Ireland and its saltire, full part of the UK: all is well that ends well? Ha, in fairy tales only. In Ireland, the equality on paper does not go hand in hand with equality in practice: the act of union is a fool’s bargain, the landlords still have way more rights than necessary and the Irishman is considered by all to be a second-class citizen.
With all that, the Brits are still surprised that the Irish do not want to stay under the Union Jack! Beginning with the agricultural power, the Irish will gradually go over to legislative power through the power of arms.
The great famine of 1845-1849 deeply marked the spirits, and remains engraved in the collective unconscious, even today. A disease had decimated the potato crops, the main food source for the peasants. This had disastrous consequences, both nutritional and legal, for the tenants, who could neither pay their rent nor feed their families. Evictions thus added to hunger. (Keep in mind the leonine power of the landlords of the time.) Paradoxically, Ireland continued to export cereals (wheat, oats ..) during the great famine, the only way for many peasants not to be evicted, which further reduced accessible resources. As for seafood, the Irish did not know how to exploit sea resources at that time, you cannot improvise yourself as a fisherman. The great famine was the first « natural disaster » to bring international humanitarian aid, even Queen Victoria donated money from her personal funds at some point.
But as the famine dragged on, it reinforced the image of the lazy Irishman in the popular consciousness, so that even if Westminster helped, it was very little in the end, with some even believing that a demographic purge would be beneficial. You can imagine that almost 200 years later, the Celtic tiger has not forgotten.
From 8 million inhabitants in dire straits but in good health (well yes the potato is full of nutritional benefits), Ireland – then the most populous country in Europe -dropped between death and emigration to 3.5 million. A few weeks agos, Ireland has crossed the 5 million mark again, the event even made the front page of all the Irish newspapers, this is to tell you the importance of this figure for the Irish.
From the beginning of the 19th century there had been nationalist movements, opposed both by the English and by the powerful Orangist forces of Ulster, which will explain the later partition. The British, despite their official policy of criminalizing the independence forces by considering them as common law thugs – which avoided recognizing that it was a matter of politics (same approach Tatcher had 60 years later, with devastating consequences during the « troubles » ) – well the British, they were lucid enough to recognize the powerful forces at work in Ireland. Moreover, it is no coincidence that in 1900 there were almost 40,000 British armed forces in Ireland, more than anywhere else in the entire Commonwealth!
With the end of famine, the struggle for Irish independence has been fought in parallel on all fronts: agricultural, cultural, athletic, political and activist.
On the agricultural level, and this is not an anecdotal fact, the Irish gradually became owners of their own land, going from 3% of peasant owners in 1870 to 64% in 1916, which helped to reverse the balance of power
On a cultural and athletic level we are witnessing at the end of the 19th century the creation of the Gaelic League and the mythical GAA (sports association) without which the sporting and associative life of today’s Ireland is not even possible. If you can get a ticket, go see a match one day at Croke Park, the iconic Irish stadium, you’ll understand.
Alongside the ongoing emigration, a national consciousness began to emerge. Politicians such as Parnell encouraged the idea that yes one can be proud to be Irish! In addition to unity and national pride, the creation of the Gaelic league an GAA initiated a revival of the Gaelic language which thus became the symbol of resistance in the United Kingdom. On a militant level, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (ancestor of the IRA) was founded in 1867 and Sinn Fein was created in 1903. These were two major forces in the Easter uprising in 1916.
Interestingly, the fate of Ireland interests many people in the XIX century: a number of European socialists including Marx and Engels (for the record, Engel will all have two Irish sisters as his companion, but he will only marry the second on his deathbed, marriage is a bourgeois institution, it is well known), but also of course the American diaspora which gradually earned its stripes of recognition after the Civil War and whose weight in young American institutions (the police in particular) was growing.
Well, I’ll spare you a lot of ups and downs, just know that since the Act of Union, on a political level this time, the majority of Irish people had been claiming more independence, which will lead to a bill in Westminster, the Home Rule. Ironically, the first version of Home Rule of 1186 failed at the first chamber, the 2nd of 1893 at the 2nd chamber … and the 3rd passed both chambers … in 1914 just when the UK went to war with the rest of Europe! To say that the timing is bad, the implementation of Home Rule has been postponed until the end of the war. No one knew that WWI would last that long.
