The Origins and Development of Irish Republicanism

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The Origins and Development of Irish Republicanism

By Peter Neville | Published in History Review 2001 







Peter Neville surveys the growth of republicanism in Ireland to the present day.

The history of Ireland has been a history of struggle against a foreign occupier. It has also been a history of struggle for a satisfactory relationship with Britain, verging from attempts to remain within the British Empire and Commonwealth to outright rejection of any links with Britain. It is the story of the latter movement which provides the focus for this article.

Revolts against British rule in Ireland had failed disastrously in 1798 and 1848. The so-called 'Young Ireland' revolt in 1848 was so bungled that it has gone down into history as 'The Battle of Widow McCormack's Cabbage Patch', but it coincided with a crucial event in Irish history. This was the terrible potato famine of 1845-9 which decimated the Irish population. As many as one million Irish men and women may have died of starvation and disease, and another million emigrated to Britain, Australia, and especially the United States. Although both Irish and British historians now accept that the British government was incompetent and overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster, Irish republicans believed and continue to believe that the famine was a deliberate act of genocide by the British. This became a central myth of the republican movement in Ireland in the twentieth century; and it undoubtedly gave an impetus to the last use of 'physical force' by Irish nationalists in the nineteenth century.

Home Rule

From the late 1860s onwards, there was a distinct shift in Irish politics away from physical force to an attempt to forge a new constitutional relationship with Britain through the 'Home Rule' movement. Even former Fenians like Michael Davitt, who denounced the 'landlord garrison established by England in this country centuries ago', were prepared to co-operate with the great leader of this movement, Charles Stuart Parnell. He secured the support of the Liberal Prime Minister Gladstone for Home Rule, which would have given Ireland its own parliament in Dublin but keep the country inside the Empire. Even this concession though (much less than the ultimate independence most of Ireland was to get) was too much for some members of Gladstone's party, for the Tories (who shamelessly exploited the issue), and the Protestant minority in the north-east of Ireland. Gladstone tried and failed to force Home Rule through the British parliament in 1886 and again in 1893. Parnell himself died tragically young in 1891, already ruined by his involvement in a divorce case in an overwhelmingly Catholic Ireland. Thereafter, Home Rule was effectively off the political agenda for nearly 20 years.

The Gaelic League

Sinn Féin

In 1906 the journalist Arthur Griffith, who edited the paper The United Irishmen, also brought out the new nationalist newspaper Sin Féin (Ourselves Alone). It demanded the restitution of a separate Irish parliament in Dublin (briefly allowed in the eighteenth century) and a boycott of Westminster by Irish MPs. This was to become an important feature of twentieth-century Irish republicanism with its refusal to accept that Westminster had any rights to political control in Ireland.

A 'Blood Sacrifice'

Nevertheless, there was still a distinct ambivalence about the Anglo-Irish relationship. When Queen Victoria had visited Ireland even the United Irishman had to admit that she had been 'cheered frantically'. Attempts to return the ownership of land to the Irish peasantry had also gone some way to address the long-held grievance about foreign landowners owning most of Ireland.

But Home Rule reappeared on the agenda in 1910, when two cliffhanger elections meant that the Irish parliamentary party held the balance of power in Westminster. The Liberal Government could only stay in power with Irish votes. Whatever Arthur Griffith and his supporters might think, this gave Parnell's old party, now led by John Redmond, a real opportunity. But what the Redmondites did not allow for was the vehemence of the opposition in Protestant Ulster. A covenant opposing Home Rule was signed in blood by thousands, and a well-organised gun-running operation meant that a Protestant Unionist militia was set up which was a real military threat.

The Liberal Cabinet under Asquith was clearly alarmed by the prospect of civil war in Ireland especially as the Tory Party backed the Unionists, the name given to those Protestants who wished to preserve the union with Britain without Home Rule. Fortunately for the government (in one sense), the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, when Home Rule would have come into legal force, postponed the whole issue for the duration. Redmond generously agreed to waive his claim for Home Rule while the wartime emergency lasted.

The Easter Rising

Pearse got his way and an uprising took place in Dublin at Easter 1916. This was despite the opposition of the nationalist leader Eoin MacNeill, who had helped set up the 'Irish Volunteers' as a counterweight to the Unionist militia in the North.

