Introduction: 1916 in Context

Paper from a conference held at Trinity College, Dublin on 21 and 22 April 2006, organised by The Ireland Institute and Dublin University History Society.

Author: Kevin Whelan

It is a cliché to observe that the fall of Parnell led to a profound caesura in Irish consciousness, that a lull in politics followed his demise, and that the resulting infighting soured an entire generation against party politics, a generation that turned instead to literature and culture. Yeats, an assiduous rewriter of history, including his own, was instrumental in fostering this retrospective judgement. Yeats sensed that Ireland in the post-Parnell period would ‘be like soft wax for years to come’.1 Indubitably, Ireland remained culturally comatose in the immediate post-Famine period. The period from the 1880s, when the post-Famine generation took over, witnessed a series of radical responses to the Famine legacy, of which the Irish Literary Revival was one. Further initiatives were inspired by people born during the Famine. Michael Davitt (1846-1906) founded of the Land League in 1879; Michael Cusack (1847-1906) founded of the Gaelic Athletic Association in 1884. They belonged to a generation that sought to reshape Ireland in fundamental ways. This reshaping took place in the aftermath of the Famine, which accelerated the hollowing-out of Irish culture. It depended on the active support of an increasingly nationalist Catholic middle class, and, as in every country concerned with the invention of tradition, its social constituency included journalists, publicans, schoolteachers, clerks, artisans, and clerics. If the Irish needed to be invited to fully participate on the national political stage, then the invitation card had to be written in a popular style. Gaelic games were one of the crucial conduits to that mass backing that increasingly gave cultural nationalism its democratic mandate.

Douglas Hyde founded the Gaelic League in 1893 to revive the use of the Irish language. Hyde threw down the gauntlet to Trinity College, Dublin, a relentlessly anglicising institution. Its key intellectual leaders, Edward Dowden and John Mahaffy, were virulently opposed to the idea that there might be anything of intrinsic cultural value within Gaelic culture. Like the GAA, the Gaelic League spread rapidly, especially in the anglophone areas of Munster and Leinster. There were 559 branches by 1908. The co-operative movement was founded in 1889 by Sir Horace Plunkett, to act as an economic engine of rural regeneration. Improved production standards and facilities, especially in creameries, would allow Irish agriculture to compete with international (principally Danish) competition in both efficiency and quality. The Irish Literary Theatre was founded in 1899 and evolved into the Abbey Theatre in 1904.

The Irish Revival was not just some dreamy Celtic literary movement of mystics, their necks irrevocably looking backwards to a mythical Celtic past. It was a progressive movement, featuring a series of self-help groups focused on local modes of production, economic and cultural: the GAA, the Abbey Theatre, the Gaelic League, and the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society. It was not knee-jerk traditionalist or anti-modern. Multiple connections existed among these groups at executive and grass roots level, and it was these filiations that formed the networks of the emerging political movement.2 The spirit of self-reliance was the spirit of Sinn Féin (‘Ourselves’), and all these ostensibly different activities gave backbone to a common programme to nurture an expanded public sphere in Ireland, which could form the basis of a revitalised republican citizenship. Activists were seeking a new politics, an alternative route to modernity, aligned on the self-help principle. All these activities crossed class, party, and sectarian cleavages: they did not involve a clear-cut severance of (high-minded) culture from (grubby) politics. There was no conflict of civilisations, of a Protestant Anglo-Ireland representing high culture against a Catholic Gaelic middle class or peasant culture.3 Neither was the Revival a backward-looking, nostalgic, anti-modern, and anti-materialist movement. Cultural self-belief was the bedrock issue: it underpinned the struggle for national independence, for economic advances, for cultural autonomy. These movements featured a demand for cultural autonomy, for indigenous scholarship.

The Retreat of the British State

All this has to be set against the slow retreat of the British state in Ireland, a process initiated during the Famine. The Irish landed class had generally forfeited British sympathy during the Famine, when they were blamed for having recklessly allowed huge pauper populations to build up on estates, immensely swelling their rentals. They also stood indicted of abdicating their social and political responsibilities, having failed to domesticate British rule in Ireland. The Encumbered Estates Court legislation signalled that, at both an economic and political level, the Irish landed gentry were considered dispensable by the British establishment. The writing was already on the demesne walls. The Established Church was also vulnerable, and the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1869 marked a pivotal point in the withdrawal of the British state and the demolition of the settlement that had endured since 1690. That this was part of a wider movement within British imperialism is indicated by the fact that it followed on the earlier dissolution of another vested imperial interest, the East India Company, in 1858. This also marked a Burkean turn in British thinking: the idea that India should be ruled on Indian principles, Ireland on Irish principles. Influenced by the distinguished Burkean, John Morley, his Chief Secretary for Ireland, Gladstone, the most intellectual of prime ministers, had absorbed this Burkean line into his Irish policy. His espousal of Home Rule was a natural outgrowth of this Burkean philosophy, as were the Land Acts and peasant proprietorship. The untenable position of the Irish gentry encouraged the British government in endorsing unusually broad state intervention in the rights of private property. The remorseless legislative euthanasia of the gentry and the shift towards peasant proprietorship accelerated in the wake of the potent combination of agrarian and nationalist issues in Parnellite politics. The Gladstone (1881), Ashbourne (1885), Balfour (1891), and the generous Wyndham (1903) and Birrell (1909) Acts, all forced Irish landlords to divest themselves of their lands. Over eleven million acres were transferred to tenants who purchased 316,000 holdings.

