By Diarmaid Ferriter

Profile Books. 328 pages. £9.99. ISBN 978-1-78816-175-6

Reviewed by Jim Burns

I wonder how many people in England are aware of the fact that there was a civil war in Ireland in the 1920s ?  Very few, I suspect. The English, or many of them at least. do sometimes display a woeful ignorance of the island and its problems, and simply wish they didn’t exist. As for Irish politics, both in Northern Ireland and the Republic, they can frankly be confusing, depending as they often have done on old loyalties and divisions being carried forward through the generations. Diarmaid Ferriter’s book does help to provide clarification of the complex issues initially involved when the Civil War started, and how they influenced what came later.

When the Anglo-Irish Peace Treaty between the British government and the representatives of the provisional Irish Republican government was signed in 1921 it brought an end to the Irish War of Independence. Fought between the forces of the Crown (including the notoriously brutal Black and Tans) and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) it lasted from 1919 to 1921. The problem was that the Treaty didn’t grant the twenty-six counties in the south of Ireland full republican status. They were given self-governing powers as a “free state dominion” and officials were still expected to pledge an oath of allegiance to the King. It was, in the circumstances, probably the best deal that could be expected at the time. And Ferriter says that the Treaty “had fairly broad public support”.

However, a sizeable proportion of those who had served with the IRA were opposed to the Treaty. They wanted to continue the struggle for complete independence as a Republic, and for the unification of the whole island. A bitter and violent border war erupted, with paramilitary police units (the “B” Specials among them) being formed to oppose the IRA on the border and in the six counties that made up what became known as Northern Ireland.

In the South the civil war got underway when anti-Treaty volunteers occupied the Four Courts in Dublin in April 1922. Little or no action was taken against them until June when the British government threatened to send in its own troops to defeat the “irregulars”, as they were known. Michael Collins, a major figure during the War of Independence, and one of those who signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty, then ordered units of the newly-formed National Army to attack the Four Courts. To do so, lacking their own equipment, they had to use artillery supplied by the British Army. The result was that the buildings, which housed the Public Records Office, were badly damaged and set on fire. Thousands of historic and important documents were destroyed.

The IRA mostly pulled out of Dublin and moved its main activities towards the west, with Munster being a particular base for their operations. Many of the members of the IRA had opposed the Treaty, but not all of them were prepared to fight a war against the new government. Some pro-Treaty IRA members joined the National Army, others, whether pro or anti, just stayed at home and took no part in the fighting. The whole situation was chaotic. The view of one man who was anti-Treaty was that if the English returned he would take up arms again, but in the meantime he had to make a living. Ferriter says he “became a rates collector for Cork County Council”.  

It needs to be said that both the IRA and the National Army lacked arms and equipment, but the government troops could rely on a supply of suitable material from the British. It was obviously in Britain’s interest to support the Dublin government. As for finances the IRA engaged in a spate of raids on post offices and banks. It’s tempting to wonder whether or not some of these may have been opportunistic endeavours by people concerned more about personal gain than republican ideals. There were indications of a lack of discipline in the IRA, perhaps because the organisation did not have an effective command structure nor clearly-defined political aims beyond opposing the Treaty. There were sectarian killings. And there is an interesting passage where Ferriter quotes the son of an anti-Treaty IRA fighter as saying that “the civil war had little to do with ideology. The choice of sides in the civil war had, in most cases, little to do with politics. Often it had more to do with personality clashes, the manoeuvrings of cliques and the readiness of troops to follow individual leaders”. It was easy to settle old scores in such circumstances.

It quickly became obvious that the IRA could not hope to engage the National Army in any kind of full-scale battle. It was not that the National Army was always better-organised, the rush to recruit sufficient numbers tending to limit the amount of time that could be given to training. A lack of discipline was almost as much of a problem as it was in the IRA. There were complaints of drunkenness and assaults on civilians. Some people even compared them to the Black and Tans.

The IRA reverted to the tactics of guerrilla warfare which they had practised against the British. It was what they did best, and an example of it was the killing of National Army leader Michael Collins in an ambush on a country road. It was a significant blow for pro-Treaty supporters, though it probably helped stiffen their resolve to defeat the IRA. Internment and other measures reduced its effectiveness. It became an offence punishable by death to be found carrying a gun without official permission. The best-known case was that of Erskine Childers, well-known author of The Riddle of the Sands, and an anti-Treaty activist, who was found in the possession of a small pistol presented to him by Michael Collins. He died in front of a firing squad, as did numerous other IRA volunteers.

By April 1923 those in charge of the IRA had realised there was little point in carrying on and the order was given to cease operations. The civil war was over, though some activity, such as armed robberies, lingered on for a few months, and may have been straightforward criminal acts. But, on the whole, “That exhausted legion, though still defiant, just ‘hid their arms and went home’ “.

A notable aspect of what has been called a “brother against brother” conflict was the extreme savagery that occurred on both sides. The execution of prisoners without trial was not unusual, nor were acts of reprisal. One striking example occurred when National Army soldiers investigating a tip-off about an alleged IRA arms dump triggered a booby-trap. Five were killed and one badly injured. The following day nine Republican prisoners were tied together and a bomb detonated in their midst. One man survived. I’ve chosen this example to illustrate what I referred to as “savagery” and there are others of a similar nature noted by Ferriter.

The military side of the civil war may have been over, but it carried on politically with Fianna Fáil, and its notable leader, the anti-Treaty Éamon de Valera, and Fine Gael representing the two major parties, though it doesn’t do to neglect the Irish Labour Party and Sinn Féin when surveying developments over the years. Nor the activities of the Catholic Church which largely supported the government in Dublin, and often condemned the IRA  as “ subversive Reds” and “Bolsheviks”, because of the advocacy by some of its members of socialist values. What happened in Southern Ireland after the end of hostilities, and later, especially in the 1930s and when a full Republic was declared in 1949, is covered in great detail by Ferriter. He writes clearly about a complex subject.

The Irish Civil War was a relatively small-scale affair if one compares it to similar events in Finland in 1918, Hungary in 1918-20 and the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39. It’s difficult to know exactly how many National Army soldiers, IRA volunteers, and civilians died.  A figure of 1500 might be about right. For a small country struggling to establish itself it was bad enough.