F Rosa Rubicondior: August 2011

Friday 26 August 2011

A History of Ireland - 9. The Troubles

Part 9 of A History of Ireland

The Troubles

So what changed?

Captain Terence O'Neill
In 1963, Captain Terence O’Neill, a loyal Ulster Orangeman and former Guards Officer, became Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. In a curious historical twist, he was a direct descendant of Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, one of the ‘flown earls’ and last of the native Gaelic chieftains whose confiscated land had formed the basis for the Ulster Plantation some 300 years earlier, and of the Ui Niall, High Kings of Tara. He was the first Northern Ireland MP not to have been closely connected with the founding of the northern state and was a reformer by nature. He recognised that Ulster had to adjust to modern times in which the educated children of the earlier Nationalists were achieving adulthood and were beginning to see the larger world through the window of television. He met Sean Lemass, Eire’s Prime Minister in 1965, the first such meeting since the founding of the two states. He also visited a Catholic girl’s grammar school, an almost revolutionary thing for an Orange Ulster PM to do.

This began to stir the deep suspicions of the Protestant mind to the extent that Ian Paisley, a young fire-and-brimstone Presbyterian mister and orator with ambitions, was able to raise a mob of militant supporters.  They staged a demonstration at Ballymena when O’neill visited a Catholic convent school there.  They had marched behind him with banners proclaiming “O’Neill Arch Traitor”.

Ian Paisley 1969
Paisley had first come to prominence when he led a campaign to resist the sailing on a Sunday of a ferry because it violated the Sabbath. He had also founded his own Protestant Unionist Party and was building a strong personal following with vehemently anti-Catholic orations condemning everything as a Popish Plot and the result of machinations of the ‘Whore of Babylon’. He was a throwback to the independent, anti-establishment Presbyterian radicals of earlier centuries. He also had links to an American right-wing fundamentalist Christian college, Bob Jones University, from which he had bought a ‘doctorate’ which he used to give himself an undeserved academic respectability. As events were to show, Ian Paisley was temperamentally incapable of being anything other than the leader of any organisation of which he was a member.

Ulster Protestants were polarising on socio-economic line, with working class Protestants following Paisley and the establishment and landed gentry sticking with the Ulster Unionists of O’Neill, but only into opposing Protestant Unionist factions.  There was no sense of commonality of interest between Catholics and Protestants from the same social class. The Protestants’ main concern was still how to keep what they had and to prevent Catholics getting any of it. The division was over the best way of achieving this, and O’Neill’s tentative moves towards reform (and they were no more than that) and Protestant insecurities were driving the process.

However, O’Neill’s perceptions were right. Catholics were beginning to make their voices heard and they were voices that were to rise to shouting pitch as the demand for reform and the perception that this was perhaps achievable grew. Inspired by the Civil Rights movement of Martin Luther King in America, at a meeting at Maghera, County Down, in 1966, a decision to form a similar movement in Northern Ireland was made. It would be non-violent, using the tactics of marching and civil disobedience, appealing to the world at large and occupying the moral high ground. Catholics had also taken heart from the election of two Nationalists MPs for the Westminster Parliament in the General Elections of 1964 and 1966 (Gerry Fitt and John Hume). They represented a social democratic and pacifist strand of Nationalism that believed change could best be brought about by working within the system and playing a full part in the political process. The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association was formed in 1967. The IRA, who had waged an ineffectual campaign from 1956-62 and had lost most of its support in the process, played no part in its formation. It was described as ‘middle-aged, middle-class, and middle-of-the-road’.

Despite the declares non-violence of the NICRA, William Craig, Home Affairs Minister at Stormont, had banned a demonstration planned for 5 October 1968 in Londonderry. It went ahead none-the-less and was brutally broken up by the RUC. Ulster’s response to legitimate Catholic grievance had been met with gratuitous brutality by the state’s police force. This event began to change Catholic perceptions but worse was to come.

On 1 January, 1969, a radical faction of the NICRA called People’s Democracy, which was attempting to broaden the appeal to include non-Catholics in a general class-based campaign for political reforms, began a march across Ulster from Belfast to Londonderry. Marchers carried banners demanding ‘One Man, one vote’. It had not been banned and had minimal police protection. The march arrived at Burntolett Bridge, seven miles from Derry, where it was attacked by a Protestant mob. Television news film showed RUC officers amongst the mob but doing little or nothing to prevent the attack. None of the attackers were arrested but instead the RUC arrested about eighty of the marchers they were supposed to be protecting. Later that evening, the RUC moved into Derry’s Catholic Bogside estate and indulged in a night of gratuitous violence and destruction, subjecting Catholics to sectarian abuse.

RUC Join in an attack on a peaceful Civil Rights March
Burntolett Bridge, near Derry
A pattern of increasing Catholic impatience, as their non-violent campaign was met with violence by the state, and increasing Protestant resistance to change, was to continue for the rest of the year. Ulster, rather than moving into the modern word as O’Neill intended was retreating into an earlier age.

Loyalists and RUC attack the Catholic Bogside Estate
Londonderry, 1969.
O’Neill resigned in April to be replaced by the well-meaning but ineffectual James Chichester-Clarke, his cousin. Rioting took place in Dungannon in April and in Belfast and Derry in August. In these latter riots, the ‘B’ Specials of the RUC became indistinguishable from the Protestant mob as they attacked Civil Rights marchers with sub-machine guns and tear gas grenades. In two nights, six people were killed and 300 homes were burned. British troops intervened in Derry on 14 August and in Belfast on 16 August 1969, to protect Catholics from the RUC!

Where was the IRA in all this?

They were almost non-existent. ‘IRA = I Ran Away’ became a popular slogan amongst the Catholic youth of the time. The IRA, following its failed campaign of 1956-62, had become a victim of its own irrelevance again, as it did in the Free State after 1922. It had fractured into divergent red revolutionary socialist factions and had lost much of its simple green patriotic republicanism. Now, it has a purpose once again as Catholics were being attacked by the state and British troops were on the streets of Belfast and Derry – albeit drinking tea and eating cakes made for them by ordinary Catholic families grateful for their protection.  In late 1969, it split into a revolutionary Marxist ‘Official’ group and a traditionalist ‘Provisional’ faction, deliberately named after the declaration of a Provisional Government by Patrick Pearce from the Dublin Post Office during the Easter Rising of 1916. The Provisionals were harking back to the days of the Black and Tans and the campaign of Michael Collins, et al. It was to be a prophetic change of name.

Events soon followed a similar pattern to the events of the late 1910s and early 20s. Clumsy and occasionally brutal actions by British troops increasingly drove the Catholics to follow the only leadership available to then, the NICRA having been played out. This allowed the ‘Provos’ to gain increasing control of the Catholic estates of Derry and Belfast, which had become ghettos during the 1969 riots. A few alternative leaders tried to take control of the situation for a while but they were mostly young radical intellectuals like Bernadette Devlin and Eamon McCann who lacked the skill and the relevance to do so.

Bernadette Devlin, MP
Bernadette Devlin scored a spectacular success by being elected as Westminster MP for mid-Ulster and becoming the youngest person elected to Westminster in so doing. However, her ‘Socialist Unity Party’, which was trying to appeal across cultural divisions, failed to divert the vast majority from gathering into two sectarian camps. It was simply impossible, given the times, for Protestants to follow a Catholic Nationalist radical and it was equally impossible for Catholics to have any confidence in the democratic process that has worked against them in the recent past. Indeed, the lesson they learned was that ‘democracy’ would be tolerated unless they demanded an equal access to it. If they dared to do so, however, the full and brutal force of the Protestant State for a Protestant People would be unleashed upon them. Rule Britannia! Britannia waives the rules! It was in this atmosphere that the Provisional IRA gained the dominance which was to last for thirty years.

