The Aftermath to the Easter Rising.
1. The Executions.
Artist's Impression: A Capuchin priest prays as a firing squad prepares to execute a 1916 rebel leader.
The civilian population was by no means uniformly hostile to the Rising, even during Easter week. There was, of course, anger expressed at the number of fatalities it had caused, and the scale of destruction and distress. Its timing outraged those with relatives fighting with the British Army. When they surrendered, some rebel garrisons had to be protected by the British Army from hostile crowds - for example, at the College of Surgeons. But in contrast elsewhere, at Boland's Bakery and the South Dublin Union, the insurgents were heartened by the spontaneous warmth of the popular response. With justification some believed that sympathy for their action had grown as the week progressed. Certainly there was a widespread feeling that they had fought a clean fight in Ireland's cause, and shown courage and conviction and also concern for the suffering caused to the civilian population. There was admiration for the fact that though poorly armed, the volunteers had held out for so long against the resources of an empire, apparently willing and able to deploy limitless numbers of well-equipped troops.
There can be no doubt that the response of the British government to the Rising contributed measurably to the further alienation of Irish public opinion. On 26th April 1916, it had introduced martial law and next day appointed Major-General Sir John Maxwell as Commander-in-Chief of troops, Ireland. He had full authority to restore order, put down the rebellion, and punish its participants. Maxwell never doubted that its leaders should be court-martialled and those most prominent executed. He was also determined that, in order to crush militant nationalism, those who had surrendered with them, and their suspected supporters, should be arrested and their arms seized in a nationwide sweep by soldiers, supported by police. In total, the security forces arrested 3,430 men and 79 women and of these 1,841 were sent to England and interned there. They were substantial figures in relation to the scale of the outbreak, though most (about 2,700) had been released by early August 1916. Meanwhile, those thought to have organised the insurrection had been held back in Ireland for trial – 190 men and 1 woman, Countess Markievicz. In 90 cases the court's verdict was ‘Death by being shot'. Maxwell confirmed this judgement on 15 defendants, and these were executed between 3-12 May 1916.
Prisoner's Christmas card, 1917 showing the places in Britain where Irish prisoners were held after 1916.
The predictable effect of these measures was to increase public sympathy, both for the rebels and their goals. During May, the police authorities noted even amongst moderate nationalists a growing ‘wave of resentment,' prompted by the feeling that ‘unnecessary severity had been deployed'. Symptoms of the change in attitudes included the following: the increasing frequency of memorial masses for the executed rebels; the growing sales of photographs of them; the setting up of aid funds for their families; the appearance of songs and ballads celebrating their actions; the ubiquity of republican flags and badges; the sight of young men marching military style at Gaelic football matches, and the shouting of rebel slogans anywhere people gathered anonymously together, such as at railway stations. The government also observed that recruitment levels to the British army had diminished to a trickle.
Moreover, there were ominous signs that militant nationalists were reorganising, reflected in a rise in arms thefts and hardening of attitudes towards the police. The release of many who had been interned after the Rising - far from earning public gratitude - fuelled resentment, as it was seen as providing evidence that the arrests had been made ‘without just cause'. Already in mid-June 1916, Maxwell predicted that in a General Election the moderate nationalist Irish Parliamentary Party would probably be replaced. He was right; in December 1918, it was swept aside by Sinn Féin.
2. The Forgotten Soldiers.
Irish soldiers in the trenches during World War One.
The threat of civil conflict in Ireland in mid-1914 was defused when the unionist and nationalist leaders, Edward Carson and John Redmond, pledged their respective parties and paramilitary forces to support the Imperial war effort. Responding to Ulster Unionist pressure and urgently in need of men, the War Office created a division specifically for the Ulster Volunteer Force - the 36th Division: 30,000 of its members joined in the first wave of recruitment. However, English recruiting officers were reluctant to support the formation of Irish nationalist divisions, fearing they might return after the war, possibly in 1915, with military training and equipment. But thousands of Irish Volunteer Force members did join the predominantly catholic and nationalist 10th and 16th divisions.
