Chapter Five

In 1923 de Valera declared the end of armed resistance to the Free State government, and in 1925 the boundary separating the Republic of Ireland from Northern Ireland was officially accepted by all governments.  The Irish Civil War ended in division and tragedy.  Collins was killed in an ambush, leaving the leadership of his party, Fine Gael, in the hands of W.T. Cosgrave, who would lead for 10 years.  Cosgrave was a much less charismatic figure than Collins, but he gave a stability to the government. His minister of justice, Kevin O’Higgins, dealt out harsh repression to republicans, leading to his assassination in 1927.  Indeed, in many ways the harshness of the Free State government recalled that of the British :  the Free State executed 77 republicans between 1922-1923, whereas the British executed 40 between 1916 and 1921.  The resulting social divide was also enormous:  the legacy of violence would remain in the Irish communities virtually to the present day.

 Michael Collins

Eamon de Valera

De Valera agreed to take the Oath of Allegiance and enter the Dail as an opposition party, Fianna Fail, in 1927.  Remarkably, in the 1932 election, de Valera’s party had the largest return, and formed a coalition government.  Fianna Fail would remain in power until 1948, and the figure of de Valera dominates Irish politics and culture during this time.  One of his great achievements was the writing and ratification of the new constitution in 1937.  This document removed nearly all references to “the crown,” referred to the whole of Ireland as “Eire” including the 6 northern counties; and accorded special status to the Catholic church.

Ireland between 1932 and 1948 was characterized by an extreme social conservatism.  The Catholic Church held such sway that the state often resembled a theocracy.  Divorce was outlawed and the list of censored or banned books soon numbered in the thousands.  The enduring political conflict between Unionist and Nationalist, Protestant and Catholic, and even Free Stater and Republican, found continued focus on the border issue and dominated Irish political reality to such an extent that other political parties, most notably Labour, found little purchase on Irish soil during this time.

Culturally, the most defining aspect of Ireland was its policy of language revival.  The government committed itself to restoring the Irish language, making its study compulsory in all government schools, and required of all civil servants and government documents and publications.  Yet despite this effort, the language continued to decline, as immigration drained the Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) areas dramatically and as popular culture began to infiltrate Irish society.

Politically, Ireland’s most notable action was its decision to remain neutral during what it termed “The Emergency,” what the rest of the world termed World War II.  Determined to resist dragging the newly independent state into a potentially destructive world conflict, De Valera, with admirable diplomatic dexterity, avoided dragging Ireland into the conflict on either side.

Economically, Ireland had little industrial development, and its economy remained largely rural, tied to the small family farm and the rural town.  The Irish economy remained inevitably tied to that of its domineering neighbor, Great Britain.  Migration was a dominant facet of Irish life, with many of the young people seeking better employment and a higher standard of living in England and America.  Gradually, as popular culture in the form of radio and film, and eventually television, brought images of the larger world to Ireland, awareness of the relative poverty of Ireland brought about increasing dissatisfaction with its status.

Economic revival began in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.  Sean Lemass took over as de Valera’s successor in the leadership of Fianna Fail and, in the wake of the Whitaker (economic) report of 1958, initiated several economic and cultural reforms that moved Ireland closer to late 20th century European life.  The economy opened to foreign investment, embraced accepted capitalist doctrines, relaxed trade barriers particularly with England, and economic growth became a national imperative.