By Edward T. O’Connell
Eighty-two years ago this week, on Jan. 21, 1919, the long-anticipated war between Ireland and Britain began. Centuries of pent up rage, stoked to new heights in recent years of nationalist struggle — most notably the 1916 Easter Rising — exploded as a unit of the Irish Volunteers ambushed a Royal Irish Constabulary patrol in Soloheadbeg, Co. Tipperary. The act itself was relatively minor (two policemen killed) compared to the bloodshed to come. Nonetheless, it marked the beginning of the Irish War of Independence, the brutal conflict that led to the establishment of the Irish Free State.
The end of World War I found Ireland in a tense state of uncertainty. Despite the war’s conclusion, the country remained under the control of the British military (backed by 38,000 British soldiers). Nationalist sentiment was high, with the execution of the Easter Rising leaders still fresh in people’s minds. Many who had demanded home rule (i.e., a separate Irish parliament within the UK) at the outbreak of war in 1914, now called for Ireland’s complete independence from Britain.
The rising tide of sentiment in favor of Irish independence was most evident in the December parliamentary elections. Despite the fact that many of its key figures, including Eamon DeValera, were in prison, Sinn Fein achieved a stunning victory in the elections, claiming 72 seats in the British Parliament (out of 105 total for Ireland). The once dominant Irish Parliamentary Party (which favored home rule) was left with just six seats.
None of the Sinn Fein MPs took their seats in Parliament. Instead, those not still in jail (27) convened on Jan. 21, 1919 to establish the First Dail Eireann, or Irish Parliament, as the legislative body of an Irish Republic. The Dail affirmed the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic, declared Ireland’s independence, and began creating government institutions to replace British ones.
At this point, nearly all of the Dail’s Sinn Fein members favored independence over home rule, but they still hoped to achieve it through peaceful, constitutional means. They placed great faith on the Versailles Peace conference then convening in France, where they hoped to make the case for Irish independence. Self-determination, after all, was one of President Woodrow Wilson’s vaunted Fourteen Points.
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Still, there were many hardliners within Sinn Fein, the Dail, the Irish Volunteers (increasingly referred to as the Irish Republican Army), and the IRB who favored armed insurrection. Some were embittered veterans of the Easter Rising, others were those who had come to believe that Britain would never leave Ireland peacefully. One of the most outspoken was Sean Treacy, leader of an Irish Volunteer brigade in South Tipperary. He spoke for many when he denounced the reluctance of Sinn Fein to sanction a rebellion. "If this is the state of affairs," he growled, "we will have to kill someone and make the bloody enemy organize us." In other words, if renegade units of the Irish Volunteers staged attacks in the RIC, Britain would react with force, thus compelling the would-be negotiators to take up the gun.
And so it was that on the very same day that the First Dial Eireann was established, Jan. 21, 1919, Treacy and five others staged their ambush of the RIC patrol at Soloheadbeg.
The attack at Soloheadbeg signaled the sort of war the IRA intended to fight. First, because they were outnumbered and outgunned, the IRA adopted guerilla-style hit-and-run tactics. This was in stark contrast to the Easter Rising just three years earlier when Irish rebels staged a traditional military assault on strategic positions and paid a dear price.
Second, the two RIC men killed were Irish Catholics. This was by no means a mistake. Nor was it regretted, for central to the IRA’s strategy was the demoralization of the RIC, much of which was made up of Irish recruits. Through violence against the RIC and its barracks, not to mention the ostracizing of RIC families, the IRA prompted one fifth of the RIC’s 10,000 regulars to quit by June 1921.
Third, the ambush showed the degree to which the IRA operated as an independent force largely beyond the control of Sinn Fein and the Dail. Even as the IRA fought in the name of the Republic, the Dail did not publicly endorse it. Only in March 1921 did the Dail formally recognize the IRA as, in DeValera’s word, "the military arm of the government."
The War for Independence touched off in Tipperary in January 1919 lasted two and a half years before Lloyd George’s government sought a truce in June 1921. Despite Britain’s use of extraordinary measures (i.e., introduction of the Black and Tans), the IRA under the able leadership of men like Michael Collins and Richard Mulcahy seized the initiative and eventually rendered British control of Ireland impossible. By June 1921 the British agreed to a cease-fire.
All that remained was to negotiate the terms of a formal separation. In October Collins, Arthur Griffith and other representatives of the Dail arrived in London to negotiate a formal treaty. They were soon to discover that winning the War of Independence was only the beginning of a still larger struggle over the fate of their homeland.
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
Jan. 17, 1861: courtesan and dancer Lola Montez (born Marie Gilbert in Limrick) dies in poverty in New York.
Jan. 19, 1937: aviator Howard Hughes sets a transcontinental air record, flying from Los Angeles to New York City in 7 hours, 28 minutes and 25 seconds.
Jan. 29, 1897: fifty prominent Irish Americans meet in Boston to establish the American Irish Historical Society.
Jan. 20, 1961: John F. Kennedy is inaugurated as the 35th president of the United States.
Jan. 17, 1860: Gaelic League founder and statesman Douglas Hyde born in Castlerea, Co. Roscommon.
Jan. 17, 1876: Jersey City political boss Frank Hague born in Jersey City, N.J.
Jan. 20, 1926: Academy Award-winning actress Patricia Neal born in Knoxville, Tenn.
Jan. 22, 1943: Writer James P. Carroll born in Chicago.
Readers may reach Edward T. O’Donnell at odonnell@PastWise.com.