Bryony Harris considers how both sides of Ireland’s Civil War exploited the final phase of the Greater War in Asia Minor.

December 2021 marked the centenary of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, an agreement which ended the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921), established southern Ireland as dominion within Britain’s Commonwealth of Nations, and triggered a short but brutal civil war. In January 1923 the front line ran through Lausanne, inspiring wrangling on the sidelines of the final peace conference. This two-year ‘Lausanne episode’, which extended from the conference itself to Britain’s ratification of the resulting treaty in 1924, presented the new Saorstát Éireann (Irish Free State) with one of its first major foreign policy dilemmas. It also marked a fleeting (and seldom-cited) overlap between the Irish and Eastern Questions.

Ireland’s independence struggle should be understood in the context of the ‘greater war’ extending beyond the 1918 Armistice through to 1923. [1] Like other small nations, Ireland underwent turbulent change during these years, yet the Irish call for independence was distinct.

As the oldest pillar of the British empire, Ireland was a central component of the imperial nexus – as Chief of the Imperial Staff, Sir Henry Wilson declared in 1921 “if we lose Ireland we have lost the Empire.” [2] Wilson’s prognosis came at a time when Britain was nearing its imperial zenith but grappling with unrest across its vast global territory; the concurrent Irish War of Independence severely damaged Britain’s international standing.

Westminster’s solution to this guerilla conflict was the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Overnight, Ireland became a dominion, but unlike Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, Britain’s close neighbour entered the Commonwealth under Prime Minister Lloyd George’s threat of renewing ‘immediate and terrible war’. Dominion status entrenched Ireland’s nebulous “quasi-colonial relationship” [3] with Britain. In postcolonial studies, Ireland has been described as “both part of Europe and part of a denigrated colonial periphery”, as “both builder and challenger of the imperial project.” [4]

It was the Treaty’s controversial provision of an oath of allegiance which epitomised Ireland’s “both/and” paradox. Members of the Dáil (lower house) and Seanad (upper house) were required to swear allegiance to “H. M. King George V, his heirs and successors” in order to take their seats in the Oireachtas (Irish parliament). In response to the oath, pro- and anti-Treaty factions formed, and the civil war erupted.

Ireland’s Lausanne episode

  • Irish War of Independence 1919-1921

  • Anglo-Irish Treaty December 1921

  • Irish Civil War June 1922- May 1923

  • Saorstát established December 1922

  • Anti-Treatyites arrive in Lausanne January 1923

  • Lausanne ratification debates July 1924

Ireland’s ‘Lausanne episode’ — beginning with the 1922 conference and ending with the 1924 ratification — added an international dimension to its civil war

At the height of the war, and three months into the Lausanne conference, the pro-Treaty Saorstát was founded and promptly confronted with anti-Treatyite (or “Irregular”) activity in Lausanne. Anti-treatyites sent literature and lobbyists to Switzerland, including the Women Prisoners’ Defence League who distributed a pamphlet to the delegates that accused the Saorstát of breaching the Geneva Convention. One of the pamphlet’s signatories, Kathleen O’Brennan, was reported by Saorstát intelligence to be transmitting dispatches from anti-Treatyite leader Éamon de Valera to Georgii Chicherin at the Soviet delegation’s headquarters in Lausanne. De Valera had requested a ten-thousand-pound loan from Moscow to fund anti-Treatyite activity, namely a campaign of property destruction. His request was dismissed.

It was the Turkish delegation who afforded anti-Treatyites something of a publicity breakthrough. During the discussions of the sub-committee on minorities, Riza Nur responded to Lord Curzon’s calls for Turkey to concede an Armenian homeland by invoking Ireland as a “victim nation” (mazlum millet) – one of many peoples deserving of a homeland:

. . . even the Irish — how much blood have they spilt for how long for their homeland and independence?!

Rıza Nur

Rıza Nur proposed what all delegations knew to be impossible: “You give them their independence, their homeland, we’ll give the Armenians theirs immediately.” For their part, the Armenians also cited Ireland. To them dominion status seemed a viable alternative to complete secession, and some sought to make Armenia the “Ireland of Turkey”. [5] Through the oppositional Armenian and Turkish citations at Lausanne, Ireland’s ‘both/and’ status is neatly captured; it was both mazlum milletler of the British empire and separatist exemplar.


