Irish History Live

Was there an Irish War of Independence?

Professor Liam Kennedy

 

I. Introduction
II. Local and regional
III. Sectarian conflict
IV. Social revolution
V. A ‘revolution in arms’
VI. In defence of the republic
VII. Anglo-Irish War
VIII. A war of secession and independence
IV. Civil War I: Orange vs. Green
X. Civil War II: Green vs. Green
XI. The ‘Troubles’

 

I. Introduction

There is a powerful public memory of political violence in Ireland during the years 1919-21. The opening shots of the guerilla campaign were fired at Soloheadbeg, not far from Tipperary town, on 21 January 1919. Two armed R.I.C. men, guarding a horse and cart carrying commercial explosives to a nearby quarry, were confronted by eight Irish volunteers lying in ambush. Popular and populist representations of the period that followed Soloheadbeg celebrated the re-awakened consciousness of the Irish people, the rise of a martial spirit in the nation, and, above all, young, lightly-armed volunteers throwing themselves into battle against the mighty forces of the Crown. This enemy used, according to An tOglach: the official organ of the Irish Volunteers, 1 March 1921, ‘every device of civilised and uncivilised warfare, every cruelty, every cowardly meanness that could be conceived by the most depraved minds’ to crush the Irish Volunteers. By contrast, the campaign of guerilla warfare by the I.R.A. was conducted with chivalry and restraint, characterised by set-piece engagements such as attacks on well-defended R.I.C. barracks, deadly battles as at Crossbarry and Kilmichael, and daring jail escapes.
Irish society underwent a series of violent upheavals between 1919 and 1921. Historians have varied in their use of labels to represent, and thereby capture the drama of the last days of the Union in southern Ireland, itself suggestive of the need to look more closely at the terms of argument and the social realities that lay beyond these attempted conceptualisations. Inevitably there are issues of power involved. Idealogues, politicians and civil servants have all sought to impose certain definitions of the Irish past with a view to promoting a particular ideology or legitimising a political position.

Contemporary protagonists created meaning out of their experiences by talking of the ‘struggle’, the ‘war for freedom’, the ‘Black and Tan war’, the ‘troubled times’, the ‘fight for freedom’, the ‘war with England’, and the ‘defence of the Republic’. What the episode was not called, by friend or foe, was the ‘Irish war of independence’.

Perhaps there is justification for applying the term to the events of over eighty years ago? After all, a people cannot be sure it has undergone a war of independence until hostilities have been terminated and the outcome is known. In the Irish case, as in other contexts, there is merit in looking critically at the grand concepts, their scope and origins, particularly where by common usage these have come to assume the status of empirical entities. How adequately do the conceptual categories encompass and express the complexities of the past? In the light of reflection, is there a need for new labels and new forms of representation?

The violence-torn decade of 1913-23 is the crucial chronological segment for exploration of the notion of a war of independence. The surges of killings, woundings and intimidation which broke out in Ireland during these years, and which connected in different and conflicting ways with the European conflagration of the Great War, can be framed in a number of different, partly overlapping ways. Moreover, the forms and motivations for conflict varied regionally on the island, indicating the complex, changing and contested character of terms like ‘Irish’, ‘Ireland’, ‘war’, ‘independence’ and indeed ‘freedom’. The discussion which follows contains a discussion, by no means complete, of various perspectives which have been brought to bear on the conflicts of 1919-1923.


II. Local and regionalBACK TO TOP

The Soloheadbeg ambush was due to local initiative taken by an informal fraternal brotherhood within the Tippperary Volunteers. It was disapproved of by other volunteers in the county, and roundly condemned by local priests, politicians and the nationalist Tipperary Star. While the Volunteers envisaged the violence spreading over the whole island, a striking feature of the struggle was how highly regionalised it was. The greatest concentration of activity was located in the southern counties of Cork, Tipperary, Kerry and Clare, and in the capital city of Dublin. Many counties, and not just those in Ulster, were relatively unaffected.

