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Small Potatoes and Civil War

The text below forms the basis of a talk Maurice Earls will give in Books Upstairs, 17 D’Olier Street, Dublin at 6.30 pm on Friday, September 20th, Culture Night 2019.

When I was a very young man, just about legal in terms of alcohol purchase, I witnessed an altercation in Doheny and Nesbitt’s pub in Dublin which amazed me. Two respectable elderly gentlemen, who had been in engaged in conversation, began to shout at each other. The next thing one of them gave the other a punch. Bar stools were knocked over and the two pensioners ended up rolling together on the floor, each trying to injure the other. It transpired that they had been engaged on opposite sides during the Civil War. No one else in the bar joined in or offered a view on their dispute, although some gave psychological support to the barman as he restored order with expressions such as “Ah now!” and “Easy now!”.

I am inclined to believe the incident reveals a core truth about the Civil War. Those involved were embittered and angry and convinced their dispute was of enormous importance, while the rest of society didn’t quite see what all the fuss was about.

With the centenary of the conflict approaching, and with the first tranche of anniversary books beginning to appear, it seems to me the question worth asking is to what degree did the dispute significantly shape the Ireland we live in today and independent Ireland in general. If the answer to this question is that it was very influential, submersion in the vast swathe of records from the period which remains may be justified. On the other hand, if the Civil War didn’t change much, maybe we can be excused from immersion in the minutiae of the conflict and perhaps agree that it is time for its relegation to a less prominent position on the mantelpiece of our historical iconography.

In this evening’s brief talk, I would like to attempt an answer to the question of the Civil War’s historical significance, albeit in a tentative and provisional manner, and stating from the beginning that, while I am a historian, I am not an expert in the history of the Civil War period. Indeed, I would have to confess that I’ve always given the Civil War a wide berth. In so far as I thought about it all, I have tended to ask, perhaps a little like the clientele in Doheny and Nesbitt’s: “Why did they have to go and do that?”

The Civil War, adjective and noun, were very familiar to my generation and were widely employed to describe the character of our electoral politics until relatively recently. The term in common use was “civil war politics”. But as I see it, that was a term more useful than illuminating. Certainly, the main contending political parties of independent Ireland had their origins in the Civil War period, but to conclude that they were fighting ever since over some fundamental division which was at the heart of the 1922-23 conflict would be quite simply mistaken. If the politics of the Free State and the Republic were divided into camps, it is a division not satisfactorily explained by the issue at dispute in the Civil War.

Actually, civil war is far too grandiose a term to describe the conflict between pro-and anti-treaty elements. The events of that eighteen months do not have the epochal and transformative status of say the American Civil War, the long internal French conflicts, the Italian internal wars or the first English civil war, or indeed the second unarmed English civil war now under way.

 As civil wars go ours was small potatoes, a dispute over tactics not objectives. Nothing illustrates the tactical nature of the dispute better than recalling that when a republic was declared some twenty-six years later, it was done by a politician from the pro-treaty side. Those in the republic who had significantly different national aspirations from the combatants were not involved in the civil war. Similarly, the unionists of the North were not involved. Had there been a civil war between the North and the South, now that would certainly not have been small potatoes. There were transformative processes under way on the island, but they were not at issue in the Civil War.

Those who held power following the successful outcome of the War of Independence, and here I mean both Cumann Na nGaedheal/Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, were always going to have to face the enormously difficult task of setting up and maintaining a state, having inherited a weak economy, a radically diminished and diminishing population and without the involvement of the Presbyterian northeast. They faced the task of building a national economy in extremely difficult national and international circumstances and also in so far as possible, the task of plotting a means of extending our separation from the former colonial power. Putting “Republic” on the board above the door in 1949 was a symbolically significant gesture but few could have believed it meant that Ireland was no longer economically dependent on Britain. The prospect of substantial independence and equality in this area has only now come into view, as a result of our relatively recent substantial economic growth and, of course, the political and economic implications of Brexit.

Our early twentieth century civil war did not involve anything which could have altered the challenges and obstacles faced by our state over the following century. And as we know, those challenges were addressed with various levels of competence and incompetence by the “Civil War parties” who dominated the electoral politics of the state. Put simply, acceptance or rejection of the treaty was immaterial to addressing the problems faced by independent Ireland.

The Civil War is so well-known, so iconic and so constantly referenced because those at the head of our political system insisted that it was of immense importance. But really it was not, and their governmental practice reveals that, deep down, they knew this to be so.

That is not to say bitterness around the civil war did not last, or that attacks and ambushes were not brought up locally at election time. They were mostly for the psychological benefit of  hard-core political activists, without whose voluntary work the parties would have been unable to maintain their duopoly. The elevation of the Civil War to totemic status helped both sides – who were not that ideologically dissimilar – to cordially dislike each other, which in turn arguably served the functional purpose of offering the electorate political alternatives which seemed substantial. There is a sense in which the whole thing was useful window dressing. If the Civil War parties did not exist, we would have had to invent them. The idea that, if they hadn’t existed, we would have had “standard” left-right politics is a delusion of the left. The demographics for a “standard” left-right division did not exist, and I say this as a lifelong social democrat.

