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Journal of the Communist Party of Australia

ISSUE 31November 1993

Class Struggle and National Liberation

Counter-revolution in Ireland


by Erna Bennett

I – Truce

On July 9 and 10, 1921, while the national independence struggle was at its height, orders reached Irish Republican Army units scattered throughout Ireland to suspend operations at midday on July 11 “in view of the conversations now being entered into by our government with the government of Great Britain”. 6

Up until the very last moments before this truce came into effect hostilities continued. “Then, suddenly, all changed. Bonfires blazed. Fairs and festivals resumed. A sense of relief, relaxation, even exhilaration, swept the country – except in the six north-eastern counties”, where pogroms against catholics were renewed.7

In Belfast, capital of the northeastern six-county state created by the English parliament the previous year, inflamed mobs assisted by members of the new “law-keeping” special constabulary sacked and burned catholic homes, leaving many dead and injured, and more than 1,000 homeless in their wake. This state was to take Dublin’s place as Britain’s new garrison in Ireland.

In the rest of Ireland, stem young Irish volunteers8 “extinguished the bonfires, silenced the clamour for the release of the prisoners, took their friends angrily to task; this was a truce”, they insisted, “not a settlement. Unless the nation maintained its morale and the army its discipline no good would come of it”.

To the Irish commanders in the field the order to suspend hostilities came as a great surprise. Throughout the country, town and rural councils ignored the British writ. The postal services were almost completely in the hands of the independence movement or its sympathisers. In spite of repressive measures, Irish courts prohibited by the English had largely replaced those of the English administration. By July 1921, the state of dual power which existed saw more than 900 parish courts and 70 district courts declaring allegiance to the National Assembly, Dail Eireann, were functioning.

The enemy controlled the cities and the larger towns, but English departments of government did not function as before. Taxes were not collected. English courts were empty. Local administrations were often managed by Republican county councils who interpreted the orders and decrees issued by Dail Eireann. Why, combatants asked, had a truce been ordered? “We were gaining ground: each day strengthened us and weakened the enemy: then why was it necessary to put an end to hostilities?”

Many on the Irish side, distrustful of talks with the English, would have preferred to fight on, convinced as they were of victory. Most were quite certain that, in any case, the truce would not last more than two or three weeks at the most. Certainly, none could have guessed or would have believed that this was the end of the Irish revolution which had begun with the now distant working-class struggles of 1913 in Dublin and the Easter Rising of 1916, in which a handful of armed men had called down the armed wrath of the British Empire.

For the mass of the population, certainly, the truce brought relief at last from long years of intolerable hardship and sacrifice, but though the dangers of war were eased, the stress of social tensions remained. The lives of many of them were as scarred by poverty and unemployment as by the terrors of torture and bereavement.

Between a third and a half of the rural population lived in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. As for those living in the cities, of which Dublin, the capital, was the worst, the hovels and slums that had degraded and stunted the lives of the poor in 1913 had fallen into even greater decay by 1921.

Five years later, the 1926 Census was to show that in the Irish Free State, as the decapitated 26 counties of the southern part of partitioned Ireland were now euphemistically called, more than 800,000 people were living more than two to a room. More than 60,000 families inhabited one or two rooms each. In the poorer parts of Dublin, infant mortality was more than three times as high as in the middle-class suburbs of the city.

In the countryside, a million acres of land had gone out of cultivation during the independence struggle. More than 130,000 men and women were totally without work. Of these, at least 20,000 were agricultural labourers who should, at that moment, be preparing for the next year’s harvest.9

More than a quarter of all young males were unemployed. Almost a quarter of a million of an adult female population of 899,000 were either widowed or single and unemployed. Many thousands of children were permanently hungry, and people in every part of the country wondered what was to become of them.

And yet morale was high. “The mentality of the island”, we can read in O'Malley's memorable record of the period, “seemed to have changed ... A hard, steady Ireland, cool, assertive ... had pitted its strength against the Empire, and the latter was beginning to waver. The nation was at war, and its intellect had been shriven of dross by suffering.

“The enemy, on the other hand, had suffered in morale during the past two years, particularly in the past eight months. Their very campaign of terrorism had defeated itself”. They were weakened by internal divisions. “The civil powers, such as they were, resented the interference of the military ... The southern Unionists stood aloof. They did not throw in their lot wholly with the enemy; they could not side with us.”10

 Why, then, a truce? What was there to discuss with the enemy? The Irish side had everything to lose from a suspension of hostilities that encouraged combatants, effective because they were unknown and operated unseen, to emerge from cover under the eyes of the intensely watchful enemy.

Secrecy, so vital to the successful conduct of the struggle, once broken could not be restored. Many of the most active IRA units stayed at their posts, trained, repaired their arms and equipment and avoided coming into the open. Perplexed and apprehensive, the officers and volunteers of these units wondered why they had been given such an order.

Next Section: II – Revolutionaries and “revolutionaries”
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  1. O'Malley, E. (1979) On Another Man's Wound. Dublin, Anvil Books. p.342.
  2. The early pages of this article quote freely from passages in two works by O'Malley that span the period of the independence struggle and the civil war that followed it. These works, On Another Man's Wound and The Singing Flame, published in the late 1970s, capture the mood of those times perhaps better than most other contemporary reports.
  3. Members of the Irish Republican Army.
  4. Thomas Johnson. Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland: Official Report. p.413. Dublin, Stationery Office.
  5. O'Malley. loc.cit. The reader should note that in Ireland the term Unionist refers to those who supported political union with Britain, and is used in this sense throughout this article.

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