Ireland’s Civil War Ended in Victory for the Irish Counterrevolution

A hundred years ago today, the Irish Civil War began in Dublin. Its outcome entrenched the power of an ultraconservative bloc whose leaders ruthlessly snuffed out hopes that Irish independence would result in social transformation for workers and women.

Armed anti-Treaty members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in Grafton Street, Dublin during the Irish Civil War. (Walshe / Getty Images)

On June 28, 1922, Irish Free State forces, under pressure from the British government, opened fire on the anti-Treaty garrison in Dublin’s Four Courts, thus beginning the Irish Civil War. It was a bitter and tragic breach within the Irish revolutionary forces that had successfully fought a war against the British state over the previous years.

While the Civil War was not a class conflict in any straightforward sense, it was strongly marked by the social upheavals of Ireland’s national revolution. The most conservative elements in Irish society rallied behind the Free State and saw the republicans who opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty as a threat to the established order. After a decisive victory for the pro-Treaty side, the leaders of the new state turned it into a bulwark of social reaction, with consequences still felt in Ireland today.

From Truce to Treaty

In December 1918, Sinn Féin (We Ourselves) had swept the board in the Irish constituencies of the UK general election. The next month, its deputies declared an independent parliament in Dublin, Dáil Éireann. The creation of ministries and courts soon followed, while the Irish Republican Army (IRA) began a campaign of guerrilla war against British crown forces.

With an escalating and increasingly successful War of Independence in progress, the leaders of the British state called a truce in July 1921 and invited Irish representatives to negotiations in London. In December 1921, Irish plenipotentiaries including Michael Collins, one of the most important IRA commanders, and the Sinn Féin leader Arthur Griffith signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty.

Its terms created a twenty-six-county Irish Free State as a Dominion of the British Empire, with control over most of its domestic affairs. But this fell far short of the Republic which had been declared by Irish revolutionaries at the Easter Rising of 1916. Crucially, Britain would maintain control over key Irish ports; the British state would appoint a governor general in Ireland; and representatives of Dáil Éireann would have to swear an oath of fidelity to the British monarch.

The Treaty also hardened the partition of the island. This had previously been enacted under the 1920 Government of Ireland Act, with the six north-eastern counties where the unionist population was concentrated forming a devolved region of the United Kingdom called Northern Ireland. Proponents of the Treaty hoped that a proposed Boundary Commission would transfer parts of Northern Ireland’s territory to the jurisdiction of the new southern state: two of its six counties had a nationalist majority, as did its second-largest city, Derry.

“Immediate and Terrible War”

The Treaty was narrowly accepted by only seven votes in the Dáil. Importantly, the majority in the three military organizations of the independence movement — the IRA, the women’s group Cumann na mBan (Irishwomen’s Council), and the youth section, Fianna Éireann — opposed it.

It is important to remember that the Treaty was far from being a peaceful product of negotiation. The Irish delegates signed it with a gun to their heads, after British prime minister David Lloyd George threatened “immediate and terrible war” if they refused to do so.

Most British MPs, including Labour ones, congratulated themselves on solving “the Irish Question” that had plagued them for decades. Yet the Communist MP for Battersea North, Shapurji Saklatvala, offered a voice of dissension in his maiden speech of 1922, declaring the Treaty to be “a forced freedom.” The Scottish Communist leader Willie Gallacher later claimed that he raced to Dublin to inform IRA leaders of the impending sellout by Irish representatives in London.

Over the following months, sections of the anti-Treaty IRA occupied strategic buildings, partly as a power play, but also in preparation for renewed hostilities, which they hoped would be directed against the British. It was not to be. The forces of the new state instead began hostilities against their former comrades.

The anti-Treaty IRA adopted a militarist strategy and simply declared their goal to be “the Republic.” What that meant was open to interpretation. Local units sometimes assisted with social issues related to land, for instance. On the whole, however, and in contrast with later revolutions such as Cuba’s, there was no sustained effort to ameliorate social conditions in territories held by the IRA.

A Sentimental Plea?

In July 1922, representatives of the fledgling Communist Party of Ireland (CPI) met in London with Comintern emissary Mikhail Borodin, who argued that it was “really laughable to fight the Free State on a sentimental plea” and pointedly asked of the anti-Treaty leaders: “What the hell do they want a Republic for?”

