Michael Collins And The Oaths To The Irish Republic And The Irish Free State

Judging by the emails and messages I’m still receiving, my article at the start of the month criticising the supposedly “constitutional” foundations of the Irish Free State in 1922 has annoyed more than a few Fine Gael supporters. Not to mention several passionate admirers of Michael Collins. What seems to have irked a number of pro-treaty sympathisers was my description of the breakaway members of the Republican Movement in January-July 1922 as “oath-breakers”. This, of course, was a term coined by contemporary opponents of the Provisional Government regime which took transitional power under the leadership of Collins, Arthur Griffith, Richard Mulcahy and others during this period. And with good reason. A significant number of those who supported the compromise peace with the United Kingdom following the War of Independence had previously taken several oaths of loyalty to the Irish Republic, the revolutionary nation-state proclaimed in 1916 and ratified in four plebiscite-elections from 1918 to 1921.

On January 7th 1919, before the meeting of the First Dáil on the 21st , all deputies free to attend the underground legislature, including later prominent “Treatyites”, signed the “Republican Pledge”:

“I hereby pledge myself to work for the establishment of an independent Irish republic; that I will accept nothing less than complete separation from England in settlement of Ireland’s claims; and that I will abstain from attending the English Parliament.”

The was subsequently expanded into the “Oath of Allegiance to the Irish Republic”, agreed by Dáil Éireann on the 20th of August of 1919. All members of An Dáil, Collins, Griffith and Mulcahy included, swore this pledge for the last time in the Mansion House on the 16th of August 1921:

“I, …, do solemnly swear that I do not and shall not yield a voluntary support to any pretended Government, authority or power within Ireland hostile and inimical thereto, and I do further swear that to the best of my knowledge and ability I will support and defend the Irish Republic and the Government of the Irish Republic, which is Dáil Éireann, against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same, and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, so help me, God.”

Several months later Michael Collins, after weeks of consultations with his closest advisers, devised the following expression of fealty to the British Crown to be acknowledged by all members of the Parliament of the Irish Free State, a legislative body then due to come into existence in December of 1922 (though it would style itself as the Fourth Dáil):

“I, …, do solemnly swear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of the Irish Free State as by law established, and that I will be faithful to H.M. King George V, his heirs and successors by law in virtue of the common citizenship of Ireland with Great Britain and her adherence to and membership of the group of nations forming the British Commonwealth of Nations.”

Obviously, these two sets of words contain quite different ideas, though Lord Birkenhead, one of the UK negotiators in London dealing with the Provisionals in Dublin, expressed his admiration at the deviousness of the latter’s phrasing. However, it remained a repudiation of the 1916-23 All-Ireland republic, whatever the supposed claim by Collins in the first half of 1922 that:

“I have signed an oath of allegiance to the Irish Republic and that oath I will keep, Treaty or no Treaty.”

If the leader of the Provisionals was unaware of the real implications of the Irish-British Treaty of December 1921, his political and military successors were not so blind. They had no qualms about abandoning the Republic and embracing the petty philosophy of Free Staterism; and all that was to stem from that counter-revolutionary tradition to the present day.

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15 comments

  1. What was the alternative to accepting the treaty? I think it is rather disingenuous to put up TWO articles now criticising Collins and those that negotiated the treaty without ever mentioning that they had howitzers to their heads. That if they rejected the treaty that WWI level destruction would be levied in Ireland and there would be no freedom. That today we would be Wales or Scotland.

    Never forget that every single one of those true believers who kept the faith of the Irish Republic and those that broke their oaths and took the treaty, all of them were heroes of the War of Independence and hating them for accepting reality smacks more of blind hatred than rational thought.

    It is the British empire to which our anger should be turned not each other. Sure didn’t they teach us that in primary school how the British used divide & conquer everywhere they went? Surely you’d like to stop helping them?

    1. In fairness, the first article was in response to an historically disingenuous newspaper article blackening the anti-treaty side during the civil war and the second was in response to those criticising the first piece.

      I generally take a more nuanced view of the period, as outlined in the Irish history podcast, but I also believe that a bit of in-your-face myth-busting does no harm either.

