The Free State was born on December 6, 1922, but a people battered by years of violence, a bitter civil war and economic hardship were in no mood to celebrate. Frank Coughlan reflects on the overlooked significance of the date, 100 years on
WT Cosgrave stood up in the Dáil on December 6, 1922, and delivered a speech that the newborn state should have been eager to hear.
The President of the Executive Council was speaking immediately after King George V had signed the Irish Constitution Act into law. The Free State was born after a long and painful labour and Cosgrave, a man not given to demonstrative oratory, made no attempt to hide his pride.
“On this notable day,” he told a hushed chamber shorn of garrulous republicans, “when our country has definitely emerged from the bondage under which she has lived through a week of centuries, I cannot deny that I feel intensely proud to be the first man called to preside over the first government which takes over the control of the destiny of our people”.
But while voters had overwhelmingly displayed their pro-Anglo-Irish Treaty credentials in the general election six months earlier, they didn’t seem to have the enthusiasm nor energy to mark this moment.
They certainly didn’t take to the streets in celebration, nor were there any official public ceremonies of note.
It seemed, after the vexed and troubled period of the provisional government and the intensifying civil war, that this piece of legislation was viewed not so much as the beginning of something new but yet another juncture in a wearisome conflict that had started in earnest in 1919 and that itself had come fast on the heels of the slaughter of the Great War.
This sense that it was just another juncture in a seemingly endless cycle of political and economic uncertainty was made all the worse by internecine violence between the few who refused to recognise the emerging new free, if partitioned, state and those who had been democratically mandated to bring it into being.
The Irish Law Times noted of the legal creation of the Free State on December 6: “The transition was hardly noticeable in the city of Dublin and yet the change is tremendous and far-reaching.”
A few months earlier, the masses had gathered on the streets to pay their respects at the funeral of Michael Collins. They had done the same on Victory Day, in July 1919, when the end of the Great War was celebrated. Whenever they felt the occasion deserved it, Dubliners were fast to gather, be it in solemn silence or flag-waving enthusiasm. But the very day that bestowed Ireland its independence received little more than a shrug of the shoulders.
The pro-treaty national newspapers — reflecting what historian Diarmaid Ferriter points out were the concerns of the professions, business, big farmers and the Catholic Church — were eager to portray this moment as historic and epoch-shaping.
If newspapers are indeed the first draft of history, Dublin’s editors had only one version in mind. In the days that followed, the Freeman’s Journal ran an illustration of an impressive woman, representing Ireland, observing a bright new dawn. The Sunday Independent also cast the new state as a woman, inspired by the goddess Athena, facing the future with a shield of wisdom and fortitude.
Photographs of withdrawing British soldiers were particularly popular in the following days, the Irish Independent captioning them: “The old order changeth.”
But in the weeks leading to Christmas, readers had more pressing concerns. The execution of the avowedly anti-treaty Erskine Childers the month before led to the retaliatory killing of Free State TD Seán Hales, and the wounding of his colleague Pádraic Ó Máille on the day after Cosgrave’s Dáil speech.
Then, on December 8, the government retaliated by executing four senior treaty refuseniks, including Rory O’Connor and Liam Mellows. The terrible beauty of Yeats’s poem had, in the words of historian Joe Lee, become “far more terrible than beautiful”.
In all, 77 republican prisoners were executed by the Free State between that November and May 1923. Hardly an auspicious start for a new Ireland, a country exhausted after first fighting a world war “to free small nations”, then battling against the odds to free itself and, finally, at war with its own.
Is it any wonder that the formal creation of the new state felt underwhelming? It was a year to the day since the Anglo-Irish Treaty had been signed in London. The immediate rift in Sinn Féin, most spectacularly between Éamon de Valera and Michael Collins, would define Irish politics for the rest of the century and beyond.
The Dáil debates, which began in mid-December 1921, and concluded in acrimony on January 14, set the tone for the bitterness and murderous violence that would ensue.
