Acting President Rogers, thank you for the kind invitation to open this important conference.
As 2022 comes to a close we are also coming close to the end of a full decade of centenary commemorations. These commemorations have marked events and personalities which have been central to our modern history.
2022 was always going to be the year which touched on many of the most difficult and enduring issues in our revolution and the formation of this state. These are issues which have for better or worse dominated much of our popular perception of Ireland in the twentieth century.
There is no single formal event which is remembered widely or which has ever been a focus for popular celebration – even within individual political traditions. Until recent weeks, few outside of academic institutions could actually have told you the date upon which the Irish Free State legally came into existence.
In the twelve months from the signing of the Treaty to the sovereignty of the new state our country witnessed the growth of what were, for our people, new types of division and conflict.
The securing of an independent Irish state, and the formal division of historically united but diverse lands was not unique to Ireland. In fact it was part of the largest ever period of state formation in the history of Europe.
If you compare a map of Europe from 1912 with one from December 1922 you will find newly independent states stretching in one continuous stripe from the Arctic Circle to the Adriatic - from Finland down to the short-lived Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes.
And, on the far left of the map you will see on the on the island of Ireland the only other new state. Split into uneven parts and with one part bearing a curious name – not a ‘republic’, not a ‘kingdom’ but a ‘free state’.
It was the only new state to emerge from the lands of a power on the winning side of the First World War. It was also the only state to retain any form of connection to the state which formerly controlled it. Nonetheless, it still shared many of the same issues as other new states, such as legal and administrative continuity, economic crises, civil conflict, evolving state symbols, nationals living outside the state border and insecure minorities living within the state border.
The papers to be delivered at this conference go into these and many other issues which were important at that time and those which we can now see as having significantly impacted on the standing and impact of the new state.
Over the course of the last twelve months I have delivered a series of speeches on the Treaty, the transfer of administration and the outbreak of civil war. At Beal na Blath and elsewhere, I have addressed what I believe to be various lessons which we can draw from the events of a century ago.
These are lessons which we can learn without committing the grave but increasingly common error of framing the past in terms of the knowledge and attitudes of today.
Rather than repeat what I said in those speeches I would like to use this morning to look at a specific issue – that of how the context of the foundation of the state in 1922 had a profound impact on how we viewed what was the truly dramatic success of our revolution.
That context gave us many easy framings for how to see politics, how to describe the motivation of others and how to focus on what has not been achieved rather than what has. What is most striking though is how little we appear to appreciate the link of these factors to the context of the weeks before and after December 6th 1922.
In doing this I want to largely focus on the proceedings of Dáil Éireann a hundred years ago and the actions of the new state in its first days.
I think that there are many reasons why the important constitutional formality of sovereignty and the establishment of new institutions is overshadowed in how we remember those days.
1916 and the War of Independence are remembered as moments when there was, or there would soon be, broad unity within nationalism. In contrast, the new state did not include a significant part of the population of the island. The symbolism and impact of compromises central to the creation of the state were a cause of great division.
Perhaps most importantly there was a sense of a lost idealism for the type of state which had been fought for. There is no inclusive or aspirational language to be found in the records of those weeks – the poetry and idealism was gone.
Within the state, the civil war would be over within six months. We would go on to forge one of the world’s most enduring democracies.
But in many diverse ways, the legacy of how we overcame the problems of those times was, and perhaps still is, a core part of our national fabric.
To use Anne Dolan’s evocative description, “The stitching, for so many reasons, can be as important as the tear.”
UCD, the Revolution and the Free State
I want to congratulate the organisers of this conference for the great breadth of contributions which will be heard over the next two days. One point which I find very interesting is how it marks an evolution in the agenda of such conferences over the course of the past decade.
We are hearing more from what I believe is the critical perspective of Ireland in a European context. We are finally learning how many developments we shared with other, and through this learning more about what was unique here.
A greater attention is being played to how different traditions evolved over time.
We are moving beyond talks which point to the absence women from the narrative and are now hearing their vital voices and essential role in our history.
Most of all we are hearing more about how we can find new perspectives on events which we thought we understood already.
None of this would have been possible without a great new era in not just the writing of Irish history, but also the writing of Ireland into wider histories. I think we should be very proud of the fact that, for perhaps the first time, Ireland’s universities are a centre for historical research on critical international topics through different centuries. The work carried out here and with other universities on the aftermath of the First World War in Europe and the rise of civil conflict is especially important.
