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Power and Abuse: The Irish Struggle (Part II)

Updated: Mar 18

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

~ Edmund Burke, Irish Statesman

The struggle of Éire (or Ireland in Gaelic) and England unfolded over the centuries. England (later, Great Britain) grew in power and might and could not contain itself when it came to their neighbors across the Irish Sea. Like other parts of the world, the English rulers exerted their power and oftentimes - misery - over the Emerald Isle for a long time. The culmination was a landmass separated into two Irelands - one is an independent Republic and the other is a part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The following are a few significant stories and events that will provide some perspective of the Irish-English struggles and that led to the present-day Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Part II ~ 1641 to Present

The interests in Ireland gained significant steam under King Henry II. The Tudors increased their hold on Ireland and with Henry VIII’s break with the Roman Catholic Church, significant divisions within Ireland became evident. Ireland also came under English rule in the early 17th century. From that point, the divisions, atrocities, and tyranny worsened.

Consolidation of Power and Cromwell

In the 1640s, King Charles I of the House of Stuart was on the English throne while his kingdom was at war. Scotland, Wales, and Ireland were not exempt from involvement in this conflict that had severe consequences for the Emerald Isle. Unlike many civil wars throughout world history that have a clear reason for such wars, the English Civil War is in dispute with respect to the causes or reasons for the conflict. One possible cause of the conflict was that England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, all had their distinct cultures, traditions, leaders, religion, societies, and history. It was not until the reign of Elizabeth I and following the defeat of Hugh O’Neill and other Irish lords, that these separate cultures, particularly Ireland, were under one ruling monarch, the English Monarch. In other words, the Irish officially came under the rule of the English Monarch in 1603. Following this consolidation, years of dissension, persecution, and isolation by the monarch may have contributed to the boiling point of the 1640s (Causes of the English Civil War 2017).

Another reason for this dissension, persecution, and isolation could be that in the mid-16th to mid-17th centuries, various English monarchs took four plantations from Irish landowners and gave them to English or Scottish settlers. Each plantation taken by the English followed some type of rebellion or war on Irish soil (History Revision - The Plantations 2011).

Whatever the reason or reasons for a given breaking point, many Irish people reached this point in October 1641 when Irish Catholics in the northern area of Ulster directly killed about 4,000 (some estimate 12,000) Protestants (Dorney, 2014). The later enemies of the Catholics, the English Parliamentarians, claim that the death toll of Protestants was about 200,000 (Ireland and Scotland n.d.). This massacre may have had its roots in the King James confiscation of an Ulster plantation in 1609 following the Nine Years War and Battle of Kildare involving Hugh O’Neill. Under the terms of this plantation confiscation, English, and Scottish settlers (mostly Protestant), English civil servants and soldiers, and Irish loyalists to the English Monarch, received or kept land. The result of these confiscations was that most of the Irish lost their land, the English took control of Ulster (northern part of Ireland) and instituted English tradition, religion, language, and culture in Ireland. Protestantism and Anglicanism became the major religions in this area and the traditional Irish-Gaelic culture faded (History Revision - The Plantations 2011). These acts of war, confiscation and cultural replacement have affected the northern part of Ireland to this day.

Emboldened but downtrodden Catholics, most likely started the rebellion of 1641 due to English authoritarianism. In addition, it seemed that the entirety of Ireland was in turmoil. There was even the Confederate Catholic Association that stood for the Catholic King Charles I as the English and Scottish “Parliamentarians” (those who backed the English Parliament) fought the “Royalists” (those who backed the English King) in the English Civil War (Dorney, 2014).

While all this was going on in Ireland, there was an attempt for a cease fire by way of the Ormonde Peace Treaty of 1646. The proponents of this treaty were Catholic landowners who were satisfied with the status quo. Alternatively, the English offered the Irish-Catholics amnesty, and some toleration of Catholicism in exchange for Irish-Catholic soldiers going to England to fight for the King’s cause against the Parliamentarians. This issue created a division amongst the Catholics. The treaty failed and fighting continued, resulting in more casualties among the Irish (Dorney, 2014). The pro-treaty Catholics and English signed a second treaty in 1648 that brought Royalist troops to Ireland and placed the Irish-Catholics under their command. The English Civil War was now on Irish soil and this fighting led to a Parliamentarian response (Dorney, 2014).

In January 1649, Parliamentarians executed King Charles I. Following the execution, one of the prominent leaders and officers of the Parliamentarians, Oliver Cromwell, led his New Model Army into Ireland to obtain their “obedience” to the English Parliament (Dorney, 2014).

Oliver Cromwell was born into a wealthy Protestant family, was one of ten children, and attended Cambridge University. He owned property in Essex and London, and King James I made him a knight. He married Elizabeth Bourchier in 1620 and they had nine children (three died during Cromwell’s lifetime) (Cromwell the Politician 2017). Cromwell led the Parliamentarians to several victories in England in the mid to late 1640s that paved the way to the execution of the King and abolition of the House of Lords (Cromwell the Soldier 2017).