The Irish reacted in two ways to the start of the war: one one side, many Irish people voluntarily joined the battlefront to gain the recognition of their British « peers » by donating blood. At the same time, others engaged in negotiations with the allies, the American diaspora, but also the Germans to gain support for the cause of independence. All this will be blacked out in the collective memory by the „Easter Rising“ of 1916. It is one of these events which only become Historical with a capital H at a later stage.
It had been organized by a very small minority of militants really, in the midst of the world war. On Monday April 24, 1916, some battalions of the IRB (Irish Republican Brotherhood) took possession of several key buildings in Dublin. At 1 PM Pearse proclaims the independent republic of Ireland, this is the famous text that can be found posted all over Dublin today. Read it, you will be amazed at its modernity (see photo below). The surprise was on the rebels’ side, but they did not know how to exploit it, and after 1,100 men had fought for 5 days against 16,000 British and Irish too, the insurgents surrendered. Much of public opinion was not even aware that an uprising was brewing, but what rallied almost all of public opinion to the cause was less the uprising than its ruthless repression. With one exception, absolutely all of the organizers were executed manu militari, some even revived to be able to get to the firing squad. (Valera was only saved because of his American nationality). From this moment on, it was just a matter of time. Sinn Fein was a major player in independence, among others thanks to the elections of December 1918: many of its members were elected while in prison thanks to the slogan « put him in to get him out ». The results of the election were all the more spectacular as the Irish electorate had greatly increased as a result of the vote granted to women (NB: France will wait until 1947, no comment ..). Interestingly, Sinn Fein wanted to bget elected, but not to sit in Westminster, organizing passive resistance this way. This became active resistance, when on January 21 191, elected official Sinn Fein memebers proclaimed the independent Republic of Ireland at Mansion Hous in Dublin and the establishment fo the Dail Eireann, the « official parliament of the independant republic. At the same time, the power of IRA is increasing.
The role of the United States should not be neglected. Indeed, one does not go to war on an empty stomach, it is a known fact. And the crux of the matter is money.. how did the IRA and the independence movement held up? By borrowing : they wanted to borrow 1.2 Mio abroad … and collected almost 6 Mio dollars from the American diaspora!
Interestingly, President Wilson was the son of a pastor of Ulster origin, and had therefore little interest in Irish independence, so he did not encourage it. On the other hand, he dreamed of a great society of nations, which he created, but his indifference to Erin’s fate upset more than one and, little known fact, this was one of the reasons for the refusal of the American Senate to ratify the United States’ membership of the League of Nations!
The declaration of independence royally was ignored by the British, and two parallel lives were organized: for the English, officially no civil war in Ireland, only a few hooligans, and in Ireland, the establishment of a temporal, political and judicial power.
Concomitantly, a sort of chronic guerrilla warfare took place: murders, fires, ambushes, and retaliations, the British even arbitrarily opening fire on croke park spectators on the day of a Gaelic match in 1920, the first (but alas not the last) Bloody Sunday, killing 14 people.
The country lived in this semi-schizophrenia for 3 years, before Westminster was ready to accept the inevitable: the independence of the Green Island. It At that point, both sides wer starting to tire and were ready to negotiate. Eamon de Valera as well as, paradoxically, Michael Collins, one of the bosses of the IRA, will play a fundamental role in these negotiations. On Saint Nicholas Day (between Easter and Advent, Irish dates are not lacking in Catholic references!) December 6, 1921, this is the signing of the Anglo-Irish treaty. The separation of the two Ireland, is done: 26 counties on the side of the Free State and 6 on the side of the Unionists, according to electoral criteria closer to « gerrymandering » than common sense, which will lead to « troubles » years later. The Republic of Ireland remains part of the Commonwealth, (it will stay like that until 1949); dominion status, rights of the British in certain Irish ports, so many sticking points which will lead to a civil war between the supporters and opponents of the treaty, which will only end in 1923. Valera, who is thinking about his political future, was not at the final negotiating table, suspecting the outcome would not satisfy the Irish. Collins, who wants the end of the guerrilla after having largely orchestrated it, signs the treaty himself, and by signing the treaty he also signs his death warrant: he was killed a few months later by members of the IRA, fierce opponents of the treaty. Valera, will be as prime minister and then president at the head of the Irish Free State for over 40 years. This is how Ireland painfully gave birth of a free state and 6 loyalist counties.
PS: I apologize : the article is too long and in its gestation and in its final version, and again I saved you a lot of ups and downs .. from next week I will go back to easier topics!
My main source was in french, but I can highly recommand it if you wish to know more: « Histoire de l’Irlande et des Irlandais » from Pierre Joannon