While acknowledging the regionally uneven character of the I.R.A.’s activity, and also the sometimes local and personal motives which dictated particular acts of violence, these can hardly be dismissed as isolated, local struggles devoid of national significance.. There was a broad base of support for Sinn Fein, as evidenced in the 1918 general election, in the local elections of 1920 and in the ‘partition’ elections of 1921. The objective of breaking the union of Britain and Ireland had gained greatly in popularity in the aftermath of the bloody occupation of central Dublin in April 1916 and the conscription crisis of 1918. While the relationship between Dail Eireann and the I.R.A. was at times ambiguous, the military campaign of the I.R.A. was coordinated centrally in devotion to the ‘Irish Republic’ proclaimed in April 1916.

In the eyes of Ulster unionist politicians and commentators, this was simply a campaign of murder carried out by gangs of assassins, pro-German sympathisers, and Sinn Fein thugs. Many Southern unionists may well have held similar opinions but as the fighting intensified in 1920, and as state terror sought to outmatch terror by the I.R.A., it became increasingly dangerous to voice dissent. Moreover, these depictions accorded with elements of the truth. The Irish volunteers, since their formation in 1913, had been engaged in German plots, even if the German Plot of 1918 had been a hoax invented by British intelligence, coloured perhaps by paranoia. The words ‘our gallant allies in Europe’, inscribed in the Proclamation of 1916, referred to the Kaiser’s troops, and their allies: a soldiery who occupied Belgium and parts of France and who met civilian resistance with summary execution. Sometimes plain robbery, the settling of local land disputes by resort to the gun, or the protection of an illegal racket was the motive for violence. But to read the disorder of the period primarily in terms of banditry, local vendettas and general mayhem was wilfully misguided.

Unionist rage and fear regarding so-called gangs of assassins, mid-night murderers, robbers and cowardly assailants, pointed to a new reality. The nature of resistance to the state by militant nationalists had changed fundamentally. Face-to-face engagements, as in April 1916, in which armed bodies of men in uniform met the uniformed enemy, had been superseded by the new tactic of guerrilla warfare and hit-and-run assassinations. This war of the assassin lay outside the boundaries of mainstream unionist conceptions of legitimate warfare and beyond the limits of romantic nationalism as well. Hence the obvious uneasiness within nationalist Ireland with many of the attacks on the state forces during 1919 and on into 1920.

The conflict had its share of social banditry, though this was much more apparent during the periods of the Truce and the later Civil War. The typical male victim was neither a soldier nor a policeman. He was a civilian, taken out by armed and masked men, and ‘plugged’. This was primarily a war of sporadic assassination, in which undisciplined state forces played a part.


III. Sectarian conflictBACK TO TOP

The guerilla war unleashed in virulent form some of the elemental forces of sectarianism long present in Irish society. In Munster, particularly in Cork and Clare, protestant farmers and businessmen had their homes burned; some were assassinated; others fled. It was a sectarian conflict, most notably in the northern counties. People were boycotted, burned out of their homes, or killed simply because they were ‘other’, protestant or catholic. It is a frightening revelation how, under conditions of political excitement, the embers of sectarianism might also burn brightly in some southern localities. In the North it was the mainly catholic and nationalist R.I.C. which damped the potential for even more lethal sectarianism, while the protestant B Specials, recruited in the main from former members of the Ulster Volunteer Force, were widely accused of stoking anti-catholic sentiment. In the South the I.R.A. could drive out protestants at will, and often did.

It is difficult not to see the period 1919-23 in Ulster, and to lesser degree elsewhere on the island, as the working out of sectarian tensions long present in Irish society but stoked by the arming of the Ulster Volunteer Force in 1913 and brought to a murderous climax by the I.R.A. offensive after the Great War. While politics intertwined with religion, religious affiliation was more than simply a marker of unionism or nationalism. The street-level antipathies and name calling, the self-segregation, the riots and expulsions, the catholic trappings of Irish republicanism and the protestant character of Ulster loyalism, all suggest that religious conflict was a potent force in its own right. While the patterns of violence of 1919-23 are not reducible to a sectarian war, one aspect of the conflict is best represented as religious or sectarian. As with other dimensions of public acts of violence, there was a marked but markedly different regional character to the outbursts of sectarian hatred.

