Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

The Irish War of Independence and the IRA, 1916-1921


Six hundred years of oppression and slavery have passed in meloncholy succession over our father's heads and our own, during which period we have been visited by every evil which tyranny could devise and cruelty execute; we have been scattered, like chaff, over the land, and our name has been forgotten among the nations.

– Theobald Wolfe Tone, an Address to the People of Ireland on the Present Important Crisis, 1796

We do not claim to represent the people of Ireland; we claim to represent the intellect and the immortal soul of Ireland.

– Convicted Volunteer Thomas MacDonagh at his court-martial after the 1916 Rising

During World War I, Irish rebels, called the Irish Volunteers, attempted to overthrow British rule in Ireland. The Easter Rising in 1916 was an abject failure. Coupled with the fact that most Volunteers didn't take part when their leader, Eoin MacNeill, attempted to cancel it, was the fact that the rising itself was badly organised. The Volunteers, set up in 1913, were organised like a regular standing army. They had occupied buildings in central Dublin like a regular army. And they had been defeated by a vastly superior, vastly larger regular army (the British).

Several months after the Rising steps were taken to reorganise the Volunteers. With the release of most of the prisoners from the rebellion by 1917, the Volunteers now had members who were hardened by battle and prison. They also had more public support than before, due to the outcry over the execution of all the Rising's leaders (apart from de Eamon Valera) by the British government. IRB (Irish Republican Brotherhood) links helped to restore communication between the central command in Dublin and the country units. The IRB had been the secret Fenian society which had infiltrated the Volunteers and carried on the rebellion after Eoin MacNeill had decided against it. Delegates for a new general convention were elected by the brigades and a new executive was elected at the Volunteer Convention in October 1917. The convention decided that it would not order Volunteers to take the field until they considered it possible to wage war with a reasonable hope of success. So for the time being, the Volunteers would train and prepare for a possible conflict in the months or years ahead. Many Irishmen were away fighting in the trenches, and Ireland was to receive a measure of home rule whenever the Great War ended. Yet 1916 and its aftermath had put in motion a chain of events that would change the whole dynamic in southern Ireland. By the time the guns had fallen silent across the Somme, the Irish people no longer wanted to be part of the British Empire at all. They wanted an Irish republic, and some of them were prepared to fight a war to achieve it.

The Irish War of Independence can be divided into three parts: From early 1919 to the beginning of 1920 the Volunteers began to attack R.I.C. (the Royal Irish Constabulary, the name of the Irish police force) and government targets and personnel; from mid-1920 to the end of 1920, when the war escalated, with the arrival of the Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries; and from January to July 1921, when the conflict reached its peak, before a truce was agreed.

Early Resistance and Recruitment

During the East Clare by-election, the Irish Volunteers from Clouna marched and drilled publicly when going to attend meetings in support of the Sinn Fein candidate who, of course, was Éamonn de Valera, and on polling day they were very active at the polling stations. The drilling and parading in public, which then began for the first time after the 1916 Rising, continued.

Irish public opinion changed in the years during World War I. In 1914 the south had been in favour of receiving Home Rule from the British government, with limited powers, when the war was over. The 1916 Rising had done little to change that opinion, but the harshness of the British reaction to the rebellion, with hundreds of men being carted off to prison in England and Wales, gave the rebels public sympathy. And when conscription was muted to be introduced in Ireland, the public swung behind Sinn Fein, who resisted it. Sinn Fein subsequently won the post-war elections with a huge number of seats, eclipsing the Irish Parliamentary Party whose brief was Home Rule. Sinn Fein's brief was an Irish Republic. With public support for Sinn Fein, the political wing of Irish republicanism, the military wing, the Volunteers (or Irish Republican Army), began to grow.

A small amount of secret drilling began immediately after the reorganisation of the Volunteers. At first they only came out in the open at public events such as funerals. Open defiance became a policy of the Volunteer executive after the public support the group received at the Thomas Ashe funeral in September 1917. Open drilling emerged, although this was confined to the southern and western parts of Ireland. The reluctance of the local authorities in these areas to confront the Volunteers meant that drilling became a regular feature of life in several counties. In Tipperary, contact had been established with a local soldier who sold the local Volunteers revolvers and bullets for ready cash.

During the Conscription Crisis (when England attempted to force conscription on Irishmen near to the end of World War I) many people began associate resistance to conscription with support for the Volunteers. The Volunteers themselves were evolving from displays of public defiance to more secret, undergound preparations for a possible military conflict. Endeavours by local Volunteers in the south and west to capture arms and avoid arrest in early 1919 led to the first armed engagements of what would become the Irish War of Independence.

The war effectively began on the 21st of January 1919. This was the day when the Dail Eireann (Irish Parliament), dominated by Sinn Fein, first met, and declared its aim of ignoring British administration in Ireland and setting up its own governmental departments. However, it did not advocate the use of violence at this time, and what happened that same day in the southwest of the country was not sanctioned by either the Dail or by the Volunteer GHQ. Tipperary Volunteers, including Dan Breen and Sean Treacy, shot dead two policemen who refused to hand over to surrender. Breen wrote-

We also decided that when the smoke of the battle had cleared away, we would not leave Ireland, as had been the usual practice. We would remain in our native land in open defiance of the British authorities. We felt that such a demonstration was bound to encourage others to do likewise.

Volunteer GHQ only sanctioned this policy officially in January 1920. Breen wrote-

Our policy had been hitherto &ldquounofficial”. Dail Eireann and General Headquarters of the IRA had neither sanctioned it nor accepted the responsibility. Mick Collins promised to push our war policy in the &ldquoproper quarters”, and it must be remembered that he was not only on the GHQ staff but was also the Finance Minister. Our war policy was not popular. Our GHQ seemed to be lukewarm about it. The political wing certainly opposed it, and more than one T.D. privately denounced it. We succeeded in concealing our disagreements up to the time of the Truce.

In Cork, the three brigades set up began attacks on British targets in 1919.

The Dail, dominated by the Sinn Fein party, declared that it aimed to establish an Irish republic. This would be done by (1) Withdrawing the Irish Representation from the British Parliament and by denying the right and opposing the will of the British Government or any other foreign Government to legislate for Ireland; (2) By making use of any and every means available to render impotent the power of England to hold Ireland in subjection by military force or otherwise. Delegates were sent to the Treaty of Versailles to petition for an Irish republic. However, this proved fruitless when the US government refused to recognise or support the Irish delegation. Although President Wilson had strongly supported the idea of national self-determination, it was more important to him to have British support for his efforts to create a League of Nations. Despite these set backs, the Dail would be relatively successful in setting up their own civil administration.

Becoming an army

The Volunteers were in great danger of becoming merely a political adjunct to the Sinn Fein organisation. [Sean] Treacy remarked to me that we had enough of being pushed around and getting our men imprisoned while we remained inactive. It was high time that we did a bit of the pushing.

(Dan Breen)

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