Century1923 Birth of a Nation

Diarmaid Ferriter: Fledgling Free State faced challenges on many fronts after Civil War

Following a bitter and exhausting conflict, the new government’s priority in 1923 was state building

As minister for home affairs in January 1923, Kevin O’Higgins wrote a memorandum arguing “there should be executions in every county [because] local executions would tend considerably to shorten the struggle”. His suggestion was an indication of the growing determination on the part of the pro-Treaty government to crush the anti-Treaty IRA.

The following month his colleague and leader of the government WT Cosgrave said privately that “the executions have had a remarkable effect. It is a sad thing to say but it is nevertheless the case”. He had no reservations about the righteousness of this course of action: “I am not going to hesitate if the country is to live and if we have to exterminate 10,000 republicans, the three millions of our people are bigger than the 10,000.”

Some opponents of the government privately acknowledged they were running out of road, including Éamon de Valera as president of Sinn Féin who wrote to Liam Lynch, the chief of staff of the anti-Treaty IRA, in February, arguing: “We can best serve the nation at this moment by trying to get the constitutional way adopted.”

But the IRA continued its campaign; while it had no chance of defeating the National Army, it was difficult to suppress completely. Eighty one men were executed during the Civil War, 60 of them in 1923. Discipline broke down as hearts turned to stone and the lust for vengeance grew stronger, as reflected in Kerry, in particular in March, with mines deliberately detonated to mutilate and kill National Army soldiers and IRA prisoners, followed by blatant cover-ups and lies.


Liam Lynch was shot in April 1923 in Tipperary and died from his wounds; the following month the war came to an end when Lynch’s successor Frank Aiken ordered the IRA to dump arms and de Valera addressed the “Soldiers of the Republic, Legion of the Rearguard” to tell them: “The Republic can no longer be defended successfully by your arms. Further sacrifice of life would now be in vain.”

There were more than 10,000 anti-Treaty republicans interned; many of them went on hunger strike later that year, which lasted 41 days for some, but their defeat was decisive. More than 500 Cumann na mBan women had been incarcerated during the war, including Annie Hogan who was released in September 1923 and died a short time later at the age of just 24, her premature death due to her hunger strike and the conditions she had suffered in prison. Another of the prisoners, Sheila Humphreys, released in November after a hunger strike, later recalled the mood of demoralisation: “We were flattened. We felt the Irish public had forgotten us. The tinted trappings of our fight were hanging like rags about us.”

Land and livelihood

As the war came to an end, the challenges of state building amid this gloom were many. Land hunger was widespread and the minister for agriculture, Patrick Hogan, introduced the 1923 Land Act in August, an ambitious attempt to finally solve the land question by giving the newly constituted Land Commission powers to carry out the compulsory acquisition and redistribution of land to relieve congestion.

As historian Terence Dooley suggests, for the government, “the final settlement of the land question through legislation could possibly be a big step towards the restoration of law and order”, given the prolonged agitation, social unrest and unauthorised land seizures, and “the £25-30 million needed to implement the Act had in the end to be provided by Britain”. The state also faced a hefty bill due to infrastructural damage caused by the war and £10 million of the £26.5 million spent on public services from 1922-3 was spent on security and reconstruction.

In April 1923 a new customs tariff between Northern Ireland and the South, imposed by the Free State, came into existence. It was referred to by an Irish Times reporter as indicating “our new fiscal independence ... By and by, when our tobacco and cigarettes have begun to cost the extra threepence in the shilling ... smuggling will begin to be worthwhile”. It was a barrier that further underlined the partition of Ireland as the unionist government of James Craig in the North was tightening its control of the state where many of the substantial minority of nationalists, one third of the population, felt abandoned. As one Antrim IRA man described it, when the Civil War came to an end he and his fellow republicans “filtered back to be arrested or allowed to resume their ordinary lives under stringent enemy conditions”.

Housing was also a great challenge; a special meeting held by Dublin Corporation in September heard its relationship with the department of local government “had not been very harmonious”, but they had to find a way to proceed “to erect the houses which were urgently required to house the poor”. A circular from the government insisted housing subsidies for local authorities were a short-term measure as the government “cannot adopt any policy of financial assistance which may involve the future government of the Saorstát [Free State] in financial commitments extending over a long period of years”. By 1926 the census revealed that 800,000 people in the state, nearly a quarter of the population, were living in overcrowded conditions.

Sin, censorship and social life

The Catholic Church moved to cement its dominance in a state where 94 per cent of the population was Catholic. As historian Deirdre McMahon characterised it, the Civil War violence shocked many clerics and “in the years after the Civil War the bishops’ pastorals were full of gloomy, doom-laden pronouncements about the inherent sinfulness of people and the need for constant vigilance against threatening influences which might corrupt them ... the Church was, in fact, deeply insecure about its role in a new State, which had been born out of violence and which had revealed how volatile and unstable its flock could be”.