By the eve of World War I, two-thirds of Irish tenants owned their land and a quiet social revolution had been effected. Looking at the Irish social structure as a whole, it is striking that the top tier, the landed gentry, had been removed legislatively. The bottom third of pre-Famine Irish society, the agricultural labourers and the clachan micro-farmers of the west of Ireland, had been removed through the Famine slaughter and the safety valve of subsequent selective emigration. What was left was a remarkably homogeneous society, whose position was copper-fastened by the peasant proprietorship that emerged out of the Land Wars of the 1880s. A long social revolution had occurred between the Famine and World War One. The political revolution followed rather than preceded it-a major difference from the Russian Revolution of 1917. This explains why the emergence of the Free State was marked by impressive social stability. In effect, the real social revolution had been the Famine and the Land War.

The Road to Rebellion

It is impossible to understand the 1916-1922 period unless it is located in the appropriate imperial and international context. In a curious way, it could be said that the road to 1916 began with the Victoria Jubilee, zealously marked in Belfast and Dublin in 1897. The Jubilee represented the very zenith of empire, seeming to show an imperial community of loyalty so cohesive that the British Empire was unassailable. Dublin was lit up by giant monograms bearing the initials VR and the dates ’37 and ’97, blazoned outside TCD, on Sackville (now O’Connell) Street, and other city centre locations. The squabbling nationalists were mortified by this enthusiastic display of ‘abject loyalty’ in the capital.4 The nationalist riposte to the Victoria Jubilee was to stage-manage 1898 as a rebuff to those who thought that an acquiescent Ireland might finally be settling into an imperial niche.5 The centenary of 1798 performed a stitching function for torn politics, allowing the post-Parnellite factions, however acrimoniously and suspiciously, to share a common platform.6 The manoeuvres had, however, two unintended effects: they sowed the seeds of unity within the Irish Parliamentary Party, and the constant spats generated publicity for nationalist politics. William O’Brien founded a new nationalist organisation in 1898, called the United Irish League in memory of 1798, to represent the grass roots concerns of Ireland, especially agrarian issues. Local government reform in 1898 created a platform for aspiring nationalist politicians. Women got the vote in local elections and became a growing presence in politics.

When the Boer War broke out in October 1899, it was received enthusiastically within nationalist Ireland as an anti-imperial struggle. The photographs of concentration camps of Boer women and children, where as many as twenty thousand children died in one year, exposed the barren brutality of the British imperial mission and gave renewed impetus to Irish anti-imperialism.7 The pro-Boer Transvaal Committee, established in 1899, provided the nucleus of Sinn Féin. The Committee, including Connolly, Gonne, Arthur Griffith, and John O’Leary, developed an independent foreign policy for Ireland for the first time. Yeats and Davitt were also involved: opposition was expressed in the form of street protest, civil disobedience, and even riots. Crowds of twenty thousand assembled at pro-Boer rallies. Gonne spearheaded the opposition to British army recruiting in Ireland. Davitt withdrew in protest from the Westminster parliament, inaugurating the policy of abstentionism, later to become a key plank of Sinn Féin policy. By contrast, the Irish Parliamentary Party, under Redmond’s leadership, espoused Home Rule within the Empire, including support for recruiting, the Boer War, and wholehearted Irish participation in empire. Divisions on the Boer War exposed the growing divide between radical separatists and conservative parliamentarians. Globally, the 1890s were a decade of imperial wars (Britain in Africa, Spain in Cuba, America in the Philippines), and the changing international atmosphere resonated in Ireland. 8

Arthur Griffith’s influential book The Resurrection of Hungary appeared in 1904. Once again the international context was key, as Griffith situated the Irish-British debate within a wider imperial context, the Habsburg Empire. Griffith also reflected a growing realisation that a Home Rule parliament on College Green meant little if there was not a distinctive Irish nationality to be nurtured. In 1905, the cultural movement sought political definition with the founding of Sinn Féin.9 Griffith wanted to push the cultural movements into the political arena: ‘The language itself is not an end but a means to an end’.

Ulster in the Home Rule Crisis

The British Liberals under Gladstone had initially aligned with the Irish Parliamentary Party to secure an electoral advantage over the Tories. After the failure of the 1893 Home Rule Bill, the Liberals were disenchanted and disengaged. They considered themselves freed from their Irish incubus by their landslide win in the 1906 General Election. They won again in 1910, but by a lesser margin, forcing them into a renewed courtship of Redmond and the Irish Parliamentary Party to shore up their vote in Westminster. The bride price extracted by Redmond for this Westminster marriage of convenience was yet another push for Home Rule. The eighty-four seats held by the Nationalists guaranteed them the balance of power. By 1913, that political weight allowed Home Rule to pass through the Westminster parliament, although the bill was predictably vetoed by the House of Lords. By 1914, Home Rule finally achieved royal assent. Its imminence created a firestorm of Ulster opposition.

