LONG before the first ten years of the Irish Free State's existence were over, those who had prophesied a demonstration of unfitness for self-government were reduced to rueful silence; even old nationalists were amazed by the swiftness with which a handful of inexperienced young men evolved order out of chaos. Within the last two years all this has changed; the prophets of evil are chuckling "we told you so;" many nationalists are discouraged; while friendly lookers-on exchange the tone of admiration for one of sympathy. I shall attempt to explain so brusque a relapse after so remarkable a recovery.

Ireland attained self-government after a revolution prolonged over a century, and carried out stage by stage against the resistance of a great power. To have the revolutionary temper ingrained through generations is the worst conceivable preparation for using that freedom which is the goal of revolution. Yet at each stage revolution justified itself by concessions obtained: equal rights before the law for Catholics; ending of the landlords' absolutism; and finally, autonomy. The British electorate and House of Commons had conceded autonomy before August 1914; nothing remained but the resistance of the House of Lords, and that would have been withdrawn at once had we been content to accept Home Rule for 26 counties. What were called constitutional methods -- as practised by O'Connell, Parnell and Redmond -- had succeeded as against the methods of the Secret Society. Yet Ireland had never wholly shaken off faith in violence and in the end it was by the methods of the Secret Society and guerilla warfare that much better terms were attained in the Treaty than ever offered to the Constitutionalists.

Yet once more England was offering a compromise: for Ireland's demand had risen to complete independence and a Republic. Or rather, this was the demand of the Secret Society, which had acquired the title to speak for Ireland. It was, like all violent revolutions, a minority movement, which owing to the character of the struggle acquired general popular support. But when the terms of the Treaty were made known the voice of Ireland was overwhelming for acceptance. Decision, however, had to be made by an assembly, elected in mid-struggle, which represented only the Secret Society and was pledged to the Republican formula. Many argued that the claim had been a bargaining demand. "Ask for a Republic and you'll get a good Home Rule Bill." When acceptance was decided by a majority of seven in a House of 125, Mr. de Valera refused to accept the decision. Sinn Féin was split from top to bottom. One part of it, headed by Griffiths and Collins, formed a provisional government and carried on. The other part was (without Mr. de Valera's consent) pushed into resistance to this government, which was denounced as the tool of England; civil war followed. Within a few weeks of the first shots, Griffiths was dead of heart failure and Collins killed in an ambush. Authority passed into the hands of a group of young men whose characters and faces were unknown to the mass of Irish people who had for a century been used to follow names that were flags to them -- O'Connell, Parnell, Dillon, Healy, Redmond. The only man surviving whose name was a flag was Mr. de Valera; and he was now in the traditional Irish nationalist position of being against the government. Methods of the Secret Society were used against the new rulers: when the Parliament elected to frame a Constitution met, two of its leading men were shot in the center of Dublin on the way to it. The answer was given by the immediate execution without trial of four leaders of the insurgents (Irregulars, as they were called) who were in jail. Some months later General Mulcahy, then Minister for Defense, justified the lawless measure by its success: attempts to terrorize members of the Dáil had not been renewed. But General Mulcahy as Chief of Staff in the guerilla war against the British had issued orders for many ambushes; and the men who were shot so summarily had been the close associates of him and other members of the ministry which sentenced them.

