“The Irish Free State”


"I went to see David, to London to David, and what did he do? He gave me a Free State, a nice little Free State, A Free State that's bound up with Red, White, and Blue." The singer rejects any British influence and demands freedom from the crown


In the aftermath of the 1916 Dublin Rising, Irish opinion was strongly divided about what came next. Had the British responded with concessions, Ireland might still be part of the Commonwealth. But it was World War I, and the British in any case have never been good at understanding the needs of their colonies. Gradually, the quiet Irish hostility turned to open warfare.

The result was mass rebellion and mass reprisal (for this, see e.g. "The Bold Black and Tan" and "General Michael Collins"). Eventually, the British had to make a decision. They decided to treat with the Irish govenment.

"David" is David Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister at the time. The Irish negotiators were a divided group; the two most distinguished were Arthur Griffith, who simply wanted peace and self-determination, and Michael Collins, the de facto head of the guerrilla army, who was much more determined to have independence.

Notably missing was Eamon de Valera, who was head of the Irish government insofar as it existed. He had named his arch-rival Collins, who didn't want the job, but was unwilling to go himself. Tim Pat Coogan, in _Michael Collins_, p. 228, says that that was the "worst single decision of de Valera's life, for himself and for Ireland." (And that, frankly, is saying a lot, because de Valera made quite a few irrational choices.)

The negotiators were stuck ended up with divided opinions and no real list of demands. (According to Coogan, p. 230, de Valera eventually admitted to deliberately creating a delegation he expected to deadlock: Griffith the moderate, Collins the fire-breather who was nonetheless a realist, Erskine Childers the extremist.) In the end, the deal they worked out involved withdrawal of British forces from Ireland, and complete internal self-government; the only limitations were in defence and external affairs, and those very limited. They also got their way on trade relations with England.

It was a great deal by rational standards. But not by de Valera standards. The Treaty contained two objectionable provisions: Ulster was given the right to remain British (a boundary commission was promised, but it never did its work; the British refused to set it up with Ireland in conflict, and other attempts to a solution were halted by intransigence either in Dublin or Ulster; in any case, Lloyd George had made irreconcileable informal promises about it to the Ulster and Nationalist Irish), and Ireland was to become a Dominion, with internal autonomy but still formally under the British crown.

For more on the evolution of this problem, see especially "A Loyal Song Against Home Rule."

Robert Kee, in _Ourselves Alone_, being volume III of _The Green Flag_, pp. 156-157, defines the internal Irish problem pretty well, in my view: As long as there was no serious hope of an Irish republic, the rebels (Fenians, Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood, Volunteers) didn't have to resolve their differences. Now, though....

"There had always been moderates and extremists in the movement though the difference had been fairly efficiently concealed. More important: there had always been realists and fantasists and this difference was now revealed clearly for the first time as some of the toughest of the extremists in the past -- Commandants of the IRA like MacEoin, of Ballinalee, and Mulcahy the Chief of Staff -- followed Collins, the toughest of them all, in support of the Treaty." He notes, sadly, that it was the often the widows and family who were the worst fantasists: The mother of Padraic Pearse, the widow of Tom Clarke, the sister of Terence MacSwiney.

The Ulster question was an ironic one in that the compromise it produced sounded good and was unworkable. The Ulster Unionists had initially wanted all nine counties of Ulster; had they had their way, Ireland might well be united now (if still highly uncomfortable), because Ulster would have had a Catholic majority. On the other hand, some of the British, including Winston Churchill, had been willing to give away Ulster (see, e.g., Coogan, p. 334); they knew it would bring more trouble than it was worth. But they couldn't simply hand Ulster to the Irish; parliament wouldn't stand for it and the Ulster Unionists would fight (Randolph Churchill said, "Ulster will fight; Ulster will be right").

The temporary compromise -- a six county Ulster still part of Britain -- might have been adjusted had Ireland been organized enough for further negotiations (a boundary commission, religious protections, some self-government). Or Michael Collins, who had had thoughts of conquering Ulster, might have pulled another rabbit out of his hat. But Collins died, the Irish Civil War came, and further negotiations had to wait until after Ulster Protestants and Catholics had hunkered down and come to hate each other.

In the interim, the British has insisted on maintaining Ulster as a six-county unit (rather than ceding the two Catholic counties while retaining the four Protestant areas). Even so, Ulster actually was a safer place for both Catholics and Protestants during the twenty years after the Treaty was accepted than was the Irish Republic. In any case, Britain and the provisional Irish government were both willing to try to solve Ulster; this was not the final cause of Ireland's war.

