In Irish history, the events of the 1916 Rising are understood to have been a turning point of near-cataclysmic proportions. By the end of its one-week duration, almost 400 people had died — and this was before the British troops had even begun any attempt to quash ideas of further rebellion by punishing the Rising’s organizers.
But those acts of retribution came soon enough: between May 3 and May 12, 14 prominent Irish revolutionaries were executed for their actions against the Crown. And the body count didn’t stop there. Multiple civilians were also gunned down by the British forces, including the pacifist nationalist activist, Francis Sheehy-Skeffington. The Irish public, enraged by this excess of suffering, was beginning to sway in their alignments. Before, they were afraid to speak out. Now, they were screaming at the top of their lungs. War was coming.
The Irish War of Independence is often said to have run in its totality from 1919 until 1921; however, anyone with even a passing familiarity with Irish history knows that the true timeline is somewhat less clear. Violence both preceded these dates and continued for many years afterwards. The War of Independence didn’t involve any official armies, nor did it take place on the battlefield. It was, instead, a guerilla war, fought between the forces of Britain and the Irish Volunteers, or, some offshoots would later become known, the Irish Republican Army (IRA).
While this conflict raged, the world of Irish politics was also in turmoil. The separatist Sinn Fein party, who had won the general election of 1918 and subsequently declared an Irish Republic, were going head-to-head with the British administration based in Dublin Castle. In Northern Ireland, a majority unionist (or pro-British) population opposed the actions of Sinn Fein; this led to much violence between these largely-Protestant communities and the nationalist Catholic minority. The effects of this time of bloodshed are still felt to this day.
In keeping with the demands of the generally anti-British opinions of the Irish public, the Sinn Fein party claimed upon coming into power that they would refuse to sit in the United Kingdom Parliament at Westminster. Rather, they would set up their own Irish Parliament. This was referred to as the First Dail (dail meaning “assembly” in the Irish language), and its ministry met at Mansion House in Dublin on January 21, 1919. Here, they reaffirmed the 1916 Proclamation for Irish liberty by signing the Irish Declaration of Independence. They also issued a “Message to the Free Nations of the World,” stating that “there was an existing state of war between Britain and Ireland.” The war, which had before existed as whispers in the street, was now a reality.
In Dublin, Michael Collins, the director of intelligence of the Irish Volunteers, formed a team to assassinate the British detectives responsible for the arrests of prominent republican activists. To some degree, they were successful; on the very same day that the First Dail met, two British constables were shot dead by the Volunteers in Tipperary. These are considered by many to have been the opening shots of the war.
Later, on June 23, one District Inspector Hunt was killed in broad daylight in the town of Thurles. This prompted John French, the British Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, to declare Sinn Fein and all of their activities illegal on July 5.
By December, John French was furious with the lack of British support for the Royal Irish Constabulary officers engaged in this guerrilla war, even writing to an associate abroad that it was like “being asked to fight with one arm tied up.” French demanded that the RIC purchase more army surplus vehicles. He also instigated a new recruitment movement in England: first for the “Black and Tans,” a force of temporary constables recruited for the purpose of RIC back-up, and then the Auxiliary Division, a collection of ex-army officers with the powers of police sergeants.
At the end of 1919, Michael Collins’ men made an attempt on French’s life; however, though they managed to kill and wound several of his bodyguards, they were ultimately unsuccessful. Around this time, French was given permission by the Cabinet in Britain to impose martial law (or the military government’s suspension of ordinary, everyday laws and regulations) whenever he saw fit. French made it his goal to intern as many Irish rebels as possible.
But the rebellion had begun to manifest in ways that transcended outright violence, and, as such, they were more difficult to shut down. Acts of passive resistance among Irish nationalists were becoming common. Many railway workers became involved in a boycott on the carrying of British troops on their lines, hunger strikes became frequent, and, in rural areas, small farmers attempted to reclaim land that was rightfully theirs.
By early 1920, a significant portion of the Sinn Fein leaders had been placed under arrest. Eamon de Valera, as president of the Republic of Ireland, had gone to the United States in order to raise funds for the war effort. In a move of desperation, Michael Collins ordered his men all over the country to raid RIC barracks for weapons. Carnage ensued, and as the RIC began to abandon their smaller posts in favor of larger, safer compounds, the Volunteers were triumphant. On Easter night 1920, the abandoned posts were systematically burned in a display of intimidation. By the summer, many RIC officers had resigned — however, others reacted by making their own statements of violence and hate, as with the sudden assassination of well-known republican and Lord Mayor of Cork, Thomas MacCurtain.
