Saturday, March 26, 2016

Irish Independence

Listen to a podcast of this episode.

World War I changed the map of Europe in many ways. It had a particular impact on Ireland.  One hundred years ago, the Irish Easter Revolt of 1916 struck a blow for independence.  It was a key event in the eventual creation of an independent Irish Republic.

Easter Uprising Proclamation
To understand the Irish independence movement, it is important to remember its origin.  Ireland had been under the control of Britain since the 12th Century when the Normans, who had completed their conquest of England, moved into Ireland to take control there as well.  In the Centuries that followed, however, Ireland went through periods of relative independence when England essentially ignored them, to periods of invasion and control when the English feared they might pose a threat to British control.  Ireland had its own parliament, but was controlled by the Lord Deputy of Ireland, appointed by the King of England.  The Irish paid taxes and tribute to English rulers.

In the 1500's King Henry VIII and his successors engaged in a concerted effort to bring Ireland under greater control of England.  Several decades of warfare finally resulted in the "flight of the Earls" when Irish lords finally fled the island for Europe after being defeated by English forces.

The English attempted to force changes that the Irish violently resisted.  England's attempts to convert the Irish from Catholicism to Protestantism created schisms that continue to this day. England also engaged in mass colonization, bringing in Scottish and English colonists, who settled primarily in northern Ireland, to exert better control. Only Protestants could serve in the Irish Parliament, and only land owning males could vote. Oliver Cromwell seized all land owned by Catholics and gave it to Protestant nobility.  As a result, the Irish people had no real say in their own government.

Catholics could not inherit property, bear arms, or serve in any government position, including the army.  They remained under English control for centuries, suffering this unjust and degrading second class citizenship.  Occasionally rebellions would break out, but English military might could not be overcome.  A major rebellion in 1798 resulted in the "Act of Union" which dissolved the Irish Parliament and merged Ireland into the United Kingdom, entirely under the control of the British Parliament.

Despite becoming a part of the UK, the Irish people remained either abused or neglected by the British government.  When the Irish Potato Famine began in the 1840's, Britain simply allowed millions of peasants to starve to death, literally.  No significant food or assistance was offered as people died with nothing to eat.  In fact much of the food that did grow in Ireland during this time was exported to England as the Irish people had no money to buy it.  Grain tariffs remained in place, making imported bread too expensive for most commoners. The population of Ireland dropped from over 6.5 million to just over three million over the next few decades as the Irish people either died or fled the country.

The result of this passive genocide was a renewed call for Irish political reform, to create a government of, by, and for the people.  In the late 1800's a powerful home rule movement began to grow in Ireland.  Several home rule bills were proposed and defeated.  The Irish grew more radicalized over time as they saw legislative reform was impossible.

Not all Irish wanted home rule.  A Home Rule Bill in 1912 inspired the creation of the first modern paramilitary organization in Ireland, the Ulster Volunteers.  Ironically this was a group of Northern Irish Protestants who opposed home rule.  They had no desire to fall under the control of the Irish Catholics whom they had oppressed for so many centuries.  The Catholics in response created the Irish Nationals and the Irish Republican Brotherhood.  The country seemed to be gearing up for a civil war after the Home Rule Bill passed.  Then, in 1914, WWI began and home rule was delayed for the duration of the war.

For Irish Republicans, this delay was unacceptable.  Not only did they continue to live under oppressive English rule, but Irish were being conscripted into the British Army to go fight a war in Europe.  Some Irish Republicans met the the German government, encouraging a German invasion of Ireland, or at least providing assistance to Irish resistance against England.  The British navy sank a German U-Boat attempting to deliver arms and ammunition to the rebels, just days before the Easter uprising was scheduled to begin.  The planned uprising for Easter Sunday was delayed a day until Monday.

Street fighting during the Easter Uprising.
On Monday, however, 1200 men attempted to secure key locations around Dublin.  Several other cities also participated in coordinated attacks. Soldiers, police, rebels, and civilians were killed during the fighting over the following week.

The British reaction was overwhelming and brutal.  More than 16,000 troops were rushed to the area.  British soldiers invaded homes and bayoneted civilians and rebels alike.  Several pro-republican activists who had no role in the uprising were summarily executed under the orders of British officers.  Artillery was used to demolish parts of Dublin, killing many civilians.  Under modern standards, all of these actions would be considered war crimes.  At this time, however, no punishment or even criticism was expressed by the British government.

Dublin's devastation following the British suppression
Overall about 500 people died and another 2200 were wounded.  The majority of dead and wounded were civilians, with no involvement in the fighting.  After the fighting had ended, British retribution remained just as brutal. Within weeks, 90 men were tried by military courts martial, sentenced to death, and executed by firing squad.  More than 3500 people were arrested and detained, either without trial or by summary military trial. Roughly 1500 of those were held longer term in internment camps, many without any proof of their participation in the rebellion.  Many were held simply because of their stated Republican beliefs, which were deemed to constitute a danger.

The British crack down only increased political support for independence.  The following year, the Sinn Fein party was created, and went on to landslide victories in the Parliamentary elections of 1918.  Finally, in 1922, the British permitted Ireland to form the Irish Free Republic, which covered most of the Island, other than the section of Northern Ireland dominated by the decedents of Protestant colonists.  That area remains part of Britain and remains a source of contention to this day.

Ireland today remembers 1916 the same way Americans remember 1776. It was the year that the modern fight for Irish Independence began.  Although the fight would take several years, the actions of the 1916 Easter Uprising were critical to its ultimate success.

Listen to a podcast of this episode.

Further Reading:

If you would like a full book on the topic, I recommend 1916: The Easter Rising Paperback by Tim Pat Coogan (2005).

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