After ten months of bloodshed, the Saorstát emerged victorious. Anti-Treatyites continued to attack the state via the republican press, however. In 1924, the “both/and” debate was reignited when Britain instructed the Saorstát to ratify the Lausanne treaty. It transpired that the Lausanne Straits Convention endangered the Saorstát’s very Constitution. Article 49 of the latter decreed that Ireland could only go to war with the consent of the Oireachtas, yet the Anglo-Irish Treaty stipulated that the Saorstát “shall afford to his Majesty’s Imperial Forces… In time of war or of strained relations with a Foreign Power such harbour and other facilities as the British Government may require.” [6] Members of the Oireachtas feared that if Britain committed itself to warlike action over the Straits, the Saorstát would be “dragged at the tail of the British Empire.” [7]

This dread was compounded by the fact that the Treaty of Sèvres had not been ratified, meaning that a “technical state of war” with Turkey still existed, a decade after Asquith had declared war on the Ottoman empire on behalf of the entire British empire. The Oireachtas accordingly agreed that ratifying the Lausanne Treaty was necessary to establish peace (“beyond all reasonable doubt”) between the young Saorstát Éireann and the Turkish Republic. However, there was a great deal of doubt surrounding the repercussions of ratification. As one senator cautioned: “we might meet with a very serious rebuff by the Turkish Republic telling us that they did not know anything about us . . . we might, in a casual way here this evening, be really upsetting something quite serious.” [8]

The anti-Treatyite press delighted in the fluster of the Oireachtas; they had been decrying the legitimacy of the Saorstát Constitution since its adoption in 1922, and were especially critical of Article 49. Subsequently, the Lausanne Straits Convention was the perfect ammunition to counteract pro-Treatyite “both/and” logic after the civil war. In one series entitled “The Tricolour and the Crescent”, the republican periodical Éire, the Irish Nation declared:

You cannot have your cake and eat it. You cannot be in the Empire and out of it. If you choose to remain within its ambit then you must not grumble if the consequences involve a renewal of the shambles of Gallipoli.

“The Tricolour and the Crescent” 
Éire The Irish Nation, April 26th, 1924 [10]

Newspaper clippings from anti-Treatyite publications in 1924.
Source: Irish News Archive.

But the Saorstát’s Executive Council (EC) had been busy behind the scenes. Gerard Keown, Irish diplomat and historian, has surmised that the EC was engaged in secret negotiations with Westminster. Indeed, official correspondence reveals how the most senior pro-Treatyites looked to Lausanne for movement on Saorstát passports, and as a contemporary precedent for border and minority disputes. They had, in fact, been capitalising on the Lausanne episode all along, to place constitutional pressure on the Anglo-Irish Treaty.

Ireland’s treaty split is rarely internationalised, but predominantly considered in terms of “the madness within”. Bill Kissane’s 2007 article on the international dimension of the civil war contested this narrative by arguing for an appreciation of the “madness without”. Kissane’s understanding of “without” extended only as far as Europe, however. Ireland’s war can be surveyed within a more global context which also considers the culmination of the Eastern Question. Both sides of the treaty split leveraged the Lausanne episode to challenge the Anglo-Irish Treaty, demonstrating the dynamic relationship between Ireland’s peripheral experience and events in the Near East.

TITLE IMAGE: Saorstát Eireann, Irish Free State Official Handbook. Source: The Board of Trinity College Dublin.


[1] John Horne “Ireland at the crossroad: 1920-21. Nation, Empire, Partition” (Keynote address, second seminar of Machnamh 100, second seminar, Empire: Instincts, Interests, Power and Resistance, Áras an Uachtaráin, February 25, 2021).

[2] Karine Bigand, “Ireland and the End of Empire” in British Decolonisation, ed. Richard Davis (Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publisher, 2013), 9. ProQuest Ebook Central.

[3] Joep Leerssen, “Irish Studies and Orientalism: Ireland and the Orient,” in Oriental Prospects: Western Literature and the Lure of the East, eds. C. C. Barfoot and Theo d’Haen (Atlanta: Rodophi, 1998), 161-62, Google Books.

[4] Leerssen, “Irish Studies and Orientalism,” 173, quoted in Joseph Lennon, “Irish Orientalism: An Overview,” in Ireland and Postcolonial Theory, eds. Clare Carroll and Patricia King (Cork: Cork University Press, 2003), 147. Karine Bigand, 11.

[5] Lerna Ekmekçioğlu, “Re-Mix? Debates over Armenian Autonomy in Lausanne” (working paper presented at The Forgotten Peace? workshop, online meeting, June 25, 2021), 2.

[6] “Final text of the Articles of Agreement for a Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland as signed,” London, December 6, 1921, in DIFP, No. 214 DE 2/304/1.

[7] Mr. Maclysaght, Seanad Éireann debate on the Treaty of Lausanne, Thursday, 3 Jul 1924, vol.3, no.11, Tithe an Oireachtais Houses of the Oireachtas.

[8] Andrew Jameson, S deb. vol. 3 no. 11, 3 Jul, 1924.

Further reading

Boyce, David George. “Chapter 4 – Pillars of Empire: Ireland and India, 1914-1949.” In Decolonisation and the British Empire, 1775-1997, ed. David George Boyce, 70-107. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan Press, 1999.

Keown, Gerard. First of the Small Nations: The Beginnings of Irish Foreign Policy in the Inter-War Years, 1919-1932. First ed. Oxford Historical Monographs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Walsh, Pat. Britain’s great war on Turkey: an Irish perspective, 1914-1924. Belfast: Athol Books, 2009.

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