Though some insist it continues today, the "Irish Free State's" existance, de jure, lasted from 1922 to 1937. This same period roughly corresponds to a timespan in which the anti-treaty Irish Republican Army declined from defeat at the hands of pro-treaty forces to becoming a banned organization outright. It went from being a serious contender for state power to an insurgent group a fraction of its former size. Full circle from where it had  started following the 1916 Easter Rising before the 1919 Dáil. As the movement grew estranged, marginalized, and isolated, the career of its main political supporter, Eamon De Valera, followed a remarkable inverse trajectory. Both his 1923 address and the legislation marking the IRA as an illegal organization bracket this era. The panegyric that De Valera once lavished upon the IRA on the event of their their submission could not be in sharper contrast to the laconic, almost clinical legislation proscribing it as an outlaw organization. This night-and-day difference proves that the IRA had gone from being a threat to the nascent Free State to a nuisance.  

While De Valera is often associated with a certain parochial, idealistic vision of Ireland as a spiritual, agrarian country, his manoeuvres in the politics of the Free State expose a certain worldly shrewdness about his ways. His difference of opinion with Sinn Féin that led to the creation of Fianna Fáil cemented this. The policy of abstention lent itself to the pursuit of armed struggle, something which had become unfeasible after the Civil War. In the face of the organization of Cumann na nGadheal, the program of abstention appeared idealistic. While De Valera is usually associated with an agrarian vision for his country, this emphasis on the symbolic over the concrete in the oath of allegiance and to “republicanize” the state through cultural and educational measures were products of practical considerations. Though it would be significant in the space made for the church in Irish life, economy and geography loomed larger. Despite Griffith’s orations bridging culture and industry, the Free State had left the lower classes in the dust. Left groups such as Saor Eire and the Republican Congress proliferated. As republicans had consolidated power in the South, so too did the Unionists in the Orange North. Republican “irredentism” only appeared more and more hopeless. Ireland had seen well over a century’s worth of failed risings come and go. It still stood beside the British empire. Liberty remained conditional. Continued fighting put the fledgling nation at risk. It could pretext for the British to reoccupy the land on the grounds that the Irish could not govern themselves. The IRA was only banned after it became an economic threat. De Valera's own suggestion that the moment would come for them to take up arms again, was soon eclipsed.

With this in mind, if the anti-treaty IRA was a threat to the fledgling state, the question is then; why didn't the Free State ban them in 1922? Despite overpowering the rebels, the Free State had not consolidated enough power to do so without backlash. Before professionalization, the pro-treaty army, despite what its sobriquet would suggest, was scarcely more “regular” than their opponents. The common origin of both the IRA and the Irish Army is marked by how in the 1935 Act banning the former, it has the same Irish name as the latter: Óglaigh na hÉireann. Yet, the difference between an ideological army (either pro- or anti-) and a professional one was stark. The Anti-Treaty IRA was a physical and moral force to be reckoned with and De Valera’s had to use his silver tongue to the best of his ability to entice them to stand down. In his 1923 "Legion of the Rearguard" proclamation, De Valera nearly plead cap in hand with the anti-treaty IRA, appealing to their heroism as Ireland’s ‘dear and devoted sons’, even while order came to dump arms. Still, it was necessary for De Valera to console, and perhaps even congratulate(as he did) the battered IRA. Constant warfare from 1919 to 1923 led to a breakdown of the state in Ireland. The parallel justice system of the 1919 Dail had risen to fill this breach, with limited success. The armed struggle was wed, as an accusation, to both criminality and political agitation which challenged the status quo, as it was in the days of old when the Tithe War was linked to Catholic Emancipation and the Land War to the Land League. Indeed, IRA took up a very similar character concerning the split in the movement which contended that Fianna Fáil had neglected the common man in its economic dealings. This was in some ways a mirror image of the frequent red-baiting by Cumann na nGadheal. The Fianna Fáil’s embrace of pragmatism had led it to a position of compromise and moderation. Sinn Féin’s policy of abstention meant that the only avenue was the promise of future armed struggle. After the order to dump arms, this was all but impossible, so as Wexford pikemen had, they lay in wait. For trust to establish itself in the new state, Fianna Fáil had to take the armed option off the table.

