In the early 20th century, the nation of Ireland existed under a union with the United Kingdom. However, nationalism spread through Ireland, giving many Irishmen the desire to free their nation from British Imperialism. The themes of exploration, encounter, and exchange, can be found in the Irish revolutionary period. The effects of Irish independence in the 20th century and its contribution towards exploring and encountering new ideals greatly impacted the modern political structure throughout the world. The ideals and events heavily impacted the collapse of the British empire, along with influencing political revolution throughout the imperialized world.
Ireland had been under English and later British rule for around 700 years. After a succession of failed revolts in the 18th and 19th centuries, a new revolt would greatly change the future of Ireland. Due to the fact that revolts in Ireland were not unexpected, the British took the Easter Rebellion as a natural occurrence, which would be destroyed as usual (James 376). However, this event would lead to greater unrest, finally resulting in the Irish war of independence and eventual freedom.
The major event which first occurred was the Easter rebellion. It would serve as the starting point for the later violence of the Irish revolution era. British incompetence and the British reaction helped to sway Irishmen to nationalism that had previously not existed. The failure of the Home Rule bills led to more political tension (James 377). The rise of Sinn Fein and its support from the Irish forced the British to confront the Irish situation. However the guerilla warfare of the Irish Republican army (IRA) and the failure of the auxiliaries to destroy the IRA eventually led to negotiations. After continued violence the British government was finally brought to the negotiating table by pressure from the public and the king (James 378). However in a bluff to scare the Irish representatives, threats of using the British military backfired and instead made the Irish public feel it was a one-sided deal. The deal was eventually signed, but it caused a civil war. The division of Northern and Southern Ireland was unacceptable to some nationalists. The civil war eventually resulted in Eamon de Valera’s victory (Dorney). They were able to secure more autonomy for Ireland, before eventually removing all British control with the act of 1948, declaring Ireland a full republic (“The Republic of Ireland Act, 1948) . However, this did not end the struggles, as nationalism continued, in the sense that all of the Island of Ireland did not belong to the nation of Ireland despite the hopes of many. This would eventually lead to terrorism and an unsuccessful attempt to unite Ireland later in the century.
The Irish movement for independence and its eventual success explored the idea of independence and freedom from the British Empire at its apex. It began with the Proclamation of Independence which stated, “[w]e declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible” (Clarke). The Proclamation of Poblacht Na H Eireann, which was the proclamation of the provisional government of the Irish republic of 1916, was declared during the Easter rebellion (Clarke). It outlined the desires of the Irish Republican brotherhood, which were to declare Ireland a sovereign nation free of British control. It declared the provisional government to be the civil and military administration over Ireland until a permanent national government was established (Clarke). It announced that Ireland was no longer under control of the British Government, but rather that of the Provisional Government of the Irish Republic (Clarke).
Although the proclamation of independence by the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a secret Irish Revolutionary group, was short-lived, it demonstrated the ongoing and ever increasing unease and nationalism in Ireland at the dawn of the 20th century. The proclamation came at a time during which the British Empire was embroiled in the Great War (WWI). However, there was not enough nationalistic fervour at the time to allow the Easter Rebellion to succeed. Despite this, it was important in its acceleration of pro-independence sentiment. The reaction of the British, which involved the executions of the vast majority of those involved, stirred unrest among the Irish who had previously not supported the cause of revolutionary organizations (James 377).
These symbols of British oppression led Irish people to lack confidence in the British after consecutive failures of the British to govern Ireland successfully in the late 19th and early 20th century. “Disaster…overtaken Ireland. Its Gaelic, Catholic majority no longer had any confidence in those essentially British ways of bringing about political accord. The failure of the two Home Rule bills..Their salvation now lay in their own hands” (James 375). The British Parliament had to meet the needs of the Irish people after the dissolution of the Irish Parliament from the creation of the Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in 1800 (“The Union with Ireland”). However, the first two Home rule bills failed to pass in Parliament while the third Home rule bill was never implemented (James 375). The failure of the British government to successfully ensure the prosperity of the Irish people led to unrest. Despite being at its height and prosperity, the success of the British Empire were not translated into the success of the Irish.