The pattern of Irish recruitment was erratic. There was an initial surge but then the level declined sharply. Roughly as many enlisted in the first year of the war as in the remaining three years; just 12,000 volunteered in the eight months before the Easter Rising. The geographical distribution of enlistment and the religious make-up of the recruits were similarly uneven. Protestants came forward in greater numbers proportionately than Catholics. In Ulster, men of both faiths were more likely to join up than those from the rest of Ireland. Generally, urban areas returned more soldiers than rural.
For unionists and moderate nationalists, war provided an opportunity to demonstrate their loyalty, so earning Britain's gratitude and hopefully influencing the terms of its post-war settlement of the Irish question. A further motivation for enlistment was economic necessity. That 16,000 had joined up in Dublin between August 1914 – December 1915, was related to the disruptive impact of war on the city's industry.
The fall in recruitment began in 1915, which indicates that it was not solely due to the anti-English sentiment generated by the Rising. The slaughter on the Western Front was certainly a factor. Two of the Irish Divisions, the 36th and 16th, saw action at the Somme, whilst the 10th suffered heavy losses in Gallipoli in August 1915. Moreover, Irish troops in the British Army appear to have been treated with particular harshness in World War One. They constituted just two per cent of the membership of the force, yet they were the recipients of eight per cent (271) of all death sentences imposed by its courts-martial.
Enlistment levels were also influenced by the increasing prosperity of war-time Ireland – particularly its agriculture. Farmers were as well off by 1918-19 as at any time before the 1950s. But in any case, enthusiasm for the war was never as widespread in nationalist Ireland as the media, dominated by pro-war elements, suggested. There was a common perception that it was not Ireland's affair.
Irish Parliamentary Party leader John Dillon addresses an anti-conscription meeting at Ballaghadereen, Co. Roscommon
In total, about 206,000 men from Ireland served in the conflict, of whom some 30,000 died. These figures dwarfed the numbers who had fought and lost their lives at home, in the Rising and in the Anglo-Irish War. But the percentage of those of conscription age who served (10.7 per cent) was well below both the Scottish (26.9 per cent) and the English and Welsh figures (24.2 per cent). In mid-1916, Westminster therefore considered imposing conscription on Ireland, out of concern at the depleted Irish divisions and the growing resentment in England at the slackness of recruiting there. The acute shortage of troops on the Western Front prompted it to reconsider the issue in April-May 1918.
For Ulster unionists, the high casualty rate experienced by the 36th Division at the Somme did help earn them Britain's gratitude and ensure that they would not be compelled to accept Dublin rule after the war. Meanwhile, the war-time experience of southern unionists had transformed their attitudes towards moderate nationalists. Having shared platforms with them at Irish recruitment meetings and fought alongside them at the front, they had lost by 1916 their earlier aversion to self-government for Ireland and had come to regard Redmond as a worthy and acceptable first premier.
This was not to be. When the Irish soldiers returned home from the trenches in 1918, it was to a country whose attitudes had by then undergone a transformation. The predominant mood amongst nationalists was one of deep bitterness towards England and of contempt for those who had served in its forces. The rebels who had died in Easter week had become the focus of their uncritical adulation. Outside Ulster, Ireland's war veterans became the object of a sort of ‘national amnesia', their contribution unrecognised and forgotten until a more recent generation.
3. The Rise of Sinn Fein.
Irish Parliamentary Party leader John Dillon during the Longford by-election, 1917.
The executions and deportations after the Rising fuelled popular hostility in Ireland towards Britain. They also increased sympathy for the use of force to achieve independence as well as support for an independent Irish republic. Other aspects of the British government's policy reinforced these trends - it persisted with nationwide martial law until November 1916; it arrested prominent and articulate critics of its administration and it threatened to impose conscription, so causing deepening resentment, especially among young men. In these circumstances, the appeal of the moderate nationalist Irish Parliamentary Party declined further. It was also damaged by its continuing failure in wartime to achieve Irish self-government.
