War raged in Ireland in 1922, but that doesn't mean life didn't go on - or that plenty of groups weren't campaigning for peace. Bill Kissane tells how the civil institutions from the church to the GAA responded to the Civil War
The Civil War was a national tragedy because of the loss of leaders on both sides, such as Cathal Brugha, Michael Collins, Arthur Griffith and Liam Lynch. For such men the conflict was an intense one because of the importance they attached to the Treaty issue.
Yet the physical manifestations of this conflict were actually limited. With casualties numbering around 1,600, many counties were unaffected by serious fighting, and as historian Eunan O'Halpin has suggested, the war itself consisted of a series of indecisive encounters between two badly-led and poorly-motivated sides. Moreover, when we look at its impact on civic life, in place of division we find instead that civil society was actually a source of constant peace initiatives, that many civic bodies remained neutral, and some would provide a basis for reconstruction afterwards.
There was no phase of the Civil War that was not accompanied by peace initiatives. These came from many quarters; the feminist trade unionist Louie Bennett, Archbishop Harty of Cashel, Professor Culverwell of Trinity College Dublin, and the Old IRA’s Florrie O’Donoghue, who remained neutral during the Civil War. New civic bodies such as Clann na hÉireann, the National Economic Party, the Neutral IRA and the Cork People's Rights Association were also formed.
Peace proposals were often endorsed by the hundreds of elected local councils throughout the country. With the press censored, their role was to mobilise public opinion against the war. In Wexford, on 7 December 1922, a peace conference between the South and North Wexford Sinn Féin Executives, the County Farmers’ Association and the local Irish Transport & General Workers’ Union appealed for an armistice and called on local bodies to support their resolution.
If there was a chance of stopping the Civil War, its most opportune moment was the summer of 1922, when hopes for peace were vested in the meeting of the new parliament that had been elected on 16 June. Sixty representatives of the Cork People's Rights Association met on 17 July and unanimously demanded an immediate meeting. The first clause of its resolution read:
Against War: We believe we are voicing the views of the people of Munster when we declare ourselves not satisfied that such a disastrous fratricidal strife is unavoidable and when we appeal to those who fought so nobly for freedom to consider whether we are all drifting towards the greatest calamity in Irish history.
The association's belief that no mandate had been given for civil war in the June election was widely shared. The Labour Party threatened to resign its seats, but when the Third Dáil eventually met on 9 September 1922, Labour became the official opposition. By then a guerilla war had started, followed by executions beginning on 17 November.
Large parts of Ireland’s civil society remained neutral throughout the winter. The Gaelic League and the GAA were two examples. The Neutral IRA Association was founded in Dublin in December 1922 by men who had been prominent in the War of Independence. The re-establishment of IRA unity was its main aim. It held a Convention on 14 February 1923 and claimed as many as 25,000 members. It denounced the executions and called for a month’s truce. Neither the government nor de Valera responded positively to this appeal and in late March the organisation began to wind down.
Although peace initiatives continued, the Civil War ended in April 1923 only when the IRA decided to call a ceasefire. Why did these peace initiatives fail? For there to be peace, the government had to risk British displeasure and jettison the oath to the Crown, and the republicans had to commit to IRA decommissioning. Neither option was likely.
A complicating factor was the bitterness engendered by the executions, and the fact that members of the government had seen family members killed, such as Kevin O'Higgins’s father and William Cosgrave’s uncle. Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith had also died.
On 1 February 1923, Cosgrave commented that
The attitude of certain prominent people on the Government side is being enquired after. In fundamental matters this attitude has not changed. The position is that prominent members of the government have stood for the execution of certain Irishmen with good national records and without simply because by their particular actions they challenged the life of the Nation. The attitude in these matters has not changed since the 8th of December 1922.
Hearts had hardened.
Bridging the divide
Neutrality was not an easy position to adhere to in 1922 because the Treaty issue touched every individual conscience. But what role did civic organizations play in the reconstruction of Irish life afterwards? To a large extent this was determined by the way civil society had developed before independence.
Organisations like the GAA were (to quote historian Peter Murray) 'broad’, in the sense that they stood for issues that transcended the stalemated party politics of the day. But they were ‘narrow’ in the sense that they were committed to promoting specific aspects of Irish life. This broad quality meant that they were in a good position to bridge the divide.
Their narrow aspect meant that people could still involve themselves in nationalist activities that were non-political. In Kerry, where the worst atrocities of the Civil War took place, a Gaelic football match was organised to bring together anti- and pro-Treaty former combatants, who would go on to represent the county as part of a united team in the All-Ireland final of 1924.
The Catholic Church was doctrinally obliged to back the government in the Civil War. On 11 October 1922 Dr O’ Doherty, Bishop of Clonfert, stated that (a) the legitimate rulers of the state, while acting in that capacity, are the instruments and ministers of God himself, and (b) that the sacred duty of the citizen is respect and reverence for the legitimate civil authorities.
While individual priests, like Canon Eamon Kennedy, President of St Flannan’s College, involved themselves in peace initiatives, collectively the bishops maintained a united front, even after Monsignor Luzio, the Papal Nuncio, came to Ireland in April 1923 to help create an atmosphere of peace. Claiming a ‘universality’ for its beliefs, the Catholic Church’s view of Irish society influenced both Fíanna Fáil and Fine Gael, who legislated accordingly in the new state. ‘Holy Ireland’, the view of Ireland as a moral community, survived the split.
The support of the Catholic Church for the new state shows how, after 1923, Irish society became dependent on a small number of nation-wide organisations for the supply of moral and social cohesion. Organisations such as the Catholic Church, the GAA and the Gaelic League promoted the idea of the Irish nation as an inter-class community, an inclusive approach that had taken root before independence, especially during the Gaelic Revival and remains influential even today.
The violence both sides inflicted upon each other in 1922-23 has never been forgotten. Yet this violence did not cut that deep: by looking at civic life during the Civil War we find an answer to the important question of why social peace and national unity was re-established in the years that followed.
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, Mike Murphy and John Borgonovo. Its contents do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.