The divide within Ireland partly reflected the pronounced economic divide within the country. Early twentieth-century Belfast roared ahead towards its zenith as a giant British industrial city, while Dublin had dwindled into the provincial backwater skewered in Joyce’s Dubliners. The catchy phrase ‘Home Rule is Rome Rule’ epitomised the atavistic Protestant fear of Catholicism (Carson called it an ‘intolerant and aggressive organisation’ in 1912) and enhanced the role of the Orange Order as an umbrella body for the diversities of Ulster Protestantism. A growing evangelical strain within these varieties also cemented unity. Edward Carson, the Dublin lawyer, gave the Unionists assured leadership. Carson masterminded the Solemn League and Covenant in 1912, a potent mix of history, religion, and imperialism, whose 200,000 signatories demonstrated the formidable political resolve of Ulster Protestants.

Their recalcitrance towards British measures was strongly supported by the Conservative Party, playing politics with Ireland as a gambit in its efforts to outflank the Liberals. The Tory leader Andrew Bonar Law uttered the inflammatory words: ‘I can imagine no length of resistance to which Ulster will go which I shall not be ready to support’. In July 1912, 13,000 attended an anti-Home Rule rally in London, addressed by Bonar Law, who pledged Tory opposition. The first paramilitary force to emerge with the explicit intention of bringing the gun into Irish politics was the Ulster Volunteer Force, which reached a recruitment of 84,000 men by the end of 1912. The Larne gun running followed in the spring of 1914, in which 24,000 German rifles were landed to arm these men. The Curragh Mutiny ensued, in which Ulster officers in the British Army announced that they would ignore orders that adversely affected Ulster.

Nationalists felt the need to meet these threats of force with the threat of force of their own. The Irish Volunteers recruited 180,000 men, while the IRB (the secretive, infiltrationist successors of the Fenians) and the Irish Citizen Army (formed by Connolly to provide a separate force for Irish labour) were also active. By 1914, Ireland, north and south, had experienced massive militarisation and an ominous drift towards armed conflict, with paramilitary forces in the wings, as everyone waited to see what stance the British government would adopt towards implementing Home Rule. The enactment of the third Home Rule Bill pleased no one, least of all the southern unionists, who felt betrayed. All this activity generated an escalating tension within the British/Irish relationship.

World War I and Rebellion

And then, out of the blue, the First World War broke out in 1914 in Sarajevo.10 One by-product was the suspension of the Home Rule Act (with Redmond’s assent) until the end of the war. Redmond calculated that nationalist Ireland could not afford to be outflanked by Ulster loyalism in a war situation and offered unconditional support for the British war effort. An imperial war offered a golden opportunity for Ulster loyalists to parade their loyalty ostentatiously. Carson was absorbed into the British War Cabinet, where he played a leading role, and increased his influence. Sinn Féin immediately broke with Redmond over Irish involvement in the war, playing adeptly on the threat of conscription.11 This aligned Sinn Féin for the first time with the hitherto Redmondite Catholic Church, which also opposed conscription. Sinn Féin proved to be no slouches at propaganda, and their appeal deepened as the war dragged on interminably.12

The spectacle of a hopelessly led Britain bogged down in the mud and blood of Flanders encouraged Irish nationalists to think that the imperial moment was over. For hard-core Irish nationalists, the war offered a paradigm of the adage that ‘England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity.’ Connolly regarded ‘the hellish horror of the present European war’ as a merely imperial affair, inimical to the interests of the European working class.13 Connolly now turned increasingly to republicanism as a defence against the capitalism and the imperialism that he held responsible for the carnage of World War I. At a European level, socialism had shown itself to be entirely impotent to prevent the working classes from slaughtering each other enthusiastically under aristocratic leadership. Class solidarity had melted like butter in the frying pan of nationalism.

The IRB remained active at the heart of revolutionary nationalism.14 In 1913, Patrick Pearse had joined the IRB and was quickly co-opted to the Supreme Council and elected to the Provisional Committee of the newly formed Irish Volunteers. The remains of the veteran Fenian Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa were brought from America in August 1915, for burial in the Fenian Plot in Glasnevin cemetery, and Pearse gave a stirring oration.15 Pearse was brewing an Irish version of the blood sacrifice mentality that had gripped Europe at the start of World War I. War was initially welcomed across Europe by the cultured elite as a therapeutic exercise in moral hygiene, a restoration of seriousness of purpose after the decadent frivolity of the Belle Époque and the Gilded Age. The solidarity engendered by war was regarded as a riposte to bourgeois individualisation and atomisation. Easter 1916 as a symbolic sacrifice fitted into a wider European cultural sensibility and was by no means simply a diseased product of the Irish nationalist tradition.

