British and Irish Literature Literature of the Irish Civil War
by
Brian Ward
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0149

Introduction

The Irish Civil War, which lasted from June 1922 to May 1923, was the culmination of a decade of revolutionary politics in Ireland. The Easter Rising of 1916 had announced the desire of a small group of revolutionaries to break free of British rule and oppose the First World War, but this revolt ended after six days. Although it ended in failure, the memory of the Rising inspired the War of Independence from 1919 to 1921, which led to the Anglo-Irish Treaty. This document guaranteed the creation of an Irish Free State, but it also included numerous controversial concessions to Unionists and Britain, including the separation of Northern Ireland and the Parliamentary Oath of Allegiance to the Crown. The Civil War was fought between those who accepted the treaty and those who rejected it, shattering the unified front of resistance against British imperialism that had guided the Republican movement until this point. Although it was a shorter conflict, the Irish Civil War was far more bloody and costly than the War of Independence, and it saw the death of significant figures on both sides, such as Arthur Griffith, Michael Collins, Liam Mellows, and Erskine Childers, which robbed the new nation of the intellect and leadership that had grown up in the wake of a similar loss after the Easter Rising. Some of those who survived—including W. T. Cosgrave, Desmond Fitzgerald, and Kevin O’Higgins—favored moderation and were more agreeable to relations with the British government than Éamon de Valera, who remained a Republican outcast in Irish politics for several years. Although the war officially ended in 1923, Republicans (or irregulars, as they were commonly known) were interned without trial until 1924. Minister for Justice Kevin O’Higgins was assassinated in 1927 for his role in the execution of Republican prisoners, which illustrated the deep animosity that remained within the nation for years to come. While the immediate cause of the Civil War was the Anglo-Irish Treaty, it remains a complex and often misunderstood conflict, with numerous causes and factions. The war shaped Irish society for much of the 20th century and was to be a formative influence on Irish literature in the 1920s and long into the 1930s.

Criticism and General Overview

For several decades, critical analysis of the Irish Civil War tended toward obvious partisanship, merely reiterating the pro- and anti-treaty positions, examples of which can be seen in Philips 1926 and Macardle 1937. The authors of these works were primarily interested in promoting a political opinion rather than objectively investigating the factors that led to the Civil War, and so the texts are perhaps more interesting as artifacts of the period rather than as critique. Macardle wrote Collins almost entirely out of her history of the Irish Republic, such was her Republican, anti–Free State fervor more than a decade after the end of the Civil War. More recently, efforts have been made to contextualize the conflict in terms of wider events in Europe. Set against the backdrop of Mussolini’s impending rise to power in 1924, on the one hand, and modernism with its avant-garde possibilities, on the other, the Civil War can be seen as a battle between modernism and conservatism, as shown by Allen 2009. Although debates in the Dáil regarding the treaty mainly focused on the Oath of Allegiance to the British Crown and the separation of the six counties that make up Northern Ireland, there were numerous political and social issues that fed into the two sides of the Civil War. Socialists, conservative Catholics, and anti-imperialists found themselves temporarily united on both sides of the treaty divide, which indicates the complicated nature of Irish politics in a postcolonial age, as individuals struggled to put their ideals into reality. Kissane 2005 analyzes the Civil War in the context of later 20th-century anticolonial movements, creating a more nuanced understanding of its cultural and social ramifications. Similarly, Foster 2015 provides a long overdue study into the class and cultural attitudes that fed into preexisting divisions in Irish society, which exasperated Civil War divisions.

  • Allen, Nicholas. Modernism, Ireland and Civil War. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

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    Moves away from analyzing the split over the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which already dominates established historiography, toward a study of the Civil War as an avant-garde cultural event, influencing or impacting a wide number of writers and artists, including James Joyce and Sean O’Casey.

  • Corkery, Daniel. The Hidden Ireland: a Study of Gaelic Munster in the Eighteenth Century. Dublin: M.H. Gill, 1956.

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    Corkery claimed that authentic Irish culture had been preserved in the literature and poetry of the Munster peasantry, which contained the echoes of precolonial Gaelic civilization, a similar argument to that extolled by Patrick Pearse and others a decade or more prior to the Civil War. It was understood that this hidden Ireland should form the basis of the Free State’s decolonization mission.

  • Fanning, Bryan. The Quest for Modern Ireland: The Battle for Ideas, 1912–1986. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2008.

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    Examines five influential journals and their impact on the Irish public sphere. Chapter 3, “Unfinished Revolution,” examines the Jesuit periodical Studies from 1912 to 1939, giving a sense of the impact of the War of Independence and Irish Civil War on the continuity of ideas from pre- to post-independence.

  • Foster, Gavin M. The Irish Civil War and Society: Politics, Class, and Conflict. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

    DOI: 10.1057/9781137425706E-mail Citation »

    An excellent study that goes beyond conventional signifiers of political division, such as Republicans’ refusal to take the oath of allegiance, to examine the role of class, race, and preexisting social conflict in the creation of the Civil War. Chapters on the social meaning of clothing, the varieties of social conflict during the Civil War, and the economic aftermath are a welcome addition to existing historiography.

  • Garvin, Tom. 1922: The Birth of Irish Democracy. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1996.

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    A study of what Garvin terms the “long year” from 1922 to 1923, analyzing the emerging Irish Free State and the government’s attempts to stabilize the nation during the Civil War. Analyzes the conception of democracy in Ireland and the various forms of government that were in debate at the time.

  • Kissane, Bill. The Politics of the Irish Civil War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199273553.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    Examines the Irish Civil War in the context of 20th-century decolonization and particularly the practice of later successive British governments to encourage the rise of moderate elements to power upon withdrawing from their colonies. Also engages with the debates regarding the nature of an independent Ireland that were central to the dispute leading to the Civil War.

  • Macardle, Dorothy. The Irish Republic. London: Corgi Books, 1937.

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    A history of the revolutionary period of Irish history, this work is notable for the author’s strident criticism of the Free State government’s activities in the Civil War, which drew criticism from Fine Gael upon publication. The book’s popularity was helped by the endorsement of de Valera, who wrote the preface, and the Irish Press, the voice of de Valera’s Fianna Fáil party.

  • Macardle, Dorothy. Tragedies of Kerry 1922–1923. Dublin: Irish Book Bureau, 1965.

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    A Republican history of the Civil War in Kerry, described in the introduction as the “war of brothers.” Macardle presents the war as an English plot intended to divide Irish Republicans after the War of Independence had failed to quell the Irish revolution. The text takes the form of a tour of Kerry townlands, and it describes some of the most tragic killings of the Civil War.

  • Philips, Walter Alison. The Revolution in Ireland: 1906–1923. London: Longmans Green, 1926.

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    Philips draws on a wide variety of periodicals from the period, as well as speeches and firsthand accounts given privately to him, which generated criticism for a lack of objectivity. The text itself is a moderate account of the revolutionary period, told with one eye on the role of the Free State as the bulwark of law and order required to stabilize the nation.

  • Shovlin, Frank. The Irish Literary Periodical, 1923–1958. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003.

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    Examines the nation-building project and the need to create unity within the Free State after the separation from Northern Ireland and the trauma of the Civil War. The first chapter in particular deals with George Russell’s Irish Statesman newspaper, the successor to the Irish Homestead, which was established by Russell with the financial support of George Bernard Shaw as a paternalist voice with the hope of steering the new nation.

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