In the many books dealing with the war against the " Black and Tans" and the Civil War, written by men who took part in both, it is universally agreed that the bitterness of the Civil War was by far the fiercer. Thus, although the work of administration went on with swift efficiency, there was no admiration or sympathy in Ireland for the Irishmen who conducted it. They had restored order and created an excellent unarmed police in a country which when they took it over had all its communications cut, road and rail alike. But they had carried out 77 executions, over and above the deaths in action. In the Dáil they were a party without opposition; for though a considerable number of Republicans were returned as such, these refused to recognize the assembly by attending and taking the prescribed oath. It was even of more moment that a country which from 1919 to 1923 had been used to the terrorism of the Secret Society was prepared to accept any orders from those who had guns. The Government was virtually a dictatorship in commission -- a very able dictatorship carrying out useful reforms without caring whose toes suffered. For instance, if a man was found exporting stale or dirty eggs to England, his license to export was taken away. The Irish egg acquired new credit, but the Government made many enemies: and so on in endless ways. People voted for Mr. Cosgrave's party because they were afraid that to put Mr. de Valera in would bring about a new war with England; and there was no one else to vote for. Labor had a very minute following. The old Nationalist Party had virtually disappeared, except in the person of John Redmond's son; but in all the constituencies there were thousands of voters, Redmondite by sympathy; and they as a rule disliked the Cosgrave section more than the de Valera section. Mr. de Valera could afford them fair words: Mr. Cosgrave, friendly and generous to the old Unionist Protestants who represented important interests but had no appreciable voting strength, treated the old Nationalists as a possibly formidable opposition and gave them (it was his worst mistake) less than fair play. The Government never really had behind it the active support of more than a part of the old Sinn Féin party. Neither had Mr. de Valera. But the mass of the populace kept Mr. Cosgrave in for fear of what might happen if he went out.

Moreover, the ministers were overwhelmed with work. Everything had to be reconstructed. They had first to improvise an army of 50,000 and then reduce it to 10,000 and absorb the discharged. In order to give employment and to occupy the minds of Ireland, they spent very large sums on providing first-class roads, and they harnessed the Shannon for electric power. More was done in five years to modernize Ireland's equipment than had been done in fifty of British rule. Their agricultural policy was conducted by a young man, Mr. Hogan, and after some five years Sir Horace Plunkett pronounced him to be the best Minister of Agriculture in Europe. But they were too occupied with administration to have time for electioneering; moreover, the absence of a regular opposition made them disregardful of public feeling. They made things, but they made mistakes.

The civil war officially ended in May 1923 when Mr. de Valera issued a cease fire order. But he did not call for a surrender of arms; and the Secret Society once more went underground, though making plain that it maintained its defiant attitude. Mr. de Valera was vague, but he was plainly against fighting; and in 1926 Sinn Féin, as the opposition was still called, split; the majority followed its leader, but the physical force men refused obedience. Ireland grew impatient of a politician who would neither use guns nor parliament, and Mr. de Valera began to concentrate on a demand for removal of the oath of allegiance which was formally enjoined as part of the Treaty, contending that this was the chief obstacle to a general acceptance of constitutional methods.

On the other hand, Mr. Cosgrave's rule had received a rude shock in 1925. The Treaty arrangement had left various loose ends hanging. One was the British claim that Ireland should shoulder its proportionate (but undefined) share of the war debt. The other was connected with that partition of Ireland which was and is the most detested part of the compromise. It was laid down that the boundaries of Northern Ireland should be readjusted on equitable terms. Nationalists took this to mean that towns or counties in which Nationalists held a majority should be handed over to the Free State. This would have given the Free State Derry city and Tyrone and Fermanagh; and it was believed that Northern Ireland, so reduced, would cease to be a practicable unit. In 1924 a Boundary Commission was set up; the British named a chairman, Mr. Justice Feetham, English-born and educated, but a leading member of the South African bench: the Irish chose Professor MacNeill, an Ulsterman by birth. But Northern Ireland refused to accept the possibility of any alterations and would nominate no one. A special Act was passed enabling the British to name a third member who was an Ulsterman, Mr. Fisher. Evidence was taken all along the border, and at the end of 1925 it became known that the chairman had construed his terms of reference so as to exclude all but small adjustments, and that the report would actually propose a transference of some Free State territory to Ulster. There was a fierce explosion of passion. Professor MacNeill retired from the Commission; it was evident that the smallest transfer in either direction would lead to violence; and the British and Irish Governments came to a settlement. The boundary was to remain unchanged, and Ireland was to be relieved of all responsibility for war debt. But nobody in the Free State had contemplated paying this debt; nearly everybody had counted on wresting much territory from Protestant Ulster. The Cosgrave administration was held to have been duped into a surrender.