It is very fitting that this conference is taking place in UCD, given the University’s central role in nationalist and republican movements of a century ago.
When UCD’s founder John Henry Newman wrote about the ideal of a university he talked of it being “the alma materof the rising generation”. This was certainly central to his university’s identity through the following decades.
Especially at the start of the last century, the impact of having a large, Catholic and overwhelmingly nationalist university in Dublin had a dramatic effect on both culture and politics. It was the first time since the Reformation that the majority population had a college in the capital which it could view as its own.
It was a time of enormous energy in Dublin. New organisations and movements were constantly emerging – and there was an exciting sense of cultural discovery in literature and the arts.
And wherever you look in the stories of those years you find students and staff of UCD involved as leaders and advocates.
But of course, just as there is no single narrative or tradition in which all parts of society can be placed, UCD had many stories to tell. It reflected, and in important ways strengthened, key divisions. This was something which was particularly evident in the early years of the new state.
While Professor Eoin MacNeill was giving an academic underpinning to the language and cultural revivals, James Joyce finished his studies here convinced of their absurdities and soon departed for France in order to “create in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”
While Thomas MacDonagh, a lecturer in English literature, signed the Proclamation in 1916, Thomas Kettle, Professor of National Economics, went to France to fight against Germany and died at the Somme four months after his colleague’s execution.
It is here that Ernie O’Malley, one of the true thinkers of the republican side of the civil war, studied – and so too did Kevin O’Higgins who was such a determined opponent of the republicans.
All strands of nationalism and republicanism shared the halls and lecture rooms of Earlsfort Terrace but the divide was not an even one. UCD was unquestionably first and foremost a bastion of the Irish Parliamentary Party and then a key foundation for the political and administrative class which led the new state in its first decade.
Because of this, strident attitudes about UCD are to be found throughout the records of those times and in more distantly written memoires.
For example, there is the case of Todd Andrews.
Andrews was a remarkable public servant who developed public industries which sustained the state at critical moments. He was also a significant figure in republican circles as he had served as an aide to Liam Lynch and been interned until 1924.
As a young man he had come here to study commerce under some of the most prominent lecturers of his time. And once he left, most of his words about UCD were, to say the least, trenchant. He often went as far as to claim that Professor George O’Brien and the college debating society had effectively caused the civil war.
This was undoubtedly an extreme view, and he enjoyed the shocked response when he said it. But it did reflect the fact that once the Treaty was signed one of the most significant divisions within nationalism was between those who sought to lead a new independent administration and those who rather emphasised being true to the spirit of the movement which had secured that independence.
And this was very much not just about where you stood on the Treaty or the civil war – it is present even within supporters of the new state from very early on.
It was, for example, central to the tensions which caused the police mutiny of May 1922 – which led in turn to the visionary report creating an Garda Siochána in 1923 as an unarmed, non-partisan force.
Richard Mulcahy, chief of staff of the Free State army, reflected the same tensions. He chafed against the influence of lawyers and professors on the government – dismissing it as what he called “a Ballsbridge complex”.
On the other hand, many associated with UCD expressed great pride in their central role in directing much of the government, administration and judiciary of the new state – and by extension being the leading voice of a distinct nationalist tradition. That relationship was so close that for 54 years, starting in 1910, the Presidency of the University was held by academics who had been candidates and parliamentarians for either the Irish Parliamentary Party or Cumman na nGeadheal. One President, Michael Tierney, is believed to have suggested the name for Cumman na nGaedheal’s successor party – a name which Fine Gael still bears.
Both today’s conference and the history of the university where we have gathered, is a reminder to us that as well as remembering the emotional high points of conflict and debate, we must also remember the other strands and institutions which were so important in shaping the ideas and achievements of a century ago.
As I have said, I believe that we can learn a lot about how the new state was received and how attitudes towards it evolved by looking more closely at not just the events of December 1922 but also the arguments which were being made at the time – arguments which show a significant movement from even a few months beforehand. It marked a decisive moment which meant that the passions and hopes of earlier in the year were already replaced.
With the completion of major operations in the South, the strategic outcome of the civil war had not been in doubt since the Summer.