More heat than light was generated in the Round Room of the Mansion House during that bleak midwinter. Historian Peter Hart described the debates as “fractious and bitter” and the discussions “poor and uninformed”, while contemporary commentator PS O’Hegarty wrote that in the “great talk” there was “more hypocrisy, lying and moral cowardice than one would have believed to have existed in the country”.
After the treaty was ratified, a provisional government, made up of a small cabinet chaired by Collins, was tasked with securing military control of the country.
Two days later, after the symbolic handover of Dublin Castle, the difficult task of transition to the new order commenced. It was described by Kevin O’Higgins, murdered by IRA mavericks a few years later: “The provisional government was simply eight young men in the City Hall standing amidst the ruins of one administration with the foundations of another not yet laid, and with wild men screaming through the keyhole. No police force was functioning through the country, no system of justice was operating, the wheels of administration hung idle, battered out of recognition by the clash of rival jurisdictions.”
Not all the turmoil was about immediate political or ideological matters. In the absence of a new regime and the withdrawal of another, old scores were being settled and opportunities acted on.
As many as 275 big houses of the Ascendancy were burned down between 1919 and 1923 and, as historian Peter Martin points out, most were razed in 1922.
It was in April 26 to 28 of that year when one of the worst atrocities of the revolutionary period was committed by lawless republicans who randomly murdered 14 Protestants in Cork’s Bandon Valley.
But in visual terms at least, it was the capturing of the Four Courts by Rory O’Connor that same month, and its subsequent shelling with artillery borrowed from the British army, that has come to define the time.
Soon after, it was the assassination of Sir Henry Wilson, MP for North Down, on his London doorstep that prompted the British prime minister to issue an ultimatum. In late June, Lloyd George told the provisional government “the ambiguous position of the Irish Republican Army can no longer be ignored by the British army”.
A few days earlier, Ireland had gone to the polls in a general election, and despite a pact between de Valera and Collins in a threadbare show of national unity, the vote only crystalised their irreconcilable differences. The results were a resounding endorsement of the treaty, though anti-agreement Sinn Féin did its best to conceal the scale of its defeat. The civil war, in rehearsal since January, could now reveal itself for what it was.
But while this existential battle was fought bitterly in word and deed, most people had other, more immediate concerns. Winston Churchill was pleased to inform the House of Commons in June that the British taxpayer was no longer funding Irish pensions. The Free State took on the burden and within two years finance minister Ernest Blyth would decide it prudent to cut it by a shilling.
In May 1921, the Freeman’s Journal reported unemployment at 125,000, “nearly double that of the other side of the Irish Sea”. Another year of turmoil had only made matters worse.
Deputy Daryl Figgis directly linked the two in October 1922. Speaking of those out of work, he told the Dáil: “At the end of three months they are revolutionaries, and at the end of four months they are anarchists, and it is not until work is provided for those referred to as being in the ranks of irregularism that irregularism will be brought to an end.”
The departure of the British administration and the troops that enforced it might have been a moment of symbolic rebirth, but it came at a price. The many garrison towns in particular had become dependent on the money spent by soldiers in their pubs and grocery shops, while businesses had lucrative contracts to supply various barracks.
Diarmaid Ferriter points out that the decline in trade was so dramatic that the prosperous town of Fermoy, Co Cork, sent a delegation to the provisional government in a desperate plea for assistance.
But, as Joe Lee notes, the “rulers of the Free State entered unto the task of state-building with many advantages” and adds that Ireland’s standard of living seems to have been about average for western Europe.
This would have been an analysis lost on those working-class Dubliners in overcrowded tenements. Historian John Dorney writes: “In 1911, 33pc of Dublin’s families lived in one-room tenements. Some 50,000 people were thought to be in need of rehousing by 1918. By the 1920s, the situation had actually got worse.”
Despite the numerous battles, real and metaphorical, the provisional government was fighting on many fronts, it did introduce its Million Pound Scheme house-building programme. Modest in scale, but it did give a sense of the ambition that lay beyond the immediate chaos.