 

IV. Social revolutionBACK TO TOP

Perhaps at base the tumultous events in Ireland during the revolutionary decade constituted a social revolution. Certainly there were agrarian agitations involving cattle drives, seizures of grazing farms, and demands for the redistribution of land in favour of local, land-hungry farmers. In 1917 there were spontaneous outbursts of small-farmer militancy in several districts in Ireland, especially in the West of Ireland. In some places the Irish Volunteers intervened on the side of the smallholders but by 1919 expressions of rural class interest were perceived by Sinn Fein and the I.R.A. as selfish distrations from the national struggle, and therefore to be discouraged. According to Peadar O’Donnell, ‘All the leadership wanted was a change from British to Irish government: they wanted no change in the basis of society. It was a political not a social revolution.’

The truth was these localised land agitations were largely side-shows, confined in the main to parts of the West of Ireland and patches of the midland counties. The problem for agrarian radicals was that the social revolution in land ownership had already taken place. The landed ascendancy had been relieved of its ownership of the farm land of Ireland by virtue of a series of reforms stretching back into the later nineteenth century, and culminating in the Wyndham Land Act of 1903 and the Birrell amendment to this act in 1909. A largely peaceful social transformation in the countryside had been concluded, and farmers took the full benefit of the boom in agricultural prices and farm incomes between 1914 and 1920.

There was more scope for conflict farther down the social hierarchy, between farmers and labourers, as had been common in pre-Famine Irish society. By the early twentieth century rural labourers were less numerous than farmers in the countryside, but there were still significant numbers in the tillage counties of the south east and in the rich dairying lands of Cork and Limerick. Some had joined the militant Irish Transport & General Workers Union during the Great War and had fought bitter strikes during 1918-20, involving violence and sabotage, to push up wages in the face of rampant price inflation. The local elections in urban Ireland in January 1920 witnessed remarkable gains, both by nationalist labour candidates and unionist labour.

Urban Ireland, particularly the cities of Belfast and Dublin, was a more obvious theatre for class warfare. Jim Larkin had remarkable success in organising the unskilled workers in factories, transport and docklands, and then of leading them to industrial defeat. In the later years of the Great War, and its immediate aftermath, labour militancy reached new heights. But the owners of capital need not have worried. Limited forms of class struggle and limited, if realistic, forms of worker consciousness ensured there was no fundamental challenge to the existing relations of production.

Class tensions were never very far beneath the social surface, adding to the complexity of the period. But however one might conceptualise what happened in Ireland in the decade before 1923, it certainly did not eventuate in a social revolution. Ironically, the social reforms which redistributed income and wealth most effectively had been initiated by the Westminster parliament some time earlier: the land acts, the measures to improve the housing of labourers, the introduction of state pensions to combat poverty in old age, and forms of social insurance for selected categories of workers from 1911.

There were the sparks of social revolution, in the seizure and occupation of work places and landholdings, in the hoisting of red flags, and in the fiery rhetoric of militant trade unionists. Even the disinherited of Irish rural society, the farm labourers, succeeded in organising and securing some material gains from their employers. But there was no social revolution. Sinn Fein was deeply conservative and suspicious, when not actually dismissive, of the role of labour in the politics of the period. Labour was left waiting.


V. A ‘revolution in arms’BACK TO TOP

Were militant separatists seeking an Irish Republic, through political means if possible, through violent action if necessary? The subtext of many of the memoirs and other biographical materials seems to be that a revolution-in-arms had become an end in itself, just as it was for some of the participants in the 1916 insurrection. The achievement of political independence without going through the purging experience of war and bloodshed was too inglorious, too lacking in heroic possibilities, too out of tune with an imagined past, as to be soulless and unfulfilling.


VI. In defence of the republicBACK TO TOP

There was also the consideration that the ‘Irish Republic’ had been proclaimed in 1916 and, from the viewpoint of republican zealots, there is a real sense in which the warfare of 1919-21 was a war in defence of the Republic.