In August 1649, Cromwell, and the New Model Army of about 6,000 troops invaded Ireland. In, John Dorney contends that Cromwell went to Ireland to avenge the killing and deaths of the Protestants in the massacre of 1641 (Dorney, 2014). Alternatively, the Cromwell Association contends that Cromwell went to Ireland because the land was in chaos and Cromwell had to bring it under control (Cromwell in Ireland 2018). Regardless of the reason why Cromwell went to Ireland; mayhem, violence, carnage, and confiscation ensued. In September 1649, the New Model Army went into Drogheda and massacred about 3,500 people. In October, they went into Wexford where they killed about another 3,500 Irish soldiers and civilians. He confiscated Irish-Catholic lands and gave them to Protestants, and some accuse him of transporting Catholics to the West Indies as slaves, though many dispute this (Ireland and Scotland n.d.).

Oliver Cromwell

In 1652, Cromwell was instrumental in passing the Act of Settlement, which seized Irish lands (with some exceptions) and punished the Irish-Catholics for the massacre of 1641. The following are some excerpts from the Act:

“That all and every person and persons of the Irish Nation, comprehended in any of the following Qualifications, shall be lyable unto the Penalties and Forfeitures therein mentioned and contained; or be made capable of the Mercy and Pardon therein extended respectively, according as is hereafter expressed and declared.”

“That all and every person and persons, who at any time before the Tenth day of November, One thousand six hundred forty [one]...have Contrived, Advised, Counselled, Promoted or Acted, the Rebellior, Murthers or Massacres done or committed in Ireland, which Legan in the year One thousand six hundred forty one; or have at any time before the said Tenth day of November, One thousand six hundred forty two, by bearing Arms, or contributing Men, Arms, Horse, Plate, Money, Victual, or other Furniture or Habiliaments of War (other then such which they shall make to appear to have been taken from them by meer force and violence) ayded, assisted, promoted, acted, prosecuted or abetted the said Rebellion, Murthers or Massacres, be excepted from Pardon of Life and Estate.”

“That all and every person and persons in Ireland, that are in Arms or otherwise in Hostility against the Parliament of the Commonwealth of England, and shall not within Eight and twenty days after Publication hereof by the Commissioners for the Parliament, or Commander in Chief, lay down Arms and submit to the Power and Authority of the said Parliament and Commonwealth, as the same is now established, be excepted from pardon for Life and Estate.”

“That all other person and persons....who have born Command in the War of Ireland against the Parliament of England...or of any the several Provinces, in order to the carrying on the War against the Parliament or their Forces, be banished during the pleasure of the Parliament of the Commonwealth of England, and their Estates forfeited and disposed of as followeth...That two third parts of their respective Estates be had, taken, and disposed of for the Use and Benefit of the said Commonwealth; And that the other third part of their said respective estates or other lands, to the proportion and value thereof... be respectively had, taken and enjoyed by the Wives and Children of the said persons respectively.”

“That all and every person and persons of the Popish Religion, who have resided in Ireland at any time from the First day of October, One thousand six hundred forty one, to the First of March, One thousand six hundred and fifty, and have not manifested their constant good Affection to the Interest of the Commonwealth of England...shall forfeit one third part of their Estates in Ireland to the said Commonwealth, to be disposed of for the Use, Benefit and Advantage of the said Commonwealth; and the other two third parts of their respective Estates or other Lands, to the proportion or value thereof, to be assigned in such place in Ireland, as the Parliament, for the more effectual Settlement of the peace of that Nation, shall think fit to appoint for that purpose, be enjoyed by such person or persons, their Heirs or Assigns respectively: And that all other persons who have resided in Ireland within the time aforesaid, and have not been in actual Service for the Parliament, or otherwise manifested their good Affections to the Interest of the Parliament of England, having opportunity to do the same, shall forfeit one fifth part of their Estates to the Use of the said Commonwealth.”

(Source: August 1652: An act for THE SETLING of Ireland n.d.).

In sum, the English Parliamentarians under Oliver Cromwell tried and sentenced those involved in the 1641 massacre to execution. They also forced the Irish-Catholics, and those who fought alongside them, to lay down their arms. Finally, the Parliamentarians confiscated their land (west of the River Shannon). Former Parliamentarian soldiers and Protestant supporters of the Parliamentarians obtained that land.

Following these harsh reactions by Cromwell and the Parliamentarians, Ireland was under military rule during the reign of the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell, and his successor (and son) Richard Cromwell. In addition, Richard Cromwell repressed the Catholic religion, prohibited people from practicing the religion and they executed clergy for practicing or promoting Catholicism (Dorney, 2014).

