'History of Republicanism (Part 2) - Republican Lecture Series No.5', Sinn Féin (1981?)
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Published by Sinn Fein
THE BLOODY suppression of the risings of ‘98 and 1803, and the Act of Union introduced in 1801 took the heart out of a great many people. Recovery was slow and was made through tentative approaches much more limited in their aims than the earlier demands for outright national independence. For nearly seventy years political struggle in Ireland, like a pendulum, swung between mass struggle for constitutional reforms and armed agrarian struggle. Two periods, the risings of 1848 and the Fenians of 1867, were the only occasions when the struggle was explicitly and undoubtedly anti-imperialist. Our interest in 19th century Ireland is in the constitutional and agrarian unrest which had a considerable impact on the republican struggle.
The revolutionary stage that republicanism reached in the last decade of the 18th century, with its emphasis on creating an egalitarian society in an independent republic was replaced in the first forty years of the next century with a movement which operated within the constitutional framework and whose demands were for reforms within the context of the union with Britain.
The dominant figure in the reform movement - the Catholic Association - was Daniel O’Connell. Until its dissolution in 1829, after the granting of Catholic emancipation, it was the main political organisation and O’Connell was the titular head of the Irish nation. He was a magnificent orator and his popularity attracted tens of thousands of people to monster demonstrations.
Politically, O’Connell represented the Catholic middle class and the aristocracy who wanted the last vestiges of the Penal Code removed to allow them to take their place in parliament and to hold other prestigious positions in government. To the mass-of the Irish peasantry the Catholic Relief Act of 1793 had brought them as much social, economic and political freedom a subject class living in a subject nation could expect. O’Connell’s campaign was concerned with forcing the British government to lift restrictions on Catholics being educated, their rights to private property and inheritance and the right to the professions; issues which meant virtually nothing to the masses burdened with holding on to their plots of land.
O’Connell knew that the social transformation and unrest produced by the Industrial Revolution in England, and the effects of the French and American revolutions, made it evident to the aristocratic oligarchy that ruled England since 1688 that they would have to grant reform at some point or be reformed out of existence.
He held the interest of the peasantry by encouraging them to have a monetary stake in his organisation. Each Catholic family was asked to donate a penny per month to keep the campaign going. He also obtained support because although the demands were for emancipation there was always the possibility they could change to something more extreme.
The British government became frightened at the popularity of the movement and were alarmed when a candidate supported by O’Connell won an election against a landed aristocrat whose family had held the seat for seventy years.
This success was due to the forty-shilling freeholders, who had the vote, standing up to their landlords on O’Connell’s instructions. The success of the agitation was sealed when in one day O’Connell brought out, all over Ireland, 1½ million people to sign a petition demanding emancipation.
The British government surrendered and in 1829 introduced an act admitting Catholics to parliament, the commissions and the inner bar while outlawing the Catholic Association and punishing the forty-shilling freeholders for leading a revolt by disenfranchising them.
With Catholic emancipation secured it was expected that Ireland would remain tranquil. Instead, it flamed into a fury of agitation against the payment of tithes.
Between 1831 and 1834 a bitter and bloody war between the unarmed peasantry and the well-armed state forces ensued over the payment of fees to the Protestant church. Ninety-five per cent of the population were Catholic but by law they were expected to pay for the upkeep of the five per cent Protestant faith including its churches.
Emancipation made no practical difference to the mass of tillers but the fact that it had been won stimulated the peasantry into a readiness for mass resistance. The strike against tithes spread from county to county. Collisions between police and people grew into serious affrays. The conflict gave rise to the indefatigable agrarian bodies such as the ‘Whiteboys’ who had the necessary experience to organise the resistance. Peasants faced the military with sticks and stones when they arrived to enforce the payment and they were shot down. Scores were killed in bloody battles up and down the country. Old Unitedmen helped to organise the resistance. Landlords, agents and tithe proctors were shot at and several were killed. This resistance brought widespread repression by government troops.