      The Fine Gael folk are not going to have 2021-23 all their own way if I’m still around 😉

      1. Instead of castigating our own, I’d rather focus on the the British completely ignoring the democratic mandate delivered in 1918. That the UK government forced a treaty on us that overrode that clear democratic mandate should be the stick we beat them with. We should not be turning on each other at the behest of the Unionist Times. The whole treaty/anti-treaty focus lets the UK off the hook for their anti-democratic actions.

        My own great grandfather and family would have been anti-treaty, but as an elected member of the Urban District council in Athy he voted for the treaty. The family went on to be involved with the WWII bombings on the railways in England, the border campaign and the late 60s, very early 70s Troubles.

        We were very, very, very lucky to win any form of freedom at all. There was no alternative to the treaty but to be utterly crushed in the style of the Somme and Verdun. Remember the only reason we had been spared that so far was the Irish diaspora in America combined with the UK need for US support in WWI and the immediate aftermath. By 1922 that need had evaporated and we were dealing with Churchill (of British Nazis in Kenya fame). The treaty was made under duress and whatever plans Collins had in his head for the north and overturning the treaty died with him. Reading about Collins/Craig and the north makes it clear that Collins saw the treaty as one agreed to under duress and should only be worked to gain the Irish Republic, not respected and to be torn up as soon as possible.

        So by all means, go for the Unionist Times, the blue shirt fascists, criticise the hypocrites, but don’t catch yourself in the crossfire by castigating those that made the only choice they could in the circumstances. It lets the Brits off the hook for their malfeasance and never forget the British empire, by every measure, was far, far worse than the Nazis. That needs to be the lede, not that they forced Irish to fight each other again.

        And I’ll be with you on sticking it to the FG and the FF bastards, both are excrement.

          1. It isn’t though, the past is not dead, it’s not even the past.

            The Irish Civil War was so emotive and the passions so intense that even down into the 90s you could not have a rational, informed, accurate debate on the subject. The whole “Dev set Collins up”/”Collins betrayed the Republic” lines fall like a heavy blanket of snow across the truth which was a lot more complex and tore the entire country in two as they were forced to campaign for/against a unacceptable treaty or desolation.

        1. Yes, but we cannot let those who initiated the civil war escape censure either. Collins and company went into the business of bloodletting with little compunction once the first artillery rounds rang out in Dublin, and with British support.

  2. This I know. My grandfather fled Ireland at the back end of the civil war. He had no choice. It was that, or worse would befall him. he was insignificant, just one of many. This was so that Collins and the others, who were extraordinary warriors, during the independence war, could then compromise their oaths of honour, and give in to the browbeating of Imperialist scum like Lord Birkenhead. The Republican provisional Government were threatened that if they did not eradicate the then emerging socialist Republic of Ireland and create a Bourgeois capitalist state, with special status for the Catholic voodoo occultist Religion, within Ireland had reached levels of religious mania and superstitious belief that cursed Ireland for the next 90 years, all hell would be let loose. Essentially, they threatened a genocidal war of complete eradication of Ireland as a nation, with its language and its history, and the mass murder of anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000 people. An expeditionary force was threatened, that by sheer weight of numbers, would annihilate any republican or patriotic sentiment, and then withdraw to coastal bases, while the British Navy enforced a blockade that would starve the survivors to death. As Churchill then said: “Any attempt by the Irish to establish a government, or administration anywhere in the interior, would be attacked by flying columns of heavily armed troops, and aerial attack. “. The survivors could starve, as they had before, in previous horrors. Essentially, the “Churchill plan” for Ireland, in the event of a refusal to make an abject surrender of the Republic, was the imposition of Genocide on Ireland. All of this was threatened, and the documentation exists to prove it. It is not taught anywhere in the Irish education system. (or the English one).
    But:
    It was a threat. had it been implemented, there would have been world wide revulsion and horror, and states like America, with its huge and influential Irish diaspora, would have generated huge pressure on President Wilson for intervention. Most European States would have reacted strongly, and the British Government would have been isolated. The British navel blockade would have been challanged by the Americans, and run against, under armed navel escort. So how realistic was Churchills genocidal threat?…in reality?. Tory scum like Lord Birkenhead and his ilk would have supported it. but in the UK itself, those same forces that challanged the Government with a general strike would have effectively sabotaged, such an atrocity. It would have led to disturbances in the Uk itself, which had, even then, several million resident Irish.Plus radical and socialist elements in the general population. plus the then labour party, which I do not think would have consented. It would have precipitated events in England itself, which would have caused mass disturbances, and the collapse of the Government.
    So if the Republicans had fought on, they would have been crushed, at great cost, but a million Dragon’s teeth would have been sown. I do not think, after the first month of the expeditionary force and the terrible atrocity reports, that it could have been sustained. It would have led to internal revolt in England, and forcing out of the Tory regime there. Ultimately, it would have led to an American imposed peace treaty and settlement. Ireland today, would be a very different place, and my own grandfather might actually have died in his own bed, in his own land, instead of as an exile. One single solitary family member. But one among tens of thousands. But it would have been worth it. Nothing, absolutely nothing, in Irish history, has come except at great price, and great suffering. This would have been no exception. But it would be an end to things, and a new beginning. Discuss.