Oliver Cromwell died following several months of a malarial-type disease on September 3, 1658 (Cromwell's health and death 2017). The current view of Cromwell, especially by Irish-Catholics, is persona non grata and a war criminal to this day. As the English writer G.K. Chesterton put it, “the tragedy of the English conquest of Ireland in the 17th century is that the Irish can never forget it and the English can never remember it” (Cromwell in Ireland 2018). The English (and the rest of the world) should learn about these atrocities and the Irish (and rest of the world) should never forget.

Catholics versus Protestants

The religious divisions in Ireland that were started by the Tudors and became even more treacherous under the Cromwells led to open warfare between the Catholics and Protestants. In addition, mayhem and confusion continued in England for the remainder of the 17th century and unfortunately that mayhem crossed the Irish Sea and continued to gravely impact the Irish-Catholics.

As stated above, upon Oliver Cromwell’s death, his son Richard Cromwell succeeded Oliver as Lord Protector until 1653 when the reinstatement of the monarchy under King Charles II Stuart (son of King Charles I and part of the Catholic Stuart Dynasty) took place. Upon the death in 1685 of Charles II, his brother James became King James II of England and James VII of Scotland. The battle between the Catholics and Protestants continued and history seemed to repeat itself at the Glorious Revolution in 1688 and 1689 (Kenyon, 2021).

On April 4, 1687, King James issued the Declaration of Indulgence. The Declaration did three things: it repealed all penal laws against Catholics and non-Protestants, it permitted others to practice their religion, and it did not require religious oaths for certain offices (Declaration of Indulgence of King James II, April 4, 1687 n.d.).

James went on to force the reading of the Declaration at Protestant church services. There were some high-level challenges to this edict, including a repudiation by the renowned Archbishop of Canterbury. In response, James had them all tried for sedition. James’ detractors conspired with William of Orange (James’ son-in-law) who went to London and gained support in opposition to James. King James’ daughter, Mary, allied with William. The non-violent Glorious Revolution resulted in James exiling himself to France and Parliament considered his absenteeism as abdication. Parliament then recognized James’ daughter Mary (Queen Mary II) and her husband William of Orange (King William III) as co-rulers in 1689 (Glorious Revolution 2020).

The Catholic supporters of James did not quietly go away in Ireland. As described above, many Catholics had lost their land during the reign of Oliver Cromwell. They also lost their rights to run for public office, among other repressive acts. Many Irish-Catholics supported a return by James as the monarch in England given his toleration for Catholics, especially in the Declaration of Indulgence (The Battle of the Boyne, n.d.).

The aggressions between those who supported James (Irish-Catholics and Jacobites) and those who supported William (Protestants) resulted in more fighting in July 1690 at the Battle of Boyne. William’s army consisted of about 36,000 that included Irish-Protestants, English, and troops from the Netherlands, Denmark, and France. James had about 24,000 troops, many of them untrained soldiers from Ireland. James positioned troops by the River Boyne, which is about 30 miles away from Dublin. William took Dublin and marched on to Boyne. William’s army was able to hold off James’ troops. Eventually, William's army defeated James’ troops, who then retreated to Limerick. There were about 2,000 dead from both sides at Boyne, but most of the deceased were James’ soldiers. Even so, James abandoned the Irish mission and went back to France (The Battle of the Boyne, n.d.).

Cemetery at the River Boyne (Drozd, 2008)

With respect to the desertion of James, the steadfast Irish fought on until 1691, despite continued Protestant and English victories and until the signing of the Treaty of Limerick in October 1691. The treaty promised religious liberty for Catholics (The Battle of the Boyne, n.d.). Unfortunately, that did not last long, if at all.

After the defeat at Boyne and Treaty of Limerick, the English Parliament began the passage of the Penal Laws, a significant detriment to Ireland. The result of the Penal Laws was a continuation of the confiscation that began under Elizabeth I. At this point and with the passage of the Penal Laws, nearly 95% of land transitioned from Irish-Catholic to Protestant (Arkins, 1912).

The difference this time around from past confiscations was the ubiquitous nature of the suppression and overreach by the Protestants. There was no toleration by the Protestants at all for any vestige of Catholic wealth or ownership. For example, through the passage of subsequent acts over the years into the 18th century, Catholics could not buy or obtain land by other means (e.g., inheritance) in Ireland or permitted burial unless in a Protestant cemetery. One of the few ways that a Catholic could obtain land in Ireland was to renounce their allegiance to the Papacy or Roman Catholicism and conform to be Protestant (Arkins, 1912).

Recall that much of the population on mainland Ireland was Catholic. The Penal Laws that transcended King William and Queen Mary into subsequent monarchs throughout the 18th century were a way of force to conformity or loss of fundamental rights and religious freedom. In other words, the Penal Laws went beyond the confiscation of land and included other prohibitions, such as Catholic education and conversion to Catholicism. The laws also progressed to restrictions on Irish trade and dictates on the purpose of the land, which were mostly pastures. These limits on the land resulted in the inability of the Irish to farm certain foods and led to famines. Catholics fiercely resisted these laws, especially in the age of revolutions against authoritarian regimes and the quest for independence.

