The Fight for Irish Independence: A Historical Perspective

By the early 20th century, England had ruled Ireland for the better part of 400 years. Henry VIII began the conquest of Ireland and his daughter Elizabeth I finished it.

England’s attempts to subjugate Ireland were never fully successful despite periods of relative calm. Ireland remained stubbornly Catholic despite efforts to colonize it with Presbyterians. Most notably in the region of Ulster, where attempts were made to convert it, dispossess its Catholic elite, and starve it into submission.

By the 19th Century, an Anglican elite controlled and owned most of the country. During the Potato Famine of the 1840s, one million Irish died and another one million emigrated. They moved mostly to the United States, which severely depopulated the island.

It was also during this period of extreme crisis and dislocation that the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), or Fenians, was founded. They were dedicated to the armed struggle against British rule.

For Irish Unity End Partition, London Embankment, (circa 1979)

British Control of Catholicism in Ireland

The British maintained control of Ireland for defensive reasons as much as economic ones. Successive governments feared Catholic powers would intervene on the island and expose the west coast of England to attack.

This fear was not far-fetched. During the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, the Catholic Spanish supported revolts in the region to subvert, or at least distract, the Protestant governments in London.

Starting with Louis XIV., the French did the same, most famously supporting the Jacobite revolt led by the dethroned King James II against King William I of England. The first of these revolts ended in the defeat of the Catholic forces at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

During the subsequent wars with France, which continued through Napoleon, frequent scares and actual conspiracies were often found between the Irish Catholic elite who allied with the French.

In response, the British eroded Catholic rights by seizing their lands and giving them to Protestant landlords. However, the Irish elite was still represented in English society and parliament. Even the largely Protestant landowners recognized the damage that English laws were having on Irish society and the farmers who worked the land.

By the late 19th century, foreign threats had receded and demands in parliament for greater Irish autonomy became louder. There was a rise in nationalism throughout Europe during this time. Combined with the shared experience of the Potato Famine, the relief of which had been severely bungled by the English government, created a greater sense of Irish unity in the face of English rule.

Religious Divisions

Ireland, however, remained deeply divided as a society. Religion was at the root of this division.

Most Irish were Catholic, but the English had settled large numbers of Presbyterians, primarily Scots, starting in the early 17th century. These Presbyterians were primarily concentrated in the northeastern counties collectively known as Ulster.

This group fiercely resisted efforts at self-determination in the rest of Ireland and worked to preserve the Union with the British crown. They recognized that in a united Ireland, they would be in a distinct minority within a new Catholic-dominated state.

Even within the Catholic majority in the rest of the island, there were divisions over how much independence they wanted and how to get there.

Within Parliament, Home Rule became a frequent topic of discussion in the last decades of the 19th century. Greater self-determination throughout the United Kingdom fueled Irish demands for land reform and greater political self-determination.

A series of Land Acts in the latter half of the century sought to clarify and reallocate lands seized over the centuries. Political self-determination, fueled by nationalism sweeping Europe, a resurgence of Catholicism, and the ongoing fight over control of the land, became an ongoing debate within Parliament.

Home Rule bills repeatedly emerged from the House of Commons but were blocked by the more conservative House of Lords, many of which sought to preserve their remaining privileges in Ireland.

Finally, in 1910, two elections left the House of Commons deadlocked with the Irish representatives holding the balance of power between the Liberals and Conservatives. With the assent of King Edward VI, Edward’s death, and King George V, the power of the House of Lords was curbed.

This cleared the way for a Home Rule bill, which was finally passed in September 1914.

Conflict Begins Against the Backdrop of World War I

The outbreak of World War I in 1914 postponed the implementation of the bill just as it was passed. As Britain mobilized for war against Germany, the Irish were called to serve in France and elsewhere, which many did. At home, the outbreak of war and the delay of Home Rule delayed a civil war.

