How the Irish Won Their Freedom

Members of the Sinn Fein party at the First Dail Eireann, Ireland’s first self-governing assembly.CreditCreditHulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis, via Getty Images
Members of the Sinn Fein party at the First Dail Eireann, Ireland’s first self-governing assembly. Credit Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis, via Getty Images

In 1916, Irish nationalists sparked the Easter Rising, a bloody revolt against the British, who had controlled Ireland for some 700 years. They failed in their immediate goal — and many of them were executed or jailed in retribution — but the violence left behind a wave of separatist sentiment across the island. Three years later, with the ink from the armistice ending World War I still drying and President Woodrow Wilson calling for “political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike,” the surviving nationalists realized they had a second chance. On Jan. 21, 1919, they declared independence.

Ireland was probably not on Wilson’s mind when he uttered those words; wary of alienating Britain, he and other world leaders did not look kindly on the Irish cause. And yet Ireland, a wee speck of an island with a diasporic population spanning the globe, manifested Wilson’s vision for a postwar world that squared national “self-determination” — the diplomatic buzzword of the age — with international cooperation, state autonomy with global alliances.

The events of Jan. 21 began at the Mansion House in Dublin, where 27 nationalists met to form the Dail Eireann, Ireland’s first self-governing assembly. Outside, more than a thousand people gathered in the streets, some climbing lampposts to gain a better view. Inside, guests, priests and the press filled the floor and gallery of the mansion’s Round Room. Elected representatives of the Sinn Fein party, mostly young men with “no gray hairs among them,” reported The Irish Times, entered “with countenances of funereal solemnity.” Then, from a table draped in green baize, the assembly delivered a Declaration of Independence, announced its “Democratic Program,” publicly implored the “Free Nations of the World” to recognize their new government, and enacted a provisional constitution under which it would operate.

The New York Times called the proceedings “dull” because they were held in Irish, which few of the people in the room understood. “This was a tribute to sentiment,” the newspaper explained, “but it was deadening to interest.” Lost in translation was the soaring rhetoric that voiced Ireland’s commitment to both its own interests and those of the global community, fixing Irish independence firmly in “the promised era of self-determination and liberty.”

But in a world turned upside down, what did “self-determination” mean? Who was the “self,” and what was to be “determined”?

Progressive in spirit but deeply unsettling for the empires that were dismantled, this new notion — self-determination — and the mechanisms by which it could be achieved was anything but clear. Ireland was diving head first into one of the 20th century’s defining challenges: reimagining sovereignty on a more human level, so that, as Wilson explained, “the interests of the populations concerned … have equal weight with the equitable claims of the government whose title is to be determined.”

These questions dogged Ireland as it hurtled toward independence. Catholic nationalists sought independence from British rule, while Protestants, concentrated in the north, remained loyal to the crown. Although Ireland had been integrated into the United Kingdom in 1801, it was still effectively governed as a colony into the early 20th century, with Catholic tenants paying Protestant landlords, who in turn were protected by crown forces. Following a catastrophic potato crop failure in the 1840s, famine had devastated Ireland and roused deep antipathy toward profiteering by the ruling class. Which side would decide what constituted Ireland’s “self,” and who would do the determining?

The decades before the Mansion House meeting saw Ireland and its people struggling to answer that question. It was, in part, economic: The quest to reclaim Ireland continued through the so-called Land Wars of 1879, when farmers rallied for “fair rent, free sale, and the fixity of tenure.” By 1882, the Irish Parliamentary Party, organized under the leadership of Charles Steward Parnell, mobilized farmers in favor of Home Rule, a policy that would keep Ireland within the United Kingdom but give it far more autonomy. Although Home Rule was rebuffed by parliamentary Conservatives in London, Parnell’s popularity signaled a growing desire for independence.

Irish nationalism took on a cultural dimension as well. In 1884, the newly formed Gaelic Athletic Association rejected British sports as “not racy of the soil, but rather alien to it.” The association revived Ireland’s native games, particularly hurling and Gaelic football. The land quite literally fueled an education in Irish identity: Many Irish students were required to supply a patch of peat to fuel the fires in their schoolhouses. With the establishment of the Gaelic League in 1893, those schools were breathing new life into the Irish language: Patrick Pearse, the poet-revolutionary who was later executed for his role in the 1916 Easter Rising, felt that the Gaelic League was “the most revolutionary influence that has ever come to Ireland.” When the league began, he professed, “The Irish revolution really began.”

Cultural and economic independence, as much as political independence, informed the Dail’s Democratic Program of 1919. Careful to protect Irish turf in all its regards, the document asserted that sovereignty extended not only to Ireland’s people but “to all its material possessions,” including “the Nation’s soil and all its resources.” The new government promised to “increase the productivity of its soil” and to exploit its mineral deposits and peat bogs.

