Finest Hour 143, Summer 2009
Why Ireland Won: The War from the Irish Side
How a handful of radicals, through violent action, co-opted Irish constitutional nationalism, and set the pattern for all successful wars of national liberation in the 20th century
By Timothy D. Hoyt
Dr. Hoyt is Profesor of Strategy and Policy, U.S. Naval War College, and has worked or consulted for U.S. government agencies on security issues. He is currently working on a history of the Irish Republican Army, as well as projects on U.S. military strategy in the 21st century and American relations with India and Pakistan.
It’s important to think about the Anglo-Irish War for a number of reasons, some of which are very contemporary. Here I would like to consider the Irish side. First and most important, this was the prototypical nationalist revolution: the model for the wars of national liberation that began after the Second World War in particular, as the European empires weakened. For the first time since the American Revolution Britain was up against a determined nationalist movement with transnational links and support. The methods and techniques used by the Irish Republican Army set the pattern for future organizations attempting to overthrow superior occupying powers.
There are things we need to know about the origins of the Irish insurgency. The first is the myth that Ireland had been rebelling against England for 800 years. That’s partly true, but Ireland was never rebelling in a concerted, nationalist fashion. This was the first major national uprising with any chance of success, and it did work. It was based on a number of different factors and categories.
The Cultural-Ethnic Divide
Ethnic differences between the Irish and the English were an important element of the new nationalist themes discussed in Finest Hour 142: Home Rule and the revival of Gaelic civilization, art, and language. There’s also a difference of religion, which is important. In Ireland, politics are linked with religion. Ireland never fully succumbed to the Reformation, and in fact remained primarily a Catholic country. In an effort to squash Catholicism in Ireland, there were a series of Penal Laws in the 18th century, which some commentators have said made it illegal to be an Irish Catholic under British law. Resistance has always been linked in some way with religion. Although there are Protestant nationalists, for the most part national sympathy comes from the Catholic part of the population.
There were profound social differences, and the Irish understood them, even if the English did not. Some 2500 years ago a Chinese war strategist named Sun Tzu said, “Know your enemy, know yourself, and you will win a hundred battles.” One of the reasons the Irish won is because they knew themselves well, and they had a better understanding of the English than the English had of them.
Ireland has a long tradition of secret societies and rebellions. The early risings were local, primarily in the south and west, which in the 19th century maintained the last remnants of Gaelic civilization and Gaelic speakers. That area was devastated by the Irish famine, which formed the Irish population in Boston in the mid-19th century. They had deep resentments of British rule, of British imperialism, and of Britain’s failure to respond to a catastrophe which reduced the population of Ireland from eight to about four million in a decade through a combination of death and emigration.
Last but not least, the British had a sort of contemptuous view of the Irish: they were not serious, and always making trouble. Any time there was trouble in Ireland, they looked at it as a minor problem. In the case of the Irish rebellion in the nineteen-teens, that was a serious mistake.
Then and Now
There’s a difference between the Irish rebellion and the all-out revolts we’ve seen more recently. The former was by no means all-pervasive. In fact, Belfast and County Cork had thirty-six acts of violence per ten thousand people over a six-year period, suggesting that this was not a very violent rebellion at all. Consider 1919-21, the height of the rebellion: in 1919, fewer than two dozen people were killed through acts of political violence. In 1920, that number rose to several hundred, and in the first six months of 1921 it rose to over 700. It was escalating quickly—yet the initial low figures suggest why the British government had difficulty comprehending the problem. It seemed very low-key until 1920.
The Rand Corporation did a study which concluded that insurgencies generally average about nine years before they succeed or fail. It’s useful thinking about this, because the Irish insurgency really started in 1912 or 1914, with the failure of the Home Rule Bill. That was the point at which Irish politics shift from being constitutional to being at least quasi-militarized.
