On 7 January 1922, the Anglo-Irish Treaty was ratified by the Second Dáil, the parliament of the self-declared Irish Republic. The Treaty mandated the replacement of the thirty-two-county Irish Republic with a twenty-six-county Irish Free State, to be governed by an elected parliament (later called the Third Dáil). A provisional government headed by Michael Collins would rule the country until an elected government took power.

During this transition phase, pro-Treaty leaders acted in the name of both the Provisional Government and the Second Dáil (government ministers retained matching portfolios in both bodies), thus bolstering their popular legitimacy. However, from an early stage, the new regime faced deep opposition from within the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

Image - Sean Hogan's Flying Column, 3rd Tipperary Brigade IRA during the War of Independence

Sean Hogan's Flying Column, 3rd Tipperary Brigade IRA during the War of Independence

The IRA was a decentralized mass movement, which rapidly evolved during the guerrilla war of 1919-1921. Members were primarily working-class and lower-middle-class Catholic men, who supported sovereign independence. Governed democratically, the IRA was characterised by collective decision-making and the election of officers by their subordinates.

Nominally, the IRA answered to the Dáil Minister of Defence (Cathal Brugha, until early 1922), though this subordination was voluntary and complicated by the involvement of numerous senior IRA officers in the Sinn Féin political party and in local and national government. The IRA General Headquarters Staff (called GHQ) directed the organisation, though its authority was weak beyond Dublin. Provincial units armed and financed themselves, planned their own operations, and often acted with little deference to GHQ.

Image - IRA structure in 1921

IRA structure in 1921

Organisationally, the IRA's smallest unit was a company, which typically encompassed a village, townland, or urban neighbourhood. A number of companies formed a battalion, and a number of battalions formed a brigade, which often encompassed a large part of a county.

At the time of the July 1921 Truce, the IRA fielded seventy-four brigades, comprised of 297 battalions, comprised, in turn, of 2,009 companies made up of roughly 115,000 members. In 1921, GHQ added a new structural layer, grouping brigades in the same area into a division.

By the Treaty split, a total of sixteen divisions answered directly to IRA GHQ. Of these, the First and Second Southern divisions (encompassing most of the province of Munster), were easily the strongest, accounting for roughly forty percent of all IRA members and rifles. It should be remembered that the IRA possessed only about 3,000 rifles in late 1921, which meant it lacked the firepower to engage in conventional fighting.

The National Army

IRA GHQ largely supported the Anglo-Irish Treaty, and its two dominant figures Michael Collins and Richard Mulcahy assumed top positions in the Provisional Government, as Chairman and Minister of Defence respectfully. They brought with them much of the fighting elite of the IRA's powerful Dublin Brigade.

Most of the Leinster IRA likewise supported the Treaty, though these included some of the IRA's weakest units (an exception being the lethal Longford Brigade). The Provisional Government quickly expanded beyond this nucleus to form what was called the National Army, headquartered in Dublin's Beggars Bush Barracks.

Image - National Army soldiers march into Beggars Bush Barracks, Haddington Road, Dublin 1922.They are led by Captain Paddy Daly. Photo © RTE Photographic Archive

National Army soldiers march into Beggars Bush Barracks, Haddington Road, Dublin 1922.They are led by Captain Paddy Daly. Photo © RTE Photographic Archive

Financed by the Provisional Government and armed by the British Government, the National Army rapidly built up its strength. Unlike the anti-Treaty IRA, which was comprised of volunteers, the National Army paid its soldiers, a somewhat neglected reason for its quick growth.

Opposing the Treaty

It can be estimated that between seventy and seventy-five percent of IRA members opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Prior to the signing of the Treaty, little work was done to prepare IRA officers outside of Dublin for a difficult compromise. Michael Collins did not consult his IRA comrades before signing the Treaty, nor was the IRA petitioned prior to the Dáil's ratification. Enjoying a high standing within the IRA, Collins seemed to believe he could convince his IRA comrades to accept the agreement despite their misgivings.

This proved a fatal miscalculation. Provincial IRA leaders were surprised by the Treaty terms, particularly the surrender of Irish sovereignty and the inclusion of the Free State in the British Empire. The prompt evacuation of the Irish Free State territory by the Crown forces during February left these Treaty opponents in control of much of the country, particularly in Munster and Connacht. Their formal repudiation of the Provisional Government occurred three months after the Treaty ratification.

Image - Richard Mulcahy, then Minister of Defence.

Richard Mulcahy, then Minister of Defence.

A new convention

Under its original constitution, the IRA organisation (then called the Irish Volunteers) was governed by a national executive elected at an annual convention of unit representatives. Owing to the danger of arrest, no conventions were held during the War of Independence period.

In 1919, IRA members had sworn allegiance to Dáil Eireann, while the (unelected) IRA GHQ answered to the Dáil Minister of Defence. Since the Treaty disestablished the Irish Republic, senior IRA officers now believed they were no longer obliged to follow the orders of the Free Minister of Defence, Richard Mulcahy and demanded a convention to determine future army policy.

Recognising the danger posed by a gathering of disaffected IRA officers, Mulcahy delayed approving the convention, which gave the government more time to build up the National Army as a separate force from the IRA. A convention of unit representatives was only reluctantly scheduled for 26 March 1922 at the Mansion House in Dublin.

Image - Anti-Treaty propagandists attacked Griffith for "muzzling" the Convention. Image courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

Anti-Treaty propagandists attacked Griffith for "muzzling" the Convention. Image courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

A defiant Convention

In early March, the Provisional Government banned the convention but defiant IRA officers convened regardless, drawing representatives from fifty-two of seventy-three IRA brigades, including the majority of the IRA's most formidable units.