All the while, of course, the shadow of the gunman loomed. A war that would shape the political imagination for nearly a century eventually reached its end, if not its resolution, six months after the creation of the Free State.
On May 24, 1923, a vanquished but bullish de Valera would intone: “Military victory must be allowed to rest for the moment with those who have destroyed the republic.”
In all, about 800 Free State soldiers and 400 Irregulars were killed in this futile conflict, a casualty rate far more modest than originally estimated.
It was only then that the Free State could get on with the business of embedding democratic values in a country affected by a near decade of war and instability, both domestic and global.
Within another decade, de Valera would lead a government in a state that he had sworn to dismantle.
Cosgrave understood the import of the words he uttered on December 6. If the public didn’t share his sense of history and gather in the streets to wave tricolours, it was perhaps because they had had their surfeit of fine words already. They were bone tired.
Hindsight should gift us with the generosity to give this date its due. It might not be everyone’s idea of an independence day, but it is as close as we’ll get.
There are other contenders for Independence Day, some less convincing than others.
Easter 1916: Regarded by republicans as the legitimising event. Glorifies blood sacrifice but suffers from the inconvenience on falling on a different date every year.
January 21, 1919: Meeting of First Dáil on the back of landslide election. The choice of strict constitutionalists as the moral, gun-free founding stone.
December 6, 1921: Signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty that foreshadowed break-up of the British empire.
July 1, 1937: The day voters endorsed the constitution that made a break with treaty and collapsed the Free State.
December 21, 1948: Republic of Ireland Act becomes law and shreds last connections to British commonwealth.
From the Irish Independent
December 7, 1922
The status of the Irish Free State under the Anglo-Irish Treaty is now definitely established and internationally recognised: like the other dominions, the Free State has a parliament which, for all practical purposes, is absolutely independent.
Yesterday, Dáil Éireann began to function under the constitution. We have now, in the words of President Cosgrave, a government “answerable only to our own people, and none other,” empowered to conduct Irish affairs as they shall declare right, “without interference, not to say domination, by any other authority whatsoever on earth”.
December 6, 1922, will be a notable and memorable day in our history. It marks the emergence of the nation from servitude to freedom. Already that freedom might have borne more fruit but for the opposition offered to the Provisional Government. Those still standing out in arms against the Government should, hearkening to the appeal of President Cosgrave, realise the fact that, under the constitution, freedom is in their hands.
The Free State government faces the work entrusted to it by the people with faith and courage. There has been a very perceptible improvement in the situation. As soon as the Senate is fully constituted, all classes and creeds will have been represented in the Oireachtas. Let us hope that outside also there will be unity in support of our national parliament.
The list of senators nominated by the president is published elsewhere in our columns. We commend the wisdom and the impartiality of his selections. He has observed, in letter and spirit, the principle laid down by the constitution to the effect that representation should be provided for groups or parties not adequately represented in Dáil Éireann.
Today the Belfast parliament meets to consider its attitude to the Free State. President Cosgrave stated very clearly the material advantages which the North-East can secure by remaining within the Free State. We hope sincerely the Belfast parliament will not decide to sever the North-East from the rest of Ireland. Should it, unfortunately and unwisely, elect to remain aloof, then the Boundary Commission must set about its work, and those who, like the electors of Tyrone and Fermanagh, have by their vote emphatically declared in favour of incorporation in the Free State must not be coerced to remain outside.
In connection with the commission, we would urge that the name of the chairman should be announced before the present session of the British parliament ends. Mr [Austen] Chamberlain reminded us that the intention of the coalition government was to appoint a gentleman not associated with active politics in recent years, such as a judge of the High Court. We trust the present government will appoint a chairman of equal impartiality. As we have already said, we should much prefer that the necessity for the commission would not arise, and that the new era, which puts an end to the old feud between Britain and Ireland, should also bring about union of North and South.