The violent, coercive reaction and the threat of civil war that came about in British political society as a result of the passage of the Home Rule Bill of 1912 led to an unprecedented militarization of Irish politics. The Loyalist population, primarily Protestants in what is now Northern Ireland, mobilized over 100,000 men in a militia who vowed to fight the British if they attempted to impose Home Rule. In response, a Catholic militia was formed in 1913 that eventually numbered 180,000. It lacked arms, but the fight for Irish nationalism was morphing, possibly into a battle for Ireland itself, which was only prevented by the beginning of the First World War.
Britain, the “occupying power,” was concerned because Ireland had been used in past wars to threaten the homeland. The Spanish had invaded and were only defeated at the Battle of Kinsale in 1601. The French had invaded, and in 1798 actually landed a substantial force in Ireland, which was eventually defeated by the British. Britain’s enemies have provided support for Irish rebellion consistently throughout history. But Britain did not understand the impact of Irish militarization that came about through the failure of Home Rule.
The Easter Rising, 1916
With the outbreak of war in 1914, both large militias patriotically disbanded, and many of their members enlisted in the British army. Men of the Ulster Volunteer Force joined the 36th Ulster Division. Some Catholic nationalists, the Irish Nationalist Volunteers, enlisted and were put into other army units. They did not really get a Catholic division of their own. But the 12,000 Irish Nationalist Volunteers were gradually infiltrated by a group called the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Formed in the United States in the 1850s, the Brotherhood was committed to violent overthrow of British rule.
On Easter 1916, 1500 Volunteers seized the center of downtown Dublin and held it for about a week. In some ways it was one of the most pathetic military operations ever designed, in part because the leaders believed that it was only through their deaths that they would mobilize Irish opinion. They didn’t necessarily tell that to the troops; it might have been demoralizing!
Yet they held out for about a week. About 2500 people were killed, and downtown Dublin was devastated as the British Army took the city back, block by block. As the Irish prisoners were marched away, Dubliners spat on them and pelted them with rotten vegetables. They had no sympathy whatsoever.
Then the British imposed martial law and began executing the leaders one at a time. This turned the picture around, rallying sympathy for the rebels. In Parliament, the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party said they would have done better to shoot them right away, and had it over with.
But the executions dragged on, including some of the worst kind. One rebel was so badly wounded he couldn’t stand, so they tied him to a chair and shot him there. Suddenly these reckless revolutionary idiots of the Easter Rising became martyrs for a legitimate political vision— which had little support until the British began executions.
Meanwhile, the prisoners not executed were shipped to Britain. Fron Goch, Wales, was a major facility for them. And here the future leadership of the Irish Republican Army was able to sit around and talk, decide what they’d done wrong, and plan how to do it better the next time.
To this day the IRA refers to prison as “the revolutionary university,” the place where they learn from their mistakes. This is a problem for every country which has ever fought a sustained insurgency or counter-terrorist campaign. On the one hand, you have to put these people away somewhere; on the other hand, it’s easier to put them all in the same place. But in the same place, they have a chance to talk to one another, to reassess and think about how to do it better the next time. (The problem has its modern counterpart in the U.S. detainees at Guantanamo, though the “revolutionary university” is not among the reasons voiced for closing that facility. —Ed.)
Eamon de Valera, one of the commanders in the Easter Rising, survived because there was some question about whether he was an American citizen. He was imprisoned, then released, and soon became a figurehead. From 1908 to 1915, Sinn Fein (“Ourselves Alone”) had about as much support as Ralph Nader in American elections: roughly two percent of the vote in parliamentary elections, marginal, if highly idealistic. But after the Easter Rising Sinn Fein became the umbrella for everyone opposed to the status quo. Some would say it was hijacked, although it’s not clear that it really was. Its leader, Arthur Griffith, remained a major figure in the movement.
On 25 October 1917 Sinn Fein, though a political party, declared that it would use “any and every means available” to achieve total Irish independence. The first objective was by-elections, held to replace Members of Parliament who die or leave office. Sinn Fein candidates vowed never to attend the Parliament at Westminster. Instead they proposed to create an Irish Parliament to make Irish law, the basis for an independent Ireland.
