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The War of Independence
This lecture will focus on events in Ireland between the aftermath of the Easter Rising in 1916 and the 1921 truce which brought an end to the conflict between Irish republicans and the British authorities and paved the way for the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Despite much research, many questions and many aspects of this period continued to be debated. Did the violence of 1919-1921 constitute a War of Independence between Irish and British forces, or did it incorporate broader elements of civil conflict? Did it also constitute a revolution?
The second part of this lecture will assess the role played by Sinn Féin and Dáil Éireann (the parliamentary assembly formed by republicans after the general election of December 1918) in deploying propaganda, mobilising domestic political support, and using international diplomacy to pursue independence. The final section of this lecture will examine the role of IRA violence in the campaign for Irish independence, and the response of the British authorities to the political and military challenge of republicanism.
II. Distinctiveness of Sinn FéinBACK TO TOP
It might be useful to begin by considering just how different a political tradition Sinn Féin represented to the Irish Parliamentary Party (which it defeated in the 1918 general election). How distinctive a political tradition was Irish republicanism compared to the constitutional nationalism which had dominated Irish nationalist politics for the preceding three decades?
The Sinn Féin party which emerged between the Easter Rising and the general election of 1918 was a very different organisation to the Sinn Féin party which Arthur Griffith had led without much success since 1905.
It was the result of the fusion of four distinctive strands of political thought. On the one hand, Arthur Griffith’s original Sinn Féin project was committed to achieving a dual monarchy (between Ireland and the United Kingdom) through a policy of democratic agitation and passive resistance.
After the Easter Rising, however, Griffith’s Sinn Féin was dominated by an influx of separatists who looked to the Easter Rising for their inspiration and were committed to the goal of establishing a republic, if necessary, through the use of violence.
Sinn Féin was also influenced by the cultural nationalism embodied by organisations such as the Gaelic League and the Gaelic Athletic Association. Cultural nationalism stressed the importance not only of political independence but of cultural independence, as demonstrated by speaking the Gaelic language or playing Gaelic games.
Finally, Sinn Féin incorporated a fourth strand which would exercise a substantial if more subtle influence. Many of those who turned to Sinn Féin in 1917 and 1918 were former supporters of the Irish Parliamentary Party. This ensured that the constitutional nationalist tradition would continue to influence the politics of Sinn Féin, and that there were some similarities between the new republican party and the old constitutional party.
Both parties sought to represent the entire spectrum of Irish nationalism. Both contained antagonistic factions which could be expected to disagree once their objective had been achieved. Both parties confined their social and economic policies to vague generalities about the national interest which specific interest groups could not take exception to. Sinn Féin, like the Irish Party before it, sought to win the support not only of the peasant, worker and small farmer, but also that of the businessman, industrialist, strong farmer and Catholic priest.
III. After the Easter RisingBACK TO TOP
Let us begin by considering the aftermath of the Easter Rising. Although the Easter Rising would prove central to the collapse of constitutional nationalism, this was not yet apparent in 1916. The Rising had been a military failure and, in the short term, resulted in the suppression of Irish separatist organisations.
The political legacy of the Rising remained vague. Aside from the idealistic rhetoric of the proclamation, the political programme of the Easter rebels was not clear. Pearse, Connolly and Clarke had represented different political visions.
It was easier, however, to ascertain what the Rising stood against: Britain, obviously, but also Redmond’s Irish Party and Home Rule. The historian David Fitzpatrick has described the separatist movement in this period as more of a mood than a party: it reflected the growing public sentiment against Home Rule which, as yet, had no political party to which it could rally.
No political party was in a position to claim the legacy of the Easter Rising. The Irish Volunteers, the IRB and the Irish Citizen Armies were not political parties. The surviving leaders of the Irish Volunteers, such as Eamon de Valera and Michael Collins, were little known public figures. Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Féin had not participated in or supported the Rising. Given this political context, we must not assume there was anything inevitable about the rise of Sinn Féin after the Easter Rising.
Not for the first or last time in Ireland, a key factor in radicalising the political atmosphere was British policy. Following the Easter Rising, the discredited Irish executive was replaced by a military governorship under Major-General Sir John Maxwell with full authority to quell the Rising and punish the rebels. It was the first time since the seventeenth century that part of the British Isles had been placed under martial law, a decision which reflected the fact that Britain was involved in a desperate struggle in Europe.