Unlike the battle with the Black and Tans, the war amongst Irishmen was not ended by negotiation or treaty but by one-sided calculation. This abrupt end meant a great sense of unfinished business pervaded the nascent Free State. This came mostly from the political Left, but notably, the Army Comrades Association mirrored this from the Right after certain ambiguities surrounding the war's outcome left some pro-Treaty veterans without a proper pension. An important detail is the finer points of attempts to repress the ACA and the IRA in the Free State. The legislation proscribing membership in the IRA is straightforward and explicit. The defeated bills to address the ACA were subtle and indirect. It could claim a pretense of universality in that it forbid political uniforms, which were the distinctive feature of the ACA. This further indicates the marginalization of the IRA relative to contemporary movements. Similar legislation was later adopted in Britain against Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts. Indeed, Order No. 172 echoes prior British legislation against the IRA introduced during the Civil War. Yet such legislation was but a formality coming from the colonial force. It signified a decisive break within the republican movement. DeValera had gained the confidence to strike it out on his own, something for which the Republican movement never forgave him. As dissimilar as the countries were economically speaking, there was little difference between their respective state structure, which had developed alongside, or on the back of, one another for so long.

Obviously, the order did not spell the end of the IRA. It may even have served as a case in point for the republican grievance that “Free Staters” were no different than the British, thereby giving the movement more longevity. A noted feature of the IRA continues to be its tenacity and longevity, a feature shared by no other guerrilla movement in Europe. As was the case with the later ‘criminalization’ of the organization and the notion of reducing the violence of the conflict to “acceptable” levels, attempts to treat the IRA as another criminal organization did not succeed in marginalizing the movement, but represented the authorities’ belief in ‘managing’ the conflict. During the 1930s to the early 1960s, The Republic of Ireland was marked by isolation and economic stagnation. The popular image of economic austerity associated with the Free State is not amiss in characterizing the decade until the 1960s1. This interim period likened to a swamp or “morass” followed on the heels of the “emergency”; Ireland’s period of neutrality during the Second World War. This was yet another time of economic as well as existential uncertainty. While the Republic’s neutrality may have saved them from the devastation of the War, it likewise disqualified them from receiving aid from the Marshall Plan. As a result of this and a failed economic policy of promoting domestic industry, the Republic lagged behind other states in Europe until Lemass’ tenure as Taoiseach, a period of reform that accelerated throughout the rest of the 20th century up to the Celtic Tiger period. During the war, the Republic’s neutrality was not a detached aloofness but rather a careful balancing act that required the suppression of the anti-Treaty IRA, whose actions would have compromised it. Their campaign against England escalated during the war and after with the “border campaign”. As the defeat of the border campaign marked the end of the anti-Treaty IRA, it also preceded the Republic’s economic reform. For Ireland, the anti-treaty IRA’s dissolution and the rise of the Provisional IRA marked the shift in focus in the conflict from the Republic to Northern Ireland. For the Republic of Ireland, resolving longstanding economic problems was crucial for resolving their internal security situation.

Though Micheal Collins and the pro-treaty faction had envisioned the Free State as a “stepping stone” or halfway point between colony and republic, hardline Republicans saw the existence of the Free State as an unacceptable dead-end compromise. During the 30s, Ireland’s “revolutionary generation” first came to grasp power, a political shift coinciding with the Great Depression. The figure behind their entrance, Eamon De Valera, had split the republican movement on this question. In the dust of Fianna Fáil, the rest of the movement was in disarray and numerous short-lived groups sprouted up. One such organization, the Irish Republican Congress, a socialist claimant to the Connolly legacy, would contribute some enduring characterizations of “slightly constitutional” republicanism: “It is becoming every day more apparent that the middle-class leadership of Fianna Fáil, in pursuance of its policy of protecting Capitalism in Ireland, is not attempting to sever the connection with the British Empire2. The Republican Congress' focus on small-scale agriculture, alongside industry, shows the disparity between the north and south was also economic. Fianna Fáil’s later policy that deemphasized the Republic’s domestic industry, important cementing this difference, also shrank the organizing theatre for groups such as the Congress. The shift was not only preemptive of trends within the wider Western world towards deindustrialization but also important in sidelining an important locus of organizing for political organizations which Ryan and Gilmore of the Republican Congress acknowledged in the 1930s: factories and urban areas. Though the Congress itself was ultimately unsuccessful in developing “an irresistible Republican movement”, the important theme it addressed was a distinct link between the suffering of workers facing constant unemployment and small farmers who were overtaxed and land-hungry during the depression with support for openly militant republicanism at a time when Fianna Fáil had begun to come down on their former comrades with the force of the law.

