Useful Notes: The Irish Revolution

The Proclamation of the Irish Republic

In 1912, Westminster passed the Home Rule Bill (1914) for Ireland, meaning that Ireland would re-establish its own Parliament (something which it had lost in 1801 through the Act Of Union). Unionists, usually Protestants descended from those imported to replace the rebellious Earl of Tyrone's subjects (the 'Plantation of Ulster') under Elizabeth I and further immigration after the devastation of the English Civil War (which had hit eastern Ireland hardest of all), who desired continued rule of the country from Westminster, strongly opposed Home Rule as disloyalty to Britain (even though the Irish Parliamentary Party, or simply "Home Rule Party" were long-time MPs and mostly only moderate nationalists) and saw the bill as a threat that could lead to a nationalist and Catholic-dominated country. However, British intervention in the war between the German-led Central Powers and the French-led Entente Cordiale (on France's side, no less) afforded an opportunity for the Liberal-Unionist coalition government to suspend the bill (which the Home Rule Party had been pushing for since 1870) on a plea of "limited resources".

The Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) was a paramilitary group formed by Unionist leaders Edward Carson and James Craig with the goal of defending British dominance in Ireland by the use of force if necessary. Within a year it was estimated the UVF had a force of over 100,000 men, half of whom were armed with rifles. The pro-independence paramilitaries such as the Irish National Volunteers (IVF) and Irish Citizen Army formed in response, also arming themselves. Key figures in these movements were often Irish Republican Brotherhood members - a secret society dedicated to Irish Independence.

Although the coalition had hoped, perhaps naively, that involvement in the World War would avert an armed conflict in Ireland in hindsight it actually made it inevitable (thanks to the suspension of the Home Rule bill). Unionists answered Britain’s call for the fight against Germany and the UVF merged into the 36th Ulster division of the British Army (much of the original UVF were killed fighting in the trenches - a revived Loyalist terrorist organization of the same name formed in Northern Ireland later during The Troubles.)

As Britain impoverished herself building a million-strong army from scratch, which she then deployed overseas, Irish Nationalists saw a window of opportunity for a successful rebellion and by 1915 the Irish Republican Brotherhood, Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army started to plan one.

On Easter Monday of 1916 the Easter Rising (as it came to be known) began with Patrick Pearse reading the Proclamation of the Irish Republic out on the steps of the General Post Office in Dublin, before two flags, one green with "The Irish Republic" on it, the other the Irish Tricolour note , were hoisted on the roof.

The week-long 1916 Rising involved several hundred armed rebels, who attempted to seize control of strategic areas of Dublin. The Dublin Metropolitan Police quickly backed out because they were so heavily out-gunned and didn't have the training or equipment to fight armed enemies, so the Army was called in instead. The rebels refused to surrender, so the Army used a division's worth (c.15k) of troops to clear the city in messy block-by-block urban fighting. Given the similar armament between both sides, artillery was (from a military standpoint, correctly) seen was the only way to root out the defenders with anything less than horrific losses for the attackers (in this case probably no more than a thousand dead and crippled, but still). Unfortunately, direct-fire note  was not an option because of the rebels' heavy armament and the Army (let alone their reservists) was not renowned for the accuracy of their indirect-fire note  at this time. This lead to a disastrous amount of friendly fire upon soldiers and particularly civilians, with the artillery being the biggest cause of (fatal) wounds and collateral damage during the rebellion. More than two hundred civilians, and a hundred rebels and soldiers each, died and more than 2000 civilians were injured. That so many survived was thanks to the presence of major hospital facilities and an organised medical response. On Saturday, following days of shelling and with the GPO reduced to a hulk, Pearse surrendered, since their position had become untenable, and an unconditional surrender notice was sent to the other garrisons. The GPO remained the only one of the Republican garrisons to be taken physically.The weight of public opinion was on the army's side when Pearse surrendered - the week's shelling had devastated the city centre and crippled the city for a week. Over three thousand were arrested and ninety were tried before military tribunals in accordance with the state of martial law then in existence over the city as a result of the fighting, found guilty of high treason ("levying war against the Sovereign"), and sentenced to death. In the end, only fifteen were executed (including all seven signatories of the Proclamation) due to what would follow.

In the aftermath of the event public opinion began to change. Anonymous pamphlets circulated emphasizing the Catholic piety of the rebels and particularly the leaders. Yet more pamphlets within Dublin emphasised their 'local-ness', and without, their 'Irish-ness'. Eventually both types openly called the rebel leaders 'martyrs', an apt religious appellation. Many pamphlets focused on the gory details of the rebels' suffering and the army's incompetence in dealing with the uprising, claiming that the Army's response had not been incompetent (which it undoubtedly was, and would remain so) so much as it had been brutal and expressly anti-Irish. Notoriously, the Irish Citizen Army leader James Connolly, who had a gut-wound and a shattered ankle and would have died within two or three days at most, was still found guilty by the tribunal and executed in accordance with military law - after being taken to the place of execution on a stretcher, then tied upright to a chair for the firing squad.

