Those who read this blog will often hear me talk about the “Irish revolutionary period”. As is typical, I often write those words without actually explaining what they are, ignorant of readers outside of Ireland who may not quite know what I am referring to. What is the Irish revolutionary period?
The Irish revolutionary period is a catch-all term to describe the period of political (and some social) change on the island of Ireland in the early 20th century. The term encapsulates several different, but connected, military clashes that took place in Ireland, based around the pursuit of greater autonomy and independence from Britain.
At its core, the revolutionary period is taken as running from 24 April 1916, the beginning of the Easter Rising, to the 24th May 1923, the accepted end of the Irish Civil War, with the Irish War of Independence, also known as the Anglo-Irish War, in the middle. This period also includes the conscription crisis towards the end of the First World War, the 1918 general election, the truce period and the Anglo-Irish Treaty debates.
This core timeframe is based around the military aspects of the revolutionary period. In truth, it is far too limiting for study of the Irish revolution.
Looking backwards, the starting point is frequently put at the year 1913 generally. This is due to the continuing political debate and unrest over the Third Home Rule Bill, which was put up for a vote, and rejected, in the British Parliament for the second time that year (the third time, in 1914, made the bill veto-proof), the foundation of the Ulster Volunteers to oppose that same piece of legislation and the Irish Volunteers to protect it, the gun running’s of both organisations, and the Dublin Lockout which severely affected the working class of the Irish capital and temporarily inflamed the socialist and trade unionist movement. Further, putting the start date of the revolutionary period to this point allows the inclusion of the First World War in its entirety and its effect on Ireland, as well as the planning of the Easter Rising and the split that it produced in the Irish Volunteers.
Within academic circles, the revolutionary period is generally held to be from 1913 to 1923.
But if you’re going to go back to 1913, you might as well go one step further and place the start date in 1912, when the Irish Parliamentary Party held the balance of power in Westminster, securing the creation of the Third Home Rule Bill, introduced on the 11th April. Most of what followed stemmed from that moment, when Redmond’s IPP allied itself with Asquith’s Liberal government, facilitating their offensive against the privileges of the House of Lords by extracting the commitment to Irish Home Rule implementation.
But if the Home Rule debate is important in relation to the later military actions and change, why not expand the revolutionary period to cover that entire subject? Go as far back as the Charles Stewart Parnell days, the First Home Rule Bill, in 1886 or the foundation of the Irish Parliamentary Party in 1882, in conjunction with the land issues going on in Ireland at the time? Such an extent is going too far. The Parnell days, while influential certainly, cannot be tied directly to the events that took place in Ireland in 1916 and after. The Third Home Rule Bill, its aftermath and divisions, was the nucleus of that.
What about end date then? Sure, military operations of a major sort ceased in May 1923, but the anti-Treaty IRA did not stop. The murder of Kevin O’Higgins in 1924 is a big example of that.
Aside from all that of course, the following few years were a major time of political stabilization in the new “Free State”, as the country got round to actually governing itself without the element of violence that had been ever-present for so many years. In that regard, it has become somewhat popular, at least in my reading, to stretch out the endpoint of the revolutionary period to 9th March 1932, the date that the Cumann na nGaedheal government, that which had supported the Anglo-Irish Treaty and won the civil war, handed over power to Eamon De Valera’s new party, Fianna Fail, which mostly comprised members of the anti-Treaty side that had lost the civil war. Fianna Fail won the election fair and square, but the smooth handover of power is still considered a monumental moment in Irish democratic history.
The aftermath of this handover did result in some unsavoury incidents as IRA activity surged again in conflict with the short-lived “Blueshirt” (quasi-Fascists) movement. But Fianna Fail, within a short time, took the step of proscribing the IRA in 1935 after reversing a previous ban in 1932, that moment perhaps being the farthest you could go and still claim to be in the vestiges of the revolutionary period. With that, it is fair to say that the last part of the revolutionary period had passed, with Ireland entering a new era of politics and divisions.
By increasing the revolutionary period to 1932, the inclusion of the Army Mutiny of 1924 is possible, an interesting study as to the relationship between a new representative democracy and a overly powerful military unused to being controlled. The success of the civilian government in this “incident” is a crucial point in the revolutionary process and the evolution of Ireland into a functioning state.
Core revolutionary period: 24th April 1916 to 18th May 1923
Expanded revolutionary period: 11th April 1912 to 9th March 1932
Maximum extent of revolutionary period: 1880s to 1935
So now you know. For a full definition I would say the Irish revolutionary period is:
The period of Irish history in the early 20th century, more specifically the years between 1913 and 1923, which were marked by conventional and unconventional military operations alongside widescale political and social change in pursuit of independence from Great Britain and the establishment of a stable Irish state.