Irish War of Independence

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The Irish War of Independence or Anglo-Irish War or the "Black and Tan War" was fought between the forces of the provisional government of the Irish Republic and Britain, January 1919 and July 1921. The war began with an ambush of two Royal Irish Constabulary men, which was endorsed by the shadow government, the First Dáil. The British tried repressive force but the IRA under Michael Collins used about 3,000 fighters in a guerrilla war, After 10,000 deaths a truce was called in 1922. The treaty of December 1922 split off Ulster, and created an independent Free State in the south. Despite approval at the polls, opponents fought a short civil war against the new government or Ireland.


In the 1880s the Home Rule party agitated for a measure of Home Rule in the British parliament and the Republican element in Irish politics was very much on the fringe of mainstream opinion. Charles Stewart Parnell had almost single-handedly made the Home Rule party (Later known as the Irish Parliamentary Party) a party which dominated politics south of North Eastern Ireland. Several Home Rule bills were introduced but each was blocked in its turn and Parnell's affair with Kitty O'Shea jeopardised the entire party, causing a split that would last a decade until John Redmond reorganised the organisation and returned it to its former place of dominance in Irish politics.

World War I

Redmond succeeded in introducing three Home Rule bills; the third of which would have passed in 1914 only for the outbreak of World War I which caused it to be delayed until the conclusion of the war. Britain faced a major crisis in early 1914 as it became clear the Protestants in Ulster demanded not to be merged into Ireland, and it appeared the British Army sympathizes with them. During the war the Protestants, especially in Ulster, enthusiastically supported the war effort, while the Catholics were lukewarm at best and some activists were in touch with the Germans. British public opinion increasingly supported Ulster, and believed the historic grievances regarding rights and land had been resolved.

Easter Rising, 1916

Irish nationalism increasingly was concentrated among the Catholics. A group of extreme Irish Republicans (Which included the Irish Volunteers, the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the Irish Citizen Army) organised a small uprising on Easter week, 1916 which aimed to establish and independent Ireland. The Uprising, which was poorly organized and generally rejected by the Irish people, was quickly crushed by the British army and 15 leaders were hurriedly executed. Irish Catholic public opinion began to turn in favour of the rebels however during the executions and the British government was forced to suspend the rest of the planned executions for fear of causing a civil war Ireland while a real war raged on the Western Front.

IRA Formed

After the Easter Rising the Irish Volunteers had regrouped to form the Irish Republican Army (IRA) which was controlled by the Sinn Féin party. This is not to be confused with the modern Provisional Irish Republican Army active during the Irish Troubles. The IRA who fought in the War of Independence are often called the Old IRA to distinguish the two. After the 1918 General election the Sinn Féin party won a landslide victory within Ireland, gaining 73 seats out of a possible 105 in the country.[1] The fallout of the Easter Rising caused a swell in public support for the Republicans at the expense of the Home Rulers. The 1918 Conscription Crisis also convinced many that the Irish Parliamentary Party could not represent Irish needs in a British parliament. The Sinn Féin party adopted a policy of parliamentary abstention, refusing to recognise Parliament as the legitimate governing body of Ireland. As a result, the Sinn Féin leadership established the First Dáil in 1919 in defiance of the fact that many of their elected deputies were in jail. The new Dáil government became the legitimate government of the Irish Republic to the IRA and it was to this entity that the Republican movement swore its allegiance to. Throughout the conflict, Michael Collins and other members of the general headquarters staff effectively ran the war and intelligence operations, but communication with the provinces was rather poor. Local IRA leaders, such as Tom Barry or Seán Mac Eoin held great autonomy in the waging of war in their native brigade areas. Tensions also arose between Cathal Brugha, the Defense minister (Who had little to no influence on the military conflict) and Michael Collins, who was Minister for Finance in the Dáil but also Director of Intelligence in the IRA and supreme leader of the Republican secret society, the Irish Republican Brotherhood.[2]

IRA Operations

In 1919 the IRA plunged into war against the British "invaders" without authority from the Dail. Money came from America, and arms and explosives were smuggled in. Michael Collins had an effective spy network among the authorities. [3] The Irish Republican Army (IRA) sporadically attacked the forces of the British government, with the intention of breaking Britain's will to rule Ireland and thereby forcing them towards full independence, though Éamon de Valera proposed a policy of external association during the Anglo-Irish Treaty. This campaign paralleled the political efforts of Sinn Féin to create an independent Irish Republic by means of the illegally decreed, though democratic, assembly of Dáil Éireann which in practice would 'defeat England by ignoring it'. The war is generally seen as the beginning of modern guerrilla warfare, with the reliance of the IRA on un-uniformed "flying columns", comprised of local men, playing a large part in its success. The Flying Columns operated by mixing into the local countryside and being fed by local sympathizers who would feed their group or put them up for the night in a nearby barn or in the main room of the traditional Irish cottage. A column would usually have between eight to fifteen men - anymore would have meant that they could not rely on the element of stealth in combat operations. They would 'hit and run' at their enemy. Sometimes Flying columns would co-operate to attack larger British army convoys. Flying Columns could vary in size from fifteen men to as much as a hundred during major operations, operating under smaller sectional command structures.[4]

About a thousand men were enrolled in IRA units inside England and Scotland in 1920-21. In June 1921, following severe confrontations with the police in Glasgow, the IRA attacked railway, telegraph, and telephone lines inside England, first in Merseyside and later all over southern England, to bring the war home to the English people.

