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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

XIV – Civil War a Class War

The deep divisions sown by the civil war into which the country was inexorably being drawn by the intransigence of the British and the provisional government were, however, far from clear-cut, except to those few who conceived the struggle in terms of conflicting class interests. Griffith and his conservative supporters in Sinn Fein – MacNeill, Cosgrave, O’Higgins and others who in due course would take up the reins of power in the new state – clearly saw it, though never described it as such. As one writer discreetly put it, they “felt their responsibility covered the many citizens unaffected by republicanism”.87 As we have seen, these included in their number southern Unionists and employers generally.

In short, class interests lay behind their determination to dismiss as categorically as they did, when civil war loomed, the notion of any compromise with social forces they chose to describe as “land-grabbing irregulars”, just as the same interests had inspired their early use of force to check and then to crush the movement for land seizures which had developed in the heady days of the revolution.

The divisions of the civil war were profound, then, even if not so clear-cut, and the struggle was extremely bitter. When conflict did eventually erupt, however, the leaders of the anti-Treaty movement, lacking class or ideological convictions, found themselves unable to “relate the Treaty to the tiers of lrish society whose interests it served”, 88 and – unaware of the class nature of the struggle around them – were too confused to be able to take prompt or effective decisions.

Although anti-Treaty leaders could count on the support of a clear-cut majority within the IRA, not least in Dublin which was the seat of the provisional government, they refused the assistance that was offered by “a flood of country units hurrying to Dublin” who stood ready a few miles from the city.89 These, fully prepared to test their strength, could quickly have decided the struggle in favour of the republicans.

Instead, anti-Treaty leaders allowed besieged republican garrisons in the Dublin Four Courts and elsewhere in the city to be bombarded into submission by artillery readily lent to the provisional government by Britain. The Dublin garrisons fell after little more than two weeks of bombardment, much to the provisional government’s relief.

Although many towns in the south were in republican hands, they were now rapidly re-taken by provisional government forces, after landings from the sea. Driven from the towns, the republicans lost the initiative.9O Forced back to the hills, they had no choice but to return to the guerrilla tactics of the independence war, but now against an adversary who knew the people and the terrain as well as they did.

The provisional troops, encouraged by their pro-Treaty leaders and a press in full cry to believe their opponents were subversives intent on sowing disorder, fought a war of no quarter. The signing of the Treaty had seen disgust sweep over the republicans, wrote 0’Malley. The event “made some cynical, others indifferent ... Many saw themselves fighting their one-time friends. I was fighting imperialists. The one-time friends, as far as I could see, did not mind fighting me.”91

“Dislike of the war became channeled – by propaganda, official war policy, and successive acts of calculated legislation – into hatred of the anti-Treatyites as the cause of the war”, writes one who was involved in the struggle in those years, “and this was interpreted as an official imprimatur for personalised mass vengeance. General lack of discipline contributed to the excesses which occurred on a scale too widespread to have been isolated incidents”.92

The Church moved in to lend the provisional government its support. The bishops published a joint pastoral letter condemning anti-Treaty republicans as assassins, and denied the sacraments to them or those who supported them, closing churches and cemeteries to the bodies of their slain.

Peadar 0’Donnell recalls that “the joint pastoral would not have been so noisily resented had it been simply issued, and left to work its own influence. But their lordships took daring, even reckless, steps to enforce it. They turned the confessional boxes into political check-points”.93

Britain’s far-sighted investment in Maynooth’s theological college, made so long ago, was still paying dividends.94

Employers also moved into action on the side of the provisional government’s law and order. Exploiting the divisions created in the labour movement by the civil war, they launched a campaign of wage reductions aimed at the dockers, carters, porters and other port workers in Dublin, with the full support of the government.

In Waterford, the farm workers’ strike dragged on. But now that the provisional government had established its authority in the country, the whole resources of the state could be brought to bear against the workers.95 A special Infantry Corps was raised and deployed under conditions of martial law to defend farmers and farm supplies and intimidate striking workers. An armed body called the Farmers’ Freedom Force was formed in County Waterford and, supported by the Farmers Union, carried the fight “against Labour, Socialism and Bolshevism” as far as Carlow and Kildare.

Next Section: XV – Class Divisions in the Civil War
Back to index page


  1. Williarns, D. (1966) ed. The Irish Struggle 1916-1926. London. Routledge and Kegan Paul. p.125.
  2. O'Donnell, Peadar. Not Yet Emmett. p.13.
  3. idem. pp.13, 14.
  4. Williams. loc.cit. p.191.
  5. O’Malley, E. The Singing Flame. p.148.
  6. Neeson. Eoin. (1966) The Civil War in Ireland 1922-1923. Cork, Mercier. p.288.
  7. O’Donnell, Peadar. Not Yet Emmett. p.14.
  8. Maynooth College was founded and supported by Britain in the late 18th Century for the training of the catholic priesthood at a time when anti-catholic laws still existed. This far-sighted measure ensured the loyalty of the church and its clergy, as well as that of Rome, even in times of religious and social tension.
  9. O’Connor, E. loc.cit. p.49.

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