After the War of Independence, the new Free State had to create its own military defence force. Gerry White explains how the Irish National Army was born.

The armed force of the Irish Free State during the Civil War was known as the National Army. It came into being in accordance with Article 8 of the Anglo-Irish Treaty which provided for the establishment of a 'local military defence force' in the Free State.

After Dáil Éireann ratified the Treaty on 7 January 1922, one of the most immediate tasks facing the new pro-Treaty ministry led by Arthur Griffith, and the Provisional Government led by Michael Collins, was the establishment of such a force as would be required to take over the military barracks evacuated by the British and to provide security for the institutions of the Free State.

Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith
One of the first tasks facing Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith in the new government was to establish a military force. Photo: Getty Images

Both Griffith and Collins envisaged that the force would be drawn from the ranks of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). But this would prove difficult as around seventy percent of its members opposed the Treaty. However, IRA Chief and Staff, Eoin O’Duffy, and the majority of the General Headquarters Staff supported it. Richard Mulcahy, a former Chief of Staff was Minister for Defence in the Dáil, while Michael Collins was also President of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Together, these men would utilise all the influence and resources at their disposal to identify, administer and equip IRA Volunteers who would be loyal to the Free State.

The First Recruits

The first Volunteers selected came from the Dublin Guard, an IRA unit that included members of Michael Collins’s ‘Squad’. On the morning of 31 January 1922, forty-six members of this unit formed up behind a pipe band in the Phoenix Park in Dublin and marched through the city streets to take over Beggars Bush Barracks from the departing British garrison.

Led by Captain Patrick (Paddy) O’Daly, they were clad in a new green uniform with a soft peaked cap, brown boots and leggings. Large crowds cheered and Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith took the salute as they passed City Hall.

Sergeant Finian O Driscoll, Volunteer Factna O Driscoll, Quartermaster Sergeant Sean Powell, and Volunteer Michael Powell, circa 1922. The soldiers exact identification is unclear. They are four nephews of Michael Collins who served as Commander-in-Chief in the Free State Army.
Sergeant Finian O Driscoll, Volunteer Factna O Driscoll, Quartermaster Sergeant Sean Powell, and Volunteer Michael Powell, circa 1922. They are four nephews of Michael Collins. Photo © RTÉ Photographic Archive

When they arrived at the barracks, they were addressed by Richard Mulcahy who described them as ‘the first trenchers in the fight’ and presented them with a large Tricolour. These men would be the nucleus of what would become the National Army.

Within a short time, other Volunteers joined the Free State force. Unlike their comrades who opposed the Treaty, they would be provided with accommodation, uniforms, food and pay. They also had the support of the Church hierarchy, the press, and a majority of the civilian population who, after the three years of war, were looking forward to a return to normality.

Deadly divisions

But that was not to be. Divisions within the IRA were deepening and on 26 March 1922, a group of anti-Treaty officers held a convention and repudiated their allegiance to the Dáil. The situation deteriorated further on 14 April when anti-Treaty forces occupied the Four Courts and other buildings in the centre of Dublin.

Though a number of senior officers on both sides of the Treaty divide made efforts to maintain army unity, Ireland was plunged into a civil war on 28 June when Free State forces, shelled the Four Courts with artillery supplied by the British.

Four Courts in ruins
The ruins of the Four Courts in 1922

The National Army and the Civil War

Initially, the Free State force had continued to describe itself as the IRA. However, retention of that name would be impossible as the Free State was a dominion and not a republic. The matter also caused concern in the British Parliament. Therefore, after the occupation of the Four Courts in June 1922, the name National Army started to be used.

When the Civil War began, the National Army had approximately 8,000 men in its ranks while the anti-Treaty IRA had around 12,900. However, since 31 January, the British had supplied the Provisional Government with a number of armoured cars and large quantities of rifles, machine-guns, revolvers and grenades. This arsenal, combined with a lack of a viable strategy within the leadership of the IRA would prove decisive in the conflict.

Call to arms

By 5 July, the National Army had captured the Four Courts and taken control of Dublin. Additional forces would be required to extend its authority to the rest of the country and two days later, the Provisional Government issued a ‘National Call to Arms’ to attract new recruits. Five recruiting centres were opened in Dublin and officers were authorised to accept men from all over the country. The appeal attracted hundreds of applicants and by the middle of July, the strength of the army stood at 15,000.

