Once again there were parallels between the end of the civii war and the Anglo-Irish War in that no one could be sure that it was really over. Unlike the Anglo-Irish War, however, there was no truce, no negotiations no settlement; the Republicans conceded nothing, not even defeat, and Ireland remained on a war footing. The iRA's guerrillas simply dumped their weapons and went home to await the next time.
The fact that the IRA had not been defeated would come back to haunt the Irish Government for decades after the civil war. Although the NA had wrested control of Ireland's towns from the IRA in the opening weeks of the war Republican forces were still operating with impunity in many rural areas.
Almost 1,000 IRA guerrillas were still at large in the mountainous areas near Macroom and Bantry in Co. Cork although by May 1923 they had little stomach for the fight. Ever since Dalton had overrun the county the NA occupation had been fairly benign and IRA leader Tom Crofts even described their commander, .Major-General David Reynolds, as 'decent for he did not want executions'.
1'he same was not true of the war in Kerry, where some of the worst atrocities of the war had taken place. In the end approximately 400 well-armed IRA guerrillas were engaged in a bitter game of cat and mouse with 2,000 or so government soldiers. IRA guerrillas were also active in north and west Mayo as well as along the border with Siigo and Leitrim.
Although none of these forces had been beaten in the field the constant pressure of being 'on the run' steadily wore them down. Conventional military operations became less and less common as attacks on Unionist and Saorstat sympathizers and their property increased along with looting, road trenching and destruction of railway infrastructure and engines.
Early defeats had also left the IRA in Co. Limerick and Co. Tipperary demoralized and relatively ineffective. Despite establishing both an army HQ and an underground government in Dublin there was little IRA activity of any note in the city or the county after the fighting in the summer of 1922.
In fact Co. Wexford was probably the only area in eastern Ireland where IRA activity Increased rather than declined as the war progressed. When Aiken ordered his men to go home some areas of rural Wexford were firmly under IRA control. A Times report speculated thai this was because a 'large portion of it |the NA), variously estimated, sympathised with the Republican cause'.
According to O'Halpin the IRA campaign was increasingly seen as illegitimate, lawless, undisciplined and ruthless. It is difficult to see the military logic of an IRA attack in Hallina, Co. Mayo where they 'demolished the park enclosure and released the hares'. O'l liggins was quite explicit that 'we are not engaged in a war properly so called, we are combating organised sabotage and a kind of disintegration of the social fabric'.
The Government undoubtedly exaggerated the extent to which social disorder in some areas was linked to Republicanism except in the context that the rule of law had been steadily undermined since the start of the IRA offensive against the British in 1919, In attempting to restore order the Irish Government faced similar difficulties to the British but unlike them they were willing to openly go beyond their legal powers to suppress the insurrection.
O'Higgins was no fan of the NA but accepted that it had to 'perform many duties which, strictly and technically, might be said to be those of armed peace rather than military'. He firmly advocated that 'there should be executions in every county.
Rebels surrendering in O'Connell Street, Dublin. (Corbis)
The psychological effect of an execution in Dublin is very slight in Wexford, Galway or Waterford ... local executions would tend considerably to shorten the struggle.'
Rebels surrendering in O'Connell Street, Dublin. (Corbis)
The Saorstat Minister for Agriculture, Patrick J, Hogan TD, also believed that 'the people are thirsty for peace, and thirsty for strong ruthless measures ... an unusually steady, disciplined Army acting with the utmost efficiency and ruthlessness'.
Even Mulcahy had told Dalton that he could not afford to he broadminded when dealing with the IRA.
What was remarkable about the executions and illegal killings carried out by Saorstat forces was that the Irish public
seemed to accept them without much complaint. This was in stark contrast to the attitude of the public, in both Britain and Ireland, towards the executions carried out under the auspices of the previous administration in Dublin.
This was probably because the Saorstat Executive Committee constantly emphasized that they were defending the rule of law and democratic institutions against Republican disorder and even de Valera despaired at times of the IRA's lack of democratic legitimacy. Claiming a mandate from the first Dail was all well and good but the Irish electorate had already moved on.
Even as the civil war was drawing to a close the IRA failed to grasp the significance of the Clausewitzlan maxim that war is the continuation of politics by other means, issuing a statement that 'suggestions as to methods of ending the present struggle will be effectively dealt with by Government. Such questions do not concern the Army, whose duty is to prosecute the war with redoubled vigour.'
From the start they focused on waging war rather than developing a coherent strategy that went beyond destroying the Saorstat. The IRA Executive had always been lukewarm about the prospects of a negotiated peace, especially on anything other than their own terms. Throughout the conflict attempts had been made to bring both sides to the negotiating table with little success.
On 3 May 1923 Senators Andrew Jameson and James Douglas met with de Valera to discuss the possibility of peace talks but they foundered when he refused to sign a statement recognizing the Saorstat Government. De Valera claimed that he wanted 'a peace which would enable his followers to return to constitutional action' but he 'doubted whether his followers would be willing to publicly hand over arms'.
When Mary MacSwiney criticized de Valera for opening dialogue he scolded her for speaking 'as if we were dictating terms and talk ... of a military situation. There is no military situation. The situation now is that we have to shepherd the remnant of our forces out of this fight so as not to destroy whatever hope remains in the future by allowing the fight to peter out ignominiously.'
De Valera was not alone amongst leading Republicans in wanting to end the war and salvage what they could. Tom Harry was actively seeking to bring about an end to the conflict and Aiken believed that the best hope for furthering the Republican cause lay with the Sinn Fein Clubs through political rather than military action.
Unfortunately for the Republicans the Saorstat Government was unwilling to renege on the Treaty, which made a negotiated solution unlikely. With thousands of IRA guerrillas in custody and most of the country in Government hands Cosgrave, O'Higglns and Mulcahy showed no sign of letting up pressure on the IRA despite Aiken's orders to cease offensive operations.
The last executions of the civil war took place on 30 May in Tuam, Co. Galway, when Michael Murphy and Joseph O'Rourke were shot for their part in a failed armed robbery. De Valera was arrested on
15 August in linnis, Co. Clare, during a political rally and between 13 October and 23 November 1923 possibly as many as 8,000 of the 12,000 Republican prisoners went on hunger strike.
Fortunately for the Government only two prisoners died during the strike and the Republicans failed to fully exploit its propaganda value. More alarmingly the strike showed that despite their captivity many IRA prisoners were far from demoralized. When the strike was finally abandoned not everyone was pleased with the order and one prisoner was heard to comment that T would rather have faced the firing squad than call it off, but there was Divisional Officers ordering their men off.'
With over £30m (over £4 billion in current terms) worth of damage done, £2m of uncollected rates in Co. Clare alone and £17m spent on the war effort, Cosgrave was far from happy with the situation he faced in June 1923. Although the Republicans had lost, the Saorstat's victory was far from clear and it would be several years before the Government felt confident enough to consider the civil war over.
Conclusions and consequences
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