Attempt at Revolution

Following centuries of progressive tyranny by the English in the form of confiscations and denial of certain liberties, the Irish rose again in 1798. The monarch on the throne of the now named Great Britain was the infamous King George III. This period saw the rise of organized resistance in Ireland in the spirit of two major revolutions in the world at the time, the American Revolution for independence from Great Britain and the French Revolution that overthrew the French Monarchy.

In October 1791, the Society of the United Irishmen organized in Belfast (present-day Northern Ireland). A French-Huguenot descendant named Theobald Wolfe Tone led this Society. The French Revolution inspired the Society, as did the new constitutional republic of the United States of America. Moreover, the Society’s purpose was to establish reforms and emancipation for Catholics in Ireland (Webb, 2019). They sought to accomplish this by uniting Catholics, Protestants, and other dissenters in Ireland against British control. However, the Societies' infatuation with the French, especially amid a war between Britain and France in 1793 led to suspicions of the organization by the British. These suspicions led to the suppression of the group in 1794 (Bartlett, 2011) and Tone’s escape to the United States (Webb, 2019). A few years later, Tone left the United States and went to France where he lobbied the French to assist the Irish in a revolution against the British (Dorney, 2017).

The United Irishmen desired an independent Ireland free of British rule once and for all. While negotiating with the French, Tone acknowledged the following advantages for France if they became allies of the Irish against the British: first, reduction of British power with the separation of Ireland; second, recruiting from the Irish ranks for the infantry and navy were very promising; third, the dissenters had French principles; fourth, the Protestant aristocracy was small; and finally, the Catholics were strong in numbers and held a “hereditary abhorrence of the English name” (Webb, 2019).

Tone convinced the French that they should intervene in Ireland and in 1796, France sent 14,000 troops to Ireland. However, weather related storms bombarded the French fleet in nearby County Cork and the fleet returned to France (Dorney, 2017).

This near invasion by the French did not bode well for the Irish and in the same year, the British passed the Insurrection Act. This Act prevented:

“unlawful assemblies, and to authorise the lord lieutenant on a report of the magistrates to proclaim any county where disturbances existed. That law required all persons in such counties to keep within their dwellings between the hours of sun set and sun rise, and gave to the magistrates the power of sending persons who should be found to offend against it on board his majesty's navy. The act had proved effectual for the suppression of the insurrection, as appeared from the acknowledgement of the leaders of that insurrection before a committee of the Irish parliament” (Irish Insurrection BILL n.d.).

The effect of this Act was more tyranny by the British. British troops and Protestant loyalists burned Catholic households and churches in addition to mass executions of those believed to be insurrectionists against the British (Dorney, 2017). By 1798, the Irish people (dissenters, Catholics, and some Protestants) led by the efforts of a reinvigorated Society of United Irishmen had enough of this tyranny.

In the early part of 1798, Tone was in France trying to convince the French rulers to support another invasion of Ireland against the British. Tone was successful and he sailed with a French fleet in late September 1798. In early October, they came upon a British fleet and the two fleets began engaging in battle. The British defeated the French fleet, captured Tone at Donegal, Ireland, and court-martialed him in Dublin. At his hearing, Tone said the following:

“For it I became an exile; I submitted to poverty; I left the bosom of my family, my wife, my children, and all that rendered life desirable. After an honourable combat, in which I strove to emulate the bravery of my gallant comrades, I was forced to submit, and was dragged in irons through the country, not so much to my disgrace, as to that of the person by whom such ungenerous and unmanly orders were issued” (Webb, 2019).

The British found Tone guilty and sentenced him to death by hanging. Before the executioner could get to him, Tone attempted to take his own life in the cell with a penknife to the neck on November 11, 1798. He lived in agony for another 8 days and then expired at the age of 34 (Webb, 2019).

Aside from the efforts of Tone, since the attempted invasion of 1796, the British were suspicious of the Society of United Irishmen and engaged in spying and infiltrating the organization’s upper ranks in Dublin. They also imprisoned many of the Society’s leaders and there was disarray among the Irish in attempted rebellions outside of Dublin (Bartlett, 2011). In May 1798, there was fighting in Dublin and its surrounding counties. However, with the arrests of United Irishmen leaders and disorganization, British troops defeated many of the Irish fighters through capture and massacre (Dorney, 2017). As a result of this fighting, the British executed about 34 United Irishmen in Dunlavin and another 35 in Wexford (Bartlett, 2011).

There were some short-lived victories by the Irish in Wexford in the late Spring of 1798, but the British poured troops into that area and defeated the Irish. Finally, in August, a French expeditionary force assisted the Irish at Killala Bay. The British defeated this force and permitted the French to surrender and go back to France, but the British massacred the Irish fighters involved in this battle (Dorney, 2017).

