REVIEW: John Borgonovo—The Battle For Cork, July-August 1922 (Mercier 2011)
An Academic Views The Treaty War In Cork
About half of this book is about responses to the ‘Treaty’ of December 1921, and the other half is about the short battle for Cork City in early August 1922. The battle for the City was short and bloodless because the military leader in the War of Independence decided not to contest the conquest by the Treatyite leaders of the part of the country allocated to them by the ‘Treaty’, despite the fact that the ‘Treaty’ was granted on the condition of disestablishing the Republic of 1919-21 and replacing it with a new State under the authority of the Crown.
That military leader was Sean O’Hegarty. O’Hegarty was closely associated in war and politics with Florrie O’Donoghue, who handled Intelligence during the War of Independence. O’Hegarty and O’Donoghue, who both rejected the ‘Treaty’, tried during the first half of 1922 to negotiate a compromise with the Treatyites by which the Republican Army would remain intact under a political arrangement which left the Treatyites free to go ahead with the amendment of the Dail Eireann Government into a Government which acknowledged the sovereignty of the Crown. The Treatyite Defence Minister, Richard Mulcahy, also said that it was his intention to maintain the unity of the IRA as the ‘Treaty’ was implemented, but at critical points he did not follow through on agreements.
O’Hegarty said he did not care what name the state had, as long as the substance of independence was maintained. He worked industriously and imaginatively on arrangements which enabled the Treatyites to go ahead with implementation of the ‘Treaty’, while preserving the Army whose proven fighting power was the only reason why Britain had offered the ‘Treaty’ terms.
When it became evident that the Treatyite leadership was driven by a will to war, and that no political expedient would divert it from the object of crushing the Republican Army, O’Hegarty and O’Donoghue resigned from the IRA. The replacement leadership then offered no effective resistance to the Treatyite invasion of early August.
The real story of the Battle for Cork is why there was nothing deserving the name of a battle. And that is the story of O’Hegarty and O’Donoghue, of which the reader could get no adequate idea from Borgonovo’s cursory remarks.
There is a biography of O’Hegarty which goes into his actions in those crucial six or seven months after the ‘Treaty’—Kevin Girvin’s Sean O’Hegarty, O/C First Cork Brigade, Irish Republican Army, published by Aubane. Borgonovo does not refer to it, or even list it in his Bibliography, even though it is the only book on O’Hegarty, and O’Hegarty was indisputably the central figure in the Battle for Cork.
Borgonovo quotes a paragraph from O’Donoghue on the position of the Army in the State established in accordance with the electoral mandate of 1918:
“IRA officers in Munster remained incredulous that they were not consulted before the Treaty was submitted for ratification. Writing in 1929, Florrie O’Donoghue expressed this militarist view:
“The Army created Sinn Fein in the country: the Army created and controlled every national activity from 1916 to the truce of 1921. The Army was the deciding factor in the 1918 elections; it made and largely manned the Dail and the Government of the Republic. The Army put the Dail in power and kept it there; it directed and controlled every department of that government. The Army policy was the policy of the government. Everything else was subservient to it; it was the driving force of the whole movement for independence. To misunderstand this would be to misunderstand the whole position of the Army”…” (p28).
The reference for this is “notes… on The American Commission…, papers of Terence MacSwiney’s biographers, UCD”—private notes written seven years after 1922, and therefore not a militarist view expressed in 1922 and influencing developments then.
But, (leaving aside the time warp), in what way is this view militarist? All I can see in it is a factual description of the part played by the military element in the development of the Independence movement as a consequence of the well-established British position that it would never concede Irish independence to a mere vote.
The Army was formed late in 1913, in support of Home Rule, in response to the formation of a Unionist Army to prevent the implementation of Home Rule, even if enacted by Parliament. It was in the first instance a Home Rule Army. It was formed independently of Redmond, but he demanded, and gained, control of it in 1914. When he urged enlistment in the British Army in September 1914, a small group split off and began to prepare for insurrection. The bulk of the Volunteers stayed with Redmond, and he held a great Review of them in 1915, at which belligerent speeches were made against the Unionist Volunteers, even though they were allies in the war on Germany and Turkey. (See Pat Walsh: The Rise And Fall Of Imperial Ireland.)
The Government, perhaps realistically, did not treat the split in the Volunteers as a substantial fact, and did not suppress the Volunteers who were preparing an insurrection, lest this should upset the Volunteers who were supporting it in the War. Thus Redmond’s Volunteers provided cover for the 1916 Rising. After the Rising, it was around the survivals of the insurrectionary Volunteers that Sinn Fein was constructed into a viable political party as the Home Rule Party was undermined by the Conscription Act.
