Some anti-Treaty activists advocated seizing land from absentee landlords, and in early 1923 Kevin O'Higgins claimed in the Dáil that 'the illegal occupation of land’ is ‘a definite part and parcel of the organised campaign against the State'. But how ready were local anti-Treaty IRA leaders and volunteers to defend their 'betrayed Republic' by expropriating land? Tony Varley explains

In the Dáil on 4 January 1922, Alec McCabe, TD for Sligo and Mayo East, advocated accepting the Treaty partly for the reason that 'the land question is still as far as ever from settlement'. McCabe’s prediction was that failure to accept the Treaty risked a resumption of war in which the ‘landless workers will have recourse to more deadly weapons than hazel sticks in attacking the ranches’. Something McCabe did not predict was that some leading elements within the anti-Treaty IRA would soon be promoting land seizures as a means of defending their cause and appealing to popular support.

Notes from Mountjoy

By late August 1922 an imprisoned Liam Mellows had realised that military struggle would never of itself deliver victory to the anti-Treaty side. In making his case to the senior anti-Treaty IRA leadership to set up a ’Provisional Republican Government’ and implement the First Dáil’s Democratic Programme of January 1919, Mellows illustrated what he had in mind by quoting selectively from an article in the Communist Party of Ireland’s Workers’ Republic of 22 July 1922.

Manifesto of the Communist Party of Ireland 1922 National Library of Ireland
Manifesto of the Communist Party of Ireland excoriating the Treaty and the idea of the Free State. Image courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

Besides urging the anti-Treaty IRA leadership to embrace the nationalisation of industry, transport and the banks, the Irish Communists had counselled it (in Mellows’ words) to seize ‘the lands of the aristocracy (who support the Free State and the British connection)’ and to divide them ‘amongst those who can and will operate it for the nation’s benefit, etc.’

Mellows went on to note how the anti-Treaty IRA Executive had already in May 1922 adopted a scheme for the ‘confiscation and distribution’ of ‘demesnes and ranches’. Largely the work of P.J. Ruttledge, this scheme actually went further than the Communist proposal (which confined itself to absentee landlords) in proposing to expropriate lands held by the Congested Districts Board, absentee landlords, and large resident landlords (with the exception of 100 or 200 of their acres).

But how ready were local anti-Treaty IRA leaders and volunteers to defend their betrayed Republic by expropriating land? On 17 May 1923 Kevin O’Higgins, Minister for Home Affairs, claimed in the Dáil that ‘the illegal occupation of land’ is ‘a definite part and parcel of the organised campaign against the State. Officers were appointed by the Four Courts executive whose special function and duty it was to stir up agrarian trouble of this kind and stir up this spirit of confiscation and wanton illegality’.

‘Political’ or ‘agrarian’?

Of course, not all agrarian intimidation in 1922-3 depended on active IRA stimulation; and decoupling anti-Treaty IRA agrarian attacks from civilian ones can sometimes be anything but straightforward. Likewise separating the ‘political’ from the ‘agrarian’ character of incidents (such as arson attacks on Big Houses) typically poses challenges of interpretation.

The burned out ruins of a big house set on fire in the Civil War
The burnt-out ruins of Sir Horace Plunkett's house at Kilteragh in Foxrock, County Dublin, which was destroyed by anti-Treaty forces at the tail end of the Civil War. Photo: Walshe/Getty Images

What is nonetheless clear is that conditions favourable to diverse forms of agrarian intimidation materialised with the law-and-order vacuum created by the absence of British forces; the Provisional Government’s disputed legitimacy along with its initially rudimentary policing capacity; and the progressively more severe post-war economic slump.

Further stoking land hunger and land-related intimidation was the perception of many – especially in places where local life-chances depended heavily on having access to land – that land reform (either wholly or partly) had passed them by.

Prior to the shelling of the Four Courts on 28 June, a surge of agrarian incidents was already generating a sense of moral panic in some quarters. ‘The country’, the Irish Times noted with alarm on 5 June 1922 in response to a wave of rent strikes and land seizures, was ‘slipping swiftly into agrarian and every other kind of ruin…’. It was therefore imperative that the Provisional Government lose no time in restoring ‘the reign of law’ and vindicating ‘the rights of property’.