In response to the debates in parliament, the Protestants in the northern counties began organizing and arming themselves to resist incorporation into an Irish state, even one within the empire. The Unionists wanted no change in their status within the United Kingdom and preferred to be ruled from London over Dublin.

By early 1914, they had acquired arms (ironically from Germany) and had formed the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) to resist any change in their status with violence if necessary.

Within the South, divisions over the war split the nationalist movement. The moderates urged the Irish to enlist in the fight, but the radicals saw it as a distraction from the cause of getting the British out of the country. They also worried about the armed Unionists and saw a coming battle with them as well as the English.

In response to the formation of the UVF, the radicals formed the Irish Republican Army (IRA), a paramilitary organization designed to fight both the British and the Unionists.

The Easter Rebellion

It would be the much older Fenians, however, that would strike the first blows in the conflict. In April 1916, hoping the protracted war in Europe sufficiently distracted the British, they seized key buildings in central Dublin and demanded the complete removal of British rule and the formation of a Republican government in Ireland.

The British response to the Easter Rebellion was swift and brutal. Central Dublin became a war zone, leaving parts of it in rubble. Almost 500 died, half of them civilians.

The British arrested over 3,000 participants and conspirators and sentenced 90 of them to death. The British commuted most of those sentences. However, the authorities in Dublin executed 15 “ringleaders” in early May.

This last act would set the stage for the coming years. Irish armed resistance did not end British rule in Ireland. It was primarily British reprisals that provoked stiffening resistance among the Irish population.

The executions after the Easter Rebellion galvanized support for republicanism, particularly among the general public, which was indifferent to the idea before 1916, preferring to concentrate on economic concerns such as land reform.

After 1916, however, the British administration found Ireland increasingly ungovernable and felt compelled to implement increasingly repressive measures to maintain some level of control.

Irish prisoners march along a Dublin quay under a British guard during the bloody Irish Insurrection that began on Easter Monday, April 24, 1916, in Dublin, Ireland.

Political Turmoil and Party Factions

New parliamentary elections throughout the United Kingdom were held within weeks at the end of the war in late 1918.

The reaction to the Easter Rebellion saw the rise of a Republican party. The Sinn Fein political party was founded. Translated from Gaelic, Sinn Fein means “Ourselves.” In the elections of 1918, the party dominated the vote, gaining ⅔ of the seats coming from Ireland.

These representatives refused to attend parliament in London and instead formed a new parliament, the Dial, in Dublin. This legislature had no legal power and authority but issued declarations of independence and started the creation of parallel administrative institutions.

The IRA, which was nominally associated with Sinn Fein, began planning attacks to undermine British control of the island. The first of these, known as the Soloheadbeg Ambush, featured an attack on a train carrying explosive components in County Tipperary. It resulted in the deaths of two Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) policemen.

Sporadic attacks followed through 1919 as the IRA attempted to seize guns and explosives from various sources, particularly the constabulary arsenals. The RIC was under English command but, at the beginning of the conflict, but largely staffed by Irish policemen.

“Black and Tans”: Paramilitary Efforts

Irish resignations and an inability to recruit Irish citizens for law enforcement resulted in severe manpower shortages among police who were loyal to the British. For the entirety of 1919, there were only 82 deaths in the “war,” mostly among the police.

By the end of 1919, the English authority in Ireland was facing a severe manpower shortage. The solution developed by the government in London was to recruit unemployed war veterans into police “auxiliary” forces. The government hastily assembled these forces and rushed them to Ireland with little training.

Colloquially known as the “Black and Tans” because of their mixture of army and police uniforms, the British dispatched them to rural areas to restore the control that had largely been supplanted by Sinn Fein local governments.

The Black and Tans, however, were ill-trained in police or even counter-insurgency operations and quickly found themselves out of their depth. With the support of most of the population, the IRA engaged in a series of hit-and-run attacks on English convoys, often to capture weapons. They then faded back into the population.