    1. There was no need for the British government to do any of the horrendous things you list. They need only announce there would be a separate Irish republic, with no connexions with great Britain, that Irish citizens would be admitted to Great Britain on the same terms and under the same conditions as other foreigners, that Irish exports to Britain would face the same conditions, that those Irish citizens who were employed by the British government or were entitled to British government pensions would continue their employment or receive pensions in Britain if they renounced Irish citizenship and became British citizens and that all Irish residents in Britain would have two years to apply for British citizenship or be repatriated and that British citizens in Ireland who wished to leave would be given every assistance and compensation. There was no need to do all of these things, or even most of them: just wait for the economic and other implications to sink in.
      The trouble with the “Republican Pledge”, was the same as the “proclamation of the Irish Republic” of 1916; the people who made them imagined that a pledge or proclamation was all that was needed to transform reality.

    2. “I do not think, after the first month of the expeditionary force and the terrible atrocity reports,…”

      I think they were trying to avoid any atrocity reports. An aim you would have found endorsed overwhelmingly by the majority of people in Ireland.

      While you may be right the price you ask was one we were unwilling to pay any longer. There had been enough British atrocities in Ireland. I still don’t see the Bloody Sunday murderers facing trial nor any international pressure to force the UK to do so.

      So overall, I am unpersuaded by your argument that the Irish should have run such a risk given how the US had rejected De Valera for example. You have a lot more confidence in countries that did not think the Irish were white people than I do.

  3. There was little alternative to the Treaty. De Valera knew this and set it up so that Michael Collins took the heat. All knew that continued war with Britain was doomed to end up in defeat. Politics is the art of the compromise.
    Collins knew the implications of the Treaty but saw no other reasonable course of action at the time.

    1. I don’t really buy into de Valera setting up Collins as the fall-guy for a compromise peace deal by dispatching him to London. It emerged during the Treaty debates and afterwards from some on the pro-treaty side but never really gained much traction until the 1970s and the emergence of the revisionist school of historians and journalists.

      I’d also query Collins taking the course of action he did when he knew – or at least could guess – that intra-nationalist conflict was the likely result. The civil war was almost as bad in terms of casualties as the war which proceeded it. How could a continuation of that earlier war have been any worse?

  4. This I know; my maternal grandfather left County Kerry as a 12 year old boy. HE came to America with his aunt. Prior to his leaving,Ireland ,his own father had been “” involved in Irish politics” and was forced to leave Ireland. My Galway grandparents left Ireland,separately,before they met,and then married in America. Both families contributed as they were able to the “IRISH CAUSE”; I KNOW ONE UNCLE ON MY PATERNAL SIDE WAS A GREAT CONTRIBUTOR,RIGHT UP UNTIL THE 70s,when he died. I grew up here in America being extremely proud of being Irish. I also know that the name De Valera was not in favor,while the name Michael Collins was revered as he was a martyr,and had worked right up to the day of his “”death” for the true rights of the Irish people! Yes,there was a very clear message that Michael Collins was “sacrificed”.

    1. Or Collins believed his own myth and that led to his downfall? He was a great man, and a patriot, but, but, but… He and his associates led the country into civil war and while some tried to avoid, including him, others rushed into it with glee. He should have walked away in December 1921. The treaty was a mistake, even if the mistake turned partially good in the end.

  5. What alternative to the treaty was there except another treaty with worse terms? Pledges and proclamations sound very good but economically Ireland was entirely dependent on Britain. If Britain announced “Ireland is a foreign country and we will treat Ireland and its citizens exactly the same way we treat other foreign countries” there would have been an economical crash.

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