Framing the Revolution

One of the biggest questions that historians seek to answer in regards to the Irish Revolution is when did it occur, or within what period should the Revolution be framed.  As this website focuses on the Irish Revolution, it is important to examine and define the years which the site will focus on.  Some historians seek to tackle the question head on, while others answer the question indirectly by framing more granular topics of the revolution around certain dates.  Many historians would argue that the revolution truly began with the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin and ended with the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921.[1]  Others argue that the Revolution began with the planning of the Easter Rising in 1915 and ended with the conclusion of the Irish Civil War in 1923.[2]  While these dates mark momentous events that occurred during the revolution, they do not fully capture all the beginning and ending of the revolutionary period in Ireland.  The years 1912-1924 fully capture the beginning shift towards revolution and the final acts of the new Irish Free State government to solidify its control over Ireland.

1912 marks the true starting point for the Irish Revolution as the formation of the Ulster Volunteers and Edward Carson’s threats of armed resistance against Home Rule, should it be implemented, set the stage for a militarization of Ireland.  As Dr. Michael Laffan states in his podcast lecture series on the Irish Revolution, Sir Edward Carson should hold some credit for helping to spark the Irish Revolution.[3]  Historians of the revolution have pushed Carson to the margins, however, his role in militarizing the northern counties of Ireland ultimately created a landscape that led to the overall militarization of the country.  Without the militarization of the Ulster Volunteers in the North, the Irish Volunteers would never have been created.  The Ulster Volunteers served as the model for the Irish Volunteers, who sought to militarize but still maintain a good public opinion.  Without the formation and militarization of the Irish Volunteers, the Easter Rising of 1916 would not have occurred and the Home Rule party would have remained the dominant force is pressing for an independent Irish nation.[4]  Thus 1912 and the formation of the Ulster Volunteers to combat Home Rule serves as the starting point for the revolution that would sweep across Ireland over the next decade.

The years from 1912-1916 saw the rise in militarization in Ireland, as the Irish Volunteers continued to strengthen and arm themselves.  The formation of the Irish Volunteers and the start of the First World War helped to militarize Irish society, while events like the Dublin Lockout, the Bachelors Walk incident, and the funeral of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa helped to radicalize Irish Nationalists.  These events would ultimately lead a select group of the Irish Volunteers to believe that physical force would be the only means to obtain independence from Britain.[5]  While the First World War saw the majority of Irish Volunteers heed John Redmond’s call to serve in the British Army and fight for Home Rule, a dedicated minority of Volunteers splintered off from Redmond’s group began to plan the an armed rebellion against British rule in Ireland.  They saw the distraction of the First World War as the perfect opportunity to strike for freedom.  This planned rebellion was ultimately carried out on Easter Monday 1916, in what is now known as the Easter Rising.  While the Rising itself was a military failure, it helped to awaken nationalist feeling in Ireland and turn public opinion against British control.  In the wake of the Rising, the British rounded up anyone deemed to be associated with radical nationalism and interned them in Britain and Wales.  This mass internment helped to galvanize republicans around the cause and further radicalize them.[6]

The British also helped to push the Sinn Fein political party to the forefront of Irish Nationalist politics when they incorrectly blamed the party for staging the Easter Rising. The later half of 1916 through January 1919 saw not only a reorganization of the Irish Volunteers, but also a string of political victories for the Sinn Fein party that saw them gain ultimate control over a majority of the Irish parliamentary seats by January 1919.  The group abstained from attending Parliament in London, and instead formed a new Irish parliament, Dáil Éireann. On 21 January 1919, the Dáil met for the first time and formally declared itself the parliament of the Irish Republic.[7]

The first meeting of the Dáil was overshadowed by the killing of two members of the Royal Irish Constabulary in Soloheadbeg, County Tipperary, by a group of Irish Volunteers led by Dan Breen and Sean Treacy. Many historians use this event to mark the start of the guerrilla war phase of the Irish Revolution that would last from January 1919-July 1921.[8]  During this phase of the war both sides committed atrocities that altered public opinion.  By 1921, the British public was tired of the conflict and the British government was ready to seek a resolution.  The Irish were also open to a settlement as well, but the resulting discussions made it clear that some were standing firm to the idea of an independent Irish Republic, while others were open to a compromise that would result in Ireland obtaining dominion status.  The final agreement ultimately granted Ireland dominion status, and the divisions in the Dáil and the IRA became readily apparent as the two sides argued over whether the treaty should be accepted.  The Dáil ratified the treaty by a vote of 64 to 57.[9]  This split led to the start of the Irish Civil War in 1922.

