Investigation:

“We are now on the natural and inevitable road to complete the work of Davis and Rooney, to restore our native tongue, to get back our history… to become again the Irish men and Irish women of the distinctive Irish nation…”[1]
These words from Collins’ The Path to Freedom, show why the Irish War of Independence was so important in the early 20th century, and why it continues to be so. Ireland is its own country, with language, culture, and history, and the British attempted to destroy this by establishing their rule. This investigation will examine the major events between 1916-1919 that led to the Irish War of Independence, and Ireland’s eventual freedom, whether it was the controversial Easter Rising of 1916, the elections of December 1918, the ambush of 21st January 1919, or a combination of these.
The Easter Rising of 1916 is seen by many as the trigger for the events leading up to the War, if not beginning of the War itself, but can it be said that it was the definitive cause? Michael Collins, in The Path to Freedom notes that “Armed resistance was the indispensable factor in our struggle for freedom. It was never possible for us to be militarily strong, but we could be strong enough to make England uncomfortable.” He also refers to the Rising as “the fruit”[2]. Collins makes it clear that while the Rising accomplished very little, it was necessary to show the British that Ireland were serious about independence and willing to risk their lives for their country, and to show the Irish people that they could stand and fight for what they believed in. He goes on to say that “The real importance of the Rising of 1916 did not become apparent until 1918”[3], which he justifies by saying that although in later years the events were broadly forgotten, “The Easter Week Rising pointed out the road”, and “the people grew to put their trust in the new policy, and to believe that the men who stood for it would do their best for Ireland”[4]. He concludes by stating that the trigger for the War of Independence, the 1918 election of Sinn Féin, would not have happened without the Easter Rising.
Robert Kee in Ourselves Alone agreed that the Rising was not as successful as hoped, leading to the execution of 15 rebels, but he noted that these executions were what put Sinn Féin in power in 1918, saying “the working classes of Dublin was becoming ‘extremely bitter’ over the executions, ‘even amongst those who had no sympathy whatever with the Sinn Feiners, or with the rising”[5]. This was also felt in America, and Kee quotes the British Ambassador in Washington: “The present wave of fury sweeping through Irish America originated with the executions and not with the rising…”[6]
Ernie O’Malley, an IRA Officer during this period, writes in his book On Another Man’s Wound that the Rising holds great personal importance as the moment he felt sympathy for the rebels, and switched sides to fight for Ireland.[7] These sentiments were felt by many Irishmen, and explains the sudden wave of patriotism that swept through Ireland in 1916.
These sources, however, paint a nationalistic and romanticised view on the Rising. It wasn’t until later in the twentieth century that historians looking at the War of Independence began to note that the Easter Rising happened because Britain let it. David Fitzpatrick and Keith Jeffrey explain that World War I and Britain’s attitude to Ireland during this time “provided both the opportunity and the timing for the Irish republican rising of Easter 1916. It presented a suitably violent model for political action and defined the moment when that action was likely to occur.[8]” Fitzpatrick in particular argues, “if the world had remained at peace between 1914 and 1918, the Irish would surely have been poorer, less employable, and more troubled by class and sectarian conflict.[9]” He cites the fact that Irish conscripts were forced to fight for the British in explaining why Irish nationalism saw such a rise during this period, ultimately leading to violence in the Easter Rising.
A major turning point came in December 1918, the general election that saw Sinn Féin gain power in Ireland, and the creation of the Dáil Éireann. The Dáil refused to recognise the British government and set up an independent parliament in Dublin. This was met with anger from Britain, but was it one of the triggers for the war which broke out mere months later?
Collins lists achievements made by the new government: “British law was gradually superseded. Sinn Féin Courts were set up… Volunteer police were enrolled… A loan of £400,000 was raised.” While he’s under the impression that Ireland were close to achieving independence without violence, he blames the British for the war as a result of this election, stating “At first the British were content to ridicule the new Government. Then, growing alarmed at its increasing authority, attempts were made to check its activities by wholesale political arrests. The final phase of the struggle had begun.” He goes on to say “The only disorder and bloodshed were the work of the British forces.”[10] Here Collins, speaking from a prominent position, could see the situation changing around him and believes that this election was the cause of the War of Independence.
