There was a civil war in Ireland between 1922 and 1923 but we rarely speak about it. It was such a destructive bitter conflict that the wounds were too deep to discuss. However there was another civil war happening at the same time that is even less discussed. This split was just as bitter, but instead of being centred on the Treaty it was based on something much deeper. It was a split between rich and poor, haves and have-nots, landlords and peasants. It is a story of Soviets, White Guards, sabotage, strikes, land seizures, violence and burnings. It was nothing short of a second civil war.
In 1920 there were 350,000 farm labourers in Ireland. They lived in desperate poverty, without land of their own, forced to work for low wages. They had to undergo humiliating hiring fairs where they were displayed like cattle. The revolution shacking Europe and Ireland at the time encouraged them to be militant to improve their situation. There were strikes and soviets. Fairs were disrupted and farms were sabotaged.
In November 1919 an incident took place in Waterford that became known as the “Battle of Fenor”. Farm labourers had been locked out by local farmers who then tried to bring in strike breakers under police protection. This lead to a full-scale battle between striking labourers and police. According to the newspaper report: “revolver shots, batons, and bayonets were freely used.” Several fires were set on local farms.
In May 1923 a strike was called in Waterford over farm labourer’s wages. It has been described as “probably one of the most bitter industrial disputes to ever take place in Ireland.” The strike was launched over attempts to cut the already dismally low wages of farm labourers. On the one side was the Irish Farmers Union (IFU) and on the other the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU). There were sympathetic strikes in Waterford city and unions refused to carry butter from farms involved in the strike. Employers co-operated in breaking the strike. They shared labour and transport and supported each other in various ways.
As the strike went on, it grew increasingly bitter as both sides turned to violence. It was claimed that some farmers were forced by the IFA to oppose the labourers. A farmer who had settled with the strikers had his farm sabotaged. Farmers set up a local “Farmers Freedom Force” to intimidate strikers. In response a “Labour Flying Column” was set up. There were stand offs with the local IRA.
Emmet O’Connor writes that by June it was less of a strike and was instead “evolving into a class conflict.” 600 soldiers from the newly formed Special Infantry Corps were sent to aid the farmers. They protected farmers property from sabotage, strike breakers and guarded conveys of produce. They searched local areas for arms and made arrests. They raided union offices, arrested officials and impounded documents. “As the strike wore on the conflict intensified, eventually escalating into a miniature civil war.”
The strike was no longer about wages; it was now a fight to the death with the trade union. “The struggle took the form of a war of attrition.” Labourers damaged machinery, drove off cattle, broke gates etc. Sporadic shots at Specials. “a group of vigilantes, styling themselves the White guards, initiated a systemic campaign of terror against labourers and branch secretaries.” Armed masked men raided and burned the cottages of labour activists. Carloads of vigilantes toured the country beating up strikers. It was described as a “miniature version of the Russian Civil War”
The trade union was driven to near bankruptcy and had to give up. The strike ended after seven months in December. The failure of the strike destroyed trade unionism in Waterford. The labourers were crushed and had to return to work on their employers conditions.
The countryside was the scene of open revolution but not just against British rule. Local people took their own initiative to change society. Landless labourers seized land for their own use from landlords. This was an opportunity to take revenge on the hated landlords. Cattle was driven off the land of rich farmers to make space for poorer ones. There were refusals to pay rent to landlords. All across the country landlords had their property seized and their mansions burnt. 275 “Big Houses” were burnt or otherwise destroyed between 1919-23. Interestingly, 200 of these took place during the Civil War. So while there was fighting between pro and anti-treaty sides there was also conflict between the landlords and the peasants.
It is clear that these burnings were mainly symbolic as the landlords themselves were rarely attacked, as oppose to in, say, Russia. There were no public hangings of the landlords. Rather it was an attack on the symbol of the rich who were despised for their indifference to the poor.
There was a rural version of the Dublin lockout in June 1919 when the Meath and Kildare Farmers Union tried to crush the ITGWU by organising a lockout of 2,700 men. There were pitched battles, crops were destroyed and fairs disrupted. There were clashes with police who had to resort to bayonet charges to disperse strikers. It took the deployment of 400 soldiers to ensure the transport of cattle to Belfast. However, upon arrival, union members refused to handle the cattle which had to be returned. The strike was won.
There was a wave of disputes and militancy throughout the country. Strikers in Cork marched under the banner of “Workers of the world unite. The unorganised worker is the slave of his employer.” In May 1920 it was reported that Castletownroche, County Cork resembled a battlefield of destruction after clashes between the FFF and Reds. In many parts of the country, the main conflict was not between the IRA and the British but between farmers and labourers. In some parts it was the Red Flag not the Tricolour that represented people.
An interesting case study occurred in Broadford, County Limerick, in 1922. The local absentee landlord had his land taken and declared a Soviet. The land was lent to landless labourers who tilled it. The Broadford Soviet decided that £110 was appropriate rent for six months so that was what was paid. With the absence of the police, the landlord had no choice but to accept it.
Most history books I read acted as though the only conflict in Ireland was between Irish and British and between pro and anti treatites. I was surprised to find that there was another civil war happening at the time. This was a war that reminded me of Russia or Italy. It was a clash of rich and poor where Red and White guards did battle over the shape of New Ireland. It was filled with bitterness and hate, of burnings, beatings and shootings, of strikes, troops and vigilantes. It was a battle between the status quo and revolution. It was nothing short of a class war. Had the outcome been different, we would be living in an unrecognisable Ireland.