Yet in fact the financial concession was important. It consolidated in permanence the position first established in 1923 that the Free State -- having no national debt beyond about one year's revenue -- could borrow as cheaply as Great Britain, and raise the money in Ireland. Economies had made it possible to reduce income tax below the British rate; the country was quiet; rich men began to return to it for sport, bringing money with them. But over and above the odium of the border, uncompromising legislation gave much offense, especially a drastic temperance bill. Mr. de Valera in his new attitude was less frightening to the electorate, and at an election held on July 7, 1927, Mr. Cosgrave's following was reduced to 46 as against 44 for Mr. de Valera. But all the other fractions in a House of 150 were for the Treaty; and the main opposition still abstained from attendance.

Then on July 10 the country was horrified by the murder of Kevin O'Higgins, Vice-President of the Dáil and by far its ablest member. He was shot in a Dublin suburb going alone unarmed to mass on a Sunday morning. The assassins escaped. The I.R.A. officially disowned the deed, Mr. de Valera denounced it. Mr. Cosgrave introduced and carried a Public Safety Act of the most stringent character. Moreover, to end the situation of an opposition that would not face debate he introduced a measure obliging every candidate for election to pledge himself to accept the qualifying oath. Having done this, he held suddenly a new general election at the end of August. Mr. de Valera now decided that the oath could be regarded as an empty formula and could be taken explicitly as such. The reactions of the electorate were curious. Both of the main parties increased their numbers; Mr. Cosgrave had 61; Mr. de Valera 57. It was therefore possible to form an administration to replace Mr. Cosgrave, and a coalition between Labor and the few Nationalists led by Captain Redmond, son of the old leader, was proposed for office. This failed narrowly; none of the minor parties would vote for Mr. de Valera; and Mr. Cosgrave came in again.

In 1928 the position became more defined. Mr. de Valera announced that he and his if they came into office would accept the Treaty as an inheritance and seek to change it only by peaceful negotiation. This removed the menace of war. On the other hand, Mr. Blythe, the very able Finance Minister who had succeeded O'Higgins as Vice-President, made his party's declaration: "We believe that within the British Commonwealth of Nations this country can enjoy greater freedom and security than outside it. Our policy within the Commonwealth is to remove anomalies in the relations of its different members."

Much had already been done in this direction. In 1923 the Free State had been admitted to the League of Nations and had promptly registered the Treaty as an international agreement. At succeeding conferences of the dominions, Kevin O'Higgins had shown an ability marking him as one of the clearest brains in the Empire, and Ireland in close alliance with South Africa had pushed on step by step the assertion of complete equality between dominion and dominion. After his death this task fell to Mr. McGilligan, another brilliant young man, to whom legal training was a help, not a hindrance. America led the way in recognition of the new status by establishing a legation at Dublin; in 1928 the Free State set up legations at Rome, Paris and Berlin, and from 1930 on the Pope had a Nuncio and France and Germany had Ministers in Dublin, in addition to the consular staffs.

Add to this that the Shannon was now supplying electricity all over the Free State, and that peace appeared so thoroughly established that the Public Safety Act was repealed. But no one had been made to answer for the murder of O'Higgins; and during a debate in the Dáil one of Mr. de Valera's followers uttered an observation that spoke volumes. He had been condemning the murder. "Will you help us to find the murderers?" he was challenged. "Do you take me for an informer?" was his answer. That was the attitude toward the law ingrained in Ireland by a century of revolution in which the Secret Society always played a part. Ireland had not yet as a nation learnt to regard the law as its law, the expression of its will, to be defended by every citizen. On the contrary, the offender must be protected, at least passively. Nobody would support the government because it was the Government.

