What Caused the Irish War of Independence?
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What Caused the Irish War of Independence?

August 27, 2019


Welcome to the Irish revolution! Today
we’re going to look at the period between the Easter Rising and the
general election of 1918. Assuming you haven’t watched my other videos let me
remind you of what has come before this on On Easter Monday 1916 two thousand rebels declared the Irish Republic in Dublin. They had no popular support and if
anything they were widely disliked, even hated. Within a week the Irish Republic
had been extinguished. Irish politics had hithertoo been dominated by the Constitutional, peaceful Home Rule, Irish Parliamentary Party and on the other
side the unionist party would be transformed, and within a few
years the Irish War of Independence would break out. It was not obvious at
the time that the republican movement would prevail over these forces or would
emerge from this with anything. The events of the years following the
easter rising were to prove essential to understanding what came in
1919. Today I’m going to take us through the events of 1916 after the Easter
Rising, 1917 and 1918, the gestation period of the War of Independence.
I’ll leave us at the 1918 general election which I’ll look at in a future
episode. So we can more or less break this up into three distinct parts; number
one – British repression/martial law, some might say overreaction; number two – By
-election defeats which led the way for the blowout in the general election –
although maybe blowout is not a fair description, we’ll talk about that; and
number three – The Conscription Crisis. Now, I would argue that without the
Conscription Crisis there would not have been a War of Independence or there may
not have been a War of Independence let’s say! There certainly wouldn’t have been as
strong a Sinn Fein movement. Now let’s deal with number one – martial law. So here’s a
quote from John Dillon, a big guy in the Irish Parliamentary Party at the time: Let’s put this all in context: After the Rising, Dublin city centre was in
ruins. The people were angry, they threw fruit at the rebels and there were heckles, the rebels were very surprised in some cases about the level
of contempt they felt. But as martial law is declared and the British get a bit
heavy-handed and pass down death sentences in rather farcical court
martials the public mood begins to change. Another aspect to look at, the
Irish love a good martyr story, perhaps it’s something to do with the
Catholicism of the country or what but martyrdom is a very Irish thing. The
public mood changed in favour of the rebels. Martial law was declared throughout
the country. The vast majority of the country had been peaceful and were not in
league with the Republicans, this rubbed people up in the wrong way.
General Maxwell, the British military governor believed that “It is in the Irish character to loudly proclaim loyalty and such protestations are
pouring in but this is in my opinion a reason we should we should be all the
more watchful”. So the British were suspicious, Maxwell wanted to arm
the unarmed Dublin police believing that there wouldn’t have been a rebellion at
all if they had been armed. British forces began seizing Irish volunteer
weapons all over the country. The volunteers managed to hide quite a
few of them before seizure. 3,430 men and 79 women had been arrested, many of these had taken no part in the fighting, many
of them were activists in the Griffith Sinn Fein Party which actually took no part
in the rebellion despite the protestations from the British. John Dillon
of the Irish Parliamentary Party, very much opposed to the Republicans, was
ratcheting up his criticism of British policy which he saw as maddening and was making a bad situation worse. Remember the quote at the beginning? Later in that
speech he said Now his speech in the House of Commons was… well extraordinary as in out of the ordinary. This this kind of speech didn’t happen in the House of Commons. It
was very very strong against British policy in Ireland and the unionists
actually pointed to it as an indication of the Irish attitude
and why they would always oppose Home Rule because, well, even though he
wasn’t for the Sinn Feiners or the republican movement
he was certainly unhappy with the way the British were dealing with things in
Ireland and perhaps he felt it was a good argument for Home Rule actually, for
Irish people to take take charge of things, you know? The river of blood in
the speech was a reference to the executions which had started on May 3rd
with the execution of Padraig Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh and Thomas Clarke. The executions were crucial in moving public opinion towards the Republicans.
Eamon de Valera avoided execution due to his American connections. The Irish
prisoners, 1600 of whom were in England, became a running sore for the British
administration. Prisoner aid societies were set up and were an important
propaganda weapon for the Republicans. The experience of confinement made
leaders out of previously unknown men, in particular and most famously Michael
Collins, who had been imprisoned at Frongoch, in Wales. Now, the Prime Minister
visited Ireland in mid-may after the executions and he went to see prisoners
in Richmond barracks. He could see that many of the men were just normal country
fellows who had been swept up after the rising and felt the British should start
combing out innocents. Of the 3,430 men arrested, 1,424 would be released within a
few weeks. Obviously there wasn’t absolute unanimity in the
Irish society, the unionist Irish Times having written on the 1st May: The historian Charles Townshend points out that while the
country was not with the rebels, they were not necessarily against them and