Thirty percent of Sinn Fein’s leadership was Irish National Volunteers, who had their own constitution and goals. Richard Mulcahy, Chief of Staff of the IRA throughout the war, said that civil-military relations between nationalist forces were close. I would argue this was a rosy-colored view. What really happened was that people who supported violence dragged people who would otherwise have supported a constitutional movement along with them towards radical politics.
We see here the emergence of the hard men, like Dan Breen, who was responsible for the murder of the first two policemen killed in the conflict, in January 1919. Breen later became a fascist. He’s not an attractive fellow. He and others in County Tipperary helped push Sinn Fein in the radical direction. Breen and others like him had no intention of allowing this to be a peaceful movement. They did not believe in peace. Michael Collins, then the IRA’s Director of Intelligence, said: “The sooner fighting is forced, and a general state of disorder created throughout the country, the better it will be for the country.”
The Dáil Éireann
The 1918 British general election was the first after the war and the first where women were allowed to vote. I have yet to find a good article on how they affected Irish elections, but suspect they did in some way. In any case, Sinn Fein received seventy-three of the 104 Irish seats in Parliament: 75 percent of Ireland’s representatives, who refused to attend Westminster and rejected the right of Britain to rule Ireland.
One would think this would have been viewed with alarm in Britain, and it’s very interesting that it was not. In fact, when the Irish Parliament, the Dáil Éireann, met in Dublin in January 1919, over half of the delegates were not there. As the names of absent delegates were called, the Irish words were heard: “imprisoned by the foreign enemy.”
What the Dáil did was to declare war: it created military organizations, a Ministry of Finance with Collins as its head, and other cabinet positions including Foreign Affairs and Information Ministries. These were very powerful tools, successfully spreading propaganda and information. But here, again, the Irish Minister of Defence reiterated the underlying program: “Kill them if you have to.” This was not a non-violent movement.
The Easter Rising was run on a wish and a prayer, but now things were different. The revolution really began in 1919—precisely the time Winston Churchill was saying that there was no place in the world where there was less danger than Ireland. Britain’s response to the Sinn Fein vote, to the Dáil’s Declaration of Independence, was to say, “Well, that’s Ireland—it’ll be okay.” Alas it was not okay.
The Offensive Against the Police
Michael Collins now asked: “What is the center of gravity? What is the thing that England has that hurts us the most and helps them the most?” It was, he declared, British intelligence. And after spending some time and looking at it carefully, he realized that this was the place to hit the enemy. So Collins organized a sophisticated attack against the police and intelligence services in Dublin. It was largely non-violent, because the aim was to ostracize them from Irish society.
The police force, the Royal Irish Constabulary, had fewer than 10,000 members, mostly Catholic: long-term beat cops who mainly patrolled the places where they lived, went to church, married and raised their families.
Sinn Fein’s approach was simple and seductive. “You can’t talk to the Constabulary anymore,” it told the people: “They’re the enemy.” The villagers began to reject their own neighbors who enforced the law—incredibly powerful coercive pressure that moved Ireland in a very different direction. It’s not hard to ostracize someone, but when you do it, you have become radicalized.
Meanwhile, with the aid of a detective named Eamon Broy, Collins infiltrated the Dublin Metropolitan Police. Every night the detectives would hand their notebooks to Broy, an excellent typist, to transcribe. Broy would make a carbon copy which he would give to Collins, who read everything the Royal Irish Constabulary had about political opposition in Ireland, daily for almost three years.
The Base of Insurgency
By 1920, the base of this insurgency was secured. There was a political party which acted as the voice of the Irish people; an independent parliament; a crippled intelligence, an ostracized Constabulary. Sinn Fein was now even setting up courts, especially in the south and west where rebellion was strongest; soon they had judicial mechanisms in two-thirds of the counties.
These courts were careful to be fair and impartial— even the Protestants respected them. When I lived in Belfast in the 1980s, I met an old fellow who had been summoned before one. He had carried out the Irish equivalent of the Boston Tea Party. On the west coast, he had stolen a truck filled with English Bass Ale and dumped it into the Atlantic Ocean. A local bar owner complained and he wound up in court.
