Two letters ended the conflict that tore the country apart. Brian Hanley on how the anti-Treaty IRA came to lay down their arms.

On 20 April 1923 the anti-Treaty IRA leadership met near Mullinahone in County Tipperary. Ten days earlier, their Chief of Staff Liam Lynch had been killed while being pursued by troops on the Knockmealdown Mountains. In late March an IRA Executive meeting had voted narrowly to continue the war, mostly at Lynch's urging. To the end he remained optimistic about the chances of republicans turning the tide against the Free State. The twelve IRA Executive members who met after his death (four others were in jail or on the run) were far more realistic. This group included Frank Aiken, Tom Barry, Tom Crofts, P.J. Ruttledge and Seán MacSwiney.

Black and white photo of Tom Barry
Tom Barry, seen here shortly after the War of Independence. Image courtesy of Kilmainham Gaol Museum/OPW KMGLM.19PC-1A54-29

A new Chief of Staff

They knew that at local level across the 26 counties the IRA’s military effort had almost fizzled out and existed more as an (occasionally deadly) irritant rather than a real threat to the Free State. Those at the meeting recognized that some form of truce had to concluded with the Free State authorities. But first a new Chief of Staff had to be elected. Significantly, Armagh man Frank Aiken was the unanimous choice.

Commander of the 4th Northern Division during the War of Independence, Aiken had been slow to resume armed activity during the summer of 1922, maintaining a somewhat neutral position until he felt that the Free State had forced his hand. From the outset he contended that civil war brought out all that was 'mean and base' in a nation.

Black and photo of Frank Aiken, a white man in his 60s with a moustache
Frank Aiken, seen here in 1968. Photo © RTE Photographic Archive

Aiken was close politically to Sinn Féin leader Éamon de Valera, who had argued for an end to the war at the IRA Executive meeting in March. However de Valera, not being a member of the IRA leadership himself, had only observer status at that meeting and his advice was rejected by Liam Lynch. Now Aiken proposed that the republican leadership (defined by him as the ‘Government and Army Council’) be empowered to ‘make peace’ with the Free State government on the basis that

1. ‘The sovereignty of the Irish Nation and the integrity of its territory are inalienable.

2. That any instrument purporting to the country is, to the extent of its violation of above principle, null and void.’

The idea behind what were later referred to as the ‘ceasefire proposals’ was to offer an honourable way for the anti-Treaty IRA to cease fighting. Tom Barry added a proposal that the IRA immediately cease all ‘armed resistance.’ This, however, was rejected. A further amendment that the IRA ‘carry on war’ if their ceasefire offer was refused was not passed either, with delegates divided equally on the matter. However, the IRA leadership decided that if the Free State government was prepared to accept their proposals, then they would accept ‘majority rule.’

The bearing of 'a defeated man'

Despite what were significant concessions from the IRA’s point of view, they were not operating from a position of strength. The Free State authorities were convinced that the organisation had been dealt almost fatal blows and were in no mood to compromise with it.

De Valera black and white portrait, 1922
De Valera circa 1923. Southern unionists with whom he met that April said he had the "bearing of a defeated man". Photo: Getty Images

During April de Valera took part in exploratory talks facilitated by leading southern unionists, one of whom described the Sinn Féin leader as having the bearing of a 'defeated man.' But the Free State government rejected these offers and demanded instead an effective IRA surrender. Though there were some activists in Sinn Féin and the IRA who preferred to fight on, both Aiken and de Valera argued in favour of a ceasefire.

‘Dump Arms’

Another IRA leadership meeting, along with representatives of the republican ‘government’ was held on 13-14 May. Following this meeting Aiken issued an order to his officers to ‘dump arms’ (safely secure weapons in secret locations) and cease ‘all armed resistance.’

Frank Aiken's letter ordering the dumping of arms. Image courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

This was not a surrender however. Aiken was clear that ‘the dumping of arms does not mean that the usefulness of the IRA is past, or release any member of it from his duty to his country … it is clearly our duty to keep the Army Organisation intact.’ He reminded his officers that

‘we joined the IRA and enlisted men to firmly establish the Republic of Ireland. We fought for that, our comrades dies [sic] for it. Until we reach that objective it is our duty to push towards it, using at every moment the means at our disposal best suited to achieve our purpose.’

Despite the ceasefire ‘discipline must be maintained, ordinary routine work done and reports returned … Officers must do their utmost to safeguard their men and get them back to civilian work. The wounded and needy Volunteers must be cared for.’ He also warned that officers ‘must give special care to men who are liable to be murdered, if captured.’ This was a necessary precaution as, despite the ceasefire, killings of anti-Treatyites by state forces, sometimes after capture, would continue into the Autumn of 1923.

‘Legion of the Rearguard’

De Valera’s public message to the ‘Legion of the Rearguard’ on 24 May was more memorable. He asserted that while ‘the Republic’ could ‘no longer be defended successfully by your arms’, volunteers should not let ‘sorrow overwhelm you.’

Carbon copy of de Valera's letter to the legion of the rearguard, effectively ending the Civil War. Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland
A carbon copy of de Valera's letter to the 'Legion of the rearguard', which along with Aiken's letter effectively ended the Civil War. Image courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

He praised the IRA for saving ‘the nation’s honour’ and while ‘victory must be allowed rest for the moment’ with the Free State, de Valera assured the volunteers that their ‘efforts and the sacrifices of your dead comrades will surely bear fruit ... [you] have kept open the road to independence.’

The Sinn Féin leader also tried to offer some explanation for the IRA’s defeat. He reminded the men that ‘seven years of intense efforts have exhausted our people. Their sacrifices and their sorrows have been many. If they have turned away and not given you the active support which alone could bring you victory in this last year, it is because they are weary and need a rest. Give them a little time and you will yet see them recover and rally again to the standard.’

Though violence continued sporadically in different parts of the state, in general the IRA accepted the cessation order. There was no suggestion, however, that it was recognising the Free State. As far as republicans were concerned, there would be another 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 and Mike Murphy and John Borgonovo. Its contents do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.