In 1930 there came a premonitory shock. Mr. Blythe, always a rigid economist, refused to raise old age pensions to the British rate, holding that the taxes must be paid in the main by Irish farmers who were feeling the agricultural depression. Mr. de Valera on the other hand posed as the champion of the poor and with Labor backing he beat the Government on this issue. Mr. Cosgrave resigned: Mr. de Valera was proposed in his stead as President, but Labor would not vote for him; the Labor leader was in turn proposed and rejected; and Mr. Cosgrave resumed office. His Government abated nothing of its high-handedness in domestic affairs; at the same time, it pressed successfully its points against Great Britain till it was admitted that the King in Ireland must act on the advice of Irish ministers and this advice should be tendered to him directly and not as before through the Colonial Minister.

Meanwhile Mr. de Valera was pushing a new bid for popularity. Since 1903 it had been established in principle that Irish landlords should be bought out, and the land transferred to its occupying tenants, who in lieu of rent paid a series of annuities spread over a period of 63 years. The British exchequer created a special land stock from which this huge transaction was financed; it received the annuities and transmitted them to the holders of landstock, which stock had the British guarantee. These annuities were in every case less than the rent previously paid and the Land Purchase Measure for which Mr. Wyndham was responsible was quoted by Nationalists as a generous and conciliatory measure. Payments were maintained scrupulously, as each marked an increasing title to freehold. Mr. de Valera, however, convinced himself and convinced some lawyers that when Ireland was absolved from all share in the British national debt she was absolved from this also: the annuities belonged to Ireland. He proposed to collect them, but apply them for the benefit of Irish agriculture. Mr. Cosgrave answered that a special agreement had been made between his Ministry and the British by which the land stock had been treated as separate: Ireland agreed to collect the annuities and transmit them to the British who would pay the landholders. Mr. de Valera answered that the agreement had never been ratified by the Dáil. The Irish farmers in large numbers drew the conclusion that payment of annuities could be escaped.

A new instance of severity had added to the unpopularity of the Government. Since the repeal of the Public Safety Act, the I.R.A. had grown increasingly bold. Drilling with arms was frequent. In the mountains, an hour's walk from Dublin, a couple of civilians were ordered off and then fired on; a great dump of explosives and weapons was found nearby and traced to certain persons. But juries were intimidated by threatening letters; jurors who gave a verdict, witnesses who gave evidence, were assassinated; although the law had been changed in 1929 so that nine jurors in twelve could decide the verdict, convictions could not be obtained and terrorism spread. Mr. Cosgrave brought in an Act enabling cases of various natures to be referred to a military tribunal, which could award penalties up to the capital one. No executions took place, but many of the I.R.A. were sent to jail. Order was restored, but the country was offended by these methods. When a general election was held in 1932 Mr. de Valera got 72 members in a House of 151 against Mr. Cosgrave's 65. Seven Labor men were able and willing to put the Republican leader at last into power, though with a shackle on him.

Mr. de Valera lost no time. He immediately introduced a bill to remove the Oath, the formula of which was stipulated in the Treaty. His contention was alternatively that the Treaty was signed under duress, or that, since by admission all partners in the British Commonwealth were of equal status, England had no right to concern itself with a purely Irish matter. The Senate, however, refused to accept this reasoning and the oath remained in force for the 18 months beyond which the second chamber cannot impose its veto. In 1933 repeal was completed. The payment of land annuities due in June 1932 was withheld, as were sums which under the arrangement made with Mr. Cosgrave's government were still payable (being mainly instalments on local loans advanced for the joint exchequer). Mr. de Valera and his lawyers contended that Ireland was liberated from the British national debt and that these were part of it. The British reply was that the Treaty must be observed and that in financial matters between states a new government was bound by the bargains made by its predecessors. They offered, however, to submit the financial claim to a court selected from within the Commonwealth. Mr. de Valera answered that the Boundary Commission had proved that Ireland could not look for justice to any such tribunal and offered to accept arbitration at the Hague. The British refused -- from the standpoint of the single case unwisely and inconsiderately; but they had to consider that if this were conceded their whole position in India might by inference be referred to the same adjudication.