The heightened militancy of the peasantry, and the fact that in the 1832 general election all 82 Irish members returned to parliament pledged to campaign for the abolition of tithes forced the British government to concede. Although tithes were still collected the amount demanded was nominal. The peasants had won a considerable victory.
The agrarian uprising against tithes had barely ended when mass resistance in the political arena developed around ‘repeal of the Union’. Once again, O’Connell led the struggle. At no time was O’Connell an advocate of national independence and he publicly abhorred any action outside of the law. Although he received immense support from the peasantry his allegiance was to the Catholic propertied class. Their interests and his were one.
Shortly after the formation of the Repeal Association in 1841 there was attracted to it a group of young idealists who became known as the ‘Young lrelanders'. They were named after similar groupings on the continent who advocated radicalism. The Young Ireland group inside the Repeal Association were led by Thomas Davis, Charles Duffy and Thomas Dillon. They founded a newspaper called The Nation which they used to promote the aims of the Repeal Association. The political line of the paper was liberal nationalist and often imbued its readership with a national awareness and pride. It was highly popular from the outset, particularly for the ballads which praised the deeds of the men of ‘98 and 1803. At the time it was aid that whereas O’Connell’s demand was in effect ‘good government or else repeal' the Young Irelanders’ demand, implicit at first but becoming explicit later, was 'repeal or else separation'.
While the British government grew increasingly more worried at the popularity of the repeal lobby, O’Connell grew correspondingly more afraid of the influence and political outlook of the Young lrelanders.
The Orange ascendancy in Ireland, their Tory counterparts in England, and the British industrialists, warned the government against giving in to the demands O’Connell was making. Their intense fear stemmed from the influence such a victory would have on the industrial working class in Britain and the peasantry. They urged the government to stand firm and send the troops in to deal with the unrest. This the government did. They challenged O’Connell on the biggest ever demonstration he had planned. It was to be held in Clontarf and it was expected the crowd would swell to almost one million. The government proclaimed the meeting illegal and poured thousands of troops into the surrounding area. O’Connell backed down. He called the meeting off and then tried to claim a victory because the masses obeyed his call.
After Clontarf the movement broke up although some of the Young Irelanders tried to revive it and give it a more nationalistic complexion. However, O’Connell scuttled this development when he entered into a public row with Thomas Davis over an article he had written in the Nation supporting non-denominational education. Before the issue was resolved Thomas Davis died on September 15th 1845. In less than two years Daniel O’Connell and his son John drove the Young Irelanders and the Nation newspaper out of the Repeal Association.
Before moving on it is worth looking at the economic system which prevailed in England and Ireland at this time.
In England, between 1801 and 1850, the industrial revolution rose to its peak and on this basis England attained a hegemony of the world market. Ireland’s manufacturers were prevented from sharing in this advance (1) by the loss of parliamentary power to protect their home market; (2) by the lack of adequate coal and iron deposits; and (3) from lack of capital: all the revenue extracted from Ireland by the landlords being drained away for consumption and investment in England. Thus Ireland’s manufactures were, with few exceptions, left further and further behind while England became conversely a better and better market for Irish agricultural products.
What the Commercial Restraints and Navigation Acts were needed to bring about in the 17th and 18th centuries, economic competition did unaided in the age of steam.
Inexorably Ireland was forced back upon the role of feeder to England’s economic superiority; supplying it with cheap food-stuffs, with raw materials and cheap labour as well as investment capital wrung from the Irish people in the form of rent and tithes.
These causes produced a progressive increase in the numbers and proportion of the population engaged upon the land. There was not, however, an improvement of methods or conditions in agricultural production. In each case the poverty of the exploited and the indifference of their exploiters was an absolute bar to advance.