During 1916, much of O’Connell Street was reduced to rubble. The rebels were initially perceived as a small unrepresentative group and met by Dublin hostility and incomprehension, especially in the middle class areas such as Ranelagh and Rathmines. A journalist reported ‘After a talk with a few civilians and a study of the frightened, worried and dazed women huddled in doorways, I judge there is little sympathy for the rebellion’. The fires on Sackville Street had ‘served to drive out the Sinn Féiners like so many rats from an old mill’.16 Other newspapers expressed the enduring antipathy to Connolly, describing 1916 as ‘a mad orgy’ led by ‘the notorious syndicalist leader’.17 Virol (‘food for war nerves’) was strongly advertised in the Irish Independent, which described Easter week as ‘a horrible nightmare’. There was ‘a run on vegetables at Mr. Beggs place’ with ‘respectable citizens carrying cabbages, cauliflowers and rhubarb with the humblest’.18 The Irish Times offered full support for the execution of the leaders: ‘the safety of the whole kingdom and the peace of Ireland is at stake’, and executions were ‘the only possible course’.19 The Cork Constitution also advocated ‘the penalty of the hangman’s rope.’20 The Irish Independent rowed in: ‘We are no advocates of undue severity but undue leniency to some of the worst firebrands [Connolly] would be just as bad’.21 The Limerick Leader opined that: ‘The time has come when all hesitation should finally cease and when Irish nationalists must make up their mind to be either on the side of futile revolution or on that of constitutionalism and success’.22

With the British army command determined to make an example of the leaders irrespective of political fall-out, sixteen leaders were court-martialled and shot at Kilmainham Gaol. Malignant efforts were made to defame the pioneer humanitarian Roger Casement, who was hanged as a traitor in Pentonville Prison on 3 August 1916.23 Sinn Féin got excessive credit for the Rising because the British Army, and therefore the British Press, insisted on calling it the ‘Shinners’ rising. As the prestige of the Rising rose subsequently, so too did Sinn Féin’s reputation. Public sympathy swung back to the rebels after the executions.

In 1916, 1,600 Volunteers were active, plus an additional two hundred from Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army. Before the surrender in 1916, Seán Mac Diarmada had counselled the younger activists: ‘The thing you must do, all of you, is survive, come back, carry on the work so nobly begun this week. Those of us who are shot can die happy if we know you’ll be living to finish what we started’.24 In the immediate aftermath, 3,500 were jailed, of whom 1,000 were quickly released.25 1,867 (including Michael Collins) were sent to Wales, primarily to a special camp at Frongoch, which has been called ‘the university of the revolution’.

Women in the Revolutionary Generation

The ‘New Woman’ had emerged in the 1880s. She supported women’s suffrage, educational opportunities for women, attacked the sexual double standard, and promoted a rational dress code. An Irish offshoot was Inghinidhe na hÉireann (‘Daughters of Ireland’), founded in 1900 by Maud Gonne. At a minimum, it conferred a new freedom in public on young working women. In 1907, Sinn Féin admitted women as members. In 1911, the Irish Women Workers Union was founded. In 1913, Connolly’s newly established Irish Citizen Army also admitted women on an equal footing, and Constance Markievicz was an important player in it. In 1914, Cumann na mBan was founded as an explicitly militarist organisation, and Inghinidhe na hÉireann coalesced with it in 1915. Given all these precursors, it is not surprising to find that there was a strong involvement of women in 1916.26 Politically active women in this period represented a cross-section of Irish life, ranging from shop assistants to doctors, single and married, mothers and widows, Quakers to Jews, atheists to Catholics. Historians used to posit a strong opposition between their nationalism and their feminism: now the emphasis is more on the constellation of like-minded women and issues.27 A surprisingly modern aspect of the 1916 Proclamation is that it granted political equality to Irish women.

Seventy-seven women were jailed after 1916. Of 1,600 involved in the Rising, 200 were women, including significant figures like Markievicz, Gonne, Dr. Kathleen Lynn, Helena Molony, and Nell Ryan. Women became even more important after 1916 when the leading men were jailed. Relatives of the executed men were hugely important after the Rising, notably Kathleen Clarke, Mary MacSwiney, and Margaret Pearse. In November 1918, the largest enfranchisement in British history was granted: every adult ratepayer (males over 21 and females over 30) was given the vote. The franchise in the Irish Free State was extended in 1923 to every woman over 21-a development six years ahead of Great Britain, while French women had to wait until 1945.

The War of Independence

Support ebbed away from Redmond as Sinn Féin swelled massively in authority and used 1916 as an effective propaganda and recruiting device. Their influence grew when De Valera (the senior survivor of 1916) was elected president of Sinn Féin. The Irish Parliamentary Party was thrown into further disarray by the death of John Redmond in 1918. War weariness exacerbated the problem for the party, especially as the threat of conscription bulked larger. Conscription had been imposed in Britain in January 1916, with Ireland exempted. In 1918, the decision was taken to include Ireland. Sinn Féin could now effectively present itself as a peace party, which could save Ireland from the horrors of the war into which Redmond had recklessly plunged nationalist Ireland. The Catholic Church issued the ‘Mansion House document’ to be read publicly at all masses on 21 April 1918, condemning conscription as an ‘oppressive and inhuman law which the Irish people have a right to resist’.28

It is in this context that the General Election of 1918 was held. Two million voters island-wide delivered a Sinn Féin landslide. The party won seventy-three seats, standing on an abstentionist platform. Sinn Fáin could now claim an overwhelming democratic mandate, as they gained 485,105 votes versus 237,393 for the Redmondites. They withdrew from Westminster and unilaterally set up their own parliament, Dáil Éireann, in the Mansion House in Dublin, on 21 January 1919. De Valera was elected President, even though he was imprisoned in England. Dáil Éireann proceeded to issue a Declaration of Independence and produced the forward-looking Democratic Programme.29 Sinn Fwin established a parallel justice system: the so-called Sinn Fwin courts, an early example of restorative justice.30 Michael Collins, the first Minister for Finance, organised a highly successful Dáil Bonds loan to finance the government. De Valera was rescued from Lincoln Gaol and despatched to the USA in 1919 to raise funds. A highly effective stump orator, De Valera’s campaign raised five million dollars, although the money subsequently became embroiled in the Treaty split and vicious internecine feuding within Irish-American circles.

