Analysis: the Dáil Courts were most active during the War of Independence and involved many disputes over land 

Following the success of Sinn Féin in the 1918 General Election, one of the central strategies of the Irish independence movement was the displacement of "British" political and administrative institutions with alternatives. The most notable example of this was the establishment of an independent legislative assembly, Dáil Éireann. However, the foundation of an alternative legal system has received considerably less attention, but also played a key role in the setting up of a counter-state.

The Dáil court system, also known as the Republican courts, was most active during the War of Independence and only fully replaced in 1924. Mirroring the tiered British system, it was comprised of a supreme court, circuit courts, a district court in every parliamentary constituency, and a local court in every Roman Catholic parish. In addition, there were special courts that dealt solely with land. It was in operation throughout the island of Ireland, with the exception of Co. Antrim and the city of Belfast, with cases held in halls, outhouses and rooms above shops. 

The first court case under direct control of Dáil Éireann was held at Ballinrobe, Co. Mayo, in May 1920. The case in question involved the seizure of land. This was a period of heightened agrarian agitation in Ireland. The dominant form that this agitation took, particularly in the west, was the seizure of land, with hundreds of estates and cattle farms forcibly taken in the early 1920s.

Kevin O'Shiel (back row, fourth from left) with the Irish delegation to the League of Nations in 1923. Photo: Tierney/MacNeill Photographs/UCD Archive/Creative Commons

Towards the end of 1919, large farmers based in Connaught sent a deputation to the Dáil, their worry over their land compounded by an RIC admission that the police had neither the time nor the manpower to prevent seizures. A young barrister named Kevin O'Shiel subsequently received a visit from Arthur Griffith, founder of Sinn Féin and then Acting President of Dáil Éireann. In an article published in the Irish Times in November 1966, O'Shiel recalled Griffith voicing his concern about the potential of the "western outbreak" to "wreck the entire national movement." 

O'Shiel went west at Griffith’s behest to assess the situation and report back to the Dáil. He was accompanied by Art O'Connor, substitute Minister for Agriculture (the actual minister Robert Barton being in gaol). They encountered agitators, including some rank and file members of Sinn Féin, marching through the countryside carrying the tricolour and hanging it over confiscated land. When O’Shiel told these agitators that the TDs who were sitting as Dáil Éireann were not in favour of their activities, they reportedly removed the orange and white from their flags so that they were now marching under the green flag of the Ancient Order of Hibernians

Dáil court cases were both part of the strategy of establishing alternative political and administrative institutions and an assertion of authority by the First Dáil. Bringing agrarian agitation under its control through the use of Dáil land courts would demonstrate that Dáil Éireann was no mere nominal entity, but capable of governing the country.

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From RTÉ's Documentary On One Podcasts, The First Dáil examines the origins, establishment and achievements of the first parliament of the Irish Republic. (first broadcast in 1969)

The judgement in Ballinrobe was against the claimants, as was the outcome in most subsequent Dáil court cases involving disputes over property. Aware that the judgement would be reassuring for the bulk of its readership, the then pro-unionist Irish Times reported on the Ballinrobe case quite favourably. Perhaps not surprisingly, the claimants themselves, who ranged from a landless labourer to an eight-acre congest, were less enthusiastic about the case's outcome. Griffith had intended for the Dáil court system to comprise of arbitration courts grounded in consent, but consent was not forthcoming in this case.

In a 1923 article in the Manchester Guardian, O'Shiel explained that in order to be successful the claimants had to "prove their case up to the hilt on the ground of sheer necessity" and to "show that the landowner's property could reasonably bear the proposed partition." They also had to obtain the finance to compensate the landowner. These exacting standards were even maintained in cases where claimants or their ancestors had previously been in occupation of the land under dispute.

Having declared their intention to ignore the court’s decision, the claimants continued to occupy the land. To enforce the judgement, an IRA unit was brought in to remove the claimants and detain them. As the Dáil did not have access to prison buildings, the men were transported to an island on Lough Corrib. In their absence, women took over the occupation of the contested land.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's History Show, Heather Laird discusses the Dáil court system 

A month later, the Dáil issued the following decree: "That the present time when the Irish people are locked in a life and death struggle with their traditional enemy, is ill chosen for the stirring up of strife amongst our fellow countrymen; and that all our energies must be directed towards the clearing out – not the occupiers of this or that piece of land – but the foreign invader of our country." 

A similar sentiment was expressed by Art O’Connor. "The mind of the people", he stated, "was being diverted from the struggle for freedom by a class war." Small farmers and landless labourers, whose version of freedom had an understandable economic dimension, may have had some difficulty distinguishing between the land agitation that had been the driving force behind the nationalist movement in the late 19th century and their current campaign. Mainstream nationalists, however, considered those involved in land agitation in the early 1920s as an impediment to the national cause. 

Increased knowledge of events around the Dáil courts complicates our understanding of the relationship between nationalism and the land movement

An article published in the Limerick Leader in June 1920 concerning the aftermath of another Dáil court judgement provides a useful insight into the mixed loyalties of some rural dwellers at this point in time. "Good Story from Clare" tells of two men who were detained on an island off the Clare coast for three weeks following their refusal to rebuild a demolished wall on contested land.

When members of the RIC arrived by boat to rescue them, the men were far from welcoming. Announcing that the RIC had no authority over the affairs of citizens of the Irish Republic, they pelted the boat with stones so that it was forced to turn back. As is evidenced by their words and actions, political independence of the sort that Dáil Éireann and the Dáil courts represented was not an irrelevancy to agrarian agitators like these. But they were not willing to set aside their material needs and accept that these were less important than the need of the Dáil to assert its authority and gain the support of more substantial farmers. 

READ: Why we should remember the 1920 land seizures in Ireland

Research into the "illegal" legal system established under the First Dáil aids a more complex understanding of a key moment in our revolutionary past. Increased knowledge of the events and motivations that led to its establishment, in particular, reveals significant tensions at the time over resources and complicates our understanding of the relationship between nationalism and the land movement.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