Ireland’s Wars: The Revolutionary State

As previously stated, war is politics by other means. The IRA was fighting a war in 1919, against the RIC, the DMP and soon enough British Army regulars, but they were not doing so just for the sheer sake of it. They were fighting in defence of their idea of an independent Irish state, that was usually described as “the Irish Republic”. This Republic had its legislative representation in the form of Dail Eireann, and its executive leader in the form of Eamon de Valera, but it was more than just a secretive debating entity and a figurehead. The Irish Republic, as I will also call it for this specific period, was a state, one within another, and in this entry I want to take some time to discuss a few different aspects of it. The following may come across as a bit scatterbrained, but I feel now is the appropriate time to cover some of these topics, before we go back to the relative minutia of ambush and reprisal.

While Dail Eireann existed, and declared Ireland’s independence, making itself anathema to the British authority by that sheer existence, it never formally declared war on Britain. It perhaps tried to circumvent this by claiming an already existing state of war between Ireland and “England” in its early statements, but a declaration by one sovereign power on another never came, and never would. To some minds, this has called into question the legitimacy of the IRA during this period.

The Dail did not approve of the early attacks on RIC or DMP personnel. Many of its deputies would never reconcile themselves with the tactics of the IRA, even after August, when the Dail passed a motion calling for all TD’s and Volunteers to take an oath of allegiance to the Irish Republic and Dail Eireann. In this, they were essentially endorsing the IRA as the armed force of the government. This oath, as others would later, proved controversial, especially to IRB members, but was accepted. The Dail would still have only a limited influence on the practical direction of the war, but there was now a formal joining of the civil with the military.

In April, at its third sitting, the Dail formally endorsed the policy of ostracisation of British police, in the form of the RIC. It was an attempt to undermine the British administration by ignoring it, and proved remarkably successful. Across Ireland, people were encouraged to isolate police and make their position within communities untenable, by refusing to speak to them, sell to them or to assist them in their day to day work. Many were happy to do so, being firm believers in the cause, and others went along with such practice out of fear of being lumped in with the RIC. RIC personnel found themselves placed in impossible situations in the areas they were based, forced at times to obtain basic necessities at gunpoint.

This boycotting, a continuation of such practices in previous centuries, soon escalated into a more concerted campaign of intimidation, violence, barrack burning and, as we have seen and will see again, death. Some TD’s flinched at the killings, preferring a bloodless campaign of civic resistance, but the results were unquestionable. In the face of such public pressure and imminent danger, the RIC, an organisation that was ill-suited to the current environment owing to age and general malaise over the previous decades, was forced to vacate hundreds of local stations, while thousands of RIC men quit their jobs or took early retirement. In so doing, they essentially ceded large parts of rural Ireland to the IRA and the republic, and crippled the British administration’s ability to operate in those same areas.

The Dail would eventually respond by establishing their own ad-hoc police force, made up mostly of Volunteers, to become the new civic authority. The effectiveness of this “Irish Republican Police” force was in question throughout the conflict, but they were undoubtedly a very clear and visible sign that the the Irish Republic was more than just an idea on paper. The Police would uphold law and order, ensure those required to would attend the proper courts (see below) and even engaged in more hostile actions, such as in sections of the country where they smashed up illegal poteen stills as part of a campaign against alcohol consumption.

They also sometimes went further, such as in the vase of the Millstreet bank robbery in North Cork. There, in Noember 1919, an amount that would be roughly €5000’000 today was stolen by a group of armed men. Local Volunteer commander Liam Lynch took it upon himself to investigate, utilising over 50 members of the Republican Police to do so over the course of several months. He eventually arrested the culprits, and saw most of them deported after a series of trials. He was also able to recover part of the stolen money to boot. Such actions were a great boon to an Irish Republic trying to establish its authority and credentials as the arbiter of law and order, and Lynch received much praise for his work, already marked out as a man to keep an eye on.

More than the establishment of a republican police force, the Dail made inroads for the legitimacy of their state through the “Dail courts”, their effort to supplant the British legal system in favour of an entity of their own. These had been initially set up as “Arbitration Courts” in the summer of 1919. Run by a mixture of IRA officials, Sinn Fein notables and even clergy, they aimed to fill the vacuum provided by the withdrawing apparatus of the British state, with its lower level courts dependent on the RIC, who were not now present. The Dail courts lacked the regalia of the British legal system, and did not disqualify women from sitting as judges. The courts, which morphed into a more formalised system in 1920, initially dealt primarily with property disputes, then later with criminal prosecutions and were eventually established on parish, district, circuit and supreme levels. There were numerous irregularities in this, and at no point can it be said that the Dail court system worked exactly as intended, but in significant parts of the country they supplanted the British system.