The British resisted Dáil Éireann’s fledgling efforts to establish itself as a government, and the Irish Volunteers and IRB regrouped under Collins as the Irish Republican Army, a force created to buttress militarily the claim to independence.31 Collins proved to be a charismatic, ruthless, tough, and talented leader. In 1919, he commented: ‘The sooner fighting was forced and a general state of disorder created throughout the country, the better it would be for the country. Ireland was more likely to get more out of a state of general disorder than from continuance of the situation as it stood’.32 His longer-term strategy was to outlast British patience in Ireland: ‘Sit down-refuse to budge-you have the British beaten. For a time they’ll raise war-in the end they’ll despair’.33 The immediate outcome of 1916 was the discrediting of constitutional nationalists. Leadership devolved to the immeasurably fortified physical force tradition. The British were driven into engagement with men they had previously denigrated as ‘murderers’. Unlike many later historians, the British elite immediately grasped that the terms of the historical equation had been dramatically rewritten in the aftermath of 1916. The Rising killed Home Rule, and, at a stroke, dramatically widened the horizons of the politically possible. In that sense, its significance was as much psychological as political, and its bravura theatricality added to its symbolic effect. That should not be seen as politically evasive or effete- Pearse calibrated precisely and presciently on the likely effects of the grandiose gesture.

After Thomas Ashe died agonisingly following a hunger strike, Collins’s delivered a terse oration after the funeral volley was fired: ‘Nothing additional remains to be said. That volley which we have just heard is the only speech which it is proper to make above the grave of a dead Fenian’. On the morning of Bloody Sunday, he organised the remorseless elimination of the British intelligence network in Dublin, the ‘Cairo gang’, so called because they had been transferred from dealing with the Egyptian insurgency to handle the Irish one: ‘If we were to stand up against the powerful military organisation arrayed against us, something more was necessary than a guerrilla war. To paralyse the British machine, it was necessary to strike at individuals’.34

The British response to the IRA was to unleash the ‘Blacks and Tans’ and ‘Auxies’, responsible for a series of brutal reprisals in 1920 and 1921.35 The British Army was merely implementing policies in Ireland that it had routinely deployed in its many colonial wars, but British opinion, well informed for once, would not stomach brutality so close to home. In 1919, for example, the British had murdered 379 people and injured 1,000 in a ten-minute burst of sustained firing into a Sikh crowd at Amritsar in India. In Malaya, the Royal Marines had decapitated insurgents and severed their hands, before posing for photographs with the severed hands raised in mock salute beside the severed heads. While explicitly sympathetic to the British perspective, the American military historian Thomas Mockaitis identifies their defeat in the War of Independence as stemming ‘from a failure to exercise restraint in a conflict that occurred in a window front’. Ireland was viewed as a colonial theatre of war by the military, but British public opinion refused to countenance such treatment of a ‘white’ people, close to home.36

Civil War

The wily British Prime Minister David Lloyd George proposed a Treaty offering Home Rule and partition. After the First World War, a conservative government was in power in Britain, which was the natural ally of unionists. The fourth Home Rule Bill-enacted as the Government of Ireland Act-of 1920 (following the earlier ones of 1886, 1893, and 1912) was much more sympathetic to the unionist position. Partition emerged as a compromise solution. Six northern counties with an overall unionist majority of two to one would insulate unionists against the southern state, but, equally importantly, also from fickle British politicians, who might at any time casually betray them. Distrust of Britain was built into the northern mindset from the very inception of partition.

A sceptical De Valera sent a reluctant Collins to lead the Irish delegation at the Anglo-Irish conference, held from 11 October to 6 December 1921, at 10 Downing Street. Collins did not wish to go: ‘The task is a loathsome one. If I go, I go in the spirit of a soldier who acts against his better judgement at the order of his superior’.37 Lloyd George threatened ‘terrible and immediate war’ if the Treaty was not signed-the implicit threat may have been to execute all Irish cabinet members. The Irish delegates signed under duress, without referring back to Dublin. The bitter dispute in Ireland arose not over partition, but over monarchy. The proposed treaty contained an Oath of Allegiance to the British monarchy, viewed by Republicans as anathema and a betrayal of the men and women of 1916. Collins believed that the treaty offered ‘not the ultimate freedom that all nations desire and develop to, but the freedom to achieve it.’38 Republican women, especially the relatives of the executed men, tended to be most vehemently anti-Treaty. After a highly charged debate, Dáil Éireann ratified the Treaty by a slender 64-57 vote. This was the worst of all possible outcomes, as it encouraged the anti-Treaty force to fight on, in the hope that a small shift in opinion could deliver victory to them. Inevitably, the IRA split, and a terrible Civil War ensued.39 The legacy of the Civil War was bitterness and distrust that lasted right through to, and fed into, the outbreak of the Northern Troubles. Unlike the Americans or French, Irish people do not celebrate Independence Day. The state was baptised in the blood of its own citizens.