The Irish landlord was not a partner in production, investing capital in fencing, draining, farm buildings, and cottages and bound thereby to the cultivator by social and economic ties. He was simply the receiver of a rent charge. There was no alternative to land-work (save emigration). This gave rise to a greater demand for land. Excessive sub-division, and the poverty of the tenants, crippled by exorbitant rent for their smallholdings, ensured a progressive deterioration of the soil which intensified the poverty. Landlords were tyrants constantly preying on their tenants, demanding higher and higher rent.
The fall in world prices for agricultural products implied that, if possible, agricultural productivity should be increased to cover the fall in monetary returns. Hence arose that drive towards ‘consolidation’ of farms which was facilitated. This created the situation where small-holders were squeezed of the land mercilessly. This was a necessary pre-condition for the establishment of capitalist farming on any considerable scale. Cheap labour was required for this type of farming and a supply of cheap labour was created by the ‘consolidation’ which cleared estates of their small tenants.
In the ten years between 1841 and 1851 the farming pattern in Ireland was transformed beyond recognition in a brutal and indifferent manner.
Peasants who knew no other way of life tried to hold on to their farms and died in their thousands of poverty and disease as they scraped to pay the exorbitant rents, a method which was to evict them.
The result emerges that, in fact and practice, Ireland was in this period relegated to the position of feeder for the English market almost exclusively. At the same time Ireland was denied all possibility of gaining any countervailing advantage from the growing demand for manufactured articles and had no power of protecting even its own agriculture.
Underlying and conditioning the political events of 1845-50 was the great calamity which the English called ‘the Irish Famine’ but which the Irish called ‘the Great Starvation’. Failure of the potato crop was partial in 1845, general in 1846 and absolute in 1847. Deaths and emigration from the potato famine reduced the population by one-third in ten years; which means that the rural population was reduced to little more than one-half.
The failure of the potato crop was general throughout Europe but only in Ireland was there famine because only in Ireland was the peasant population totally or mainly dependant upon the potato crop.
During these years other agricultural foodstuffs were produced in abundance, enough to feed all those who hungered, twice over. Therefore the saying, ‘God sent the blight but the English landlords sent the Famine,’ is quite correct.
The next mass organisation to arrive on the political scene was the rich Confederation. It was formed by the Young Irelanders in Dublin in January 1847. Its objective was defined as:"Protecting our national interests and obtaining the legislative independence of Ireland by the force of opinion, by the combination of all classes of Irish men, and by the exercise of all political, social and moral influences within our reach."
There were forces at work inside the Confederation who were influenced by The Nation and whose political aspirations transcended those of the Repeal Association. This attitude was shown principally by the writings of John Mitchel whom Gavan Duffy had brought onto the paper to fill the gap created by the death of Thomas Davis. Mitchel had an intense hatred of English rule and of everybody connected with it. He despised the landlord class and was happy to work with anyone including Chartists, Jacobins, republicans and socialists in his fight against British rule.
There were strains and tensions inside the Irish Confederation which divided along class lines with Mitchel on one side representing the lower class and Duffy on the other defending the middle class interests. Ideologically, the Confederation was stimulated by letters from James Fintan Lalor, one of a family of farmers who had figured prominently in the Tithe War. He advocated moral insurrection, led by the peasantry. He was also a separatist. It is clear from the reception his work received that the Young Irelanders, with Mitchel at their head, had already reached virtually the same conclusion.
The debates on Lalor’s revolutionary plan for organising the peasantry brought out the divergence between the different tendencies. Mitchel and another man ,Thomas Reilly, openly advocated inside the Confederation, arming everyone. This line was opposed by Duffy and O’Brien, and Mitchel with his followers left the organisation.
Within one week Mitchel had a newspaper called The United Irishman out. Its motto was a tribute to the ‘men of no property’. Each week he gave lessons in the art of street-fighting. Coincidentally, the paper appeared in the same year as the revolution throughout Europe - 1848. Once again, the revolution in France had an effect on the Irish situation. A delegation of leading Confederates travelled to France to seek help. Although they were warmly received; and given an Irish tricolour as a present, the help did not go much further. However, the upsurge in militancy throughout Europe encouraged the rift in the Confederation to heal. Thereafter both the Nation and the United Irishman were promoting armed insurrection against the British. Confederate clubs began to drill and arm.