The Irish Civil War marked the bloodiest phase of the revolution, as both sides believed that they had a legitimate right to govern Ireland.  The conflict became personal and vengeful after Michael Collins was killed, with both sides committing atrocities against each other.[10]  The Free State Army was able to swiftly combat any major action by the Anti-Treaty IRA group and gain control of the major cities by the end of September 1922.  The remaining phase of the Civil War would see the Anti-Treaty IRA return to the guerrilla style campaign that they had employed during the Irish War of Independence.  However, this time they lacked public support for their campaign and it became clear that there was little hope for them to achieve success in ousting the Free State government.  Frank Aiken ordered a cease fire for the Anti-Treaty IRA on 30 April 1923, and issued an order to dump arms on 24 May 1923.[11]

Most historians would argue that Aiken’s order to dump arms marks the end of the Irish Revolution because there was no longer an active force attempting to overthrow the government.[12]  However, the Army Mutiny of 1924, truly marks the last attempt to question the government’s power.  The Army Mutiny of 1924 resulted from the demobilization of officers after the Civil War.  Many officers who had fought for the IRA in the War of Independence and the Free State Army in the Civil War, were deemed to be unfit to serve in their current roles now that the army was transitioning to a peacetime force.  Some of these men were offered lower ranking positions, while others were deemed unfit to serve in any capacity and were marked for demobilization.  These men felt that army leadership was treating them unfairly, and that due to their service to the state they were deserving of higher ranking positions.  A majority of these men had also served under Michael Collins, and felt that the army was betraying his ideals.  They threatened to use force if necessary to rectify the injustices that they perceived.  These officers, led by Liam Tobin and Charlie Dalton, eventually backed down from their position and relented to the government’s wishes.  Amy leadership was scrutinized in the wake of this event and many top army officials were asked to resign their posts.  The leaders of the army could have rallied their troops around them and defied the government, however they accepted their position as soldiers who were subordinate to the government and resigned.  This solidified the governments control over the Irish Army and eliminated the last threats to Free State government’s control over Irish politics.[13]  Therefore, the conclusion of the Army Mutiny of 1924 is the true ending to the Irish Revolution, as it marks the beginning of the Irish Free State governments solidification of power and the end of external challenges to the governmental system.

By framing the Irish Revolution within the years 1912 through 1924, Historians are able to provide a more in dept assessment of the revolutionary period in Ireland. the 1912 through 1924 period encompassed the build up to armed revolt, the rise of Sinn Fein in politics, the guerrilla war, treaty negotiations, civil war, and finally the Free State government’s consolidation of power in the wake of the army mutiny. These events all played a large role in how the revolution progressed, as well as how the fledgling government would operate within the newly formed Irish Free State, after consolidating their control over Ireland.

Notes:

1. Padraig Yeates’ A City in Wartime (The first book in his trilogy on Dublin during the revolution) starts with the beginning of the First World War.  David Fitzpatrick’s Politics and Irish Life frames the revolution from 1913-1923, as does Diarmaid Ferriter’s A Nation and Not A Rabble.  
2. Peter Hart’s The IRA and It’s Enemies frames the revolution between 1916-1923.
3. Laffan, Michael. “Introduction”. The Irish Revolution. Podcast Audio, February 6, 2012.   http://historyhub.ie/theirishrevolution
4. Fearghal McGarry, The Rising, Ireland: Easter 1916 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 51-52.
5. Charles Townshend, Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2005), 315-317.
6. Michael Laffan, The Resurrection of Ireland: The Sinn Fein Party, 1916-1923 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 266-267.
7. Michael Hopkinson, The Irish War of Independence (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan Ltd., 2004), 38-41.
8. Charles Townshend, The Republic: The Fight for Irish Independence (London, Penguin Books Ltd., 2013), 78-80.
9. Tom Garvin, The Evolution of Irish Nationalist Politics (New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc., 1981), 129-134.
10. Padraig Yeates, A City in Civil War: Dublin 1921-1924 (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan Ltd., 2015), 126.
11. Michael Hopkinson, Green Against Green: The Irish Civil War (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan Ltd., 2004), 255-260.
12. Of the recent histories of the Irish Revolution, only Padraig Yeates’ A City in Civil War extends the revolutionary period into 1924 and discusses the Army Mutiny.
13. Maryann Gialanella Valiulis’ book Almost A Rebellion: The Irish Army Mutiny of 1924 is the only in depth study of the Army Mutiny written at the time this article was published.

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