This was a guerrilla war, in which Irish rebels fought with British government forces. It took place from about 21 January, 1919 to 11 July, 1921. Some people, political groupings, militant organisations and events mentioned in this piece are either directly linked to or better explained in The 1916 Easter Rising. For this reason, it is advised that you read that Entry first.
In December 1916, the new British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, released most of those interned after the 1916 Easter Rising1 as an act of goodwill. While in prison, more people2 were converted to republican ideals. It is said that a prison in Wales called Frongoch was the biggest Republican recruiting ground for Irish nationalists. Those interned returned to Ireland as heroes, and those who didn't became martyrs. A new generation of leaders such as Thomas Ashe, Cathal Brugha and, infamously, Michael Collins were released from internment.
Michael Collins (1890 - 1922)
The 'Big Fella' was born near Clonakilty, County Cork. In 1906 he emigrated to London and at first worked as a post clerk, but later went on to become a recognised accountant. These number-crunching skills would aid him no end in the arming of the Irish Republican Army. Collins learned Irish in the London branch of the Gaelic League, a society dedicated to the revival of the Irish language, customs and culture. He joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood in 1909. The threat of conscription prompted Collins to return home to Ireland in 1916. Later that year, Collins took part in the Easter Rising as an officer in the GPO and he was interned in Frongoch. On his return to Ireland, he showed great organisational skills in reviving the Irish Volunteers.
Sinn Féin (SF) became very well known after the 1916 rising, as everyone, including the government, called it the 'Sinn Féin rebellion'. By December 1918, Sinn Féin had founded 1,250 cumainn (clubs) with a total membership of 115,000. During this time Collins set up a spy network throughout the British government in Ireland. Three by-election victories in 1917 showed that Sinn Féin was rapidly gaining support at the expense of the Home Rule Party. Sinn Féin adapted an Abstentionist policy. Eamon de Valera was elected the Sinn Féin president and the head of the Irish Volunteers. Sinn Féin members held a wide variety of views ranging from moderate nationalists to extreme militant republicans.
1918 General Election
This was the first general election to be held since 1914 and Sinn Féin made some phenomenal gains. It was a landslide victory with Sinn Féin wining 74 seats, compared to their pre-election count of seven. However, 47 of the Sinn Féin MPs were in prison. The Home Rule Party won 6 seats and the Unionist Party won 283.
On 21 January, 1919 the first Irish Dáil - or parliament - met. Unionist and Home Rule MPs refused their invitations. Collins was absent as he was busy helping de Valera to escape from Lincoln Gaol in England. The Dáil made three main decisions:
- Ireland was declared a republic.
- A democratic programme was adopted.
- Delegates were sent to the Paris Peace Conference for international recognition (though US President Wilson refused to meet the Irish delegation).
Eamon De Valera was elected President (head of the government) and his cabinet consisted of:
- A Griffith — Vice President and Home Affairs (justice)
- Michael Collins — Finance and unofficial intelligence
- Cathal Brugha — Defence
- WT Cosgrave — Local Government
- Countess Markievicz — Labour
As the Dáil was meeting in Dublin, Dan Breen led a group of Tipperary Volunteers in an ambush on some Royal Irish Constabulary, killing two RIC men. This action wasn't sanctioned by the Dáil, Sinn Féin or the Volunteer leadership. The war had begun.
The volunteers were renamed the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and attacked RIC barracks in rural areas in order to obtain arms. The RIC retreated back to the larger towns. At this point the British Government adopted a 'wait and see' policy. By the end of 1919, they declared the Dáil an illegal assembly.
The IRA Campaign
There were two distinct aspects to the campaign. In Dublin, Collins's spy network helped to undermine British information. Collins also led a ruthless group of assassins called 'The Squad' or 'The Twelve Apostles', a group of young men with no families. In the rural areas, the IRA operated as independent units under a local commander4 like Séan Mac Éoin of Longford, Dan Breen of Tipperary, Tom Barry of Cork, Earnaí O'Malley of Limerick or Cian Lynch of Clare.
