- The Irish Civil War and Society: Politics, Class, and Conflict by Gavin M. Foster
The Irish Civil War was unquestionably one of the most tragic and traumatic events in the history of the country’s nationalist struggle. The conflict seared the Irish consciousness and influenced (if not determined) public life in Ireland for more than fifty years. Gavin M. Foster notes that although most histories of the civil war focus on the political and military issues, the lasting political and social ramifications of this relatively short struggle have been too profound to be so simplistically described. There have been deeper influences at work. Indeed, Foster asserts that while one of the alternative interpretations of the civil war, that of class conflict, has been proposed, he finds it insufficient upon examination. “Using the more flexible (and historically appropriate) concept of social status rather than economic class as the starting point,” Foster writes, “this study explores some of the important ways that the Irish Civil War was shaped by the deeper social identities, interests, and conflicts that divided Irish society.” He then proceeds to examine first pro-Treaty and then anti-Treaty attitudes, the symbolic significance of choices in matters of dress, and the social dimension of the focus of conflict. Finally, Foster looks at the consequences of Irish Free State policies of repression, economic action, and out-migration.
Rejecting the notion that the Irish Civil War can be analyzed in terms of the traditional definitions of economic class, Foster nonetheless asserts that Ireland was a highly “status conscious” society and that notions of “respectability” exerted considerable influence on the minds of people across the country. Both the pro-Treaty and the anti-Treaty elements justified themselves and criticized their opponents on these matters. The anti-Treaty people claimed that the pro-Treaty supporters had sold out the Republic to the British. They had accepted colonial status, and were imitating the old regime in style and form—the governor general at the vice regal lodge, with balls, receptions, and levies hosted by [End Page 138] “His Excellency,” the government and President William T. Cosgrave wearing black bowler or silk top hats and striped pants. To be sure, the Free State government did assert its respectability, to show that the Irish could govern themselves (contrary to the claims of some critics). It did so to convince Unionists that the new government would be stable and welcoming to minorities, and to conform to the “respectable” style expected of members of the international community. The pro-Treaty supporters accused the anti-Treaty people of being late arrivals in the nationalist struggle (“trucileers”—those who joined the IRA after the truce in 1921), of ignoring the democratic process, of being reckless young men (“hot bloods” and “hooligans”), or of being delinquents and criminals using the crisis to cover their illegal activities. Certainly, the IRA did promote rural unrest, opposed large farms and “ranches,” supported the distillation of poitín, and claimed to represent the plain people of Ireland, particularly the Gaelic West as opposed to the urban, bourgeois, “West Briton,” or “shoneen” East. The anti-Treaty people emphasized a less pretentious public lifestyle and dress; in point of fact Eamon de Valera wore felt hats or cloth caps until he became president in 1969. Foster argues that these matters were much more than mere name-calling and public gesturing; they revealed basic differences about lifestyles and attitudes about the kind of new nation that each side expected Ireland to be. The fact that neither side could be completely satisfied with the reality of the new Ireland became one of the ongoing divisions in Irish society.
The matters of Irish Free State’s repression, the economic discrimination, and IRA emigration, Foster notes, also contribute to the lingering hostility and bitterness that characterizes the effects of the Irish Civil War. Certainly, the Free State government struck back ruthlessly at the IRA during the conflict, and their reprisal shootings of IRA prisoners...