Epilogue (1922-1930)

Eleanor Hull
Epilogue (1922-1930)

The Free State began to function under circumstances of extraordinary difficulty. The country was seething with unrest, and bands of young men were wandering about the country in arms against the Free State. It is easier to put lethal weapons into the hands of young men and teach the use of them than to get them to lay them down again. Even during the Truce and while the discussions on the Treaty were going on at Downing Street, raids for arms were being carried out so near to the scene of the discussions as Windsor.

The men who a year before had been engaged in a life and death struggle with the British forces now turned their arms against each other. A body of men, small in number, former friends and comrades in arms, often brothers in one family, but now divided as Treatyites and anti-Treatyites, went about their country ambushing, and terrorizing. All the horrors of the Black and Tan régime were resuscitated, but now by Irishmen against Irishmen.

As early as January, 1922, less than a month after the Treaty was signed by which it was hoped to bring peace to Ireland, the irregulars were organizing to resist the Provisional Government, and from that time forward until July 1, 1923, when Mr. de Valera announced that “the war was over” the country was given up to unrest.

When the new Government took office, it was to be faced with a bill of over three millions as compensation for damage done to property, and for the wanton destruction of railways, roads, and bridges. Mr. T. M. Healy, the first Governor-General of the Free State and intimate with the conditions, puts the total losses as not less than thirty millions’ worth of property.[1]

It seemed to be the object of the men who now over-ran the country to dislocate the whole of its economic life. Transport was made difficult by the destruction of railroads; and a boycott of Belfast goods and armed bands along her borders did more to ensure the permanence of partition than any previous laws had accomplished. The country gentry who had their houses burned over their heads naturally fled the country and with them went money and credit.

The men who had contributed most in recent years to the benefit of the people and who had served her faithfully appeared to be the special objects of hatred. Sir Horace Plunkett’s beautiful house, the creation of his mind, the home of his treasures and the seat of his agricultural experiments, was twice burned down. The same fate befell the dwellings of the members of the Provisional Government and the life of every Minister was threatened. The Executive Council of the third Dáil had to function from the underground cellars with barbed-wire windows in the building in Merrion Place[2] in which they took up their temporary offices, and some of them never dared to appear outside; they worked and slept in the same building. Kevin O’Higgins tells how one day, longing for a breath of fresh air, he mounted to the roof of the building; hardly was he seated than the cigarette between his fingers was split by a sharp-shooter stooping beneath the parapet of the roof at the opposite side of the street. Early in 1922 there were a million acres of land unfilled and 20,000 agricultural labourers out of employ. Over 130,000 other workmen were idle.

In January, 1922, a secret triumvirate[3] was formed to organize opposition and collect arms, and Rory O’Connor, their chief, seized the Four Courts and made it the headquarters of the new irregular army. In June, O’Connor captured General O’Connell, of the National Army, and this act determined Collins to resist.

After a feeble stand “Rory” ran up the white flag and his resistance collapsed without the loss of a single man. But before he left, he laid landmines timed to go off two hours later. By the explosion of these mines, twenty Free State soldiers were maimed, many of them for life, and the Four Courts were shattered. The precious historical papers preserved in the Record Office were consumed in the blaze, and the family records of centuries were destroyed. Mr. de Valera betook himself to the Gresham and Hammam Hotels, from which he made his escape by a backway when these too went alight from gunfire. His comrade, Cathal Brugha, fought to the end, and fell, firing his last round.

At this critical moment, it can hardly be said that Griffith and Collins acted with the decision that the circumstances called for. Encompassed with difficulties and with a large section of Republicans still in the Dáil, Griffith, on the resignation of Mr. de Valera, had agreed, by implication, that he was succeeding him as President of the Republic, thus confusing the issues and playing into the hands of Mr. de Valera’s party.

Collins, too, delayed to strike at the irregular forces and allowed them time to muster their army and commit several acts of open warfare without intervening. The English military authorities were withdrawing their regiments and disbanding the police with great rapidity and Collins had no organized army to replace them and no civil force.

On Monday, January 16, Lord FitzAlan, the Viceroy, handed over Dublin Castle to Michael Collins who received it in the name of the Provisional Government.[4] Then, for the sake of peace, Collins concluded a Pact with Mr. de Valera, agreeing that the numbers in the Dáil should remain as at the present moment and that elections were to be held with this arrangement in view.[5]

The news of this “pact” was received with anger in England as a breach of the Treaty, and Collins was called over to explain.

Fortunately this panel election, which would have been no election at all, resulted in the return of a more representative body than had been anticipated, owing to the appearance of 17 Labour men and 17 Farmers and Independents. Mr. de Valera had 34 followers and Griffith 58. It was a declaration in favour of the Treaty; for all parties accepted the Treaty except the followers of Mr. de Valera. But the “pact” did not bring peace to the country and unrest continued to increase to alarming proportions. Disturbances on the Ulster border added to the difficulties of the Provisional Government, culminating in the invasion of Pettigo and shelling of Belleek by English troops.

