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The Easter Rising and the Anglo-Irish War: 1916–1921


In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom.

— from the Proclamation of the Provisional Government of the Irish Republic, April 1916

As Great Britain entered the First World War, a long-awaited reform that had been promised to the Catholic nationalist population of Ireland was delayed indefinitely. A “Home Rule” bill that would have created an Irish Parliament and given greater fiscal autonomy to the country, while still keeping it within the United Kingdom, had already passed through the British Parliament and received royal assent; but it was suspended until the end of the war. Despite making up three-quarters of the population, Catholics were told to be loyal subjects, giving their sons to the war effort, while respect for their aspirations lay on a shelf.

In the nineteenth century, steps had been taken to address issues that had long driven Catholics to fury, such as their de facto exclusion from public office, forced payment of tithes to the Church of England, and the abuses of absentee landlords. But the fear of a discontented Catholic majority always kept the Protestant minority — the landed, empowered class — on edge. So repressive laws, including suspension of habeas corpus and trial by jury, and the denigration of Irish language and culture in government-run schools, were used to keep Catholics in their place. Large numbers were also denied the franchise. Implementation of “Home Rule” would have dealt a severe blow, both actual and psychological, to the Protestant power structure, and its further delay was a breaking point for the Irish nationalists. Exasperated, a small, ill-equipped group of revolutionaries decided to rise up. Standing outside the General Post Office in Dublin on the morning of April 24, 1916, an Irish lawyer named Patrick Pearse declared Ireland a free and independent republic.

This was the start of a week-long battle in the streets of Dublin. The Easter Rising, as it came to be known, stood little chance of success. The Irish Volunteers, maybe 10,000 men spread across the country, had been organized since 1914, but they had few enough rifles, and a conventional military strategy, against one of the best armies in the world. Rifles were smuggled into the country, through Larne, Bangor, and Donaghadee in the north, and Howth in the south, others were stolen from military bases and police barracks. But success depended, in part, on a large shipment of weapons to be brought in by Sir Roger Casement on the eve of the rebellion. Casement was captured and arrested, along with the weapons, three days before the rising was scheduled to begin.

Members of the Irish Volunteers and Citizens Army took up positions in and around the post office, and other prominent buildings in Dublin, intent on seeing the plan through. After they failed to block the route British soldiers would use to move reinforcements into the heart of the city the matter was already settled. The British, for their part, moved quickly to cut off all entry into the city, denying the rebels any chance of reinforcement — not that any reinforcements were coming: a confusing series of orders and counter-orders in the final few days, and Casement’s failure to deliver the promised materials, created confusion in the ranks. Units that should have been busy tying up forces throughout the country were paralyzed with uncertainty. With the exception of a few skirmishes, an uprising among the general population did not take place.

More than 3,000 people died in the Easter Rising, mostly civilians in Dublin. Large pieces of Dublin were destroyed, either from fire or British artillery (including a gunboat that sailed up the River Liffey, shelling the post office and nearby buildings). Pearse’s revolutionary forces surrendered unconditionally after just five days. Many Dubliners resented their action, coming out to jeer the prisoners as they were marched, beaten and cowed, out of the city. The principal leaders of the Rising, fifteen in all, including Pearse, were executed by firing squad within a fortnight. Casement was hanged for treason in August. Thousands were arrested, imprisoned, or deported in connection with the rebellion, though “many had little or nothing to do with the affair.”

The Anglo-Irish War

While the Easter Rising was a military failure, the British government’s harsh response actually rallied people around the martyrs of 1916 and the cause of independence. Before long, an opportunity presented itself for the Irish people to express their dissatisfaction at the ballot box. The Liberal prime minister, David Lloyd George, called for a general election in the United Kingdom late in the fall of 1918. Irish constituencies made up a total of 105 seats in the House of Commons, and the Sinn Fein Party, founded in 1905 by a writer and printer named Arthur Griffith, contested every one of them but two. Griffith’s original vision, outlined in his booklet, The Resurrection of Hungary: A Parallel for Ireland, was for Ireland to remain within the United Kingdom, but with its own national parliament. The king would maintain dual sovereignty over both Great Britain and Ireland.

