The Free State as it really was

Freedom to achieve freedom: The Irish Free State 1922-1932 by Donal P. Corcoran (Gill & Macmillan, €39.99/£35.00)

J. Anthony Gaughan

This is a valuable account of those who administered the Irish Free State from 1922 to 1932.  When one considers the challenges they faced their achievements were remarkable.

The Anglo-Irish Treaty was rejected by a substantial minority and many of these took up arms against the State.  The new government had to raise a large army, establish a civil service to transfer power from the British, deliver public services and restore financial stability.  Law and order had to be established and this required a system of justice and a police-force. There was a shortage of money, unemployment was high and the economic outlook poor, owing to the post-World War I economic depression. 

State’s instability

Initially it was particularly difficult to borrow money due to the State’s instability and fears that it might not be able to repay. Then, even after the Civil War, the Cumann na nGaedheal governments were confronted by a series of crises: the army mutiny (1924), the Boundary Commission Report (1925), the murder of Kevin O’Higgins (1927) and the Wall Street crash (1929).

Notwithstanding these challenges, and not least the great swathe of the country’s infrastructure which had been destroyed by the Anti-Treatyites, the Irish Free State was safely steered through its early tumultuous years. 


By 1932 the first two administrations had defeated those who attempted to destroy the State, they overcame an acute scarcity of money and enacted a Constitution. They established a civil service, army, police-force, courts service and diplomatic corps, passed legislation to purchase the remaining agricultural land from the landlords, commenced exploitation of national resources, extended the use of Irish in the schools and increased the State’s sovereignty by participation in the internal re-structuring of the British Empire into the British Commonwealth. 

Civilian control

To ensure a workable democratic State, the military after the army mutiny was significantly reduced in size, depoliticised and brought under civilian control. Apart from recording these successes, Corcoran also acknowledges lack of progress in some areas, notably in education and social reform.

The author is a retired accountant and his expertise is evident in his treatment of the various aspects of the early fiscal development of the Irish Free State. He describes how the Department of Finance supervised the transfer of power from the British and was also given the task of setting up a professional civil service. Ministers were mainly concerned with the security and stability of the State and delegated the day to day running of government to their senior civil servants. 

Apart from holding the purse strings, it was customary for the senior civil servants in Finance to communicate directly with their counterparts in other departments, bypassing their ministers. This meant that throughout this period they had a highly significant influence on the government’s policies and their implementation.

Social cohesion

Corcoran provides pen pictures of the chief ministers, including William T. Cosgrave and Kevin O’Higgins. After the deaths of Griffith and Collins, Cosgrave became a key-figure in Cumann na nGaedheal. A pious Catholic, he was an icon of integrity. He and his colleagues appreciated the social cohesion which the Church brought to society. Thus they established a close relationship with it as they regarded it as crucial in ensuring the eventual survival of the State. Kevin O’Higgins was courageous and dynamic and a ‘strong’ minister when one was sorely needed.

Different circumstances and different times prompt different attitudes. The author’s attitude to the Catholic Church is the reverse to that of Cosgrave and his colleagues. He exhibits little effort to place in context or understand either the intentions or actions of the Catholic Church. Apart from this nod in the direction of the fashion of the day Donal P. Corcoran here provides a splendid history of the Irish Free State from 1922 to 1932.