The Birth of the Irish Free State, 1921-1923

By Joseph M. Curran | Go to book overview

Chapter 1

The Seedbed of
Revolution: 1890-1914

Notwithstanding popular hopes and politicians' promises during World War I, victory in "the war to end war," did not usher in a golden age for Great Britain. The collapse of the postwar boom in 1920 left tens of thousands of workers to survive on the dole. In continental Europe, the situation was even worse, while overseas, much of the Empire seethed with unrest. On top of everything else there was Ireland. Trouble in Ireland was nothing new, but by 1921 it was worse than at any time in living memory. Although an armed rising had been quickly crushed in 1916, a Republican government, supported by a guerrilla army, had arisen from the ashes of defeat, confronting Britain with a new version of an age-old problem that seemed to defy solution.

The roots of the "Irish Question" can be found as far back as the twelfth century, when England began the conquest of its neighbor, but the legislative union between the two countries in 1801 put the problem in its modern context, both clarifying and aggravating it. From its inception, Irish nationalists opposed the Union. Extremists sought to undo it by force, but the constitutional methods of Daniel O'Connell and his successors proved more popular and effective in asserting Ireland's claims. Pioneering new tactics of political agitation, O'Connell used them to win Catholic Emancipation in 1829, the nationalists' first major victory. Building on the foundations laid by O'Connell, Charles Stewart Parnell rallied the support of Irish-Americans, land-hungry peasants, and an ambitious middle class to create a highly disciplined party, which secured substantial concessions from Britain in the 1880s. The success of Parnell's campaign for an Irish Parliament seemed assured when Gladstone committed the Liberal Party to Home Rule for Ireland. However, Liberal dissidents joined Conservative Unionists to defeat Home Rule in 1886, and Parnell's fall from power four years later (the result of a divorce scandal) ended any hope of its enactment for a generation. In the two decades following 1886, Unionist governments did their best to bury Home Rule by combining coercion with various reforms, notably a series of measures which facilitated tenants' purchase of their farms.

By the time they left office at the end of 1905, the Unionists appeared to have achieved their aim, for Ireland seemed quiet and reasonably content. Yet, as was so often the case with Ireland, appearances were

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