It has to be said that Westminster, reacting to events, rather than controlling them, did not exactly help matters. In an attempt to minimise the effectiveness of the IRA, internment without trial was introduced in 1971 and even this was handled badly with detainees being tortures and Britain being convicted of torture in the Court of Human Rights. A demonstration against internment, during which Catholic youths began throwing stones at soldiers, was dispersed with gunfire when the Parachute Regiment shot thirteen unarmed Catholics in a panicky response to an assumed gunshot. Some of the dead were shot in the back and there was evidence that some were fatally shot whilst lying wounded on the ground. No charges were brought against any soldiers and a new enquirey into the events of Bloody Sunday (The Saville Report) has now reported. The British Government has formally apologised to the families of those affected by the killings.

Bobby Sands, MP
Internment bred further resentment in the Nationalist community as fathers, brothers and uncles were held without trial by the British, and this new generation proved a fertile recruiting ground for the IRA. Prisoners staged hunger strikes claiming the status of political prisoners and the right to wear civilian clothes. This in turn gave Nationalists new martyrs, and one of them, Bobby Sands, was elected to Westminster in a by-election just days before he died. His election demonstrated how polarised Northern Ireland had become, since he was the only Nationalist candidate and Catholics, when forced to choose between a militant PIRA man and a Unionist, voted overwhelmingly for the Nationalist. Northern Ireland was back where the rest of Ireland had been in 1920.

Westminster, in exasperation at Stormont’s inability to reform the province, suspended the Northern Ireland parliament indefinitely in March 1973, imposed direct rule from Westminster, and introduced the reforms it had been demanding of Stormont. Full adult suffrage in local elections, based on one man, one vote, was introduced; the Londonderry Corporation was dissolved; the RUC was disarmed and the ‘B’ Specials were disbanded.

In a last ditch attempt to re-introduce devolved government in Northern Ireland, the Unionist Party under Brian Faulkner and the Social Democratic and Labour Party under John Hume and Gerry Fitt met at Suningdale in Surrey. There they signed the ‘Suningdale Agreement’ which would provide the basis of a power-sharing executive based at Stormont. A Council of Ireland, which included representatives of the Dail, was established to give an Irish dimension, as allowed for in the Government of Ireland Act of 1920.

Ulster Protestants would have none of it. They were not going to share power with Catholic Nationalists and that was that. They brought Northern Ireland to a standstill with the political Ulster Workers strike of 1974 and the power-sharing government collapsed.

David Trimble and John Hume
With their Nobel Peace Medals
Twenty-five years later in 1999, when I first wrote this brief history, Northern Ireland was still ruled directly from Westminster. Unionists and Nationalists were continuing to argue over details of an agreement which, following a PIRA cease-fire was intended to put Ulster on a new, tolerant, democratic and above all peaceful path to the twenty-first century. The Good Friday Agreement (GFA) was endorsed by referenda in both Northern Ireland and the Republic, with the greatest support coming from Northern Ireland’s Catholic community. The two Northern Ireland politicians who lead the two sides in the talks, John Hume for the SDLP and David Trimble for the Official Unionist Party, then the main political representatives of the two communities were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1998.

In thirty years of the armed struggle, as Gerry Adams, President of Sinn Fein, with close ties to the PIRA said, 3000 people had died through both Nationalist and Loyalist paramilitary attacks and not an inch of territory had been gained; almost no political concessions had been won. Britain’s official policy is still little different to that stated in the Government of Ireland Act of 1920 – Northern Ireland will remain part of Britain until the Government of Northern Ireland decides otherwise. This was restated in the Good Friday Agreement as ‘until the majority of the people living there decide otherwise’.

Nationalist politicians involved in the talks now included members of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Provisional IRA, who had agreed to a cease-fire, embraced democratic methods, as did Eamon de Valera three generations earlier in the south. In 1999 the IRA remained an armed force, albeit under cease-fire.

Since then the IRA has disarmed as provided for under the Good Friday Agreement and as verified by an independent Commission led by the Canadian, General John de Chastelain. Protestant Paramilitaries too have disarmed and accepted the GFA.

Gerry Adams, President of Sinn Fein
Ironically perhaps, as the political process took over from the armed struggle, the moderates in both communities were replaced by the former militants and the Official Unionists, once unchallenged as the political party of Protestant Loyalism, has virtually disappeared to be replaced by the Paisleyite Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) with its links to the Loyalist paramilitary Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). Similarly, the SDLP of John Hume and Gerry Fitt has been replaced by Sinn Fein led by Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, former second in command of the Derry Brigade of the IRA at the time of the Bloody Sunday massacre.

Martin McGuinness, former IRA Chief of Staff
Now Deputy First Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly
To many observers of Northern Ireland politics through the Troubles, perhaps the most astonishing development was the coming together of Ian Paisley, former fire-brand arch-enemy of Popery in all it manifestations, the fire-and brimstone implacable opponent of Terrance O’Neill’s gesture towards the Nationalist community by visiting a Catholic girls’ school, shaking hands with Martin McGuinness, former IRA Chief of Staff and now his Deputy First Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly which Paisley now led. The two men, at least in public, displayed what looked like a genuine affection for each other. The lion had lain down with the... well, the other lion.

Ian Paisley and
Martin McGuinness
“Never! Never! Never! Never!” had become, “Well okay, so long as I can be leader”. Maybe it needed leaders with impeccable credential of implacable opposition to gain support of the two communities sufficient for them to co-operate for a better future for Ulster and not to be seen as self-serving and too prepared to compromise.

Maybe Paisley, having achieved his ambition to be the political leader of Ulster Protestants had nothing left to achieve and decided he would like to be remembered by history as the man who finally did the Christian thing, forgave his enemies and and made peace. Paisley has now retired from active politics and has handed power to his DUP deputy Peter Robinson who became DUP leader in his place.

As politics and democracy are increasingly accepted as the natural and proper means to express aspirations, just as in most of the United Kingdom, religion is becoming less relevant in both the north and the south of the island of Ireland. In a recent opinion poll a large majority of Ulster’s Catholics indicated that they wish to remain in Northern Ireland and for Northern Ireland to remain in the United Kingdom, and this in stark contrast to the increasingly separatist communities in Scotland and Wales.

In the Republic, the Catholic Church is being increasingly marginalised following a series of scandals. Nuns of the Magdalene Laundries were revealed to have physically and sexually abused abandoned and orphaned girls for whom they had care, and the Catholic Church at the most senior level has been found to have conspired to cover up a series of child abuses including the rape of young boys by Catholic priests.

Ian Paisley, First Minister of Northern Ireland
Martin McGuinness, Deputy First Minister
The Catholic Church is currently finding it difficult to recruit new priests and people are leaving it in increasing numbers, many now openly describing themselves as having no religion. So low has it sunk in public esteem that Enda Kenny, leader of Fine Gael and Taoiseach of the Dail, recently launched an astonishingly frank attack on the Catholic Church, following publication of the Cloyne Report, an enquiry into child abuse by clerics, and received wide public acclaim for it. The Vatican promptly recalled the Papal Legate from Dublin. This is the Church which was formerly able to demand its special place in Ireland be written into the constitution and which was able, with a few edicts, to kill off the first tentative moves towards an Irish National Health Service in the 1940s.

On 27th June 2012, Martin McGuinness, Deputy First Minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly and former IRA Chief of Staff in Derry, shook hands with Queen Elizabeth II in Belfast during a visit to celebrate her diamond jubilee.

Ian Paisley died on 12 September, 2014.

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A History of Ireland - 4. Suppression & Starvation

Part 4 of A History of Ireland

Catholic Suppression.

