The saddest day in Irish history

This day in 1922, The Dáil (the Irish parliament) voted in favour of the treaty Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith signed in London 32 days earlier. That treaty gave 26 counties of Ireland independence, but crucially left six still part of the United Kingdom.

With parallels to the UK’s Brexit vote, the result was not clear cut. 64 Dáil members voted in favour, and 57 against. The result was to signal the start of a Civil War, with Irishmen who’d fought with each other against the British in the Irish War of Independence, now take sides against their former comrades.

As if to emphasise the emotion and gravitas of the debate, the official Dáil record has the following quotes from the major figures:

Eamon de Valera when he realised he had lost the vote:

“I would like my last word here to be this. We have had a glorious record for four years. It has been four years of magnificent discipline in our nation. The world is looking at us now…”

He broke down with emotion before he’d managed to complete what he wanted to say.

Following a vitriolic debate where each side accused the other of bad faith, Michael Collins wrote:

“I have signed my death warrant.”

He knew he was a significant target for both personal and physical attacks from the anti-treaty side, and would be killed in an ambush just eight months later.

Anti-treatyite, Cathal Brugha commented:

“While the war was in progress, I could not praise too highly the work done by the Head Quarters’ Staff. The Chief of Staff and each of the leaders of the subsections were the best men we could get for the positions. Each of them carried out efficiently, so far as I know, the work that was entrusted to him they worked conscientiously and patriotically for Ireland without seeking any notoriety, with one exception. Whether he is responsible or not for the notoriety I am not going to say (cries of “Shame” and “Get on with the Treaty”). There is little more for me to say. One member was specially selected by the Press and the people to put him into a position which he never held; he was made a romantic figure, a mystical character such as this person certainly is not; the gentleman I refer to is Mr. Michael Collins.”

Strong stuff. A civil war is the worst type of conflict. It’s ugly and often leaves scars for generations.

Those scars may be nearly 100 years old, but they still exist. To most in Ireland the Irish Civil War is just part of it’s history. It’s part of it’s struggle for self-determination. To a minority, it’s a reminder that self-determination was never fully achieved.

The legacy of the civil war though is still felt throughout the 32 counties of Ireland. If the treaty had been voted down, would the troubles of the 60s, 70, and 80s have happened in Northern Ireland? Would the IRA and UDA have become the organisation that killed and maimed thousands both in Ireland and UK? The biggest question of all, would Britain have stood back and let Ireland reject the treaty?

Hypothetical questions, yes. But that’s what makes history interesting.

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