The Birth of the Irish Free State, 1921-1923

By Joseph M. Curran | Go to book overview

Chapter 2

Ireland Transformed:
1914-1918

Although the war caused some economic dislocation in Ireland, this was largely overshadowed by the prosperity it induced. People were generally indifferent or hostile toward the small separatist minority and, deferring to Redmond's judgment, the government did little to suppress subversive activities. Separatists openly denounced Britain's dishonesty and selfish war aims, while both the Irish Volunteers and the Citizen Army frequently staged parades and maneuvers. Among advanced nationalists, however, there were sharp differences of opinion on policy. Moderate leaders, such as Griffith and MacNeill, felt that the Volunteers should fight only if the British tried to suppress them or impose military conscription on Ireland. But militants, such as Connolly, called for insurrection without preconditions, arguing that the opportunity presented by Britain's involvement in the war must not be wasted.

In September 1914 a meeting of IRB leaders with Griffith, Connolly, and other advanced nationalists upheld the extremist view. An insurrection was to be staged and independence declared before the war ended, in order to ensure Ireland's representation at the peace conference. In the months that followed, Tom Clarke and Sean MacDermott, an energetic IRB organizer, made plans for a rebellion. These plans were to be carried out by the Irish Volunteers, directed by IRB agents within their ranks, the most important of whom was P. H. Pearse.

Patrick Henry Pearse was a poet, educator, and fervent cultural nationalist who became politically active during the Home Rule controversy and moved rapidly to an extremist position. One of the founders of the Irish Volunteers, he soon became a member of the IRB. When the Volunteers split, Pearse became director of organization for the militant minority. He cherished a vision of a free and Gaelic Ireland and was willing, even eager, to sacrifice his life for this end. His dedicated separatism, as well as his key military position, led Clarke and MacDermott to include him in their conspiracy.

Pearse became head of the IRB's Military Council, which was set up in 1915 to draw detailed plans for an insurrection. This body eventually included all seven men who signed the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic. The fact that four of the seven held important positions in the Volunteers seemed to ensure the Military Council's control of that force.

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