Anglo-Irish War

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An Irish War of Independence memorial in Dublin

The Anglo-Irish War (also known as the Irish War of Independence) was a guerilla campaign mounted against the British government in Ireland by the Irish Republican Army. It lasted from January 1919 until the truce in July 1921.



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First Dáil: Michael Collins (second from left, front row), Arthur Griffith (fourth from left, front row) Eamon de Valera (centre, front row), W.T. Cosgrave (second from right, front row).

To purist Irish Republicans, the Anglo-Irish war had begun with the Proclamation of the Irish Republic during the Easter Rising of 1916. Republicans argued that the conflict of 1919-21 (and indeed the subsequent Irish Civil War) was the defense of this Republic against attempts to destroy it. More directly, the Anglo-Irish War had its origins in the formation of a unilaterally created independent Irish parliament, called Dáil Éireann, formed by the majority of MPs elected in Irish constituencies in the Irish (UK) general election, 1918. This parliament, known as the First Dáil, and its ministry, called the Aireacht declared Irish independence. The IRA, as the 'army of the Irish Republic', was perceived by members of Dáil Éireann to have a mandate to wage war on the Dublin Castle British administration running Ireland.

On January 21st, IRA volunteers under Dan Breen, killed two members of the Royal Irish Constabulary when they refused to surrender a consignment of gelignite they were guarding, in Soloheadbeg, County Tipperary. This is widely regarded as the beginning of the War of Independence, although the men acted on their own initiative. On the same day, the First Dáil convened in the Mansion House in Dublin where it ratified the 1916 Proclamation of Independence, called for the evacuation of the British military garrison, and called on free nations to recognise Ireland's right to independence.

Violence Spreads

Volunteers began to attack British government property, carried out raids for arms and funds and targeted and killed prominent members of the British administration. They mimicked the successful tactics of the Boers, fast violent raids without uniform. Although some republican leaders, notably Éamon de Valera, favoured conventional warfare in order to legitimise the new republic in the eyes of the world, the more canny Michael Collins and the broader IRA leadership opposed these tactics, which had led to the military débacle of 1916. The violence used was at first deeply unpopular with the broader Irish population, but most were won around when faced with the terror of the British government's campaign of widespread brutality, destruction of property, random arrests and unprovoked shootings. Events began slowly, but by 1920 widespread violence was the rule.

Arthur Griffith estimated that in the first 18 months of the conflict Crown forces carried out 38,720 raids on private homes, arrested 4,982 suspects, committed 1,604 armed assaults, sacked and shot up 102 towns and killed 77 unarmed republicans or other civilians. Griffith was responsible for setting up the "Dáil courts", a legal system that operated in parallel with the British one, and eventually came to supersede it as the moral authority and territorial control of the IRA increased.

The IRA's main target throughout the conflict was the RIC, which were seen as the British government's eyes and ears in Ireland. Its members and barracks (especially the more isolated ones) were vulnerable and they were a source of much-needed arms. They numbered 9,700 men, stationed in 1,500 barracks throughout Ireland. A policy of ostracism of RIC men was encouraged by the Dáil, and this proved successful in demoralising the force as the war went on, and people turned their faces more and more from a force increasingly compromised by association with government repression. The rate of resignation went up and recruitment dropped off dramatically. Often they were reduced to buying food at gunpoint as shops and other businesses refused to deal with them. Some RIC men cooperated with the IRA through fear or sympathy, supplying the organisation with valuable information. 165 RIC men were killed in the war, with 251 wounded.

Michael Collins and the IRA

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Michael Collins, as Commander-in-Chief at President Griffith's funeral, one week before his own death.

Michael Collins was the main driving force behind the independence movement. Nominally the Minister of Finance in the Republic's government, he was actively involved in providing funds and arms to the IRA units that needed them, and in the selection of officers. He established what proved a priceless network of spies among sympathetic members of the Dublin Metropolitan Police's (DMP) "G division" and other important branches of government. The G division men were detested by the IRA as often they were used to identify volunteers who would have been unknown to British soldiers or the later Black and Tans. Collins set up the "Squad", a group of men whose sole duty was to seek out and kill "G-men", members of the DMP's political division active in subverting the republican movement, and other British spies and agents. Many G-men were offered a chance to resign or leave Ireland by the IRA, and some took these options. Collins' natural intelligence, organisational capability and sheer drive galvanised many who came in contact with him.

It is estimated that 15,000 men served in the IRA during the course of the war, with about 3,000 on active service at any time. Much of their popularity was due to the excessive reaction of the Crown forces to IRA activity. An unofficial government policy of reprisals began in September 1919 in Fermoy, County Cork, when 200 British soldiers looted and burned the main businesses of the town, after one of their number had been killed when he had refused to surrender his weapon to the local IRA. Actions such as these, repeated in Limerick and Balbriggan, increased local support for the IRA and international support for Irish independence.