While the prospects for the new state had undoubtedly improved, Collins’ death and a new balance in the government changed much. When combined with the decisions of key republican leaders, this ensured that the prospects for some form of negotiated resolution of the conflict were disappearing.
There is clear evidence of much of society returning to a form of normality and of a new administration absorbing the old and carrying on with the business of government. However I cannot fail to see not just an uncertainty about what would come next but also a lack of the type of optimism which defined many new states elsewhere.
We did not have a national parental figure to reassure us and, while many argued the merits of the new state, none argued that it was ideal.
The move to a new phase of targeted killings by both sides seems to me to have placed a dark cloud over public life – one which raised questions about exactly what had been achieved and what was being fought for.
In looking specifically at the foundations of the state, the beginning of state executions on a scale never considered by the departing British was both radicalising for the state’s opponents and undermined the enthusiasm of its supporters.
The original Dáil legislation for secret military tribunals and limited or no rights of representation was so obviously outside the norms of the rule of law that a specific article was included in the new Constitution to try to regularise it.
Last week marked the centenary of the execution of Erskine Childers. It is difficult today to understand the level of shock involved in this and how it framed the mood as the new state awaited royal assent for it constitution.
The Childers execution was a major international event.
His yacht had transported many of the guns used in 1916. He had been a huge figure in the War of Independence. A former official of the House of Commons and a successful author, he had been one of the public faces promoting the cause of Ireland in the years before.
The propaganda war which had been so successful in damaging the standing of Britain during the War of Independence had been directed by Childers with skill and determination.
Because of his English background he became a near constant target for those seeking to caricature anti-treaty leaders as an exotic collection of hysterical foreigners and women.
Unlike many of the later executed republicans who were selected specifically because they had few to speak for them, the execution of Childers was always going to be major news.
What shocked people was not just the speed of his conviction and his personal connection to those who ordered the execution – but also the fact that the sole evidence used against him was that he possessed a small revolver.
That revolver had been given to him by Michael Collins.
No one on any side believed that this was an action required to save the state.
The few public statements made to defend the execution are dismissive.
It was shocking and it was designed to be shocking.
So, as the date for the new state approached, the mood in Dublin was tense, serving as a prelude to what was to come. And it was the execution of Childers and the use of military tribunals which was the preoccupation of Dáil Éireann as is began its sittings under the new constitution.
Debating the New State
On the afternoon of Wednesday December 6th the Dáil gathered with the first item of business being the taking of the oath prescribed by the Treaty and incorporated in the new constitution.
There was no woman present as the only two women returned to that Dáil rejected the Treaty. There was of course also no woman office holder present – nor would there be for almost another 57 years.
While the government had a large and secure majority there was an opposition and it was active in showing that political divisions could not be divided simply into two sides.
The speeches on the first day are largely devoid of emotion or enthusiasm. This was not a moment for high rhetoric or celebration. Those emotions seem to have been exhausted earlier in the year.
When you read the debate it is hard to miss the fact that the first speech by a political leader in the new sovereign parliament spoke of a general reticence towards the oath they had just taken.
Thomas Johnson, leader of the Labour Party said that the arrangements had been:
“accepted by us, as they are accepted by the people generally, under protest... We make our Declaration of Allegiance intending to fulfil our pledge, with the proviso that if at any time it shall be deemed wise and expedient by the people of Ireland in the exercise of their sovereign right to denounce the Treaty or alter or amend the Constitution, in any respect whatever, nothing in our Declaration of Allegiance shall be a barrier to our freedom of action.”
In reply, President Cosgrave largely ignored the point, or the historic nature of the day, and talked about the decision on opting out of the Free State which was likely to be taken by the Stormont Parliament.
The true drama of that week began the following day when Cosgrave interrupted the Dáil to announce that he had just been informed that Deputy Seán Hales had been shot dead and Deputy Padraig O’Malley had been injured.
The targeting of Dáil Deputies in this manner was a terrible crime, and one which few sought to justify. It gave no one a sense of pride, it promoted no serious objective and it was inevitably going to cause a severe reaction from a government which controlled the country and had an overwhelming preponderance of force.
But what was different was that this wasn’t about an informal or unstructured conflict between disorganised groups. The government had just adopted the mantle of constitutionalism, within which it had already given itself wide emergency powers.