It was not until 1917 that the IPP's 50-year domination of Irish politics was challenged. The delay was because its militant nationalist opponents were divided and split into numerous separate organisations, with their own programmes and priorities, and also because the leaders of these had been imprisoned after the Rising. The process of forming a single cohesive political force to challenge the IPP was begun with their gradual release from December 1916.
It was the Sinn Féin party which eventually displaced the IPP. Sinn Féin was not directly involved in the Rising, but benefited immensely from it. It was quite wrongly associated with the outbreak by the Irish public. This was because the role of the Irish Republican Brotherhood Military Council in planning the insurrection was not widely known. Sinn Féin was believed to be involved as it was the best-known, openly anti-English, nationalist propaganda body in Dublin. As admiration for the rebels grew, it had become by mid-1916 a ‘magic name' in Ireland, instantly recognisable with powerful appeal. In the course of 1917, the movement was transformed. First its organisation changed: it coalesced with and absorbed other militant nationalist bodies and its party branches spread nationwide. Then, in October it elected a new leader - Eamon de Valera - and agreed a new programme, which broadly committed it to the goal of an Irish republic.
The December 1918 General Election was the Sinn Féin movement's supreme test. Its manifesto offered voters a republic. It also stated that the party would refuse to attend Westminster and set up an Irish assembly as ‘the supreme …authority'. It would make use of ‘every means available to render impotent the power of England to hold Ireland in subjection' and appeal to a post-war peace conference ‘for the establishment of Ireland as an independent nation'. Sinn Féin swept the polls winning 73 seats, having previously held 6 (IPP representation fell from 68 to seven). It won because it was the natural focus for the pervasive hatred many then felt towards England. Also it was well organised and led; this was vital as the Irish electorate had trebled since the previous election in 1910. Moreover, Irish voters now aspired to a greater measure of independence than the limited self-government on offer from the IPP.
The first session of Dáil Éireann (Assembly of Ireland) was held at the Mansion House, Dublin 21st January 1919.
Sinn Féin acted quickly to fulfil its far-reaching manifesto pledges. It summoned those elected to meet in Dublin on 21st January; 27 of them did so, all of them Sinn Féin members (most of its other successful candidates had been arrested). The occasion was historic. It was the first session of the promised assembly of Ireland (Dáil Éireann). It immediately approved a provisional Irish constitution and then ratified three statements. The first proclaimed the establishment of an Irish Republic. The second was an appeal for recognition and support addressed to all the ‘free nations of the world'. The third, the ‘Democratic Programme' stated that Ireland would be governed by principles of ‘Liberty, Equality and Justice', that the government's first duty would be to the nation's children, and that all citizens should enjoy an ‘adequate share' of its wealth. Inevitably these aspirations were to be neglected in the struggle for Irish independence which consumed the next three years.
4. The Anglo-Irish War.
IRA flying columns used guerrilla tactics against the numerically superior British army.
After their election victory in 1918, the Sinn Féin leaders declared an independent Irish republic and established a government in Dublin. These actions alone were likely to lead to war with Britain; the Westminster government was at that time willing to offer nationalists only very limited powers of self-government.
The Anglo-Irish war, 21st January 1919–11th July 1921 was initiated by a small number of young, determined Irish Volunteers, known from August 1919 as the Irish Republican Army (IRA). They were convinced that a republic could only be gained by force. Some had been preparing for action since shortly after the Easter Rising. From necessity, they adopted a guerrilla campaign. A conventional war of large-scale open conflict was not feasible, given their lack of men, training and arms. They were organised initially into numerous small, fragmented, fiercely independent units who, acting on their own initiative, launched frequent low-level surprise attacks. They then melted back into the civilian population.