A key issue then becomes the allocation of blame for this catastrophic turn of events. Some have sought it in the alleged atavism and bloodlust of Irish nationalism, claiming that the Anglo-Irish Treaty could have been negotiated without the ‘bloody catalogue of assassination and war’.40 This is to ignore British policy in Ireland in this period and its destabilising oscillation between coercion and negotiation. As Charles Townshend argues:

It may be accepted that, on the British side, some form of military struggle was inevitable before Irish demands would be taken seriously and that from a military point of view the style of warfare adopted by the Republicans would inevitably have given the struggle a nightmarish quality. It must however be judged that the British response was brutal and in and many ways counter-productive. 41

When it suited them, senior British politicians presented the war for independence as yet another inexplicable quarrel among the Irish people, with the civilised British imposing partition as a means of keeping the peace between warring sectarian tribes. While internal divides undoubtedly existed, the historian Francis Costello argues that ‘it was partition as an active policy of the British Government that ensured a divided Ireland’.42 The pervasive threat of renewed British military aggression in 1922 imposed intolerable constraints upon any genuinely free expression of the democratic will of the Irish people. Partition was not a democratic negotiation of an intractable political situation, but an imposed British solution. Partition emerged onto the British political agenda as a fatally attractive solution to the Irish problem, as also in India and Palestine.43

Others have blamed the outbreak of Civil War on the personality of the two key leaders. The contrasting roles of Collins and De Valera in the struggle for independence have become a persistent theme in recent Irish historiography, reaching a wide audience through Neil Jordan’s film Michael Collins (1996). Celtic Tiger Ireland has come down clearly on Collins’s side, admiring his administrative skill and organisational ability. This elides the fact that Collins was also a ‘gunman’ of legendary ruthlessness, who gave free rein to fellow gunmen, such as the reckless Dan Breen, who engaged in unauthorised military initiatives of their own. Collins connived with that strand of opinion that despised the ‘politicians’ in the ranks of Sinn Féin. But, he knew that by coming out in the open, he had forfeited his freedom to function effectively in an underground campaign. Among the leaders of the Irish struggle for independence, Collins was undoubtedly the best equipped to bring forth a transformed Ireland. After Collins was killed at Béal na mBláth in August 1922, De Valera became the villain. The Collins/De Valera story has become a morality tale of ideology versus pragmatism, of a fanatical attachment to mystical idealism versus a practical nationalism, of a courageous politician versus a devious politician. That version flattens out a complex historical topography.

Failures of the Free State

By institutionalising ‘Protestant’ and ‘Catholic’ states, it was hoped that partition might make nation and state congruent within the sectarian equation. Sir James Craig could proclaim that Northern Ireland was ‘a Protestant state for a Protestant people’ and the Free State developed a mirror image Catholic state in the south. There would be a long-term historical cost to colonialism. A consistent failure was over partition, the ending of which generated only lip service and rhetoric.44

A second failure was in the ‘Command Culture’ that dictated responses to issues like the Irish language. The tremendous energy that had motivated the first generation of Irish-language activists dissipated, as if people now conferred sole responsibility for the language on the state. As one commentator noted in 1929: ‘Its enfeebled language is not to be revived by administering chunks of preserved paragraphs from the cold storage of grammars and composition books’.45 A similar narrowing was evident in other arenas of culture: e.g. the espousal of censorship, or the handing over of the Abbey Theatre to state control in 1925, after which it quickly ran out of creative steam. When O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars was produced in 1926, it precipitated a riot. Although it is now conventionally seen as an attack on republicans, it was at least as much an attack on the Free State that had taken over the Abbey in 1925. The most virulent critics of O’Casey were the widows of the 1916 men.

After Collins’s death, his successors in the Free State government developed an economic program that, in its conservatism, replicated Tory orthodoxy. This reflected the long-standing class outlook of Kevin O’Higgins, Patrick Hogan, and the ‘Catholic establishment in waiting’.46 Professor George O’Brien of University College Dublin, reflecting on the post-Civil War era, observed that ‘[t]he anti-Treaty party has certainly made the Free State safe for the bourgeoisie’. Olivia Robertson offers a picture of ‘neat Cosgrave Ministers who looked like respectable grocers in their navy serge’.47 Kevin O’Higgins, Minister for Justice, famously opined that the Free Staters were the most conservative revolutionaries in history. In one sense, independence marked ‘business as usual’. The old red British post boxes with their monarchical insignia were given a hasty green veneer. The Free State retained the institutions of the British state. Could this stasis have happened if the 1916 leaders had survived? The most gifted were lost in the rebellion and its aftermath, and, in that sense, 1916 was as much a coffin as a cradle of the Revolution. Pearse was a visionary educationalist; Casement was a humanitarian of global stature; Collins was a gifted finance minister; Connolly possessed an acute social conscience.