The worst of it was, if Ireland had not descended into war, the problem might have solved itself. The boundary commission, if done properly, would have left Ulster with only about four and a half counties -- and would quite possible have split off (London)derry, the second city of the province. Nearly everyone agreed that this rump would be economically unviable (indeed, a lot of people thought the six counties unviable); they would be forced in time to turn to Ireland. That question was never to be resolved.

The idea of Dominion status, and the loyalty to the crown it required, proved the bigger sticking point at the time; de Valera was only one of many who refused to acknowledge any ties to Britain (de Valera in fact resigned his Presidency). It was only words -- they were supposed to pledge fealty to the King, but they didn't have to *act* on that fealty -- but, to the Irish radicals, they were fighting words.

Kee, p. 150, says that the real problem in the negotiations with Britain was that the issues of Crown and Partition somehow came to be linked, which forced the outcome as it came out. His opinion is that, with more "give" on each side, Ireland could have been more strongly linked to the crown while being kept united. For the majority of the Irish people, this would probably have been a better solution. It's less clear that it would have satisfied the radical nationalists.

Given the course the negotiations had taked, the commissioners insisted (probably rightly; Lloyd George's government, after all the disasters it had faced, was shaky) that the deal they brought home was the most Britain would offer, and on January 7, 1922 the Irish Dail voted (by 64 votes to 57) to accept the treaty. The population was almost certainly much more heavily in favor, since opponents of Sinn Fein generally had not dared to run in the election which had created this Dail.

If there were defects in the Treaty, one may lay much of the blame on the Irish government. It gave its negotiators plenipotentiary powers, but never told them what to ask for, and then tried to change the results. De Valera's conduct was particularly suspect -- he had hinted that he would accept dominion status, but when the commissioners came back with something that was essentially that, he condemned it out of hand.

The result was a civil war which lasted until 1923. It took two new constitutions, a split within Sinn Fein, the founding of the Fianna Fail and Sine Gael parties, sundry assassinations (including that of Collins), and many restrictive government measures to bring political stability to Ireland.

This even though the people clearly supported the Treaty and the Free State; they wanted an end to war. (Kee makes the valid point, p. 158, that the IRB and other militants hadn't paid any attention to the people's wishes until that point; there was no logical reason why they should start now.) Calton Younger (_Ireland's Civil War_, pp. 313-314) gives vote totals for the election which follows (which was largely a referendum on the treaty): "pro-Treaty panel candidates gained 239,193 votes of a total of 620,283 votes cast [39%]; anti-treaty panel candidates... polled 133,864 [22%]; and Labour, Independents and Farmers won between them 247,226 votes [40%]."

Coogan, p. 329, notes that this election cost both the de Valera and Collins factions in parliament, but the former much more heavily: "Certainly the result was a severe blow to the de Valera faction which held only thirty-six seats, a loss of twenty-two. The Collins/Griffith party won fifty-eight seats, a loss of eight, but which taken with the pro-Treaty Labour Party's seventeen seats, the Farmers' Party's seven, the six independents, and the four Unionists represented a solid pro-Treaty majority."

Still, the government that was elected was fragile, and there had already been some shooting. It would get worse.

"King George and Queen Mary" are, of course, George V of England and his wife Mary of Teck, to whom, under the Treaty, the Irish still owed technical allegiance.

The term "Free State" is an interesting one. The Irish were pushing for the establishment of the "Saorstat Eireann." That's usually translated as the "Republic of Ireland," and of course the more vehement Irish nationalists called themselves "Republicans."

The British, however, proposed to translate it as "Free State" (see Coogan, p. 263). This little bit of wordplay solved a major problem on the British side while technically giving the Irish what they wanted. At least, what the Irish-speaking ones wanted. Evidently not all that the Anglophones (which were, of course, all of them) wanted.

Although Galvin lists no author for this piece, it definitely looks contemporary with the events described; it appears that someone is putting words in the mouth of either Collins or Griffith. - RBW

Historical references

  • Dec. 6, 1921 - Negotiations for the Irish Treaty concluded. (It will be accepted by a bare majority of the Irish government, with the minority, including President de Valera, demanding more)

Cross references

  • cf. "The Ash Grove" (tune)


  1. PGalvin, pp. 71-72, "The Irish Free State" (1 text, 1 tune)
  3. BI, PGa071


Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1962 (Galvin)
Keywords: Ireland freedom
Found in: Ireland