The Irish War of Independence

2 Conversations

This was a guerrilla war, in which Irish irregular rebels fought with British government forces. It roughly took place from the 21st of January 1919 to the 11th of July 1921. Before you read this entry some people, political groupings, militant organizations and events mentioned in this piece are either directly linked or better explained in The 1916 Easter Rising. For this reason the author advises you to read this entry first

The Beginnings

In December 1916, the new prime minister, David Lloyd George, released most of those interned after The 1916 Easter Rising1 as an act of good will. Whilst in prison more people2 were converted to republican ideals. Indeed it is said that Frongoch3 was the biggest Republican recruiting ground for Irish Nationalists. Those interned returned to Ireland as heroes... and those who didn't as 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, Co. 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 IRA. Collins learned Irish in the London branch of the Gaelic League4. He joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood in 1909, which had infiltrated his G.A.A. club. 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

Sinn Féin (SF) had become very well known after 1916 as everyone including the government called it the "Sinn Féin rebellion". By December 1918 SF 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 SF was rapidly gaining support at the expense of the Home Rule Party. SF adapted an Abstentionist policy. Eamon de Valera was elected the SF president and the head of the Irish Volunteers. SF was 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 SF made some phenomenal gains. It was a landslide victory with SF wining 74 (before election-7), however 47 SF MP's were in prison, Home Rule Party won 6 seats (before election- 78) and the Unionist Party won 28 (before election- 18)


On the 21st of January 1919 the 1st Irish Dáil (parliament) met. Unionist and Home Rule Party MP's refused their invitations. Collins was absent as he was busy busting De Valera out of Lincoln Gaol in England, The Dáil made three main decisions:

  1. Declared Ireland a Republic.
  2. Adopted Democratic Programme
  3. Sent delegates to the Paris Peace Conference for international recognition. US president Wilson refused to meet the Irish party.

Eamon De Valera was elected President(head of government) and his cabinet was:
  • A. Griffith- Vice President and Home Affairs (justice)
  • Michael Collins- Finance and unofficially intelligence
  • Cathal Brugha- Defence
  • W.T. Cosgrave- Local Government
  • Countess Markievicz- Labour

As the Dáil was meeting in Dublin, Dan Breen led a group of Tipperary Volunteers5 in an ambush on some Royal Irish Constabulary, killing two RIC men. This action wasn't sanctioned by the Dáil, SF or the Volunteer leadership. The War had begun.

The volunteers were renamed the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and attacked RIC barracks in rural areas for 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' spy network helped to undermine British information. Collins also led a ruthless group of assassins called "The Squad" or "The Twelve Apostles", these were young men with no families. In the rural areas the IRA operated as independent units under a local commander6 like Séan Mac Éoin - Longford, Dan Breen - Tipperary, Tom Barry - Cork, Earnaí O Malley - Limerick, Cian Lynch - Clare.

The Black and Tans And the Auxilaries

The British government, under pressure as large numbers of RIC resigned, hired former WW1 soldiers 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. Accordingly the public named them 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. The Black and Tans are discussed more in depth in The Black and Tans

Houses, shops and creameries were burned; 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.

Important Events

  • 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 1920, Collins' "Squad" killed fourteen members of an elite British spy group known as the "Cairo Gang". Revenge was taken by crown forces by firing on the crowd in Croke Park. twelve people were killed and sixty 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, when they refused they were shot in the back. Afterwards, 21 of November became known as Bloody Sunday.
  • 28 November, a flying column led by Tom Barry, killed eighteen Auxilaries in an ambush at Kilmichael in west Cork. Shortly after words revenge was taken by Burning the centre of Cork city.
  • December 1920, 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 acted 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 eighty IRA men.
  • 22 June, at the opening of the northern parliment 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 ammo, guns and volunteers. Finally a ceasefire was agreed and came into effect on 11 July 1921

Anglo-Irish Treaty

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 Llyod 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 as equal political stature as King George and since the King wouldn't be attending why would the Irish "king" go. Whatever the reason he didn't go and made the Irish Delegation Plenipotentiaries.7

As soon as the Irish Delegation arrived they were under great pressure. British police spyed on them night and day, they had no secretarial back up and there government was not internationaly recognised8

The main terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty.

  • An Irish free state or Saorstát Éireann of 26 counties.
  • 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.
  • TD's were to take an Oath Of Allegiance to the Monarch.
  • 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.

These were the main debating points. Eventually it was signed.9 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 replied,"I am signing my actual death warrant."

This would later prove to be true. This treaty violently divided Irish opinion, some were tired of war and were pro-treaty, some looked on with disdain and refused all the terms and were anti-treaty. The country was slowly moving towards Civil War.


A more indepth Biography of Michael Collins
1Roughly 3500 internees2Many interned were completely innocent going into prison3a prison in Wales4A society dedicated to the revival of the Irish language, customs and culture,5South Tipperary Brigade6This gave them a great flexibility, as they could attack a convoy the minute they heard of it rather than having to get a sanction from Dublin7They had full power to sign a treaty8Except for the USSR. Lenin had actually borrowed some money from Collins' National Loan, he gave some of the Russian Crown Jewels as collateral and agreed to recognise Ireland as an Independent Republic9Lloyd George threatened war in three days if it wasn't signed.

Bookmark on your Personal Space



Infinite Improbability Drive

Infinite Improbability Drive

Read a random Edited Entry

Written and Edited by


h2g2 Entries

External Links

Not Panicking Ltd is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


h2g2 is created by h2g2's users, who are members of the public. The views expressed are theirs and unless specifically stated are not those of the Not Panicking Ltd. Unlike Edited Entries, Entries have not been checked by an Editor. If you consider any Entry to be in breach of the site's House Rules, please register a complaint. For any other comments, please visit the Feedback page.

Write an Entry

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a wholly remarkable book. It has been compiled and recompiled many times and under many different editorships. It contains contributions from countless numbers of travellers and researchers."

Write an entry
Read more