Together, Borodin and the Irish communists developed a social program designed to rally support for the anti-Treaty position and deliver a Republic based on state ownership and a substantial improvement in conditions for workers and small farmers. The IRA’s chief of staff, Liam Lynch, met with CPI representatives soon afterward. Although he treated them cordially, he did not adopt their proposed blueprint.

That program did, however, make its way into prisons where anti-Treaty activists were being held via copies of the CPI’s periodical, the Workers’ Republic. It had a notable influence on the leading republican Liam Mellows in particular, who expressly acknowledged that debt in his “Notes from Mountjoy,” a seminal text for later generations of republicans.

By the end of August 1922, government offensives had spectacularly defeated the IRA’s attempt to hold cities and towns. It thereafter pursued a policy of guerrilla war. This was no match for the government’s campaign, which became more ruthless as it progressed.

In December 1922, the Free State authorities took four captured IRA executive members, Liam Mellows, Rory O’Connor, Joe McKelvey, and Richard Barrett, from their cells to be executed without trial. In total, the Free State officially executed eighty-one people throughout the conflict, far more than the British had throughout the entire War of Independence.

The writing was on the wall for the IRA following Lynch’s death in April 1923. Its new chief of staff, Frank Aiken, ordered the dumping of arms in May, effectively bringing an end to the war. The methods of guerrilla warfare that had been highly successful when deployed against British power in Ireland proved to be much less effective against a state and government that had a stronger base in Irish society.

Class Perspectives

Holding to the “great men” notion of history, Neil Jordan’s epic film Michael Collins (1996) portrayed the Civil War as a tragic personality clash between Liam Neeson’s charismatic and sincere Collins, and Alan Rickman’s conniving, backroom-operating Éamon de Valera. A decade later, Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes The Barley (2006) imagined it as more of a class war. While the reality was more nuanced than either representation, of the two movies, Loach’s was closer to the truth.

The Irish Civil War was not an example of polarized mass mobilization based largely on class as in the case of Russia or Spain. However, social divisions did play a role. Gavin Foster has shown that, while the lines of demarcation were not entirely clear-cut, there were discernible differences in class and status between the opposing sides, manifested in language and clothing, as well as in their social bases and forms of conflict.

The business and landowning classes supported the pro-Treaty side, along with the Catholic hierarchy and most professionals. These were the “stake in the country” people derided by republicans such as Liam Mellows. Complicating this picture, tens of thousands of working-class recruits staffed the pro-Treaty army, albeit during a time when it offered a secure job amidst large-scale unemployment and demobilization from the British army. The anti-Treaty side was at its strongest amongst the working class and agricultural poor of Munster and Connacht.

On the whole, however, the Treaty appears to have received the assent, if not active endorsement, of the majority of the Free State’s population. A general election was held in its territory in June 1922, just weeks before hostilities commenced; many republicans questioned the vote’s legitimacy since it excluded the North. It returned fifty-eight seats for pro-Treaty Sinn Féin and thirty-six seats for anti-Treaty Sinn Féin. Significantly, 40 percent of the electorate rejected both wings of Sinn Féin, although this figure includes votes cast for the pro-Treaty Farmers’ Party and Businessmen’s Party, which won seven seats and one seat respectively, further attesting to the Treaty’s popular weight.

Neither did the masses rally to the banner of the Republic once fighting began. Arguably, what attracted most people was the potential for peace, rather than the renewed war that a rejection of the Treaty would bring, whether against the British or between former comrades.

Labour’s Challenge

The position of the Irish Labour Party was an important one. Labour only contested eighteen seats in the 1922 general election, of which it won seventeen, losing the remaining one by just a few votes. Despite this, it received 21.33 percent of the votes cast throughout the Free State — slightly more than anti-Treaty Sinn Féin with 21.26 percent.

The labor movement had played a crucial role in the revolutionary years. Membership of unions affiliated to the Irish Trades Union Congress leaped from under 100,000 in 1916 to 225,000 in 1920. Several general strikes paralyzed the country: against conscription in April 1918; to celebrate May Day in 1919; and for the release of political prisoners in April 1920.