Anti-Catholic Penal Laws
Whilst these events were taking place in Ulster, the rest of Ireland was far from quiet. Ulster-style plantations had been established in other areas and primarily English Protestants were moved in there too. The Reformation had delivered the churches to them but the majority population remained resolutely Catholic.  William III enacted a draconian series of penal laws. These, whilst not actually outlawing the Catholic Church services and the ministry of priests, excluded Bishops, Archbishops and friars of Catholic orders, notably Dominicans and Augustinians, from Ireland on pain of deportation or even death.

Mass Under the Penal Laws, St Mullins, Co. Carlow
In theory, it should have been impossible for new priests to be ordained. The intention being to allow the Catholic Church to wither away. Other penal laws excluded all Catholics from holding any office of state, from standing for election to parliament, from voting, from practicing at the bar, and from joining the army or navy. Perhaps most importantly, Catholics were prohibited from buying land or holding land on a lease longer than thirty years, and from bequeathing land to their heirs. On his death, a Catholic’s land had to be divided equally between his children, unless one of them had converted to Protestantism. If so, he inherited the lot. By the 1760s only five percent of the land in Ireland belonged to Catholics.

In fact, the penal laws as they related to the clergy, were widely flouted. Priests continued to be ordained by friars who stayed in Ireland. Local officials turned a blind eye, or were bribed to ignore them. It was simply impracticable to enforce the law in a country so overwhelmingly Catholic, so the church continued. Masses were said in the open or in ruined churches over makeshift altars. Being excluded from just about every other institution Catholics turned increasingly to the Church for identity and to secret societies such as he Whiteboys, an agrarian movement.

Early Nationalism.

Today, Irish Nationalism and Roman Catholicism seem inextricably interwoven. Generally speaking, Catholics are Republican and Nationalist and Protestants are Royalist and Unionist. Of course this is something of an over-simplification and many communities can be found, and may examples of people from both communities who are neither one nor the other. None-the-less, the association is strong. Certainly, no one would seriously doubt that Irish Nationalism is strongly Catholic.
Jonathan Swift

It was not always so.

Irish Nationalism had its beginnings, not amongst the downtrodden, dispossessed and desperately poor Gaelic Irish, but amongst the emergent, affluent, and mostly Protestant, Irish middle class. It was predominantly inspired by the same sentiments that motivated the descendants of the original colonist of America to seek independence from the old country. It was the belief that they had come of age and were ready to determine their own destiny; to become a nation state in their own right.  These new Irish rebels were the product of a society that had prospered and built the splendid buildings of Dublin and had produced a unique culture as expressed in the literature of Swift, Sherridan, Goldsmith and Burke. They were the new Irishmen.

So it was, that early in the eighteenth century, the Protestant Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, Jonathan Swift, had urged his fellow Irishmen to burn everything English except English coal. The theory was developing that in fact the English parliament had no legal right to legislate on Irish affairs; that the was the prerogative of an Irish parliament.

Henry Grattan (towards the left in red) addressing the Irish Parliament
When, in the 1770s, the American colonists rebelled, this not only provided inspiration to the Irish nationalists, but it also provided them with the opportunity to advance their cause. Under the pretext of defending the Irish coast they raised an army of ‘volunteers’. This armed force gave Henry Grattan, the leader of the ‘Patriot Party’ the leverage he needed to extract a Declaration of Independence from Britain in 1782. In theory at least, Ireland had won the right to legislate on Irish affairs and Westminster had lost that right. There were to be two independent nations linked only through the Crown. There was little enthusiasm in the newly-independent Irish parliament for full Catholic emancipation, however. The Irish Protestants viewed the Gaels much as the Americans viewed the Native Americans. They were a lesser people; not part of the world of the cultured and civilised. The Protestant Ascendancy was to remain.

Then, in 1789, the French Revolution shook Europe. The Idea that the will of the people could shape nations made the established order tremble and the ordinary man to sit up and take note. It found fertile ground in Ireland, particularly in the anti-establishment minds of Ulster Presbyterians. In what was at first sight seems a remarkable paradox when seen against today’s circumstances, a group of Belfast Presbyterians formed the Society of United Irishmen to promote the twin goals of parliamentary reform and unification of the Catholic and Protestant nations into one. Such was the impact of the ‘New Order’ in France. New times, new direction. The time for the common man to come together in brotherhood. The Dublin-born Protestant, Wofe Tone, adopted the idea with enthusiasm.

United Irishmen
The United Irishmen had little success with the government however and, by 1796, they had become a secret revolutionary movement. They plotted with revolutionary France and on 21 December 1796, a Fench invasion fleet anchored in Bantry Bay in south-west Ireland intending to help United Irishmen bring about a Republic by force of arms. The entire operation failed due to a great gale which drove the French out to sea, but the event brought home to the government the extreme danger they faced and they acted with, by now, customary savagery. In 1797, the United Irishmen in Ulster were virtually destroyed. Instrumental in this was the reversion to sectarianism under the leadership of the newly formed Orange Society. Ulster had re-polarised.

In the rest of Ireland however, the United Irishmen were still organised and beginning to make links with the Catholic secret society, the Defenders, which was beginning to develop nationalist political thinking. Before long though, informants in high positions devastated the movement. Almost the entire leadership was arrested in one swoop in March 1798. The government again acted with characteristic brutality. In order to extract information the army used flogging as a torture. The standard punishment for a soldier was between 500 and 999 lashes and for civilians it was even worse. It mattered not whether the victim was guilty. If he had information, or only if he might have had information, the method was the same. He was tied to a wooden triangle and publicly flogged until he told what he knew. One eyewitness account says:

There was no ceremony used in choosing victims, the first to hand done well enough. ... They were stripped naked, tied to a triangle and their flesh cut through without mercy. And though some stood the torture to the last gasp sooner than become informers, others did not and one single informer in the town was enough to destroy all the United Irishmen in it.
Half Hanging
Other torture included ‘pitch-capping’. A paper bag of pitch was jammed on the head and, after it had partly set, it was set alight. The burning pitch fell into the victim’s eyes and he burned his hands trying to rip it off. The only way he could do so was by pulling off his hair and scalp as well. It also included half-hanging. The rope would be slackened every time the victim lost consciousness, only to be tightened again as he recovered.

It was against this backdrop of a systematic campaign of torture, and probably as a panicky reaction to it, that the first Catholic uprising occurred in support of the United Irismen’s cause at Wexford in 1798. Wexford had not been an especially troublesome area and had been lightly garrisoned, but the government got wind of an expected French landing and sent reinforcements with orders to search for arms. They set about the task with zeal and began flogging the Catholics with relish. What began as a localised resistance grew into a rebellion, but it was a rebellion that lacked direction, strategy, and leadership and which soon degenerated into atrocities. It culminated in the slaughter of 200 Protestant men, women and children prisoners who had been held in a barn at a farm known as Scullabogue. The barn was set on fire and those not burned to death were shot or piked to death. Finally, less than a month after the rebellion broke out the rebels were driven out of their main encampment at Vinager Hill.

Vinegar Hill Massacre
In the vicious slaughter which followed the scattered rebels were hunted down and killed. An estimated 50,000 rebels were put to death. The United Irishmen movement virtually died with them, their cause having degenerated into an orgy of bloodletting. In a final gasp, Wolfe Tone, attempting to land with a French force in the north, was captured when the French were defeated at sea. Tone was taken to Dublin for trial and committed suicide in prison. The noble aspirations of a united Irish people had foundered on the rocks of confusion and prejudice.

Last Meeting of the Irish Parliament.
Most of the penal anti-Catholic laws had been repealed and in 1793, Catholics ad been given the vote (though they could still not stand for election or hold public office) but the rebellion had shown that Ireland was still two nations. Protestants had received such a fright that they turned their backs on independence and saw union with Britain as their best hope of remaining in the ascendancy. In 1800, the Protestant Irish parliament acceded to the Act of Union, uniting Ireland again with Britain ‘for ever’ and the Irish parliament was abolished in 1801.


