As 2019 comes to an end, it is worth spending some time thinking about the significance of 1919. 2019 marked the centenary of the creation of Dáil Éireann and the onset of a war to defend the Irish Republic. That Republic was proclaimed by means of insurrection in 1916 and made a de jure and de facto reality with Dáil Éireann’s establishment in 1919. In its first sitting, Dáil Éireann adopted three documents focused on giving explicit meaning to that new bid for Irish independence. Those documents were the Declaration of Independence, the Message to the Free Nations of the World and the Democratic Programme. Everyone should read those documents and, having read them, reflect on their content and how they might relate to Ireland today.
Irish History: A Battleground between Imperialism and Republicanism
For the past five decades, Ireland’s right to independence and the efforts of republicans to achieve independence have been systematically targeted by an array of ‘right-thinking’, ‘respectable’ people in prominent positions and establishment organisations. The same people and organisations, adhering to the ‘revisionist’ school of history, never think it worthwhile to subject British imperialism in Ireland to any kind of examination. This school accepts and fuels the English queen’s summation of Anglo-Irish history as being comprised of “things which we (both Britain and Ireland) would wish had been done differently or not at all”.
Irish history is a core battlefield in Irish politics. The Fine Gael government’s determination to present the struggle for independence as ‘complex’ is an outworking of that party’s relationship with British imperialism and the fact that it became the primary home for former Redmondite voters after the Irish Parliamentary Party’s demise. In fact, Fine Gael’s adoption of the ‘complexity’ buzzword to describe Ireland’s history is taken directly from the English queen’s 2011 Dublin Castle speech. To seek to whitewash Irish history as ‘complex’ is an injustice to the many who suffered for their opposition to British rule, the many who suffered despite not actually opposing British rule, our society today and the discipline of history itself.
As Irish history has come to be a battlefield of contemporary politics, the basics of 1918-19 must be reiterated. Otherwise the flawed and politically driven ‘complex’ narrative of history to which the government would have us subscribe would become dominant. Telling people that the history of Ireland’s freedom struggle is ‘complex’ has much more to do with the discomfort felt by the establishment when society-at-large remembers the just efforts to bring to fruition an Irish anti-colonial struggle rather than any genuine concern with ensuring fair coverage of history. Controlling a nation’s understanding of its past is part and parcel of shaping the nation’s future.
National Democracy and the Importance of the First Dáil
It must always be stressed that the Irish Republic was democratically endorsed and Dáil Éireann was democratically sanctioned by popular mandate on an all-Ireland basis at the ballot box in December 1918. While that might seem to be an obvious fact of history, those of us motivated to do justice to the memories who the men and women who fought and died for our freedom should remember to stress that point. The war that followed Dáil Éireann’s establishment came about not because of complexities, but because Britain consciously chose to suppress Irish national democracy. The first line of Britain’s attack on democracy in Ireland was the locally recruited Royal Irish Constabulary force. Current efforts, including government efforts, to cast the role of the RIC in a positive light is a step in the wrong direction as far as anyone who supports Irish independence and democratic aims should be concerned. The RIC’s raison d’etre was very clearly to oppose Irish independence and disregard the 1918 election results.
In discussing the establishment of Dáil Éireann, it is crucial not to neglect to mention that the Dáil was set up as the parliament of the (all-Ireland) Irish Republic. An essential and common feature of the three First Dáil documents is their reference to the Irish Republic as a reality, not an aspiration. In 1919 the Irish Republic was made a reality. That Britain and its allies on the world stage refused to recognise that fact did not make it any less of a fact. Indeed, British determination to pretend the Republic did not exist and to adopt terror tactics to pursue its demise shows that the Republic very much did exist. The intentional and politically motivated refusal to acknowledge the Republic as a reality does not lessen the fact that the Republic existed. The Irish people having national self-determination, and having it in its clearest form i.e. a republic, was, quite simply, not something that British imperialism and its subordinates were ever going to just accept.
Understanding the Treaty in light of the Republic
The point of the Irish Republic being brought into existence in 1919 is important for many reasons, not least that that fact was conveniently and cynically overlooked by proponents of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, famously framed as a ‘stepping stone’ to the Republic. To understand the Treaty and Civil War, we must understand the significance of the First Dáil. As TD for Galway East, Liam Mellows was at pains to point out during the Treaty debates in 1922, it made no sense to argue that the Treaty would be a stepping stone to the Republic when the Republic had been in existence for three years by that stage.
1919 was an important year not only because of the nationally historic events that happened then, but because the most important of that year’s events, the establishment of Dáil Éireann, centrally undermines efforts to cast the 1921 Treaty in the role of a necessary staging post to Irish freedom. The creation of the First Dáil Éireann was, of course, important as standalone event, but it is made even more important as an essential competent to understanding just how shocking and successful were the efforts of British imperialism in 1922. That a majority of Teachtaí Dálá ceded so much ground on Irish freedom and sovereignty while arguing that they were actually advancing the cause of Irish independence is staggering. Mellows pointed out a key reason for so many politicians and soldiers ‘going wrong’ in 1922. Mellows attributed their departure from the Republic to their ‘never hav[ing] a grasp of proper fundamentals’ and he maintained that too many people were ‘absorbed into the movement and fight – not educated into it.’ There is a lesson in that for anyone committed to political change in any country.
