In 12 days Ireland went from fledgling democracy to civil war

How the independent state in 1922 went from democratic general election to disaster

In the space of just 12 tumultuous and tragic days in June 1922 the fledging Irish State went from its first democratic general election to civil war.

The narrow passage of the Anglo-Irish Treaty by 64 votes to 57 in January 1922 illustrated the divisions within the republican movement.

The “magnificent discipline”, Éamon de Valera’s description of Irish nationalism between 1916 and 1921, was sundered mostly by himself and his supporters, who walked out of the Dáil after the vote and refused to accept its validity.

Under the terms of the Treaty, the Irish Free State constitution had to be passed by a newly elected Dáil within one year. Until then, the new Irish State, the government and its institutions were provisional in nature.


The 1922 general election, called for June 16th, 1922, was held against a background of looming civil war in which a substantial section of the IRA rejected the Treaty.

On March 26th, 1922, anti-Treaty IRA leaders hosted an army convention in defiance of the Provisional Government and voted to repudiate the Treaty and the authority of Dáil Éireann.

The pro-Treaty IRA formed the National Army. There were now two armies in the Irish Free State, each disputing the other’s right to exist.

The mood of foreboding was accentuated by de Valera, who made a series of incendiary speeches to audiences of armed IRA men in March and April 1922.

In Killarney, Co Kerry, de Valera warned that those who supported the Treaty "will have to wade through Irish blood... the people never had a right to do wrong".

In April, Rory O’Connor, a prominent anti-Treaty IRA figure, gave a notorious press conference in which he opposed the provisional government’s right to govern.

“Do we take it we are going to have a military dictatorship then?’ he was asked by journalists.

“You can take it that way if you like.”

In April 1922 anti-Treaty Republicans occupied Dublin's Four Courts, the centre of legal life in Ireland, hoping a confrontation with the newly established National Army would provoke a British intervention and violate the Treaty.

Yet when the election was called in May 1922, Michael Collins and Éamon de Valera agreed to an electoral pact based on their respective strengths in the second Dáil. This was to maximise the Sinn Féin vote and to minimise the chances of civil war.

The British Government was furious about the pact, believing it denied the Irish electorate a real choice. It also reminded Sinn Féin that acceptance of the Treaty was a prerequisite for participation in the Free State government.

The British further expressed exasperation when the stand-off between the Provisional Government and the rebels continued for weeks without resolution.

As electioneering began, the Irish and British delegations worked on the new constitution which would give effect to the Treaty and establish the new state. Attempts by the Irish side to fix the objectionable oath and obviate the nominal authority of the king came to nothing.

Michael Collins was in London for the late drafting of the constitution and arrived back in Ireland two days before the general election was due to take place. That evening he made a speech in Cork urging the public to “vote for the candidates you think best of”. This was interpreted as a direct repudiation of the pact, though its impact on the election result was most likely minimal as it came so late in the day and got little press coverage.

The 1922 general election has never received the same attention as the 1918 or 1932 general elections, but in many ways it was just as significant. It was a pluralist election with a variety of candidates not just from Sinn Féin and was held under proportional representation. Along with being the first election in the State, it also established the primacy of the democratic will. Almost four in five voters opted for pro-Treaty candidates. It gave the Provisional Government a mandate to govern.

June 16th

The constitution for the Free State was published in the morning newspapers on the day of the election. It described the Irish Free State as a “co-equal member of the community of nations forming the British Commonwealth of Nations”. It further stated that “all powers of government and all authority, legislation, executive and judicial are derived from the people”, but the oath remained. All males over the age of 21 and all women over the age of 30 were eligible to vote in the election. Some 621,587 voters cast their ballots on a turnout of 62.5 per cent.

June 17th

As ballots were opened in the South, one of the worst atrocities of the period of violence in the North from 1920 to 1922 occurred just across the border in Altnaveigh, Co Armagh. Members of the Fourth Northern Division of the IRA murdered six Protestant civilians in revenge for attacks on nationalists in the area. Frank Aiken, who went on to become a minister in successive Fianna Fáil governments, commanded the division.

June 18th

The anti-Treaty IRA held another convention. Feelings were running high when Tom Barry declared it was time to give the British 72 hours to leave Ireland. The motion was lost after a recount. Rory O'Connor and Liam Mellows led a walkout, declaring: "All those in favour of the Republic come to the Four Courts." When Liam Lynch did not follow them, he was deposed as chief of staff of the anti-Treaty IRA. Lynch and his other anti-Treaty officers left the meeting and set up their own headquarters in the Clarence Hotel across the river from the Four Courts. The Four Courts garrison issued an appeal to "recreant Irishmen" to support the Republic.