In the summer of 1920, Sinn Fein’s popularity was at a high. They swept local government elections all across the country, taking over functions of government from the state, such as tax collection and law enforcement. In some areas, the RIC was even replaced by Irish republican police forces. In order to tamp down on this insurgency, Lloyd George’s British government proposed the erection of distinct governments in the northern and southern portions of Ireland, effectively dividing the island in two.
It was also around this time that the Black and Tans and Auxiliary Division were officially deployed on Irish soil, something which aggravated the conflict exponentially. These new forces began to carry out punishments on the civilian population for acts committed by the Volunteers. In the summer of 2020, they burned down significant stretches of the towns of Balbriggan and Tuam. In response to this, the IRA formed a full-time group of skilled guerrilla fighters known as the Flying Columns.
In Northern Ireland, too, the situation grew more dire. Two Protestant police officers were killed by the IRA, leading local loyalists to attack Catholic areas. This, in turn, led to widespread rioting in Belfast, Derry, and Lurgan. Over 100 people were killed, with countless Catholic homes being burned to the ground. The authorities in Northern Ireland soon formed the Ulster Special Constabulary: an armed, primarily-unionist police force.
As 1920 gave way to autumn and winter, a new kind of ruthlessness had taken hold. In late November, IRA forces launched a mass assassination attempt on British Intelligence officers, killing eight of them. In an act of retribution, a group of RIC members, the Black and Tans, and the Auxiliary Division shot 15 civilians dead at a football match in Dublin’s Croke Park. This is today remembered as Bloody Sunday, one of the darkest events in Irish history. One week after this, Auxiliaries defeated an IRA ambush in Kilmichael, Co. Cork, and shortly after set fire to much of Cork city center.
By the time 1920 came to a close, almost 300 people had been killed in the war. The first half of 1921 was much worse: within the first six months, about 1,000 people were dead, with some 5,000 republicans incarcerated. By the time summer was closing in, the IRA was suffering from lack of ammunition, and British forces claimed that their defeat was imminent. However, members of the IRA had become proficient at the creation of homemade bombs, and the conflict took on a new and brutal edge. Plans were made by Michael Collins to “bring the war to England,” and the IRA took the campaign to the streets of Glasgow. A strategy was drawn up to bomb Liverpool.
However, this never came to pass. The Irish War of Independence came to a halt on July 11, 1921 when a ceasefire was agreed upon by both sides. In previous months, the British government had received much criticism at home and abroad for the actions of the British forces in Ireland, and additionally, the cost of the war was beginning to take its toll. For the part of the Irish, the casualties had mounted horrifically, and Michael Collins believed that the IRA’s momentum could not continue indefinitely. An end to the war, it seemed, was finally in sight.
At first, many members of the IRA believed that this truce was merely a temporary end to the fighting. Openly, they began to regroup, recruit, and train new volunteers. However, they would be proven incorrect that December, when an Irish group led by Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which created the Irish Free State, an entity made up of 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties. Collins’ decision to allow the 6 northern counties to remain part of Britain has been much-contested over the years that have followed. At the time, many IRA members were unhappy with this ruling, which led to a civil war which lasted from 1922 to 1923.
Even after the truce was made official, the violence in the south of Ireland didn’t end for some time. British troops remained stationed there until December of 1922, with many serving and former RIC members being assassinated by the IRA.
Taking into account the deaths that occurred in the years preceding and following the official 1919 to 1921 dates given for the War of Independence, the numbers come to some 2,500. This is especially shocking when we consider that, according to a 1911 census, the country’s approximate overall population at the time was a mere 3.14 million people.
Politically, the results of the war changed the face of Ireland forever: it was now known as the Irish Free State (with the country not gaining its current “Republic of Ireland” title until 1948), divorced from the six counties that comprised Northern Ireland, which today remains a territory of the United Kingdom.
The conflict in the North remained rampant until the late 1990s, when the Good Friday peace agreement was signed. This agreement marked a major change in the political climate and relationship between Ireland’s north and south. Just this year, in 2018, its 20th anniversary was celebrated with much gravity on a global scale — and with each new day that passes, it becomes apparent that at long last, Ireland is leaving the shackles of its long and painful history behind.