The only surviving leader of the Rising was Sinn Féin Party leader Éamon de Valera. The Army didn't feel they could execute him because he was a US citizen, and anything that might inflame US public opinion could set back the United States' chances of entering World War I on the Entente Cordiale's side. (De Valera would of course go on to become one of the most important individuals in Irish history, becoming both Taoiseach and eventually President of Ireland.) After a slow start, the eventual effect of the rebellion was to increase support for Sinn Féin exponentially - once the rebellion came to be seen less as a madmen's attack upon their own people and more as a noble act of self-sacrifice resisting foreign oppression.

De Valera and other captured Irish rebels were released in 1918 after an amnesty. Immediately they began to campaign against conscription into the British Army (which had just been introduced to Ireland) and for the Autumn general election. Due to wide-spread popular support stemming from outrage at conscription (a measure Unionists also opposed) and mass internment of Irish people suspected of aiding the rebellion, Sinn Féin won in a landslide, winning 73 seats out of 105. With this mandate, on 21 January 1919 the Sinn Féin delegates formed their own parliament, Dáil Éireann (Irish Chamber), which elected a government including Éamon de Valera as President of the Executive Council note  and Michael Collins as Minister for Finance, and reiterated their independence proclamation. This is regarded as the official beginning of the War Of Independence.

Fighting began the same day, with a (technically unauthorized) IRA ambush of RIC members transporting gelignite, at Soloheadbeg in Tipperary. The Irish Republican Army had been formed in 1918 under Michael Collins, which Dáil Eireann had no control over (the IRA did not officially swear loyalty to them until August 1920), and the Dáil was banned in August of 1919, with its entire cabinet being arrested save Collins (in fact only 27 of the 73 candidates elected were out of prison to attend when the Dáil first assembled). The IRA went on to fight British forces by guerrilla methods, with great success. Collins pioneered urban guerrilla tactics which later movements used from Israel to China. In 1920, British WW1 veterans were sent in as auxiliary troops and police reservists. Becoming known as "Black and Tans" due to the colour of their uniforms, they were notorious for brutality, and were disliked for it even by many British officers. Irish hatred for British forces on their soil was fuelled even more when, in the space of a week, Lord Mayor of Cork Terence Mac Swiney died after a 74-day hunger strike that brought Britain international criticism, and an 18-year old medical student and member of the IRA, Kevin Barry, was sentenced to death and hanged on Felony Murder charges, though he had not actually killed anyone. This served only to harden resistance, and the underground Irish government gained control of most rural areas, even setting up its own Republican courts that handled both civil and criminal cases. Although these were not empowered to pass death sentences on prisoners, IRA military tribunals that convicted people of collaborating with British forces could and did, along with with its mainly extrajudicial killings, especially of police officers, informants or intelligence agents. For its part, the British administration put to death 24 IRA members (including Kevin Barry) convicted of various offences, and Munster was under martial law. As Irish coroner's juries repeatedly found that British forces had committed crimes against civilians, inquests were transferred to the military courts of inquiry, which then whitewashed atrocities. Such abuses merely served to increase support for the Republicans.

In June 1921, Britain called a Truce, and peace talks began. British and Irish representatives in London met to discuss a treaty (and only some time later would Collins admit their timing had been fortuitous - the IRA, always working with limited supplies, only had enough ammunition to last them another week or two). After much wrangling in which full independence was rejected from Britain's side, a compromise was agreed - Ireland would become a self-governing Dominion like Canada or Australia, called the Irish Free State, with a British Governor-General and requiring oaths of loyalty by all government officials (later to become a major issue). However, the 6 Protestant-majority counties in the north were allowed to opt out if they wished and remain part of Britain, which they immediately did. Previously the Government of Ireland Act 1920 had been passed to divide Ireland into two territories, Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland. In 1921 the first Parliament of Northern Ireland was opened at Stormont, along with the Southern one in Dublin. Northern Ireland was thus also born. This has often been referred to, somewhat inaccurately, as "Ulster" particularly by Unionists, though the historic province contained 9 counties, but 3 Catholic-majority ones (Donegal, Monaghan and Cavan) became part of the Irish Free State.

The Treaty of Independence divided Irish Nationalists, including members of the IRA, with one half (led by Éamon de Valera) viewing it as a betrayal, leaving part of Ireland in British hands, with Catholics persecuted by Loyalist violence. Michael Collins, on the other hand, led the Treaty delegation and viewed it merely as a stepping stone to an independent, united Ireland (he also smuggled arms to Northern Ireland so the people there could defend themselves). He became the Commander-In-Chief of the Irish Free State Army, formed of IRA troops who supported him. Anti-Treaty IRA members were branded "Irregulars". A tragic, bloody Civil War broke out, with former comrades fighting on both sides against each other. During an ambush in his native County Cork, Michael Collins was killed by anti-Treaty forces (intentionally or not remains unclear to this day). Early the next year, the anti-Treaty forces surrendered, although the IRA remained. In 1949 the Republic of Ireland was declared, absolutely independent from the British Commonwealth. Northern Ireland remained a source of The Troubles, with cross-border involvement, until 1998.

