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Irish Civil War

The Irish Civil War (June 1922–April 1923) was a conflict between supporters and opponents of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 6, 1921, which established the Irish Free State, precursor of today's Republic of Ireland. Opponents of the Treaty objected to the fact that it retained constitutional links between the United Kingdom and Ireland, and that the six counties of Nothern Ireland would not be included in the Free State. The Civil War cost the lives of more than had died in the War of Independence that preceded it. It left Irish society deeply divided and its influence in Irish politics can still be seen to this day.



The Anglo-Irish Treaty arose from the Anglo-Irish War(a.k.a. The Irish War of Independence), fought between Irish separatists (organised as the extra-legal Irish Republic) and the British government, from 1919-1921. The treaty provided for a fully self-governing Irish state, controlling most of Ireland's population and area, and having its own army and police. However, rather than creating the independent republic favoured by many nationalists, it provided that the state would be a dominion of the British Empire with the British monarch as head of state. The treaty also stipulated that members of the new Irish Oireachtas (parliament) would have to take an oath of fidelity, called the "Oath of Allegiance", to the British king. Under the treaty the state was not to be called a republic but a "free state" and it was only to include twenty-six southern and western counties of Ireland. Nonetheless Michael Collins argued that the treaty gave "not the ultimate freedom that all nations aspire and develop, but the freedom to achieve it". His enemies were eventually to prove him right.

Dáil Éireann (the parliament of the Irish Republic) narrowly passed the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921. Upon the Treaty's ratification Eamon de Valera resigned as President of the Republic and lead his anti-treaty wing of Sinn Féin out of the Dáil. He challenged the right of the Dáil to approve the Treaty, saying that its members were breaking their oath to the Irish Republic and attempted unsuccessfully to set up his own rival government. Meanwhile under the leadership of Michael Collins and W.T. Cosgrave, the pro-treaty government set about establishing the Irish Free State, an organised national army to replace the IRA and a new police force. Supporters of the treaty came to be known as "pro-treaty", "National Army" or "Free State" forces. Its opponents were known as "anti-treaty", "IRA" or "irregular" forces.

Course of the war

In April 1922 anti-treaty militants occupied the Four Courts in Dublin, resulting in a tense stand-off. This was ended, under a British threat of reoccupation, by the building's bombardment and capture by pro-treaty forces from June 28-June 30. Pitched battles continued in Dublin until July 5.

With Dublin in pro-treaty hands, conflict spread throughout the country, with anti-Treaty forces briefly holding Cork, Limerick and Waterford. Cork was retaken by sea. Government victories in the major towns inaugurated a period of inconclusive guerrilla warfare marked by assassinations and executions of leaders formerly allied in the cause of Irish independence. The head of the Provisional Government, Michael Collins was assassinated by anti-treaty republicans in August, near his home in Cork1.

At the start of the Civil War the IRA had split down the middle. However the anti-treaty IRA lacked an effective command structure and were forced to adopt a defensive stance throughout. Michael Collins and his commanders were able to build up an army which was able to overwhelm the Irregulars on the battlefield. British supplies of artillery, aircraft, machine-guns and ammunition were much help to pro-treaty forces. The lack of public support for the Anti-Treaty IRA, the determination of the government to defeat them and their lack of will also contributed to the their defeat. As the conflict petered out into a de facto victory for the pro-Treaty side, de Valera ordered a ceasefire, followed in May 1923 by an order to irregulars to dump their arms rather than surrender them or continue a fight which they were incapable of winning.


The Civil War, though short, was bloody. It cost the lives of many senior figures, including Michael Collins. In one notorious act, the anti-treaty IRA boobytrapped the Irish Public Records Office, blowing to pieces one thousand years of Irish state and religious archives. Both sides carried out brutal acts; the government executed anti-treaty prisoners, including acclaimed author and treaty signatory Robert Erskine Childers, while the anti-treaty forces murdered TDs (MPs) and burned yet many historic homes (such as the famous Moore Hall in Mayo, because its owner had become a senator). The pro-treaty National Army suffered eight hundred fatalities and perhaps as many as four thousand people were killed. As their forces retreated the Irregulars caused much destruction and the economy of the Free State suffered a hard blow in the earliest days of its existence as a result.

Although the cause of the civil war was the treaty, as the war developed the irregulars sought to identify their actions with the traditional republican cause of the "men of no property" and the result was that the war also saw large landowners, and some not very well-off loyalists, attacked and a large number of country estates occupied by small holders. Many, but not all of these, had supported the Crown forces during the War of Independence. This support was often largely moral, but sometimes it took the form of actively assisting the British in the conflict. This made their situation post-independence difficult, and in the anarchy of the Civil War they became easy targets. Sometimes these attacks had sectarian overtones, although most IRA men made no distinction between Catholic and Protestant collaborators. The Free State made efforts to protect Protestants, most notably in County Louth, where a special police force was set up specifically for this purpose. Controversy continues to this day about the extent of intimidation of Protestants at this time.

As with most civil wars, the internecine conflict left a bitter legacy, which continues to influence Irish politics to this day. The two largest political parties in the Republic are still Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, the descendants respectively of the anti-treaty and pro-treaty forces of 1922.


  1. In the 1996 film Michael Collins, Eamon de Valera orders Collins' death. However, although de Valera was in the area at the time, he is not known to have been involved in the assassination.

See also

Last updated: 08-12-2005 12:05:35
Last updated: 08-17-2005 09:50:10