On 5 December 1922, the eve of the first anniversary of the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the acts establishing the Irish Free State completed their passage through the British parliament. At midnight, without flourish or fanfare, in the midst of an increasingly bitter civil war, the new dominion state, underpinned by the newly-enacted Irish Free State Constitution, formally came into being. Almost immediately, the Northern Ireland parliament in Belfast exercised its right under the terms of the Treaty to opt out of the jurisdiction of the Irish Free State (Saorstát Éireann).
'An end and a beginning'
An Irish Times editorial, headlined 'An end and a beginning', described the inauguration of the Free State on 6 December 1922 'as the most solemn of all occasions in the nation's history' - an 'almost bewildering moment of transition'. The Irish people would henceforth 'make their own laws, shape their own progress, establish their own traditions of government' and 'the honour of success or the shame of failure [would] fall upon themselves alone'.
The gravity of the occasion was not lost on the eighty pro-Treaty deputies who took their places under armed guard in Leinster House on 6 December, their solemnity underscored by the civil-war context into which the new dominion state was born. The internecine conflict had entered a more deadly and divisive phase in November, when four anti-Treaty republicans, including arch-propagandist Erskine Childers, were executed under the terms of the Provisional Government's Army (Special Powers) Resolution.
The draconian measure was deemed necessary by the pro-Treaty cabinet to stem anti-Treaty militarism that threatened to topple the fragile structure of the nascent Irish State. Anti-Treaty IRA Chief-of-Staff Liam Lynch responded on 27 November with a letter to the Ceann Comhairle (Speaker) threatening 'very drastic measures' against those deputies who had voted for the emergency resolution.
Three days later, a general order was issued for IRA operations against the 'enemy', including shooting-on-sight TDs who had supported 'the Murder Bill' and the destruction of residences and offices of those closely associated with the State. Tension mounted as 6 December approached. Ministers slept on mattresses in the heavily-fortified government buildings, trains running into Dublin were searched, and commentators feared that an extreme act of IRA violence would accompany the birth of the State.
'The most solemn of all occasions'
Neither the wider context, nor the political significance of 6 December, was lost on the bevy of national and international journalists who jockeyed for space in the crowded press gallery in Leinster House. The Freeman's Journal noted that Kevin O'Higgins was first into the chamber, 'looking very serious', and William T. Cosgrave, who had assumed and merged the roles of President of the Dáil and Chairman of the Provisional Government after the deaths of Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith in August, took his seat promptly at five o'clock, shaking hands with Labour Party leader Thomas Johnson.
The militarisation of Irish politics in 1922 was evinced by the arrival in uniform of five senior army officers, including Richard Mulcahy, Seán Mac Eoin and Gearóid O'Sullivan, whose forces were struggling to contain the republican campaign of guerrilla warfare and economic sabotage in the disturbed hinterlands of Munster and Connacht.
'In the saddle of Ireland'
In practice, little changed with the formal establishment of the Irish Free State, as all of the powers and apparatus of government had been transferred to the Provisional Government in early 1922. Symbolically and constitutionally, however, the events of 6 December, 'an epoch-making day' in the Cork Examiner's estimation, were deeply significant. The Free State Constitution, adopted by the third Dáil in October, enshrined the 'sole and exclusive' legislative powers of the bicameral parliament and guaranteed the basic civil rights and liberties of a liberal democracy.
It was not, however, the compromise constitution, the 'republic in disguise', promised by Collins. On Britain's insistence, and in accordance with the terms of the Treaty, the Constitution guaranteed the role of the king, the trappings of imperial membership and the oath of fidelity. These provisions were unacceptable to republicans, and while unpalatable to pro-Treatyites, were deemed necessary to ensure British ratification and would, O'Higgins insisted in the Dáil on 18 September, put the people 'definitely in the saddle of Ireland'. Anti-Treatyites refused to recognise the legitimacy of the Free State parliament and on 6 December, placard-carrying anti-Treaty women in Dublin sarcastically greeted the arrival of 'Empire Day'.
This cartoon by Constance Markievicz highlights the Free State's lingering ties to the British Empire. The cartoon is headed "Comic Cosgrave, Jester in Chief to the Freak State, as seen in the Empire" above a caricature of W.T. Cosgrave, dressed in a jester's costume, sitting on a throne. His left hand points towards a packet of cards and in his right hand is a card featuring the Union Jack. The text below the image reads "Comic Cosgrave tells us that it is a short step from the bar to a Judge's chair. We ask him was it a big jump from behind the bar to the President's chair?" Image courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.