The British government’s response was typical. They passed a coercion act which allowed them to transport the leaders of the opposition to other countries. And as a final precaution they armed loyal Orange lodges. In the swoops, Mitchel was arrested and sentenced to fourteen years’ transportation. Instead of rising immediately the Confederates hesitated, waiting the conditions right. Before their plan got off the ground they were quashed by the measures taken by the troops.
After the turmoil of 1848 Gavan Duffy was the sole surviving member of the Young Irelanders. Against a background of massive discontent among the peasantry he began to organise constitutionally on their behalf. He set up a Tenants’ Rights League, which was representative of Northern as well as Southern peasants. He also restarted the Nation in 1850 and used it to campaign for the League’s demands which were the ‘three Fs’; these were: fixity of tenure; a fair rent; and freedom of sale for improvements made.
In the beginning the Catholic hierarchy endorsed the demands of the League and in fact hundreds of priests who knew the suffering of the peasantry were to the fore in the campaign. Support also came from over fifty Westminster MPs who were supported by the League. However, the League died a quick death when two of its leading figures, James Keogh and John Sadlier, accepted positions in the British government and forced the government to allow the Ecclesiastical Titles Act to fall into disuse in return for services rendered. Two Bills which were before the Select Committee which guaranteed tenants’ rights were also allowed to die.
Duffy, disheartened, resigned his seat, gave up the struggle, and emigrated to Australia.
Duffy’s emigration left the field of constitutional action in Ireland free for political adventurers and crooks of whom Keogh and Sadlier were classical examples. Apart from sporadic outbreaks of agrarian unrest, there was little alternative until there arose the Fenian Brother. hood, which revealed its existence in the period of the civil war in America.
Fenianism, or the IRB, was an endeavour to resume the work started by the United Irishmen. It constituted one of the most remarkable and enduring revolutionary secret societies in history.
Its first organiser in Ireland was Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa. From the remnants of the Repeal and Confederate clubs in the west Cork and Kerry areas he started an organisation and named it the ‘Phoenix’ so called because, like the fabled bird, it intended to rise from the ashes of the burnt-out Young Ireland movement. Other leading members of the Fenians were James Stephens, Michael Doheny and John O’Mahoney. All three were exiles from 1848 and had lived in Paris. There they came into contact with communist revolutionaries and learned of the theory of Auguste Blanqui. It was from Blanqui’s notion of a pledge-bound, hand-picked, disciplined elite, which would act as the shock-troops of revolution that they derived their conception of a revival and improved version of the United Irishmen’s conspiracy. Although they did not openly declare they were socialist the public statements and the politics of their newspaper The Irish People were most definitely inclined that way.
They organised in America and in Ireland. In America they used the cover of the civil war to train their men, which numbered 200,000. The funeral of a ‘48 man and a leading American Fenian, Terence McManus, was used to test their level of support. In America it took the embalmed body six months to finish the tour which was used to recruit for the movement. On arrival in Ireland the entire population of Cork turned out to greet it and tens of thousands did likewise in Dublin.
But the leadership of the Fenians was dogged with indecision about the timing of the rising and while they pondered, the British government moved against them, suppressed the newspaper, and arrested Luby, O’Leary, Kickham and Rossa. They were given massive sentences of penal servitude. The arrests in Ireland led to a split in America in 1865 and then again in 1866. James Stephens was deposed for mishandling the rising and his successor, Irish-American Colonel Kelly, issued a date for the rising - March 5th 1867.
It was doomed to failure because the government were on to the Fenians’ plans. Although thousands of young men turned out on the fixed date, the inclement weather and the passing of information by General Massey, one of the leaders, sealed its fate.
