Ireland in Five Easy Pieces III: Revolution, Partition and Independence

This third piece in the series is a complicated one but it concerns a tremendously exciting, romantic, tragic and formative period.  In covering the ideological roots of Irish republicanism and unionism, I have to detour you back before the Great Famine and then rejoin the process that created not just independent Ireland but Northern Ireland.

The years between 1916 and 1922 are probably the most studied of modern Irish history, graced as they are additionally by the literary ferment that accompanied the action, most memorably Yeats’ magnificent poem ‘Easter 1916’.  Here Yeats intones some of his most famous lines, including his prescient realization about the Easter Rising;  “All changed, changed utterly:/A terrible beauty is born.”

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The rebels struck at Easter1916, seizing a ring of key points around Dublin and taking the British completely by surprise.  When the Rising’s front man and ideologue Padraig Pearse read aloud the Proclamation of the Irish Republic from the steps of the rebel headquarters at the General Post Office (GPO), he set in motion a sequence of events that would reshape Ireland.  In Yeats’ lapidary phrase, “a terrible beauty” had been born.  The fighting between the rebels and the British Army was fierce; the destruction of the centre of the city very considerable; just over half of the 485 fatalities were civilians; and the shock at the turn of events was followed quickly by public distress at the execution of most of the leaders.

Here we must pause to consider an ideological seam in Ireland that had its roots in the French Revolution and survived the 19th century, only to explode into catalytic significance in Dublin in 1916 and in Northern Ireland in 1969, namely Irish republicanism.

The notion of a republic of course dates back to ancient Greece and was adopted by 18th century European revolutionaries as an ideological alternative to the oppressive anciens régimes of Europe.  It was a rights based ideology, vesting in the individual inherent rights to determine the political order through democratic means, to personal liberty and to equality.  America adopted it in its struggle against their British rulers.  It reached its greatest clarity, potency and drama in the French Revolution.  Irish intellectuals in the late 18th century watched the events in Europe keenly and saw in republicanism an ideology that could transcend the inherited divisions between native and settler, Catholic and Protestant, nationalist and unionist.

For a brief period it seemed to point the way to the future as the late 19th century Irish Volunteers united in demands for greater powers for the local Parliament in Dublin.  However London wakened to the dangers and played on the fears of the Protestants in Ireland, convincing them that only British rule in Ireland could guarantee their social and economic interests at the top of the social pyramid.

So where the Protestant Scots-Irish settlers became the most ardent of revolutionaries in America, in Ireland they became the chief bulwark of Britain’s colonial rule.  They would sublimate the attractions they found in republicanism in the alternative virtues of the freedoms won in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of King William and his defence of Protestant liberties against the conniving schemes of Roman Catholic ‘popery’.

Such dilemmas did not affront those native Irish who adopted republicanism as the core ideology in their struggle against British rule. Figures such as Wolfe Tone forged links with the French revolutionary regime, notably under Napoleon, and secured the launch of French military expeditions to Ireland; General Humbert actually landed in Mayo in 1798 to assist the Irish revolutionaries who had just launched their insurgency.

The insurrection of 1798 was heroic but too weak against the British and its local Protestant militias.  It was violently repressed and militant republicanism was driven underground, becoming a preoccupation for a very small but determined group that would pass on their ideological commitments down the generations.  Robert Emmet gave revolution one more effort in 1803 in Dublin but it was a small and thwarted affair that led to his execution, his indictment hallowed by his famous speech from the dock.

By then London had connived and bribed the Parliament in Dublin to abrogate itself, the furniture of benches and accoutrements was ripped out (of what is now the Bank of Ireland in College Green) and the Act of Union of 1801 was passed to secure Ireland as part of the British Empire.

Irish republicanism in the form of the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood (IRB) aka the Fenians, would subsist and scheme, guided by the motto that “Britain’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity”.  Fenianism crossed the Atlantic along with the post-Famine emigrants and there form a crucial nexus of support for efforts to support the struggle of the ‘old country’ against British rule.

Back in Ireland, the IRB saw an opportunity with the formation of the Irish Volunteers in 1914.  They maneuvered their personnel to take over leadership positions in the new movement.  In 1915, with war raging in Europe, they began to actively plan for rebellion.  Quite accurately1916 has been characterized by historians as having been organized by a minority of [the Irish Volunteers] of a minority of [the National Volunteers] of a minority [of nationalists].

The 1916 Rising was as seminal an event as had been hoped by its organizers.  The rebel leadership had anticipated that their willingness to sacrifice their lives would in some way sanctify and authenticate the claim to independence.   Its impact was more deeply impressed on the nationalist conscience – to what extent is impossible to assess – by the execution of the Rising’s leaders by the British.  Two men the British did not execute would go on to play decisive roles in the ensuing struggle for independence; Éamon de Valera and Michael Collins.

The end of World War I precipitates a series of dramatic and historic events.  The revolutionary impact of the Easter Rising is seen in the results of the 1918 elections.  The Irish Parliamentary Party is wiped out and Sinn Féin candidates sweep the board: while Sinn Féin had not been involved in the Rising, as the most nationalist of parties it rode the wave of popular support.  For the Rising has caused a paradigm shift in Irish views of its relationship with the British Empire.  The genteel campaign of persuasion for Home Rule was cast aside in favour of an outright demand for independence, validated not simply by the Rising but the landslide election of 1918.