The very point of being a constitutional government is that you accept limits on your actions, even in moments of great stress.
The action overnight to execute four men being held in Mountjoy and to do so with no charge, with no trial and with no justification other than reprisal was murder by any definition.
The names of Dick Barrett, Liam Mellows, Rory O’Connor and Joe McKelvey are remembered to this day because of the wildness of the action taken by a government which asserted that it could do what ever it wanted.
This is not looking back from the vantage point of the values of another era, it is something which was acknowledged by every person present in Dáil Éireann on Friday December 8th.
A request for an emergency debate was brushed aside in a vote of 14 to 44, with President Cosgrave stating starkly “I do not think there is any necessity for making any statement whatever on the subject”.
Johnson did succeed in forcing a debate on the adjournment, largely because there was no mechanism yet in place to prevent topics being raised before taking a formal vote on adjourning the meeting.
His extraordinary speech, delivered with no preparation, still leaps from the page for its controlled fury and desperation. He said:
“The four men in Mountjoy have been in your charge for five months. You were charged with the care of those men; that was your duty as guardians of the law…..
Two days have elapsed since there was a formal proclamation announcing the birth of this new State. It was hoped that the course of law would be in operation henceforth. It was hoped that there would be some rehabilitation of the idea of law; and almost the first act is utterly to destroy in the public mind the association of the Government with the idea of law. I am almost forced to say you have killed the new State at its birth.”
The rest of the debate was just as remarkable.
George Gavan-Duffy, a government TD and a signatory of the Treaty in London just 12 months before, was in despair, saying to the ministers present:
“You are a Government or you are not. I want to tell the Government this, speaking as one individual who has watched their career closely for the past few months, that I can conceive no course more certain to ruin the cause that they have at heart. Note that this deed violates the very Constitution set up here a couple of days ago”
Darrell Figgis, who had chaired the drafting committee for the Constitution of the new state, was no less direct, saying that the government had claimed:
“that only by the method undertaken this morning could democratic government or representative institutions be preserved here, when, surely, the truth is that it is only by that method, by whomsoever conducted, could democratic government and representative institutions be endangered.”
And the government itself accepted that the executions had broken the founding laws of the two day old state.
Eoin McNeill claimed that while it didn’t conform with written law it could be justified by “elemental law”.
Kevin O’Higgins went even further in acknowledging the illegality of the actions when he said:
“when the Army Council come to the Parliament of the Irish nation which they must save— when they come for their Act of Indemnity, the members of the present Executive Council will take their places with them in seeking that Act of Indemnity”
The indemnity of late 1923 wasn’t an afterthought, it was part of a consistent approach by the government both before and after the enactment of the constitution of the new state.
If we want to see a reason why December 6th never became a focus for national celebration we do not have to look at arguments made with the benefit of hindsight. All we need is to look at the debates of Dáil Éireann amongst only those who supported the Treaty.
And in those debates we also see the escalation of the tendency to caricature opponents – using language more extreme than used by even the departed British.
O’Higgins said that the group which included Rory O’Connor, his best man just a year beforehand, had degenerated into “a band of apaches”. President Cosgrave went further and called them “the very dregs of society”.
And just to be very clear, this was a case of both sides having been at it.
The republican forces constantly presented the new government as servile lackeys acting on behalf of their masters in London.
Another reason for the lack of euphoria concerning the new state was that it did not include a large part of the country.
While partition had been imposed in 1920, the new state was founded on the premise that it was unlikely to continue. It is completely unfair to the leaders of the time to claim that they were not concerned with Northern Ireland. They were very concerned, what they didn’t have was an answer. Yes they were not able to overcome partition but no one has ever offered a credible suggestion on how they could have achieved this.
An appeal, expressed as an expectation, for majority-nationalist areas to quickly be allowed to hold plebiscites on joining the new state formed the major part of President Cosgrave’s speech to the Dáil on December 6th. In fact he went as far as to say that major changes in the border were a core part of the Treaty.
London’s enormous bad faith on this issue would go on to cause enormous damage to the public standing of Cosgrave and his government.
Culture, Language, Symbols and the New State
Because the Irish language and a wider cultural renewal had been central to the national sentiment which had sought independence it is important to look at how they were linked to the new state.