The Home Rule Bills for Ireland had been designed by the British government to help install some form of self-government in Ireland. However, since they were never passed by the British Parliament, they instead angered the Irish Populace by showing them that the British had no desire and urgency to grant them some form of self-rule taken away after the dissolution of the Irish Parliament in 1800 (“The Union with Ireland”). It proved to some Irish that they could not wait for the British to grant them what they wanted, leading to the formation of revolutionary ideals and organizations. Irish nationalists joined organizations such as Sinn Fein which “called upon Irishmen and women to seize freedom for themselves even at the price of their own lives” (James 375).
In order to fight and win the war against the British, the IRA often resorted to terrorism and guerrilla warfare. Under Michael Collins, the leader of the IRA, many acts of terrorism were committed in order to spread fear in hopes of achieving their political goals. “Michael ordered the hit…that evening as the Assistant Commissioner was mounting the steps of his hotel….second shot, through the forehead, finished him off“ (Mackay 144). Assistant Commissioner William Redmond was a police officer who led a mandate to fight the Irish insurgents. He was one of the many people killed by the IRA under Michael Collins, in order to weaken the British resolve and their rule over Ireland (Mackay 143). The IRA systematically located and then assassinated key figures of political, although sometimes of personal importance. This was designed to prevent the British administration in Ireland from ruling by scaring officials into staying at home and not going outside to administer, where they would most likely be targets of hitmen and IRA squads.
The IRA and other nationalist organizations explored the willingness of the British to continue to govern Ireland after suffering the annoyance of such events. The strategy hoped to convince the British government that control over Ireland would simply not be worth the manpower and resources in an empire, which despite its power, was stretched thin. It was important because it tested the explored the willingness of the British to keep hold of Ireland, an implication which could encourage similar activities in other colonies or dominions.
Other nationalist groups emulated the IRA in their strategies. “The volunteers attacked government property, carried out raids for desperately needed weapons and funds and, to disrupt the British administration, assassinated prominent individuals” (Kennedy). During the Anglo-Irish War, which occurred from 1919-21, the same period in which Collin’s squads operated, other Irish revolutionary groups gathered volunteers which would attack British property (“The Anglo-Irish War”). Sometimes these attacks would involve the seizure of supplies and funds from the British administration. The revolutionaries would also kill prominent British individuals in Ireland. For example, Sir Henry Wilson, who suppressed the IRA with force by imposing martial law, was killed outside his home by IRA gunmen (James 375). People such as William Doran (Mackay 147), who was an informer, were not political but rather strategic targets. The ruthless killings of these men are described by Joe Dolan: “McDonell and myself entered the Wicklow Hotel one morning around nine o’clock, shot him dead in the hall and walked away. I was back there at 1 p.m having my lunch” (Mackay 147). These attacks were part of the Irish Republican Army Strategy to weaken Britain. These attacks would eventually lead to the British government’s offer of negotiation, which led the Sinn Fein, an organization that “encouraged the Irish to discover their own sense of national identity….seize freedom for themselves…” and also the political front of the IRA to order an end to the IRA attacks (James 375).
Due to the realization that the British Empire was too powerful to conventionally confront, the Irish Republican Army devised tactics in order to allow the Sinn Fein to bring the British government to the negotiation table. Urban Guerilla tactics, which involved IRA members carrying out quick hits before blending back in with the crowds, helped the IRA to successfully combat the British government (James 376-377). They were able to achieve their goals while taking far fewer losses. British attempts at retaliation were welcomed due to the fact that massacres of innocent civilians helped to drive Irishmen to the Irish revolutionary movement. Such events, including Bloody Sunday, enraged the Irish population.
Terrorism was not limited to the killing of individual targets. It included the destruction of property or other assets of figures who either opposed the Irish separatists or refused to co-operate. “The ‘Big House’ or country mansion of the Anglo-Irish landed class, was a target of republicans…total of 275 were burned out, blown up or otherwise destroyed” (Dorney). Many country mansions and residences of Anglo-Irish aristocratic class, who were often Protestant, were looted and destroyed by Irish Republican revolutionaries. They would find the residence and interrogate those who were residing there before setting the residence on fire. First-hand accounts describe the raiders “excessively polite” and that their only orders were to “burn the building” (Dorney). It was designed to target and destroy the assets of those who were assumed to be against the Irish Independence movement. Another reason for retaliation was that the people who owned the land were considered to be theives by the Irishmen who believed that it was their land by right.