Lenten pastorals delivered in 1923 contained warnings about “insubordination” and “indolence” and quoted the words of Pope Pius XI about “how the bonds of modesty have been transgressed, especially in the matter of dress and dances”. Another measure of the censorious climate emerging was the 1923 Censorship of Films Act that established a film censor with powers to “cut” films or refuse them a license if he found them “subversive of public morality” or those that promoted “the morals of the poultry yard”, to use the memorable description of the first film censor, James Montgomery.

But social life and entertainment continued, despite the IRA’s militant campaign to close down “public amusements”. The GAA managed to survive the Civil War split, although some matches had to be postponed and a number of its players were interned. Dances remained popular and there were more than 100 cinemas and theatres with projectors in the Free State in 1923; Nenagh’s Ormond Picture Palace, for example, was showing the American silent movie Shackles of Gold, directed by Dublin-born Herbert Brenon.

The programme for the play reminded the audience that any gunshots heard during the performance were part of the play and requested them to remain seated

On St Patrick’s Day 1923 at the La Scala Theatre in Dublin, Clare-born boxer Mike McTigue became light heavyweight champion of the world: 2,000 spectators filled the theatre to watch him defeat Senegal’s ‘Battling Siki’ (Ahmadou Mbarrick Fall) even as warfare continued on the streets outside and a landmine exploded near the theatre. The following month Dublin playwright Seán O’Casey’s first play to be staged at the Abbey Theatre, The Shadow of a Gunman, was performed. Set during the War of Independence, one of its characters, Seumas Shields, declares: “The country is gone mad. Instead of counting their beads now they’re countin’ bullets.” The programme for the play reminded the audience that any gunshots heard during the performance were part of the play and requested them to remain seated.

Elections and exhaustion

Pro-Treaty Sinn Féin established itself as a new political party, Cumann na nGaedheal, in April 1923; its first convention was held in May where it declared the government’s task was “to create the machinery of the State. It had been compelled to do unpopular things for the preservation of the State and it had always acted in the national interest”. Its advice to the people was “obey your own laws”.

But there was still significant support for anti-Treaty Sinn Féin which won 44 seats in the 153-seat Parliament in the August 1923 general election. Only 64 per cent of the electorate voted, suggesting a certain exhaustion or apathy, but the result indicated anti-Treaty republicans had a strong base from which to build. The IRA, though greatly weakened, had told its members in May 1923 “the dumping of arms does not mean that the usefulness of the IRA is past, or release any member from its duty to the country”.

The Labour Party performed poorly in the general election, its vote collapsing by half, with only 14 of its TDs elected. While the party had valiantly provided parliamentary opposition during the Civil War, the wider labour cause had been made more complicated by the return to Ireland in April of trade unionist Jim Larkin, a hero to many but a divisive character whose presence prompted feuds and trade-union infighting.

The government was keen to seek an international profile and relevance. The Free State’s admission to the League of Nations in September 1923 enabled Irish diplomats to mix with the representatives of more than 50 states through the diplomatic mission in Geneva. League membership was partly about asserting Ireland’s sovereignty and backing the league’s aim of peaceful resolution of international disputes. As historian Michael Kennedy sees it: “Ireland would otherwise have had no relations with many states with which it had much in common as a new, small and comparatively weak member of the system of states created after the first World War”.

Poetry and praise

In November 1923 it was announced that poet WB Yeats had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. WT Cosgrave promptly congratulated him. Yeats replied that he thought the award was given to him not just for his own work but as “a part of Europe’s welcome to the Free State, and I am very happy that it should be so”.

His reply indicated how comfortable Yeats was being identified with the new political establishment. A year previously, he had accepted with enthusiasm an invitation to become a senator. Yeats’s contemporary, writer Oliver Gogarty, insisted, when congratulating Yeats, “our civilisation will be assessed on the name of Senator Yeats”, and that his achievements were also laudable because “on no occasion has he ever written tawdry poetry in order to make his purse heavier”. Indeed, Yeats’s reaction to the announcement of the prize was reputedly “how much is it?” on a night when he dined on fried sausages (the answer was £6,800).

Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize “for his always inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation”. It was very welcome news at the end of a bloody and difficult year but with the ashes of the Civil War still smouldering, it was far too early for there to be any broad agreement about what constituted the spirit of the nation.

Diarmaid Ferriter is Professor of Modern Irish History at UCD and author of Between Two Hells: The Irish Civil War

1923 in numbers

10,000: Number of anti-Treaty republicans interned

81: Number of men executed during the Civil War

500: Number of Cumann na mBan women jailed during the war

£10 million: The amount spent by the government on rebuilding damaged infrastructure

63 per cent: Proportion of the electorate which voted in the general election in August 1923

Reeling in the years: 1923

What sources of evidence could you research to illustrate the impact of 1923 on your locality? Try using some of the following prompts:

  • The Civil War around your locality
  • Film(s) that were playing in your closest cinema at the time/music and musicians which were popular at the time
  • Noteworthy sporting events in your area
  • Profile of your local TDs from the time
  • Notable international events from 1923