The renewal movements of previous decades had been dispersed and largely community-based. They never reached the level of becoming programmatic. There was no widespread debate about how a new Irish state would operate in these fields – and there was no debate whatsoever about turning into reality the aspiration of the Proclamation that the Republic would respect diverse traditions.
Earlier this week I spoke at the Royal Irish Academy on the issue of how we too often exclude from our identity and historical narratives those who we claim to be Irish.
I won’t repeat what I said then, but I think that there is a lot for us to still learn about the new state and this issue.
Fáiltím go mór roimh chinneadh na comhdhála seo go mbeadh seisiún ar leith tiomnaithe don teanga agus don chultúr le linn blianta tosaigh an Stáit.
Gan amhras, bhí Conradh na Gaeilge agus an t-athbheochan cultúrtha i gcoitinne le caoga bliain roimhe sin go huile is go hiomlán lárnach san fhás leanúnach ar radacachas agus scarúnachas an náisiúnachais Éireannaigh.
Ní raibh ceist ar bith go raibh scoilt idir daoine a thug tacaíocht nó a bhí i gcoinne an Stáit nua.
Bhí siad den tuairim chéanna, roinn siad an smaoineamh céanna agus bhí siad aontaithe go mbeadh leathnú na húsáide agus meas agus tuiscint ar an gcultúr dúchasach riachtanach sa togra leathan iomlán chun an Stáit nua neamhspleách a chruthú.
Bhí réalachas na hathbheochana áfach faoin Stát nua difriúil ar fad ón bhfís agus ó na brionglóidí a bhí ann leis na deich mblianta roimhe sin.
Taobh istigh de thréimhse fhiche bliain, bhí an tuiscint ann go raibh deighilt leathan idir gníomhaíochas teanga agus polasaí, agus an pobal i gcoitinne a d'fhan aonteangach.
This was something which gave endless material to Brian O’Nolan, one of UCD’s most prominent graduates of that time.
Writing as Myles na gCopaleen in 1941, his novel An Beal Bocht portrays a community of language activists preoccupied with dividing into into ‘Gaelic’ and ‘Non-Gaelic’ various types of rain, potatoes and poverty.
I think we are often to quick to pass judgement on the failure of the new state and language activists to elevate the Irish language to our national vernacular. Many of the most successful approaches which inform today’s new era of growth for the language were not known a hundred years ago – and I think it is unfair to blame the government for failure to invest in policies at a time when there were few resources available.
A Successful State
In December 1922 we established a new state but it was not a new beginning. The debates of that month set out, as clearly as anything written since, the mood in which Saorstát Éireann was introduced to the world and why it was not possible to generate excitement or expectation.
More than anything it seemed that people wanted to just get on with life - which eventually they did.
What has mattered most in the century that followed is not any political tale put in place in 1922, but rather the fact that the new state showed a consistent ability to evolve and to ultimately transform.
In day to day political debate much of the populist rhetoric implies that Ireland has been close to a failed state for much of the last century. We seem to find it close to impossible to allow the successes of the state to be acknowledged – as if nothing is achieved until everything has been achieved.
But by any measure the state managed to prove that a sovereign Irish state could, even with the economic, social and political damage of partition, prosper.
Even in the exceptionally difficult early years more was done than simply transferring the administration and moving on. The creation of an Garda Siochána gave us a police force which was non-partisan and achieved his levels of public trust. New curricula were introduced to schools, marking a radical change from before. Ardnacrusha showed the ability of the state to plan and implement major infrastructure.
Today we have many deep problems to overcome, but we have overcome many deep problems of the past.
As Mark Henry points out in his book ‘Ireland at 100’, progress is not behind comparable countries, it is considerably ahead of many.
In terms of quality of life, life expectancy, employment, travel, population and many other indicators the state which was so unsure of itself in 1922 did find its feet.
I for one will never stop acknowledging the incredible achievement of avoiding the destruction which extremism of right and left brought to Europe in the twentieth century.
Were you to look at that 1922 map of new states and compare it to one from just twenty years later, the only one left as a free democracy was Ireland.
Ours is a state whose foundation did not give us a moment of celebration or unity. For many justifiable reasons we look elsewhere for our heroes and our inspiration.
But in spite of this we have every right to be proud of what we were able to achieve with our hard-won sovereignty.