In the course of the last 150+ entries (studies of Irish history tend to be top heavy with study of this period, and now I understand why), we have covered what is dubbed the “Irish revolutionary period”, that section of the 20th century, neatly divided into three parts of 1916, the War of Independence and the Irish Civil War. I have a few final thoughts on this overall period that I would like to share, before we move on to the rest of the last 100 years. There are three main things I want to say, impressions I have gotten from my study of these years, that I think are suitable ways to round things off.
Firstly, the end of the Irish revolutionary period was very, very different to its beginning. Taking that first point as 1916, the period began with a military action without electoral support dedicated to complete secession from the United Kingdom, with a substantial element of that action propagated by organisations also dedicated to total societal change in Ireland. It ended with the victory of a fundamentally conservative form of nationalism supported by the majority of the people dedicated to the idea of self-government within the British Empire, the maintenance of partition and in many respects a continuation of the status quo in terms of Irish society. The key throughline of the Irish revolutionary period is the manner in which it turned from being dominated by the first instance to being dominated by the second.
This feeds into my second point, namely that the Irish revolutionary period came to be defined not by those first wave of leaders who took over buildings in 1916, but by the second generation who served in that time and emerged out of it with lived experience, or became part of the movement afterwards: Eamon de Valera, Michael Collins, Richard Mulcahy, W.T. Cosgrave, Tom Barry, Liam Lynch even the likes of Eoin O’Duffy. These were, in many respects, less idealistic men than the likes of Pearse and Clarke, and they often acted accordingly. We see this in a military sense, in the intelligence war that Collins fought, in the often brutal guerrilla tactics employed by Barry, in the manner in which Lynch went about fighting the Civil War after the end of the conventional phase; gone was adherence to the warfare practised in Dublin’s streets in Easter week. And we see it politically too, in how de Valera, Collins and Cosgrave were willing, to different degrees, to compromise on the idea of a 32 county Irish Republic, something it is difficult to envision the signatories doing if they had the chance. The Irish revolutionary period may not have seen much social change, or even political change in a certain sense, but it did see this kind of change: an embrace of different military tactics, that in turn helped to force a different kind of settlement.
Third, the Irish revolutionary period is a great example of the different ways in which insurgency and asymmetric warfare can play out, depending on the specfic conditions present at the time. In 1916 a small regular force held positions for under a week in the face of an overwhelming military response. This influenced tactics for the next conflict, where the IRA balanced a string of relatively small successes with a larger strategy of provoking outrage and over-reaction, eventually doing so to the point that their military opponents and the government behind them had to acknowledge they were incapable of achieving military victory. And then the Civil War was the same scenario in many ways but with the weight of advantages turned decisively in favour of the regular military and their political wing, with their asymmetric opposition hamstrung by an inability to replicate their conditions of success in previous years. It is my opinion that insurgency and counter-insurgency finds some of its best case studies in these years, with lessons that could be carried forward to many other conflicts of later years.
The Irish revolutionary period is the defining decade of our island’s history: perhaps nothing else I can say could really get across the enormity of what it represents. For some it was the start of Ireland as a free, independent nation, the fulfillment of centuries of uprising and rebellion; for others it represented the defeat of radicalism in terms of proposed political, societal and cultural change, in favour of something significantly more conservative and accepting of the fundamental schism of north and south; for still others it was the moment when unionism got what it really wanted, a rump state that it could dominate with stronger ties than ever with Great Britain. Between the often horrific urban combat of the Easter Rising, the sometimes brutal guerrilla struggle of the War of Independence and the very bitter reality of internal bloodletting that was the Irish Civil War, the Irish revolutionary period justifies its reputation as the critical seven years of Irish history, the ghosts of which will remain with us for some time to come.
There is so much more that I could say, enough to fill another hundred entries in this series if I was so inclined, but it is time to move on. Next week Ireland’s Wars will take its customary break between conflicts, but then we will begin to look at Ireland as a very different kind of country and island, as it faces into the 20th century. As always I want to thank all readers, commenters and subscribers for their time, and I hope you stick with me for a while yet.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.