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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

XV – Class Divisions in the Civil War

All these forces were not mobilised for nothing, and certainly not for the obscure and idealistic reasons that middle-class historians like to imagine set brother against brother in the civil war. The issues at stake in the contest had much less to do with resolving opposing romantic interpretations of Ireland’s road to the future, or even the debate that raged in more rarified intellectual circles on constitutional and legalistic aspects of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, than with the outcome of a struggle between classes.

The full force of the state was mobilised and applied as zealously as it was precisely in order to strike a decisive blow at the “social extremism” of the republicans. This awakened such fears of Bolshevism in Ireland among the employers and their middle-class spokesmen – as well as such passionate hopes among the poor that their lot might be improved – that half-measures were not on the cards.

For many leaders on both sides, the argument raged at the rarified level of what constitutional relations between England and an independent Ireland might satisfy them. They debated the constitutional significance of the oath of allegiance to the king of England and other abstruse distinctions between various “symbols of subjection”. In this academic, even refined, debate, republican objectives were forgotten. But among the masses of the people, and those classes most hostile to them, the issues at stake were clear and concrete.

Ranged against the anti-Treaty republicans stood Church, landlords, business interests and – thanks to Collins – the IRB. “Between the pragmatism of the Free Staters” representing these forces, “and the romantic idealism of the Republicans”, one punctilious though hostile observer admits, there was indeed a cleavage that coincided with lines of social division.96

Among the republican opponents of the provisional government stood “the sons of small farmers, and the landless men”97 who represented small working farmers of the west, and the rural proletariat of the south. They included a majority, also, of urban wage earners. Most of the Dublin brigade of the IRA, as well as the IRA in Belfast and the northeast, the country’s two most urbanised centres, stood on the anti-Treaty side.

But “against the solidly structured Treatyites, with a government and paid professional army, the Republicans were in disarray”.98 Almost without exception, republican leaders failed to realise to what degree class hostility, driven by the fear of “land-grabbing” and revolution, lay behind the special viciousness of the provisional government’s measures against them – the ruthless mass reprisals, the summary execution of hostages and prisoners, the categorical refusal to negotiate ceasefire terms and the man-hunts that continued long after the fighting was over.

Few if any were even remotely aware that the campaign against the country’s republican forces was simply “a conspiracy of the ruling class to break down the revolution, by a civil war carried on under the patronage of a foreign invader”,99 as Marx had noted of the civil war in France a generation earlier.

The defence of the republic “would have meant rallying the people of no property ... and falling back on the dispossessed”,100 and de Valera and the middle-class revolutionaries who led the anti-Treaty republicans were not prepared to go so far as to mobilise the poor and the dispossessed against that ruling-class conspiracy.

By the end of April 1923, the republicans, hard-pressed by troops of the provisional government, isolated by government propaganda which condemned them as irregulars, denounced by the Church as assassins, and weakened by losses, had no choice but to suspend all offensive military actions. But the Free State offensive continued, and provisional government troops scoured republican areas for IRA units. In the towns, mass arrests of republicans continued.

The republicans proposed peace terms. These were dismissed by Cosgrave, Griffith’s successor, President of the Executive Council, head of the provisional government, in spite of a Labour Party statement that it considered the proposals an acceptable basis for talks. The provisional government demanded unconditional surrender.

And so, on May 24, 1923, IRA units were finally ordered to “cease fire” and “dump arms”. The order brought the civil war to a frustrating and inconclusive end. IRA units faded away, and volunteers tried to filter back as inconspicuously as possible to a normal life in the larger towns where they were unknown and less likely to be the target of continuing government harassment. The counter-revolution was victorious.

In London, the House of Lords rejoiced that the Irish government had successfully done what 200,000 British troops could not have done.

Next Section: XVI – Restoration of Old Order
Back to index page


  1. Rumpf and Hepburn. loc.cit. pp. 61, 62.
  2. idem.
  3. Peadar O’Donnell. Not Yet Emmett. p.l5.
  4. Marx, K. loc.cit. p.61
  5. Cronin. S. (1980) Irish Nationalism: A History of its Roots and Ideology. Dublin. Academy Press. p.148.

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