The large influx of new recruits created its own problems. General Seán MacMahon, the Quartermaster General, later stated that their standard was ‘often not the best’ and that ‘they had to be rushed into position before even being uniformed, to say nothing about being trained’.

Major Emmet Dalton in 1974
General Emmet Dalton, seen here in 1974, was one of the senior officers with British military experience. © RTÉ Photographic Archive

However, the situation was alleviated by that fact that some senior officers, such as Generals Emmet Dalton and W. R. E. Murphy, and hundreds of the new recruits had served in the British Army during the First World War. These men brought with them the skills and experience required to create a large conventional military force.

Change of leadership

On 12 July, the National Army experienced a major change in leadership. Michael Collins took up the position of Commander-in-Chief with the rank of general in a three-man War Council that also included Richard Mulcahy, the Minister for Defence and Chief of Staff and Eoin O’Duffy, now the Assistant Chief of Staff. After Collins was killed at Béal na Bláth on 22 August 1922, Mulcahy succeeded him as Commander-in-Chief.

One of the first tasks facing Mulcahy, was to ascertain the precise strength of the army. By now, it had taken control of much of the country and many commanders were recruiting and discharging men in the areas under their control. This made administration and pay difficult as the strength was constantly changing. In an effort to rectify the situation, a census of the army was taken at midnight on 12/13 November 1922.

On completion, it revealed that there were 32,000 men in the organisation and they were occupying 296 barracks, posts and outposts. In January 1923, these men were organised into nine territorial formations known as ‘commands’ that were centred on Dublin, Athlone, Claremorris, Cork, Donegal, Kerry, Limerick, Waterford and the Curragh. A number of corps were also established to provide specially trained personnel and specific services to the army.

General O'Duffy saluting Free State soldiers in Portobello Barracks (1922)
General Tom Ennis, General Eoin O'Duffy (saluting) and General Emmet Dalton at Portobello Barracks, Dublin, in July 1922. O'Duffy was Assistant Chief of Staff of the Free State Army. Dalton was Director of Military Operations. Portobello Barracks was renamed Cathal Brugha Barracks in 1952. © RTÉ Photographic Archive.

Constituting the Army

After the Civil War ended in victory for the National Army in May 1923, it became necessary for the Executive Council of the Free State to resolve the army’s legal status and its relationship with the Dáil. The Free State Attorney General sent a memorandum to the Executive Council on 2 April 1923, pointing out that the army had never been ‘definitely constituted’ and that control of its policy had never been ‘defined or expressly delegated by either the Provisional Government, the Executive Council or the Dáil’.

This situation was addressed when the Dáil passed The Defence Forces (Temporary Provisions) Bill, 1923. The Bill, which became law on 3 August 1923, stated that, ‘It shall be lawful for the Executive Council to raise and maintain an armed force to be called Óglaigh na hÉireann’. It also gave the Executive Council command of the force and the authority to fix the date of its formal establishment.

Beyond the Civil War

The strength of the National Army now stood at over 55,000. Such a large force was no longer required and the Executive Council embarked on a process of demobilisation to reduce it to 18,000. A number of officers, who were also members of a group called the Irish Republican Army Organisation, were unhappy with this and they demanded an end to demobilisation.

They also complained about the number of former British servicemen being retained in the army and that not enough progress was being made towards the establishment of an Irish Republic. Their actions led to what became known as the ‘Army Mutiny’ of March 1924. While the crisis was resolved peacefully, it was an important event in the history of the army as it confirmed the supremacy of the democratically elected government of the Irish State.

Free State leader W.T. Cosgrave faced the challenge of the Army Mutiny in 1924, which was resolved peacefully. Photo: ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Óglaigh na hÉireann

The final step in providing constitutional status for the army occurred when the Executive Council fixed 1 October 1924 as the date for the formal establishment of Óglaigh na hÉireann. That date effectively marked the end of the National Army and the establishment of the Irish Defence Forces. However, in reality, this only involved a change of name, as the personnel, organisation and regulations remained the same.

Óglaigh na hÉireann was also the official title of the Irish Volunteers, the organisation formed in 1913 to ‘maintain the rights and liberties common to all the people of Ireland’. Its continued use by the Irish Defence Forces in 1924, together with the adoption of the Irish Volunteer uniform, cap badge and buttons were all signs of its historic links to that organisation.

This article is part of the Civil War project coordinated by UCC and based on The Atlas of the Irish Revolution edited by John Crowley, Donal Ó Drisceoil and Mike Murphy and John Borgonovo. Its contents do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.