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Irish War of Independence

Although a Home Rule Bill was finally enacted in 1914, its implementation was suspended at the outbreak of war in Europe. In an increasingly militarised atmosphere, private paramilitary armies (the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Irish Volunteers) marched and drilled, and hostilities between the two were only averted by the outbreak of the First World War and the consequent postponement of Home Rule.

As the number of casualties in the Great War continued to rise with little prospect of early victory, the Irish Volunteers continued to train and prepare to resist any attempt to disarm them. The reality of war was brought home in the long lists of dead and wounded which also increased the likelihood of conscription.

German intrigue, backed by Irish extremists in the United States, began to work effectively on a fertile soil. The experience of crises in the past and the strategic importance of the country were well calculated to arouse the gravest apprehension. Ireland in enemy hands, in the event of a war with Germany, offered a serious menace to British security - as abase from which cruisers and submarines could be employed with deadly effect to intercept or destroy sea-going commerce on which Great Britain's very existence depended.

In 1914, before the outbreak of the War, Sir Roger Casement went to the United States, and, in spite of the fact that he was in receipt of a British pension, identified himself closely with the Clan-na-Gael, the physical force party of the Irish-American Nationalists, and entered into a close working alliance with the German agencies operating in the United States. As early as August, 1914, he began a series of letters to Irish papers protesting against Redmond's recruiting Irishmen for the British army and advocating Ireland's entrance into the War on the German side. In November, 1914, as self-styled "Irish Ambassador," he proceeded to Germany by way of Scandinavia, and, under the aegis of the German Foreign Office, sought to recruit an Irish Brigade from the German prison camps. It should be said, however, that his efforts were usually scornfully repulsed and that he gained few adherents.

Easter Rising of 1916

German intrigue continued busily, and a still small body of extremists saw in Great Britain's absorption in the furious struggle on the Continent what seemed to them a providential opportunity to strike a decisive blow for Irish independence. While the Government delayed to frame a policy of concession and at the same time regarded it as " safer and more expedient " to leave the law against bearing arms " in abeyance," and while the Royal Irish constabulary vainly sought to keep order, the Sinn Fein and other extremists, financed to considerable degree by Germans and a radical element of Irish Americans, continued vehement speaking and an active distribution of propagandist literature.

All the while, the Irish Volunteers and the Citizen Army were entering into closer communication with Germany and preparing to revolt. Their plan was to proclaim a general rising throughout Ireland, and, while the British troops quartered in the country were occupied in attempting its suppression, to seize Dublin. To assist the rising, the Germans were to land amis and munitions in Ireland and to send an expedition to attack the east coast of England.

Practically all these plans miscarried. Believing the mantra: "England's problem is Ireland's opportunity," and tapping into a mood of Gaelic revivalism, Padraic Pearse and James Connolly led an unsuccessful Easter Rising of 1916. Casement, with two companions, was conveyed by submarine to the neighborhood of the Kerry coast, and, in a small boat, effected a landing on Good Friday, 21 April, 1916. Casement and one of his companions, Bailey by name, were promptly discovered and taken into custody. Also, a steamer, with arms and munitions, sent from Wilhelmshaven disguised as a Norwegian trader was intercepted by the British and blown up by its own crew who took to their life boats and surrendered.

The contemplated German attack on the English coast amounted to no more than a fleeting and belated raid by swift cruisers after reinforcements of British troops had already been sent to Ireland. The general rising which had been planned to include the whole Irish countryside and timed to take place on Easter Eve (22 April) was prematurely exposed by the capture of Casement, and confined, by prompt and resolute action of the British troops, to a few sporadic though ugly outbreaks and put down within a week.

The attempt to seize Dublin proved to be the most formidable feature of the whole rebellion. Professor John MacNeill, the nominal commander of the Irish Volunteers, disappointed in his expectation that a German contingent of at least 40,000 men would be dispatched to aid the insurgents and discouraged by the news of Casement's arrest, sought to draw back at the last moment, and, late Saturday night, issued an order that there should be " no parades, marches, or other movements " on Easter Sunday.