Three Fenians in England were hanged in September 1867 for their part in helping prisoners to escape. They were William Allen, Michael Larkin and Michael O’Brien. They became known as the ‘Manchester Martyrs’.
The death of the Fenian movement gave birth to a new struggle, the Land War. The principal organiser was a Fenian called Michael Davitt and he formed an organisation called the Land League. With the co-operation of a leading parliamentarian, Charles Parnell, a powerful struggle for revolutionary land reform was waged.
Michael Davitt had served seven years for his part in a raid for arms for the Fenian organisation. While in jail he read the writings of Fintan Lalor and concluded that agitation on the land question could lead to a re-opening of the national struggle.
There was a general deterioration of the economic position of rural Ireland; a deterioration intensified into a positive famine in the west of the country by a combination of causes, chief among which was the failure of the potato crop. This deterioration was caused by a fall in world agricultural prices, the large-scale agricultural developments in America and the advances of marine transport.
Low-income peasants felt the effects of the recession and found themselves unable to pay their rent. Wholesale evictions began.
It was in this fertile ground that Davitt planted his seeds for a land uprising.
He travelled to America to get the approval of the leading members of the Fenian movement. His plan was met with the approval of the most influential members on the one condition that he involve the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, Charles Parnell, in the campaign. He agreed to this.
On his return he met Parnell and he agreed to become president of the Land League. The League’s demands were for a reduction in the rent, no land-grabbing and no evictions.
Support for the League grew quickly and the government urged on by the landlords sought retribution. Davitt’s ticket of leave was cancelled and he was returned to prison. Parnell organised protests demanding his release and carried on the campaign to stop evictions. Davitt was quickly released.
The growing popularity of the Land League and the threat their demands posed to the land system brought further coercion on their heads. Hundreds of activists were arrested and jailed. Ribbon lodges, which the League succeeded, took up their old work of burning landlords’ homes and maiming their cattle.
The situation rapidly deteriorated to the point where the entire leadership of the League was in jail. Thousands of troops were trying to suppress the popular movement and in response to this the League called for the withholding of rents.
To defuse the situation the government introduced the 1881 Land Act but it failed to have the desired effect. They then opened up negotiations with Parnell who was then in Kilmainham jail. Parnell realised that without a central organisation to guide the agrarian struggle it would degenerate into uncoordinated attacks on the landlords. He agreed to compromise. His terms were: an end to coercion; the release of all state prisoners, especially Davitt; and state aid to peasants to wipe out arrears to allow tenants to take advantage of the act. In return, the League would end the agrarian violence and the Parliamentary Party would co-operate in the promotion of legislation in line with liberal principles. The terms were accepted.
The Land Act of 1881 introduced dual-ownership of the land. This had the effect of removing the land struggle from the centre of the popular struggle to the side lines. For the time-being, the struggle was shifted to the British House of Commons where Parnell, as leader of the Parliamentary Party, pushed for Home Rule. Because of the precarious balance of power between the Tories and the Liberals the Irish MPs held considerable influence.
Parnell forced Gladstone to introduce two Home Rule Bills. The first in 1885 and the second in 1892. Both Bills failed to get through and on each occasion they led to a return of a Tory government.
The hatred the British had for Parnell showed itself in the campaign of defamation they led against him. He died a man broken in mind and body.
After the death of Parnell and the second Home Rule Bill a period of comparative calm prevailed in the country.
The Tory government attempted to kill Home Rule with kindness, the Parliamentary Party degenerated, and a succession of popular movements in opposition to the PNP sprung up. Most notable were the Gaelic League, Sinn Fein, and the Connolly/Larkin socialist and trade union organisations.
Although the Fenian movement ceased to exist it wielded an influence on political events well outside its numerical strength. The author P.S. O’Hegarty in his book ‘Victory of Sinn Fein’ explained this influence thus:
"When money was needed at a pinch, for any organisations it regarded as key organisations, the IRB found the money (getting it usually from sources controlled by John Devoy). The GAA, the Gaelic League, the Sinn Fein, the Fianna, the lrish Volunteers - strange and transient organisations and societies were constantly cropping up, doing this and that specific national work. The IRB formed them, the IRB ran them, the IRB provided the money. The IRB dissolved them when their work was done."
