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The Civil War in Dublin; 'One of the dark places of the earth'

John Dorney By John Dorney Published on August 17, 2017

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By John Dorney, whose new book The Civil War in Dublin, the fight for the Irish Capital, 1922-1924, was published this month.

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Joseph Conrad began his famous short story ‘Heart of Darkness’ with his lead character on board a ship steaming into London, musing that once this had been an untamed Celtic wilderness. ‘This also’ he says, ‘has been one of the dark places of the earth’.

Writing about the Irish Civil War in Dublin, 1922-23, this line sticks constantly in the mind.

Since 1916, Ireland had been in a state of armed revolution. After the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921, that disestablished the revolutionary Irish Republic declared in 1919, and replaced it with a self-governing Irish Free State in 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties, Irish nationalists were bitterly split.

Ultimately this led to ten month civil war between pro and anti-Treaty Irish factions. Both the political wing of the Irish Republican movement and its military wing the Irish Republican Army or IRA tore each other apart in the bitter factional bloodshed.

Snapshots of Civil War

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And so, Dublin, today a mostly sedate and safe city, also became one of the savage places of the earth. The AIB bank in Rathfarnham village, close to my home, was in 1923 a police barracks, and was blown sky high with explosives by anti-Treaty IRA fighters. The buildings on O’Connell Street, Dublin’s main thoroughfare, were shot up and burned by National Army troops with incendiary devices and artillery shells in July 1922.

Prince’s Street beside the GPO, once held a world title boxing match which in March 1923 the IRA attacked with a bomb, having previously forbidden all public entertainments. Cathedral Street, where once National Army soldier John Pinkman decided to shoot out all the windows because he was bored.

Far more than property was destroyed in Dublin in that year of in-fighting between Irish nationalists; the bodies piled up too - at least 258 in the city according to my count.

Almost every street has its story. The shop at the end of Rathmines Road where pro-Treaty politician and, perhaps, undercover Free State operative Seamus Dwyer was gunned down in December 1922. The memorial stone to Frank Lawlor in Milltown, the anti-Treaty IRA officer who was abducted and murdered in revenge for Dwyer. Griffith College, then Wellington Barracks, inside whose walls prisoners were systematically beaten and where in November 1922, anti-Treatyites from the surrounding rooftops machine gunned National Army troops lined up on the parade square.

All of these places will have the dark events of the Civil War lodged permanently in them in my mind. But almost anywhere in the city has its Civil War ghosts.

A mere catalogue of horror?

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The funeral of pro-Treaty leader Michael Collins

One reason to catalogue the events of the Irish Civil War is simply that they have remained unspoken of for so long in Ireland. This alone, I believe, is a good enough reason to write about it.

It is worth understanding also that, as Conrad put it, ‘this also has been one of the dark places of the earth’. Irish people are just as capable of vindictive cruelty as any other.

Is chronicling the Civil War in Dublin, then, a mere catalogue of horror? What did it all mean in the end? Both sides attempted to control the sinews of state, its ability to enforce law and collect taxes and how terror therefore functioned as a tactic when the anti-Treaty side avoided direct combat. This, however, explains the ‘how’ more than the ‘why’ of the Civil War.

Was it, as the Republicans alleged, a counter-revolution of reactionary pro-British elements, supported by the Catholic Church, the media and the Irish bourgeoisie? Perhaps. Certainly the likes of pro-Treaty Minister Kevin O’Higgins would have been happy to think of it in that way.

He wrote to his colleagues in early 1923 that if the Civil War continued, it would ‘pave the way for incipient Bolshevism’ and urged that the military policy must change to an ‘extermination of the anarchist faction’. The new pro-Treaty political party, he urged, must link up with the ‘great class interests and the Church against the atheist, the Freemason and the Bolshevik’.

But some of the most brutal Free State military personnel, the followers of Michael Collins in his IRA Squad before the Treaty, certainly would not have seen things in this light. To their minds they were also Republicans, continuing Collins’ work. And organised Labour essentially remained neutral in the Civil War.

Moreover, if the Civil War was a counter-revolution then it was largely endorsed by the Irish electorate in the elections of both June 1922 and August 1923, both of which were convincingly won by the pro-Treaty side.

So was it then, a war for democracy against anti-Treaty militarists, for what Michael Collins wrote was ‘a fight for national freedom’ for the ‘freest and most democratic system yet devised’ so ‘the Army has to recognise that it is the servant and not the master of the people’. Again, in part.

But the same Michael Collins refused to allow the Dail, elected in June 1922 to meet as long as the Civil War continued. In fact it only met after his death in August 1922.

Tellingly also, the Free State granted its troops an amnesty in August 1923, long before they granted one to their enemies, a tacit admission that much of what they had done to suppress the regulars had been illegal by their own lights.

If Irish democracy was narrowly saved in 1922-23, not all of the menaces to it came from the anti-Treaty side. So perhaps it is best, in the end, not to look for confirmation of the subsequent analyses of either side.

In The Civil War in Dublin, I attempted to understand the mindsets of both sides and to judge their choices as little as possible. This book cannot in the answer the question of ‘why’ but it can hopefully help to understand how Dublin, at the dawn of Irish independence, became the site for such brutal and unforgiving enmity between former comrades.

Irish historian. Author of 'Peace After the Final Battle' The Story of the Irish Revolution 1912-1924. Editor of the Irish history website www.theirishstory.com

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