The War of Independence was the guerilla campaign fought against the British government in Ireland by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) which was under the auspices of the First Dail, the Irish Parliament that was created in 1918 by the majority of the Irish MPs. The war began in January of 1919 and officially ended with the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921. However, the actual fighting in the war ended in July 1921 with a truce between the IRA and the British.
The origins of the Irish War of Independence can be traced to the 1916 Easter Rising when the first blow for a free Ireland was struck by idealistic patriots who were inspired by Ireland’s past attempts of rebellion, beginning in the 1600s. The Easter Rising lasted a week before being brutally put down by the British. At the end of the week, the rebel leaders were not viewed favorably by the majority of the Irish since many of Dublin’s poor lost their homes in the fighting. However, that opinion changed when the British executed the leaders of the rising within three weeks of the surrender.
Once those who had been imprisoned for their part in the Easter Rising were released, including Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera, it was time for Sinn Fein (Ireland’s nationalist political party) to run in the 1918 parliamentary election in London. Sinn Fein received eighty percent of the Irish vote, clearly the majority of the Irish people wanted an Ireland that was free of Britain and declared themselves as the First Dail and ratified the 1916 Proclamation of Independence which had called for the removal of all British troops in Ireland.
Support grew among the American Irish as opinion turned in favor of the rebel martyrs. Irish-American money poured into Sinn Fein’s coffers, which enabled the freedom fighters to purchase guns and ammunition for the coming war. The IRA was created by the Dail in order to wage war against British rule in Ireland. On January 21, 1919, two members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) were killed by volunteer members of the IRA under the command of Dan Breen in Soloheadbeg, County Tipperary. The purpose in killing the RIC members was to take a shipment of gelignite for use in IRA explosives. As a result, the British declared martial law in Tipperary three days later.
Under the leadership of Michael Collins, the IRA and its flying columns which were designed to attack by surprise and then disappear without a trace following an attack on British forces. It was Collins and his network of spies who infiltrated Dublin Castle, RIC, and Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) and provided the IRA with information on who to attack and where. During the first year of the war, Collins’s squad of hand picked men eliminated many of DMP’s detectives known as the “G men.” In addition to the squad, the IRA had close to 15,000 volunteers to attack the British in these sneak attacks developed by Collins.
The attacks provided the IRA with arms, money, and the ability to take out key members of British colonial administration in Ireland. Violence continued to increase until it became widespread in 1920. This was when the IRA began to take out fellow Irish for spying for the British. One such example was the killing of one such spy in County Limerick in March 1920. Government property such as empty RIC barracks and tax offices were burned to the ground as well. The culmination of the violence came about on November 21, 1920 where Collins’s squad eliminated nineteen British Army intelligence officers who were posing as civilians in the various homes and hotels in Dublin.
This day became known as “Bloody Sunday” and provoked the British into a brutal response. Later, that same day, the British security forces fired on a crowd of people watching a football match in Dublin, killing twelve people. The British government in London recruited an auxiliary force of 10,000 men known as the “Black and Tans.” This force had been hardened by warfare in Europe, were ignorant of Ireland and received little training. They were under the nominal control of the RIC, but were left to their own devices for the most part. The Black and Tans destroyed villages, towns and cities, left homes in ruin, destroyed parts of Irish industry, and left thousands of Irish without jobs or homes. The auxiliaries also carried out reprisals against IRA attacks by destroying the property of those suspected of being involved in the IRA.
By the end of 1921, the IRA was running out of ammunition and the British called for peace talks since they were being defeated at every turn by the IRA. This was the time that De Valera had returned to Ireland from his tour in America. Although De Valera was the President of the Irish Republic at the time, it was the IRA and Collin’s leadership who brought the British to an impasse. De Valera knew that the chances of a thirty-two county republic were slim since the Protestants in the Northeast part of Ireland had formed their own militias during World War I and vowed to fight to remain a part of the British empire. So, he sent Collins, Arthur Griffith, the founder of Sinn Fein, and Cathal Brugha to London in order to negotiate the peace treaty. Collins fought hard for Ireland at the negotiations but Britain would not give up Northeastern Ireland. The British threatened Collins with all out warfare which would include aerial bombing of Irish cities, but he knew that it was time to stop fighting and to rebuild Ireland. Collins stated that the treaty “gives us freedom, not the ultimate freedom that all nations desire and develop to, but the freedom to achieve it.” (Coogan, 300) He viewed the treaty as a stepping-stone for a united thirty-two county republic, but for now Ireland would have to make do with a twenty-six county republic.
1. Tim Pat Coogan, Michael Collins (London: Arrow Books, 1990).