One event that perhaps stands out more than any other in the long tale of the Irish Gaelic suffering and humiliation, was the Great Famine of 1845-9. It has had a lasting influence on Irish Catholic psychology. Its impact has been likened to that of the Holocaust on the Jews. It is seen, rightly or wrongly, as a form of genocide perpetrated by the English on the Irish. The important thing, as with the 1642 massacre of Protestants at Porterdown Bridge, is not what actually happened, but what is believed to have happened.

Potato Famine
Why the poor Irish peasantry had become so dependent on the potato as sometimes the only food is complex. Most of Ireland was remote and poorly served by roads. Most Catholic families lived miserably poor lives subsisting on land for which they paid an extortionately high rent. Few of them owned any land at all. The only way they could feed themselves was to pay the rent in order to keep enough land on which to grow food. Any cereal crops they grew just about paid the rent and so they concentrated their efforts into growing the only plant that could provide enough on the small patch they had left. The potato was the only plant that could provide anything like enough, so it became the staple, and for many families, the only food.

Coupled with this was a huge population increase, almost doubling from four and a half million in 1800 to eight million by 1841. Population pressure resulted in more and more people living on smaller and smaller patches of land and concentrating more and more on the potato. The poorest had to hire out their labour, not for wages but for a small plot of land. With hindsight, disaster was inevitable should the potato crop fail. In fact, it did not need hindsight. The government was aware of the consequences, there having been a famine with thousands dead in 1817.

In 1845, it happened. On 20 August 1845, the Freeman’s Journal reported:


We regret to have to state that we have had communications from more than one well-informed correspondent announcing the fact of what is called ‘cholera’ in potatoes in Ireland, especially in the North. In one instance the party has been digging potatoes – the finest he had ever seen – from a particular field, and a particular ridge of that field up to Monday last; and on digging in the same field on Tuesday he found the tubers all blasted, and unfit for the use of man or beast.

Potato blight had struck.

By the middle of October, there were extensive reports of potato crop failures and they were most widespread in the west. By February 1846, three quarters of the potato crop had been lost, there were outbreaks of typhus in Cork and Kilkenny and, by March, it had been recorded in twenty-five of the thirty-two counties.

An eviction during the Great Famine
The story of the potato famine is a story of a third religion; the religion of supply and demand economics. Almost unshakeable economic beliefs were held by the political classes of the day including a belief that the law of supply and demand was God-given and inviolate. Interference with market forces would endanger the flow of trade and would bring economic ruin. Foremost amongst the disciples of this creed was a Treasury civil servant by the name of Charles Trevelyan, Permanent Head of the Treasury. He was considered the best person to go to Ireland to manage the situation and the solution, naturally, was to be rigorously enforced supply and demand economics.

Food had to be paid for at the market rate.  This, of course, completely failed to take account of the fact that the poor Irish could not afford to buy food, which is why they depended almost wholly on the potato in the first place. It would have mattered not how low the price was since they had no money. For very many Catholics, rural Ireland was a cashless economy.

The Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, instigated a three-point plan:

  1. Repeal of the Corn Law, which was an essentially protectionist measure to keep the price of imported corn high, so reducing the price of bread.
  2. Introduce a system of public works to provide employment.
  3. Import supplies of maize (Indian corn).

The first of these measures, though, for Walpole the most imaginative and politically difficult, was almost completely irrelevant to the starving Irish since they could not afford to buy bread no matter how cheap it became.

The second had some success but, because of bureaucratic obstacles, was slow.  It was usually too little and too late. Many people who found work building roads were simply too weakened by hunger to work and very many died on the job. Additionally, the money was so slow in being released that many people went unpaid, often for several weeks. One such was Jeremiah Hegarty, whose body had been found on the road outside Skibbereen. The coroner’s jury found that death was due to ‘want of sufficient sustenance for many days previous to his decease, and that this want of sustenance was occasioned by his not having been paid his wages on the public works... for eight days prior to the time of his death.

The third, though perhaps, at first sight a humanitarian measure, was in fact nothing more than a limited and timid attempt to influence the market for food. There had not been a market at all for maize, or Indian corn, as it was then known in Ireland, so it was considered safe to allow it to be sent there since there was no sacred market to damage. However, the plan was not simply to give it to the starving Irish. It was to be stored in the Government depot in Cork to be used judiciously as an economic lever when the general price of food rose too high. The first shipment of Indian corn in January 1846 but was not released until April that year. Then a near riot broke out.

Almost unbelievably, Ireland was not short of food. It was exporting vast quantities. Crops of other food were excellent; they were just not available to the starving poor. People were starving in the midst of plenty. In the autumn of 1848, just as news that the potato crop had failed again, the export of food from Cork on a single day, 14 November 1848 was:

147 bales of bacon
120 casks and 135 barrels of pork
5 casks of hams
149 casks miscellaneous provisions
1,996 sacks, and 950 barrels of oats
300 bags of flour
300 head of cattle
239 sheep
9398 firkins of butter
542 boxes of eggs

Trevelyan’s chief concern was that the market forces were being interfered with. People in Ireland normally suffered distress at this time of the year. It was natural and part of the economic cycle. He wrote:

Indiscriminate sales have brought the whole country on the depots, and, without denying the existence of real and extensive distress, the number are beyond the power of the depots to cope with. They must therefore be closed down as soon as possible.

Population Change During the Great Famine
The Government always maintained that dealing with the problem should be the moral responsibility of the landlords. In some areas, indeed, some landlords did a great deal for their tenants. In many other the story was very different. Some landlords took the view that those who could not pay their rents were vermin, to be driven from their homes. A correspondent for the Freeman’s Journal recorded:

It was the most appalling sight I ever witnessed: women, young and old, running to and fro with small portions of their property to save it from the wreck – the screaming of the children, and wild wailings of the mothers driven from home and shelter... In the first instance the roofs and portions of the wall only were thrown down. But that Friday night the wretched creatures pitched a few poles slant-wise against the walls covering them with thatch in order to produce shelter for the night. When this was perceived the next day the bailiffs were dispatched with orders to pull down all the walls and root up the foundations in order to prevent the poor people from daring to take shelter amid the ruins”.

So the famine dragged on. A Catholic priest wrote:

Potato Famine Memorial
... funerals passing and re-passing in every direction, the congregation on Sunday reduced by half, the churchyard like fields lately tilled, without a green spot, constantly visited by processions of a few gaunt figures, carrying with difficulty the remains of some more fortunate relative or friend... From the sad effects of the calamity all classes have suffered severely, but most of all those on the public works, and especially the old and decrepit of both sexes who were exposed without food or clothing to the piercing cold of winter. Indeed, almost all of these are dead. Being secretary to the relief committee of the district I have had a good opportunity of witnessing the dreadful effects of the system... on these poor creatures and could at this moment refer to many casesof persons who attended the committee for weeks before they could be admitted on the books, and, when admitted a few days later, had scarcely time to earn themselves the price of a coffin.

The population of Ireland in 1841 had been 8,175,124. At normal rates of increase, it would have been 9,018,799 by 1851 but a census in that year shows it to have been 6,552,285. Given that about 1,500,000 emigrated between 1845 and 1849 this still leaves about 1,000,000 unaccounted for. Modern Irish historians put the actual death from famine at about 800,000. They died in a nation that had plenty, the victims of official indifference and doctrinaire free-market economics. They were just as much the victims of religious zealotry as the victims at Porterdown Bridge and Drogheda, though on a vastly larger scale.

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A History of Ireland - 7. Birth of a Nation

Part 7 of A History of Ireland

The Easter Rising.