Importantly, they also pledged “to prevent the shipment from Ireland of food and other necessaries until the wants of the Irish people are fully satisfied.” For centuries, Ireland had served as a hub for provisioning Britain’s global maritime fleet and plantations. During the Potato Famine, some landlords had shipped their produce overseas rather than feed their starving tenants. No longer, the Dail avowed, would British firms plunder Irish pastures. Self-determination meant food security, and national autonomy meant territorial control.

By 1919, self-determination was also an international question; Ireland, more than most places, had to integrate not only its internal views, but those of the countless Irish who had left the country but still claimed a stake in its future.

One of the millions who had fled to America, James Stephens, returned to Ireland after the famine. On March 17, 1858 — St. Patrick’s Day — he established the Irish Republican Brotherhood, which pledged to “make Ireland an independent democratic Republic.” On the same day in New York, the Irishman John O’Mahony established the similarly motivated Fenian Brotherhood.

Ireland bankrolled its bid for freedom with funds from its expatriate community. In 1919 the nationalist Eamon de Valera, who after escaping from prison became the Dail’s president, pursued an international approach to Irish independence. Born in America but raised in Ireland, De Valera had traveled to the United States to raise money and sway Congress to support the Irish cause.

Aid groups, like the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, and Clan na Gael, responded. The Friends of Irish Freedom in New York set out to raise $2 million. Reports explained that the American Committee for Relief in Ireland raised as much as $5 million, which the Irish White Cross distributed. Although relief organizations assured the public that the money was reserved for humanitarian aid, others sent guns and ammunition. In 1920 it was reported that 2,000 American rifles had been delivered to fighters in County Clare. In June 1921 the police in Hoboken, N.J., seized 500 machine guns and ammunition from a steamer bound for Ireland.

Although De Valera sought a constitutional means to independence, Michael Collins, the Dail’s minister for home affairs and later of finance, looked to violence. By 1919 a grass-roots militia called the Irish Volunteers joined with several other militant groups to form the Irish Republican Army. They began attacking British forces, which retaliated. In December 1920, the British passed a new Government of Ireland Act, which partitioned Ireland between the Protestant North and Catholic South, granting them both Home Rule governments. The North accepted it, but the South, committed to creating a united republic, would not. Violence continued through the summer of 1921, when Britain and Ireland, under pressure from the United States, called a truce.

The Mansion House declaration may have been the beginning of Irish independence, but it did not end the violence between Ireland and Britain. The Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 created the Irish Provisional Government, which began to function as an independent state, and also divided the Irish nationalists.Collins agreed to the treaty, but De Valera rejected it and resigned as president. The I.R.A. split, with those in favor of an independent republic siding with De Valera and those in favor of the treaty forming a National Army. During the summer of 1922, the two sides descended into civil war.

Fighting spread across Ireland, causing some Americans to rethink their contributions. The New York chapters of the Friends of Irish Freedom and the revolutionary women’s group Cumann na mBan condemned “the collection of money in America to enable one set of Irishmen to fight other Irishmen.” Collins died in battle, but his provisional government prevailed and in December 1922 formed the Irish Free State. The civil war ended in a cease-fire, though more than 11,000 I.R.A. soldiers were imprisoned, including De Valera. He was released in July 1924, among the last to see freedom.

While De Valera remained politically marginalized, the Irish Free State made important diplomatic gains. In 1923, it joined the League of Nations, and in 1925 affirmed partition with Northern Ireland. In 1931 it earned independent status as a British dominion. But a year later De Valera’s new Fianna Fail party took control and in 1937 introduced a new constitution, which established the sovereign state of Ireland. In 1938 Ireland and Britain signed a trade agreement, but when it failed to end partition, the I.R.A. grew disenchanted and began a bombing campaign in England that lasted until World War II. On April 18, 1949, Ireland left the British Commonwealth, and finally became a fully independent state.

Irish Independence, declared a century ago but incomplete for another 30 years, was a tortuous process. Like the American Revolution, its fight against British rule became a battle between neighbors. But by borrowing language from America’s founding documents and the revolutionary genre they inspired, Ireland shrewdly positioned itself to profit from America’s moral authority, financial resources and the extraordinary organizing capacity of its Irish-American citizens.

But it also looked forward, to a century in which questions of self-determination were more complicated — international in scope and rived with conflicting interests. “A nation,” explained Leopold Bloom in James Joyce’s “Ulysses”, “is the same people living in the same place” — “or,” he continued, “also living in different places.” A century later, the world is still grappling with that same contradiction.

Christopher L. Pastore is a fellow at the Trinity College Dublin Long Room Hub Arts & Humanities Research Institute and an associate professor of history at the University at Albany, State University of New York.

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