This republic of the imagination came to haunt subsequent negotiations between Dail Eireann and the British government, but for those hypnotised by its spectacle it was a sacred and compelling presence – to be defended, irrespective of the fleeting wishes of the people. This would lead to the nationalist civil war of 1922-23, also known in some circles as the second war in defence of the Republic.
 

 

VII. Anglo-Irish WarBACK TO TOP

The Anglo-Irish War is one of the most widely-used formulations by historians, and is sometimes used interchangeably with the image of a war of independence. It was a term used, though not very often, during the period itself. But it begs some awkward questions. Even if we skip over the issue of how it deals with the Scottish and the Welsh – national groupings which formed an integral part of the British polity – there remains the more immediate question of who were the Irish. Many southern unionists saw themselves as Irish, while entertaining further political identities as well. Petitioners in 1918 to the coalition government of Lloyd George and Bonar Law, protesting against the partition of Ireland on behalf of 400,000 southern Unionists, described themselves simply as Irishmen seeking to promote ‘the true interests of Ireland’. Northern unionists might have been vaguer in their sense of identity – as with their nationalist compatriots this was defined most powerfully in relation to the ‘other’, that which they vehemently were not – but many would have seen themselves as Irish and also loyal to King and Empire.

In the circumstances of such cultural and ethnic complexity, and its accompanying diversity of ideologies and identities, the apparently neutral image of an Anglo-Irish war seems especially ill-fitting. Even within the small body of nationalist, as distinct from general Irish opinion, there is no evidence of a widespread desire for violent struggle, still less of the kind which eventually emerged. It is true that the first Dail Eireann, composed exclusively of Sinn Fein deputies and representing just under half the voters on the island, moved in 1919 to adopt the idea of the Irish Republic as advocated in April 1916. It is also true that the Irish Parliamentary Party had warned during the general election of 1918 that a vote for Sinn Fein could be a vote for another insurrection. It is not clear that the Irish Party, or the electorate, had a clear view of what this might entail. There were many different motives for voting for Sinn Fein, only some of which were consistent with support for the policy of a republic, achieved by force of arms if necessary. Paul Bew has recently made the important distinction between a substantial vote for an Irish republic within nationalist Ireland (not all Ireland) in the general election of December 1918 and that of a mandate for violent struggle. The latter was not sought and, therefore, was not handed to Sinn Fein. Later attempts to read such an interpretation into the election results are, at best, contrived.

Moreover, the new assembly in Dublin was slow to take responsibility for the actions of the Irish Volunteers. There was no formal link until August 1919 when an oath of allegiance to the Republic and to Dail Eireann began to be administered to each volunteer, and no responsibility was taken for Soloheadbeg, Fermoy, Ashtown and other engagements during this early phase of armed hostilities.

After two years of terror and counter-terror many in nationalist Ireland had come to accept the idea of a war against the British state. By then, to have voiced criticism would have been distinctly dangerous. The degree of enthusiasm for political violence is difficult to gauge but it varied greatly, by age, by social class, by locality, and possibly by gender. From a position of certainty on the course of action the peoples of Ireland ought to pursue, there was an Anglo-Irish war. For the majority, however, this was a terror-laden strategy which had been imposed on them.

Leaders of the I.R.A. were quite open about this in later years. In fact it was a matter of pride to recall what little support they had initially enjoyed. In recognition of the reluctance of the nationalist population to support an I.R.A. offensive, Richard Mulcahy, the chief of staff of the Irish Volunteers believed that the people had to be educated and ‘led gently into open war’.

This was not, however, easily achieved. One late and imperfect barometer of public opinion are the local election results from urban Ireland in January 1920. Fought under a system of proportional representation, Sinn Fein decisively outpolled the Irish Party by a factor of two to one. Still the resilience of the Irish Party is noteworthy, following its disappointing performace in 1918. Labour candidates did remarkably well, North and South. Somewhat shocking, though, for Sinn Fein was the fact that it took less than one in three of the seats. As always, many motives went into the making of voting shares and Sinn Fein support would probably have been higher in rural as compared to urban districts. But on the crucial issue of support for the I.R.A.. campaign, there was only one party to support, and that was Sinn Fein. Even discounting the likelihood that some voters supported Sinn Fein for other reasons, there was no mandate here for a ‘war’, however labelled. It is legitimate to suggest that nationalist Ireland was manipulated into a violent confrontation not of its choosing.

