Why Was the Irish Revolution of 1919-21 Successful in Achieving Irish Independence?

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  • Topic: Sinn Féin, British Empire, Northern Ireland
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  • Published : October 22, 2012
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On December 6 1921 the Anglo-Irish treaty was drafted and signed by representatives of both the Irish and British Governments. After centuries of bitter feuding involving both sides the British Government was for the first time to offer the Irish independence. In this essay I seek to outline how the Irish revolution of 1919 and 1921 was successful in achieving Irish independence. Richard English says, “There had never been any chance of a formal military victory… nor in practice of the British recognising an Irish republic.”[1] If English is right to say this then how did the Irish manage to gain independence when the odds were stacked against them both militarily and politically? I believe that independence was reached for a number of reasons to be discussed in more detail later. These factors can be divided into the two crucial areas of political and military.

Politically, there was a list of British failures including the negative publicity attracted by the revolution at home, pressure from America and the Government of Ireland Act. Failures only exacerbated by political achievements on the Irish side. Such as De Valera’s trip to the U.S to canvass American support for the revolution plus the establishment of Dail Eireann and its de facto courts.

The next section of the essay will be based on the military issues. Was the revolution’s success down to Britain’s failures or Ireland’s triumph of military tactics? Military mistakes were made on the British side which nullified the fact that they had a vastly superior army. The harsh reprisals in nationalist territories for example stoked tensions unnecessarily. A large part of the revolutions success could be attributed to the military strengths of the IRA. With Michael Collins at the head the IRA was extremely strong tactically and used guerrilla warfare to great effect. The also had a mass intelligence system to rival any according to figures like Thomas Bowden for instance. Although some historians such as Peter Hart try to unravel the legend of Michael Collins and believe he did not have quite as big a role in the war as many would later claim.

Political

In order for the revolution to work the IRA had to defeat Britain politically and in a propaganda war as well as militarily. It has to be noted that as far back as 1916 the Irish public had no interest in a revolting. The men who took part in the Easter Rising were looked upon as villains in the immediate aftermath not heroes. It was political failure that allowed such a dramatic swing in public opinion to take place. The harsh treatment of the rebels was the turning point in Irish popular opinion. It formed the motivation for many who joined the IRA during the revolution becoming a superb propaganda tool for the republican cause. With each execution of the men who took part in Ireland the fury grew. A student in the University College of Dublin Barry once studied remarked, “I never experienced anything like this surging fury with the news produced in everyone.”[2] Later in the interview the student claims that there was notable rejoice when three Englishmen were shot for every Irishman hung. Primary quotes like this go some way to showing the feelings of resentment caused through Britain’s political own goals that multiplied the supporters of an armed revolution in a matter of days.

It was not only public opinion in Ireland that was affected by the mistakes of the British administration. Public opinion in Britain throughout the revolution had reached a low. Many normal British citizens were horrified by what they saw as atrocities going on in their name. A sketch of opinion at the time can be viewed in a report of the Labour commission to Ireland in 1921. The report claims that the results of a government policy of reprisals on the people manifests in three main ways they are health economic and spirit. The report states, “months of oppression, coercion, and physical violence cannot but have far reaching...
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