IRA Organization & Membership

For the period 1919-21 the IRA was weakly organized and marginally effective. However, without the support of the local populace the IRA would have been unable to wage the war at all. Areas of the country where the physical force republican tradition lacked support saw little or no action at all, with several brigades up and down the country failing to fire a single shot for the duration of the war. However, in the areas where Republican activity was most marked, such as Cork, Kerry and Clare, the IRA proved successful against forces which overwhelmingly outnumbered them. For example, the British forces in Cork outnumbered active IRA armed volunteers by at least fifteen to one.[5] While the General Headquarters group (GHQ) encouraged minor raids, communication disruption, and individual assassinations that even the weakest local group could carry out, they retained an exaggerated confidence in an eventual physical victory.[6] The "moral attrition of guerrilla warfare" eventually undermined both the British government and Irish republican volunteers' resolve.[7]

Collective biographies of IRA members reveal an organization composed largely of unpropertied, unmarried young men of the middling classes, increasingly dominated by urban, skilled, and socially mobile activists. Officers tended to be slightly older and of slightly higher social status than their men. Sinn Fein activists were older still but otherwise shared the same characteristics, as did the IRA in Britain. This dependence on urban and skilled or white-collar members, the reverse of what republicans and most historians have believed, may be attributable to a combination of the greater risks and greater organizational opportunities encountered by the IRA in towns. Nevertheless, the movement did attract rural and laboring members, and did to some extent transcend class and geographical boundaries. IRA units were almost never segregated along class lines, and were usually built around familial and neighborhood networks. Also, as the revolution progressed, activists' previous social identities were superseded by a new and essentially egalitarian identity as comrades and guerrillas.[8]

Kevin Barry remains a popular figure in Irish republican folklore, as a victim of British injustice and a martyr for Ireland. As a member of the Dublin Brigade of the IRA, he fought in a surprise attack on a British army ration party a bakery on 20 September 1920, which resulted in the deaths of three British soldiers and Barry's capture. After being tried by court-martial and executed for the murder of one of the soldiers, he became the subject of a propaganda campaign directed by Sinn Fein in the world press to characterize the British as brutal, merciless, and uncivilized in comparison with IRA fighters like Barry, who were typically portrayed as young, courageous, and gallantly devoted to their cause. Although Barry had been captured in the civilian disguise of a guerrilla fighter rather than as a uniformed soldier, with flat-nosed ammunition in his pistol, and in circumstances where both ballistic evidence and eyewitness testimony proved his culpability beyond any doubt, the British failed to make an effective propaganda rebuttal.[9]

Overview of the War

The war was prosecuted ruthlessly by the IRA. The British retaliated in kind, introducing two new irregular forces into Ireland, the Black and Tans and the Auxiliary Division - ostensibly these were designated as supports for the Royal Irish Constabulary, the civil police force, but in reality they were armed paramilitary units.

On 21 November 1920 the IRA killed 14 men in their flats in Dublin, alleging that they were British spies[10]. That same afternoon, British forces retaliated by firing on a crowd of IRA supporters at a Gaelic football match in Croke Park, killing 12 and injuring sixty. The day quickly became known as Bloody Sunday and shootings in Croke Park have acquired legendary status.[11]

In general, the fighting was conducted on a vicious low-level basis, with regular small bombing and shooting attacks similar to the Irish Troubles. Fewer than 2,000-3,000 IRA volunteers at any given time were faced by over 50,000 Crown forces. About 500 police and 200 British soldiers were killed, and about as many IRA.[12] It was not a nationwide contest: the IRA depended upon energetic local leaders. Where there were none, there was little fighting. Irish attacks were regularly followed by British counter attacks which generally were aimed at residential areas. Due to the fact that the guerrillas wore no uniforms and merged into the local countryside or city, they were notoriously hard to root out and the British forces went to extraordinary - and in some cases repressive - measures to find and apprehend suspected IRA members. The IRA retaliated against suspected informers. Many innocents were casualties. The use of the Black and Tans as an autonomous terror squad embittered many and inspired generations of Irish literature and music describing the Black and Tans as rough and cruel thugs. Some historians have argued that the Black and Tans were largely the reason behind the failure of the British to truly kill off the rebellion, as their actions often persuaded young people to take up arms in the name of independence. (The film "The Wind that shakes the barley" accurately portrays this)

In total, 15,000 IRA volunteers fought in the war, but only 3,000 or so were active at any one time. The IRA's greatest strength lay in the provinces of Connaught and Munster, and the principal areas of conflict were in counties Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Tipperary, Clare, Kerry and Longford. The volunteers were generally aged between 20 and 30, from middle and working class backgrounds, and were overwhelmingly Catholic. As the conflict progressed, the membership became younger, more urban-based and more working class. The force fought a limited and successful guerrilla war, pitting Catholic support and local knowledge of the terrain and people against the British forces' superior weaponry and numbers.

