Birth of a New State

The Privy Council Chamber occupied the three windows over the archway of the East Cross-Block. This image shows it before its reconstruction in the 1950s (Reproduced courtesy of the Office of Public Works).

Dermot Carmody

On January 16th 1922 there was a brief and informal ceremony
in Dublin Castle in which the castle was handed over (or surrendered, depending on what angle you look at it from) to the Provisional Government of Ireland established under the freshly signed Treaty. This event, an important landmark in the creation of an independent Irish state, was commemorated in January on its 100th anniversary by a ceremony in the castle, and by a conference hosted by TCD on “The Handover of Dublin Castle.” By 1922 Dublin Castle had been the seat of English and then British power in Ireland since King John ordered the construction of the mediaeval castle in 1204. In the 17th century it was transformed from a Norman stronghold to a Georgian palace, with only the Records Tower remaining from the original castle. In 1922 Irish memories were raw of the Castle as the centre of British intelligence throughout the War of Independence. It had been the site of such dreadful events as the imprisoning, torture and killing of three members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) on Bloody Sunday in 1920. In the light of all this, the transfer of the Castle from British hands to the Irish Provisional Government, set up under the very recently signed Treaty, was of huge symbolic importance. It seemed to mark the end of years of fighting and dying, and the beginnings of a new independent Irish state. A point that emerged more than once in the discussion of the handover of Dublin Castle at the TCD conference was the importance of trying to see the event through the eyes of various groups at the time. From a contemporary perspective it is hard to look at the events of those days outside the knowledge that civil war in Ireland was just around the corner. Thus for the crowds who spontaneously gathered outside the gates of Dublin Castle, the moment must have represented at once an end to the violence and disruption that had dominated Ireland in the years following the 1916 rising and especially during the War of Independence, and the possibility and hope that this was the dawn of a new independent Ireland. Of course, the politics behind the event were far from straightforward. The Dáil had ratified the Anglo-Irish Treaty only a week before in Earlsfort Terrace by a margin of only 64 votes to 57, with the outcome unclear until the last minute. Had just four TDs voted differently the Treaty would have been rejected (there were three abstentions), with the real prospect of war resuming. In the event DeValera’s leading his followers out of the Dáil in protest foreshadowed the coming Civil War. But those events were yet to unfold and many in Ireland at the time must have shared the hope embodied by the symbolic handover of power expressed in the editorial of the Cork Examiner, which proclaimed on January 17th 1922 that “The day is breaking in Ireland for which the country has long and patiently waited through tribulation and suffering, and if the people of this country were as emotional as some of their critics believe them to be, the entry of the Provisional Government into Dublin Castle yesterday, and the formal taking over its Departments, should arouse them to exceptional enthusiasm.” The phrase “the formal taking over of its Departments” is significant here because it refers to an Irish government taking control of the apparatus of the management of state represented by the various civil service departments housed in Dublin Castle. Such a transition was not unique to Ireland at the time, as Dr Martin Maguire of the Geary Institute of UCD pointed out at the TCD conference. The birth of new states was happening with the post war dismantling of empire throughout Europe. In Ireland, as in countries formerly part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, or in the setting up of the Soviet Union, it was generally assumed that the civil service in Ireland would have continuity with the civil service from English rule. This was in part an expression of the view held explicitly since the 1850s in England that the civil service was apart from politics. Of course in Ireland this had not been the case. The civil service in Dublin Castle was dominated by landed Protestant gentry. As the previously quoted Cork Examiner editorial put it “The Castle backstairs has been regarded as the ladder on which snobs and anti-Irish Irishmen rose to titles and preferment.” As such it “typified the rule of force which held Ireland in subjection.” But as Dr Maguire pointed out at the TCD conference, both Griffith and Collins wanted to get rid of the existing civil service in the Castle and replace it with “Gaelic” civil servants. The departments at the Castle were only intended by the Provisional Government to continue during transition until the adoption of the constitution, after which it would be superseded by a Dáil Eireann administrative system.
In May of 1922 Collins began a process of reform of the civil service by calling on the heads of departments to propose reforms, but the Civil War interrupted that process. Eventually, making use of the power granted to the Irish political administration to hire and fire civil servants, the 6000 strong group of Castle civil servants were granted job security in return for agreeing to serve whoever was elected to political power in Ireland. 900 were fired and 1200 resigned or retired, but that still left a sizable representation of the old Castle service continuing in the civil service of the Free State.
The TCD conference highlighted in this regard and others just how much things were in flux on the day Dublin Castle was handed over to the Provisional Government. Dr Laura Cahillane (UL) in a paper on the legal complexities of the handover pointed out that the drafting of the constitution of the state, on which legal authority should rest, had not even begun at the time of the handover. The Irish state did have some legal powers ahead of the adoption of a constitution, but not in significant areas such as military and customs and excise. However, the state did act in assuming control of the civil service, and despite the vacuum and confusion in the transition of power, there was huge symbolic power in the handover of the Castle.
Ultimately, while the handing over of Dublin Castle was an event of great symbolic importance in the birth of the state, an examination of the uncertainty and division at the time, and the descent into civil war that followed, shows it to be a complicated and unstraightforward moment. It was not, as Taoiseach Micheál Martin said in his address to the TCD conference, truly analogous to the fall of the Bastille in the French revolution and “it does not have that symbolic place in our history.” The Taoiseach pointed out that the year 1922 “could have been one of
celebration, but was ultimately one of regret and loss.” Here he was referring of course to the subsequent Civil War, but also to lost opportunities. For example he asserted that 1922 marked a long period of rowing back on the 1916 Proclamation’s “promise of extending the franchise and political rights to women.” The Treaty debates saw women TDs dismissed as ‘hysterical’ and January 10th 1922 was the last day for 57 years that a woman sat in an Irish government.
The marking of the centenary of the handing over of Dublin Castle, as with the further centenary commemorations ahead of us, shows not only the importance of properly remembering the past with respect to the experiences of all those who took part in these events, but also the importance of interpreting what these events mean to us today. For the state to have succeeded to the extent that it has in a century since its birth is an achievement. But it was not perfect at the time of its formation and it could not be said to be perfect now. Not many in the Free State at the time expected the fledgling Northern Ireland state to persist as it does today, for example. The tension between the ideas of an Irish nation and the reality of two separate Irish states is by no means confined to history, and if there is to be a border poll in the near or medium future, it will be very interesting to see the perspectives of the people of a hundred-year-old 26 county state when the possibility of a 32 county republic is dragged from the realm of aspiration back to the realm of choice.