These attacks were designed to both gain the support of the rural population and to eradicate the old social order while forcing the British to allocate troops to protect the landed classes. The rural population in Ireland felt oppressed by the landlords, who had owned 97% of the land (Dorney). However, despite their actions the IRA did not want to have massive class warfare, which occurred in Russia through the communist revolution. Eradicating the old order in favor of the new republican society and government was also part in the attacks on the mansions. The destruction of the mansions helped the represent the destruction of the aristocratic control over Ireland by the British. Their logic was that “the old Ascendancy class were the backbone of the British presence in Ireland, destroying their palatial seats also hurt the British state….undermining the deference some still felt for the old landed families” (Dorney).
The surprising encounters of the Independence era brought out both a sense of nationalism for the Irish people and exhibited the important historical achievement in independence from the greatest military power in the world. The era would begin with the rise of nationalism caused by ineffective British administration. “It would seem therefore as if Ireland, at the moment when she most wanted government, was most lacking in its means and instruments” (Massingham). Massingham was an Irishman in 1916 describing the issues and problems facing the Irish. The British parliament lacked the time and resources to deal with the issues of Ireland, a sideshow to “more important imperial issues – especially as Britain was the world’s largest imperial power.” (Trueman). The repeated destruction of Irish dreams through the Home rule bills stirred unrest due to lack of government which they have previously been repeatedly promised.
Massingham represents the views of most Irishmen after the Easter Rebellion in 1916. The Irish had already been upset by the failure of the British Parliament to grant Ireland more autonomy in cases of decisions such as conscription. The major encounter is the reaction of the British. The British failed to understand the sentiment and believed they could employ harsh military practices such as mass arrests and executions. However it was this failure to recognize Ireland as an intelligent and modern European society that led to the failure of the policies, which usually worked in places such as Africa (James 380). Had the British moved on and then gradually given in to some concessions of autonomy, the Irish revolution could have been avoided.
However it was miscalculated executions of the rebel leaders that drew people to the independence movement. This includes another encounter described by Mr. Massingham, the failure also on the part of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) and the Sinn Fein. They had also miscalculated the situation, believing thousands would rally to their cause once they had seized the government building. They overestimated all of their notions, such as a weak British military response due to the Great War, a great number of Irish rallying to their cause, and the ability of the IRB to fight the British. Instead the encounter showed the world the willingness of the British to use overwhelming force, which would often be used later in places such as Egypt (James, 582-583), to keep control of their colonial territories. Irishmen also failed to show up in great numbers as the IRB had predicted. They were either unwilling in the face of British authority or were not believers of the independence cause. The battle with the British also went poorly for the IRB. Despite killing twice as many men as they lost, they simply could not beat the numbers of British reinforcements, which arrived to fight the IRB . This encounter would later lay the groundwork for guerilla warfare due to the realization that it would be impossible to fight the British in conventional warfare. Although a failure, the encounter would teach the Irish Independence movement important lessons that would aid them in their future actions.
At first, the British attempted to rein Ireland in with martial law, then some compromise. “But deep in the heart of Ireland has sunk the sense of the degradation wrought upon its people—so deep and so humiliating that no agency less powerful than the red tide of war on Irish soil will ever be able to enable the Irish race to recover its self-respect” (O’ Brien). The Irish people had suffered at the hands of the British, from Cromwell to the events leading up the Easter Rebellion. Many Irish felt that they had been treated unfairly and unequally by the British. The Irish Republican Brotherhood and the Later Irish Republican Army along with the Sinn Fein felt that only by war could Ireland achieve freedom from its master. Ireland was divided in religion, with the mostly Catholic south and the Protestant north, who often disagreed. The Southern Catholic Irish were those who mainly had a desire of independence from Great Britain. This is shown through the political seats, of which Sinn Fein won 560 in the 1920 election, higher than the Labour’s 394 while losing the majority of the seats in the northern six counties (Mackay 149). The division can also be illustrated in the debates on the treaty. As described by Lawrence James, “Ulstermen would never bend their knees to a Dublin government in which the levers of power would be operated by “the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church”….chose to say within “the Empire [which has] spread civilisation throughout vast regions”.” (James 378)
Ireland had long been under the rule of the English. However, continued humiliation and mistreatment from the British built up massive resentment from the Irish. They believed that they were entitled to their own nation, something exemplified by the wave of nationalism which swept europe in the 1800s. The British response in 1916 and also their refusal to pass the first two Home Rule bills made it clear to the people of Ireland that their interests would not be given to them by the British, something that they themselves would have to take. This led to their determinations of a an uprising against their rulers. However, divided loyalties would split Ireland into north and south, a lasting symbol of British rule through the conversion of northern Ireland to Protestantism.