The business in Leinster House on 6 December was to inaugurate the two houses of the Oireachtas, elect a President of the Executive Council (Prime Minister), populate the cabinet, and administer to deputies the highly-contested oath. This latter duty fell to Ceann Comhairle, Professor Michael Hayes, who had been sworn in earlier that day by the Free State's first Governor General Timothy M. Healy, a veteran constitutional nationalist from West Cork.
W.T. Cosgrave was duly elected President and in a 'sombre' speech, which reviewed the tragedy of the previous twelve months, he expressed intense pride at being 'the first man called to preside over the first government which takes over the control of the destiny of our people'.
The President's nominees to the Executive Council were accepted: Kevin O'Higgins as Vice-president and Minister for Home Affairs; General Richard Mulcahy as Minister for Defence; Desmond Fitzgerald as Minister of External Affairs; Professor Eoin MacNeill as Minister of Education; Joseph McGrath as Minister of Industry and Commerce and Ernest Blythe as Minister of Local Government.
The proceedings, described with a little disappointment by the Irish Independent as 'tame, quiet, monotonous and business-like', closed with the announcement of Cosgrave's nominees for the Senate. Under the Constitution, the legislature's upper house would comprise sixty members, half of whom were nominated by the President, and the other half elected by the Dáil. Cosgrave's selection included Protestants William Butler Yeats and Sir Horace Plunkett and the Earls of Mayo, Kerry and Dunraven, a signal that the Senate, as the constitution intended, would be representative and inclusive and that southern unionists would have a role in the new State.
'The future is full of hope'
'The future is full of hope', Cosgrave told journalists gathered at Holyhead to greet Governor General Tim Healy on 5 December, 'we are rapidly nearing the end of our troubles and ... in a very short time all will be well'. The events of the following week would belie the President's promise. Saorstát Éireann was just a day old when, acting on Lynch's reprisal order, the anti-Treaty IRA killed Seán Hales TD and wounded his parliamentary colleague Pádraig Ó Máille, as they left the Ormond Hotel in Dublin on their way to Leinster House
Shocked by the assassination, the Executive Council authorised the extra-judicial 'reprisal' executions of four prominent anti-Treaty IRA prisoners, Rory O'Connor, Liam Mellows, Joe McKelvey and Dick Barrett. 'On horror's head horrors accumulate,' cried Thomas Johnson, quoting Othello in the Dáil on 9 December.
'Almost the first act' of the Executive Council, said Johnson, is 'to destroy in the public mind the association of the Government with the idea of law. I am almost forced to say you have killed the new State at its birth'.
O'Higgins defended the executions as the only means of preserving 'representative government or democratic institutions', and Mulcahy was adamant that the action was a 'a deterrent' to chaos. The executions in Mountjoy did seem to deter further attempts on the lives of parliamentarians but, on 10 December, the campaign against property began in earnest.
The IRA carried out a series of arson attacks in Dublin, targeting the homes and businesses of, amongst others, Postmaster General, J.J. Walsh; Michael McDunphy, Assistant Secretary to the Government, and Nancy Wyse Power, founder of pro-Treaty women's organisation Cumann na Saoirse and a member of the Senate, due to meet for the first time on 11 December. Tragically, the arson attack on the Fairview home of Seán McGarry TD resulted in the death of his seven-year-old son, Emmet.
On 17 December the last detachments of the British Army evacuated Dublin and four days later a tricolour was hoisted over the Viceregal Lodge in the Phoenix Park to mark the arrival of Tim Healy, the King's representative in Ireland. Except for the euphoric coverage by the Freeman's Journal, the generally muted acknowledgement of this historic occasion was in stark contrast to the wide-ranging celebrations that attended the handover of Dublin Castle in January 1922. The relative sobriety was partly due to the heightened tension in Dublin in December, but also because the Constitutional enshrinement of the post of Governor General – despite the British concession of an Irish nominee – ensured an enduring symbol of the colonial presence in Ireland.
The largely-ceremonial role was one of Éamon de Valera's first targets after taking office as President of the Executive Council in March 1932. Through a series of constitutional amendments, made possible by the Statue of Westminster 1931 and vindicating the 'stepping-tone' philosophy of his civil-war opponents, he removed the 'odious oath', eliminated the right of appeal to the Privy Council, abolished the Free State Senate and diluted to insignificance the role of governor general.
In 1936, against the backdrop of the Abdication Crisis in Britain, de Valera authored a new Constitution stripped of any reference to the British Crown and on 29 December 1937, when Bunreacht na hÉireann came into operation, the Irish Free State was succeeded by Éire (Ireland), a 'sovereign, independent, democratic state' – a republic in all but name. Despite the violent and dramatic circumstances of its birth, the Irish Free State proved one of the few that emerged in the wake of the First World War to maintain its democratic institutions to the present day.
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.