The most influential organisations which gave rise to the national and social consciousness of the people were the Gaelic League, the emerging trade union movement, and Sinn Fein. A brief look at each one provides us with a backdrop to the 1916 Rising and the events which followed.
The Gaelic League was formed in 1893 by people who had no interest in partisan politics of any kind. The League set itself the task of reviving the everyday use of the Gaelic language. It had a surprising and continuous success. Revival of interest in the language lead to a revival of interest in Gaelic music, dancing, arts and crafts.
The Sinn Fein movement which began to emerge between 1900 and 1903 had Fenian influences for its father and the Gaelic revival for its mother. Fenian influences had begotten a series of literary and historical discussion clubs which combined to celebrate the centenary of ‘98. Thereafter they formed a Republican Federation which began to constitute an alternative to the Parliamentary Party. Armed insurrection as an ideal was never far from their thoughts but they evolved no practical programme capable of immediate application.
Such a programme was provided by Arthur Griffith in his journal The United Irishman, founded in 1898.
He argued for a ‘buy Irish’ campaign and a withdrawal of Irish MPs from Westminster to form an Irish National Council. This self-help policy would promote the flow of capital to Ireland, arrest emigration, and ultimately enable Ireland to enforce the restoration of Grattan’s parliament. It should be noted that this policy was based wholly upon capitalist assumptions.
To these agencies must be added the Irish Socialist Republican Party, founded by James Connolly in 1896. Though it never gained a mass influence or much hold at all outside of Dublin and Cork, the personality of Connolly was sufficient to ensure that it left permanent races. Its particular virtue, was that it popularised the frank use of the term ‘republic’ as the name for Ireland’s objective.
It had a powerful effect on young republicans of the literary societies and led them to follow ConnoIly’s example.
Connolly’s influence was seen also in the re-invigoration of the trade union movement in Ireland.
It was a crisis in the British political arena which ignited the Irish bush fire leading firstly to the 1916 Rising and then to the Black and Tan War which followed.
The left-wing of the Liberal Party, returned with a massive majority in the election of 1906, decided to curtail the power of the British landlords and aristocrats by reducing the power the House of Lords had over the Commons.
Their first attempts failed but after two elections they trimmed the sails of the Lords. The Lords were infuriated and grew increasingly worried at what they saw as an erosion of their status. They were also terrified at what they believed were socialist policies which the Liberal government was carrying out.
But it was the question of Home Rule to Ireland that they decided to challenge the Liberal government over. The battlefield was to be in Ulster because they feared the consequences of organising against the Liberal policies would have on the British class system.
They encouraged the growth of a movement in the North who were opposed to Home Rule and were prepared to use illegal methods to ensure that they were heard. The leader of this group was a man called Edward Carson. Loyalists paraded in the streets and smuggled arms into the country and then openly drilled with them, challenging the government to do something about it. The government were frightened by the support this grouping had among the Tories and other leading members of the British ruling class. Indeed, when the government attempted to use their own troops to quell the rising they refused to move against them. This became known as the 'Curragh Mutiny'. In the face of this opposition the government backed down and publicly stated that their plans for Home Rule for Ireland did not include the north-east.
Simultaneous with these developments in the North a bitter struggle was being waged by the Dublin working class against an array of bigoted capitalists led by William Martin Murphy, who were hell-bent on smashing the workers’ movement, then in its infancy.
Murphy’s refusal to recognise the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union and the expulsion of anyone who was a member of the union and in his employment led to a grand battle with Murphy being backed by four hundred employers who also adopted his policy of ‘selective employment’. At one stage, 25,000 workers were locked out, affecting somewhere in the region of 100,000 people. The strike dragged on for nearly six months and following a combination of pressures, not least of which was the absence of money to feed the striking workers’ families, the strike ended.