The northern part of Ireland, including Ulster, Leinster, Antrim, and Derry saw some fighting, but the British defeated the Irish in these areas as well (Bartlett, 2011).

Bartlett reported that the British killed about 10,000 to 25,000 Irish rebels during the rebellion. Dorney reported that the British killed more than 70,000. In the end, the might of the British defeated the Irish as they fought for their independence. In 1800, the Irish Parliament disbanded, and Ireland came under the full control of London throughout the 19th century and into the 20th century (Dorney, 2017).

The Move Toward Independence

The Irish drive and quest for independence did not die with the 1798 rebellion, but neither did the devastation. While the Irish gained some representation in the British Parliament, economic and agricultural devastation became prevalent in Ireland. Due to a blight in the food source, the potato, a massive famine ensued that resulted in over one million deaths. This famine was due in part to the British power’s laissez faire (hands-off) approach to Ireland in the 19th century. In other words, the British did little - if anything - to assist the Irish with the famine. These economic and social issues also resulted in many Irish people leaving their beloved Emerald Isle for more promising lives in other places and thus, a massive emigration occurred. By the beginning of the 20th century, more than half of the people living in Ireland (from its population in the beginning of the 19th century) either died or emigrated (Social, economic, and cultural life in the 17th and 18th centuries n.d.).

Despite the mass emigration, poverty, and political upheaval in Ireland, the Irish quest for liberty was on the move. As a result, Catholic emancipation became a reality in the 19th century and Irish independence movements started to rise.

The Home Rule movement in Ireland began in the 1870s. The idea was for Irish independence from Great Britain and for Ireland to be self-governing. However, the British House of Lords rejected attempts at Home Rule in the late 19th century. Home Rule came up again in the early 20th century. In 1912, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Herbert Asquith, was in favor of Irish independence (though many believed that this was due to his political agenda and would benefit Britain in the end) and proposed a bill to Parliament that would do the following: create an Irish Parliament that would deal with domestic issues (the British Parliament would continue to deal with the military, British Crown issues, foreign policy, and customs) and continue to maintain Irish members of the House of Commons in the British Parliament. The British Parliament passed Home Rule in 1914, but the northern region of Ulster rejected it and the implementation of Home Rule ended at the onset of World War I (Trueman, 2015).

A large group, mostly in the northern Ulster area and known as the Unionists (mostly Protestant), were vehemently against the Home Rule Bill and were in favor of continued alignment with the United Kingdom and British Crown. In other words, the Unionists opposed an independent Ireland made up mostly of Catholics (Connolly, n.d.). In late September 1912, over 470,000 signed the Solemn League and Covenant, which stated in part, “all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland” (Tonge, 2016). The Unionists continued to take steps against Home Rule and began to organize themselves militarily. Their goal was to resist British goals of an independent Ireland, as well as the possibility of the potential of an Irish government in Dublin (Tonge, 2016).

In 1916, Home Rule was still not implemented and those who supported an independent Ireland were becoming increasingly impatient with the British failure to hold up promises made to them in 1914. As stated above, the outbreak of World War I resulted in the delayed implementation of Home Rule, as did Unionists opposition. Many years prior, a group had formed called the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). Their main objective was to “establish and maintain a free and independent Republican Government in Ireland” (Connell, 2013). In 1915, the group militarized and started to plan an insurrection against the British for various reasons, chief among them were the increased power of the Unionists, increased Irish nationalist organizations, and the fact that World War I distracted the British (Explainer: What was the Easter Rising? n.d.).

The Irish Volunteer Force, or those tasked with carrying out the insurrection in Dublin, planned for action on Easter week in 1916 and with the help of German arms (keep in mind that the British were fighting the Germans in World War I). The exact dates for the planned insurrection were Good Friday, April 21, 1916 and it then changed to Easter Sunday, which was on April 23 that year. However, the insurrection did not go according to plan because the British captured the German ship that was en route to Ireland to deliver arms on April 21. After the discovery of this, the Irish Volunteer Force decided to continue with the insurrection anyway, but it occurred on Easter Monday, April 24 (History - 1916 Easter Rising - Insurrection - Background to the Rising n.d.).

The Easter Rising occurred in Dublin. The capture of the friendly (to the Irish Volunteer Force) German ship and changes in dates left the Irish Nationalists confused with respect to the information and orders they were receiving. This confusion led to vulnerability to the British. However, the Nationalists did have some immediate gains by occupying various buildings that they had previously planned to occupy without much or any British resistance. The Irish rebels outnumbered the British troops by about 600 soldiers. The Nationalists also made significant gains in early fighting with massive British casualties versus a few nationalist casualties. Given these early defeats, the British responded massively and vigorously. They sent in about 20,000 troops and now outnumbered the Irish by about 18,500. Toward the end of Easter week, the British barraged the Irish with strong artillery. The British forced the Irish leaders to evacuate their headquarters in central Dublin and effectively forced them into an unconditional surrender. The Easter Rising resulted in 450 deaths, about 2,600 injured, and 9 missing. Executions of leaders and major players of the Rising followed (History - 1916 easter rising - insurrection - the easter rising n.d.). The defeat at the hands of the British is like past insurrections where the Irish may have had early gains, but the enemy sent in reinforcements to quell any threat. The defeat of the Irish in the Easter Rising did not stop the strong Irish perseverance for independence.