The Black and Tans And the Auxilaries
The British government, under pressure as large numbers of RIC resigned, hired former World War I soldiers residing in Britain to 'police' Ireland. This new force arrived in 1920. Because of the shortage of uniforms, the new police were given a mix of army khaki and RIC dark green, and so they became known to the public as the 'Black and Tans'. Later, ex-army officers were recruited into another force known as the Auxilaries. The new forces were exceptionally ruthless in their methods. The Black and Tans reacted to any IRA attack by terrorising ordinary people. A strict curfew was enforced and prisoners were often executed on capture.
Houses, shops and creameries were burned and ordinary people were taken hostage or beaten. The 'police' often used local people as human shields as they patrolled the countryside in convoys of trucks. This terror, intended to undermine support for the IRA, had the opposite effect.
Some Important Events1920:
March — Thomas McCurtain, Lord Mayor of Cork was shot in front of his family by British forces.
October — his successor, Terence McSwiney, dies after a 74-day hunger strike.
1 November — Kevin Barry, an 18-year-old medical student, was hanged for his part in an ambush he took part in when he was 16.
21 November — Collins's 'Squad' killed fourteen members of an elite British spy group known as the 'Cairo Gang'. Revenge was taken by Crown forces, who fired on the crowd in Croke Park. 12 people were killed and 60 wounded. Later that evening, two IRA men and one innocent man were shot 'while escaping' — in fact, they were marched into the prison courtyard and told to run, and when they refused they were shot in the back. Afterwards, 21 November became known as 'Bloody Sunday'5.
28 November — a flying column led by Tom Barry killed 18 auxilaries in an ambush at Kilmichael in west Cork. Shortly after, revenge was taken by the burning of the centre of the city of Cork.
December — the Government of Ireland Act set up Home Rule parliaments in Dublin and Belfast. Each parliament was given control over domestic affairs. Sinn Féin rejected it. This Act implemented the Partition of Ireland.
25 May — the IRA burned Dublin's custom house, where seven government departments were located. The attack led to the capture or death of more than 80 IRA men.
22 June, at the opening of the northern parliament at Stormount, King George V appealed for a truce:
Pause, to stretch out the hand of forbearance and conciliation, to forgive and forget.
King George V, 22 June, 1921
The British people were horrified by the behaviour of their forces in Ireland and they put pressure on the government to back down and end the conflict. The IRA was short of ammunition, guns and volunteers. Finally, a ceasefire was agreed to and it came into effect on 11 July, 1921.
In October 1921, representatives of the British and Irish people gathered in London to negotiate a peace treaty. The British were represented by highly experienced negotiators such as Lloyd George and Winston Churchill. The Irish were represented by novices: Arthur Griffith, Michael Collins, Robert Barton, Gavan Duffy and Eamon Duggan. The absence of de Valera, which caused recriminations afterwards, has been the object of debate ever since. Some say he didn't go because he knew he would never get a 32-county republic, others say that he saw himself at an equal political stature to King George and since the King wouldn't be attending, why should the Irish 'king' go. Whatever the reason, he didn't attend and gave the Irish delegation the full power to sign the treaty.
As soon as the Irish delegation arrived, they were under great pressure. British police spied on them night and day, they had no secretarial back up and their government was not internationally recognised6.
The main terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty stated that:
- An Irish Free State (Saorstát Éireann) of 26 counties was established
- The Irish state was a Dominion and was still part of the Commonwealth
- The British Monarch would remain as head of state and would be represented by the Governor-General
- The Royal Navy retained control of the ports of Cobh, Berehaven and Lough Swilly
- The border between the Free State and Northern Ireland would be drawn up by a Boundary Commission
Eventually the treaty was signed, partly because Lloyd George threatened war if the Irish delegates did not agree to the terms. Both sides knew it would not go down well with some of the people at home. Lord Birkenhead said to Michael Collins as he signed the treaty that he was signing his political death warrant. Collins is said to have replied, 'I am signing my actual death warrant.'
This would later prove to be true. The treaty violently divided Irish opinion: some were tired of war and were pro-treaty, while some looked on with disdain and refused all the terms. The country was slowly moving towards civil war.