The struggle for independence takes two tracks.  On the political track, Sinn Féin’s successful candidates boycott Westminster and form their own First Dáil (assembly or parliament) in Dublin in January 1919, deemed of course “illegal” but the British.  On the second track, units of Volunteers take action against the British in what was to become the War of Independence.   Eventually those fighting would become the army of the republic, the Irish Republican Army or IRA.  The British responded to the guerrilla war by deploying veterans of the World War in units that became infamous for their savagery, the Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries.  As Minister for Finance in the First Dáil and effective leader of the IRA, Michael Collins embodied both fronts in the struggle for independence.  The President of the First Dáil and leader of the country was Eamon de Valera who spent much of the war in the US drumming up support.

In a blatant contradiction of the ostensible cause of the Great War (defending little Belgium) and respect for national democracies that lay at the heart of the new world order being negotiated at Versailles, Britain fought a bloody war of counter-insurgency in Ireland between 1919 and 1921.  The British priority was to accommodate unionist resistance to Irish home rule, which meant inexorably partition.  When the British convened the first Northern Ireland parliament in Belfast in June 1921 – its jurisdiction over six counties designed to create an unassailable unionist majority in perpetuity – they were free to pursue a truce with the IRA, which was agreed the following month.

The Treaty negotiations with the British continued in London until the end of the year, first under de Valera and then by a team headed by Collins.  British Prime Minister Lloyd George led a formidable British team.  The Treaty was agreed and signed in December.  On return to Dublin Collins and his delegation found two diametrically opposed views of the Treaty.  For Collins and those who supported it, the dominion status offered – Ireland would be the Free State – was short of a republic but a crucial stepping-stone to independence.  For de Valera, Collins had contravened his instruction not to sign anything; and the terms themselves betrayed the republic.

The Government of Ireland Act was passed by the British parliament in December 1921 and the following January Collins oversaw the withdrawal of the British Army and administration from an Ireland that now comprised twenty-six counties as a result of partition.  For republican veterans of the War of Independence the Treaty’s provisions fell too far short of the republic. The “Free Staters”, who supported the Treaty as unpalatable but sufficient for now, were pitted against Republicans in a vicious civil war between 1922 and 1923 that claimed the life of Michael Collins.

Some salient points about the struggle for and achievement of Independence are worth considering.

The first is that the Treaty itself did not survive its own contradiction and de Valera essentially unpicked it with his 1937 Constitution.  What did survive of the Treaty was the caesura it and the ensuring civil war had inflicted on Irish politics.  The split over the Treaty was to become a foundational one and the primary source of political difference between Fine Gael (tracing its roots to the Free Staters) and Fianna Fail (tracing its roots to the Republicans and their leader, Fianna Fail founder Eamon de Valera).  This has been pointed to as explaining the absence of a meaningful left-right divide in Irish politics and the loss therefore of all the attendant socio-economic policy choices.

The second is that Northern Ireland did not really feature in either the Treaty negotiations or as a contributory cause of the civil war.  Indeed, for the opening fifty years of the new State, Northern Ireland did not intrude on the South’s affairs, or even much of its attention.

The third point is that the revolution was a political one without any redistribution of wealth or change in socio-economic relations.  Certainly the 1916 Declaration made fine references to treating all of the nation’s children equally and suggested that the nation’s natural resources were a public good, but these remained declaratory and were never interpreted as directive.  The more radical republican wing of the nationalist struggle had lost the civil war and many of its veterans would quietly leave for America and speak no more of their early revolutionary adventures.  Those who assumed the reins of power in 1922 had had to fight and win a civil war as well as grappling with the demands of establishing a national government.  Earning respect as a nascent state was a vital validation of the long struggle.  Their signal achievement was independence and the establishment of a truly democratic state that could and did weather the ideological buffeting that lay ahead for Europe in the 1930s. Irish revolutionaries were in essence conservative, correcting the aberration of colonization.

The fourth point was that partition left the new state without the industrial base of Belfast and its environs.  There was some small local manufacturing but nothing close to the industrialization in the twenty-six counties.  Independent Ireland’s economy was really one big farm supplying Britain’s urban centres with meat and dairy.  Economic opportunities in Ireland were limited and emigration therefore would continue unabated, independence or no.  By the 1950s, as the State’s population dropped to below 3 million, there would be real fears that the country was unsustainable.

The fifth point, also due to partition, was that the new State was overwhelmingly Catholic in population, with an already entrenched Catholic Church now matched by a pious and respectful national government that was happy to leave education and health services (not to mention youth detention) to the Church, that was relieved to do so, that probably could not conceive of any alternative and certainly believed it could not afford to provide such services from tax revenues.  More broadly, the demographic dominance of Catholicism fused with the nationalism that emerged from the struggle for independence.  The long frustration of the Home Rule movement had led to the emergence of a singular form of nationalism that ignored the fact that Irish society was composed of many strands of identity, tradition and loyalty.

Finally, Independent Ireland had been formed amidst global upheavals and opportunities that would continue for the rest of the century, including the Great Depression, WWII, Marshall Aid, the establishment of the United Nations, the Cold War, the decolonization of former empires, economic development, conflict in Northern Ireland, and the creation of the European Economic Community, later to become the European Union.  Independent Ireland and the apparatus of State would grow and develop as it met each of these challenges, admirably filling the void in self-governance left by centuries of colonization.  By the end of the twentieth century, nationalist Ireland had achieved its long sustained ambition that Ireland take its rightful place among the nations of the world.

At home, two great challenges faced independent Ireland; the unfinished business of Northern Ireland and economic development.  We will look at these two issues in the final two pieces.

Eamonn McKee

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Filed under Anglo-Irish, Ireland, Ireland in Five Easy Pieces, Irish Writers

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