It follows from this that the notion of an Anglo-Irish war is inappropriate and misleading. Whether a conscious strategy or not, the effect of the I.R.A. offensive was to limit and eventually restrict choice to the twin polarities of Sinn Fein and the unionists, as in the ‘partition’ elections of 1921. When people in southern Ireland were again consulted for their views on the Treaty settlement in June 1922, a majority voted for the Treaty and the peace it promised.

 


VIII. A war of secession and independenceBACK TO TOP


The union of Britain and Ireland had given rise to major agitations for Home Rule and devolution, though none were sustained before the late nineteenth century. Contrary to the impression sometimes conveyed in historical writings, during most years of the nineteenth century, the question of the union was not a leading political issue. The union occasioned virtually no bloodshed before 1916, which contrasts remarkably with the bloody internal politics of France, Spain and Italy during the same extended time period. This internal security and stability places Ireland closer to the political experience of the Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands rather than some of the polities of western Europe. The sheer density of interconnections between the societies of Britain and Ireland by the eve of the Great War, most powerfully expressed in the volunteering of at least 200,000 Irishmen (a majority of whom were catholic) to fight against the armies of the Kaiser, makes it easier to understand why the great political question of the day was not a call for the end of the union but for devolution of power to a subordinate assembly in Dublin.

 
The political agitation of Sinn Fein, and the accompanying violence of the I.R.A., strained and severed many of the connections. An Irish Free State was created, which in most significant respects was an independent state. In addition, it had the potential to evolve further, so that by 1949 an Irish Republic could be declared. It is an irony of history that the architect of many of these changes, Eamon De Valera, had originally been a fierce opponent of the notion that the Treaty of 1921 gave freedom, ‘not the ultimate freedom that all nations aspire and develop to, but the freedom to achieve it’. More significantly, the treaty between the representatives of Dail Eireann and the United Kingdom government, agreed in London in December 1921, led to double acts of partition and secession: from a nationalist viewpoint the partition of the island of Ireland and the secession of the six northern counties; from a unionist viewpoint the partition of the United Kingdom and the secession of southern Ireland.


Far from being a colony, Ireland was an integral part of the British polity and was overrepresented relative to its size of population at the Westminster parliament. It was this status and its fractious but intimate relationships with British society which facilitated the outcome. The impressive organisational achievements of Sinn Fein in creating the structures of an alternative state in Ireland and the force of the I.R.A.’s argument must be acknowledged. But it was liberal opinion in Britain, disdaining to use the massive coercive force available to it, which was the key element in securing political independence for (most) Irish nationalists. Had Ireland been a colonial possession the nature of the fighting would have been very different, the ratio between guerrilla and security forces’ deaths would have been much higher, and the overall casualties immeasurably higher. Ironically, the decisive element in the drive for secession and the realisation of an Irish free state was not the flying column but British public opinion.

IV. Civil War I: Orange vs. GreenBACK TO TOP

 


If one considers the series of interrelated conflicts between 1913 and 1923 as a whole, then it is possible to discern a pattern of civil war within Ireland, albeit one powerfully influenced by external forces and circumstances. This is in two senses: one, that of a civil war between Orange and Green, between Irish nationalism and Irish (including Ulster) unionism; and two, as a war within Irish nationalism.

At the beginning of the year 1914 Ireland seemed poised on the edge of a civil war of North and South. This was both extraordinary and yet seemingly inevitable. Irish politics for the preceding three decades had revolved on an east-west axis, with the problems of communal division within Ulster perceived rather like sounds off-stage, worrying in a provincial context but not really part of the grand plot. Now the private armies of North and South, the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Irish Volunteers, seemed destined to re-enact a modern-day drama of planter against Gael. What we have, therefore, are the classic ingredients of a civil war: a deep ideological gulf, with masses of ordinary folk standing ready to join combat with similar others, for the sake of differing political aspirations within the polity of the United Kingdom.