There were no prisons for the Irish Republic to put convicts in, and the courts often resorted to enforced deportation as a punishment. More serious crimes, like treason or spying, rarely made it to the Dail courts, being dealt with by the IRA in their own manner, typically a short court-martial and a bullet. Elements of the IRA and the Dail – most notably Cathal Brugha, who thought every ounce of energy and every resource should be put into the military side of the conflict – felt the courts an unnecessary hindrance to their own operations, and sometimes contravened their decisions, or refused to enforce them: this occurred often in regards dispute with larger landlords, that the IRA were seen by some as being overly-protective of, as long as they were nationalists. Such things are an example of the divide between the conservative and radical elements of the movement, that continued to work in tandem, but only for the moment. The larger agrarian unrest, a follow-on from the unrest of previous decades and centuries, was something that the IRA and the Dail were loath to get involved in, to the point that Volunteers were sometimes called upon to stop land seizures.

None of this – the Dail sittings, the police, the courts – could be done for free. The early state survived largely on private donations and a literal volunteer spirit, but this was only makeshift. It was the task of Michael Collins, in his position as Minister of Finance after de Valera’s return, to rectify this, in line with his other duties. He did this by overseeing the establishment of a “National Loan”, in other words a bond issue, and campaigning tirelessly for subscriptions both within and outside Ireland. It was a dicey affair, with promises of repayment once an independent Ireland was established. In essence, Collins was asking people to bet their money that the republicans would win the war.

He and others must have proved quite convincing because, despite extensive efforts by the British to disrupt and stop it, the bond proved very successful. Over 340’000 pounds was raised internally before the subscriptions were halted and money from the United States dwarfed this number, helped by the tour de Valera made there (a story, perhaps, for another time). These millions made the nascent Republic some friends, and Harry Boland famously organised a loan to Communist Russia, with some of that nations crown jewels put up as collateral, that proved a topic of some controversy when it came to light decades later. As with the other aspects of the Republic, the collection of this money helped to further legitimise the new state, with most of it diverted into the Ministries of Defence and Foreign Affairs. Guns were bought, explosives were imported and diplomats abroad were kept up as a result.

For a time in 1919 the British administration did not left a finger to curtail or stop the actions of the Dail. As we have noted, its first few meetings were held in public and with with great publicity attached. It was wise, in a way, to not move against the Dail, and thus provoke further outrage. But the situation could not hold forever. Even with many in the British cabinet, the Dublin administration and in high military office having reservations, the overly-confident Lloyd George and bullish French would have their way eventually.

On the 10th September, partially as a result of killings in the previous days, and with the RIC in full retreat from large parts of the countryside, the British administrations officials proscribed Dail Eireann, later including Sinn Fein, the Volunteers, the Gaelic League and Cumann na mBan, making them illegal organisations, membership of which was adjudged to be a crime. The immediate effect was simply to force these institutions underground, and the Dail would continue to meet, albeit now much more secretly, and less often. Its deputies would now be the subject of arrests, and raids against Dail offices became more frequent. However, the very fact that the British now felt the need to do this was proof of the impact the Dail was having, and how dangerous it was viewed as being. The decision to lump in entities like the Gaelic League with the proscription would prove staggeringly unwise, as it enabled republicans to frame the conflict as one of cultural, as well as political, significance.

On the military side, the assassination of Daniel Hoey, two days after the proscription, is often seen as an official response. The government of the Republic was now more willing than ever to back the military side of things, and the British would be cornered into an continuing cycle of escalation. But for now they were able to at least put on a show of response.

Such things had very limited success though. In January 1920 the political side of the movement had another opportunity to garner the peoples opinion, when urban councils and mayoral seats went for election. Sinn Fein approved candidates ran with a pledge to to align themselves with the Republic: the result was another lop-sided republican victory, with Sinn Fein, Labour and other nationalists winning control of 172 out of 206 boroughs/councils, and ten out of 11 mayoral seats. They would be followed up by similar victories in the rural votes six months later, with huge amounts of seats taken unopposed.

These were not merely symbolic victories: local government in broad swathes of Ireland were now in the hands of parties that did not recognise British authority in any way. Control of local government, with the councils bowing to the authority of W.T Cosgrave’s Ministry (Cosgrave, for reasons of illness or arrest was frequently absent, with the work largely carried out by Carlow MP Kevin O’Higgins), allowed Sinn Fein to divert “rates” money towards the cause, to further freeze out traditional British structures and to greater control the process of government throughout Ireland. The British responded by cutting off grants and tax rebates, and the quality of local services in this period was on a downward trend owing to a chronic lack of funds. But the councils, openly declaring their loyalty to Dail Eireann, largely refused to budge. Similar to the policy of ostracisation against the RIC that resulted in republican policing, the British were cut out of local government by just being ignored.

All of the above strands of the republican movement were vital to establishing the legitimacy of the new state, which in turn was vital to garnering international support and sympathy. Both of those things fed into the military aspect, which was growing and growing as 1919 went on, ahead of an explosion of activity the following year. The more Dail Eireann was able to present the Irish Republic as a living entity, the more likely it became that they could actually find a means of getting to the final stated goal: the withdrawal of Britain from Ireland and recognition as an independent state.

But this is all the big picture. For the next entry, we must go back to the smaller one, to discuss another of the notable ambushes in 1919, when a group of Cork-based Volunteers escalated things themselves.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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8 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The Revolutionary State

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