During this period, railway workers refused to transport British munitions and soldiers, while land seizures broke up estates. There was a proliferation of local general strikes, and the red flag was hoisted over occupied (and sometimes self-managed) workplaces. Working-class activists declared over one hundred “soviets,” most famously the Limerick Soviet in April 1919.

The Labour Party stood aside in both the 1918 and 1921 elections, allowing Sinn Féin a clear run. Its first general election outing in June 1922 was therefore a significant success. However, Labour leaders sidestepped the Treaty debates. They opposed the slide to civil war, organized a general strike in April 1922 “against militarism,” and took their seats in the new Dáil when it assembled after the outbreak of civil war. While Labour did not officially position itself as a pro-Treaty party — its parliamentary leader, Thomas Johnson, was privately in favor — it had taken a stance against the republican side.

For rank-and-file trade unionists, it was a different matter. Regardless of who would come out on top in the civil war, there was an ongoing class war for the betterment of workers, and soviets were still being proclaimed. For instance, in February 1923, mill workers in Cork seized their workplaces, hoisted the red flag, and offered bread at cost price to the people. The strike committee issued the following statement:

The flag which flies over the mills now occupied by us is the one and only flag we recognize as the international flag of labour, and by its principle we stand.

During the War of Independence, the breakdown of British-enforced law and order had facilitated the formation of soviets to an extent. In the wake of the post-Treaty settlement, there was a more militant response from vested interests. The end of the War of Independence coincided with an economic slump which employers used to curtail wages and conditions.

The new Free State quickly flexed its muscles by breaking a postal strike in autumn 1922. The Farmers’ Union organized boycotts as well as a “white guard” in some cases to forcibly break strikes and soviets. For their part, workers blockaded and even destroyed the property of employers and landowners. On some occasions, they forced employers to leave the local area. But crucially, the Free State’s National Army often intervened to return workplaces to their former owners.

The End of the Big House

Land agitation or “agrarianism” had been a strong feature during the War of Independence. It frequently became more direct and violent after the Civil War began. As Terence Dooley has documented, most of the nearly three hundred burnings of “big houses” between 1920 and 1923 took place while the Civil War was in progress.

These houses were the abodes of the landed elite, symbols of British aristocratic rule, with most estates having been granted to English planters hundreds of years previously after the dispossession of the Irish. Hundreds or even thousands of acres of demesne surrounded these structures, which were a marked symbol of colonial authority on the land. The treatment of their tenants and laborers was notorious, and the social memory of injustices during the Famine of the 1840s and the Land War of the late nineteenth century was often strongly embedded in the minds of the community.

Many houses were burned because they were or could be occupied by the Free State army, and others in retaliation for attacks on republicans. But class was an additional element here, and the primary motivator for many other burnings. It was an attempt to wipe out the stain of colonialism and landlordism on the landscape, and to redistribute the land amongst the people.

Indeed, the burning of big houses often came as the last act on estates with a history of land agitation over several years, as in the case of Tubberdaly in County Offaly. While the breakdown of state authority during the Civil War had some role to play in this, so too did the feeling that the opportunity must be taken now to deliver a republic free of the aristocracy, as well as to reward those who had fought for it with land — something which the Free State had failed to deliver.

Class War in Waterford

All of these forms of conflict came together in County Waterford from May 1923 onward. While the IRA was laying down its arms, an intense seven-month period of social conflict arose over an attempt by farmers to cut the wages of agricultural laborers.

The laborers went on strike and employed militant tactics including boycotts, cattle driving, assault, intimidation, the cutting of telegraph wires, arson, and the confiscation or sabotage of property. They also declared soviets at creameries and issued labor permits.

The farmers met this with militant action of their own. In early 1923, the Free State created a new branch of the army, the Special Infantry Corps (SIC), specifically to tackle growing agrarian, industrial, and social unrest. Such was the level of conflict in Waterford that two battalions of the SIC were drafted into the county. Strikers and their sympathizers, who probably included IRA members, responded with sniper fire to attempts to escort farmers’ produce under armed guard.

The government imposed martial law in Waterford. In September, armed and masked men who may have been members of the SIC burned the homes of strike leaders. By the end of November, the national union leadership decided to abandon the strike, claiming that continued strike pay was costing too much. It was the final curtain call for the Irish revolution and marked the victory of the Free State and employers over social insurgency.


