F Rosa Rubicondior: A History of Ireland - 7. Birth of a Nation

Friday, 26 August 2011

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.

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