that there may have been a class element involved too. Now certainly at the beginning, of course, the vast majority of Irish people were
against the rebels but this this changed and it changed pretty quickly too. The
more middle class areas displayed strong pro-british of pro-military tendencies
but amongst the poor there was a great deal of sympathy, especially once the rebels
have been defeated not counting of course the ‘separation women’ I talked
about in previous episodes. Another factor which may explain some of the support
the rebels wear to retroactively get was their piety. This went down well in a
deeply Catholic Ireland. Most of the leaders, with a handful of exceptions,
were deeply devout and while a Catholic hierarchy were… let’s say deeply again…
were deeply conservative, and not about to support armed struggle against the
status quo, there were signs of a softening and and an openness,
particularly among younger clergy to Republican ideas. This was all very
important to… there’s that word again… deeply Catholic Ireland of the early
20th century. There was a so-called ‘German Plot’ in May 1918 when Dublin
Castle alleged that the Republicans were in league with the German Empire in
order to kick off another insurrection. This would merit an episode of
its own of course, I won’t go into details about it here. A number of significant
Sinn Feiners were arrested. This if anything ended up helping Republicans
and the more militant wing of the movement. In the summer of 1916 the
British tried to resolve the ‘Irish Question’ by fast-forwarding Home Rule. As
ever, they were unable to reach agreement with the unionists or to satisfy the
Constitutionalist Home Rule party regarding the ‘Ulster Question’. Anyway it
all seems to be a moot point as Irish politics was in such ferment at this
time that it was unclear whether public opinion would have even settled for Home
Rule at this point. OK, point number two – by-elections! By Christmas 1916 most of
the prisoners had been released and they decided to challenge the Home Rule party
in the north Roscommon by-election. The Home Rule party was not prepared for
elections, they were not used to them. They were the Irish establishment, seeing
themselves as a natural establishment or elite for the new Home Rule Order in
Ireland. They hadn’t had to fight an actual contest at elections very often,
except against unionist candidates and by and large these contests were already
decided by the local demographics. There were one or two cases Sinn Fein
ran some exploratory campaigns but it’s hard to see if they [The IPP]
ever took them really that seriously. The Home Rule movement was THE movement
in Ireland, it was a ‘catch all’ party. Michael Laffan
has described the Home Rule party as a ‘catch all’ party, like I just said, a bit
like the Democratic Party in the United States. It was made up of caucuses with
different interest groups but the most important thing was the party machine.
Sinn Fein in some ways mimic this, trying its best to avoid class conflict
for example or agrarian campaigns. One of the most striking things about the irish
revolution is how conservative the revolutionaries were. This whole culture
of patronage was now to be upended by this new and exciting force. Count Plunkett,
father to one of the signatories of the proclamation (Joseph) won handily. Plunkett won and he set off the new Sinn Fein juggernaut. Sinn Fein had nothing to do
with the rising but they got the blame in the British press and the
establishment so Arthur Griffith’s party was basically taken over by the
Republicans and his ‘dual monarchy’ position was later discreetly dropped in
a party convention in October 1917 when Griffith stepped down and was replaced
as leader by Eamon de Valera. De Valera, of course, was the sole surviving
Commandant of the Easter Rising. Arthur Griffith, who wasn’t involved in the
violence of course, had a huge national profile as a prominent journalist.
Michael Collins who would go on to be such a key figure was still practically
unknown at this stage, although that would change in the not-too-distant
future. The Irish Volunteers and the political Sinn Fein movement were
learning on the job and were learning quickly, and in some cases becoming
sophisticated political actors. John Redmond, leader of the constitutionalist
Home Rule party who was crushed by the by-election victory of Count Plunkett
and the rise in popularity of Sinn Fein, wrote a memorandum saying that it would
be natural for voters to want a change, “let the Irish people replace us by all
means, by other and I hope, better men if they so choose.”
This incredible document wasn’t published but it indicates and offers a portent for the disaster that would await the Irish Parliamentary Party.
Another by-election came along in May 1917 in South Longford and Sinn Fein
put forward a more radical candidate, Joe McGuinness, who had been sentenced to
prison for his role in the Easter Rising. Eamon de Valera, who is now perhaps the
most influential among the Republicans due to his special cache
having been the only surviving Commandant of the 1916 rising was cautious,
worrying that they would lose and thus damaging the movement. In the end
they won, but only just, by 37 votes. The fact that they won at all was indeed
impressive but the small margin indicated that the IPP was far from
beaten just yet. In June 1917 the remaining prisoners were released and De
Valera was chosen to contend the upcoming vacancy in East Clare. By the
way, why were the prisoners released??? I just kind of skipped over this. I often
think this was a huge miscalculation by the British… from a certain
perspective obviously… like for example look at Spain and Catalonia today. There
are still political prisoners almost a year later despite them not having