(Scolair, 2007)

After the Easter Rising and despite their defeat, the Irish Nationalists continued to fight militarily and politically. In 1905, Sinn Féin (Gaelic for “We Ourselves”) formed as one of these Irish nationalist and political groups. Sinn Féin gained political momentum following the Rising. Their first goal was freedom from British control and they continued to strive for a completely independent Ireland - to include the northern counties still under British control today. The United Irishmen and Theobald Tone inspired the leaders of Sinn Féin due to the previous rise against British occupation under King George III (see above) (History of Sinn Fein n.d.). In 1918, the Irish held a total of 105 seats in the English Parliament. Astoundingly, Sinn Féin won 73 of those 105 (remaining were of the British-supported Ulster) seats given their push for an independent Irish republic (Arthur, n.d.). In early 1919, Sinn Féin set up a provisional government in Ireland to diplomatically rival the British control of the Emerald Isle. However, this event led to yet another conflict between the Irish and their long-time rivals. This conflict was called the Anglo-Irish War or Irish War for Independence (Arthur, n.d.).

The unconditional surrender of the Irish nationalists at the Easter Rising was not the end of the story. One can argue, it was the beginning, and the fighting Irish kept fighting. The years of 1919 to 1921 marked a pivotal time in Irish history and in Irish-British relations. This period was a time of reckoning that changed the face of Ireland since the 12th century and going forward to the 21st century. Following the declaration in January 1919 by Sinn Féin of the provisional government of Ireland, the Irish republican parliament, called Dáil, met. On that same day in Tippery, members of the Irish Volunteer Force carried explosives and shot and killed two police officers (Dorney, 2012). Following what some caledl a spark to the Irish War for Independence, were prisoner hunger strikes in 1920 and labor strikes, such as the rail worker’s strike to prevent train access to British passengers. As a countermeasure to the Irish resistance, the British arrested most of the Sinn Féin leadership (Dorney, 2012). Violence followed and intensified.

The Irish Republican Army (IRA) was born in 1919 following the disbandment of the Irish Volunteer Force. Much like the Force, the IRA was in favor of an independent Ireland and used arms and guerilla tactics to counter and challenge the British. The IRA was not a part of nor controlled by any political organization. Although, several IRA members also were members of Sinn Féin (Arthur, 2010).

One of the major offenses of the Irish War for Independence was in early 1920. The IRA started to launch attacks against the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), which was the royal police force in Ireland under the British Crown. On yet another Easter (April 4, 1920) and again in May of that year, the IRA destroyed RIC police barracks in larger cities and towns around Ireland. The IRA went on to destroy the government and taxing facilities around Ireland as well (The IRA attack On KILMALLOCK Ric BARRACKS 28 May 1920 2020).

Throughout 1920, the IRA was not only physically taking offense to the British in Ireland, but in addition to guerilla tactics and assassinations (particularly in the northern counties) there was also psychological warfare to win the hearts and minds of all Irish for the cause of an independent Ireland. Even with attacks on the larger cities and towns, the IRA went on to attack police barracks in the small towns and villages throughout Ireland. The purpose of this was to make the British backed police lose their morale and feel defeated and to show the Irish people in these places that an independent Ireland was better for them. In other words, they were trying to expose the British and gain support for independence from all of Ireland and not just those in metropolitan areas (The IRA attack On KILMALLOCK Ric BARRACKS 28 May 1920 2020).

Later in the year 1920, another tragedy struck Ireland. Bloody Sunday occurred on November 21, 1920 and was one of the most horrific series of atrocities and an attempt at a show of force by the IRA. The IRA started the massacre that day by assassinating 12 British intelligence officers in their homes. Following this, the IRA killed two police officers. In the afternoon, the British killed 14 Irish civilians followed by two IRA officers. In all, the IRA and British were responsible for the deaths of 30 people on that fateful day (Bloody Sunday 1920: New evidence 2013). As a result of Bloody Sunday, the British placed Ireland under Martial Law (Malone, n.d.).