Military rule led to a sharp shift in British policy. The agenda of Dublin Castle under the affable but indolent Augustine Birrell, Chief Secretary for Ireland, had been to govern the country in as conciliatory a manner as possible until Home Rule could be implemented. Rule from Dublin Castle was replaced by the military agenda of Maxwell which required the prompt crushing of the rebellion and coercion of any sympathisers. The army was not obliged to consider longer-term factors, and both the army command and British cabinet ignored Birrell’s warnings about the counter-productive consequences of coercion.
The execution of the rebel leaders created bitterness among nationalists, many of whom had been unsympathetic to the actions of the rebels. In reality, the British response was hardly disproportionate to the scale of provocation. By their secret contacts with Germany, and the reference in the Proclamation to ‘gallant allies in Europe’, the rebel leaders had allied themselves to Britain’s enemy in a time of war. The other European combatants would surely have responded with similar, or greater, ruthlessness. The response of British public opinion, outraged by Ireland’s ‘stab in the back’, left the British government with little choice. Moreover, some rebel leaders had not only expected their own execution but had pinned their hopes for posterity on it.
The question of whether the British response was proportionate is less important than the fact that most Irish nationalists regarded the response as an outrageous act of malice. The Bishop of Limerick, for example, denounced it as ‘wantonly cruel and oppressive’. In Westminster, John Dillon declared that no rebellion had ever been ‘put down with so much blood and so much savagery as the recent insurrection in Ireland’.
The other important point about British coercion was its incompetence. Almost three and a half thousand nationalists were arrested in the aftermath of the rebellion. Many of these had no sympathy for separatism before their arrest (and around half were released within a week). Over eighteen hundred men were interned without trial in Britain.
The leaders of the Irish Party, who had no reason to sympathise with the separatists, denounced these arrests as inept, misdirected and counter-productive. Within a short period of the executions and arrests, a rising trend of veneration of the martyred and imprisoned rebels was evident.
During the aftermath of the Easter Rising, revelations about British atrocities – such as the murder of unarmed residents in North King Street and the murder of the pacifist Francis Sheehy Skeffington by a deranged British army officer – received much publicity.
The political options of the British government and the Irish Party became more limited. The attempts by Herbert Asquith’s government to reach agreement between Irish unionists and the Irish Party on the immediate imposition of Home Rule failed (due mainly to the intransigence of southern Unionists who threatened to bring down the British cabinet). After the failure of these talks, the political initiative shifted to the separatists.
IV. The rise of Sinn FéinBACK TO TOP
That Sinn Féin came to be identified with the legacy of the Easter Rising was in some ways surprising. By 1916, it existed as little more than a tiny Dublin-based organisation which offered a platform for Arthur Griffith’s anti-British journalism. Moreover, Griffith’s political vision of a dual monarchy found little favour among separatists.
Sinn Féin’s identification with the Rising was largely accidental. By 1916, Dublin Castle, the Irish Party, Unionists, police and newspapers had become accustomed to referring to Sinn Féin as a term of convenience to describe the numerous tiny separatist organisations in existence. Inevitably, the rebellion was soon being described as the Sinn Féin Rising. Even republicans who were hostile to Griffith’s organisation sometimes referred to themselves as Sinn Féiners. Hence, as support for separatism surged in 1917, it was to Sinn Féin that many looked as the party to organise this new sense of militancy.
Central to this process was a series of by-elections throughout 1917 which demonstrated the decline of the Irish Party and brought separatists closer together. The first of these was won by Count Plunkett in North Roscommon in February 1917 on the basis of his identification with his son, Joseph Mary Plunkett, who had been executed for his role in the Rising. This campaign resulted in the establishment of the Mansion House Committee, an umbrella group aimed at unifying the many separatist organisations springing up at that time.
The Home Rule Party suffered a second, narrow, by-election defeat in May 1917 when Joseph McGuinness, an imprisoned rebel leader, won a seat in South Longford in May. The following July, Eamon de Valera – who was among the last, and most militant, group of separatists to be released from imprisonment that summer – defeated the Irish Party in East Clare.
