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  • James Houser

January 21, 1919 - The Irish War of Independence Begins

Updated: Jun 1, 2021

I've written more and better articles about the Irish War of Independence since this one.

January 21, 1919. 73 Irish Members of the British Parliament meet at Mansion House in Dublin to declare a breakaway government under their Sinn Fein party. The Irish War of Independence has begun.

The United States is a proud nation, but we often discount or forget the struggles of other countries for independence. Little known to most Americans, the Irish War of Independence was a cynical and guerrilla affair. Unlike the American Revolution, it took place in a civilian context; the Irish rebels' manner of fighting was extremely close to what we would now call terrorism. On the same day that Sinn Fein launched their independence struggle, the IRA (Irish Republican Army) ambushed a convoy of police officers escorting explosives. They killed two officers, stole the explosives and weapons, and soon used them to deadly effect.

The First Dail Eirann - the governing body of the Irish Republic - in April 1919

I've asked around to Irish, British and American historians in the past, and have come to the conclusion that there is no unbiased history of the Irish War of Independence. From its initiation on the 21st of January, it was a struggle fought by urban guerrilla terrorists and a brutal occupation government. Both sides committed numerous atrocities. The Irish remembered centuries of famines and massacres, punctuated by uprisings like the 1798 Rising, or the more recent 1916 Easter Rising that saw many of the leading rebels executed in cold blood.

The British, on the other hand, saw Ireland as an integral part of the United Kingdom. After the First World War had ended with many Irishmen among the hallowed dead in Europe, it was unthinkable that such a struggle could split the Kingdom rather than draw it closer together. Worse, many British Liberals had put their careers on the line to support Catholic and Irish emancipation and home rule; they fully understood the meaning of "give an inch and they take a mile."

The UK's 1918 General Election drew Ireland's future borders when the War of Independence broke out soon after.

The Irish War of Independence would drag on until 1922, but widespread civilian support for the rebels ultimately kept the British from reasserting control over the country. The Black and Tans, the British-controlled Irish police, had been notorious for harsh reprisals against civilians and suspected rebels. This culminated in the "Bloody Sunday" massacre in 1920, where the Black and Tans opened fire on a soccer match and killed 14 people in response to the IRA's assassination of British intelligence operatives. The UK declared martial law and launched harsh repression, including burning out the entire city center of Cork.

It was futile. The British could not hope to retain the whole country. Religious and sectarian violence sprang up across the island. Finally, truces were signed in 1921, and the Irish Free State came to life in 1922, though Northern Ireland remained part of the United Kingdom. Disagreement over the treaties within Ireland resulted in the eleven-month Irish Civil War of 1922-23.

Peace had come, but it wasn't over yet. The IRA had become a dangerous non-state actor, and would continue its activities well into the Troubles of the 1980s. British rule had resulted in a divided Ireland, and it remains so to this day.

It's honestly shocking to me how little-known these events are outside of the UK, except to a few Americans of Irish descent. Sometimes we in the United States get locked into our tunnel vision, convinced of our own total importance. The Irish Wars mattered very little to people outside Ireland. To the Irish, though, they were the most momentous and in some cases tragic events of their lives. History, like matter, is often relative.

Michael A. Hopkinson's The Irish War of Independence (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2002) is the best readily available work on the subject.

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