The main responsibility for all this destruction of life and property, from the results of which the country has hardly yet ceased to suffer, and for the spiritual demoralization which accompanied it, must be laid at the door of Mr. de Valera, under whose control the army was nominally acting and at whose command they finally laid down their arms. He had been one of the signatories to the Proclamation of Easter Week, 1916, and had been sentenced to death, but his sentence had been commuted to penal servitude for life; he was, however, released the following year in the General Amnesty. Since then he had been twice imprisoned for his activities in connection with the insurgent army.

The resounding feat of his escape from Lincoln Gaol in 1919 had been carried out by the skill and courage of Michael Collins, who afterwards became the object of his attacks in the Dáil. While he was interned he was chosen by his fellow-prisoners as President of the Sinn Féin organization, and in the first session of the Dáil, held from January 21 to October 27, 1919, he was elected President, an office which he held till January 9, 1922, when, after the approval of the Treaty by a majority of the representatives, he resigned in favour of Arthur Griffith, and the pro-Treatyites. He then set himself to wreck the Treaty, in and out of the Dáil. He represented himself and the country as having been deceived by the delegates they sent to London to negotiate a Treaty, and as “President of the Irish Republic,” he did all in his power to make the Treaty unworkable.

Yet what his opinions really were is not clear from his public utterances. “I am not a Republican Doctrinaire,” he said shortly before the Treaty was signed. “I interpret my oath to the Republic merely as a pledge to the Irish people to do the best for them in any circumstances that may arise”;[6] and later in the year, while he was negotiating with Lloyd George with a clear understanding that a Republic would not be considered, he is said to have expressed a desire to be got “out of the straight-jacket of the Irish Republic. I cannot get it.”[7]

But Mr. de Valera was in the hands of young men and women more extreme than himself. That the sober elements in the country wanted the Treaty is shown not only by votes in the Dáil, but in the honest efforts that have been made to work the Treaty ever since. “Many a man spoke in the Dáil against the Treaty, and yet prayed God nightly that it would be carried.”[8]

But by his rhetorical utterances Mr. de Valera succeeded in carrying with him an opposition sufficiently formidable to make the business of settling the country almost impossible. To make any sort of Government unworkable was their avowed intention.[9] As an American Republican Journal said:

“On the side of the Republic stood de Valera, the divisions of the Irish Republican Army, the most able of the women, and the Idealists. On the opposite side were the Unionists, the Bishops, even men like Dr. Fogarty who were practically ‘on the run,’ the Nationalists of property and position, the big farmers, the manufacturers, and the professional men.”[10]

If we read “most noisy” in place of “most able” of the women, this is practically the division of opinion as it actually existed. On the one side de Valera, women and idealists, with the Army at their back; on the other, all the sound elements in the country, and any who had anything to lose by disorder.

As time went on, Mr. de Valera’s pronouncements became more threatening. “If the Treaty were not rejected, perhaps it was over the bodies of the young men he saw around him that day that the fight for Irish freedom may be fought,” he announced to a body of 700 men of the third Tipperary Brigade, in March, 1922; and in the same month at Thurles, he declared that “if they accepted the Treaty, and if the Volunteers of the future tried to complete the work the Volunteers of the last four years had been attempting, they would have to complete it, not over the bodies of foreign soldiers, but over the dead bodies of their own countrymen. They would have to wade through Irish blood, through the blood of the soldiers of the Irish Government and through the blood of some of the members of the Government in order to get freedom.”[11]

Incitements to murder of this kind, addressed to men with weapons in their hands and trained to their use, were not without effect. On August 22, 1922, Michael Collins was ambushed and shot at Bealnablath, Bandon, Co. Cork by a party of the irregulars.

On August 13, Arthur Griffith, President of the Provisional Government, worn out with work and anxieties, fell dying at his own hall-door. Thus, at a critical moment, the country was left without its two chief leaders, the man of action and the man of thought, patriots and master-minds and prudent statesmen both.

But in this extremity, a number of men of very considerable ability and complete disinterestedness were found to carry on the arduous work of building up the young Free State and placing it on firm foundations. The new President of Dáil Éireann, Mr. William Thomas Cosgrave, had for long been preparing for the administrative side of his present position by his connection with the Dublin Corporation, on which he acted as Chairman of the Finance Committee, and by his activities as Minister for Local Government under the earlier sittings of the Dáil. His independence of mind and sagacity have carried the country steadily forward, and his quiet and practical administration and firmness of character have kept the debates in the Dáil increasingly free from the verbiage which irresponsible members had introduced into the earlier debates.

Able administrators were found in Kevin O’Higgins, Minister for Home Affairs, and later Minister of Justice, Mr. Patrick Hogan, Minister for Agriculture, Mr. Ernest Blythe, Minister for Local Government, and General Mulcahy, Minister for Defence, while Professor Eoin MacNeill became Minister for Education in the third Dáil and Mr. Michael Hayes was elected Speaker.