The Free State also systematically closed down the spaces that had been opening for women during the revolutionary period.48 Activist women felt betrayed. The veteran activist Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington opined:

Here we are rapidly becoming a Catholic statelet under Rome’s grip-censorship and the like, with a very narrow provincial outlook, plus a self-satisfied smugness. I have no belief in De Valera. Well meaning, of course, better than [W. T.] Cosgrave, but really essentially conservative and church-bound, anti-feminist, bourgeois and the rest.49

The failure of the Irish left and social radicalism was another outcome under the Free State. In part, this was a failure of leadership, in part a fatal attraction to the Russian experiment.50 In 1918, 10,000 Dubliners celebrated the Bolshevik revolution at the Mansion House, and, between 1917 and 1923, seventy Soviets were established in Ireland, the most famous one in Limerick. The Socialist Party of Ireland was superseded by the Communist Party of Ireland in 1921. The Communist Party was under direct Russian control, but it had a minimal impact in Ireland and became bogged down in internecine disputes about socialist arcana. When Jim Larkin came back to Ireland in 1923, the Russians decided to work exclusively through him: this was a mistake, as Larkin was too individualist and truculent to run anything other than a one man band.

Successes of the Free State

On the plus side, the Free Staters were serious state builders, who set about the task solemnly. They managed a successful transition to democracy/rule of law (contrast post-imperial Africa), based around an unarmed police force, the Garda Síochána, established in 1924. Crucially the police were drawn from both sides of the political divide, and the Garda was quickly accepted as an impartial police force. In the same year, the Civil Service Commission was established to ensure transparency in the allocation of jobs. The new Irish State was remarkably free of personal corruption. The GAA also played an important role in the 1920s in soldering over Civil War divisions, especially in bitterly divided County Kerry. The Free State is given little credit for avoiding the lure of fascism in the 1930s, unlike other Catholic countries such as Spain, Germany, Portugal, and Italy. Ireland produced no Hitlers, Mussolinis, Francos, or Salazars-only the less than impressive O’Duffy, and the less palatable ravings of Yeats. The successful transition from Cumann na nGaedheal to Fianna Fáil as the governing party and the drafting of the 1937 Constitution were considerable (and routinely underestimated) achievements for a fledgling state in a decade when many seemingly mature European democracies crumbled.

The Free State also managed a successful positioning of Ireland as ‘neutral’ on the world stage. It performed a strong Irish role in the League of Nations and later United Nations and became an exemplar for India.51 In spite of considerable Irish involvement in British imperial rule in India, Ireland also stood as an example of anti-colonial resistance for Indian nationalists, providing both examples of constitutional agitation and violent resistance. There were many real and imagined links between nationalists in both countries, but in was in the United States that the most sustained contact between Irish and Indian revolutionaries took place.52 A further aspect here would be the intense Irish missionary involvement in the Third World after Independence, which can be viewed as both a recoil from empire and an attempt to stamp a distinctive Irish Catholic identity on the world stage.


These contexts supply the framework in which we should consider the historical significance of 1916. For the decades of the Northern Troubles, discussion of 1916 was over-determined by the heated political debates associated with that bloody conflict. Now, as the bile recedes, the contours of a more rational debate are slowly reappearing. It is within that calmer and broader debate that this book makes its contribution.


1 W. B. Yeats, Autobiographies (London, 1966), p. 199.

2 P. J. Mathews, Revival: the Abbey Theatre, Sinn Féin, the Gaelic League and the Co-Operative Movement (Cork, 2003).

3 A staple argument in F. S. L. Lyon’s hugely influential Culture and Anarchy in Ireland, 1890-1939 (Oxford, 1979).

4 James Murphy, Abject Loyalty: Nationalism and Monarchy in Ireland during the Reign of Queen Victoria (Cork, 2001).

5 Senia Paseta, ‘1798 in 1898: the Politics of Commemoration’, Irish Review, xxii (1998), pp. 46-53.

6 T. J. O’Keefe, ‘The 1898 Efforts to Celebrate the United Irishmen: the ’98 Centennial’, Éire-Ireland, xxiii (1988), pp. 51-73.

7 P. J. Mathews, ‘Stirring Up Disloyalty: The Boer War, the Irish Literary Theatre and the Emergence of a New Separatism’, Irish University Review, xxxiii, 1 (Spring 2003), pp. 99-116.

8 Benedict Anderson, Under Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anti-colonial Imagination (London, 2005).

9 Michael Laffan, The Resurrection of Ireland: the Sinn Féin Party, 1916-1923 (Cambridge, 1999).

10 Keith Jeffery, ‘The First World War and the Rising: Mode, Moment and Memory’, in Gabriel Doherty & Dermot Keogh (eds.), 1916: The Long Revolution (Cork, 2007), pp. 86-101; Adrian Gregory & Senia Paseta (eds.), Ireland and the Great War: A War to Unite Us All? (Manchester, 2002).

11 Keith Jeffery, Ireland and the Great War (Cambridge, 2000).

12 Ben Novick, Conceiving Revolution: Irish Nationalist Propaganda during the First World War (Dublin, 2001).

13 Gregory Dobbins, ‘Where-ever Green Is Red: James Connolly and Postcolonial Theory’, Nepantla: Views from the South, i, 3 (2000), pp. 605-48.

14 Leon Ó Broin, Revolutionary Underground: The Story of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, 1858-1924 (Dublin, 1976); Owen McGee, The IRB: The Irish Republican Brotherhood, from the Land League to Sinn Féin (Dublin, 2005).