During the war, the authorities had allowed the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army to parade in uniform through the streets of Dublin, preferring to treat them as a joke, rather than moving against them. Until about twelve o’clock on Easter Monday, 1916 this is how most people – even the people of Dublin – saw them. During the war, Irish nationalists had flocked to the British cause and had fought and been slaughtered on the battlefields of Europe side by side with Ulster Unionists. The first Irishmen to win the VC had been welcomed home as heroes to cheering crowds and a tumultuous welcome. Far more Irishmen died in that conflict than in all the fighting over Irish independence put together. However, militant Irish Nationalism was not dead.

Patrick Pearse
A small group, including Patrick Pearse, who had led the Irish Volunteer breakaway, had been meeting in the tobacconist shop in Dublin owned by that old Fenian, Tom Clarke. They were members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood which, moribund though it had become, was being revived by, amongst others, Sean MacDermott, from Belfast. The Transport Union’s Irish Citizen’s Army, under Connolly, had also kept the independence tradition alive and it was tension between the IRB and the ICA which finally decided the breakaway Volunteers to act and to rise in arms in Easter 1916.

The general plan was for a small group to take over strategic buildings which commanded views of routes into the city or overlooked barracks, and for the main group to occupy the General Post Office building in Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street) to be used as a headquarters.  The Rising was to take place under cover of one of the regular manoeuvres.  It would then be extended to other parts of the country, and, to this end, a shipment of 20,000 rifles from Germany had been organised by Casement.

Casement, travelling in a German submarine, landed at Banna Strand in County Kerry and was immediately arrested. The British, having cracked the German naval code, also intercepted the arms ship, which was scuttled by her crew. The arrest of Casement and the loss of these arms, and the realisation that the British had wind of the planned rising, led Eoin MacNeill, leader of the Volunteers, to try to stop the Rising by placing advertisements in the Sunday Independent announcing the postponement of the planned ‘manoeuvres’. This, though leading to confusion amongst the conspirators, ultimately worked in their favour. The British, having become alarmed at the prospect of an armed insurrection by groups they had come to regard as something of a joke, had decided on the previous Thursday to disarm the Volunteers and the ICA, and to arrest the leaders. It was the news that Casement had been captured and that the planned manoeuvres had been cancelled that led them to conclude that such a rising would be impossible anyway and the move against the armed groups never took place. It would take place on Easter Monday.

The initial take-over of the strategic buildings was easy. The authorities were caught off their guard, and in fact many of them, and the troops, were at the Fairyhouse racecourse for the Bank Holiday races. One group of fifty, led by George Plunkett, went by tram – and paid full fares, though they directed the driver to go to Dublin at gun-point. Another man, Michael O’Rahilly, drove in his De Dion Boutin motor car. Having occupied the GPO building, Patrick Pearse read out the Proclamation of the Irish Republic:
In the name of God and the dead of generations from which she receives her tradition of nationhood Ireland through us summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom.
A group of about 1000 armed men (far less that initially planned) now occupied strategic positions in Dublin, including the GPO and Dublin Castle, and anarchy quickly broke out. Crowds of poor people ransacked Clearys, a shop in central Dublin, and looted it. Of the 2,500 troops garrisoning Dublin, only 400 were immediately available. Clearly, an immediate assault was out of the question and reinforcements had to be brought from the mainland. The plan was to establish a cordon round Dublin and then to move in through the suburbs to the centre. At that stage, the British had no real idea how many armed men they were dealing with. It did not all go according to plan.

Seventeen men in houses at Mount Street Bridge held out for 6 hours and killed or wounded 350 men of the Sherwood Foresters. Troops had to pass through streets where snipers were lurking and to get past makeshift barriers erected by the populace. In one incident, the South Staffs Regiment killed twelve civilians in North King Street. No rebels were killed in the GPO during the entire week of the Rising, only when evacuating it in the final withdrawal. At the end of the Rising, 300 civilians, 60 rebels and 130 British troops were dead. The rebel leadership was either dead or interred in Britain.

Sackville Street, Dublin
After the Easter Rising
The Rising had not been popular in Dublin. The rebels had actually been booed and jeered at by crowds as they were led to the quay and interment in Britain, but the actions of the British over then next few days turned the leaders into Irish heroes and martyrs to Irish Freedom. Seven of the leaders (even some who had played only an insignificant part in it) were shot within a few days. These were Patrick Pearse, Tom Clarke, Thomas McDonagh, Willie Pearse (apparently for being Patrick’s brother), Joseph Plunkett, Edward Daly and Michael O’Hanrahan. On 8 May, Cornelius Colbert, Michael Mallin, Eamon Ceannt and Sean Huston were also shot, as was Thomas Kent a day later. Sean MacDermott and James Connolly were the last to be executed on 12 May. These executions did more to win Irish people to the rebel cause than had the Rising itself.

Patrick Pearse had earlier predicted that Ireland needed a blood sacrifice to purify it and even drew the analogy with Christ. It is probably no coincidence that the Rising was planned for Easter. Ireland now had that blood sacrifice, provided courtesy of the British.

Michael Collins
Michael Collins had taken part in the Easter Rising of 1916 and had been interred, along with the rest of the rebels, in Frongoch, Wales. There he organised the members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, built up contacts from all over Ireland, and obtained information about sympathetic members of the Royal Irish Constabulary. Meanwhile the members of the Volunteers who had remained at large had developed a network through branches of the Gaelic League. When, as a goodwill gesture at Christmas 1916, Britain released those interred without trial, Collins had a ready-made network of undercover activists waiting for him.

The charismatic Collins, together with non-militant republicans such as Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Fein, put up a candidate at the by-election at Roscommon in February 1917. The candidate was the father of the executed Joseph Plunkett, and he won with an astonishingly large majority, winning more than twice as many votes as Redmond’s Parliamentary Party candidate. In May that year, they put up a candidate who was still in prison, in the Longford by-election, and again won against the Parliamentary Party. These victories swayed Irish opinion still further behind the cause so that, on the release of the rest of the internees in July 1917, Dubliners greeted them with a hero’s welcome. Amongst those released was Eamon de Valera.

Eamon de Valera
De Valera stood in the third by-election that year in East Clare and returned more than double the number of votes of the Parliamentary Party candidate. The new movement was banded together under the name of Sinn Fein under de Valera’s leadership. Sinn Fein had a rather vague set of aims that included an independent sovereign republic but lacked any real idea of how this would be achieved. Some hoped for American support, especially from the International Peace Conference which was to follow the Great War. Others hoped American public opinion would bring pressure to bear on the British government. Michael Collins favoured armed rebellion.

In the General Election which followed the Great War in 1919, the first in eight years in the United Kingdom, Sinn Fein won three quarters of the Irish seats, virtually annihilating the old Parliamentary Party. Amongst those elected was Constance Markiewicz, the first woman to be elected in a United Kingdom election. Those elected boycotted the Westminster parliament and instead met at Dail Eireann in Dublin and declared a sovereign independent Irish Republic. To the British, this was a meaningless gesture to be ignored.

Black and Tans
Collins then began to organise armed resistance to British rule and Britain responded by fighting back. The Royal Irish Constabulary was hurriedly reinforced with English recruits who, through a lack of suitable uniforms wore a mixture of army and police uniforms, earning them the name ‘Black and Tans’. These, together with special auxiliary police, quickly achieved what Collins had hoped for. They acted like an occupation force and alienated moderate Irish opinion still further with their tactics. By contrast, Collins’ forces, which had now adopted the name Irish Republican Army, were increasingly seen as a liberation army, fighting the occupiers.