In April, after several IRA raids, the Inland Revenue ceased to operate in most of Ireland. People were encouraged to subscribe to Collins' National Loan, set up to raise funds for the young government and its army. Rates were still paid to local councils, as these were controlled by Sinn Féin members, who naturally refused to pass them on to the British government.

British Response - Black and Tans and Auxilliaries

The "Black and Tans" were set up to bolster the flagging RIC. 7,000 strong, they were mainly ex-British soldiers demobilised after World War I. Most of them came from English and Scottish cities. While officially they were part of the RIC, in reality they were a paramilitary organisation who left a reputation of murder, terror, drunkenness and ill-discipline that did more harm to the British government's moral authority in Ireland than any other group. Later came the Auxiliaries, 1,400 former British army officers. While easily matching the violence and terror offered civilians by the Black and Tans, the Auxiliary Division tended to be slightly more effective and willing to take on the IRA.

In November 1920, Collins' Squad executed 19 British spies and potential assassins, known as the "Cairo Gang", who had been poised to kill him and other important leaders. In response, Auxilaries drove in armoured cars into Croke Park (Dublin's premier football ground) during a football match, shooting into the crowd at random. 14 unarmed people were killed and 65 wounded. Later that day three republican prisoners were "shot while trying to escape" in Dublin Castle. This day became known as Bloody Sunday. Today a stand in Croke Park is named the Hogan Stand, after a Tipperary player who was killed in the attack.

Outside of Dublin, Cork was easily the scene of the bitterest fighting. Many of the tactics which soon became the standard for the Crown forces throughout Ireland began in Cork, such as the destruction of property in retaliation for IRA attacks, and the murder of prominent republicans. In March 1920, Tomás McCurtain, the Sinn Féin Lord Mayor of Cork, was shot dead, in front of his wife at his home, by men with blackened faces who were later seen returning to the local police barracks. His successor, Terence MacSwiney, died on hunger strike in Brixton prison in London. The jury at the inquiry into his death returned a verdict of wilful murder against David Lloyd George (the British Prime Minister) and District Inspector Swanzy, among others. Swanzy was later tracked down and killed in Lisburn, in County Antrim. Cork also saw the first "flying columns": mobile units of around 100 men, who could strike in devastating ambushes and melt into the countryside they knew far better than the British soldiers who were deployed to fight them. Some regiments of the British army had a reputation for killing unarmed prisoners. The Essex Regiment was one of these. The officer in charge of British forces in Cork was Bernard Law Montgomery, later to achieve fame during World War II during the British and Allied campaigns in North Africa, Normandy and western Europe.

The Propaganda War

Another feature of the war was the use of propaganda by both sides. The British tried to portray the IRA as anti-Protestant in order to encourage loyalism in Irish Protestants and win sympathy for their harsh tactics in Britain. For example, in their communiqués they would always mention the religion of spies or collaborators the IRA had killed if the victim was Protestant, but not if they were Catholic (which was more often), trying to give the impression, in Ireland and abroad, that the IRA were slaughtering Protestants. They encouraged newspaper editors, often forcefully, to do the same. In the summer of 1921 a series of articles appeared in a London magazine, entitled "Ireland under the New Terror, Living Under Martial Law". While purporting to be an impartial account of the situation in Ireland, it portrayed the IRA in a very unfavourable light when compared with the Crown forces. In reality the author, Ernest Dowdall, was an Auxiliary and the series was one of many articles planted by the Dublin Castle Propaganda Department (established in August 1920) to influence public opinion in a Britain increasingly dismayed at the behaviour of its security forces in Ireland.

In September 1920 a law clerk named John Lynch was murdered in his hotel bed. It was a mystery to most why he should have been killed, but the Propaganda Department managed to deflect journalists' attention from the fact that he was working on the case of IRA men charged with killing policemen at the time. Seventy years later, solicitor Pat Finucane's death echoed that of Lynch.

Erskine Childers was active in producing the "Irish Bulletin", which detailed government atrocities Irish and British newspapers were unwilling or unable to cover. It was printed secretly and distributed throughout Ireland, as well as to international press agencies and American, European and sympathetic British politicians.

The Irish Republican Army which fought in this conflict is often referred to as the Old IRA to distinguish it from later, different, organisations that used the same name.

The Truce - an uneasy peace

The war ended in a Truce on the 11th of July 1921, which led to the negotiation of the Anglo-Irish Treaty (1921) and the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922. A minority of those involved in the War of Independence refused to accept the Treaty and started the Irish Civil War which lasted until mid-1923 and which cost of the lives of some of the leaders of the independence movement, notably Michael Collins and Rory O'Connor.

A memorial called the Garden of Remembrance was erected in Dublin in 1966, the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising. The date of signing of the truce is commemorated by the National Day of Commemoration

es:Guerra Anglo-Irlandesa pl:Irlandzka wojna o niepodległość


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