At the moment when all this was passing, the British dominions were meeting in conference at Ottawa to arrange for the first time on an important scheme of mutual imperial preference. In view of the facts, England refused to enter into any new bargain with Ireland. Canada, Australia and New Zealand were all competitors with Ireland in the British market -- the only market in which Ireland could dispose of her large surplus products of food stuffs. These dominions gained new advantages. Attempts were made at the Conference to settle the Irish difficulty, but no one has as yet been able to conclude a bargain with Mr. de Valera; and Ireland retired from Ottawa having secured no privileges. Meanwhile the British, to reimburse themselves for the withheld five millions, had put a special tariff on all goods coming from the Free State: it began at 20 percent and was raised on most articles to 40.

Mr. de Valera welcomed this, however, as forcing the Irish people to be economically self-sufficient. Instead of producing cattle for export they were to grow grain. The production of beet sugar, introduced by the Cosgrave Government, was to be extended. The system of "selective protection" introduced by Mr. Blythe from 1926 on was to be replaced by a general tariff, with clauses discriminating against English coal, woolens and other merchandise. It was economic war, linked to a new theory of economic life for Ireland, which had been directing its effort in the main to producing horses, cattle, sheep, butter, poultry and eggs for the English market, and was now to aim at growing all it needed within its own boundaries. This change involved disregarding all experience of what suited the Irish climate. But Mr. de Valera appealed to the country to back him in war with the ancient enemy, and denounced as traitors those who said that Ireland ought to keep its bargains and pay its debts. Meanwhile the excess production of butter and live stock was disposed of as before to England, a bounty equal to the import duty being provided by the Irish taxpayers. But most of this remained with the exporter, not the producer.

In general, however, Mr. de Valera made it felt that he was on the side of the poor man. Ireland's wealth was mainly in the hands of the larger farmers and the war fell chiefly on them. Mr. Cosgrave's aim had been to make Ireland a country living prosperously in a modest old-fashioned way; he had desired to attract rich people and sporting tenants; and the Governor-General's residence had been a center of pleasant hospitality. When the Free State began, a new precedent was established in the choice of the first Governor-General; Mr. Tim Healy, "an old man of the people," one of Parnell's ablest lieutenants, was chosen instead of the traditional English aristocrat. But Mr. Healy was a strong royalist, and on his retirement in 1927, after a five-year period, Mr. MacNeill, his successor, was a Catholic Nationalist, but also a distinguished ex-member of the Indian Civil Service. Mr. Cosgrave's government maintained all the ordinary forms of ceremony -- though it was formally established that the King's representative in Ireland should be saluted with the Irish national anthem, "The Soldiers Song," and on no account with "God Save the King." On the other hand, Republicans refused to recognize the King personally or by deputy and denounced official ceremonies as wasteful and undemocratic. The silk hat became a symbol. Accordingly under the new régime Mr. Mac-Neill found his presence at the Viceregal Lodge completely ignored by the Government: this was the more marked because in 1932 a Eucharistic Congress in Dublin entailed great public receptions. Finally, having made public protest against acts of discourtesy, Mr. MacNeill was called on by the Irish Government to resign, and did so. His place was taken by one of Mr. de Valera's partisans, Mr. Buckley, who agreed to keep completely in the background and merely be there to affix the signature required by the Constitution to public acts.

Thus, although still technically within the British Commonwealth, Ireland had exploited to the last point that freedom from British control which had been asserted by the Cosgrave government. Undoubtedly she was free to sever the connection, and Mr. de Valera expressed his intention to end it some day, but not without the consent of the Irish people.

Meanwhile all members of the I.R.A. who had been put in jail by the previous government were let out, and this private army continued to drill without interference; it was known to be importing arms largely; and the opposition began to doubt whether if Ireland were asked to vote at a general election, the booths might not be controlled by this organization. A counterorganization of "Army Comrades" was set on foot by Dr. O'Higgins, whose brother Kevin (and his father also) had been murdered by Republican patriots. This new body was not to be armed; but it was to be ready to protect freedom and ordinary civic rights -- especially free speech. It spread. Meanwhile, there was a movement towards coalition between the Cosgrave opposition and the various independent groups. Two young men had become conspicuous among these -- Mr. James Dillon, son of the old leader, and Mr. Frank MacDermot, whose brother, The MacDermot, was head of one of the old princely Gaelic families. These men stood out by ability and education: and the very popular Lord Mayor of Dublin, Mr. Byrne, publicly proposed a fusion. Before this movement could go further Mr. de Valera sprang a new General Election on the public. Contrary to expectation he increased his following and returned with 76 members -- one more than half the Dáil. He had given no pledge that he would not declare a Republic and was free to do so.