But bolder spirits took the control from his hands, among them James Connolly the commander of the Citizen Army, the Countess Markiewicz, the Irish wife of a Polish nobleman, and Padraic Pearse, the founder and principal of St. Enda's School. Pearse and the other 1916 leaders declared an independent Irish republic. Pearse, who announced himself as Commander-in-Chief of the army of the Irish Republic and President of the Provisional Government, boasted that they "had written with fire and steel the most glorious chapter in the history of Ireland." The insurgents seized the general post office and various public buildings and barricaded the streets, and much looting, shooting, and bloodshed followed. The unarmed Dublin police were forced to withdraw, troops were rushed in from neighboring garrisons, by Monday night reinforcements began to arrive from England, on Tuesday martial law was proclaimed ; but it was Saturday (29 April) before Pearse and Connolly surrendered. A lack of popular support doomed the rebellion, which lasted a week and destroyed large portions of Dublin.

About 1000 prisoners were taken, fully half of whom were sent to detention camps in England. After speedy trials all seven of the signatories to the rebellion manifesto, including Pearse and Connolly, together with seven others who participated in the rebellion, were convicted and shot. Fifty-five more, the Countess Markiewicz among them, were sentenced to death; but the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment or penal servitude for shorter periods. On 15 May, Sir Roger Casement was tried and convicted, in London, for traitorously adhering to the country's enemies beyond the seas in time of open and public war.

1918 Sinn Fein

The decision by the British military government to execute the leaders of the Easter Rising of 1916, coupled with the British Government's threat of conscripting the Irish to fight in the Great War, alienated public opinion and produced massive support for Sinn Fein ('Ourselves') in the 1918 general election, when they swept aside the Irish Parliamentary Party who had campaigned for Home Rule.

In December 1918 Sinn Fein won 73 seats out of 105 Irish seats in the general election, eclipsing the Irish Party. Sinn Fein MPs met in Dublin in January 1919 and set up the Dail Eireann (Irish parliament). The Dail immediately reaffirmed the republic of 1916 and set up a government in opposition to the British administration at Dublin Castle.

1919 Irish War of Independence

On the same day as the reaffirmation of the republic on 19 January 1919, a small number of IRA members shot two Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) members at Soloheadbeg in Tipperary. This incident began the Irish War of Independence (although the Dail did not declare war until April). Towards the end of 1919 Cabinet considered the Government of Ireland Bill, which was enacted in 1920 and provided for Ulster provinces to remain within the United Kingdom.

British policy towards the rebellion was indecisive at first, but by May 1920 the gravity of the situation became apparent. Irish ostracism of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) was effective and strikes prevented the movement of troops. By mid-1920 British authority in Ireland was collapsing. In May 1920 the Foreign Secretary, Lord Curzon, proposed vigorous 'Indian measures' to suppress the rebellion. The Restoration of Order in Ireland Act was passed in August 1920 and suspended the courts system, instead establishing military courts with powers to enforce the death penalty and internment without trial. As the RIC became increasingly ineffective the British government deployed the Auxiliary and Black and Tans divisions of the RIC, made up of British ex-servicemen who were essentially mercenaries, to suppress the rebellion.

Violence intensified in November 1920 when Auxiliaries shot into a crowd of sports spectators, killing 14 people. This provoked violence on the streets and is remembered as 'Bloody Sunday'. In May 1921 Sinn Fein won an overwhelming victory in the parliamentary election. The British government intended to rule Ireland as a crown colony and dissolved the parliament under the Government of Ireland Act. The Act caused another upsurge of violence - Britain's Irish policy had essentially failed.

Left with no other constructive policies, the British Cabinet agreed to talks with Sinn Fein. The truce came into force on 11 July 1921. The Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921 gave Ireland dominion status within the Empire and momentously gave Ulster the right to opt out of a unified Ireland and remain part of the United Kingdom. By the time an Anglo-Irish Treaty was concluded in 1921, six counties in North-East Ulster, with a roughly two-thirds Unionist majority at that time, had already been constituted as Northern Ireland, though supposedly as a temporary measure.

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Page last modified: 26-03-2016 21:06:48 ZULU