In this moment of truth, British politicians and Irish nationalist politicians were forced to acknowledge the deeply antagonistic ethnic formations on the island of Ireland. Though a direct confrontation was suspended until after the Great War, thus serving to conceal both the malign influence of the Tory party at Westminster and the bankruptcy of Asquith’s and the Liberal’s Irish policy, the struggle of nationalist Ireland against unionist Ireland was now couched in the threatening language and practices of militarism. Moreover, the lurch into armed rhetoric set constraints on political compromise over the next decade and proved to be a principal tributary to communal conflict in the years after the Great War. While catholics and nationalists suffered most in the northern ‘troubles’, protestants and unionists were the more likely victims in southern Ireland.


X. Civil War II: Green vs. GreenBACK TO TOP

 

Communal conflict along nationalist-unionist lines was highly visible, being an almost palpable reality of Irish society in the early twentieth century. Less readily apprehended, but more widespread was the extent to which the decade 1913-23 harboured a civil war within Irish nationalism. In part, but only in part, is the use of the term here metaphorical. By 1920 no such qualification is necessary, and in June 1922 a full-blown war of comrade against comrade broke out within nationalist Ireland.

Taking a slightly longer time perspective, it is possible to see from the later nineteenth century onwards the making of a new kind of politics, a kind of long revolution in Irish society. George Boyce dates this from 1879, with the formation of the Land League which brings the rural masses onto the historical stage for the first time. But another, largely complementary perspective is also possible: that of a sharpening of divisions within nationalist Ireland in the two decades before the Great War. In their most influential forms, though with the operation of a time lag, these were cultural wars: scrutinizing notions of Irishness, investing particular formulations of Irish identity with supreme value, and subjecting others to humiliation. Thus the Gaelic Athletic Association was formed in Hayes Hotel, Thurles, Co. Tipperary in 1884 under the eye and guidance of the conspiratorial Irish Republican Brotherhood. At one level the G.A.A. was a sporting organisation. But it pursued simultaneously a political and cultural programme which discriminated against those who did not subscribe to its attitudes on athletics and the nation. Within a decade a more vibrant language revival body was born, the Gaelic League, which added Gaelic speaking as an essential attribute of being a truly Irish person. The Irish-Ireland movement, most notably associated with D.P. Moran’s paper, the Leader, developed a vigorous propaganda which helped popularise new hierarchies of Irish nationality. At the top were situated the fior Gaels, the true and truly Irish, imbued with a heightened racialist consciousness; at the base there lurked the shoneens, the West Britons, the Castle catholics, and the ‘catholic sourfaces’. Protestants were a separate layer entirely, being no more than ‘resident aliens’ who might one day be absorbed into the Irish nation.

Many nationalists may not have subscribed to these categories but these were the images which were gaining imaginative ground in the decades before 1914, particularly among the younger cohorts of nationalists. It may have been a big step from culture to killing, but a nucleus of militants, steeped in romantic nationalism, was willing to take killing in its stride. This might mean shooting down an unarmed member of the Dublin Metropolitan Police on Easter Monday 1916, the deaths of several hundred Dublin civilians during the same week, or, in time, the assassination of fellow nationalists within the Royal Irish Constabulary. As time went by, the intimidation or murder of those who dared disagree with Sinn Fein or the I.R.A. became an acceptable form of politics. The nationalist writer Stephen Gwynn, put it nicely: it was ‘dangerous for a man to speak his mind unless that mind agreed with the Republican policy’.

While the cultural purges within Irish nationalism, along ultra-nationalist and pietistic catholic lines, laid the basis for the devaluation of certain kinds of Irish life, the more immediate catalyst was the split within the Irish Volunteers in 1914. The overwhelming majority of the Irish Volunteers followed John Redmond’s lead, with tens of thousands going off to fight for the King, the empire and the ‘rights of small nations’, including of course the variously-interpreted Irish nation. Premonitive of violent conflict within nationalist Ireland was the abuse and ridicule heaped on the dissident Irish Volunteers who marched in Limerick in 1915 and the insurrectionists of 1916 as they were led away as prisoners. By 1918 the boot was on the other foot, and used freely against moderate nationalists. Those who were unworthy of the ‘nation’ and of the ‘Republic’ deserved no better. Such murderous bitterness flowed freely, especially freely during the weekend between the announcement of a Truce and its coming into effect on Monday, 11 July 1921.