Kee notes the implications of the election for both countries. “The Nationalist Home Rule Party, which had held sixty-eight seats in the House of Commons, was now reduced to six seats.”[11] However he criticises Sinn Féin for being unprepared, stating that “The ambiguity of the movement, particularly where the role of Collins, Brugha and the other militant Volunteers was concerned, was largely concealed, and totally unresolved.”[12] Speaking from a historical perspective, Kee hypothesises that votes for Sinn Féin were actually votes for an independent Ireland. While describing the results as “triumphant”, Kee believes that the election did not directly lead to the War of Independence, but instead influenced the events that did.
Whereas Collins notes a general display of British violence following the election, Kee pinpoints the exact event that began the conflict, on the 21st January 1919. This was the day where Ireland formally declared independence, which the First Dáil did in a Message to the Free Nations of the World**[13]**, where they stated “Ireland calls upon every free nation to uphold her national claim to complete independence as an Irish Republic against the arrogant pretensions of England founded in fraud.” However, later that day, two Royal Irish Constabulary policemen were shot dead by IRA volunteers Dan Breen and Seumas Robinson. This attack was shocking for both sides as the volunteers were acting on their own initiative, and both of the victims were “very popular locally and had never had any connection with political prosecutions”[14].
Tipperary was subsequently declared a military area. Other counties followed until the entire country was in a state of impending war. Strangely, though Kee cites this as a key event in the build-up to the War of Independence, neither Collins nor O’Malley make any mention of this. They could have wished to disassociate themselves from the killers or perhaps they couldn’t see the event in the way that Kee, looking back to see the bigger picture, can.
Historians writing about these events in the late twentieth and twenty-first century offer a new explanation for these bouts of violence. Peter Hart states that religion was behind these events. The policemen were, according to Hart, ambushed because they were Protestants. While furthering the explanation for the British-Irish hostilities, this viewpoint complicates this entire period, as how much of the struggle was nationalism and how much was based on religion comes into question.
My starting question was, ‘To what extent did the Easter Rising of 1916 cause the Irish War of Independence?’ Collins believes that the election of Sinn Féin inevitably turned the country towards violence, while Kee believes that the ambush of 1919 started the armed conflict. I agree with Kee in that the armed conflict was a direct result of this event, as Sinn Féin were close to achieving independence by perfectly legitimate means, however I realise that the War cannot be pinned down to one event. All of this was the result of 700 years of escalating political tensions between the Irish and the British, stemming from their socio-economic, religious conflict and the exploitation of the Irish land and people. The addition of people such as Collins to the struggle was what pushed things to violence, but the War for Independence itself was an inevitable product of centuries of conflict, and wasn’t caused by the Easter Rising, but by the events of over 800 years ago.


[1] Collins, M, A Path to Freedom (EZReads Publications, 2010) p.52
[2] Ibid. p.22
[3] Ibid. p.23
[4] Ibid. p.25
[5] Kee, R, Ourselves Alone (London: Penguin, 1989) p.4
[6] Ibid. p.9
[7] O’Malley, E, On Another Man's Wound ([Dublin]: Anvil Books, 1990) p.38-61
[8] Jeffrey, K, Ireland and the Great War (2000), p. 47
[9] Fitzpatrick, D, Homefront and Everyday Life in Horne, Our War, p. 142, (available at https://www.ria.ie/our-war-ireland-and-great-war, Last accessed 1st October 2017)
[10] Collins, M, A Path to Freedom (EZReads Publications, 2010) p.27
[11] Kee, R, Ourselves Alone (London: Penguin, 1989) p.52
[12] Ibid. p.53
[13] Fusio - http://www.fusio.net, DIFP - Documents on IRISH FOREIGN POLICY (Available at: http://www.difp.ie/viewdoc.asp?DocID=2, Last accessed 31st August 2017)
[14] Kee, R, Ourselves Alone (London: Penguin, 1989) p.58