Elite responses

Three mutually reinforcing reactions to its agrarian challengers inside and outside the anti-Treaty IRA – the propagandist, the coercive, and the reformist – can be identified among the pro-Treaty ruling elite. The publication in September 1922 of Mellows’ captured prison letters presented the Provisional Government with a gilt-edged opportunity to associate the anti-Treaty IRA’s top leadership with a deeply sinister strain of social radicalism.

Liam Mellows
Liam Mellows standing in front of Wolfe Tone's grave. Photo: Getty Images

Its Publicity Department and the pro-Treaty press – again conveying a sense of panic at the frightening prospect of the social and moral order breaking apart – sought to make much of the putatively perverse consequences of Mellows’ class and political analysis.

To equate the Irish nation with ‘the men of no property’ was bad enough, but to regard Irish land (and the family farming it supported) as a state-controlled public good rather than as private property that could be bought, sold and accumulated would spell certain doom for many of the ‘stake in the country’ people (Irish Independent, 22 September 1922).

It would also – by implication - undo the still incomplete land settlement under which farm ownership was passing from landlord to tenant and throw out possessive individualism and familism as the guiding values of the new farmer-owners. Only by creating a communist dictatorship could such seismic change be forced upon the Irish people.

A cartoon mocking the pro-Treaty publicity department, calling Fitzgerald the "liar in chief"
The Provisional Government's propaganda machine strongly implied that Mellows's plan could only be enabled by a communist dictatorshop. This cartoon of Desmond Fitzgerald by Constance Markievicz shows how the anti-Treaty side viewed the Publicity Department. Image courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

In its propagandist response the Provisional Government may have coupled defence of private property in land with defence of the new state itself, but was its coercive power sufficient to shield landholders from land seizures and other agrarian and agrarian-related labour disturbances?

Conscious of the new state’s patently weak policing capacity in the face of widespread violent civil disorder, and spurred on by Minister for Agriculture Patrick Hogan’s fear that a terrible new ‘Land War’ was brewing, discussions in late 1922 regarding a purpose-built military intervention culminated in the launching of the Special Infantry Corps (SIC) in January 1923. By early April 1923 Hogan was claiming that the SIC was working wonders in pacifying and returning to effective police control those counties especially prone to bouts of agrarian disorder.

On 5 January 1923 Hogan informed the Dáil that his government’s policy was to complete land purchase and to make ‘every holding in the Saorstát economic … to buy up the congested areas and to buy up the ranch lands outside the congested areas’. As much as the scale and intensity of agrarian intimidation gave urgency to Hogan’s reformist initiative – which ultimately crystallised as the 1923 Land Act – he was adamant that reform could resume only after land seizures and related forms of agrarian intimidation had ceased.

Sepia photo of a young Patrick Hogan circa 1922 National Library of Ireland
Minister for Agriculture Patrick Hogan circa 1922. Image courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

Class Politics and State-Building

In their different guises the Civil War’s agrarian class politics can be observed playing out in the anti-Treaty IRA’s class-versus-class agrarian strategy; in the reaction of pro-Treaty forces to Mellows’ captured prison letters; in the new state building a customised - if short-lived - coercive capacity (in the form of the SIC) to quell agrarian and agrarian-related labour unrest, and in Hogan’s class-with-class reformist legislation that promised to give some at least of the multitude with little or no land something of a ‘stake’ in the new Free State.

The Civil War’s agrarian class politics can be seen playing out locally in the multiplicity and diversity of the agrarian attacks themselves as well as in the class backgrounds of their perpetrators (largely young landless men) and of their targets (mainly gentry families, ‘ranchers’, and big labour-employing farmers, though neither medium-sized nor small farms were immune from acts of intimidation).

Along with presenting the pro-Treaty ruling elite with what were regarded as survival-threatening challenges to their infant state, the Civil War’s agrarian unrest had the unintended consequence of providing it with significant propagandist, coercive, and reformist state-building opportunities.

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.