15 Ruth Dudley Edwards, Patrick Pearse: The Triumph of Failure (London, 1977). A more balanced assessment is Joe Lee, ‘In Search of Patrick Pearse’, in Theo Dorgan & Múirén Ní Dhonnchadha (eds.), Revising the Rising (Derry, 1991), pp. 122-38

16 Cork Examiner, 1 May 1916.

17 Cork Constitution, 1 May 1916.

18 Irish Independent, 2 May 1916.

19 Irish Times, 6 May 1916.

20 Cork Constitution, 3 May 1916.

21 Irish Independent, 12 May 1916.

22 Limerick Leader, 10 May 1916.

23 Angus Mitchell, Casement (London, 2003).

24 Cited in T. Ryle Dwyer, Michael Collins: ‘The Man Who Won the War’ (Cork, 1990), p. 7.

25 Seán McConville, Irish Political Offenders, 1848-1922: Theatres of War (London, 2003).

26 Margaret Ward, Unmanageable Revolutionaries: Women and Irish Nationalism (Dingle, 1983), and In Their Own Voice: Women and Irish Nationalism (Cork, 2001 [1995]); Kathleen Clarke, Revolutionary Woman: Kathleen Clarke, 1878-1972, an Autobiography (Dublin, 1991).

27 Sinéad McCoole, No Ordinary Women: Irish Female Activists in the Revolutionary Years, 1900-1923 (Dublin, 2003).

28 Cited in Francis Costello, The Irish Revolution and Its Aftermath, 1916-1923: Years of Revolt (Dublin, 2003), p. 32.

29 Seamus Deane (ed.), The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, iii, (Derry, 1991), pp. 734-5.

30 Mary Kotsonouris, Retreat From Revolution: the Dáil Courts, 1920-24 (Dublin, 1994).

31 The most balanced set of assessments of Collins are to be found in Gabriel Doherty & Dermot Keogh (eds.), Michael Collins and the Making of the Irish State (Cork, 1998).

32 Robert Kee, The Green Flag, Vol. 3: Ourselves Alone (London, 1976), p. 68.

33 Dwyer, op. cit., p. 41.

34 Cited in Dwyer, op. cit., p. 59.

35 The best participant accounts of these years are Ernie O’Malley, On Another Man’s Wound (London, 1936) and The Singing Flame (Dublin, 1978).

36 Thomas Mockaitis, British Counterinsurgency, 1919-1960 (London, 1990).

37 Cited in Costello, op. cit., pp. 247-8.

38 Cited in Costello, op. cit., p. 277.

39 Michael Hopkinson, Green Against Green: The Irish Civil War (Dublin, 1988).

40 Cited in Costello, op. cit., p. 283.

41 Charles Townshend, The British Campaign in Ireland, 1919-1921: The Development of Political and Military Policies (London, 1975), p. 26.

42 Cited in Costello, op. cit., p. 326.

43 Nicholas Mansergh, ‘The Prelude to Partition: Concepts and Aims in Ireland and India’, in his Nationalism and Independence: Selected Irish Papers (Cork, 1997), pp 32-63.

44 Joe Cleary, Literature, Partition and the Nation State: Culture and Conflict in Ireland, Israel and Palestine (Cambridge, 2002); John Newsinger, British Counterinsurgency: from Palestine to Northern Ireland (Basingstoke, 2002).

45 P. S. Dineen, Filidhe Móra Chiarraighe: Four Notable Kerry Poets (Dublin, 1929), p. vi.

46 John Regan, The Irish Counter-Revolution, 1921-1936: Treatyite Politics and Settlement in Independent Ireland (Dublin, 1999), p. 83.

47 Olivia Robertson, Dublin Phoenix (London, 1957), p. 48.

48 Clair Wills, ‘Women, domesticity and the family: recent feminist work in Irish cultural studies’, Cultural Studies, xv, 1 (2001), pp. 33-57.

49 Margaret Ward, ‘Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington (1877-1946)’, in Mary Cullen & Maria Luddy (eds.), Female Activists. Irish Women and Change, 1900-1960 (Dublin, 2001), pp. 110-1. See also Louise Ryan, Gender, Identity, and the Irish Press, 1922-1937: Embodying the Nation (New York, 2003).

50 Emmet O’Connor, Reds and the Green: Ireland, Russia, and the Communist Internationals, 1913-43 (Dublin, 2004).

51 Joseph Morrison Skelly, Irish Diplomacy at the United Nations, 1945-1965: National Interests and the International Order (Dublin, 1997).

52 Michael Holmes & Denis Holmes (eds.), Ireland and India: Connections, Comparisons, Contrasts (Dublin, 1997); Tadhg Foley & Maureen O’Connor (eds.), Ireland and India: Colonies, Culture and Empire (Dublin, 2006); Kavita Phillips, ‘Race, Class and Imperial Politics of Ethnography in India, Ireland and London, 1850-1910’, Irish Studies Review, x, 3 (2002), pp. 289-303; Suruchi Thapar-Bjorkert & Louise Ryan, ‘Mother India/Mother Ireland: Comparative Gendered Dialogues of Colonialism and Nationalism in the Early Twentieth Century’, Women’s’ Studies International Forum, xxv, 3 (2002), pp. 301-13; Kaori Nagai, Empire of Analogies: Kipling, India and Ireland (Cork, 2006).