A Forgotten Tragedy: End of Irish War of Independence

A Forgotten Tragedy: End of Irish War of Independence
(AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama)
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July 4 is justly celebrated as a great and glorious event in American history, the public declaration of our independence.  Yet how many Irish-Americans — or for that matter, even many Irishmen — tend to remember that, just a week later, marks the formal date of Ireland’s own independence?  

July 11 a century ago, the War of Independence — which historians call the Anglo-Irish War — officially ended. A truce signed on July 8 between the Irish and British negotiators, which took effect on July 11, 1921 finally ended a brutal, bitter conflict that had raged for almost 30 months.

Public perceptions and public relations

Both sides settled for terminating the war largely because they were exhausted. While casualties were low as compared to most conflicts in the century, the Irish loss of life — an estimated 750-800 soldiers and civilians -- was significant in a population of just over four million. (For comparison, relative to U.S. population figures, the death toll would approximate 25,000.  No paltry sum: the Vietnam War, which raged for more than seven years and almost tore America apart, claimed 55,000.) 

The last year of fighting from mid-1920 to the truce had been particularly horrendous: executions, murders, burning of homes and dairies all became  commonplace. 

The war dragged on far longer than the combatants expected — or even wanted — because of national pride.  For Eamon de Valera, acting president of the Irish Republic, as well as for David Lloyd George, prime minister of England, the vexed political problem was how to get out of the war without losing face.  It was in no small part a public relations problem.  Strategically, it was not necessary to be able to pronounce “victory.”  Rather, both sides needed to feel that they had not lost the war.  

Yet the Irish had the tactical advantage, both in Dublin’s domestic and international propaganda efforts, of enjoying a status of “lower expectations.”  Historians today agree that, on objective grounds, although the Irish could be said to have not won, the fact that  Britain was the stronger party effectively meant that Britain had been outlasted (ergo: defeated).  (That is exactly the same perception that emerged when the U.S. ended the Vietnam War in 1975 with a negotiated truce with the North Vietnamese.) 

Shifting opinions

As the Anglo-Irish War dragged on and the casualties escalated in 1921, opinion throughout the British Isles slowly turned against the conflict.  Especially in Britain, the London press including the semi-official The Times of London and the influential Manchester Guardian, as well as prominent voices in parliament, and  leaders in religious circles increasingly spoke out in favor of stopping the bloodshed and bringing the war to a close.  (After all, the nation was still reeling from the toll taken by World War I.)   Just a year earlier Lloyd George had talked about “having the [Irish] murderers by the throat,” now he was angling for some kind of deal to mollify his critics and silence calls for his ouster. 

Parliamentary leaders were already alarmed: General Macready, in charge of the Irish campaign, reported in May 1921 that British forces had reached a point of psychological exhaustion — and that the war effort could not be prosecuted beyond early autumn. Privately, numerous army officials on the scene in Ireland were agreeing with the public statements of Sir Henry Wilson, chief of staff during the Great War and an outspoken Ulster Unionist, who hectored the Cabinet “to go all out or get out!” (he was gunned down outside his home in London by the Irish Republican Army in June 1922.)

Meanwhile, in Dublin, IRA leaders were warning de Valera that an outright military victory against the British army was impossible. British superiority in munitions and men was overwhelming. Yet a diplomatic success — and thus a propaganda triumph in foreign relations and a psychological victory at home — was still possible.  Morale in the IRA was still strong and home-turf advantage was significant. Prolonging the military campaign much longer, however, would entail massive losses, risk exceeding dwindling public endurance for the horrible suffering, and potentially ruin the nation. 

For both Lloyd George and de Valera, therefore, the problem was how to end the war on “acceptable” terms — with all the conceivable nuances of that adjective implied.

De Valera not impressed at peace talks

Following the truce, de Valera accepted an invitation to meet with Lloyd George in London to discuss peace terms. Contrary to reports in some circles, he didn’t go alone but took two other Cabinet members: the fanatical Republican, Austin Stack, and the more moderate Robert Barton. Neither man played any part in the discussions, a reflection of the dominant -- if not domineering -- role de Valera saw for himself. Lloyd George offered de Valera drinks and cigars, which “Dev” rejected out of hand, and tried to awe him by holding the meeting in the Cabinet room with a large map with the British Empire marked in bright red facing him during the discussions. 

De Valera was neither intimidated nor impressed. Lloyd George offered to grant Dominion status.  Yet the offer came with limitations — and exclusions, that irked de Valera: the Irish Army would be kept at small size, the British Army would be allowed to recruit throughout Ireland, the British would maintain naval bases in Ireland, and the Irish would contribute to the British war debt. Significantly, the Ulster issue was off the table. 

Why?  Partition was a fait accompli by October 1921.  Westminster considered Ulster’s future  settled and the island already partitioned.  The romantic dream of “A United Ireland” exalted by the Easter Rising patriots was never under consideration.  From the British negotiating perspective, as historian R.F. Foster has written, Irish support for the treaty would ”not enable partition to take place, but rather partition cleared the way for the treaty.”

At the insistence of the Ulster Unionists in 1920, a small six-county “state” carved out of the Ulster province had already been set up and approved in a ballot. (Dev was unable even to get as good a deal as that dangled to John Redmond in the discussions over the Third Home Rule bill in 1914.  Redmond had maneuvered the British into considering a four-county Ulster region, with Tyrone and Fermanagh having the option to vote in or out. Both had small Catholic majorities.)  