The most important consequence of this series of by-elections was the intensification of a process of politicisation among Irish separatists who had previously identified only with the Irish Volunteers, a military rather than political organisation. Indeed, de Valera and many of the other prisoners in Lewes Jail had originally opposed the suggestion that Joe McGuinness stand for election in South Longford.
Partly this stemmed from a fear that failure to win the seat would damage the morale and prestige of separatism, but it was also due to the fact that many separatists – who saw themselves as soldiers rather than politicians – viewed electoral politics as a debased process. This elitist attitude reflected a distrust of an electorate which had consistently voted for Redmond and the Irish Party in the past, as well as a well-founded belief that only physical force could achieve an Irish Republic.
The unified Sinn Féin party which emerged after these by-elections encompassed divergent and arguably irreconcilable perspectives on the role of politics and violence in the pursuit of independence. While some would continue to believe that only violence could achieve independence, others (including de Valera who was careful to preserve the centrality of physical force in his rhetoric) came to prioritise political forms of struggle.
One final problem remained for Sinn Féin. What was to be the party’s new programme? This was decided at a convention in October 1917 when Arthur Griffith stepped down as president of Sinn Féin in favour of de Valera who represented the more popular separatist strand of opinion rallying around the party.
However, many of Griffith’s policies remained. Most notably, his objective of national self-sufficiency to be achieved through a policy of economic protectionism remained in place. Griffith’s suggestion that elected representatives should abstain from Westminster in order to set up a national parliament in Ireland, legitimised by the mandate provided by the general election, was also retained. The divisive issue of physical force was neither advocated nor repudiated.
The main of contention concerned the objective of an Irish Republic. Griffith’s faction agreed to drop the unpopular idea of a dual monarchy but was reluctant to accept the goal of a Republic on the grounds that it could not be achieved without defeating Britain, an unlikely proposition. Griffith believed that the unrealistic demand for a Republic would restrict the party’s ability to negotiate a satisfactory settlement with Britain.
These were far-sighted objections on an issue which, when it later returned to centre stage, would lead to Civil War. However, Griffith was overruled by the unwillingness of the more popular separatist faction to compromise the Irish Republic. The legacy of 1916 was critical, as it was argued that Patrick Pearse had died not merely to achieve a Republic but that he had actually established it. This powerful emotional argument won the day: Sinn Féin committed itself to achieving a sovereign Republic.
V. Dáil Éireann and the escalation of conflictBACK TO TOP
The general election of December 1918 represented a humiliating defeat for the once powerful Irish Party which won only six seats (down from a previous total of sixty nine at the dissolution of parliament) compared to Sinn Féin’s seventy-three seats. Irish Unionists won twenty six seats. The election constituted a clear democratic endorsement of Sinn Féin.
The tide of events had been drifting in Sinn Féin’s favour for some time but if one issue should be singled out to explain the scale of its triumph, it was Britain’s attempt to introduce conscription in the spring of 1918. Sinn Féin’s leadership of the anti-conscription campaign turned the party into a mass movement, and strengthened hostility towards the Irish Party which was unavoidably identified with the war effort despite its opposition to conscription.
The general election of 1918 provided Sinn Féin with a mandate to implement its election programme by refusing to sit at Westminster, declaring its intention to resist British rule ‘by any and every means’, and organising an appeal to the Peace Conference to win international support for Irish independence. Sinn Féin’s MPs established an Irish parliament (Dáil Éireann) in Dublin’s Mansion House on 21 January 1919 and declared Irish independence.
The leading figure in the Dáil was Eamon de Valera. He was voted President of the Dáil in April 1919, a position which was subsequently transformed into that of President of the Irish Republic when de Valera was canvassing political support in the United States. The other key leadership figure was Michael Collins who held a three-fold power base as Minister of Finance within the Dáil government, director of intelligence (and de facto leader) of the Irish Volunteers, and president of the IRB which Collins reorganised as a powerful revolutionary elite.
Despite its claim to constitute a sovereign Irish parliament, the role of Dáil Éireann was largely symbolic. Its principal purpose was to assert the existence of a democratically-elected Irish Republic. For this reason, it was primarily concerned with propaganda rather than administration. Through the Dáil’s Department of Foreign Affairs, republicans proved highly successful in promoting the separatist case.