Out of the strike came the Irish Citizen Army which was used to defend strike meetings against the baton charges of the RIC. They later played an important part in the 1916 Rising. The leaders of the strike, James Connolly and Jim Larkin, became household names and earned themselves a place of pride in the annals of working class history.
While the Dublin working class battled for survival the Northern loyalists continued to organise. They landed shipments of arms, the most notable of which was on the County Antrim coast. There, with the apparent compliance of the British navy, a ship sailed into Carrickfergus harbour and unloaded tons of arms. There was no attempt by the government to apprehend those unloading the weapons.
These rebellious developments sparked off the formation in Dublin of the Irish Volunteers to defend the policy of Home Rule. Over thirty thousand people attended its first meeting. Shortly after this the government reacted by proclaiming illegal the importation of arms or ammunition. The government had watched Northern loyalists arming arid drilling for eleven months without saying a word. When nationalist Ireland followed suit, they acted at once. But it was too late. The IRB was behind the formation of the Irish Volunteers and the scene was set for an armed uprising - the timing was all that was missing.
With the outbreak of the First World War the question of Home Rule for Ireland was put into cold storage and a provision was added to the Bill which accepted that the six-county area could decide its own future.
Support for the war split the Irish Volunteers with the majority siding with John Redmond who on their behalf pledged their allegiance to the British king.
There was a strong feeling among republicans of all shades of political opinion that they should strike while Britain was at war. The belief that ‘England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity’ was widespread.
The plan for the Rising was known to few men. The strategy was that a rising would take place in different places around the country and that when word of the Rising leaked out the ranks of the insurgents would be swelled by the sympathetic masses. The Rising was set for Easter Sunday but it was dogged with misfortune. A shipment of arms brought in for that purpose was captured along with Roger Casement on the west coast and Eoin McNeill the Chief of Staff of the pro-republican Volunteers issued a countermanding order cancelling all movements on that day thereby scuttling the geographical spread of the Rising.
But despite the confusion that this caused the following day, Easter Monday, the planned rising went ahead. On the steps of the GPO in Dublin, Padraig Pearse declared Ireland an independent and sovereign republic.
The Rising took the authorities by surprise but after a week of intense fighting they forced the insurgents to surrender. Following the surrender the British, in typical imperialist arrogance, exacted a bloody policy of revenge. Over a period of ten days, sixteen of the leaders, including all those who had signed the Proclamation, were shot dead. Hundreds of those who took part in the fighting were arrested and deported to jails in Britain.
The armed rebellion was greeted by the general public either with bewilderment or hostility but this indecisiveness quickly changed to one of open support when the British took their pound of flesh.
The arrested men, tempered by their participation in an armed rising, used their imprisonment to rededicate themselves to the overthrow of British rule. The following Christmas when they were released they dispersed to their homes all over Ireland as convinced republicans, eager to be at work building local organisations for a new uprising.
After the Rising political attitudes in the country swung from the Parliamentary Party to the newly-organised Sinn Fein organisation, with Eamon de Valera at its head and Arthur Griffith as its vice-president.
Attempts to impose conscription on the country was met with fierce resistance. The British then tried to round up as many Sinn Fein members as they could on the pretence that they were plotting with Germany who was still at war with Britain.
All doubt as to who represented the masses was removed when in the 1918 general election Sinn Fein swept the board by winning 73 seats. The Redmondite party was decimated. Those elected in 1918 did not take their seats at Westminster and instead organised their own parliament. They met in January 1919 in the First Dail and constituted themselves as the government of Ireland.
The situation then was mat there were two governing authorities: one was Dail Eireann, backed by the moral authority of the people; and the other that of the British authorities operating from Dublin Castle who possessed the physical force to implement their decrees.
