From the Free State to the Second World War

The new Irish Free State was not the republic that some had fought for. It was a British dominion within the Empire, with the King at the apex of the constitution. It was twenty six counties and not thirty two. Capital had leeched out of the country, and the rail and road networks were partially destroyed. The centres of many towns, including Dublin were in ruins. Opposition to the Cumann na nGaedheal government within the Dáil was provided by the Labour party and a handful of independents. The anti-Treatyites, who retained the name Sinn Fein, boycotted Dáil Éireann.

The Seanad or Upper House was heavily representative of the former Unionist community in the twenty six counties, and was designed partially to serve as a watchdog of their constitutional rights which were explicitly enshrined in the 1922 constitution. The aim of the government was a smooth transfer of power. Cultural nationalism, which had formed the views of many of the new generation of politicians, was recognised as central to the idea of what the nation should be. In this context the restoration of the Irish language became a central component of the new Free State policy.

Northern Ireland was set up and consolidated during the Anglo-Irish war. Northern Catholics had been vulnerable throughout these years, and in 1922 Collins spent much time negotiating with Craig a series of pacts that were to deal with the plight of northern nationalists, particularly those in Belfast . The border took many years to become a clear political divide and in this period events north and south are profoundly interconnected. The Dublin government in 1923 began to work on their case for the Boundary Commission, but that case had collapsed by 1925.

This and other events spurred De Valera with his key aides Sean Lemass, Sean MacEntee and Frank Aiken to consider entering the political process through abandoning Sinn Fein and abstentionism. He founded Fianna Fail in 1926, leaving behind a republican rump that retained the name Sinn Fein. The assassination of Kevin O’ Higgins in 1927 pressed William T. Cosgrave’s government to introduce legislation to endure that parties could not stand for election unless they undertook to enter the Dáil. In many ways this suited De Valera who led his ‘slightly constitutional’ Fianna Fail into Dail Eireann in 1927. Cosgrave and the Free State government continued in power, however, until 1932. See film footage of William T. Cosgrave in 1931 giving a speech to the nation on disarmament and world peace. 

De Valera won the 1932 and 1933 elections on an eclectic platform. He espoused the cause of small farmers and took over Peadar O’ Donnell’s campaign to stop paying land annuities to the British government. He blamed Cumann na nGaedheal for the debacle of the Boundary Commission and implied that he had a plan for ending partition. He emphasised his greener credentials and painted the Free State government as lackeys of the British, unwilling to make the final push for freedom. He also advocated protectionism, the historic policy of Griffith’s Sinn Fein and of Irish- Ireland . Native industries, it was implied. could be built up by protection behind a tariff wall; this was not particularly out of kilter with international norms in the years after the Great Depression.

De Valera’s charisma was powerful to his followers, but he was loathed by his opponents. Predictions that Fianna Fail would be red, anti clerical, ruthless in their purging of the new institutions proved unfounded. The Eucharistic Congress of 1932 provided De Valera with a public platform for his reconciliation with the catholic church which had previously thrown’ bell, book and candle’ at the republicans. See film footage of the Eucharistic Congress. De Valera initially kept his former colleagues in Sinn Fein on side, with some degree of wariness. Many, like Mary MacSwiney, who had been close to him, never forgave his abandonment of the grail of the republic through recognition of the existing Dail.

During the thirties De Valera systematically dismantled those clauses of the Treaty that bound the Free State to Britain. The office of the Governor General, the king’s representative in the Free State , was undermined by being marginalised and eventually disappeared when De Valera availed of the abdication crisis in Britain to remove the king from the Free State constitution for good. The refusal   to pay Britain annuities led to British retaliation in the form of an embargo on Irish agricultural products, particularly animals on the hoof, the traditional core of Irish exports to Britain. This caused great hardship generally, but particularly hurt strong farmers and graziers, the core of Cumann na nGaedheal rural conservative support. The emergence of the Army Comrades Association, known as the Blueshirts, under the leadership of the unstable Eoin O’ Duffy, was partly a consequence of this.

The thirties were difficult years, with frequent local clashes between the newly emergent proto- fascist Blue shirts and the increasingly extreme IRA. The unarmed Garda Síochána, one of the prime achievements of the first Cumann na nGaedheal government, held the line with some difficulty between these factions. In rural Ireland class tensions were exacerbated by the economic travails of the big farmers and the perennially insolvent rural poor, who were partially protected by De Valera’s dole. De Valera banned the IRA in 1936 and his constitution of 1937 signalled through Articles 2 and 3 that responsibility for the reunification of the ‘national territory’ was the responsibility of the state, now called Eire, and not the IRA or any other similar body.

The 1937 constitution was not as Catholic in orientation as many of De Valera’s clerical advisers would have liked. It confirmed however the general tendency to enshrine the Catholic moral code in the law of the state that had been evident in all Irish administrations since 1922, and gave witness to the very considerable powers of patronage and influence that the catholic church exerted at every level of the society. The 1937 constitution also created the office of President, which was held for the first time by Douglas Hyde , from 1938 to 1945. See film footage of Ireland's First President.

For former female colleagues, particularly the remarkable Dorothy Macardle, who had been the brilliant author of The Irish Republic, the work that did so much to justify the republican side in the civil war, the clauses dealing with the position of women were the most unpalatable. Confirming all societal tendencies since the 1920’s the position of woman was deemed to be in the home. This represented the cornerstone of all of the successive pieces of legislation that had systematically politically and socially disadvantaged women since the 1920’s. Individuals and women’s groups bombarded De Valera with protests, emphasising how much many of them had done in ‘the national struggle’, but their cries fell on deaf ears.

The agreement that De Valera made with Neville Chamberlain in 1938 resolved outstanding Anglo-Irish issues. Most significantly this agreement gave the so called Treaty ports, British bases within the Free State , to the Irish Free State, thus enabling the Free State to pursue a policy of neutrality during World War 2.

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By localhistorian1 | 2017-07-10 16:28:00

Database- Cork's War of Independence Fatality Register

Launched on 17 May, “Cork’s War of Independence Fatality Register” records the details of 528 persons who died as a result of the conflict from January 1919 to the Truce of 11 July 1921. The findings are available at the website , a collaboration between the Irish Examiner and University College Cork. Authors Dr. Andy Bielenberg of UCC and Professor James S. Donnelly, Jr., of the University of Wisconsin-Madison have written individual profiles for each fatality, providing the victim’s date and place of death and other relevant details about each episode. A general index allows visitors to search for individuals by name, place, or date of death. Donnelly and Bielenberg also analyze political violence throughout County Cork in 1919-21 in their introduction.