The Irish Civil War and Society: Politics, Class and Conflict, by Gavin M Foster, Palgrave Macmillan, 315 pp, £60, ISBN: 978-1137425683
Gavin Foster’s study of the Irish Civil War primarily concerns itself with losers: the defeated anti-Treaty side in the conflict. Avoiding traditional approaches, he has chosen instead to explore the politics and violence of the period from what he terms “novel or underutilized vantage points”. While, he points out, the bulk of the literature on the conflict focuses on high politics, “great men”, military strategy and the emergence of the Irish state, this book examines popular discourses, social conflict and the winding down of the “revolutionary process”. He writes: “Whereas most studies of the period pay disproportionate attention to the treaty negotiations and outbreak of the civil war, passing quickly over the ambiguous end of the conflict and its prolonged and messy aftermath, the temporal emphasis of this study is the reverse.” In terms of casualties, duration and scale Ireland’s Civil War of 1922-3 does not come close to many similar conflicts in other countries. However, the Irish conflict – the “war of friends” – gave rise to bitter invective and partisan rhetoric. A discursive analysis, Foster contends, reveals sharp incompatibilities in the social outlook of the two sides. And this challenges the assumption that, notwithstanding their differences over the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the pro- and anti-Treatyites (and the political parties they created) differed little in social outlook.
Is there any truth in pro-Treaty aspersions on the youth of their republican opponents? Young people in Ireland, Foster points out, occupied the bottom rungs of the social status ladder and politically were nonentities. The revolutionary years, however, saw tens of thousands of young republican activists participating in politics, a development which fitted with Sinn Féin’s idealisation of the patriotism, political purity and moral virtues of a “young Ireland” that stood in contrast to the ossification and corruption of the old order of the Irish Parliamentary Party. Foster argues: “The increasingly negative connotations that youth acquired inside the Free State camp therefore represent a striking reversion to the prerevolutionary status quo, when the upcoming generation was expected to defer to the wisdom and authority of its elders. In stark contrast, the anti-treaty movement underwent no such volte-face, and entered the civil war still firmly committed to a Pearsean belief in the youth of Ireland as ‘the salvation of the country’.” Some Free State supporters at least had travelled very far from the War of Independence glorification of the executed eighteen-year-old Kevin Barry. The bullet-riddled bodies of three young republicans, arrested while distributing leaflets, were found in Clondalkin, Dublin; their next of kin gave their ages as seventeen, seventeen and sixteen.
Most historians, Foster tells us, have argued that the radical “Jail Notes” of Liam Mellows fell on deaf ears among his anti-Free State brethren. However, as Foster points out, there is ample evidence that this manifesto, which argued that there was a class character to the Civil War, owed much to conversations with several other imprisoned republicans, including the communist Peadar O’Donnell. Mellows famously contended: “We are back to [United Irishmen leader Theobald Wolfe] Tone – and it is just as well – relying on that great body ‘the men of no property’. The ‘stake in the country people’ were never with the Republic.” As it happens, the anti-Treaty press had denounced the Anglo-Irish settlement as the route best suited for “the London money kings”, while its Irish supporters were depicted as people with “a stake in the country” who made “money their god and banks their chapels”. Given that the Free State enjoyed the support of the majority of the people, Foster notes, including “sizable proportions of all classes”, these representations of the Free State as monolithically “bourgeois” and “respectable” were more caricature than fact.
Republican propagandists aimed their fire primarily at the pro-Treaty camp, but they also had the Labour Party leadership in their sights. Labour had been criticised by both factions of Sinn Féin for daring to contest the June 1922 election when a “pact” had been agreed between the two to preserve overall Sinn Féin electoral strength. Labour would be attacked again for working within the structures of the Free State. Mellows damned its leaders for having “deserted the people for the flesh pots of the Empire” and argued in “Jail Notes” that republicans should do anything they could to prevent Labour becoming “imperialist and respectable”. One anti-Treaty publication took the Liverpool-born Labour leader Thomas Johnson to task for living in a relatively affluent, and Protestant, Dublin suburb: “There are many Englishmen like you, Mr. Johnson, living as you do in the Rathmines suburbs and the majority of them, no doubt, share your political opinions. But they are not the opinions of the workers of Ireland.” Rathmines had certain connotations. Johnson’s party’s own publication Voice of Labour mocked the “imitation furs” and “imitation English voices” of “the women of Rathmines”. The bigger issue here would be a large element of the working class supporting the Free State, directly or indirectly. As Foster notes, anti-Treaty commentators occasionally felt they had to deal with the awkward reality that along with the “stake in the country people” there were people with no stake in the country who went along with the new government. What would trouble these commentators in particular were the tens of thousands of men of no property who enlisted in the new national army to prosecute the war against the “irregulars” opposed to the Free State. Indeed, as Foster observes, support for the new state among the working class and within the labour movement effectively refutes any simplistic arguments for a class character to the Civil War; Marxist logic would surely contend that the proletariat must favour revolutionary struggle.