Gaelic Footballs at Croke Park,
21 November 1922
By late 1920, Sinn Fein’s campaign had become a guerrilla was between two opposing groups of equally ruthless men. The ‘Tans’ which had become the joint name of the Black and Tans and the auxiliaries, used tactics which included burning houses of suspects and sympathisers, burning co-operative dairies to hit at people through their jobs, and shooting IRA men in reprisal for their own losses, were acting quite outside the law. The eye of the British was seemingly looking the other way. In one incident a platoon of twenty-five Tans attacked and burned Cork City centre and looted shops and bars. They even attacked the fire-fighters who attempted to put out the fires. On Sunday 21 November, ‘Bloody Sunday’ as it was to become known, the Tans opened fire with machine guns on the crowd and players at a football match between Dublin and Tipperary in Croke Park, Dublin, killing twelve. The same day, two IRA members and a Sinn Fein supporter were murdered by Tans in the guardroom of Dublin Castle, where they were being held. Events such as this were proving to be an embarrassment to Britain and Liberal opinion began looking for a way out.

Customs House, Dublin
25 May 1921
Then, late in May 1921, the IRA launched its most daring attack on the Custom House in Dublin. The Custom House was an important administrative centre for Britain and the IRA attack was a disaster. The force of 120 men became surrounded and surrendered. The Dublin Brigade was now seriously depleted. The IRA was also quickly running out of ammunition. The time had come tor talking. On 9 July 1921, de Valera and other Sinn Fein representatives met British representatives. A truce was signed two days later. In London, on 6 December 1921, the ‘Anglo-Irish Treaty’ was signed and the Irish Free State came into being. The Free State was to have the same Dominion status as Canada. It was to remain in the Commonwealth and its armed forces and elected Members of the Irish Parliament would swear an oath of loyalty to the King. In all other respects, Ireland was an independent nation. British rule in 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties had effectively ended after 750 years.

Civil War

The Anglo-Irish Treaty left the question of Ulster unresolved. The talks that led to it were certainly talks between the representatives of Britain and the representatives of Ireland. There had been no explicit or implicit exclusion of Ulster, though no Ulster representatives as such had attended. Additionally, the delegates had been specifically invited to London to define how best the ‘national aspirations of Ireland’ could be achieved. The Treaty gave sovereign powers over the whole island to the signatories and these powers were suspended for one month in the six counties of Londonderry, Antrim, Down, Armagh, Tyrone and Fermanagh. Since they could be so suspended, they must have existed in the first instance. The six counties could, at the end of the month, opt out of the Irish Free State if they so wished but the Treaty had accepted Irish nationalist claims for Ireland to be one country.

The question of acceptance of the provisions of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, with its obligation of an oath of loyalty to the King of the United Kingdom and to remain inside the Commonwealth, as well as the unresolved issue of whether the Treaty covered all 32 counties, divided the nationalist movement in the south. Some members of the IRA had joined the new Free State army, while others had refused to recognise a treaty what they saw as a sell-out and a negation of all they has worked for. They had remains aloof, armed and organised. They were also given a political respectability by de Valera’s opposition to the treaty.

De Valera had sent the negotiators to London as his plenipotentiaries with powers to negotiate on his behalf but he has also instructed them not to sign a final settlement without his agreement. Lloyd George had managed to give the final night of negotiations an atmosphere of urgency and, because telephone communications were not a straightforward matter in those days, the delegation, including Collins, allowed themselves to be rushed into signing the final agreement without de Valera’s say so. De Valera was thus able to dissociate himself from the treaty, and Collins, who had signed it, felt obliged to defend it.

Events came to a head when the British government threatened to abrogate the Treaty unless Collins moved against the anti-Treaty factions whom they had held responsible for the assassination of Field Marshall Sir Henry Wilson, in London on 22 June 1922. Wilson was security advisor to the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Sir James Craig, and was a die-hard Unionist. Collins gave a group of anti-Treaty IRA men occupying the Four Courts building just 20 minutes to surrender or he would move against them. They refused and other anti-Treaty men came into the two-day siege and occupied buildings in O’Connell Street.

Civil War Had Begun.
A week later part of O’Connell Street was in ruins and the Civil War had begun. Michael Collins had been the mastermind behind the IRA who had fought the hated Tans, the revolutionary and darling of the Nationalists and the man for whom many would gladly have laid down their life. He was now seen by many as the man who was willing to move against the republicans of Cork and Dublin but who let the Unionists of Belfast alone; a traitor to the Irish Republican cause. At about 8 p.m. on 22 August 1922, he was shot through the head and killed in an ambush at Bealnamblath between Macroom and Bandon near Cork, his home town, just a week after the death from a heart attack of Arthur Griffith.

Robert Erskine Childers
The anit-Treaty Republicans moved the civil war to a guerrilla campaign and the new leadership of the Free State, under William Cosgrave, invoked an Emergency Powers Bill which declared that any Republican taken in arms would be shot. Amongst the seventy-seven men so shot was Erskine Childers. The IRA retaliated by declaring that any member of the Dail who had voted for the Emergency Powers Act, would also be shot on sight. De Valera, after the death by firing squad of the seventy-seventh IRA member issued an order to ‘dump arms’. The ‘official’ IRA resistance to the Free State had effectively ended and the Civil War was over. De Valera declared that ‘other means must be sought to safeguard the nation’s right’. He was to devote the rest of his life to the cause of democracy and the political process.

From Free State to Republic

The legacy of the Civil War was to last for a generation or more. The IRA had fought for a republic and a united Ireland. They got neither. The politicians had taken over and the Irish people, tired of war and killing, were offered an alternative method of achieving these goals in the person of Eamon de Valera. The majority of the people had accepted the Free State and the IRA’s principle enemy became its own irrelevance. Republicans divided into two groups, at first closely linked but eventually to become enemies.

The IRA struggled to find a new relevance but resisted attempts to convert it to a more socially relevant organisation as a distraction from its real aim; the creation of a united Irish republic. De Valera’s group had more success however. He continued with the time-honoured method of standing for the Dail but refusing to take the oath of loyalty to King George V. In 1926, de Valera had reorganised his group, formerly known as Sin Fein, into the Fianna Fail (Warriors of Ireland) party. In 1927, Fianna Fail won forty-one seats against the government party’s forty-seven. His supporters attended to Dail but again refused to take the oath and were locked out of the chamber.

Following the assassination of Kevin O’Higgins, Minister for Home Affairs, by IRA men acting on their own initiative, the Cosgrave government introduced an Electoral Amendment Bill which required candidates to swear beforehand to take the loyalty oath if elected. De Valera and his supporters again went to the Dail and again refused to take the oath. But this time, after removing the Bible from alongside the book in which those taking the oath had to write their name, and loudly declaring that he would not take the Oath of Loyalty, he wrote his name anyway. The Clerk decided that the correct formalities had been carried out, and he and his supporters took their seats. Some supporters later admitted that they had carried arms, being fearful that they might have to fight for their right to take their seats. The side which had lost the Civil War had won the peace.

Paradoxically, this gave the IRA a new significance as the extra-parliamentary wing of an ‘only just constitutional’ opposition to a government that was losing popularity. Both the IRA and Fianna Fail had the same objective after all; the only difference being the strategy they employed. Both still pursued the Holy Grail of a united Irish republic and the overthrow of the Free State Constitution.

The General Election of February 1932 saw Fianna Fail and the IRA work in close co-operation and Fianna Fail secured a narrow victory. In 1933, they were returned with even more seats and a comfortable majority with the support of the Labour party.  Fianna Fail remains in power for a further sixteen years during which the Constitution of the Free State was done away with and Ireland became a republic in all but name. The transfer of power had been surprisingly peaceful as the losers in the Civil War replaced the victors. Ireland had become a parliamentary democracy in the modern sense of the word. IRA men were offered commissions in the army and those who had fought in the Civil War were awarded pensions. Other IRA men were formed into an auxiliary police force specifically to counter the threat to public order of a pro-Mussolini party formed by a former Commander of the Civil Guard, Eoin Duffy. The threat petered out within a few years, however.