Convention delegates reaffirmed the IRA's loyalty to the Republic and repudiated their fealty to Dáil Eireann and the Provisional Government. Yet a major division emerged within the Anti-Treaty IRA (called IRA from here onward) between militants who wanted to immediately declare a military dictatorship and forcibly end the Provisional Government rule, and moderates who sought a compromise that would undermine the Anglo-Irish Treaty but avoid civil war.

Rory O'Connor, pictured here on 2 April 1922, represented the IRA's militant wing. This event was described in the Irish Independent on Monday, 3 April 1922: ''Members of the Dublin City Brigade I.R.A., paraded yesterday at Smithfield under officers who recognise the new Executive established as a result of the recent Convention. The men were addressed by Commondant Oscar Traynor, Commandant General Rory O'Connor, Brigadier Commandant F. Henderson, and some Battalion Commandants. Com.-Gen. R. O'Connor told the men that they were not asked to take any oath at the gathering, but were there to declare that they would defend the Irish Republic against its enemies, whether foreign or domestic.'' Image courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

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'Mutineers' and 'Irregulars'

The leading moderates came from Liam Lynch's First Southern Division, while the militants were best represented by Rory O'Connor and Liam Mellows. Reconvening on 9 April, the IRA convention elected an Army Executive, which appointed Liam Lynch as Chief of Staff. At this stage the IRA began to be called the 'Executive forces', or, in the pro-government press, 'Mutineers' and 'Irregulars'.

In early May moderate IRA leaders in the First Southern Division negotiated a compromise with senior National Army generals to reunify the IRA based on acceptance of the Treaty and an uncontested general election. Their 'army unification agreement' was linked to the 'pact' election agreement for the upcoming General Election: A reunified Sinn Féin party would run a panel of pro and anti-Treaty candidates who, if successful, would form a coalition government.

Once this new government took office, the reunified IRA would voluntarily subordinate itself to a pre-approved Minister of Defence. Privately, the National Army and IRA leaders also agreed to conduct a joint offensive along the Northern Ireland border in mid-May.

Michael Collins was key to all three deals, particularly his promise that the forthcoming Free State constitution would reduce connections to the British Empire. Appalled by an apparent renegotiation of the Anglo-Irish Treaty terms, the British Cabinet suspended arms shipments to the National Army and halted the British Army's evacuation of Ireland.

Map showing the division of the IRA on the Treaty issue in the spring of 1922.

Seven out of a total of sixteen IRA divisions remained loyal to the pro-Treaty General Headquarters (GHQ), but the two largest – the 1st and 2nd Southern Divisions under Liam Lynch and Ernie O'Malley respectively, which contained approximately one third of the entire force – were anti-Treaty (although the latter and the 3rd Southern contained both pro-and anti-Treaty units; see 'Disputed area').

The most active parts of the pre-Truce IRA went anti-Treaty, with the exception of Clare (under the influence of Michael Brennan), Longford (under the influence of Seán Mac Eoin) and a minority of the Dublin No. 1 Brigade. Frank Aiken opposed the Treaty, but his 4th Northern Division was neutral before and at the outset of the Civil War.

The vacated British army barracks in Listowel, County Kerry and Skibbereen, County Cork were the only ones in Munster occupied by Volunteers loyal to the Provisional Government/GHQ.

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Image - Liam Lynch and First Southern Division delegates to the IRA Convention, circa March 1922. Image courtesy of Cork Public Museum

Liam Lynch and First Southern Division delegates to the IRA Convention, circa March 1922. Image courtesy of Cork Public Museum

Despite some internal IRA support for the 'army unification agreement', the IRA Executive believed further negotiations would demoralise Treaty opponents, strengthen the National Army, and just delay an inevitable clash. In early June, hopes of averting a civil war faded.

The IRA's Northern offensive failed miserably, and the General Election held on 16 June 1922 returned the Sinn Féin pact panel, but with a strong preference for pro-Treaty members. The new Free State constitution (released on the day of the election) reaffirmed the Free State's status as an imperial dominion, despite Michael Collins's assurances. This made it even more difficult to form a coalition government that could enjoy the loyalty of republican IRA officers.

The path to Civil War

Two days after the election, on 18 June, the IRA held a final convention in Dublin to consider the army unification agreement. The first vote was on a rival resolution by the militant faction to open hostilities on the British military in order to reunify the independence movement.

After the war motion was narrowly voted down, Rory O'Connor and Liam Mellows lead a walk out from the convention. About half the delegates reconvened in the Four Courts and replaced Liam Lynch with Joe McKelvey as chief of staff. The IRA had thus split into two, with the militants staying in the Four Courts, while Lynch and his moderate faction headquartered in the Clarence Hotel.

Image - The assassination of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, seen here in 1921, triggered the attack on the Four Courts. Photo by Central Press/Getty Images

The assassination of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, seen here in 1921, triggered the attack on the Four Courts. Photo by Central Press/Getty Images

Outside events now intervened. For reasons that remain unclear, IRA members in London assassinated Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, a top military leader closely tied to Northern Ireland. An outraged British Cabinet demanded that the Provisional Government clear out the IRA headquarters in the Four Courts, even though it had nothing to do with the Wilson killing.

The IRA's moderate/militant rupture helped convince optimistic National Army leaders that they could defeat the Four Court hardliners without sparking a civil war. However, when the shelling of the Four Courts began on 27 June, both moderate and militant IRA officers considered it a declaration of war against the Irish Republic. Lynch resumed his role as IRA Chief of Staff and organised national resistance by the IRA. This ensured civil war would neither be brief nor confined to Dublin.

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.