Republican polemicists described National Army soldiers as “undesirables”, “criminals’, “low caste hirelings” and “gutter-scoundrels”, all of this, of course, repeating republican descriptions of crown forces, particularly the Black and Tans, this discursive continuity even leading to the armed forces of the state being dismissed as the “Green-and-Tans”. The anti-Treatyites, naturally, in continuity with the perceptions of the War of Independence, perceived themselves as remaining brave, devout, morally upright and patriotic young men – “the cream of the country”. Foster notes: “Such a flattering self-image – juxtaposed with its Manichean opposite of a morally benighted enemy – is, of course, a common feature of wartime propaganda at many times and in many places. But such highly charged, abusive language against fellow Irishmen in the civil war – some of whom were recent friends and comrades in the War of Independence – also carried unmistakable social resonances.” Racist or xenophoic attitudes also appeared, albeit rarely, in republican discourses on the “un-Irish” character of the “Slave State”: there were disparaging references to the Free State’s “Jewish financial interests” and a “notorious Jew Spy” working for the police. The British army had traditionally recruited among the urban working class in Britain and in Ireland and the National Army followed this pattern, drawing heavily on working class neighbourhoods in Dublin and other “garrison towns”. And anti-Treatyite disdain for their enemies reflected rural hostility and snobbery towards townspeople, and especially the urban poor. Foster writes: “In advanced nationalist rhetoric, Ireland’s few large cities – along with the large urban centers of Great Britain – had long been associated with poverty, crime, prostitution, and other degraded social conditions.” Tom Barry, in his memoir Guerrilla Days in Ireland, would contrast what he saw as the purer rural areas of west Cork with the towns, with their higher proportion of “informers” and “imperialists”, and he damned his Essex Regiment foes during the War of Independence as containing “the dregs of the underworld of London”. National Army recruits had many motives for joining up, not least economic. Foster points out that it was widely recognised at the time that economic recession fuelled the very successful response to the Free State’s recruitment call. One republican publication recalled a Famine term of abuse for those who succumbed to Protestant prosleytisers when it accused the Free State commander-in-chief of raising an “army of Soupers” to wage war against the Republic.
The Free State fulfilled Arthur Griffith’s pledge that the new sixty-member senate would ensure the southern unionist minority had a voice in national affairs. Historians, Foster notes, have mainly pointed to the composition of the upper house as evidence of a magnanimous measure to reconcile the ascendancy to the new regime. However, he writes: “The obvious economic incentives for retaining the support of the bank owners, manufacturers, landowners, and other wealthy interests that formed a disproportionate part of the southern Protestant-Unionist community have been rather less remarked upon.” The anti-Treatyites, of course, ridiculed the new senate with its “imperialists”, “[Dublin] Castle hacks” and “Freemasons”, and their hostility would not be confined to rhetoric. From 1923 a number of senators were targeted for assassination or abduction – they had become what the Provisional IRA would later term “legitimate targets” – and they faced intimidation and attacks on their property. By the time the Civil War ended later that year, more than half the senators had lost their country houses as reprisals for Free State executions. Foster describes the following attack in these non-judgmental terms: “This campaign of reprisal was carried out with considerable tenacity. When a faulty landmine foiled an incendiary attack on the ‘beautiful mansion’ of Lord Desart, armed raiders completed their task with a petrol attack on the truck carrying away his furniture and other property bound for England.”
Foster’s discussion of the post-ceasefire murder of Noel Lemass highlights his nuanced and skilful approach. We have previously heard that Lemass had been tortured, given the number of missing teeth when his remains were found. The gruesome discovery and examination of the remains, Foster notes, would be reported in graphic detail by the newspapers. “Only a few teeth were left in the jaw, but whether they had been ‘violently forced out’ by blows to the mouth or had simply become dislodged by the ‘worrying of some animal’ could not be determined.” Lemass’s parents identified the victim as their son based on personal possessions such as a cigarette case and rosary beads. The inquest concluded that he had been ‘brutally and wilfully’ murdered.” A cross was erected at the site where the body was found which became the focus of an annual commemoration by Sinn Féin and then Fianna Fáil.
While the IRA leadership initially ordered the rank and file to remain in Ireland to pick up the pieces and resume the struggle for the Republic, emigration severely depleted its numbers in the 1920s. Most of these “Wild Geese” emigrated to the USA. Some made an important contribution to trade unionism in New York in the powerful Transport Workers’ Union. And many retained their militant republican faith, supporting renewed IRA campaigns. Most controversially, Civil War veterans in the US helped to create Noraid, which provided significant funding for the Provisional IRA’s “war” during the Northern Ireland Troubles – Mike Flannery would be tried for arms smuggling in the early 1980s. Foster has argued that the savage violence that accompanied the birth of the state was not a narrow “political” tussle over the terms of the Anglo-Irish treaty “as is often assumed”. He contends: “Although the pro- and anti-treaty factions of Sinn Féin and the other active participants in the conflict did not choose sides based on a clear ‘class logic’, their respective causes appealed to different strata of Irish society, and support for, or opposition to, the Free State acquired very real economic connotations.” As the state embraces “inclusiveness” during the “decade of commemorations” the terrible events of the Civil War should be analysed honestly and courageously. As part of that process, this book will be essential, and disturbing, reading.
John Mulqueen teaches history at Trinity College Dublin.