June 22 1922 Galwegians looked on with alarm as anti-Treaty forces, who had taken up positions in a number of buildings in the city, including the former RIC station at Eglinton Street, were preparing for a fight. That morning Michael Brennan, IRA commander of the only major pro-Treaty unit in the west, under orders from Richard Mulcahy Free State Army commander, entered the city with a large well armed force. They immediately secured the county-jail, the courthouse, and the railway hotel. Having seen the end of the War of Independence, and having voted by a substantial majority just weeks before for parties supporting the Treaty with Britain, this was a tragic state of affairs. Galwegians feared an all out pitched battle, followed by the horrors of the previous years of struggle. This time, however, the enemy was not Britain, but former friends and comrades.
Earlier that same year, on January 7, the new Dáil Éireann narrowly approved the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which was to end the war between the two countries. It gave 26 counties of Ireland full control of its destiny, while the six counties of Ulster would remain under British control. The general election which followed on June 18 substantially ratified the Dáil’s narrow agreement.*
The Galway electorate, now a single constituency, was emphatic in its pro Treaty sentiments. Pro-Treaty Sinn Féin and Labour, combined, won 24,717, votes, or 67.7 per cent; while anti-Treaty Sinn Féin won 11,780 votes or 32.2 per cent. Furthermore Liam Mellows, the leader of the 1916 Rising in Galway, and one of the most elegant voices against the Treaty, failed to be elected. It was regarded as ‘the most severe blow for republicans’ in the entire campaign.**
Following the Dáil vote in Dublin a garrison opposed to the Treaty occupied the Four Courts. After months of negotiation, Michael Collins lost patience, and ordered artillery to fire on the historic building, and to flush out the occupants. That was the start of the Civil War which followed a similar pattern to the 1919-1921 conflict: With guerrilla warfare dominant in concentrated areas of the country. The arrival of Michael Brennan and his well armed force looked as if Galway was to become a battleground.
In the event, however, it turned out to be a scrappy affair. An tentative truce was agreed. The anti-treatyites evacuated the city at end of June, burning some buildings, including Renmore barracks, behind them. They attempted to attack parts of the city in the following days but were easily rebuffed. The anti-treatyites moved into Connemara where they had more support. It was a difficult time for everyone. Food supplies normally arrived by road and rail, but bridges were blown up and roads were blocked. People were exasperated and angry at the whole situation. The anti-treatyites continued on a trail of destruction. They attacked Clifden, but Government, or Free State, troops drove them out. They blew up parts of the Marconi station, thus depriving men of badly needed work. The station never re-opened.
The national Government was getting tough and intolerant of the anti-treatyites. I will show next week just how tough it got; but it was equally unimpressed by any kind of civil unrest. A nationwide post office strike was quickly dealt with it. It refused to entertain any demand from the workers, and arrested the strike leaders in Galway. This did not improve its standing west of Galway. But then a bizarre incident happened that is still hard to explain even today. The anti-treatyites burned one of two orphanages in Clifden, containing 32 Protestant children. The children fled to safety, and on Churchill’s orders, were picked up by a British warship, and brought to England. They were never to return.
The fact that there was a separate Protestant orphanage in Clifden was a left over from the so-called proselytising by the Society for the Irish Church Missions set up in the inner city of Dublin and in the more desolate parts of the country, noticeably in Connemara. The Anglican missionaries came during the Great Famine when hundreds of children were abandoned and left to wander begging for food and shelter. For many years the Catholic church was slow to recognise the extent of the problem. It had mainly concentrated its buildings and schools on the east of the large Galway/Tuam diocese. It had few schools and practically no services along Cois Fhearraige, and Connemara, despite its large population. It was fertile ground for the Society for Irish Church Missions which offered food, shelter, hope, and education to children and their families. The recipients were encouraged to become Anglicans. No one could blame a family confronted by the stark choice of starvation or changing their religion. Yet when the Catholic church realised that it was losing its flock, it reacted robustly. There are stories of priests physically attacking Anglican ministers, stoning them and their families, of forcibly taking children out of Protestant schools, and preaching against those who sought their help in spiteful terms. The term‘ Soupers’ was an emotive and socially wounding slur on families or individuals who changed their religion for food and security. It is an unfortunate, and at times shameful, episode in our story, that still causes embarrassment today. The Protestant orphanage at Clifden may have been a source of local resentment.
I am taking the following quotes from the House of Commons official record, Hansard, July 4 1922. During question time Winston Churchill, colonial secretary, was asked about the Clifden orphanage.
Mr Churchill: Information was received late on the evening of June 30 that one of two orphanages at Clifden, County Galway, had been destroyed by fire, and that the inmates had taken refuge in the other orphanage. A destroyer was ordered to proceed from Queenstown to Clifden with instructions to investigate the facts on the spot, and to remove such of the staff and inmates of the orphanages as might appear to be in serious peril (Churchill then read out two radio messages from the officer commanding the destroyer saying there was no immediate danger to the lives of the children. Train services were not available to evacuate the children by rail ).
Private messages received from Haulbowline this morning state that the destroyer eventually removed all the inmates (32 in number ) of the burnt orphanage, and that the party arrived safely at Haulbowline. The senior naval officer on that station had previously been instructed to arrange for a reception of the party, and for their subsequent transit to this country. Active arrangements are in train for their accommodation and maintenance on arrival.
Mr R McNeill: Do we understand aright that the reason assigned for this outrage was as a reprisal for the loyalty of the inmates? Does that mean anything except that the children of this orphanage were Protestants?
Mr Churchill: Of course, the extreme Republican element in Ireland are in a state of frenzy at present, and we must expect a certain number of frenzied acts to be committed by them until the process of their repression by the national forces of the Irish Free State is complete.
Next week: We will see how the ‘ repression’ of the anti-treatyites, or the Republicans, was achieved.
NOTES:* In the June 18 1922 election, the pro-Treaty Sinn Féin won 239,193 votes, while anti -Treaty Sinn Féin won 133,864. All other votes (247,226 ) out of a valid poll of 620,283, went to pro-Treaty parties, predominantly Labour, the Farmer’s Party and Independents. Seventy-eight.42 per cent of the electorate supported the treaty, while 21.58 per cent did not.
** I am leaning on an excellent new book Galway: Politics and society 1910 - 23, by Tomás Kenny, published by Four Courts Press on sale €9.95.