The Irish freedom struggle in the context of the Republican/Empire-Nationalist clash
In any discussion on 1919-23, it must be stressed that the British state sought to obliterate the Irish people’s right to national independence and their assertion of it by resorting to terror tactics and military outrages. On a par with highlighting Britain’s attitude to the democratic rights of the Irish nation is the importance of contextualising the events of 1919 as successor acts to 1916 and as events that advanced the Fenian tradition, as opposed to the Empire dominionism of the Redmondites.
That should not be overlooked. While Britain suppressed the national rights of the Irish to democratically choose independence, Britain ensured a powerful place for itself in the post-WWI order, establishing ‘protectorates’ in the Middle East and demanding that defeated rivals cede territories in the name of self-determination for national groupings. For four years (1914-18) Britain urged young men to kill and die for an assortment of reasons, including freedom for small nations. While the Fenian tradition countered that young Irish men and women should commit themselves to their own country’s liberation and not the defence of the British empire, the empire-nationalists fronted by John Redmond sought to embed Ireland in an imperial system built on repression, land theft, settler colonialism and other barbarisms. The empire-nationalists urged young Irish men to enlist in the army that occupied their own country and kill Turks and Germans ostensibly for the freedom of small nations while their own nation continued to be denied even the most shallow form of local autonomy within the British state structure. It is abundantly clear that imperialism was the approach guiding Britain on all questions on the world stage. The question is: when, if ever, did imperialism cease to be the underpinning motivation of Britain’s approach towards the rest of the world?
The Reality of Anti-Imperialist struggle in Ireland
Understanding the strength and ruthlessness of British imperialism in the post-WWI era underlines the bravery and sacrifices of those who endeavoured to challenge Britain’s hold on Ireland. The tireless and dangerous work of those who stepped forward to promote the Fenian programme in the 1919-23 conflict should be held highest regard by every Irish person today. It was, after all, for us and every future generation of our compatriots that many oft-forgotten men and women in those years put their lives on the line. They completely overlooked their own material interests (something most people fail throughout history to do) to stand up for a fundamental good. Some lost their lives, some were seriously maimed, some lost their sanity.
The odds that faced the freedom fighters of one hundred years ago make their deeds and commitment to Ireland’s freedom all the more remarkable. IRA volunteers, Cumann na mBan members, Na Fianna, Sinn Féin activists, Irish Republican Police, the budding Republic’s underground civil servants, undercover suppliers of information on enemy activity, and ordinary people the length and breath of Ireland who held weapons and provided supplies for the Republic’s guerrilla forces and who gave shelter to flying columns and fighters on the run all played their part in a fully legitimate and morally just struggle to see an end to British tyranny and the triumph of our national liberation. That struggle saw countless numbers of people suffer inhuman levels of brutality as they stood by their commitment to the Republic. The brutality they endured came from British imperial forces ranging from the Royal Irish Constabulary, the British Army, the Black and Tans, the Ulster Special Constabulary and the Irish Free State military and paramilitaries.
We owe our freedom fighters a huge debt. The first thing we can do to honour them is to speak about them and tell Ireland’s history. Rather than be motivated by self-preservation or taking the easy option, good people of all walks of life adhered to their belief in the Republic and in the Irish people’s inextinguishable right to take our place among the nations of the earth. Some of these people paid the ultimate price. Many of their names are sadly not remembered today. The fact that so many people in Ireland today go about their mediocre and mundane business without a thought for our selfless forebearers says a lot about the Ireland that we inhabit in 2019. The reasons for such detachment, ingratitude and self-centredness are arguably manifold and could be discussed endlessly. There is merit in such a discussion to diagnosis correctly the reasons for the remove from our past that so many Irish people have imposed on themselves, but this writer will not attempt that here.
Remembering the Republic and Rekindling Ideals: The Necessity of Education and Confronting the Myths
Executed 1916 leader Seán Heuston’s final request to his sister was to “teach the children in your class the history of their own land… Let you do your share by teaching Ireland’s history as it should be taught.” Rekindling an appreciation of those who kept the struggle for freedom alive must be done through education and engagement with communities and young people. Initiatives at community level to commemorate the struggle and to educate people about the events and politics of it are desperately needed.
The powers that be would be only too happy for the centenary of these crucial events to pass by without anything other than a yet another shallow quip from a government minister about our history being ‘complex’. Complexity does not explain the 1920 RIC/Black and Tan murder of Cork’s Lord Mayor Tomás Mac Curtain, the savage torture of Tom Hales and Pat Harte or the IRA executions of informers and spies. There are more straightforward explanations for these things, explanations that fit exactly with any colonial reading of Irish history. The complexity myth must be confronted.
The purpose of this piece has to highlight the establishment of the Irish Republic and the revolutionary ambition of the men and women who set out to, quite simply, free Ireland in the 1919-23 period. This piece will hopefully be the first of several that will engage with the history of the 1919-23 struggle and its relevance to the Ireland of our time.