really committed any act of political violence (exposing my own bias if
you will) OK, so it is rather incredible that the prisoners in Ireland, in the
irish case, who led a rebellion in Dublin did get released! That will need its own
episode as there is quite a lot to unpack there, obviously I’ve made that
sound way way way way more simple than it really is. De Valera or ‘Dev’ as he was
known won the contest handily by a two-to-one margin. WT Cosgrave who would go on to be the leader of the Free State shortly afterwards won the by-election
for Kilkenny City. According to Michael Laffan, and I’m really stealing
from him for this section, these by-election victories convinced most of
the militarists that politics could work and that the Home Rule party could be
defeated by its own methods. In just a few short months Sinn Fein had gone
from being a glorified pressure group with limited appeal and a few councillors
to being a mass political movement with huge momentum on its side.
Sinn Fein suffered a number of setbacks in early 1918, losing in South Armagh, Waterford City and East Tyrone. Although Sinn Fein pointed to local
conditions in each one of them – for example Waterford being a Redmondite
stronghold – it did form a kind of pattern and they lost some of their momentum. One of
the great ‘what-ifs’ of Irish history is what would have happened if the British
had not introduced conscription because this is what truly made Sinn Fein the
great national force it would become. Number three, the Conscription Crisis!
There was a lot of enlistment in the first months of the war, this leveled off
quite quickly. Ireland was the only part of the UK not subject to conscription.
the Germans launched a new massive offensive on the Western Front and the
Allies needed soldiers and fast. Ireland was seen as a good source. However it
soon became clear that the British would need to employ almost as many soldiers
to enforce conscription as they would get soldiers from the policy. So the
whole thing was to become a debacle and underlined once again the total lack of
insight in London to Irish affairs, something we still see today, lamentably.
Both parties opposed conscription but because the Irish Volunteers had
literally fought the British Empire in recent memory, they were seen as a more
radical and muscular option. Sinn Fein also benefited from now being in League in
a campaign with the Catholic Church which was adamantly opposed to conscription.
Griffith won a by-election in East Cavan, ending the bad run of Sinn féin
results. The British had arrested a large number
of Sinn Feiners. The Home Rulers were left untouched. When conscription failed, Sinn Fein got the credit, and the Home Rulers looked weak by
comparison. John Dillon, the new leader the Irish Parliamentary Party, actually
believed that the British wanted to manufacture Sinn Feiners. Sinn Fein were on
the march, the Home Rule Party were battered and destroyed. There will be a
general election in December 1918 and Sinn Fein were positioned perfectly
for it. So thanks a lot for watching! This has been great, yeah, so I picked up a few
subscribers since the Irish Thermopylae video I hope you liked that.
I hope the audio quality is better here, every episode I’m doing something
different with the audio, I’m not sure if I’m making it better or making it worse
so please tell me in the comments. And this is, well, the end of the Easter
Rising cycle of videos I suppose! I don’t know what to make of them, let me
know in the comments what you think. I’m gonna try something a bit different – this
episode I’ve spoken with notes, I’m trying to be a bit more natural, and the
other videos I read a script and I felt a bit robotic or something, I didn’t
really like it that much, so tell me what you think in the comments. Do you prefer
this way of doing it or maybe a bit more structured, I don’t know, I’m
worried I’ll just kind of say something a bit mad you know! Off script so like
I’m gonna say some things like that, maybe not all of them are correct you
know but if I do get something wrong say it in the in the comments it’s
probably something I just said off Cuff or without really thinking about
it, I don’t think I’m making any fundamental errors, okay! And finally
finally finally, there is gonna be two types of videos now in the future,I’m gonna
have like a month by month breakdown of what’s happening in the the Irish
Revolution, so the next one… I don’t know if I’m gonna do a September one,
probably I’ll do an October one, I’ll do one for October 1918 where I’ll talk in
detail about the events of October 1918 and then I’m gonna do a more a thematic one, so for example an episode about the IRA in Cork, or the Dail Courts, or the
Belfast Boycott, or the War of Independence in Donegal, which I don’t
know a lot about so I’d have to do a lot of reading for that actually. So you
know, let me know and if you like that kind of thing and hopefully we can make
the channel grow. And we’re getting closer to the important centenary
events and in January we’re gonna have the first Dail, Soloheadbeg, things like that.
In December we’re gonna have the general election that kicked it all off. And
please subscribe if you like the video and tell your friends family and
everyone you know! hopefully we can make this channel grow! Thank you!

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  1. Very good video, I look forward for the next ones. And to answer your question at the end, I like the way you speak without notes, more natural. Good luck

  2. We are bound to lose Ireland in consequence of years of cruelty, stupidity and misgovernment and I would rather lose her as a friend than as a foe. — William E. Gladstone

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