At the end of the civil war, there were two states on the island: a sectarian Northern Ireland with a machinery built to ensure Protestant, Unionist domination, and an Irish Free State linked to Britain and wedded to the logic of liberal capitalism. The Boundary Commission tasked with adjudicating on the Irish border proved to be a damp squib when it eventually met in the mid-1920s, reaffirming the territorial status quo between the two parts of Ireland.

The Free State minister for home affairs, Kevin O’Higgins, famously quipped that he and his colleagues were “the most conservative-minded revolutionaries that ever put through a successful revolution.” However, this was a one-sided and self-serving view of the revolutionary period. O’Higgins and others were merely the ones who ended up on top after a protracted struggle.

The conservative-minded Catholic middle class rose to power at least in part through the might of a swollen, mobilized labor movement and the rank-and-file membership of the IRA. Once in office, that class would not only discard but actively quash the dreams and aspirations for a free Ireland of those whose sacrifices it had relied upon. The pro-Treaty Sinn Féin faction had renamed itself Cumann na nGaedheal (Band of the Gaels) in 1923. It followed a rigidly conservative line in both economic and social policy during the first decade of the Free State.

O’Higgins displayed a particular ruthlessness when pursuing republicans during and after the Civil War. His notoriety would catch up with him in 1927 when he was assassinated by three IRA gunmen who were acting alone. One of his assassins was Bill Gannon, later a prominent member of the CPI who was responsible for organizing the recruitment of the Irish contingent for the International Brigades in Spain.

With their defeat in the Civil War, some republicans began a period of reflection and reevaluation of the strategy and tactics required to achieve their aims. Éamon de Valera was the leader of anti-Treaty Sinn Féin, who had played a minor role in the war itself. He spearheaded a major split in the party in 1926 to found a new organization, Fianna Fáil (Soldiers of Destiny).

After the 1927 election, Fianna Fáil representatives signed the oath of fidelity to the British crown and took their seats in the Dáil. De Valera’s party eventually came to power in 1932 and embarked on a project of legal and constitutional reform to dismantle the terms of the Treaty. Fianna Fáil would remain the largest party in the state for the next eight decades, until its support collapsed in the election of 2011.

Left Republicanism

The IRA was a different matter. Under the influence of former union organizer Peadar O’Donnell, a cohort of left-wing republicans attempted to steer it away from a purely military focus. They argued that it needed to engage in social struggles alongside the people to make the Republic relevant to their lives. O’Donnell had experienced an epiphany within the Four Courts while watching workers pass by on the quays, proclaiming to his friend “My God, Mellows, I’m in the wrong war!”

For a time, O’Donnell and his comrades were successful in their efforts. In 1931, the IRA founded a new political party, Saor Éire (Free Ireland), which aimed at “the overthrow in Ireland of British Imperialism and its ally, Irish Capitalism,” with the future Republic to be run “on the basis of the possession and administration by the workers and working farmers, of the land, instruments of production, distribution and exchange.”

However, the IRA leadership backtracked when the new group faced a combination of clerical and state opposition. After several more unsuccessful attempts to reform the IRA from the left, O’Donnell, George Gilmore, Frank Ryan, and others walked out in 1934 to form the avowedly socialist but short-lived Republican Congress.

Meanwhile, one of the leaders of the pro-Treaty side, Eoin O’Duffy, went on to become a fascist, commanding the forty thousand–strong paramilitary Blueshirts during the 1930s, which modeled themselves on European fascist movements. In 1933, O’Duffy and his followers joined with the former governing party Cumann na nGaedheal to form Fine Gael (Clann of the Gaels).

After serving as the new party’s first leader, O’Duffy would lead a contingent of seven hundred Irishmen to Spain in 1936 to fight alongside Franco’s Nationalist forces. On the opposite side, an anti-Treaty IRA combatant, Frank Ryan, led the Irish in the International Brigades. Their ranks also included Jack Nalty and Donal O’Reilly, who had both made the long journey from the opening salvos of the Civil War in Dublin in 1922 to the plains of Andalusia fourteen years later. They were still fighting for the Republic.