Westminster demanded that de Valera recognize the right of Ulster to determine its future.  Dev also rejected that condition out of hand.  He believed that Dominion status would be meaningless given the proximity of Ireland to England. 

From uncivil negotiations to civil war

Despite the impasse in the talks, de Valera returned to Dublin still convinced that some kind of arrangement could be worked out. 

Opinion in Ireland was divided. Some cabinet members like Cathal Brugha and Austin Stack were fierce nationalists — sometimes referred to as the Irreconcilables -- and would accept nothing less than the Republic declared during the Easter Rising. De Valera was no romantic visionary, and he was careful to avoid the grand language echoing the Easter Rising heroes such as Patrick Pearse, telling the Dail (the Irish parliament) that he was not a “doctrinaire Republican” and that “forms of government and such” didn’t matter to him.   He was trying to moderate the passionate flames still simmering from the Easter Rising, since many Irishmen had recently given their lives in the name of such high-flown rhetoric.  

Whatever hopes de Valera harbored, however, what lay on the near horizon was another round of war, even more bitter and more brutal: a civil war.   

The failure of the steps de Valera took in summer and fall would lead inexorably to that end.  He accepted an offer from Lloyd George to send a delegation to London on Oct. 11 to hammer out a peace treaty. Again, there was haggling over the wording of the invitation and exactly what powers the delegation would possess as plenipotentiaries, acting on the authority of the Dublin cabinet (and de Valera himself).  

The confusion or imprecision about the extent of authority wielded by the October delegates haunted and undermined the negotiations. The Irish were invited to discuss “how the association of Ireland with the community of nations known as the British Empire can best be reconciled with Irish national aspirations.” How would Dublin’s status differ from the Dominion status of Canada, Australia and New Zealand?  What relation would Dublin have in relation to the British Empire? 

Controversy in Dublin about who belonged in the Irish delegation foreshadowed the problems that would divide Ireland after a peace treaty was formalized. The delegation ultimately consisted of five men. It was headed by Arthur Griffith, the man second only to de Valera as the most powerful Irish political leader. Robert Barton was named to help Griffith in economic matters. Gavan Duffy and Eamon Duggan were appointed for their skill in legal draftsmanship. Erskine Childers, a newly converted Republican, served as recording secretary. 

Finally, de Valera prevailed upon Michael Collins to attend the talks as a representative of the military forces. Collins didn’t want to go and instead pressed de Valera to lead the delegation on the grounds that he had already met and dealt personally with Lloyd George in the summer. In a fateful decision that set the stage for the civil war, de Valera adamantly refused. He argued that it was necessary to keep the head of state — i.e., himself as “the symbol of the Republic” — untouched by a premature commitment and thereby preserve his flexibility to ponder the best decision. 

Status of Ulster, loyalty oath concerns

The Irish delegates had two chief concerns: the status of Ulster and the loyalty oath (the Oath of Allegiance) to the Crown.  The latter was merely a symbol, but it was a hated symbol that generated rage in the aftermath of the Irish blood shed since the Easter Rising and the  Anglo-Irish War.  

As Yeats had written in his magnificent threnody, “Easter, 1916,” that Easter week “changed, changed utterly” the Irish stance toward everything, and most specifically, toward an oath of loyalty to the Crown.  Until that Easter, the oath had never been a major problem. Daniel O’Connell and Charles Stewart Parnell, the two leading nineteen-century Irish leaders, had no problem taking an oath. Indeed, the tens of thousands of Irishmen who volunteered as soldiers for Britain in World War I — many of whom gave their lives as the events of Easter Week were passing — did so likewise. (Approximately 30,000 Irish, many of them Catholics — including a half dozen of my own [Rodden] relatives—died in the Great War for soi-disant “King and Country.”)

And so here again: a decisive consideration on both sides was loss of face.  It was the oath, not the status of Ulster, that became the thorniest issue of the conference that determined Ireland’s future, something no one foresaw.  Lloyd George even offered to soften the pledge from an oath of “allegiance” to mere “fidelity” to the Crown (and gesture that outraged Unionists derided as a farcical humiliation).  Yet that concession too was insufficient: “No oaths,” Dev and his Irreconcilable allies had sworn to themselves—and on that vow they would not budge.

As soon as the delegates returned home, opponents and supporters of the treaty lined up against each other.  The two sides — the Pragmatists (the pro-Treaty advocates headed by Collins) and the Irreconcilables (the anti-Treaty naysayers led by de Valera) proved even more intractable than had the British negotiators in Westminster.  (My 21-year-old paternal grandmother [Rodden], serving as IRA secretary for Ramelton in Donegal, was Pro-Treaty.) Collins and Dev had always been personal (if veiled) rivals; now the enmity assumed public shape — with dire consequences.     

 Whereupon the tragedy of the truce soon reached its horrible nadir.  Although the Dail had narrowly voted in January 1922 to support the treaty — and the Irish citizenry was in favor almost 2-1 — Dev and his allies proved intractable.  And since when had undue respect for majority vote become the basis for Irish policy? retorted the anti-Treatyites.  After all, virtually no one supported the Easter Week revolutionaries (not even Yeats himself) until the blood had been shed.

The result of the standoff was inevitable: civil war. Hostilities erupted as the summer opened (June 28) and the horrific suffering — far worse, especially in an emotional and psychological sense than in the Anglo-Irish War because this time the violence pitted Irishman against Irishman -- would last another eleven months, until late May 1923.    

And claim another 2,000 Irish lives.



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