Riding a wave of anti-British sentiment that followed the executions of Republican leaders, however, the party adopted a far more radical platform. Its “Manifesto to the Irish People,” printed for the December 1918 election, had promised in clear terms to deliver the goal of Pearse and others from two and a half years earlier: “Sinn Fein gives Ireland the opportunity of vindicating her honour and pursuing with renewed confidence the path of national salvation by rallying to the flag of the Irish Republic.… Sinn Fein aims at securing the establishment of that Republic.” The party’s candidates weren’t shy about the issue either. When the votes were counted, Sinn Fein took 73 seats, or about 70 percent of the vote. “No English Party had ever received from the electors of Great Britain a majority so overwhelming as the Irish people had given to Sinn Fein.”

True to their word, the “Sinn Feiners,” as they were called, once elected to the British Parliament, refused to take their seats at Westminster in London, instead meeting at the Mansion House in Dublin on January 21, 1919, and declaring themselves Dail Eireann, the rightful representatives of the Irish people, assembled to conduct the business of the Irish Republic. Over the next three years, this body effectively served as the “government” of at least half of Ireland, establishing a Land Bank for “the provision of land for the agricultural population,” a publication, the Irish Bulletin, which grew to 2,000 subscribers; an Agriculture Department, a Propaganda Department, a foreign-affairs office (to rally international support for the Irish cause), and a fisheries program. It raised money to fund the government and the war, and formulated an education policy, including promotion of the Irish language — all this, despite the Dail’s activities being illegal, its members’ being subject to arrest on sight, suppression of all printed material, and post office censorship.

As the new revolutionary Republican government acquired more and more control over Ireland, there were soon clashes between revolutionary forces and those of the Crown. On the very day the Dail first gathered, several militants ambushed and killed two policemen who were escorting explosives from a mine in Soloheadbeg, County Tipperary. The Volunteers involved did not receive their orders from the new government — throughout the coming war, Dublin’s ability to control its military organization was always complicated — but historians mark this day as the beginning of military hostilities in the Anglo-Irish War. By August the Inspector General of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) would admit that “in a large area the police without the assistance of troops would be totally unable to maintain any semblance of order.” Constables and police barracks in rural areas became easy targets. “Alarmed by the murders of many of their colleagues and threatened by the likelihood of attacks on their barracks, RIC men were living in siege-like conditions.” A “large number of RIC barracks” were abandoned in late 1919 and early 1920, the police force literally ceasing to exist in much of the country. The Irish Republican Army, or IRA as it came to be called, quickly controlled enough territory for a Republican police force to fill the vacuum left by the retreating RIC, and a system of Republican courts to successfully replace the British administration of justice.

By the end of 1919, British rule itself had become a fiction in much of Ireland, despite the presence of more than 37,000 troops, though to be fair the government was more inclined to treat the matter as a police problem; the army, for its part, “was aware of the police’s inability to crush” the rebellion. In June Brigadier-General C.H.T. Lucas was kidnapped by Republicans, though he would escape a month later. (This might have been intentional, given the lack of facilities available to adequately hold him.) Within a year, attacks against military patrols had become “common occurrences.” Never a large force, the IRA depended on, and enthusiastically received, the support of the population in their fight against all symbols of British administration in Ireland.  “Flying columns” of Republican guerrillas, approximately twenty-five men per unit, planned sporadic ambushes against soldiers traveling in the countryside. The most dramatic ambush took place in Kilmichael, County Cork, on November 28, 1920, when seventeen members of the Auxiliaries were killed. At Nine-Mile-House on December 20, 1920, eight soldiers and a police sergeant were killed. In March 1921 British troops surrounded a large column in Crossbary, with the IRA guerrillas fighting their way out of the village, killing ten soldiers and wounding three more in the ensuing battle. (Republicans claimed they killed thirty soldiers.)

