Irish History: Volume IXX
Irish Independence Day?
We probably don’t need to say it, but: this is a very abbreviated history of incredibly complex topic! Check out this list of suggested books if you’re interested in learning more.
Happy Fourth of July (aka American Independence Day) from all of us here at SRL! While we’re taught all about the American Revolution in school as US citizens, most of us probably don’t know much about the Irish counterpart. While technically there’s no equivalent day celebrated in Ireland, what we do have in common is the way we shucked off British rule to become our own nations (at least mostly.) We’re here today to catch you up to speed!
First, some background. The British have been involving themselves in Ireland’s business for over 700 years, starting with the original Norman conquest in the 12th century—though Britain didn’t gain full rule of their neighbors until 1541 under Henry VIII. Henry’s famed departure from the Catholic church set up the Irish for religious rifts for years to come, as new Protestants flocked to Ireland to become landlords—displacing the already existing Catholic landholders. 17th century wars solidified Protestant rule in Ireland, much to the native population’s dismay, eventually leading to Ireland’s parliament being dissolved into 1801 when the United Kingdom was formed.
But why did England cling so hard to this neighboring nation that clearly wanted them out? The British empire at its height (around 1913-1920) covered an astonishing 13.71 million square miles (almost a quarter of the world’s land) populated by 412 million people (23% of the world’s population at the time.) After centuries of conquest and expansion, the British empire (on which it was said “the sun never sets”) was the largest ever in human history to date—but it still begs the question: why? The simple answer is trade, power, and money (just like most things in human history.) Regarding Ireland specifically, a relatively small, agricultural society, it had more to do with the strategic advantage it offered to a country who relied so heavily on their reputation as a global naval power (and worries about foreign countries using it as a launch point for an enemy invasion.) That, and of course, the conscripted manpower available to them through the Irish populace so their expansion could continue and their power could grow.
The Irish War of Independence came much later than you might imagine—lasting from 1919-1921—but those dates don’t account for the violence that proceeded or followed. The Irish population was decimated by the Great Famine (something the Irish at the time and modern scholars largely put on the shoulders of British rule) and the necessary immigration it caused. With Irish numbers decreasing from 8 million to under 5 million, the island suffered a generational economic setback as manpower decreased. Much like the American Revolution, the Irish were fed up with the British taking rather than giving to a nation they claimed was theirs, and the IRA (Irish Republican Army) was born.
Those of us in 2022 will largely remember the IRA from its role in The Troubles in Northern Ireland from the 1960s-1990s—but that’s a story for another post (here’s some recommended books to read if you want to learn more!) In their original incarnation, the IRA was also called the “Irish Volunteers” as they were essentially a homegrown, voluntary group of Irish patriots who were against British rule. The 1916 Easter Rising—the week-long armed rebellion in Dublin—left over 500 dead and reinforced the popularity of the Sinn Fein separatist party, showing that Irish public opinion had swayed toward Irish independence. When the party won the General Election in 1918 and declared an Irish Republic (which landed half of parliament in jail,) things began to escalate between the Irish and their British overlords with the IRA at the helm.
The first shots of the war were technically fired in 1918, the day the Sinn Fein party first met, but the majority of the violence didn’t begin until 1920. The IRA began using guerilla tactics combat the issue of having smaller numbers and less weaponry (much like the American Revolutionaries,) targeting the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), i.e. the British-run police force in Ireland. The campaign was fairly successful, leaving the IRA in control of much of the countryside by the end of the summer 1920. The British took steps to quell the insurgency by dispatching parliamentary troops made up of WWI veterans called “the Black and Tans”—but this only escalated things further.
By the summer of 1921 more than 1,500 people had perished in the conflict, leading to a truce between the southern forces and the British on July 11, 1921. The conflict however, continued in the north and the more solidified agreement, the Anglo-Irish treaty, wasn’t signed until December 6th, 1921—establishing the Irish Free State, made up of 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties (aka the British, as they still do today, retained control of Northern Ireland.) So why not celebrate Irish independence on July 11th or December 6th? Well, because the violence didn’t stop when the treaty was signed. Between scrimmages with the British forces that remained throughout the country and the continued fighting in Northern Ireland, another 1,000 people or so died before the end of 1922. And, on top of that, the Irish Civil War (yet another topic to explore!) broke out in 1922. Essentially, from the Irish perspective, there isn’t really a reason to celebrate those particular days.
So, today, let’s eat our hot dogs and wave our flags—for though America isn’t perfect and certainly had its share of conflicts in the years following 1776 (and continues to do so,) we at least have an end date for the particular conflict that won us out independence. The Irish patriots of the 1910s and 20s have a lot in common with the American ones from 1760s and 70s, though our outcomes, largely due to distance, certainly ended differently. So let us wish a complicated happy 101st anniversary of independence to Ireland, too!
This post is part of a series. Read our last Irish history post, all about Granuaile, the pirate queen, here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
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