shillings per week.

In his memoirs of being imprisoned in Mountjoy during the civil war, the republican socialist Peadar O’Donnell writes about encouraging Mellows’ socialist analysis of the situation, believing that he would distinguish himself as a leader in the future. Though the bulk of the army was ignorant of socialism, and arguably hostile to politics as a point of principle, notes Mellows wrote to O’Malley and Stack from prison identify the men of no property as central to their campaign against the Free State. In The Workers’ Republic, the newspaper of the Communist Party of Ireland, Mellows wrote on the necessity of leading the Labour movement away from commercial and British imperial interests:

‘The Irish Labour Party talked glibly of a Worker’s Republic. It still pretends to have as its objective the establishment of such a state…The existing Irish Republic can be made the Workers’ and Peasants Republic if the labour movement is true to the ideals of James Connolly and true to itself’.

If the Free State was to have been overthrown before it was consolidated as the reactionary and imperial formation it remains today, this would have been the way to do it, but sadly the opportunity for an alliance between anti-imperialists and the working class was quashed due to inadequate leadership and the Free State’s brutality. More typical of the Republican strategy of the time was O’Connor’s reaction to the postal workers’ strike, which was not to support workers’ demands, but rather use the confusion to capture arms of civic guards being brought in as strike breakers. Anti-Treaty volunteers did not make common cause with working class elements establishing Soviets at creameries, but rather threatened to to fire on members of the Transport Union picketing shops in Clonmel that refused to sell butter manufactured by them. Though the Proclamation of the Irish Republic and the Democratic Programme ratified by the first Dáil threaded together anti-imperialism and democratic ownership of the nation’s resources, as the Revolution unfolded it became clear that these were not principled aims of the leadership. O’Malley later regretted not undertaking guerrilla warfare and organising flying columns against the Free State. Establishing a garrison in the Four Courts had been a mistake, given that it was easy to surround, lacked food, had faulty defences and their other forces were concentrated on the wrong side of the widest street in the city.

Harnett attributed the defeat of the Republican side in the civil war to insufficient commitment on behalf of the Republican side; his account of this period is full of instances in which the lives of captured Free State officers were spared and released with money and clothes. The brutality of the Free State’s reprisals, the military courts and Emergency Powers Resolution, granted the state the power to execute prisoners. On a more local level, a definitive turning point was the moving of Free State army men from their local areas where they may be engaging former comrades to to other areas, in order to free up their consciences. The church hierarchy withheld sacraments from Republicans and consistently denounced Republicans from the pulpits even as eighty-one Republicans were executed in 28 rounds between November and May 1923. Mellows, O’Connor, Joe McKelvey and Richard Barrett were also executed and the demoralisation of having such treatment meted out by former comrades, fellow Irishmen and senior IRA officers is a feature of these first-hand accounts.  

The legacy of the Free State will not require extensive treatment here. Its administration had much in common with the supposedly overthrown English model. There were some initial attempts at developing indigenous industries, but in overall terms Free State governments have been composed of individuals from comfortable backgrounds who have favoured low taxes, the subsidising of financiers, rentiers and large farmers, suppressing wages and instituting savage cuts to social welfare. The fact that women, such an active constituency during the Revolution in transporting arms, making splints, bandages, clothes and food, nursing, carrying dispatches, scouting, spying, raising funds, arranging billets or undertaking long journeys delivering dispatches at great personal risk vanish from public life for almost half a century, grants a new significance to them being among the most vociferously opposed to the Treaty. The welfare state was farmed out to the church and the Irish language entered into a terminal decline in which it still languishes. The inertia and lack of any significant Republican voice in the present moment corresponds with Mellows’ premonition of a ruling class which would be propped up on the basis of partition: 

if this Free State comes into existence, when you will have a permanent government in the country, and permanent governments in any country have a dislike to being turned out, and they will seek to fight their own corner before anything else. Men will get into positions, men will hold power and men who get into positions and hold power will desire to remain undisturbed and will not want to be removed, or will not take a step that will mean removal in the case of failure. 


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Breen, Dan. My Fight for Irish Freedom. Anvil Books, 1981.

De Burca, Padraig and Boyle, John F. Free State or Republic? Pen Pictures of the Historic Treaty Session of Dáil Éireann. University College Dublin Press, 2015.

Figgis, Darrell. A Chronicle of Jails. University College Dublin Press, 2015.

Harnett, Mossie. Victory and Woe: The West Limerick Brigade in the War of Independence. University College Dublin Press, 2015.

Lee, J.J.. Ireland: 1912 – 1985

McNamara, Conor. Liam Mellows Soldier of the Irish Republic Selected Writings 1914 – 1922. Irish Academic Press, 2019.

Moynihan, Jamie. Memoirs of an Old Warrior: Jamie Moynihan’s Fight for Irish Freedom 1916 – 1923. Mercier Press, 2014.

O’Donnell, Peadar. The Gates Flew Open. Mercier Press, 2013.

O’Hegarty, P.S., The Victory of Sinn Féin. University College Dublin Press, 2015.

O’Malley, Ernie. On Another Man’s Wound.

——. Rising Out: Seán Connolly of Longford (1890 – 1921). University College Dublin Press, 2015.

——, The Singing Flame. Anvil Books, 1979.

Regan, John. The Irish Counter-Revolution 1921 – 1936: Treatyite Politics and Settlement in Independent Ireland. Gil and Macmillan, 1999.

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