The Dáil’s propaganda efforts were initially geared towards asserting Ireland’s right to self-determination at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 which was redrawing international borders. Irish republicans sought to capitalise on the rhetoric underlying Anglo-American involvement in a war supposedly fought on behalf of self-determination for small nations. This was an unpromising strategy given the unlikelihood of the victors redrawing Europe’s boundaries against its own interests to reward a movement which had identified itself with their enemy.
As the first peace treaties were signed in the summer of 1919, Sinn Féin conceded defeat on the diplomatic front. However, by attracting international attention and publicising the conflict in Ireland, Sinn Féin’s diplomats had set a promising precedent which would be followed by de Valera’s extensive publicity campaign in the United States.
The manipulation of public opinion would become the most successful aspect of the Dáil’s activities. Propaganda was critical to the outcome of the War of Independence due to the importance which both sides in the conflict attached to public opinion in Ireland, Britain and throughout the international community. The republican movement’s weapons would include not only ambushes and assassinations but hunger strikes, civil disobedience and the demonstration of its authority through its establishment of local government, policing and courts.
Why did both sides attach so much importance to propaganda? One reason was that Britain was unlikely to be defeated by Irish separatists in any conventional military sense. Pressure on Britain to disengage from Ireland was more effectively exerted by convincing British and international public and political opinion that the use of force against a popular national movement was morally wrong. The War of Independence occurred during a period when the age of empire was giving way to the age of nationalism, and the Irish model of combining political pressure and armed insurrection would influence many of the anti-colonial struggles of the next decades.
By drawing attention to the atrocities of the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries (the newly created forces brought in to stiffen the Royal Irish Constabulary), and to the fact that their reprisals were sanctioned by the British government, republicans called into question the legitimacy of Britain’s actions. The importance of propaganda was highlighted by de Valera’s decision to spend most of the War of Independence in the United States.
The Dáil also played an important – if largely propagandistic role – by asserting that the Irish Republic was not merely an aspiration but an actual functioning entity. The Dáil established arbitration courts which most nationalists chose to use with the result that the British courts fell into disuse. Similarly, county councils and other local bodies transferred their allegiance from the British administration to the Dáil. Such actions permitted republican propagandists to depict the war as a conflict between a foreign invading power and a legitimate national government. The success of republican propaganda increased pressure on Britain to negotiate a settlement.
In reality, the purpose of the Irish Volunteers – or the Irish Republican Army as they increasingly became known as – was not so much to defeat the British army as to force Britain to negotiate a settlement based on the republican claim to independence. However, the fact that many IRA volunteers were unaware of the limitations of what could be achieved through physical force and political pressure would become a problem after the truce of 1921.
In 1919, as the republican campaign against British rule escalated from the sporadic assassination of policemen to more widespread guerrilla warfare, the political wing of the republican movement was eclipsed by its military wing. In many areas, Sinn Féin suspended its activities.
Arguably, the ultimate logic of Sinn Féin’s policy of abstentionism was conflict with British forces. The more successful the administrative structures established by Dáil Éireann, the more inevitable it became that Britain would suppress them.
No specific strategy had been devised to guide the republican movement towards independence. Many within the political wing of the movement were reluctant to take the military offensive, preferring to cast the British government in the role of the aggressor.
As in 1916, the efforts of a minority of militant republicans pushed the broader movement towards confrontation. The event often seen as the beginning of the War of Independence, the killing of two policemen in County Tipperary on 21 January (the same day as the Dáil’s first meeting) was criticised by some republican deputies. The attack, which had not been authorised by Sinn Féin or the IRA leadership, was a local initiative by restless Volunteers.
These tensions between advocates of politics and militarism were of little importance during the war – when republicans were united against the common enemy – but would become important after the cease-fire of 1921 when power shifted back towards the political side of the movement.
VI. The conflict, 1919-1921BACK TO TOP
That a degree of confusion or disagreement as to the nature of the conflict of 1919-1921 exists is evident from the different terms used to describe it. In some parts of rural Ireland, the conflict is still referred to as the ‘Troubles’, the ‘Terror’ or the ‘Tan War’ (the latter term derived from the colour of the uniform worn by the demobilised Great War soldiers recruited by the British authorities).