In strictly military terms, the uprising was a disaster. Once the British had recovered from their surprise that a revolt had been launched at all (many British troops were at the races that Easter weekend!), they crushed the uprising ruthlessly. Even the population of Dublin was against the rebels. The centre of the city was devastated by artillery shells, and many Irish people thought Pearse and his colleagues traitors for stabbing Britain in the back when thousands of their fellow Irishmen, from the North and the South, were dying for the British Crown in France. When the rebels emerged from their headquarters in the Post Office in O'Connell Street, they were abused by a crowd of Dubliners.

The Achievement of Independence

The aftermath of the Easter Rising destroyed Redmond's party and made the attainment of just Home Rule unacceptable for most Irish people outside Ulster. Sin Féin emerged as a distinct, potent force in Irish politics and won a series of by-elections in 1917-18. And new, resolute leaders like Eamon de Valera and Michael Collins came on to the scene. By the end of 1917, Sinn Féin had 250,000 members throughout Ireland, subsuming the IRB within it. The organisation was also assisted by another British blunder, when an attempt was made to impose conscription in Ireland. The Catholic Church, the Trade Unions and Sinn Féin joined in opposition to this unpopular move by the British.

The road to confrontation now became inevitable. Sinn Féin made massive gains in the 1918 Westminster General Election (even if some votes were a result of that effective Irish election tactic, impersonation of dead voters and multiple voting!), but it refused to take up its seats in the Westminster Parliament. Instead Sinn Féin set up a separate Irish parliament, Dáil Eireann, with Eamon de Valera as President. Predictably, the British refused to recognise the new body.

War was the consequence, escalating from attacks by Sinn Féin's military wing, the Irish Republican Army, on members of the police force in 1919, to a full-scale shooting war in 1920. Atrocity was countered by atrocity. When Michael Collins organised the assassination of British intelligence agents, the British retaliated by machine-gunning a Gaelic football crowd at Croke Park, Dublin. British irregulars, popularly known as the 'Black and Tans' burnt down the centre of Cork, and their Crossley tenders crossed the countryside spraying civilians with machine gun bullets. The IRA responded by ambushing British columns and giving no quarter. British informers were routinely executed. Foreign and, it must be said, liberal British opinion was outraged by Lloyd George's statement that 'We have murder by the throat'.

Ultimately, it was a matter of whose nerve cracked first. Collins admitted later that by the summer of 1921, the IRA was in desperate straits, but the British were also faced with an unpleasant choice. Escalating the war might involve keeping thousands of British troops permanently in Ireland in the teeth of hostile US opinion, influenced as it was by the large indigenous Irish-American minority. So Lloyd George opted for compromise, and during the autumn and winter of 1921, following a ceasefire, Irish delegations led by de Valera and Collins came to London.  The choice of Collins to lead the final round of talks may seem an odd one, and one of de Valera's biographers has seen in it a sinister attempt to shift responsibility, but Collins impressed leaders like Winston Churchill and F.E. Smith. He did not though, indeed could not, achieve the ultimate aspiration of a 32-county united Ireland. The vehement opposition of the Northern Unionists made this impossible. Instead a new Irish Free State of 26 counties was conceded which retained its membership of the British Commonwealth. For Collins, this was to be but 'a stepping stone' to eventual unification, but he realised that republican hardliners would never accept the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, remarking that he might have signed his own death warrant.

The Civil War

Much of the responsibility for this conflict lay with de Valera, 'Dev' as he was generally known in Ireland. He and his supporters in the Dáil would never accept the loss of the six counties of Ulster, and de Valera talked of wading through Irish blood to achieve his objective even though the Irish people had supported the 1921 Treaty in the 1922 General Election. The legitimacy of the gun was restored to Irish politics, creating a legacy of violence and bitterness which has survived to the present day. Collins was an early victim, gunned down in his own County Cork on a summer evening in August 1922 (the circumstances being unnecessarily distorted in the 1990s film biography). But his death did not prevent the ultimate victory of the 'Free Staters', those who accepted the Treaty as the best accommodation on offer.