The Proclamation expressed the hopes and plans of the revolutionaries. Its primary purpose was to declare that an independent Irish Republic had been established and that a provisional government had been appointed - i.e., the seven members of the Council - to administer temporarily its affairs. Ireland's ‘national right to freedom and sovereignty' was powerfully asserted. Though a tiny minority, the rebels claimed: ‘Ireland through us summons her children to her flag' and could thus ‘prove itself worthy of [its] august destiny'. This appeal for support sprang from their conviction that they were acting in the country's best interests.
The volunteers attacked government property, carried out raids for desperately needed weapons and funds and, to disrupt the British administration, assassinated prominent individuals. Their most significant single target was the Royal Irish Constabulary. The force was the eyes and ears of Dublin Castle and had the prime responsibility for maintaining law and order. Its members were vulnerable, increasingly unpopular in Ireland, and the best available source of arms. The civilian population was at first shocked by the IRA`s actions but rapidly came to support them out of patriotic sentiment and because of the repressive nature of the British government's response.
The Sinn Féin government backed the IRA campaign. Michael Collins, a leading figure in both, played a pivotal, co-ordination role. He provided the volunteers with funds, arms and equipment and appointed their officers. He encouraged them to act – identifying targets, issuing instructions and offering advice. His most critical contribution lay in the provision of intelligence, using as sources his network of informers; it penetrated even Dublin Castle and the police forces. During 1919, his ‘squad', a group of hand picked agents, eliminated Dublin's detective constables, the ‘G men'. But given the nature of guerrilla warfare, it was the individual volunteer units and their commanders who held the real initiative.
In the course of the Anglo-Irish War, 15,000 volunteers were actively involved, with around 3,000 in service at any given time – sufficient to wage a potent campaign. From the autumn of 1919, the force had sufficient strength to attempt more spectacular actions. Their main purpose was to provoke Westminster into a brutal and repressive retaliatory response. This then served to guarantee popular support in Ireland for the continuing IRA campaign. It was also exploited by Sinn Féin propaganda relating to police atrocities. As these were broadly confirmed by independent journalists, they contributed to a mounting chorus of criticism in Britain and America of the government's actions.
The violence in Ireland peaked in late 1920. Collins` most celebrated action of the war occurred on 21st November, ‘Bloody Sunday'. On that day his ‘squad' gunned down 19 suspected British Army intelligence officers living as civilians in Dublin houses and hotels. The incident illustrated the quality of his informants and the continuing devastating capability of the IRA. It immediately stung the security forces into brutal retaliation; hours later, newly recruited members of the police force fired indiscriminately into the crowd at a football match in Dublin, killing 12 people.
A cyclist being searched by a British soldier, Dublin 1921.
By late 1920, IRA strategy had been modified further. In August, the British Army was given powers to intern persons on suspicion without trial. A consequence of the arrests which followed - 4,500 by August 1921 - was that large numbers of volunteers went ‘on the run'. They became in effect professional revolutionaries, differentiated from their part-time colleagues, and with no prospect of normal life until British rule was ended. In Munster especially, these organised themselves into ‘flying columns' – mobile units of about 100 men, based in remote camps or safe houses - ideally suited to guerrilla warfare.
Throughout the war, the IRA sustained an effective, calculated and flexible campaign. Nonetheless, by mid-1921 the Sinn Féin leadership favoured negotiations with Britain. They considered then that continued violence would break the volunteers, given their lack of men, arms and funds and the steady build-up of troops in Ireland. Moreover, they doubted the capacity of the Irish people to endure more fighting. Also, they were convinced that there was nothing to be gained by it as they were anticipating a generous political settlement. The British government's offer of negotiations was not conditional on the handover of arms or formal surrender and suggested a real desire for peace.
5. The Black and Tans.
British Auxiliaries guarding the Mansion House, Dublin 1921.