During the Emergency, the anti-Treaty IRA become something more than something to be monitored and kept in bounds but a serious compromising factor in the Republic’s neutrality which had to be actively repressed3. Though the Fianna Fáil claimed the six counties in their new 1937 constitution, they did not take advantage of England’s difficulty to the satisfaction of the most militant wing of the republican movement, vindicating the charges of the Congress. As  Ireland’s was neutrality generally titled towards the Allies by necessity, so to was the repression of the IRA. De Valera’s experiences with the realities of statecraft had already led them to accept certain Melian realities about power. As his pronouncement: “Of course, when you have powerful States in a war of this sort, each trying to utilise whatever advantage it can for itself, the neutral State, if it is a small State, is always open to considerable pressure”4. The reality of Ireland being aloof from global affairs which had informed De Valera's policy during the Emergency could not but be troubled by the contest of power between the shaken Empire and the young Republic. As De Valera himself had expressed in his famous riposte to Churchill concerning the occupation of the six counties during the height of the war. On the surface, it might seem odd to see an independence leader acknowledging the predominance of the weak over the strong, but De Valera had come to terms with constraint upon the ambitions during the anti-Treaty campaign during the Civil War. De Valera himself had regarded the end of the campaign as more of a ceasefire than outright surrender, further adding to the atmosphere of unfinished business. The next great concession that De Valera was forced to make was the creation of Fianna Fáil, a move making further acquiescence to the Treaty and institution of the Free State. De Valera’s recognition of geopolitical necessity also came with a similar acceptance of economic difficulty during the Emergency, a situation that certainly did not let up after the war’s end. Like the Republic’s economic problems, the IRA would also persist.

While the IRA’s offensives during the war had fallen flat and it had come under repression from the Republic, the organization’s proclamation of December 12th marking the beginning of the Border Campaign also marks a distinct and remarkable confidence in the ability of the IRA to win a military victory against British forces. For a document emerging from the midst of the country’s economic stagnation the discussion of class is absent but, the theses of “national liberation” and “British Imperialism” are conspicuous within the proclamation5. There mark a turn towards a particular Marxist analysis linking Ireland’s economic woes to its colonial past (which in their eyes, a colonial present) as the Irish Republican Congress had two decades prior. This, of course, would certainly be at odds with the economic analysis of TK Whitaker and others, who would place the blame on internal factors such as the Republic’s own economic policy. The proclamation's language is a continuation of that found within the Irish Republican Congress; a voice of the discontents produced by the depression which remained in a slouching economy.

As the Depression was the product of an international crisis, Ireland’s midcentury stagnation was born out of localized economic missteps. In the absence of any international support after the war, it was clear that the IRA’s insurgency thrive during this period  of emiseration6. Like Rumpelstiltskin, DeValera could spin the straw of Irish poverty into the golden ideal of spiritual sacrifice and asceticism. So too could the IRA relate the facts of destitution to the immediacy of British  colonization. Lemass, though lacking the ability to make a virtue of necessity, made up for it in the good sense to eliminate it. The end of the border campaign and the defeat of the anti-treaty IRA as the main wing of “republican irredentism” was necessary for Ireland to solidify partition. Lingering sympathies for the so-called “legion of the rearguard” were put to bed by De Valera’s later career. Though the remnants of the anti-treaty IRA were invoked long by his enemies long before the war, the opening of hostilities meant that the outfit's continued operation against England jeopardized the newborn Republic’s neutrality. His successors, including Lemass and Fitzgerald, would also be another important factor in the settling of the Republic’s internal security issues by the pivot away from the security situation towards the Repulic's political culture. The decisive end of the anti-treaty IRA after the forlorn hope of the border campaign was also necessary for Ireland to attract foreign investment and tourism and promote an image of itself as distinct from its troubled history. The scenes of violence and repression erupting across the six counties placed the focus squarely upon the Northern Irish State, and thus shifted the onus to Britain. So too followed the IRA’s area for recruitment in its new incarnation as the Provisionals. The Republic had in effect caught up with the rest of Europe and incorporated into the wider, globalized economy.

All this to say, it would be facile to say that economic development in and of itself would be a silver bullet for ending the insurgency. One should instead pay attention to the concrete forms of social organization engendered by certain economies. Indeed, the Troubles period in the developed North shows how social injustices motivated disfavoured groups to rebels and also how urban areas functioned as a nexus for recruitment. In the Republic changes in the economy also broke up the traditional focus for political organizing in the town and countryside as financial investment increased state formation. As was the case through much of Western Europe, the “urban guerrilla” fell by the wayside with the factory and social unrest followed the course of industry towards the global periphery. Ireland’s trajectory prompts further investigation into to what extent forms of social investigation played in insurgency vis-à-vis socioeconomic factors. Aristotle may have blamed poverty as the mother of crime and revolution, but Ireland shows evidence that industry sustained both.


1. Townshend, Charles. 1999. Ireland: the 20th Century. London: Arnold. 173.
2. Ryan, Frank and George Gilmore, “The Irish Republican Congress” 23.
3. Townshend. Ireland. 153.
4. De Valera, Eamon “De Valera on the Emergency Bills on Irish neutrality (2 Sept. 1939)” 26.
5. “Manifesto of the Irish Republican Army, 12 Dec. 1956” 31.
6. Townshend. Ireland. 121.