This refusal to recognise the Irish Parliament in Dublin, Westminster and Stormont (the separate Northern Ireland Parliament created by the 1920 Government of Ireland Act) was at the heart of hardline Irish republicanism thereafter. For 70 years, the anti-Treaty IRA despite setbacks and near destruction in World War Two as a result of draconian legislation (passed by, of all people, de Valera), clung to its position of abstentionism. Its political wing Sinn Féin had little electoral success south of the border, but de Valera's party Fianna Fáil always stuck to a claim to sovereignty over the whole of Ireland, even if it recognised that a war to achieve unification was impractical. The Unionists in Ulster were equally obdurate in their determination never to accept a united Ireland.

The essential weakness of republican strategy was evident throughout this long period. In the 1930s, IRA gangsterism killed members of the Irish police force, the Garda, and harmless members of the Anglo-Irish landowning class alike. In 1939-40, following the Fenian tradition, there was a desperate and unsuccessful IRA bombing campaign on the British mainland. This left de Valera, by now Prime Minister, little choice but to crush the organisation lest he be suspected of the pro-Nazi leanings the IRA had already shown. Churchill threatened to invade the Free State.

The Troubles since 1968

Goulding's plan caused a decisive split in the IRA and its political wing in 1969-70. Traditionalists rejected Goulding and set up the Provisional IRA, taking its name from the 1916 Provisional Government. And it was the 'Provos' who rigorously stuck to a strategy of bombings and shootings in the 1970s and 1980s with some hardcore support in working-class Catholic ghettos in Belfast and Londonderry. Attacks on the British Army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary were justified by the claim that the Provos were engaged in a war against an occupying power. The political dimension was neglected until some of the younger IRA leaders, notably Gerry Adams and Martin MacGuiness, moved into Provisional Sinn Féin. Then and only then did a disposition to compromise emerge with successive IRA ceasefires, and the amazing recent spectacle of Sinn Féin members taking up appointments in the new Northern Ireland Assembly. The strategy of abstentionism had at long last been cast aside.


Even then problems remained. Factionalism has always been a problem in the republican movement. The 1970s split had left the Provos in conflict with the 'old' IRA, known in republican parlance as the Officials. Then a split in the official movement caused a vicious internal civil war with the new Irish National Liberation Army and its political wing, the Irish Republican Socialist Party. More recently, the abandonment of abstentionism by Provisional Sinn Féin, the neutralising of weapons by the Provos themselves and the extended ceasefire has caused further factionalisation with the emergence of the 'Real IRA' and 'Continuity IRA'. Both groups believe that the Provos have betrayed the legacy of 1916 and the aspiration for a united Ireland.

The past is a potent force in Irish republicanism. It was no accident that republican dissidents recently chose Hammersmith Bridge as a target. The bombers of 1939-40 had attempted unsuccessfully to destroy it, as had the Provos in the 1990s. Sectarian ruthlessness has always been a characteristic of the movement, as has a long memory

Further Reading:

  • Paul Adelman and Robert Pearce, Great Britain and the Irish Question 1800-1922 (Hodder & Stoughton, 2nd edition, 2001)

  • J. Bowyer Bell, The Secret Army. The IRA 1916-1979 (Poolbeg, 1989)

  • P. Bishop and E. Mallie, The Provisional IRA (Corgi, 1987)

  • T.P. Coogan, The IRA (Harper Collins, 1995)

  • T.P. Coogan, The Troubles, (Hutchinson, 1995).

  • R. Foster, Modern Ireland 1600-1972 (Penguin, 1988)

  • D. Keogh, Twentieth-Century Ireland, Gill and Macmillan, 1994.

  • R. Kee, The Green Flag, 3 vols (Penguin, 1972)

  • P. Neville, A Traveller's History of Ireland (Windrush, 1992)

  • P. Neville, 'The IRA: Origins and Early History', Contemporary Record, February, 1991.

Dr Peter Neville is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Wolverhampton. He is the author of Appeasing Hitler: The Diplomacy of Sir Nevile Henderson 1937-9 (Macmillan, 1999) and The Holocaust (CUP, 1999).

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