‘During the Irish Civil War the National Army executed more Irishmen than the British had during the War of Independence.’
In the aftermath of the sudden death of Arthur Griffith and the killing of Michael Collins, in August 1922, William T Cosgrave became chairman of the provisional government. Cosgrave and his colleagues remained wedded to a ruthless military and political strategy that ensured, by May 1923, a decisive win over the Republicans and the end of the Civil War. Cosgrave’s analysis was that ‘the executions have had a remarkable effect. It is a sad thing to say, but it is nevertheless the case’; he could also be chilling in his resolve: ‘I am not going to hesitate and if the country is to live and if we have to exterminate 10,000 republicans, the 3 millions of our people are bigger than the ten thousand.’
The Free State suspended executions and offered an amnesty in the hope that anti-treaty fighters would surrender. However, the war dragged for another two months and witnessed at least twenty more official executions.
Several Republican leaders narrowly avoided execution. Ernie O’Malley, captured on 4 November 1922, was not executed because he was too badly wounded when taken prisoner to face a court-martial and possibly because the Free State was hesitant about executing an undisputed hero of the recent struggle against the British. Liam Deasy, captured in January 1923 avoided execution by signing a surrender document calling on the anti-treaty forces to lay down their arms.
The Anti-Treaty side called a ceasefire on 30 April 1923 and ordered their men to ‘dump arms’, ending the war, on 24 May. Nevertheless, executions of Republican prisoners continued after this time. Four IRA men were executed in May after the ceasefire order and the final two executions took place on 20 November, months after the end of hostilities. It was not until November 1924 that a general amnesty was offered for any acts committed in the civil war.
In highlighting the severity of the Free State’s execution policy, however, it is important not to exaggerate its extent. The Free State took a total of over 12,000 Republicans prisoner during the war, of whom roughly 80, less than 1% were executed. How those who were executed were chosen from the others captured in arms is unclear, however many more men were sentenced to the death penalty than were actually shot. This was intended to act as a deterrent to anti-Treaty fighters in the field, who knew that their imprisoned comrades were likely to be executed if they kept up their armed campaign.
Perhaps this realism was also beginning to affect the republican self-declared ‘men of faith’. Dan Breen, who led an IRA column in Tipperary during the Civil war, told his fellow republicans: ‘in order to win this war you’ll need to kill 3 out of every 5 people in the country and it isn’t worth it.’