In 1923, twenty years had passed since St. Patrick’s Day had become an officially recognised public holiday. It was the second national saint’s day after Irish independence, but had a long shadow cast on it that year as the country was still in the grip of the Civil War. In 1923, it was still a ‘dry’ holiday, as no public houses were open. The ban on opening the pubs on March 17th, St. Patrick’s Day, was sanctioned by Dail Eireann. Ironically, James O’Mara, who was behind the day being made a national holiday, was the chief supporter of such measures. One TD was heard quipping that “the drowning of the shamrock” was “a direct insult to the saint.” Democratic Countess Markievicz made the point that hotels must abide by the law too, because poorer members of society, who usually drank in pubs, were penalized while the rich, who mainly frequented hotels, were allowed to purchase alcohol there. “I do not see why rich people should not be kept off their drink as well as poor people.”.
The reasoning behind it was religious in origin, as St. Patrick’s Day fell during Lent, a period of abstinence. Up until 1973, the only place that could legally sell alcohol was in the members’ lounge at the Royal Dublin Dog Show, which, not surprisingly, was packed to capacity!
Freeman’s Journal 16 March 1923
17 March 1923 – Weekly Freeman’s Journal – Dublin, Dublin, Republic of Ireland
On January 11 1923, Sligo Railway Station, one of the country’s finest at the time, was set alight by Republican forces. They managed to douse it in gasoline under the cover of darkness. It took no time for the inferno to take off. Both the ticket and parcel offices were completely destroyed, causing damage worth £80,000. It was one of many stations wrecked at the time. The railways were being destroyed at such a rapid rate that numerous newspapers at the time coined the phrase “War on the Railways.”
Because Sligo was a garrison town with a large number of army troops on duty, many questions were raised about its station’s destruction. The number of soldiers on duty was greatly exaggerated in the press, which suggested that a garrison of 500 men was present in the town the night of the attack. There were only 70. They were distributed at four locations around the town, one of which was guarding 100 prisoners as well as at least three strategic posts. The matter was brought before the Dail by Darrell Figgis, who questioned the Minister for Defense, Richard Mulcahy:
During the Civil War, Republican forces revived their campaign to burn down big houses. The campaign was facilitated by the absence of any forces of law and order in the countryside as a result of the withdrawal of the Crown forces in 1922 and the abolition of the RIC, but the elimination of signs of British rule in Ireland was the underlying motivation behind the destruction. The Republicans were also running dangerously low in arms so destruction of property was one of few acts of guerrilla warfare left at their disposal.
The big houses were burned down during the War of Independence as a way for the IRA to assert their authority. However, during the Civil War, many of the mansions abandoned by their owners for fear of attack were taken over by the anti-Treatyites and only destroyed when they were forced to leave when the National Army moved in on them.
Below were a few of many set alight in early 1923:
January 29 The Earl of Mayo’s Dublin residence is set alight by Republicans.
Sir Horace Plunkett’s Art Treasures are Destroyed
1 February: Moore Hall near Claremorris in County Mayo is burned down by Republicans.
As the National Army was the official army sanctioned by the Irish government, it was provided with superior weapons. They were also provided for by the state. The IRA was outlawed and relied on Cumann na mBan (including Emily) and the few remaining sympathetic members of the public to provide food and shelter for them. Many gave up and went home; the remainder took to the safer haven of the hills, where they were less likely to run into the well-armed National Army.
In September 1922, the government passed the Public Safety Bill, emergency legislation permitting the National Army the authority to issue punishment, which included the death penalty for anyone found with weapons on their person. Because of this, as well as a lack of weapons, the anti-Treatites (IRA) resorted to guerrilla tactics such as sabotage and destruction of public infrastructure such as roads and railways.
“Back to Blighty,” stated one headline in the Freeman’s Journal of December 23, 1922. The action that got under way on December 14 marked the beginning of the end of the British military forces’ evacuation of the Irish Free State.
“The first sign of the change from the old order to the new was the taking over of the sentry duty at the gate. Green-clad and khaki-clad the new sentry and the old stood side by side. a sharp word of command- “Sentries Pass” – and the first Irish soldier to mount gaurd at the headquarters stepped smartly to his post. Old sentry—dismiss.” and the British soldier marched away to join his waiting comrades, proud of the honour, no doubt. of being the last British soldier to pace the sentry’s beat at British headquarters.”