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‘A Farther Shore’: the Advent of Irish Independence, 1921-1922

‘A Farther Shore’: the Advent of Irish Independence, 1921-1922

I have initiated a series of panel discussions designed to mark the centenary of the advent of Irish independence in 1921-22. These will take place for the most part in the first half of 2021. They are being organised in collaboration with Irish studies centers at Universities across the USA.

These events are aimed at people in America who have an interest in modern Irish history – Irish people living here, Irish Americans and Americans without an Irish heritage but who, for various reasons, have an affinity with Ireland.

I have titled this series ‘A Farther Shore’ drawing inspiration from Seamus Heaney’s famous poem, ‘The Cure at Troy’, which has achieved renewed recognition of late on account of being quoted prominently by America’s 46th President, Joseph R. Biden.

My sense is that Ireland reached ‘a farther shore’ in 1921-22, one that would have seemed inconceivable just a decade before when an aspiration to achieve a far more modest form of self-government known as Home Rule animated nationalist politics in Ireland. That ‘farther shore’ encompassed partition as well as independence which means that it has generated different responses and assessments down the intervening decades.

What can be said without hesitation is that we are currently marking the centenary of a remarkable period in Irish history. The pace of developments between 1918 and 1922 was impressive and the Union, which had endured since 1800, was undone in the space of just a few years. The achievements of post-1916 nationalists contrast with the limited impact of the uprisings of 1848 and 1867, both of which fizzled out rapidly and ineffectually. Was the success of 20th century Irish nationalism the product of domestic factors (a more determined, better organised political movement) or external influences (a changed international environment and the comparative decline of Britain)?

When, after a protracted political struggle, the Home Rule Act became law in 1914, having been approved by both Houses of the Westminster Parliament, there was celebration and jubilation among Irish nationalists. This, after all, represented the culmination of a struggle for self-government that had begun with the work of the Home Government Association under Isaac Butt in the early 1870s and continued by Parnell and his Lieutenants in the 1880s and by John Redmond from 1900 onwards. Home Rule’s ultimate eclipse should not take away from the fact that the Irish Parliamentary Party, led successively by Butt, Parnell, Redmond and John Dillon, was a powerful political force that carried the hopes of Irish nationalists for more than four decades.

The strange death of home rule: What happened to the home rule movement and the party that embodied it? Ultimately, it was a victim of the First World War which caused the introduction of home rule to be delayed. The war split the Irish nationalist movement and seeded the Easter Rising which was carried out by members of the Irish Volunteers who had declined to go along with Redmond’s advice to enlist for wartime service. The Rising was led, clandestinely, by members of the oath-bound Irish Republican Brotherhood, which was part of the Fenian tradition of republican separatism.

The Rising was a short-term failure that led to long-term success in that the republic proclaimed on Easter Monday 1916 lasted less than a week but it undoubtedly paved the way for all that happened in the succeeding six years.

The ultimate outcome of Irish independence was not foreordained in the immediate aftermath of the Easter Rising. The Irish Parliamentary Party did not give up the ghost without a fight. While they lost by-elections in 1917, they managed to win some in 1918 and maintained a significant degree of support at election time in December 1918.

The key to political change in Ireland was the determination of a new generation who had participated in the Easter Rising to capture and build upon its legacy. Once they had been released from internment, those who participated in the 1916 Rising created a potent political movement under the banner of Sinn Féin, an organisation that was remade in the wake of the Rising, departing from its original dual monarchy policy and embracing full independence for Ireland.

The 1918 election: The fate of the Irish Party was sealed in London in 1918 when the British Government decided to impose conscription in Ireland. This served to unite all strands of nationalist opinion and undermined the Irish Party’s case that it could deliver for Ireland through its wealth of experience and political connections in London. The Irish Party thus received scant reward from London for their sustained support for the war effort.

The December 1918 election came hot on the heels of the end of the First World War and was hard fought. It resulted in a triumph for Sinn Féin although they did not achieve an overall majority of the votes cast. But, that election did sound the death knell for the Irish Party, except in the north of Ireland where it retained some influence.

Why did the 1918 election turn out to be such a major watershed for Ireland? My sense is that home rule was just about acceptable to Irish nationalists when it came about in 1914, but that, with the passage of four years, things had moved on by December 1918. This was the first time an Irish electorate had been given a chance to vote for a party offering the prospect of full independence. They went for it, not overwhelmingly, but enough to make Sinn Féin from then until 1922 the unchallenged voice of nationalist Ireland.