The new Sinn Fein party then won the Election and sent delegates to Paris to get Irish Independence recognised by the Powers that had just won the Great War for democracy and the rights of small nations. Britain vetoed Irish Independence at the Peace Conference and continued governing the country in defiance of the Election. And that, of course, made everything depend on the Volunteers once more.
That is the situation described by O’Donoghue seven years after he retired from the Army rather than engage in a war of resistance to the new Army authorised, financed and armed by Britain.
Neither that description, nor O’Donoghue’s actions in 1922, could be described as “militarist” without a gross perversion of language. Perhaps Borgonovo has evidence which he does not present that O’Donoghue was militarist, but to the best of my knowledge O’Donoghue’s attitude, especially in 1922, was the opposite of militarist. It was not even military.
Militarism—a preference for military action as a means of dealing with a problem when other means are available—was, however, strongly present in the Treatyite approach.
(I use the term “militarism” as I have seen it used over many decades, but I looked up some dictionaries to assure myself that I had not picked it up wrong. (I am uneducated after all.) Here is what I found. Shorter Oxford: “the attachment of (undue) importance to military values and military strength”. New Oxford: “the belief or desire of a government or people that a country should maintain a strong military capability and be prepared to use it aggressively to defend or promote national interests”. New Penguin: “a policy of aggressive military preparedness; the glorification of military virtues and ideals”.)
A better case might be made that O’Hegarty sometimes tended towards militarism. It would be superficial, but the case with regard to O’Donoghue is not even that. O’Hegarty made his views on the ‘Treaty’ known to Cork TDs during the weeks between the signing of the document at the orders of Lloyd George and Dail discussion of it. Cathal Brugha, who was still Minister for Defence at the time, instructed the Chief of Staff, Mulcahy, to censure him:
“This officer requires some enlightening as to the scope of his duties. You will now kindly define those duties for him and inform him that sending reminders to public representatives pointing out what he, or those under him, consider those representatives should do in crises like the present in not one of them…”
But O’Hegarty would not accept censure on the point. He wrote to the Divisional Adjutant on 19 December 1921:
“The circumstances cannot be judged as the ordinary political variations of a settled country. Here is no ordinary change. What is contemplated in these proposals is more than that. It is the upsetting of the constitution—the betrayal of the Republic. Who better than those who fought to maintain it have a right in this crisis to uphold the Republic; to make clear to those who have the decisions in this matter what their duty is…” (see Kevin Girvin, Sean O’Hegarty, p92-3).
“In the past, the IRA had distanced itself from… politics in general. However, the signing of the Treaty saw the Volunteers becoming actively involved in the issue… There was military interference on behalf of both sides with resolutions—either pro- or anti-Treaty—being passed throughout the country…” (p95).
In May 1922 this was O’Hegarty’s view of the conduct of the Dail:
“For six months they have indulged themselves in bitter verbal attacks against each other, while failing to achieve anything constructive… The country was heading towards war and, if a solution was to be found, it would come from the Army and not from the politicians…” (p95).
This was said while O’Hegarty was engaged in an Army initiative that almost brought the Dail together in defence of its Constitution, but which failed because the will to war prevailed in the Treatyite leadership.
Can all this be reasonably described as “militarism” on O’Hegarty’s part—a preference for military action over political action? Is it not the duty of the soldier, as Brugha said, to be an obedient instrument of the Government of the day, and to act in response to orders without questioning the reason why?
That is certainly what is said in kindergarten textbooks on Constitutional government, but it is not the way of the world. And it is not the way of the actual British Constitution, even though the kindergarten textbooks are usually drawn from propagandist ideological versions of that Constitution.
Nine years before O’Hegarty asserted the right of the Army to play an active part in the Constitutional crisis precipitated by the signing of the dictated ‘Treaty’ by the negotiating team without the authority of the Government and in defiance of Government instructions, the British Army killed Home Rule by indicating that it would not obey Government orders in the implementation of a Home Rule Act. That was the Curragh Mutiny. Open mutiny was warded off by negotiation behind the scenes. The War Minister sacrificed his political career by giving the Army officers an undertaking that was at variance with declared Government policy and then he resigned. The guarantee he gave the Army averted an Army crisis, and his resignation excused the Government from formal responsibility for the guarantee though nobody doubted that the guarantee would hold. The appearance of mutiny was averted by pre-emptive appeasement, but everybody knew that there had been a successful mutiny by means of which the Army exerted a critical influence on the Constitution.
The matter was debated in Parliament. The Liberal (Government) backbenches were outraged and recited the kindergarten view of the soldiers’ duty of blind obedience. The Opposition (Unionist) upheld the citizen rights of the soldier in matters which affected the Constitutional integrity of the State. And the foremost Constitutional authority of the era, Dicey (whose writings are not yet obsolete), published a pamphlet upholding a right of rebellion against a Government which, on the basis of its fleeting authority, was subverting the Constitution.