The Irish Revolution in fiction:

  • Boardwalk Empire: Season 2 has Nucky dealing with the IRA, trading American firearms for Irish whisky. However John McGarrigle (the IRA leader Nucky conducts business with) is a Composite Character of sorts, bearing a strong physical resemblance to Éamon de Valera but being pro-treaty like Michael Collins and getting assassinated as a result.
  • Michael Collins: Mostly involving historical figures, including the title character.
  • The Wind That Shakes the Barley
  • An episode of Young Indiana Jones featured Indy getting caught in the Easter Rising en route to join the Belgian army and fight in World War One.
  • Downton Abbey: Branson has relatives who died in the Easter Rising. An Irish nationalist and socialist, he wholeheartedly and full-throatedly supports the revolution, much to the discomfort of some of the other servants and the Crawleys (particularly after he marries Sybil). After Series 2 (in 1919) he departs for Ireland to take up a career in journalism, but he (and a pregnant Sybil) is forced to flee back to Downton in Series 3 (in 1920) after one of his revolutionary activities goes horribly awry.
  • Peaky Blinders: Set in Birmingham in 1919 through the 1920s, but several IRA characters appear. It is by far the least sympathetic portrait of the IRA on this list, portraying them as universally composed of Ax-Crazy murderers to the point the series can only be called enthusiastically Unionist. That said, its portrayal of the Unionist side is, if anything, even worse, with the overzealous CI Campbell's insane racism (even for one of his time) and his use of Unionist paramilitaries (who seem to be cold-blooded murderers to a man) to do his dirty work. Frankly, the only people who come off well are the Blinders themselves.


The Irish Revolution contains tropes such as:

  • Cool Guns: The IRA were some of the very earliest users of the Thompson submachine gun.
    • They were also well known for using the Mauser (the original .43 caliber Model 1871). After the Easter Rising, British authorities were able to identify many of the shooters by the bruises on their shoulders.
  • Combat Pragmatist: The IRA mimicked the tactics of the Boers to great effect. Justified in that conventional warfare had turned out to be a disaster.
  • Epic Fail: Early in the war the Divisional Police Commissioner for Munster, Gerald Smyth, gave a speech in Listowel to an assembled group of RIC officers intended both to stiffen morale and reassure the police they would not face penalty if they shot someone who turned out to be innocent. Thirteen RIC officers resigned outright after the speech and several of them actually defected to the IRA.
  • Evil Brit: The Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries were well known to have caused many atrocities (see Police Brutality) (Though they weren't all from the British mainland. Some were actually recruited within Ireland itself.) The RIC would not be considered this, though, since regular RIC men were usually local career policemen.
    • Ironically, the many nastier elements of both sides probably qualified (at least by political technicality) even if those on the Republican side did not want to be considered "Brits" and Ireland was not part of the geographic island of Great Britain.
  • Heel-Face Turn: Both the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) saw several defections to the IRA. Ned Broy and David Neligan (both of DMP) in particular were incredibly valuable Reverse Moles.
  • Improbable Age: Many of the Irish leaders were remarkably young, at least by the standards of the time. Michael Collins famously was only 31 when he died and many of his peers were not much older.
  • Insistent Terminology: Rarely, if ever, called the "Irish Revolution" in Irish political and academic spheres, and instead referred to as "the struggle for independence" and similar, since the post-Independence period. Some academics have speculated that "revolution" sounded too left-wing to many, given the country traditionally being socially and fiscally conservative.
  • La Résistance: The IRA.
  • Police Brutality: The Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries were almost universally despised for their thuggery even by the RIC officers they were supposedly reinforcing, along with many in Britain who would not automatically have sympathised with the IRA. King George V himself told the wife of the Chief Secretary that he hated the idea of the Black and Tans.
    • This was also enforced by the Republican government in the areas it was able to take over, and continued up into the Irish Civil War. Though to be fair, the IRA guerrillas could be pretty brutal themselves.
  • Spotlight-Stealing Squad: The Irish Citizen Army numbered less than 300 people and during the Easter Rising they were outnumbered more than three to one by the non-socialist Irish Volunteers, yet to read some Irish writers like Seán O'Casey (a committed socialist himself) they did most of the fighting. In particular Popular History has it that most Dubliners in the fighting were in the Citizen Army ranks while the Volunteers represented rural Ireland, but in reality the Volunteers doing the actual shooting were mostly from Dublin.
  • Token Good Teammate: Arguably, the Republican rebels were briefly this to the Central Powers.
  • World War One: Overlapped with the early parts of it, and had a major influence on how it turned out. Both sides got huge amounts of experienced, hardened men and well-worn materials from the same side of the trenches. The result when they returned to a turbulent Ireland was ugly.

Alternative Title(s):

Irish Revolution