The consummation of this conflict was the Civil War. It was bloodier than the troubles which preceded it. While estimates of the numbers killed vary, the total was probably in the region of 1,500 to 2,000. More so than in the previous fighting, there were some large scale engagements. The anti-Treaty I.R.A. had occupied the Four Courts in Dublin and were eventually driven out by the new national army, under the leadership of Michael Collins. Other major attacks centred on Cork, Limerick and Waterford. But there was also the steady drip of blood from assassinations.

As the civil war progressed, atrocity was piled on atrocity. In the later stages of the civil war political banditry, house burning and assassination became the staples of the irregulars. The new state met terror with terror in a sustained policy of repression which would have been difficult to execute or excuse under British rule. By 1923 the ‘glorious fight’ initiated in 1916 had degenerated sufficiently as to allow official executions of anti-Treaty I.R.A. prisoners by their former comrades in arms.

 

XI. The ‘Troubles’BACK TO TOP


To encompass the argument in its entirety it is important to widen the lens and consider the period 1913-23 as a whole. What the North began, it did not understand. Ulster unionists pointed down the revolutionary path in 1913 with the formation of the U. V. F., and were later surprised to find it had helped precipitate a political revolution in southern Ireland. Beneath the surface nationalist Ireland was already beginning to ferment. The polarisation of North and South brought closer the prospect of civil war between nationalist and unionist, and this found muted expression in the early 1920s. The split in the Irish Volunteers in 1914, the events of Easter week, 1916, and of January 1919 accelerated the process of purgation within Irish nationalism, reducing further the likelihood of an accommodation with either Ulster or Irish unionism. These civil wars within Ireland perplexed Liberal politicians and made it more difficult to devise political and constitutional structures that might accommodate such divergent tendencies. It is these variegated and interlocking civil wars which are at the heart of Irish politics during the revolutionary decade, and which supply the dynamic of change.

It may be objected, there were three armies in Ireland in 1914 and again in 1920, that of the British state, that of the Irish Volunteers (now re-named the I.R.A.), and that of the Ulster Volunteers (many now enlisting in the B Specials). The primary target of the I.R.A., before it turned its guns on itself and its fellow nationalists, was the forces of the crown. Surely, then, there was an Irish war of independence, at least of sorts? The major problems with this formulation have already been noted: in a religiously and ethnically divided society, the notion of Irish or Irishness is itself a contested one; there was no popular or democratic mandate for widespread hostilities: nationalists were driven into a war not of their making; and political independence meant different things to different people. Even within Sinn Fein some would have settled for dominion status. The supporters of the Irish parliamentary party, who remained a substantial, if now minority force within Irish nationalism down to 1920, would have preferred an outcome that was closer to devolved government within the United Kingdom.

Some will find too radical the interpretation of the period 1913-23 as one of interconnected civil wars within an island society, albeit heavily conditioned by the politics of the British government and His Majesty’s opposition. In any case, historians need to place in some kind of conceptual box the three-cornered violence of Irish and Ulster volunteers, and the security forces, for the sub-period from January 1919 onwards.

What label or heading can be applied, without doing violence to the preceding analysis? There is much to be said for the label of the ‘Troubles’. It has the merit of being a relatively neutral, many-sided term. It hints at the unorthodox quality of much of what passed for a ‘war’. Unlike the value-laden phrases that have been pressed into service by ideologues and (sometimes) unreflecting historians, it opens up possibilities of analysis, without prejudging outcomes. The fact that it came to be used by people in Ireland during or soon after the period of conflict may suggest a sense of the complexity of these episodes in near-contemporary history – a sense, derived from direct personal experience, that should not be easily set aside.

 

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See also War of Independence and Podcast by Dr Fearghal McGarry

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