Fighting took a toll on both sides, eventually leading to the British agreeing to talks with the Irish after encouragement from King George V (James 381). “On 11 July 1921 a truce between both sides was agreed…by forcing the British government to meet the representatives of the republican movement in formal peace talks, the IRA had achieved a great deal” (McGarry) In 1921, after years of guerrilla warfare and attacks on the British administration, the Irish had finally achieved their goals against the British. This was a new and important encounter. Unlike the American Revolution, the Irish had faced the British Empire at its height, while being located just a few miles from the shores of England itself. Great Britain agreed to meet with the IRA, an important landmark in which the Sinn Fein had garnered enough leverage to finally be able to make demands upon the British (James 382) Even though the truce and negotiations would not truly end the conflict, its encounter represented the massive progress the Irish had made.
Great Britain had always been able to deal with threats to its to its empire, whether internal or external after reaching its golden age. In Africa, the Boers had been annihilated, in Asia the Qing Dynasty had been defeated and trade was established (James 241, 268). However, the Irish, through use of guerilla tactics and strategies that forced the British administration to recognize that granting independence would be more profitable than holding onto the colony, succeeded. As top administration officials remarked, Ireland was becoming more and more unprofitable, tying up manpower and resources and while generating little revenue for the British Government. This would set an example for later revolutions on how to succeed against an overwhelming force. As Colonel Lawrence remarked, “You can’t make war upon rebellion”, nor could the British “afford an empire which rested solely on armed force” (James 381). However, it was this sentimentality that would eventually lead to the end of the British Empire. Once the treaty was signed, Sir Henry Wilson noted that the British had “exchanged the substance of power for its shadow. The empire…now doomed.”. He understood that they “must either clear out or govern”, or else this precedent would bring about disastrous effects. (James 383).
After much debate and disagreement, the Irish were able to coerce a deal from the British, one which would give Ireland greater autonomy as a dominion and later independence as a free state. “These are things that have all been agreed to publicly in many statements made on behalf of Great Britain, and on behalf of the communities mentioned as in the British Commonwealth. They are undenied, and put forward without being challenged” (MacNeill 419). However inside Ireland there were other issues. The treaty debates was the debate over the negotiations which had been negotiated in 1921. The Sinn Fein was split over whether to ratify the treaty or not. Proponents of the treaty pointed to the concessions the British the British were willing to give, such as autonomy to Ireland. However, many argued that agreeing to the negotiations would mean possibly leaving out opportunities to gain more success. They had achieved what many thought impossible, so to them it did not seem impossible that they would be able to gain full independence in a single stroke. Although this disagreement would lead to a civil war later, it represented an encounter which the British Empire had caved in to a colony and met its demands.
The treaty was a great thing but also in a way a small disaster for the cause of Irish Freedom. The Anglo-Irish War, or the “Terror” was now over. The English had agreed to negotiations, then agreed to a treaty that would give many concessions to Ireland, an unprecedented step. It completed the first step in a path that would set Ireland apart from Great Britain forever. However, it would bring about a divide in Irish nationalism. It would a spark a civil war that would eventually lead to the death of revolutionary leaders such as Michael Collins, the Chairman of the Provisional Irish Government until 1922 when he was killed at the age of 32 (Mackay 302). A revolutionary visionary, it was the waste and loss of many Irish who could have helped it succeed more. This civil war would also set a divide in Irish Nationalism that would continue until Pro-Treaty forces won (Dorney).
The rise of Irish Nationalism in the early 20th century, a result of repeated failures by the British rule, helped to spark a revolution which would lead to conflict and eventual civil war before independence. This had the impact of not only ending British rule over Ireland, but also affected the geopolitical views of the British Empire and its dominions. The explored new military tactics including modern terrorism to achieve strategic goals, while encountering the reactions and actions of the British Empire. It would exchange ideas that would leave an lasting impact on the British Empire, one of lessons learned from hard experience. The Irish revolutionary period would symbolize a new era in British History, the beginning of the end for an Empire which the sun would set on.
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