With Fianna Fail in government, the IRA began again to assert its independence and continued parading and drilling with arms in public. In response to a request from de Valera for them to disarm they refused and instead demanded an assurance from him that he would turn the Free State into a republic within five years. In June 1936, the IRA was declared an illegal organisation following the murder of three civilians. The movement then fragmented into diverging groups. A radical left group left it over its lack of social policies and the militants divided into factions which favoured an attack on the North and attacks on England. The latter group was responsible for a series of bomb attacks in England, killing five people in Coventry in 1939. This group also collaborated with Nazi Germany.

In 1937, de Valera introduced a new Constitution, changing the name of the state to Eire and claiming sovereignty over the whole island. It also recognised the ‘special position’ of the Roman Catholic Church as the religion of ‘the great majority’ of the population. In fact, this Article was de Valera’s response to insistence by the Church that it be established as the official church of the state; something he opposed.

This new constitution made Eire a republic in all but name. The only reason for not including the term ‘Republic’ in the name was that it was adjudged that to do so would make an eventual resolution of the Northern Ireland problem that much harder. This new constitution was one element in de Valera’s attempt to give Ireland a distinct identity; the other was to be neutrality in WWII.

The extent to which he achieved this can be seen in the response he gave to Churchill and the reception this got in Eire afterwards. Churchill had gone on radio and said:
...had it not been for loyalty and friendship of Northern Ireland we should have come to – we should have been forced to come to close quarters with Mr de Valera or perish for ever from this earth. However with restraint and poise with which I say history will find few parallels His Majesty’s Government never laid a violent hand upon them though at times it would have been quite easy and quite natural. And we left Mr de Valera’s government to frolic with German and later the Japanese representatives to their hearts content
De Valera’s reply was swift and measured. He said:
I know the kind of answer I am expected to make. I know the answer that first springs to the lips of every man of Irish blood who first heard or read that speech... I know the reply I would have given a quarter of a century ago. But I have deliberately decided that this is not the reply I shall make tonight...
He then went on to excuse Churchill’s remarks as being in the full flush of victory.
... No such excuse could be made for me in the quieter atmosphere... It seems strange to me that Mr Churchill does not see that this, if it be accepted, would mean that when Britain’s necessity becomes sufficiently great, other people’s rights were not to count. It is quite true that the other great powers believe in the same code... That is precisely why we have the disastrous succession of wars... Could he not find in his heart the generosity to acknowledge that there is a small nation that stood alone not for one year or for two years, but for several hundred years against aggression; that endured spoliation, was clubbed many times into insensibility, but that each time on returning to consciousness took up the fight anew; a small nation that could never be got to accept defeat and has never surrendered her soul.
So de Valera summed up Irish history and voiced the aspirations of free peoples everywhere. He was given a rapturous greeting as he came from the radio studio and received a standing ovation in the Dail the following afternoon. It was the applause of people who understood what it really was to be a citizen of an independent Ireland.

A History of Ireland - 8. The Northern State

Part 8 of a History of Ireland

Ulster Volunteers
Northern Ireland and Statehood.

By 1911, Ulster Protestants had recognised that they could not continue to oppose Home Rule for the rest of Ireland but this realisation made them all the more determined to defend Ulster against inclusion in a Catholic-dominated independent state.

The Ulster Defence Force was formed and armed specifically to fight this, to Protestants, unthinkable prospect. If Ulster Protestants had anything to be proud of it was their history in defending the faith against Catholicism and defending their way of life.

A History of Ireland - 6. Orange Orders & Opposition

Part 5 of A History of Ireland

The Orange Orders and Protestant Opposition.
Flag of the Orange Order
The Orange Society had been founded along masonic lines in 1795 from a secret society called the Peep O’Day Boys.  This society has used terror tactics to drive Catholics from their homes.  The usual method involved pasting notices to their doors with the simple message ‘To Hell – or Connaught’, and knee-capping any who failed to obey the instruction.  The authority’s attitude towards them had been ambivalent, to say the least.  Alarmed at the Presbyterian-led United Irishmen movement, with its objective of rebellion and de-secularisation of Irish people, the British authorities had quickly seen the advantages of an Ireland divided along sectarian lines, especially with a Protestant population far more broadly sympathetic to, and even dependent on, British rule of Ireland.

This ambivalent attitude continued for most of the nineteenth century.  The Orange Society had officially been banned inn1830 when it was implicated in a plot to replace William IV with the Duke of Cambridge.  It was re-established under the respectable leadership of the Earl of Enniskillen in the 1840s, in response to O’Connell’s campaign for repeal of the Act of Union.  A Royal Commission, investigating sectarian riots in Belfast, in which the Orange Orders has played a leading role, commented:
“... the uneducated and unrefined, who act from feeling and impulse, and not from reflection, cannot be expected to restrain the passions excited by the lessons of their own dominancy and superiority over their fellow subjects whom they look upon as conquered foes”.
Any threat to the Protestant Supremacy in Ulster was greeted with belligerent defiance.  In response to the disestablishment of the Protestant Church in 1868, one Presbyterian minster said:
“We will fight as men alone can fight with the Bible in one had and the sword in the other ... and this will be our dying cry, echoed and re-echoed from Earth to Heaven and from one end of Ulster to the other; ‘No Popery, no Surrender!’”.
Clearly, the spirit of the Seige of Londonderry in 1688 still lived on in Ulster’s Protestant community, 180 years later.

Lord Randolph Churchill
Before the Home Rule Bill of 1886 there has been threats of civil war from Ulster Protestants with the formation of a ‘Loyal and Patriotic Union’ and newspaper advertisements asking for rifles and men. “Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right”, declared Lord Randolph Churchill in  an extraordinary abandonment of the principle of Law and Order within a supposedly democratic parliamentary party.  Support for treason and rebellion became  Tory Party policy; the will of the government would be resisted, with force of arms if necessary.  When the Home Rule Bill was defeated in the Commons, there were celebratory riots in Belfast in which people were killed.

With the return of a Liberal Government in 1892 with a large enough majority to carry a Home Rule Bill, preparations for the fight became more intense and thorough.  A convention in the Botanic Gardens in Belfast attracted 12,000 delegates and here, to an audience of tenant farmers and businessmen, the Chairman, the Duke of Abercorn, declared “We Will Not Have Home Rule!”  In parliament, the Duke of Londonderry said Ulster Protestants would be justified in shedding blood to resist the Catholic yoke.

Meanwhile, politics of Irish nationalism was in the doldrums.  The Irish National Party of Parnell had degenerated into squabbling factions while waiting for the time when it would again hold the balance of power – it would never be strong enough to command a majority in the Commons.  Nationalists, disillusioned with progress on the political front, looked for other outlets of nationalist sentiment.  They found this in the fast-dying Irish language and with it, Gaelic folklore and legends.  A ‘Gaelic League was formed in 1893.

Gaelic League Advertisement
Gaelic Journal 1894
The Gaelic League specifically dissociated itself from politics.  Everything uniquely Irish was encourages to distinguish Irishness from Englishness to resist ‘this awful idea of complete Anglicisation’.  A Gaelic Athletic Association was meanwhile promoting Irish games.  In a move that pre-empted the Black Consciousness movement of America in thw 1960s, Irish Consciousness was deliberately promoted.  Its middle and lower middle-class supporters found a new identity in being Irish and proud of it.  It was, however, despite its official stance of being non-political, heavily influenced by a small group of political radicals who well understood the political potential of such a movement.