On January 3, 1920, Lord French, the Governor-General of Ireland (who had narrowly escaped an ambush after leaving Ashtown Station, near Dublin, on December 19, 1919), admitted, “Our Secret Service is simply non-existent,” adding a few weeks later, “Outside the city of Belfast there exists practically no special detective force.” British military intelligence was even worse off, one source writing after the war that “the officer or soldier who tried to pose as a local Irishman was found out immediately. All our intelligence officers became marked men.” The Republican forces had an exceptional intelligence division, which infiltrated the mail service and obtained important information on British designs. Murder squads targeted high-ranking military officers and British intelligence agents in Dublin and elsewhere. Michael Collins’s infamous unit, nicknamed “The Squad” or “The Twelve Apostles,” assassinated fourteen people in Dublin, including four British Intelligence officers and four members of the Secret Service, and wounded six others, on what became known as Bloody Sunday, November 21, 1920 — a week to the day before the celebrated Kilmichael ambush.

In response, the British used martial law, mass arrests, and violent reprisals to try to cow the citizenry and break the persistent spirit of the insurrection. Entire villages were sacked, the most notorious example taking place in Balbriggan on September 21, 1920, when two suspected IRA men were shot, a factory burned, and forty-nine houses and four pubs destroyed, forcing “much of the population to camp out in the surrounding fields.” Cities were terrorized by soldiers and police. (The center of Cork was burned to the ground.) The hated “Black and Tans,” a highly militarized police force made up largely of ex-soldiers, murdered civilians and assassinated duly elected Republican officials. Atrocities were commonplace, particularly in Republican strongholds in the south and west of Ireland. Economic terror was another tactic employed by the British, with the “suppression of fairs and markets in places under military law,” and the wrecking of mills, agricultural stores, bacon factories, and creameries, including one of the country’s largest, in Knocklong, County Limerick, with more than fifty employees. The cost of living literally doubled in some areas. One old farmer caught driving his cows to a fair in Nenagh, County Tipperary, “was arrested, charged with illegal assembly, and sentenced to one month’s imprisonment.”

Reaching a stalemate, communications were opened between the Dail and the British government, and a truce began on July 11, 1921. A team of negotiators, including Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith, was sent to London in October. While committed to the fight, reality for the Irish revolutionaries was stark. Since late 1913 the British had been hard at work keeping military weaponry and ammunition out of Ireland, with considerable success, and lack of rifles and explosives was an obstacle that would plague Republican forces throughout the conflict. In April 1920 it is estimated that the IRA numbered 15,000 men, though “it was being rapidly reduced through imprisonments and casualties, and from lack of arms.” Lord French, however, told the Daily Express that he faced a “formidable army,” 100,000 strong, “properly organised in regiments and brigades, led by disciplined officers.” Perhaps it is this exaggerated view of the IRA’s capabilities that pushed the British to compromise. The Irish, on the other hand, were keenly aware of their weakness. If they had been better armed, the insurrection likely would have continued, quite possibly winning greater concessions from the British government.

In December a series of points were delivered to the Dail, “Articles of Agreement,” in which the British conceded to the establishment of a Free State — an Irish government in Dublin, still constitutionally within the British Empire, but exercising fiscal control over twenty-six of the country’s thirty-two counties, with responsibility for the maintenance of its own fisheries and “defense forces,” and the collection of customs duties — an arrangement not dissimilar from that proposed by Griffith in 1905. While far from achieving complete independence, this “treaty” was an important step in that direction, and it came at the cost of over a thousand Irish lives. The treaty divided the Republican forces, and a vicious civil war followed (1922–1923). The anti-treaty faction would not prevail, and in 1937 the Free State adopted a new Constitution. Eleven years later, an Irish Republic was finally recognized by the British government. Through an act of shameless deception, Lloyd George and his allies in Ulster ensured that six of Ireland’s counties were kept out of the Free State, and later the Republic, creating a Catholic minority within a new British state, Northern Ireland, and sowing the seeds of a later, even nastier war.

This is Chapter 6 to Scott McPherson’s Freedom and Security: The Second Amendment and The Right to Keep and Bear Arms.

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