In 1920, the British government attempted to solve the Irish question by passing legislation partitioning Ireland and granting it limited self-government. It believed – wrongly - that this would satisfy the majority of Irish nationalists. Meanwhile, it had responded to the Irish Republican Army's developing physical force campaign with repression. Westminster underestimated how difficult it would be to defeat the volunteers; it regarded their actions as terrorism, not war, and so relied mainly on the police force to restore order. It considered that to deploy troops in peacetime would arouse criticism in Britain. Gradually the level of its coercion in Ireland increased. Overall, this policy was self-defeating. It proved unable to suppress the IRA, yet alienated Irish opinion whilst the British public came to regard it as excessive and unacceptable.
From the outset, the IRA campaign was mainly directed against the Royal Irish Constabulary – by June 1920, 55 policemen had been killed, 16 barracks destroyed and hundreds abandoned. As a result its conviction rates, recruitment levels and morale, all fell sharply. In response, the British government initiated changes (autumn 1919), which in effect transformed the force into an auxiliary army, by equipping it with motor vehicles, rockets, bombs and shotguns. By January 1920, Westminster felt compelled to take more drastic action. It launched a recruitment drive in England to attract ex-soldiers to join a new force, soon nicknamed the ‘Black and Tans' owing to the distinctive uniforms its members were initially issued with. It eventually numbered about 10,000 and quickly acquired an unenviable reputation for ill-discipline. Owing to the urgent need for men, selection procedures had been increasingly relaxed. Some of those who enlisted had been brutalised by war: almost all were ignorant of Ireland and ill-trained. Moreover, they were attached to scattered RICA barracks, mainly in the south west, under no effective control from police or army officers.
As the IRA campaign intensified, the government responded in July 1920 by establishing a second force, the Auxiliaries. They were better-paid and recruited from demobilised army officers. Eventually 1,900 men were enlisted and these were divided into 15 heavily armed and mobile companies, and deployed in the ten Irish counties where the IRA was most active. But, like the Black and Tans, its members were also ill-trained for guerrilla warfare, and knew little of Ireland. Though under nominal RICA control, they generally operated independently and they also established a reputation for drunkenness and brutality. Meanwhile, during 1920, troop numbers in Ireland were steadily increased and their powers extended. In August, they were empowered to intern citizens without trial and court-martial those suspected of political offences.
Despite these reinforcements, police frustration and the strain resulting from the persistence and virulence of the IRA campaign, led to them conducting ‘unofficial reprisals'. These ranged from assaults on IRA suspects and supporters, occasionally causing death, to the sacking of towns, such as Limerick and Balbriggan. They were condoned by police officers and ignored by the government as they helped sustain the force's fragile morale, and facilitated the gathering of intelligence. The price however was the alienation of public opinion, both in Ireland and in Britain.
A family leaving their Balbriggan home with their possessions after it was razed by the Black and Tans, September 1920.
The worst reprisals occurred during the crescendo of terror and counter-terror in October 1920. On 21st November, ‘Bloody Sunday', IRA agents gunned down 19 suspected Army intelligence officers in Dublin. Later that day, Auxiliaries who were despatched to a football match at Croke Park to search for wanted men, fired indiscriminately into the crowd, causing 12 deaths and wounding 65. On 9th December, two lorries transporting Auxiliaries were ambushed by an IRA ‘flying column' in County Cork, killing all but one of the occupants. Two days later their Auxiliary colleagues, along with Black and Tans, entered Cork and sacked and burnt part of the city centre. Reluctantly, the British government was thus compelled to declare martial law over much of south-west Ireland. Later it sanctioned ‘official reprisals'; if an IRA ‘outrage' occurred, troops were given authority to blow up the property of those suspected of involvement.
By mid-1921 the British government had become more amenable to a political settlement with the IRA. In two and a half years over 1,300 people had died in the conflict (550 of them troops and police), yet military victory still seemed a remote and uncertain prospect. The British public would not accept the further repressive measures thought necessary to achieve it, was increasingly critical of those already taken and desired peace – though not at any price.
6. The Treaty.
Arthur Griffith, centre, on his way to London to sign the Treaty.