Bloody Sunday & Michael Collins (Martin, 2019)

Following this intense fighting and the horror of Bloody Sunday, the British floated the idea of an independent Ireland in the southern counties of Ireland (Dorney, 2012). This independence finally occurred on December 23, 1920 with the passage of the Government of Ireland Act, which institutionalized parliaments in the southern and northern counties of Ireland. The Act was yet another continuation of Home Rule. The British would still have dominion over both areas and the intent was to eventually join the two Irelands together (Government of Ireland Act 1920). Moreover, the British fully implemented the Act in the northern counties of Ireland on May 3, 1921. Northern Ireland now had a House of Commons, Senate, and Prime Minister. The Northern Ireland Parliament was in power until 1973 and the Act itself prevailed in Northern Ireland until 1999 when the Northern Ireland Assembly assumed all powers (Torrance, 2020). However, the Act was inadequate, particularly for the southern counties as those counties were looking for full and complete independence from Great Britain (Malone, n.d.).

As fighting continued throughout the first half of 1921, Great Britain and Sinn Féin agreed to a truce in July of that year. Negotiations commenced and in December, the parties reached an agreement called the Articles of Agreement for a Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, also known as the “Anglo-Irish Treaty” (Malone, n.d.). On December 6, 1921, the Irish Free State was born, though still part of the dominion of the British Empire. The Treaty acknowledged the following:

“Ireland shall have the same constitutional status in the Community of Nations known as the British Empire as the Dominion of Canada, the Commonwealth of Australia, the Dominion of New Zealand, and the Union of South Africa with a Parliament having powers to make laws for the peace, order and good government of Ireland and an Executive responsible to that Parliament, and shall be styled and known as the Irish Free State” (Articles of Agreement for a Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland 1921).

The Government of Ireland Act of December 1920 paved the way for the Anglo-Irish Treaty by identifying the counties or jurisdiction of the Irish Free State. The Treaty made the following distinction between the new Irish Free State and Northern Ireland:

“The Parliament and Government of Northern Ireland shall continue to exercise as respects Northern Ireland the powers conferred on them by the Government of Ireland Act, 1920, but the Parliament and Government of the Irish Free State shall in Northern Ireland have in relation to matters in respect of which the Parliament of Northern Ireland has not power to make laws under the Act (including matters which under the said Act are within the jurisdiction of the Council of Ireland) the same powers as in the rest of Ireland, subject to such other provisions as may be agreed in manner hereinafter appearing” (Articles of Agreement for a Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland 1921).

The realization of Irish freedom was closer to reality with the passage of the Government of Ireland Act and the Anglo-Irish Treaty that formed the Irish Free State, even though in 1921, the Irish Free State continued to have allegiance to the British Crown as a part of the British Commonwealth of Nations.

The IRA was vehemently against the Anglo-Irish Treaty as it did not completely cut ties with Great Britain. Moreover, the concessions by the Irish who ratified the Treaty did not sit well with the IRA and fighting began again. Prominent leaders of the movement for an independent Ireland resigned from the ruling party in the Irish Parliament in protest of the Treaty (Irish Civil War 2018). Following this, violence ensued. On June 22, 1922, the IRA assassinated a British Field Marshall from Ulster named Henry Wilson near his home in London (Hart, 1992). Four days following the assassination, the Battle of the Four Courts commenced in Dublin. Four Courts was a building complex that housed the Public Records Office and a car showroom. Over 200 IRA soldiers attacked this complex. (The Battle of the FOUR Courts 2018). The British were also angry because the Irish leaders of those who supported the Treaty, such as Michael Collins, worked with the anti-treaty leaders to form a coalition government (Irish Civil War 2018).

Michael Collins was an influential and controversial figure in early 20th century Ireland. He was active in the Easter Rising, held a seat with Sinn Féin, became the Minister of Finance with the Irish Parliament, was a leader with the IRA during the war of independence, and directed the assassinations of British officials on Bloody Sunday. He also led the Irish in peace talks and was instrumental in the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. With his support of the Treaty, Collins made enemies in Ireland for those who were staunch supporters of a completely independent Ireland. In part, Collins had previously stated the following when the British and Irish signed the Treaty:

“We have a chance now of giving our people a better life, we have a chance of doing the things that the people require. We have a chance of securing that the people shall no longer live the life of beasts. We have a chance of ending our slums. We have a chance of ending the hovels of some of our country places. We have a chance, now not by travelling any soft road, God knows, but by hard, united effort to make Ireland something for the next generation, which it was not for ourselves” (Curran, 1968).

Michael Collins saw the big picture in the passage of the Treaty as a step in the right direction for independence. As a result of this support, the anti-treaty forces who once worked with Collins, assassinated him in an ambush in Cork on August 22, 1922 (History - Michael Collins n.d.).

The Irish Civil War continued until May 1923 with pro-treaty forces backed by the British fighting the anti-treaty forces, mostly the IRA. The pro-treaty forces outlasted those who favored an independent Ireland without the dictate of allegiance to Great Britain as specified in the Anglo-Irish Treaty (Curran, 1968). Following the end of the war, the anti-treaty leaders continued to place political pressure on the British with respect to the legality of Ireland being a part of the Commonwealth of Great Britain and owing allegiance to the British Crown. During the subsequent 26-year period, Great Britain made concessions. Due to the political pressure, concessions, and want for complete autonomy, the Irish (except for the area that consists of Northern Ireland) obtained complete independence. On April 18, 1949, the Irish Act commenced. On this day, Éire (Republic of Ireland) was finally born and free of any allegiance or political ties to Great Britain. The Act obtained Royal assent on June 2, 1949.