When this fellow saw the judge he cheered up: it was his brigade commander in the IRA! But the judge said, “I admire your political sentiment, lad, but it’s a waste of good beer,” fined him and made him pay damages to the bartender. That’s an example of how Sinn Fein legitimacy, not just as a political party but as a source of law and order, but an incredibly powerful element delegitimizing British rule and setting up alternative authority. With the other side relying on the “Black and Tans,” it was an easier sell than ever.
The IRA itself pursued the strategy: “If we can’t beat them militarily, we’ll make their lives really difficult.” Flying columns—platoon-sized organizations of fifteen to thirty-five men—were formed in each county. Aside from ambushing British troops or the police, they spent a lot of time wandering through villages, a clear message that the British weren’t in charge. “We are going to harass and demoralize the enemy without giving them an opportunity to strike back,” the IRA declared. “It’s more profitable to kill for Ireland than to die for her”—the exact opposite of the leaders of the 1916 rebellion.
By now Churchill had changed his view of the Irish situation, referring to the treacherous, assassinating, conspiring traits of the Irish people. (I take that personally.) But it was clear that by 1920, the situation was much graver. On Bloody Sunday, 21 November 1920—eleven days after Lloyd George had declared, “we have murder by the throat”—the IRA assassinated sixteen British military intelligence officers in downtown Dublin. Among the assassins was Sean Lemass, who later became Prime Minister of Ireland. Asked later why he never talked about his experiences in the war he said, “Firing squads should not have reunions.”
By December 1920, the British government recognized that Ireland was out of control. They imposed martial law on substantial parts of the south and west: originally to four counties, growing to sixteen. By spring, a “surge” of British troops had achieved some success.
But the election of May 1921 proved an absolute disaster. Sinn Fein won 124 of 128 seats in the south; 112 of those elected had either served time or were in jail; fifteen were under sentence of death. It was the most direct repudiation of British rule imaginable, after the armed forces said they would succeed. This is how to fail at counterinsurgency.
Now the IRA changed tactics. Chief of Staff Sean McBride (an urban guerrilla since sixteen, the only person to win both the Nobel and Lenin Peace Prizes) increased the attacks, so that despite the British efforts, it seemed as though they were failing. There was a major raid on the Dublin Customs House in 1921, when the IRA Dublin brigade burned thousands of historical documents. The IRA also became active in Britain itself—nothing like the provisional IRA campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s, but they did attack the homeland to keep pressure on.
You could compare this phase of the war to the Tet Offensive in Vietnam fifty years later: It came by surprise, it was very large, and even though it was hugely unsuccessful (the entire brigade was captured), it played well in the media.
It was in Churchill’s words “victory at all costs—victory in spite of [or perhaps with the help of ] all terror.” The truce and treaty will be discussed next. I would point out, however, that Collins knew when he signed the truce that they could not then re-engage in military operations— the British would reestablish their intelligence, and IRA members who came out of hiding would be marked. This is one of the reasons he negotiated as he did in London.
Tom Berry, one of the IRA’s prominent guerrilla leaders, was upset about the treaty negotiations—this was one of the reasons that there was a civil war afterwards. The commanders in the provinces, in Cork and Tipperary and Kerry, rejected negotiations; they thought the war was going rather well. Collins, in Dublin, had a different perspective. As a result, there was civil war, and, after a pause of forty years, an IRA that exists even today in various forms, still committed to the violent overthrow of British rule in the north.
Not surprising, and pleasant to remember, is that Churchill had the solution—largely embodied in the 1921 Irish Treaty. It was not a bad solution. But the time to impose it was in 1916, after the Easter Rising. There were many reasons it couldn’t be done then, but 1916 was the only point, I would argue, at which a negotiated solution was truly possible.
Britain had many, many other things to think about between 1916 and 1920, and was never able to focus on the Irish problem. And the result was that a small group of radicals, through violent action, co-opted Irish constitutional nationalism and made major achievements.
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