Historians sometimes refer to the conflict as ‘the Irish Revolution’ but this is also a disputed term. The war may have constituted a political revolution (the transfer of sovereignty from one state to another through the use of violence) but there was little evidence of a social revolution. Post-independence Ireland was characterised more by a change of management, as a new elite took over the pre-war structures of Irish society, than a revolutionary transformation of society.
Most historians refer to the War of Independence or the Anglo-Irish war but even these terms define the conflict in potentially misleading terms. Many of the combatants on both sides were Irish. The term also obscures the sectarian nature of the conflict in Ulster and other parts of Ireland.
The complexities of revolutionary violence are analysed in Peter Hart’s important study The IRA & Its Enemies: Violence and Community in Cork 1916-1923. Hart argues that the conflict was more multi-faceted than has generally been recognised. Revolutionary violence resulted not only from conflict between Crown forces and republicans but from conflict between the two main political and religious traditions in Ireland. Moreover, in both northern and southern Ireland, much revolutionary violence was directed by nationalists and unionists at minorities within their own traditions in an effort to uproot, expel or suppress the enemy within.
Unionist violence in Northern Ireland, for example, was directed not only at nationalists and Catholic but also at ‘disloyal’ socialists and ‘bad’ Protestants who were expelled in large numbers from Belfast’s shipyards. IRA targets in County Cork included not only Crown forces but southern Protestants, ex-servicemen, Redmondites, tramps and other social ‘deviants’.
Hart cites the high proportion of non-combatants as a percentage of total victims to illustrate his argument. Between 1917 and 1919, 40% of those killed were non-combatants. In 1920 the figure was 48%; in 1921 64%; and during the first six months of 1922, when an uneasy truce remained in place, 82%.
This thesis is a controversial and challenging one which has produced much debate. Hart argues for a shift from conceiving revolutionary violence in terms of the ‘the Tan war’ – with all its moral certainties – to that of an inter- and intra-ethnic conflict with sectarianism and other tensions coexisting alongside national liberation as a central dynamic. Recent research of IRA violence in Monaghan presents a similar picture, but local studies in areas such as Sligo and Longford have found that sectarianism was not a significant feature of IRA violence. Meda Ryan’s recent account of the fighting in Cork, Tom Barry, challenges Hart’s findings about violence in that county.
Who joined the IRA? Young men from the small towns and villages of rural Ireland formed the core of the IRA. Older men tended to join Sinn Féin. Although many IRA activists joined Sinn Féin, some looked down upon it as a wing of the republican movement which demanded less commitment and risk. In his study of the IRA, Hart observes that in many towns the movement originated as an extension of pre-existing youth sub-cultures, with units evolving from groups of boys in the same neighbourhood or GAA team.
The class background of Volunteers is less easily defined. British army and police reports often described IRA men as ‘corner-boys’ or ‘young men of no means’. Supporters of Redmond’s Irish Party also tended to regard republicans as social upstarts. In contrast, as Hart’s research has shown, IRA men tended to describe themselves as ‘plain men’ and ‘ordinary fellas’, while claiming that the ‘roughs’, ‘bad characters’ and ‘lanies’ gave little support to republicanism.
Of these contrasting perceptions, the self-image of the IRA was the more accurate. IRA men came from a diverse range of backgrounds but the lower middle-class were over-represented in terms of social composition. In contrast, both the wealthiest and poorest extremes of society were under-represented within the IRA’s ranks.
Approximately twelve hundred people died during the War of Independence. Although the conflict began in 1919 it was not until the last twelve months – from mid 1920 to mid-1921 – that violence sharply escalated. This is illustrated by the casualty rates of both Crown forces and the IRA. In 1919, only sixteen policemen and soldiers were killed. During the fist six months of 1920, forty-four members of the Crown forces were killed. In the second half of 1920, this figure rose to 171, and during the last six months, there was a sharp rise to 324. The pattern of republican casualties was broadly similar: 32 during the first half of 1920, 228 in the second half of that year, and 182 in the first half of 1921.
These escalating levels of violence were a result of both sides responding to events rather than centrally imposed strategies. Until late 1919, murder remained relatively rare. Most Volunteers confined themselves to boycotting the RIC (a highly effective strategy), occasional assaults and raiding local enemies for arms.
The IRA’s hunger for arms was an important dynamic in the escalation of conflict. Most IRA ambushes in the early part of this war were intended to secure arms rather than kill policemen. As late as November 1921, the total number of IRA rifles was estimated at only 3,000, around half of which were located in Munster.