All these Ministers retain portfolios in the present Dáil, except Professor MacNeill, and the lamented Kevin O’Higgins, whose assassination in 1927 deprived the country of a man of brilliant parts. His representation of the Free State outside his own country, when he became Minister for External Affairs, did much to raise its prestige, and convince the world that counsels of wisdom and statesmanship were not outside the reach of an Irish Government. Like his Chief, the President, he had known what it was to be “on the run” in the days of the Black and Tans, and had been imprisoned for anti-conscription speeches in 1918; but when a fortunate fate brought him into power, his clear vision and sane judgment made him conspicuous among the delegates to the League of Nations Conferences at Geneva, as a man of special mark. His death by a bullet one Sunday when he was on his way to Mass near his home at Booterstown, Co. Dublin, was an irreparable loss to his country. Mr. Winston Churchill aptly describes him as “a figure out of antiquity, cast in bronze.”[12]

The third Dáil, which met on September 9, 1922, was a meeting of great importance. To it fell the duty of drawing up the Constitution for the Free State for the purpose of implementing the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland. This Bill was introduced on September 18, 1922, and was finally passed on October 25 of that year. It laid down in its first Article that “The Irish Free State is a co-equal member of the community of Nations forming the British Commonwealth of nations”; and that “All powers of government and all authority legislative, executive, and judicial in Ireland, are derived from the people of Ireland.”

It decreed that all persons who are citizens of the Free State and over the age of 21, irrespective of sex, should have the vote for the Dáil and all persons of the age of 30 and over should have the right to vote for Members of the Seanad or Senate; the Senate to consist of sixty members, thirty to be elected by Dáil Éireann voting on principles of Proportional Representation, and thirty to be nominated by the President of the Executive Council, with the special aim of providing representation for parties or groups not adequately represented in the Dáil.

The Statute thus passed by Dáil Éireann sitting as a constituent assembly in the Provisional Parliament becomes the legal authority for the Constitution of the Irish Free State. That Statute contains the text of the Treaty of 1921, which is set out in the second schedule thereof. It gave the force of law to the Treaty of 1921 in the Irish Free State; while the Irish Free State (Agreement) Act, 1922, passed in the British Parliament, gave to the Treaty of 1921 the force of law in Great Britain.

The Acts of the two Parliaments constitute their ratification of the instrument signed in December 1921 by the plenipotentiaries of the two countries. The Constitution of the Free State differs from that of the other self-governing Dominions in that it was established by resort to an international method, namely, by a Treaty concluded between representatives with plenipotentiary powers and ratified by Acts of Parliament. The other States of the Commonwealth were established as “Dominions” by Acts of the British Parliament only. And it would appear that in law the Canadian Parliament has not the power to amend the British North America Act, 1867, which contains the Constitution of Canada.

The Oireachtas, on the other hand, could repeal the entire Free State Constitution, and the juridical and political relationships between Great Britain and the Irish Free State would still rest upon the mutual obligations of the Treaty of 1921, which is an international instrument and has been registered at Geneva as such at the instance of the Government of the Irish Free State. This international position of the Irish Free State is the mainspring, lever and support of the constitutional developments which have recently taken place in the British Commonwealth of Nations.

It would appear, therefore, that the Irish Free State stands in a privileged position among the Dominions of the British Empire both as to origin and constitution. It did not arise in a British Act of Parliament but by the Irish enactment of the Dáil, though the British Act was necessary to give it the force of law in Great Britain. Thus the Irish view that all power resides in the citizen and that the political sovereignty of the people is also the legal sovereignty, gains a sanction from the terms of the Constitution. The Constitutional assembly had a free hand in drawing up the machinery of Government within the terms of the Treaty, and the admission of representatives of the Free State to the League of Nations,[13] and of her independent representatives at Washington, Paris, Berlin, and the Vatican, countries which also have sent their Ministers to Dublin, are a recognition of the equal status that she enjoys.

It is well to recall the words of Arthur Griffith, the man who more than any other made the Treaty acceptable to his nation. In moving the approval of the Treaty in the public session of Dáil Éireann, on December 19, 1921, he said:

“I signed the Treaty, not as an ideal thing, but fully believing what I believe now, as a Treaty honourable to Ireland and safeguarding the interests of Ireland. Now by that Treaty I am going to stand and every man with a scrap of honour who signed it will do the same. It is for the Irish people, who are our masters, not our servants, as some think, it is for the Irish people to say whether it is good enough: I hold that it is, and I hold that the Irish people, that 95 per cent. of them, believe it to be good enough. … It is the first Treaty that admits the equality of Ireland. It is a Treaty of equality. We have come back from London with that Treaty, which recognised the Free State of Ireland. We have brought back the flag. We have brought back the evacuation of Ireland after 700 years by British troops, and the formation of an Irish army. We have brought back to Ireland her full rights and powers of fiscal control. We have brought back to Ireland equality with England, equality with all nations which form the Commonwealth, and an equal voice in the direction of foreign affairs in peace and war.”

And again:

“This is what we brought back, peace with England, alliance with England, but Ireland developing her own life, carrying out her own way of existence, and rebuilding her own Gaelic civilization.”[14]

Griffith did not believe in finality: “this is no more a final settlement than this is the final generation,” was one of his favourite sayings, but he believed in accepting the greatest measure of freedom that had come within the reach of Ireland for generations, and he believed in keeping his word.[15]