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by : Ray
Published 23 March 2007

The Irish Civil War

Like I think many other people I have always had a very confused understanding of the events that led to the establishment of an independant Ireland after the First World War: I knew that there had been an uprising in Dublin in Easter 1916 and that there had been fighting as well as internecine strife in the twenties, as any reader of Sean O’Casey’s plays knows, but what exactly happened and what role the IRA and national heroes like Michael Collins and Simon de Valera had played were to me as murky as a glass of Guinness.

This little book [1] has largely cleared up the mystery for me, even though perhaps too much of it is devoted to period newscuts and photographs for my taste, in spite of their undoubted interest - this is really more of an introduction to the subject designed to put the bare facts of what happened on the table in the most dispassioned way possible rather than a full historical analysis. It was actually my second reading of this little monograph, prompted by a puzzling reference to one of the Republican leaders in the Civil War in Joseph Kessel’s tense novella on the subject, Mary of Cork [2], thanks to which I do now have a somewhat firmer grasp of the main line of events:

1) The 1916 Easter Uprising, masterminded by Michael Collins, underground leader of the IRA, failed but firmly established Irish Republicanism on the political map;

2) The War of Independance, which the IRA began in January 1919 with an ambush of British troops on patrol, ended in June 1921 when the British, who were in a military position of force, rather surprisingly proposed a truce and peace negociations;

3) An Anglo-Irish Treaty establishing an Irish Free State with full sovereignty but a loose Commonwealth attachment was signed by the Irish negotiating team headed by Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith in London in December 1921, and was approved in January 1922 by a small majority in the Irish Parliament that had been established by Britain for the south of Ireland (ie- excluding Ulster) in 1920;

4) the Treaty was widely approved by elections in southern Ireland in mid-June 1922;

5) the Irish Civil War started at the end of June 1922 when the Provisional Government, headed by Collins and Griffith, sent its nascent National Army forces to clear out the anti-Treaty IRA military units that had occupied the Four Courts administrative center in the heart of Dublin some time previously;

6) the Civil War lasted for about 10 months until May 1923, when the defeated IRA surrendered its arms. The national hero and Free State leader Michael Collins had been killed in an IRA ambush, and a number of Republican leaders had died in the often-bitter fighting, notably Harry Boland (during the Four Courts battle) and the Sinn Fein leader Erskin Childers, who was executed by a Free State firing squad. Casualties had been overall relatively low (about 800 on the Free State side and probably somewhat more on the Republican side), but damages to property, industry and infrastructure were enormous.

7) the Sinn Fein (Republican) leader de Valera was elected President in 1932;

8) Ireland formally became a Republic with no ties to the British Commonwealth in 1949.

Whew! All that and lots of pictures too from one little book - not such a bad deal after all!

Notes

[1The Irish Civil War by Helen Litten, Wolfhound Editions, 136 p.

[2Les Coeurs Purs by Joseph Kessel, ed. Folio, 178 p