Despite the high level of repression throughout the country the trend set at the general election in 1918 carried on. In town and county council elections Sinn Fein councillors won 72 seats out of a possible 126. In rural and district elections, 28 counties out of 33, 182 rural districts out of 206, and 138 boards of guardians out of 154 returned republican majorities.
At the general election in May 1921, in the twenty-six counties, 124 republicans and 4 unionists were elected; and in the six counties 6 republicans, 6 nationalists and 40 unionists were elected. This gave an all-Ireland total of 130 republicans, 6 nationalists and 44 unionists. Tried by the electoral test the Irish people gave their choice to the republic persistently and refused it to the British authorities.
With this massive support the IRA launched a guerrilla war which lasted from 1919 to 1921. The IRA’s strategy as dictated by Michael Collins was to paralyse the enemy’s intelligence service in the country by killing its members. The popular support the IRA enjoyed rendered the RIC ineffective because they were ignored in the community; widespread resignations were the order of the day.
Faced with almost total impotency the British resorted to brutal repression. They employed the dregs of British society to impose their will on the Irish people. This group of uniformed murderers became notoriously known as the ‘Black and Tans’. These forces used wholesale murder, arson, torture of prisoners, and the systematic beating up of people, and looting of whole areas. The IRA fought back with increasing resolution and in the struggle developed into a force which became able to meet and defeat the Black and Tan murder-gangs.
Hand-in-hand with the war being waged, an alternative political machine was being built up throughout the country.
At the height of the war in 1920 the British introduced the Government of Ireland Act. The act conceded a measure of Home Rule to the twenty-six counties and imposed another measure of Home Rule in the six counties. An election was held and the results showed once again an overwhelming number of people favoured a republic.
The loyalists in the North were spurred on by the victory they had gained in being excluded from the Home Rule plan. They turned their attention to the defenceless nationalist ghettoes of the North and unleashed a reign of terror which had the approval of the highest authority in the land. The attitude of Northern loyalists can be summed up in the words of their Ieader Edward Carson: "Catholics had only to take an oath of allegiance to the king, and pledge their loyalty to the empire, and the trouble would cease immediately."
The guerrilla struggle had reached a critical stage by the summer of 1921 for both the British and republican forces. Black and Tan atrocities were even being condemned regularly in Britain.
A movement for a settlement in the war developed and pressure was put on the British government to seek an end to the fighting. Overtures were made to the republicans and after prolonged negotiations a truce began in July 1921. That December, a treaty was signed by the republican representatives which conferred dominion status on the twenty-six counties and excluded the six counties from the arrangement.
Inside the republican camp heated debate raged over the signing of the Treaty and the partitioning of the country. A majority of the IRA led by Rory O’Connor opposed the Treaty.
In the North the response of the Northern government was the imposition of severe repressive laws directed at the nationalist community. Tens of thousands of loyalists were recruited into the ‘Special’ police for the purpose of defending the new state. Loyalist pogroms in nationalist areas were commonplace. Catholics lived in entries and erected make-shift homes wherever there was a piece of spare ground. Catholics were also impoverished by being driven from their workplaces. The anti-Treaty forces in the South wanted to move North to defend the nationalist people but the outbreak of the Civil War prevented them from doing so.
The Civil War started when the Free State forces armed with British guns shelled the headquarters of the anti-Treaty forces in Dublin’s Four Courts. The war itself was fought with intense bitterness. The republican forces had neither the manpower not the material to match the Free Staters so on April 30th 1923 the RepubIican Chief of Staff ordered the cessation of operations and the IRA dumped their arms. The forces of counter-revolution had won. Partition became a grim fact of life.
Although the years between 1923 and 1969 were to see several military campaigns by the IRA to weaken partition they were ineffectual. It was not until the events of 1969 that the IRA once again emerged as a fighting force with a chance of securing national liberation.
Sinn Fein: Republican Lecture Series - List of Pamphlets
CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
CAIN is based within Ulster University.
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