The Irish War of Independence

Dublin War of Independence - Public Domain
Dublin War of Independence - Public Domain

The Irish War of Independence (1919-1921) refers to a war that took place in Ireland from 1919 to 1921. It pitted Irish militias claiming Irish independence against the British army, which was then occupying Irish soil. Terribly deadly, it nevertheless allowed the Irish to win a first victory in the creation of a Free State of Ireland.

History of the Irish War of Independence

Pre-war context

Irish Volunteers - Public Domain

Irish Volunteers – Public Domain

Ireland had already been under British rule for several centuries. A situation that was a source of tension, which led to attempts at rising on the part of the Irish.

The acts of insurrection, although numerous, ended in bitter failure, without diminishing the fervour of the Irish patriots.

The British government, aware of the strong tensions in Ireland, therefore proposed as early as 1870 to launch a project called “Home Rule” in order to calm the rise of Irish nationalism.

The latter consisted of giving Ireland an internal autonomy that had never been acquired until then. But very quickly, the project encountered difficulties and was constantly rejected by the House of Lords. The years went by until 1918, when the text was finally voted on.

From there many tensions arose within the country: the Irish seemed to be in favour of the Treaty, while the English colonists expressed their full opposition to the text. The opponents then created the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), an armed militia of 200,000 soldiers, while the pro-independentists retaliated by founding the Irish Volunteers.

All tend towards violence and confrontation, and the Irish Volunteers decide to organise a revolt, known as the Easter Rising in 1916…

A Time of Conflict

Dublin after the Easter Rising - Public Domain

Dublin after the Easter Rising – Public Domain

The War began with the Easter Rising in 1916, when Irish Republican leaders Patrick Pearse and James Connolly decided to foment a surprise uprising in Dublin. They joined forces with the Irish Volunteers, the Citizen Army and the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) in this attack.

However, the revolt was quickly repressed by the British: it took less than a week to stop the insurrection and imprison the main leaders of the attack. More than 14 representatives of the Insurrection were then incarcerated in the prison of Kilmainham Gaol and shot the following days, including the main leaders of the revolt (Patrick Pearse, James Connolly … etc.).

Despite this stinging failure, the summary executions of the leaders of this insurrection are causing a real break in opinion, and the majority of Irish people, initially hostile to this insurrection, now seem to be clearly on the side of the Irish nationalists. One thing leading to another, Sinn Féin then founded with the nationalists an official Irish parliament very quickly declared illegal by the British: the Dàil Eireann.

This Parliament was convinced that armed struggle was the only solution and decided to instrumentalise the struggle through the intervention of the IRA, an armed group led by Michael Collins, one of the few leaders of the Insurrection to have escaped execution.

War breaks out

Guerre d'indépendance à Dublin - Public domain

Dublin War of Independence – Public Domain

Everything degenerates when the IRA takes its first victims among two ICR policemen. These murders herald a dark period of guerrilla warfare led at the time by Michael Collins, then in charge of coordinating the war of independence. The aim of the manoeuvre was to intimidate the British forces, to destabilize them by all possible means. At the same time, train drivers refused to transport British soldiers throughout Ireland, effectively paralysing the movement of Black and Tans and RIC troops.

The victories, initially numerous, of the Irish nationalists gradually enabled them to take control of the country’s rural areas and place them under the Dàil Eireann regime.

In response, the Black and Tans and the IRB decided to ransack every village in their path. They then killed many innocent people in cold blood, tortured and raped women, looted property, and burned down homes. These actions, which are primarily intended to intimidate the nationalists, actually have the opposite effect: more and more young recruits swell the ranks of the IRA, and the actions become more and more fearsome.

The escalation towards violence is increasingly strong, and the watchword is now clear: the British want to neutralize at all costs the IRA to dismantle it, and crush the revolt. To this end, they call on the Cairo Gang, a group of 18 MI5 secret agents tasked with executing the leaders of the war. However, Michael Collins managed to assassinate 15 of them, those to whom the British responded coldly on 21 November 1920 by firing a tank at a crowd attending a Gaelic match in Croke Park. The shooting at the crowd killed 14 people and injured more than 65. This event was later commemorated as the first “Bloody Sunday of 21 November 1920” (the second was held much later in Derry in 1972).

The time of the Treaty…

At the end of 1921, England ran out of steam, and seemed literally strangled by the Irish war. The expenses incurred in this struggle have plunged them into a bottomless financial abyss, and it is now time for them to ask for the cessation of fighting, with a view to diplomatic negotiation.

Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith were sent to London to negotiate a treaty. This text negotiates the withdrawal of British troops to Ireland, under the guise of the creation of a Free State of Ireland. In exchange, England asks Ireland to swear allegiance to the Crown, but also to keep the north of the island.

This Treaty thus marked the end of Ireland’s War of Independence, but nevertheless provoked profound disagreements between the nationalists. The pro-treaty people quickly confronted the opponents of the treaty, which this time provoked the Irish Civil War, a fratricidal war of great violence .

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