A little over two years later the Unionist rebels became the Government under stress of the war on Germany launched by the Liberal Government with active Home Rule support, and the Liberal Party began to disintegrate. In 1918 a Home Rule MP, J.J. Horgan, published a selection of statements made by Unionist leaders in the course of this 1914 rebellion calling it The Grammar Of Anarchy. (I reprinted it as an issue of A Belfast Magazine some years ago.) The Grammar was suppressed by the Government which was led by the 1914 rebels. Home Rule MPs asked why Government Ministers were now suppressing a collection of their own words as seditious. The question was treated as a pettifogging debating point.
The Unionist case in 1914 for raising an extra-Parliamentary force to defy the will of Parliament was that the Parliamentary majority that was changing the Constitution was not a majority based within the Constitution. The Government Party was equal in size to the Opposition. It got the Parliamentary majority, that enabled it to enact drastic Constitutional changes, from the 80 MPs of the Home Rule Party, which was not a Constitutional Party—a party which participated in the politics of the Constitution with the aim of governing the state. The aim of the Home Rule Party lay outside the British Constitution, and it was manipulating the Parliamentary situation for that purpose. The changes which Parliament made to the Constitution at the behest of, or with the support of, that force from outside the Constitution, were therefore unconstitutional and should be opposed by extra-Parliamentary force. (The main changes were the Parliament Act and the Home Rule Bill.)
When I wrote about that affair in the 1970’s I concluded that, within the terms of the British Constitution, the Unionists had made their case. British opinion shifted towards them in the course of the conflict (1912-14). And William O’Brien, who had broken the Home Rule Party in Cork (City and County) in the 1910 Elections had a realistic (as distinct from a debating-point) understanding of the British Constitution, and warned that playing the British parties against each other by an Irish party would not succeed, and he refused to take part in it.
Since I concluded that the Unionists had a Constitutional case for anti-Parliamentary action in the matter of the Curragh Mutiny, I can hardly deny that O’Hegarty had a case when he asserted the right of the Army to have a say in the matter of the ‘Treaty’ and the Dail Constitution.
The Army is the basic institution of the state—of any state, other than pretend states like Liechtenstein. And, because of what the Army does, it is necessary that it should feel secure of its position in the State, and know what State it is that it serves.
The Army crisis in Britain in 1914—taking the Army to refer only to land forces—was something very unusual, because the main military force of the British State was the Navy. Navy personnel were over many generations closely interwoven with the functioning of the State. A conflict between the Government and the Navy could scarcely be imagined.
(I have tried, without success, to interest what there is of an Irish intelligentsia in Maurice Hankey, the Navy man who had spied out the Ottoman Empire for war before becoming Secretary of the most sensitive Government committee, the Committee of Imperial Defence, through which preparations for the Great War were made. He then became Secretary of the War Cabinet. And, after the War, he became the first ever Cabinet Secretary.)
The Army had exceptional importance in 1914 because of the detailed preparations that had been made in secret to place it alongside the French Army for war with Germany. The officers at the Curragh were indispensable to the war plans of the Government. When the apparent determination of the minority Liberal Government to press ahead with Irish Home Rule made them feel uncertain about the State they served, there was nothing for it but to appease them so that they might become happy Jingoes once again.
The existence of the British state was not at stake in 1914. All that was at stake was further expansion of the Empire. If the Army had not been appeased, and the Government was unable to launch the war that it had planned, Britain would still have remained one of the most powerful states in the world—in fact the most powerful—and it would possibly have had a longer innings as a Great Power if it had been unable to launch the Great War.
What was at stake in Ireland following the signing of the Treaty by Collins was the existence of the State which the Republican Army served, and which could not have been established, when the British democracy decided to take no heed of the Irish vote, but for the prior existence of the Republican Army.
When Brugha ordered O’Hegarty to be censured he acted within a structure of formal authority whose basis had been put under question by the ‘Treaty’. Six months later he died fighting the ‘Treaty’ authorities, while O’Hegarty, having seen those six months wasted by the politicians, declared neutrality in the Treaty War in order to preserve something Republican from destruction.
Mulcahy, who replaced Brugha as Defence Minister, said it was his object to keep the Republican Army in being. At first he supported the calling of an Army Convention for this purpose, but then he banned the Convention. The Convention was held regardless (late March). Borgonovo comments: “In defying the government ban, they had essentially repudiated their fealty to the civilian authority” (p17).