Yet nothing of the kind was done. What affected the public first was an administrative change. General O'Duffy, head of the Civic Guard, was dismissed. This very able and popular organizer was now at liberty to join the Army Comrades and did so: Dr. O'Higgins resigned the presidency in his favor and he changed the name to the National Guard. A blue shirt was adopted as a distinguishing mark, and the organization grew rapidly. General O'Duffy publicly made some pronouncements hostile to the parliamentary form of democracy; Mr. de Valera declared that a military coup d'état was intended, and finally, using the Act which Mr. Cosgrave had passed to deal with the I.R.A., he proclaimed the National Guard as "a dangerous organization" and turned out troops to prevent an assembly of it.

The result was to unite the opposition forces into a new organization, "United Ireland," whose president was General O'Duffy, with Mr. Cosgrave as its leader in Parliament and Mr. Mac-Dermot as his deputy. Mr. Dillon also had a prominent place. Mr. Cosgrave's former colleagues were included, and Mr. Blythe and General Malcahy have acted in close concert.

The position at present is that the economic war continues with results ruinous to the Irish farmers: but the smaller men, who work their trade without hired labor, are encouraged by the promise that land will be taken from those who do not put an approved portion of it under tillage and will be given to those who do this. Meantime the bigger farmers have been unable or unwilling to pay their rates and the local finances are everywhere in disorder. A group of these farmers were brought before a military tribunal under the Special Act, on a charge of conspiracy: the result was an acquittal, and in those parts of Ireland where the farming community is generally well-to-do the result was a blow to the government.

But in the Dáil Mr. de Valera has the backing of seven Labor men to reinforce his own basic majority, and he has conciliated Labor and the poorer classes generally by a bill giving allowances on a generous scale for the unemployed and their families. Meanwhile the National Guard has been fused with the new political organization and asserts its right to exist, which is violently opposed by the I.R.A. whose official organ announces "No Free Speech for Traitors." But in spite of violent attacks upon his meetings General O'Duffy carries on his campaign with great determination and courage. The police at first made no attempt to arrest the interrupters, even when interruption meant a fusillade of stones. The I.R.A., however, are not content with Mr. de Valera and have denounced his policy as half-hearted.

Meantime a bill has been introduced and passed virtually without opposition through both houses to remove various symbols of external authority, including the need for the formal assent of the Governor General to legalize Acts, and also the right of appeal from Irish courts to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council -- a right recognized as useful by the other dominions. But the boat's painter is not cut. Ireland has not as yet seriously faced the question whether to choose the sentimentally attractive status of a separate Republic, or hold to the advantages of being within the British Commonwealth. These advantages, supposing the economic war were ended, already include preference in the British market, for which no substitute has been found, and also the right of every Irishman to enter the British public and municipal services, where -- especially in medicine and nursing -- many Irish men and women find a career. But the opposition, not yet fully consolidated, and containing many men previously in active revolt against British rule, is afraid of the reproach of English sympathy and dares not raise the clear issue. Both parties are aware that to declare a Republic would destroy all hope of bringing Protestant Ulster into a united Ireland, which for both remains the supreme objective. Ireland thus seems destined to remain for some considerable time in a state of hesitation and transition, unable to shape any clear policy whether in the economic or the political sphere.

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  • STEPHEN GWYNN, President of the Irish Literary Society; author of numerous historical and biographical works, as also of novels and poetry; M. P. for Galway, 1906-1918
  • More By Stephen Gwynn