The result of this first period of low-level violence and intimidation was to make small RIC outposts untenable and force the RIC to withdraw from vulnerable isolated rural areas into the security of larger barracks. From a republican point of view, this had the useful effect of physically isolating RIC from the communities they were supposed to police.
The second phase of IRA violence, beginning in early 1920, was characterised by attacks on barracks which required the co-ordination of dozens of Volunteers from different IRA companies. Following a number of IRA successes, the RIC was forced to evacuate four hundred barracks (which were promptly burned down by the IRA) and cede much of rural Ireland to republican control. The withdrawal of the RIC, coupled with its campaign of intimidation against British court officials, resulted in the collapse of British authority throughout much of Ireland.
Despite the efforts of the IRA’s Dublin-based GHQ, violence was distributed unevenly throughout the country. Levels of violence often depended on the ability and initiative of local IRA leaders. The IRA was most densely organised and most active in the south-west. Cork, Clare, Limerick and Kerry were at the forefront of the fighting. The west of Ireland, which had been to the fore in earlier periods of agitation, was surprisingly quiescent. With the exception of Dublin, there was little violence in Leinster.
To a large extent, the military capabilities of the IRA developed spontaneously in response to the intensification of the conflict. As British forces became more effective at hunting down IRA men, more committed republicans were forced to leave their jobs and homes for life ‘on the run’. Grouping together for security, they formed units of full-time combatants known as flying columns. Better-trained, more experienced, disciplined, and ever-prepared for conflict, flying columns presented a greater military threat than part-time IRA men and came to form the elite of IRA combatants.
Like many republican innovations, they were a local initiative which was subsequently sanctioned and encouraged by GHQ which, in reality, exercised little authority over local units.
In many areas the IRA was characterised by its localised nature and its resistance to central control. In Clare, for example, the IRA was divided into three brigade areas to accommodate the rivalry of three local families. The localised and independent nature of the IRA reinforced the internal tensions which emerged after the truce of 1921.
Although GHQ was not very successful in asserting its authority over local units, it did play an important military role in the area of intelligence.
Under the charismatic leadership of Michael Collins, the IRA penetrated the centre of British intelligence in Dublin Castle. This was crucial in prolonging the IRA’s ability to hold out as Britain’s superior intelligence had been central to the suppression of previous rebellions. Also important in this respect was the IRA’s willingness to ruthlessly execute those within its own ranks or the wider community who were suspected of informing.
Following a ruthless policy of assassination carried out by Michael Collins’ ‘squad’, the Dublin Metropolitan Police’s G Division (or political police) was largely paralysed by early 1920. British attempts to improve intelligence by importing experienced intelligence officers was countered by the simultaneous assassination of fourteen men in November 1920. The British authorities responded by opening fire on a crowd in Croke Park on the same day, killing twelve.
Events such as ‘Bloody Sunday’ highlighted the increasingly vicious nature of the conflict, heightening the desire for peace among both sides. A force of seventeen thousand IRA men (of which less than one-third were full-time combatants) could not hope to indefinitely hold out against a seventeen thousand-strong police force backed by fifty thousand troops and unlimited military resources. However, morale among the Crown forces was low and the international damage to British prestige resulting from the publicity given to Black and Tan atrocities such as the burning of Cork city centre was immense.
On 11 July 1921 a truce between both sides was agreed. It was a product of exhaustion, and did not signify a military victory for either side. By forcing the British government to meet the representatives of the republican movement in formal peace talks, the IRA had achieved a great deal. However, the decision of the republican leadership to negotiate inevitably meant that the demand for an Irish Republic would be compromised.
The end result of these negotiations was the Anglo-Irish Treaty, ratified by a narrow majority of the Dáil in January 1922, which ceded a significant degree of independence to a twenty-six county Irish Free State. However, by ensuring that Irish members of the Dáil were required to take an oath of fidelity to the British monarch, and that the Irish Free State would remain within the British Empire, the Anglo-Irish Treaty divided the republican movement and laid the foundations for the Civil War of 1922-1923.
See also: Was there an Irish War of Independence by Professor Liam Kennedy
Podcast on 'The War of Independence and the Civil War', by Dr Fearghal McGarry.
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