“Civilian authority” was in utter confusion at that juncture. The elected Government of a Republic, whose actual existence had been made possible by the Republican Army, had been replaced by a “Provisional Government”, functioning on British authority within the sovereignty of the Crown. British authority was conferred when the small majority which supported the ‘Treaty’ in the Dail met under Crown authority as the Parliament of Southern Ireland, which was also attended by a number of Unionists elected by the elite electorate of Trinity College.
The Provisional Government claimed a kind of double mandate, Irish as well as British. It had got its small majority in the Dail before meeting, along with others, as the Parliament of Southern Ireland, to ratify the ‘Treaty’. (The Dail, not being recognised by Britain, could not have ratified the “Treaty”, although Borgonovo says that it did, page 34.)
While saying that the Army repudiated “fealty” to the civilian authority by meeting without the approval of that authority, Borgonovo also concedes that “the state’s constitutional status was open to question” (p34). So what the Army refused “fealty” to was a questionable civilian authority.
Now the ‘Treaty’ leaders did gain a majority in the Dail before going on to have British authority conferred on them in another assembly, and that fact has been presented as the founding act of democratic legitimacy by many recent writers, headed by Professor Garvin. On the other hand, Professor Garvin had ridiculed the idea that the Dail elected in 1918 was a democratic assembly at all. As far as I recall, he described it as a facade on the Army, largely constructed by election rigging. It had no democratic legitimacy from January 1919 to December 1921, when it acted by consensus in the construction of Republican government, but it acquired morally binding legitimacy in January 1922 when a small majority agreed, under threat of British reconquest, to replace the Republic with a new Government under the authority of the Crown. (And this suddenly legitimised democratic assembly had been renewed in the 1921 Election without a single vote having been cast for it, none of the seats having been contested against the Republicans.)
Going beyond Constitutional formalities to Constitutional substance: this Crown Government—with which a Dail majority agreed to replace the Republic—did not have the means of governing by its own resources. It did not have an Army. The Army which had made it possible to give effect to the electoral decision to establish a Republic was not available for the replacement of the Republic by a Crown Government.
We are told that Collins was the practical man of action who saw the substance of things. He had taken the affairs of state into his own hands in early December 1921 with his decision to sign the ‘Treaty’ without submitting it to his Government, and to browbeat his colleagues in London to do likewise. It has been suggested that he was right to do this as the Irish Government was only make-believe. And yet it turned out very quickly that Collins, the strong leader who had no patience with constitutional quibbles, had lost the Army—because the Army took itself in earnest as the servant and protector of the Republican Constitution. All Collins could retrieve from the Volunteer Army was a cadre around which to construct a paid Army (with British support), whose only obvious purpose was to break the Volunteer Army that had fought the war against Britain. And he gained that cadre by persuading some Volunteers that he was accepting the Treaty only in order to acquire the means of breaking it before too long.
And so, in the Summer of 1922, Collins had to use the Army, that Britain enabled him to form, to conquer the country from the Army that had fought Britain and obliged it to negotiate. In June Britain insisted that he should do this, and he was in no position to refuse.
Midway through the development from the “Treaty of Peace” to “Civil War”, De Valera said that the majority has no right to be wrong, and “there are rights which a minority may justly uphold, even by arms, against a majority”. In recent times this has been held to be a disgraceful statement, despite the many instances in which the truth of it is not questioned. The British Unionist Party acted on that principle and was proved right in the only way in which such a thing is ever proved. Within three years it had got the better of the majority that it said was doing wrong.
France declared war on Germany in 1939 and lost it in 1940. When it lost, it made a settlement with Germany and the Parliament elected a new Government to operate this settlement. This was done by a Parliament whose electoral credentials are unquestionable, and there is no serious doubt that it accorded with the will of the populace. Britain took no account of the will of the French in the matter. It denounced it as wrong, scorning the notion that head counting determined right and wrong.
As the Treaty dispute dragged on, and as Free State power was built up, there is little doubt that the majority became willing to settle for the Treaty. But it never became an overwhelming majority, a consensus majority, such as the majority for the Republic had been in 1919-21. And De Valera proved himself right by overturning the Treaty majority within ten years‚ and challenging it from a position of equality within five, causing Treatyism to undermine itself by the means to which it clung to office in the last five years.
Borgonovo finds it necessary to speculate about the killing of a number of Protestants in Dunmanway in April 1922:
“Though Cork Protestants largely escaped the 1920-21 conflict intact, the spectre of religious war hovered over Munster in 1922. In the first half of that year, savage sectarian violence struck Ulster, and it seemed possible that the province’s Catholic population might be expelled. This left Cork Protestants vulnerable to possible IRA retaliation. In April, Cork’s leading Protestant merchants publicly denounced anti-Catholic violence in Northern Ireland, but were careful to point out,
“We have not been subjected to any form of oppression or injustice by our Catholic fellow citizens…”