June 19th-20th

Counting continued in the election and the scale of disaster for the anti-Treaty side became apparent. Many prominent anti-Treaty TDs, including Constance Markievicz, Kathleen Clarke, Margaret Pearse, Liam Mellows and Erskine Childers, were defeated. It was an outstanding election for the Labour Party, which won 21.4 per cent of the vote, its best-ever result. Seventeen of its 18 candidate were elected. Independents also did well.

June 21st

Éamon de Valera finally issued a statement about the outcome of the election. He acknowledged the defeat of the anti-Treaty side, which won less than 22 per cent of the vote, but blamed it on outside coercion. "Our people, harassed and weary and fearful of chaos, have in a majority voted as England wanted, but their hearts and their aspirations are unchanged."

June 22nd

Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson MP was assassinated by two members of the IRA in London, Reginald Dunne and Joseph O'Sullivan. Wilson's killing had dire consequences for Ireland. He was from Co Longford and had risen to the highest rank in the British army, becoming Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS) in February 1918.

He resigned from the position in February 1922 and was immediately elected unopposed as an Ulster Unionist MP for the North Down constituency. A month later, Sir James Craig, the Northern premier, announced that Wilson had become a military adviser to his government. Wilson became associated with the excesses of state forces in Northern Ireland, though he had nothing to do with the operational running of the Ulster Special Constabulary (USC) or the RUC.

Wilson, an arch-unionist and imperialist, was a bête noir of Irish nationalists and made several inflammatory speeches when he became an MP suggesting that Britain reinvade the Free State and restore order. His stance on the North made him a target for the IRA in London.

The timing was incidental. Dunne and O'Sullivan acted after reading in the evening newspapers that Wilson was going to unveil a first World War memorial at Liverpool Street Station. They waited for him to return from the memorial and shot him dead on the steps of his home at 36 Eaton Place. Dunne and O'Sullivan were eventually captured following a police chase through the streets of London.

Wilson's killing infuriated the British government which immediately blamed it on the anti-Treaty side. Ironically, it was pro-Treaty not anti-Treaty elements that were involved. A copy of An t-Óglách was found on Dunne. The official newspaper of the IRA was openly on sale in newsstands in Ireland but, as far as British prime minister David Lloyd George was concerned, it was enough evidence to pin the blame on the anti-Treaty side.

He wrote a post-haste letter to Michael Collins that evening. “The ambiguous position of the IRA can no longer be ignored by the British Government. Still less can Mr Rory O’Connor be permitted to remain with his followers and his arsenal in open rebellion in the heart of Dublin in possession of the Courts of Justice”.

June 23rd

General Sir Nevil Macready, the officer commanding British forces in Ireland, was summoned to London. He found the British cabinet in a "state of suppressed agitation" and spoiling for revenge. Churchill was charged with a "feverish impetuosity" and wanted to storm the Four Courts. Macready urged caution, as such a move would likely unite pro and anti-Treaty sides against the British and restart the war.

June 24th

Macready arrived back in Ireland to find a telegram from the cabinet demanding that he attack the Four Courts immediately. Macready played for time and sent his general staff officer, General Sir John Brind, to London to explain the consequences of such an attack.

June 25th

The Provisional Government also played for time. It asked for the evidence of the shooting being connected to the anti-Treaty side.

June 26th

Winston Churchill, secretary of state for the colonies, told the House of Commons that the British government would no longer tolerate the situation in the Four Courts. The Provisional Government now had a mandate and no excuses not to act. “If it is not brought to an end, and a speedy end, then it is my duty to say that we shall regard the Treaty as having been formally violated.”

A party of anti-Treaty IRA men attempted to raid Ferguson's garage in Dublin's Lower Baggot Street. The garage had sourced its cars from Belfast. The raid was in defiance of an order by the Provisional Government that the Belfast boycott of goods from the city be ended.

The raid was foiled by National Army forces that surrounded the would-be thieves and arrested them, including Leo Henderson, their commanding officer. In retaliation, that night the anti-Treaty forces kidnapped Lieutenant General J. J. "Ginger" O'Connell, the deputy chief of staff of the National Army.

The Provisional Government now had a casus belli it could claim as its own.

June 27th

The Irish cabinet met that evening. In a statement, they cited the kidnapping of General O’Connell and declared they would now act to “ensure the public safety and to secure Ireland for the Irish people”. At two minutes to midnight, the British handed over two field guns to the National Army.

June 28th

At 3.40am, Tom Ennis, the National Army commander, issued the Four Courts garrison with a warning to leave within 20 minutes. No response came from inside. The Provisional Government cut the power to the building and the lights went out on any chance of a peaceful resolution. At 4 a.m. the 18-pounder located at Winetavern Street fired its first shell. The Civil War had begun.

Ronan McGreevy is an Irish Times journalist. His book, Great Hatred: the assassination of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson MP, is published by Faber & Faber priced €17.99. It is out on May 26th