The First Dáil: The First Dáil met in Dublin less than a month after the 1918 election results were declared. Only those elected under the Sinn Féin banner attended. Many of those elected were either in prison or on the run.

What strikes me as remarkable is how decisively the Sinn Féin movement acted. Prudence might have suggested that they bide their time and tease out possibilities with the British Government. Instead they went right ahead and issued a Declaration of Independence, a Message to the Free Nations of the World and an ambitious Democratic Programme. There could be no going back now. Sinn Féin had set a course for full independence. Home Rule was no longer a runner for this new generation of Irish political leadership.

Why was the Sinn Féin leadership so bold in their ambitions? It was I think a generational thing. Irish Party leader, John Dillon, was born in 1851 while Sinn Féin leader, Eamon de Valera, was born in 1882. Michael Collins was still in his 20s in 1918. Even Arthur Griffith, elder statesman of Sinn Féin, born in 1871, was almost a generation younger than Dillon. Roy Foster captures the generational dimension to events in Ireland during this period in his book, Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland, 1890-1923

The War of Independence: By coincidence, Ireland’s War of Independence, which is also known as the Anglo-Irish War, effectively began on the day when the First Dáil met in January 1919. On that date, a police patrol was ambushed by a group of Irish Volunteers at Soloheadbeg in County Tipperary and two members of the Royal Irish Constabulary were killed. The conflict continued for two-and-a-half years until a ceasefire was declared in July 1921.

How did the Irish Volunteers manage to confront the might of the British Government in a way that led to a negotiated settlement to the conflict in December 1921? After all, the British had overwhelming might on their side, but were unable, or unwilling, to deploy it fully. This was in part because of their fear of losing the battle for hearts and minds, in Britain itself and internationally. In particular, the British worried about the influence of Irish America and the risk of alienating American opinion. This series of ‘A Farther Shore’ events will take a good look at the impact of Irish America in facilitating the advent of Irish independence.

The War of Independence has generated considerable debate among historians as to the rights and wrongs of that struggle. With good reason, the Irish Volunteers avoided major confrontations with the greatly superior British forces. The conflict panned out as a series of ambushes and assassinations on the part of the Volunteers and retaliatory actions by the notorious Black and Tans and Auxiliaries. The most dramatic of those retaliations occurred on Bloody Sunday at Croke Park in Dublin when British forces fired on the crowd in response to the killing that morning of a number of British intelligence personnel. The burnings of Balbriggan and Cork also commanded huge international attention as did the death on hunger strike of Cork Lord Mayor, Terence McSwiney. Violent incidents perpetrated by the British authorities only served to deepen the Irish public’s alienation from British rule in Ireland. Historians also debate the issue of whether the Volunteers, who gradually came to be known as the Irish Republican Army, had an electoral mandate for the violent struggle they pursued. ‘A Farther Shore’ will seek to explore these and other aspects of the war of independence.

The Treaty negotiations: The Anglo-Irish Treaty is probably the most controversial episode in modern Irish history. The debate surrounding de Valera’s refusal to lead the delegation sent to negotiate with the British Government has been never ending. Disputes about the Treaty that emerged from the negotiations erupted in the Dáil soon after the delegation’s return from London. Acute differences of opinion revolved round whether the Treaty was the most that could have been achieved, or alternatively a betrayal of the Republic forged in the heat of battle and sacrifice in 1916. That debate has resonated down the decades, helping to shape Irish politics for generations after 1921.

In ‘A Farther Shore’, we will explore those vexed issues surrounding the Treaty, and the fallout from it.

Civil War: The Civil War poses by far the most difficult set of issues for our Decade of Centenaries (2013-23) as we approach its conclusion. There was no way of massaging what happened during our civil war. In a modest way, I hope that ‘A Farther Shore’ will be able to throw some light on the controversies of those troubled years. Was it inevitable that a movement as broad-based as the Sinn Féin movement, as it evolved after 1916, should sunder when choices had to be made in 1921-22? How did Ireland’s Civil War compare with similar conflicts elsewhere?

Conclusion: The period between 1916 and 1922 witnessed a transformation of Irish political life. It all happened at a time of international upheaval at the end of World War 1. The difference between Ireland’s experience and those of other countries that became independent in the aftermath of the war is that Ireland secured its freedom from one of the victorious World War 1 powers. That singles out the Irish experience which was more akin to what happened when the European Empire were dissolved in the second half of the 20th century.

I hope that ‘A Farther Shore’ will enable our friends across the United States to come to grips with the complexities of the most consequential period in modern Irish history, 1921-22.


Daniel Mulhall is Ireland’s Ambassador to the United States of America.

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