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Historical Background to the conflict.
The Irish War of Independence was a guerrilla war mounted by IRA against British rule in Ireland. It began in January 1919, following the Irish Republic's declaration of independence. Both sides agreed to a ceasefire in July 1921. The post-ceasefire talks led to the December 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty. This treaty ended British rule in most of Ireland and, after a ten-month transitional period overseen by a provisional government, the Irish Free State (Saorstat Eireann) was established. However, six northern counties remained within the United Kingdom as Northern Ireland, with its own devolved parliament. After the ceasefire, political and sectarian violence (between republicans and loyalists, and between Irish Catholics and Protestants) continued in Northern Ireland for many months.
The war is often referred to as the "Irish War of Independence" in Ireland and as the "Anglo-Irish War" in Britain, the "Tan War" by anti-Treaty republicans and was known contemporaneously as "the Troubles," The IRA that fought in this conflict is often called the Old IRA to distinguish it from later groups that also used the name.
Since the 1880s, Irish nationalists in the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) had been demanding Home Rule, or self-government, from Britain. Fringe organisations, such as Arthur Griffith's Sinn Féin instead argued for some form of Irish independence, but they were in a small minority at this time.
The demand for Home Rule was eventually granted by the British Government in 1912, immediately prompting a prolonged crisis within the United Kingdom as Ulster Unionists formed an armed organisation – the Ulster Volunteers – to resist this measure of devolution, at least in territory they could control. In turn, Nationalists formed their own paramilitary organisation, the Irish Volunteers.
The British Parliament passed the Third Home Rule Act with an amending Bill for the partition of Ireland introduced by Ulster Unionists, but the Act's implementation was postponed by the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914. The majority of Nationalists followed their IPP leaders and John Redmond's call to support Britain and the Allied war effort in Irish regiments of the New British Army, the intention being to ensure the commencement of Home Rule after the war. But a significant minority of the Irish Volunteers opposed Ireland's involvement in the war. The Volunteer movement split, a majority leaving to form the National Volunteers under John Redmond. The remaining Irish Volunteers, under Eoin MacNeill, held that they would maintain their organisation until Home Rule had been granted. Within this Volunteer movement, another faction, led by the separatist Irish Republican Brotherhood, began to prepare for a revolt against British rule in Ireland.
The Easter Rising
The plan for revolt was realised in the Easter Rising of 1916, in which the Volunteers, now explicitly declaring a republic, launched an insurrection whose aim was to end British rule and to found an Irish Republic. The rising, in which over four hundred people died, was almost exclusively confined to Dublin and was put down within a week, but the British response, executing the leaders of the insurrection and arresting thousands of nationalist activists, galvanised support for the separatist Sinn Féin – the party which the republicans first adopted and then took over. By now, support for the British war effort was on the wane, and Irish public opinion was shocked and outraged by some of the actions committed by British troops, particularly the murder of Francis Sheehy-Skeffington and the imposition of wartime martial law.
Secondly, the British, in the face of the crisis caused by the German Spring Offensive in April 1918, attempted to introduce conscription into Ireland combined with Home Rule outlined at the Irish Convention. This further alienated the Irish electorate and produced mass demonstrations during the Conscription Crisis of 1918. By the time of the November 1918 election, alienation from British rule was widespread.
To Irish Republicans, the Irish War of Independence had begun with the Proclamation of the Irish Republic during the Easter Rising of 1916. Republicans argued that the conflict of 1919-21 (and indeed to some the subsequent Irish Civil War) was the defence of this Republic against attempts to destroy it.
The First Dáil
While it was not clear in the beginning of 1919 that the Dáil ever intended to gain independence by military means, and war was not explicitly threatened in Sinn Féin's 1918 manifesto, an incident occurred on 21 January 1919, the same day as the First Dáil convened. Several IRA members acting independently at Soloheadbeg, in County Tipperary, led by Seán Treacy, Seamus Robinson, Sean Hogan and Dan Breen, attacked and shot two Royal Irish Constabulary officers, Constables James McDonnell and Patrick O'Connell, who were escorting explosives. Breen later recalled:
...we took the action deliberately, having thought over the matter and talked it over between us. Treacy had stated to me that the only way of starting a war was to kill someone, and we wanted to start a war, so we intended to kill some of the police whom we looked upon as the foremost and most important branch of the enemy forces. The only regret that we had following the ambush was that there were only two policemen in it, instead of the six we had expected
This is widely regarded as the beginning of the War of Independence, and the men acted on their own initiative to try to start a war The British government declared South Tipperary a Special Military Area under the Defence of the Realm Act two days later
The war was not formally declared by the Dáil until well into the conflict, however. On 10 April 1919 the Dáil was told:
As regards the Republican prisoners, we must always remember that this country is at war with England and so we must in a sense regard them as necessary casualties in the great fight.
In January 1921, two years after the war had started, the Dáil debated "whether it was feasible to accept formally a state of war that was being thrust on them, or not", and decided not to declare war Then on 11 March, Dáil Éireann President Éamon de Valera formally 'accepted' the existence of a "state of war with England" The delay allowed a balancing of the military and political realities.