All together about 7500 people were killed or wounded, 1917-23 (adding in the Easter Rebellion brings the total to over 10,000), and many more were driven from their homes. These guerrilla tactics have been reproduced in many forms since then in other theatres of battle and they also had precedents going as far back as the war in Spain in 1809-1814 and in the Boer Wars in Africa in the late 19th century.[13]

The Treaty and Aftermath

British Prime Minister David Lloyd George was obstinate in destroying the insurgents, but was committed to home rule, as passed in 1914. His 1920 "Government of Ireland Act" set up two parliaments and one at Belfast for the six Protestant counties of Ulster, and one at Dublin for the Catholic remainder of the island. Sinn Fein rejected the plan, but the Ulster Unionists accepted their new government and swore to resist inclusion in an island-wide state. The British Army warned Lloyd George that it would take 100,000 soldiers and martial law to control the south. Pressured by King George V, Lloyd George gave in and opened negotiations with De Valera, the president of the shadow government calling itself the Irish Republic. A truce was called in July 1921 and fighting ended. Months of negotiations led to the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921. The 26 counties of southern Ireland were to become independent, with nominal Dominion status. Ulster was separated--an act that stunned Irish Catholic nationalists. However the bought into the deal, expecting the boundary commission would whittle down Ulster so much it would rejoin Ireland. The British Parliament approved the deal, as did the Dáil, on 7 January by a vote of 54 to 67.[14]

A general election in the south in June 1922 gave a 72% majority for the treaty. The IRA now split apart and began a civil war against the new government in Dublin. A minority in the IRA supported the Treaty and joined the Free State Army, quickly built up by Collins with British government support (the ‘regulars’); the majority of the IRA - perhaps 80 per cent, encompassing the most experienced men from the south, west and Dublin - organised and fought against the new state (the ‘irregulars’) in a short Irish Civil War, which ended in March 1923. The Irish Free State came into effect on 5 December 1922, and all British authority left Ireland, except for Ulster. There were no recriminations against the Protestant Unionists in the south, many of them wealthy landowners; they stayed and prospered but some emigrated to Northern Ireland, especially in the border counties of Monaghan, Cavan and Donegal. The Irish Catholics all left the British Parliament, replaced by ten Protestants from Ulster.

The Irish people on the other hand, who largely sympathised and supported the rebels - both materially and in the war effort - were largely supportive of the treaty, but this of course was not reflected in the Dáil Treaty debates, when the Treaty was ratified by only a margin of seven votes (That is, 64 in favour, 57 against) The subsequent general election was not indicative of the mood of the country due to the Collins-de Valera Pact, which created panels and instructed various sides to back previous Dáil TDs, leading to an inconclusive and unrepresentative election. Women under thirty and many men under twenty five were also ineligible to vote because the electoral register hadn't been updated during the war years. Many men and women involved with the IRA and Cumann na mBann didn't register to vote because they were afraid of their information being handed over to the British authorities during the war.

See Also


  1. Only 46% of the voters chose Sinn Fein, but the opposition was split.
  2. Farrell, Brian; The Founding of Dáil Éireann: Parliament and Nation Building, Page 80. For greater coverage of the war itself, please consult the bibliography.
  3. Taylor ((1965) pp 153-62
  4. See Peter Hart, The I.R.A. and its enemies (1998) for further details.
  5. See Tom Barry, Guerrilla Days in Ireland (1949). Barry argues that the lack of arms and expertise with explosives was a continuous problem with the effective waging of the war, with active flying column IRA possessing only forty rounds per rifle at any time.
  6. Collins and Mulcahy in particular recognised at the latter stages of the war that a physical victory over the British was impossible, also recognising that if the British truly utilised their resources then the IRA could be crushed in a matter of weeks. Non surprisingly, it was those members most unattached to the direct running of the war who held an inflated sense of the possibility of military victory, such as de Valera, Brugha, Childers and Stack.
  7. Townsend (1979)
  8. Hart, "Social Structure" (1999)
  9. John Ainsworth, "Kevin Barry, the Incident at Monk's Bakery and the Making of an Irish Republican Legend." History 2002 87(287): 372-387. Issn: 0018-2648 Fulltext: in Ebsco
  10. Known widely as the Cairo Gang.
  11. Anne Dolan, "Killing and Bloody Sunday, November 1920." Historical Journal2006 49(3): 789-810. Issn: 0018-246x
  12. Taylor (1965) 155
  13. Townsend (1979)
  14. Taylor (1965) 157-58