The reaction of the Black and Tans was predictable, and reprisals against civilians ensued. This tit-for-tat warfare raged in the countryside for most of 1920, culminating in the burning of the center of Cork, Ireland’s third-largest city, in December.

The Troubles (the Irish War of Independence)

Meanwhile, Dublin had remained relatively quiet. It was difficult for the IRA to operate in an urban environment and so activities in the capital were largely confined to assassinations and intelligence activities. Heading up these operations was the IRA’s head of Intelligence, Michael Collins.

Collins was not happy with the level of pressure on the British in Dublin and planned to stage a provocation. On Sunday, November 21, 1920, his men set out to assassinate a list of English spies and informers. They killed or wounded 15 of them before the attacks petered out with police deployments.

In response, a Black and Tan unit surrounded a crowd exiting a football match that afternoon. Shots rang out and the RIC men indiscriminately fired into the crowd, killing 14 civilians and wounding scores more. Two of the dead were children. That same day, the British beat and killed three Republican prisoners in Dublin Castle.

The reprisals had their intended effect and international outcry put pressure on the government in London to rein in their forces. The clear intelligence failures exposed by the IRA attacks caused many informants and other British agents to flee.

A lack of intelligence on IRA members and activities left the British forces with an inability to conduct targeted attacks on their enemy. The only remaining tool was the repression of the civilian population. This was counterproductive, as the reaction to both the Burning of Cork and Bloody Sunday showed.

Attacks across Ireland escalated in the opening months of 1921 following a familiar pattern of IRA ambushes and RIC reprisals. 

These were coupled with economic boycotts against the RIC, resulting in hunger among the deployed forces when local businesses refused to sell food to them. The result was further attacks against civilians.

The stalemate exhausted both sides. Manpower and money shortages drained the ability of the RIC to operate effectively. On the other side, the IRA found it difficult to arm and supply its fighters. 

Early successes in capturing RIC weapons and ammunition dried up because the English forces increasingly withdrew into larger, more heavily defended stations. The British always had an overwhelming firepower advantage, deploying over 100 armored cars throughout the country coupled with thousands of machine guns and even artillery.

In May 1921, an IRA unit attacked a center of local government in Ireland, the Customs House in Dublin. The goal of this attack was the burning of the records that made the British administration possible. 

The fire had its intended effect and the attack was a major propaganda victory for the IRA. But it was a military disaster because a quick British response wiped out the 100-strong IRA flying column that carried out the attack.

The Anglo-Irish Treaty and Its Aftermath

By July 1921, it became clear to both sides that the stalemate could not continue. British Prime Minister David Lloyd George opened negotiations with Sinn Fein leader Eamon de Valera. Both sides agreed to an uneasy truce while negotiations went on.

De Valera dispatched a delegation to London, including IRA leader Michael Collins, to negotiate an end to the fighting. There was much speculation that de Valera’s delegation of this task was to create deniability for any agreement that emerged.

Any conceivable treaty would likely anger the extremes in Ireland, not least by the Unionists who had formed a parallel government in Belfast, but also by diehard Republicans. These groups demanded the British hand over the entire island, inclusive of Northern Ireland.

In the end, it was not the partition that caused the greatest dissent; it was the place of Ireland within the British Empire. Eventually, over de Valera’s resignation, the two sides agreed to a compromise that established an Irish Free State “associated” with the British Empire.

A bare majority of the Irish Dial ratified the treaty in January 1922, bringing an end to the Irish War of Independence. The ratification of the treaty immediately sparked the Irish Civil War, which lasted until 1924. The war pitted those supporting the treaty as a reasonable step against those who demanded full independence and a republican state.

The latter goal would not be achieved until 1937, with the ratification of the modern Irish constitution and the establishment of the Republic of Ireland.


English, Richard, Irish Freedom: The History of Nationalism in Ireland (New York: Macmillan, 2006).

Foster, R.F., The Oxford History of Ireland (London: Oxford University Press, 1989).

Lydon, James, The Making of Ireland (London: Routledge, 1998).

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