The victory of the pro-Treaty Free State has been viewed by some as a triumph of bourgeois Ireland over the "men of no property". But what does the Civil War really tell us about social fractures in the early 1920s? Gavin Foster explains.
Negotiated and signed in London in late 1921, the historic ‘Articles of Agreement for a Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland’ that created the Irish Free State immediately sparked controversy in Ireland, with TDs in the revolutionary Dáil fiercely debating the relative merits of the compromise settlement versus its failure to satisfy the revolution’s republican ideals.
Following the Dáil’s narrow vote in favour of the Treaty, the political controversy spread throughout the Sinn Féin movement, with the rival pro- and anti-Treaty camps each attracting support among sections of the public in the chaotic months before open warfare erupted in Dublin.
The pre-Truce Sinn Féin movement had championed cross-class national unity against so-called ‘sectional’ interests of labour, the land-hungry, commercial farmers, business interests, and the like. The post-Treaty break up of nationalist solidarity has thus inspired debate about a possible social or class logic behind the 1922-23 Civil War.
The most influential class interpretation has been supplied by the socialist-republican tradition which views the victory of the Irish Free State as a bourgeois ‘counter-revolution’ against a republican cause naturally aligned with the socio-economic interests of the ‘men of no property’. The latter phrase comes from the writings of Theobald Wolfe Tone, whom anti-Treaty martyr Liam Mellows cited in his famous Jail Notes written and smuggled out of Mountjoy Gaol a few months before his execution in December 1922.
Mellows had been tasked with formulating ideas on social and political policy to revive the IRA’s faltering campaign. He drew on a programme for radical land and resource redistribution in a worker-run state advocated by the Communist Party of Ireland, though he contended that such ideas were consistent with the Dáil’s 1919 Democratic Programme.
His suggestions proved far too radical – or simply irrelevant – to Liam Lynch and other more conservative IRA leaders who were preoccupied with military strategy over political or social questions. Nonetheless, the radical legacy of Mellow survived the IRA’s failed civil war campaign as a motivating myth for the left republican tradition that revived similar socialist ideas in the 1930s and beyond.
The Labour Movement and the Civil War
Subsequent scholarship has found little evidence to support the idea of the Civil War as an actual or potential class war between Irish ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’. But, at the same time, historians have generally endorsed a broad picture of a pro-Treaty camp primarily supported by the middle classes, large farmers, business interests, the Church, commercial press, and other pillars of the Irish establishment, versus an anti-Treaty movement that appealed more to the lower strata of society, especially small farmers in the west, agricultural labourers, and sections of the working and lower-middle classes in the towns and cities.
However, the Irish Labour party’s support for the Treaty, and the ambiguous position of organized labour and workers more generally, frustrate efforts to explain the Civil War divide in straightforward economic terms. In particular, the labour movement’s General Strike against militarism in April 1922 alienated and antagonized republicans who saw it as an implicit endorsement of the Treaty with Britain.
Labour Party leaders Thomas Johnson and Cathal O’Shannon nonetheless offered fierce criticism of Free State policies during the Civil War, including the executions of republicans like Mellows, but the labour-republican rift was never reconciled during or after the Civil War.
While a few left-leaning republicans and republican-leaning labourites invested hopes in the return of James Larkin from a decade of activism and incarceration in the U.S., when he returned near the end of the Civil War, his call for the IRA to surrender its arms soured relations with republicans overnight.
His anti-Treaty critics argued that the counter-revolutionary views of Johnson and even Larkin reflected how 'rotten' and imperialistic the post-Connolly labour movement had become, but the presence of tens of thousands of working-class recruits in the Free State Army – whether their motives were economic, political, or both – is a further blow to framing the Civil War as a clear conflict between labour and capital.
Social Forces and Fracture Lines
But this does not mean we can simply dismiss the role of class in the conflict. Indeed, a growing body of research demonstrates that the lines of fracture in the Civil War interacted with economic structures, class hierarchies, and other social forces in important, if quite complex, ways.
For example, Tom Garvin’s analysis of the backgrounds of TDs in the Second Dáil found "a small, but noticeable, correlation between high social status and pro–Treaty voting." His wider sampling of leading republican activists showed no dramatic class divide on the Treaty question, but did indicate that older activists, those with more education, and members of white-collar professions were more likely to back the Treaty, while activists from Munster as well as the tiny minority of Protestant and foreign-born Sinn Féiners disproportionately opposed the settlement – as did a majority of women in the movement.
Class and the anti-Treaty IRA
What about the split in the IRA? By the spring of 1922, most of the IRA’s Divisions had sided against the Treaty, with anti-Treaty sentiment especially concentrated in the organization’s western, southern, and northern sections. However, when one looks more closely at brigades, battalions, and ‘flying columns’, stances on the Treaty were more mixed, while a majority of Volunteers would ultimately take a neutral stance in the conflict.
In terms of the IRA’s military performance, while a few counties became more or less active in 1922-23 compared to the Tan War, the broad geography of fighting largely remained the same as before, with much of Munster plus Dublin City consistently in the vanguard.
Turning to the social characteristics of the fighting men, the late Peter Hart distinguished an increasingly working-class character to the post-Truce IRA in County Cork, though he attributed this to better off Volunteers leaving the organization rather than droves of labourers joining up to resist the Free State.
But due to mass recruiting efforts during a period of high unemployment and British Army demobilizations, the National Army was more working-class in composition than the IRA. Contrary to Free State propaganda, which portrayed the typical anti-Treaty Volunteer as a young, opportunistic 'Trucileer', probably a majority of anti-Treaty fighters had seen service in the Tan War and were, on average, a little older than the typical Free State recruit.
Public Opinion and Social Class
Among the general public it is more difficult to gauge social patterns behind political loyalties given the absence of opinion polls, while the June 1922 and August 1923 General Elections remain imprecise guides to popular opinion given problems with how both elections were conducted.
But based on the results of the 1923 election – which pro-Treaty candidates (all parties combined) handily won with nearly three-quarters of the total vote – a rough social geography of the political split in the Civil War can be discerned: the highest percentage of first preference anti-Treaty votes were concentrated in the poorest, highest emigration, and heavily subsistence farming regions of the south and west, whereas pro-government support predominated in the comparatively more prosperous east and midlands. These results hint at the subsequent electoral profiles of the post-Civil War Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil parties, respectively.
Ultimately, the Treaty split and Civil War line-up were the products of too many complex and overlapping political and social variables to be reduced to a simple class war divide. However, one cannot deny that class identities, economic interests, and social outlooks were among the variables that shaped the split and the Civil War.
More social than political
Indeed, when one looks beyond the few large battles fought in Dublin and Munster towns, or the small-scale actions between anti-Treaty guerillas and Free State troops, much of the violence and chaos of 1922 and 1923 involved land conflicts, labour strikes, personal feuds, property crimes, assaults, acts of intimidation, and other forms of disorder that were more social than political in nature.
The Free State Government viewed much of this conflict as ‘irregularism’, a catchall term that laid blame for the disorder on anti-Treaty resistance to the new state. In truth, while the IRA often welcomed and benefited from the law-and-order vacuum exacerbated by strikes, land grabs, and other unrest, it neither orchestrated nor succeeded in harnessing the unrest to its political cause.
However, if one moment in the revolutionary process since 1916 can be said to have brought social divisions and class conflicts to the fore, it was undoubtedly the Irish Civil War.
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.