The first two clauses of the Act describe exactly what we know of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland today.

“It is hereby recognized and declared that the part of Ireland heretofore known as Éire ceased, as from the eighteenth day of April, nineteen hundred and forty-nine, to be part of His Majesty's dominions.”

“It is hereby declared that Northern Ireland remains part of His Majesty's dominions and of the United Kingdom and it is hereby affirmed that in no event will Northern Ireland or any part thereof cease to be part of His Majesty's dominions and of the United Kingdom without the consent of the Parliament of Northern Ireland” (Ireland Act 1949).

The Republic of Ireland! (Irish Times, 2019)

The Act goes into other issues such as diplomacy and citizenship provisions, as well as some residence related provisions for Northern Ireland. In the end, the traditionally Catholic parts of Ireland, the southern counties, obtained what they have always fought for - complete independence. The northern areas who had been traditionally Protestant and connected to the British either sympathetically or as allies, remained part of the United Kingdom.


Unfortunately, throughout the 20th century, there continued to be unrest in Ireland and aggressiveness toward the British or those who allied with the British, particularly in Northern Ireland. In 1972, another Bloody Sunday occurred on January 30 when the IRA, to repress a civil rights rally in Derry, ended up killing 14 of the protesters. There were additional bombings and assassinations by the IRA in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. Throughout all this time there were on and off ceasefire and peace talks (History of the Northern Ireland Conflict n.d.).

On Good Friday, April 10, 1998, Great Britain and Northern Ireland reached the Northern Ireland Peace Agreement. That Agreement states in part:

“We are committed to partnership, equality, and mutual respect as the basis of relationships within Northern Ireland, between North and South, and between these islands.”

“We reaffirm our total and absolute commitment to exclusively democratic and peaceful means of resolving differences on political issues, and our opposition to any use or threat of force by others for any political purpose, whether in regard to this agreement or otherwise” (Northern Ireland Peace Agreement 1998).

In addition, the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Government of Ireland agreed to this crucial clause:

“Recognise the legitimacy of whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland with regard to its status, whether they prefer to continue to support the Union with Great Britain or a sovereign united Ireland” (Northern Ireland Peace Agreement 1998).

In other words, this leaves open the door for Northern Ireland to remain allegiant to Great Britain, become their own sovereign nation or join with the Republic of Ireland. At the present time, Northern Ireland remains a part of the United Kingdom and from my own knowledge, there is relative peace on the Emerald Isle. Time will tell what becomes of Northern Ireland and if they wish to remain with the status quo or if change will become a reality.

In Conclusion

From the time of the marriage between the Welsh subject of King Henry II named “Strongbow” to the daughter of the Irish King Dermot in the year 1170 to the passage of the Irish Act in 1949, 779 years had passed. Prior to this, Ireland was a serene place with vast green pastures and coastlines. In the 5th century, Saint Patrick introduced Christianity to a pagan people called the Celts. The Celts were fierce warriors, but also made significant contributions to Irish society and culture, such as the Gaelic language, art, and poetry. After Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland, another pagan group, the Vikings, landed in Ireland to plunder and pillage. Despite what many people may consider turmoil or vast changes to the norm through violence, the Irish people adapted to the peaceful ways of Patrick’s faith and maintained him as their Patron Saint. They also maintained their own culture and way of life (History of Ireland n.d.). The Celts and Saint Patrick formed the Irish identity that is evident today. Throughout the 779-year period between 1170 and 1949, that identity was continuously challenged, abused, subdued, and almost made extinct at the hands of the English/British. But the fighting Irish continued to fight and would not let up on their quest for complete and utter independence. The Irish refused subjugation, and they refused to give up. Unfortunately, the English/British, by the likes of the Tudors, Cromwells, William and Mary, George III, and the IRA, institutionalized religious divisions among these Gaelic people that played the most significant factor in the exploited and inflamed divisions amongst this culture that led to tyranny, strife, and massive death. With the passage of time, the exploited and unnecessary divisions dominated the culture and political landscape and left two lands that were once shared by the same culture and history - separated.

In our world today, it is undeniable that unnecessary divisiveness does exist, and it is tearing people apart from each other. Much like the Irish history, these divisions will continue to lead to chaos, turmoil, and separation if the divisions are sustained. In the end, it was peace, perseverance, political pressure, but most importantly, the want of the Irish people - in both the northern and southern parts - that led to the Irish Act of 1949. However, if not for the centuries of divisiveness, we may have one, unified Emerald Isle without the political separation of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.


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