In 1920 Westminster passed the Government of Ireland Act and created two governments – one in Belfast with jurisdiction over the six north-eastern counties and the other in Dublin with authority over the remainder. Both were given very limited devolved powers. This was acceptable to Ulster unionists, who implemented the Act, but not to Irish nationalists, who broadly supported the IRA campaign during the Anglo-Irish war (1919-1921). This conflict ended with a truce, operative from 11th July; negotiations then followed between the Sinn Féin leaders and the British government, the crucial phase beginning on 11th October 1921.
The Sinn Féin delegation was led by Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins. Its ideal settlement would have been the creation of a sovereign, united Irish Republic. Griffith especially appreciated that the British representatives, led by Prime Minister Lloyd George, would not accept such terms, but he aimed to maximise the degree of Irish independence and gain a united Ireland.
Throughout the negotiations, Lloyd George was indeed insistent that Ireland must remain within the British Empire and accept the Crown as head of state. To secure Sinn Féin agreement, he approached the Ulster Unionist leader, James Craig, and urged him to accept Dublin rule. When Craig refused, he advised him that the borders of Northern Ireland would be re-drawn by a Boundary Commission according to the preferences of the population living there. This seemed likely to transfer a significant proportion of the six-county state (the nationalist areas) to Southern Irish jurisdiction. The Irish delegation broadly accepted this proposal as a solution to the partition issue.
Heated argument then ensued over whether the Sinn Féin delegation would agree to Ireland's membership of the British Empire and to the British Crown remaining as head of state. Eventually on 6th December the Anglo-Irish Treaty was agreed and signed by the Irish delegates without consulting their colleagues in Dublin. Under the Treaty, Southern Ireland – henceforth the ‘Irish Free State' – became a self- governing dominion. In contrast to the 1920 legislation, it was now given complete independence in its domestic affairs: powers to levy all taxes; regulate foreign trade; raise an army; and considerable freedom of foreign policy. From a nationalist perspective, its main defect was that Ireland did not become a republic; it remained within the Empire with the Crown still head of state. In addition, Britain retained its naval bases there so compromising Irish neutrality in a future war. Also partition remained, though it was anticipated that the findings of the future Boundary Commission would lead to unity.
The release of Republican prisoners from the Curragh internment camp, 1922.
The Treaty caused deep divisions amongst nationalists in Ireland. It was the subject of furious debates in the Dáil - the assembly set up by the Sinn Féin party after its election victory in December 1918. Those who favoured acceptance argued that the powers it granted made it worthy of support; that it would lead to Irish unity; that it had the support of most Irish people and that the only alternative to it was renewed war with Britain. Collins stated that it provided Ireland not with ‘the ultimate freedom that all nations desire, but the freedom to achieve it'. The Treaty's opponents criticised it most for failing to do ‘the fundamental thing', i.e., grant Ireland a republic; the English Crown would remain monarch of Ireland, with government there still conducted in its name. Whilst accepting that it had majority Irish support, Eamon de Valera noted ominously: ‘the majority has no right to do wrong'. Others expressed concern that Britain would retain naval bases in Ireland. It was also claimed that Griffith's delegation had exceeded its powers in signing the agreement without referring back to Dublin, and that with greater courage and daring more generous terms could have been extracted from Britain.
It was evident from the debate that, though under the Treaty Ireland was constitutionally a member of the Empire, it never was psychologically. Arguably the settlement was a lost opportunity to lay the foundations for improved Anglo-Irish relations. It did, however, as Collins had argued, provide the Free State with sufficient power to determine its own destiny. At Easter 1949, Ireland became a fully independent republic. But in December 1921, the Sinn Féin delegation had little option other than to sign the terms on offer. The only alternative was a renewal of the Anglo-Irish war. Membership of the Empire and the position of the Crown were issues on which Lloyd George could not compromise – nor could republican purists. If the Treaty was implemented, civil war in Ireland was inevitable.