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. "Home Rule is Rome Rule" as the Protestants fearful of a "Catholic takeover" liked to put it. 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 Britains 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, and generally proved themselves only good for murdering civilians.)
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. 15 k) 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 as 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 led 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. Over three thousand were arrested and ninety were tried. Military courts, in accordance with the state of martial law then in existence over the city as a result of the fighting, found the leaders guilty of high treason ("levying war against the Sovereign"), and sentenced them 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. The executions themselves played a large part in this: moderate MPs in the British parliament, including even the hard-core unionist Edward Carson, had urged the military to not make martyrs of the rebels, but the military commander, General Sir John Maxwell, was deaf to the political effects of what he was doing and only obeyed the law as he saw it. Anonymous pamphlets circulated emphasizing the Catholic piety of the rebels, especially their leaders. Yet more pamphlets within Dublin emphasised their 'local-ness', and without, their 'Irish-ness'. Eventually both types openly called the rebel leaders 'martyrs'. 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 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 was executed in accordance with military law—after being taken on a stretcher to the place of execution, almost delirious with fever, then tied upright to a chair for the firing squad.
The only surviving senior 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 widespread 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, taking 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. Irish Unionists were incensed by Irish Nationalist's sympathy for men they simply considered traitors and mass murderers and their disregard for their victims, making them more determined than ever to remain part of Britain.
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. Charles O'Neill was inspired to write the well-known ballad "The Foggy Dew" after hearing so many names in the roll-call described as faoi ghlas ag na Gaill - "locked up by the foreigners"). The IRA went on to fight British forces by guerrilla methods, with limited success, the conflict largely restricted to Dublin, Tipperary and Cork, more British soldiers dying of natural causes than killed by the IRA. The security forces were deeply disadvantaged by the Home Rule Bill, meaning that some form of independence was inevitable, creating turncoats in the police wishing to "feather their nests" after independence and making Unionists and moderate Nationalists reluctant to help them as they would not be able to be protected afterwards. The British government also followed an incredibly naive policy of appeasement, continually releasing convicted IRA members as a sop to Irish Nationalist opinion right up until the summer of 1920, the released prisoners immediately returning to killing.
In 1920, the British formed two special police units to deal with the insurgency: the Royal Irish Constabulary Special Reserve, universally known as the "Black and Tans" (or just "Tans") due to the color of their uniformsnote , and the considerably smaller Royal Irish Constabulary Auxiliary Division, known as the "Auxiliaries" or "Auxies". The Tans were mostly WW1 British Army veterans; the Auxiliaries were all former British Army officers, and both units became notorious for brutality, with the Auxies in particular being disliked even by the regular British Army for their poor discipline and drunkenness. However they would prove extremely effective, killing or capturing hundreds of terrorists (although this also involved brutalizing many more people whose involvement in the rebel cause could be questionable at best). Irish Nationalist hatred for British forces on their soil was fueled even more when, in the space of a week, Lord Mayor of Cork Terence MacSwiney died after a 74-day hunger strike that brought Britain international criticism—something which would be repeated later with Bobby Sands in 1981. Mac Swiney was the head of the Cork IRA and captured documents implicated him in multiple murders. An 18-year old medical student and member of the IRA, Kevin Barry, was also sentenced to death and hanged on Felony Murder for his part in an attack in which a 17 year old soldier was killed. Irish Nationalist sympathy for the killers and disregard for their victims generated huge hatred from Irish Unionists who accused them of depraved hypocrisy. This served only to harden Irish Nationalist resistance, and the underground Irish government gained control of some 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 its' mainly extrajudicial killings, especially of police officers, informants or intelligence agents. Irish Unionists pointed out that the IRA's definition for a "collaborator" was anyone who opposed them and therefore all Unionists. 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 who defended the vigilante actions of the security forces in response to IRA atrocities.
In July 1921, Britain called a Truce, and peace talks began. British and Irish representatives in London met to discuss a treaty. 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. He would declare the IRA "dead beat" and "six weeks from defeat", British intelligence greatly aided by Collins' mania for documents which delivered them a mother lode of information, the IRA losing 500 dead and 4500 captured. 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 six 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 was signed after British Prime Minister Lloyd George threatened an immediate return to conflict, Collins considering the IRA's chances as being akin to "Rabbits coming out of their holes into the sights of the hunter's guns". It 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 as part of Britain, with Catholics in Northern Ireland facing revenge attack by Loyalists in response to IRA violence, no more than the Irish Parliamentary Party could have gained peacefully if they had agreed to partition. 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 IRA could continue their murder campaign against Unionists/Protestants). The Treaty was narrowly passed by the Irish parliament. the Dail but overwhelmingly endorsed by the majority of the population in a plebacite, beaten down by revenge attacks by the security forces. Collins 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, particularly the title character.
- The Wind That Shakes the Barley covers both the War Of Independence and the Civil War, centred around two brothers who are on the same side during the former and on opposite sides for tge latter.
- Corto Maltese: "Concerto In O Minor For Harp And Nitroglycerin" features Corto Maltese in Ireland during this period.
- An episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles features 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, the burning out of Southern Irish Unionists/Protestants in an act of ethnic cleansing.
- 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 that 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 (and Winston Churchill, whose Unionist paramilitaries aren't really).
- The Plough and the Stars: A classic 1926 play by Sean O'Casey showing the Easter Rising from the point of view of a group of working class Dubliners.
- Young Cassidy features "Jack Cassidy", that is, Sean O'Casey, helping organize and train an Irish Republican militia group. He winds up resigning from the group due to a dispute with leadership, and as a result watches the Easter Rising from the sidelines.
- The Informer is a 1935 film about a former IRA soldier who rats out one of his comrades for a £20 reward.
- William Butler Yeats's poem, "Easter, 1916" memorializes the Easter Rising and the Republican leaders executed afterwards.
- Cassidy from Preacher fought in the Irish War of Independence and has a number of not-too-kind words to say about the whole ordeal. Specifically, that would-be revolutions against the British Empire, lead by Poets and fought by people who have never experienced actual combat before, are going to work just exactly as well as you would think. Author Garth Ennis' take is that the leaders of the 1916 uprising did not think it would work in the first place, and threw their appropriated forces into combat purely to provide a heroic "blood sacrifice" to inspire another, hopefully more successful, uprising.