The broader electorate tended to choose whichever party’s interpretation of the national interest served their interests, those of their families and those of the community or the class with which they identified. During the decades of continued population decline and stagnation, a choice could be made which would be valid for generations. But now that we are rich and living in a rapidly changing cultural, economic and political environment, our voting choices are no longer on auto pilot. We have to think a bit to figure out which side we are on.

Let us now turn to the war itself, as opposed to its afterlife which, as I have argued, was largely rhetorical. By the end of the war the Free State held in the region of 12,000 prisoners. In the course of the war some eighty-three individuals were executed, nearly all without due process. Some of those killed had exemplary records during the War of Independence. There was much bitter feeling subsequently and equal passion displayed in defence of the new state. Objectively, we can say that it was not an especially bloody affair. In a country experiencing continued emigration, gross poverty, the worst slums in Europe and staggeringly high infant mortality rates, these deaths do not stand out statistically. Estimates for the loss of life in combat suffered on both sides are around 2,500 or perhaps a little higher. Untimely death is always traumatic to family members and friends but we cannot say that these were socially traumatic numbers, especially when it is recalled that the loss of life was almost wholly confined to those in arms. In contrast, while deaths during the War of Independence were also not great, the civilian population was involved to a much greater degree and the central issue at stake was potentially transformative. The outcome of that war was clearly of massive significance to the character and structures of life in Ireland over the past century.

My argument then is that the war between the Treatyites and Anti-treatyites was not especially significant either in itself or in its afterlife. However, I would maintain that we can still learn something from the conflict which is relevant today.

The overarching political history of the Irish nineteenth century from the passage of Catholic Emancipation was one of winning concessions from Westminster, pocketing them and then targeting further concessions. It was a significant success ‑ even if it fell at the final hurdle of substantial legislative autonomy ‑ and very importantly it involved disciplined use of the democratic method. Why then, it might be asked, did a significant number of people involved in the War of Independence decline to pocket the very considerable concessions incorporated in the treaty provisions and accepted by both a majority in the Dáil and an overwhelming majority of the electorate. The answer, I believe, is connected with the adoption of the military method.

But before we pursue this idea let’s sidestep one of the toxic rabbit holes which, as I see it, has had a  distracting effect on Irish historical debate. It doesn’t matter whether you think the adoption of the military method in 1916 and during the War of Independence was justified or not. As it happens, as a historian I can appreciate how this path emerged and, as a citizen, I celebrate 1916 and the War of Independence as foundational to the state in which I live. But even if I thought the opposite and held an absolutist ethical position opposing violence in all and any circumstances, it would not change the point I am about to make.

A semi-formal army, not subject to firm civilian control and employing military tactics to achieve a political end, functions as a self-contained political agent. A person joins such an organisation for political purposes. In the Irish case, the executive of the old IRA was accepted by its soldiers as the source of political authority.

Examination of the treaty Dáil debates reveals that both sides recognised the historical political authority of the army executive. The pro-treaty side argued that this authority had passed to the Dáil while the anti-treaty side maintained the military executive was the only body competent to decide on the treaty. For my purposes it doesn’t really matter which position was technically correct. My point is that a politicised military has within it the potential to appropriate political authority and it does not follow that it, or individuals within such a military, will willingly shed that authority at the appropriate time.

I have no difficulty in understanding why a large percentage of Old IRA officers chose to oppose the treaty. When you are engaged in military activity and are in constant danger of death, you are removed from the priorities of the everyday. You are living at a completely different level, possibly unpaid, in a dug-out and in constant danger of death. In those extreme circumstances, freely chosen, pragmatism is an intellectual choice rather than an instinct. The instinct is to remain loyal to the principle which originally motivated you, in this case a republic. The Civil War saw a factional division between pragmatists and “principleists”. And I should add that if I have no difficulty understanding why some chose unpragmatic principle, neither do I have any difficulty in understanding why some chose pragmatism.

The really interesting thing is that ultimately Irish political culture was so deeply immersed in democratic practice that challenges to the democratic method from both wings of the Civil War conflict were seen off. DeValera re-engaged, despite refuseniks on his own side, and when he did, he did so with considerable effect. Similarly, the politicians of the first Free State governments had to fight, and fight hard, throughout the 1920s, against powerful anti-democratic elements on their own side drawn from elite military and intelligence backgrounds.

As a result of these successes Independent Ireland ended up with an unarmed police force, fair procedures for public service recruitment, an impartial legal system and other features of a healthy democracy which all political parties have supported since. I should add in parenthesis that this comment should not be taken to mean that I feel our society is free from rank injustice. 

Today we should realise that our democracy was hard-won and worth protecting. The anti-democratic forces of our own times are different. There are obvious ones, such as the criminal gangs dominating and corrupting communities and keen to infiltrate the institutions of the state. Clearly the destruction of our physical environment, if not stopped, will undermine our democracy, along with a lot more. There are also less obvious but significant dangers such as the massively capitalised private companies slowly extending their influence over our lives. And of course there is the existential challenge to democracy inherent in mounting economic inequality.

History doesn’t end and neither does politics. Let us hope that after the next hundred years it can be reported that the early twenty-first century challenges to our democracy were seen off.


Image: Comrades: Harry Boland (died August 2nd, 1922), Michael Collins (died August 22nd, 1922) and Eamon de Valera.