A new breed of politically conscious Irish was developing with a proud tradition of Irish Gaelic culture and a nationalism born of Gaelic history.  The Irish Republican Brotherhood was resurrected, inspired, in part, by old Fenians like Tome Clarke, who, after seventeen years in British prisons, ran a tobacconist shop in Dublin.

Another attempt to capture the political impetus of the new nationalism was made by a journalist, Arthur Griffith through two newspapers, The United Irishman and Sinn Fein (Ourselves Alone).  Inspired by Hungarian nationalist who had withdrawn from the Viennese Parliament, he suggested Irish people should vote for MPs who would refuse to take their seats in Westminster but who would instead sit in an Irish Parliament in Dublin.  Sinn  Fein was unable to garner enough support to seriously challenge the Irish National Party in the only by-election it ever contested.  The National Party still maintained its hold on power because parliament in fact had been enacting further land reforms, following Gladstone’s Land Act.  Land Purchase Acts were enabling Irish Tenants to buy, with low-interest mortgages, the land they farmed.  In 1920, eleven million acres of land had changed hands and the purchase of a further two million acres was being negotiated, this time backed by compulsory purchase orders.  This was by far the greater part of the island of Ireland.

1913 Transport Union Strike, Dublin
Political discontent now moved to the Dublin proletariat who lived in some of the worst slums in Europe.  A major strike, the first of its kind in Ireland, occurred in Dublin in 1913.  It became a test of strength between the employer, Walters J. Murphy, and the Irish Transport Union.  The strike lasted for six months and resulted in a return to work without gain.  However, the Union had not been broken.  The Irish urban proletariat was becoming politicised.  They identified with the new nationalism rather than the Parliamentary Nationalist Party because most of the slum owners were in fact orthodox supporters of that party and Murphy himself was a stalwart of the Home Rule movement.  Clearly, the Parliamentary Nationalist party was not representing the interests of working people.  Larkin and Connolly, the founders of the Irish Transport Union, also formed the armed and uniformed workers’ Irish Citizen Army for self-defence.

The two 1910 elections had almost identical results.  The Irish Nationalists had 82 seats and again held the balance of power between the Liberals and the Conservatives, who had been playing the Orange card for all it was worth, yet they showed willingness to compromise that alienated the new nationalists.  The elections of 1910 had been fought on the issue of the House of Lord’s veto on Commons bills and this had bee promptly abolished by the Parliament Act of 1911, so there was now no real reason why the Commons should not pass a Home Rule Bill.  It was this very strength of the Home Rule movement that meant that Ulster Protestant Opposition to Home Rule would be more determined than ever.

Sir Edward Carson
Ulster’s Protestants had been preparing for this since 1905, when they had formed the Ulster Unionist Council.  It Had a formidable leader in the person of Sir Edward Carson, MP for Dublin University.  At a rally of 50,000 Orangemen at Craigavon, near Belfast, he said that, if the Home Rule Bill were to be passed they must prepare to become the government of the Protestant province of Ulster. 

Two days before the Bill’s introduction in the Commons, 100,000 Orangemen and Unionists marched past a saluting platform on which stood the English Conservative Party leader, Bonar Law, who told them, “There will not be wanting help from across the Channel when the hour of battle comes”.  He said later, in 1912, at a rally at Blenheim in England, “There are things stronger than parliamentary majorities ... I can imagine no strength of resistance to which Ulster will go, in which I shall not support them”.  Conservative Party support for armed insurrection by Ulster Protestants against a democratically elected government was to be total and unconditional. Churchill’s Orange card was to prove to be the trump card in the pack.  The Conservative Party was to use Protestant Supremacy and Catholic repression, wrapped up in jingoistic English nationalism and back if necessary by force of arms as the route to the political power they felt was their birth-right.

The third Home Rule Bill was intended to set up an all-Ireland parliament responsible for Irish domestic matters but excluded from anything to do with the Crown, war, the armed forces, international relations, most taxation and even, for six years, the Royal Irish Constabulary.  Never the less, on the bill passing its final stage in January 1913, there was a great deal of rejoicing in Ireland and it was hailed as a great national victory.

Signing the 'Solemn League and Covenant'.
In Ulster, it was greeted differently.  On 28 September 1913, a quarter of a million Ulstermen signed a ‘Solemn League and Covenant’, and a quarter of a million women signed a similar document, pledging to resist Home Rule.  Carson demanded in the Commons that the six counties of Derry, Antrim, Tyrone, Fermanagh and Armargh be excluded from the Home Rule Bill’s provisions.  In the face of increased Unionist militancy, including the setting up of the Ulster Volunteer Force, which was organised through the Orange Lodges, Asquith’s nerve began to go.  He began to discuss the exclusion of at least some of the six counties from the Bill in secret talks with Bonar Law.  Meanwhile the UVF had appointed a retired Indian Army officer with close links to the Conservative Party, to command it.  The Irish Nationalist Party started to become alarmed.  Suddenly their hold on power as holders of the balance between the Liberals and the Conservatives was disappearing as these two parties prepared to compromise over the exclusion of the six  counties.

Nationalists in the south began to organise in response to the UVF in the north.  On the initiative of the former Irish Republican Brotherhood members, they formed the Irish Volunteers.  Never the less, the UVF had stolen a march on the Irish Volunteers, and they were heavily armed.  They had successfully smuggled in 24,000 rifles and 3,000,000 rounds of ammunition and had distributed it across Ulster, so that they now had 40,000 men at arms.  They also had formed the ‘Ulster Provisional Government’ ready to take over at a moment’s notice.  The government also knew it could not rely on the loyalty of the army if called on to enforce the Home Rule Bill in Ulster.  In one instance, when asked outright if they would be prepared to move against the UVF, 60 officers, including their commander, at the Curragh Camp replied that they would rather be dismissed.  The Chief of the Imperial Staff even provided a written assurance that troops under his command could be relied on not to move against the UVF.  A mutiny in the army, going right to the top, would be the most likely outcome of such an attempt.

Sir Roger Casement
Meanwhile the Irish Volunteers had also been arming themselves.  Aide by Sir Roger Casement and Erskine Childers who organised the purchase of rifles from Germany, which was then preparing for WWI, and had them landed at Howth near Dublin.  The reaction of the authorities to this landing was in stark contrast  to their reaction to the Ulster landing.  An unsuccessful attempt to intercept them was made by a detachment of the King’s Own Scottish Borderer’s Regiment.  Later the same day the same regiment fired on a crowd at Batchelor’s Walk on the Liffey, killing three and wounding a further thirty-eight.

Redmont, then leader of the Irish Nationalist Party, has been ready, with the reluctant support of his followers, to compromise over Ulster, allowing counties to be excluded indefinitely from the Home Rule Bill’s provisions.  The killings ay Batchelor’s Walk made that compromise untenable, but another event in Europe was to intervene.  Germany attacked France and the Great War has begun.  Carson and Bonar Law agreed not to press for an amendment to the Bill and confined their opposition to the gesture of walking out of the House.  Asquith and Redmont agreed to a suspension of the Home Rule Bill for twelve months or until the conflict in Europe was over.  An Amending Bill, dealing with Ulster, would then be introduced.  Since the war was universally expected to be over with quickly, Redmont was, in effect, agreeing to a twelve-month postponement of the Home Rule Bill.  Two weeks after the start if the war, he King signed the Home Rule Bill, to be introduced at the end of hostilities.  It lay on the statute books, but was never enacted.

Redmont calculating that by so doing he would earn the right to have the Home Rule Bill passed without amendment, offered the Irish Volunteers to the British Army.  This split the movement and led to the secession of 13,000 volunteers who continued to call themselves the Irish Volunteers, while the remaining 167,000 became the National Volunteers.  This gesture did nothing to change the determination of the Ulster Unionists however, and in May 1915, Carson joined Asquith’s Cabinet.
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