It has been 95 years since the formation of the Irish Free State, but the event has an uneasy presence in Irish history, particularly for the radical Left. Kieran Allen, author of ‘1916: Ireland’s Revolutionary Tradition’ and ‘The Politics of James Connolly’, considers why the event that began the process of unraveling the British empire will not be met with fanfare.
Following the massive centenary anniversary of the 1916 rebellion – comprised of exhibitions, parades and revisions to the school syllabus – it is prudent to ask: will there be a similar celebration of the formation of the Irish Free State? The answer: unlikely.
Almost 95 years ago, on January 16th 1922, the British garrison at Dublin Castle handed over its keys to the IRA guerrilla leader, Michael Collins. The castle had long been a symbol of British rule in Ireland and the transfer of its administration was warmly welcomed by the Irish people. The story goes that the colonial officer in charge of the handover to Collins complained that he was seven minutes late, to which Collins retorted ‘we have been waiting over 700 years’. This display of boldness and its place in the Irish historical imaginary is typical of Ireland’s sanctifying of Collins. A mood of romance and dynamism follows Collins, oft-contrasted with Eamon De Valera; the ‘Irish Machiavelli’. Though the inclusion of the oath of allegiance to the British monarchy in the Anglo-Irish treaty is cited as the reason behind the subsequent civil war, it is implied that the clash of these two personalities led to the subsequent civil war.
These folk tales of Irish history hide a much deeper tragedy. In reality, the vote for the Treaty by a majority of Sinn Fein representatives in the Second Dáil and subsequent formation of an Irish free state was the point at which the Irish revolutionary process was buried.
The Irish revolution involved the initial enlistment of about one hundred thousand people in the Irish Volunteers after the conscription crisis of 1918 and then the active engagement of about 15,000 in the IRA. The armed campaign was supported by a popular boycott campaign targeting the security forces of the British crown. All social intercourse with the police was stopped. Basic supplies of food to their barracks were cut off. This combination of a boycott and armed action led to the creation of liberated zones, freed of a so called security presence.
Popular mobilisation was not confined to ‘the national question’. There was an explosion of social anger as the poor attempted to settle scores with the old landlord class and the new ranchers. Land was forcibly taken over; cattle drives were staged in the dead of night; agricultural labourers undertook militant strikes; there was massive recruitment to the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. Workers organisation grew in confidence as they joined battle with the imperial forces and they raised their own class demands.
Social agitation amongst workers frightened the republican leadership and IRA units were ordered to supress it. These attempts to stifle mass mobilisation meant that the republicans became prey for the British, who unleashed state terror; supporting pogroms in the North to drive a moderate wing of the republican movement to the negotiating table. Thus, it was no accident that Collins became one of the most ardent advocates of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, once he found himself ‘down to the last bullet’, he saw no other option but to accept the treaty.
The Irish Free State fell far short of the aspirations of the majority. Not only was an oath of loyalty required to George V and ‘his successors and heirs’ but the British retained three naval bases. They also forced the new Irish state to assume liability for the public debt of the UK. Most importantly, the Treaty set up arrangements for the eventual partition of the country.
The most enthusiastic supporters of the Treaty and the Irish Free State were the ‘respectable elements’ of Irish society. The Catholic Bishops immediately welcomed the Treaty, with one even claiming that ‘the men who made the treaty would be immortal’. The champion of Irish capitalism, Arthur Griffith, saw it as an opportunity to build up an economy without the most minimal of social provision.
Not long after its formation, the leaders of the Irish Free State launched a brutal civil war on their republican opponents. The great irony was that they turned to their former imperial masters for military assistance. History has taught us that the transition from guerrilla fighter to collaborator with former oppressors is not an uncommon path, even so the speed of Collins’ transition remains remarkable. Within months of assuming power, posturing as a seemingly respectable politician, Collins was importing vast quantities of British weaponry to supress his opponents. Rejecting the British used covert death squads to terrorise their enemies, in favour of a policy of reprisal executions, the Free State went one step further.
Once it was stabilised through its’ victory on the civil war, the Free State’s mask came off and the true face of the Irish counter revolution was revealed. A key figure in the Free State cabinet was Kevin O’ Higgins, an alumnus of the elite Clongowes Wood School, who despised the ‘anarchy’ of the revolutionary period. He believed the Irish had a tendency towards primitivism, characterising the national psyche as bewitched by ‘an attitude of protest, an attitude of negation, the attitude of sheer wantoness and waywardness and destructiveness’. This, he believed, would need to be controlled by strict law and order methods, famously declaring ‘without the bailiff there is no civilisation’.
Without much haste, the Irish Free State abolished the republican courts where judges were occasionally elected, replacing them with the British model of justice and all the wigs, pomp and intrinsic elitism that went with it. It would also declare any attempt to take control of natural resources as ‘a communist doctrine’. The profundity of its belief in market forces led one Minister to inform the public that the state could offer know help to the unemployed and that ‘people may have to die in this country of starvation’. Land agitation was further suppressed by the introduction of an Enforcement of Law (Occasional Powers) Act that endowed even greater powers to bailiffs. A strike of postal workers were crushed and the Postmaster General declared that ‘to smash such a well organised strike was a salutary lesson to… general indiscipline’.
Not content with tightening the political and judicial margins, the Free State offered a ‘spiritual anti-depressant’ to the population. Even if they were to gain very little economic benefit from independence, they could take pride in being the most Catholic nation on earth… This mantle then began the long sage of laws inspired by Catholic fundamentalism. There were bans on ‘evil literature’; ‘Mother and Baby homes’ for single parents with even more attacks on ‘recidivist’ offenders. Women were thrown off juries. Even the limited divorce was forbidden. The Catholic bishops took complete control of the schools and hospitals.
So, no, there will be little cause for celebration of the formation of the Irish Free State. It was only one side of the carnival of reaction that Connolly so aptly predicted. It may have started the process of unravelling the formal British Empire but it left the Irish population with a bitter taste. It is only today with the rise of a radical left on both side of the border that the chances of ending that carnival of reaction are coming into view.
Kieran Allen is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at University College Dublin. His books include Marx and the Alternative to Capitalism (Pluto, 2011) and Max Weber: A Critical Introduction (Pluto, 2004) as well as a number of works on Irish society and politics.