Irish History Overview

Southern Ireland since Partition, 1921

Elections were held for the Dublin “Home Rule” Parliament in May 1921, and Sinn Féin (under Eamonn de Valera) took 124 seats, the remaining 4 being taken by Unionist candidates (only 10% of the southern electorate was Protestant). However Sinn Féin refused to recognise the Parliament and instead continued to meet in Dail Eireann. The IRA, under Michael Collins, continued “the armed struggle” for independence.

Finally stalemate was reached and a truce was signed between the IRA and the British on 11th July 1921. After 4 months of negotiations, an Anglo-Irish Treaty was hammered out, creating a 26-county Saorstat Eireann [Irish Free State] with Dominion status, like Canada. This Treaty was signed in December 1921 by the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, and by Michael Collins and others on behalf of the Dáil. However the latter had not fully consulted their colleagues, many of whom were horrified that they had accepted partition and continuing membership of the British Empire.

Debates in the Dáil on the merits or otherwise of the Treaty became bitter and personal. Eamonn de Valera opposed the Treaty, and when deputies voted in its favour in January 1922, he resigned and led a walk out of his followers.

A Provisional Government was set up under Michael Collins to oversee the handing over of Ireland and a formal transfer of power took place on 16th January 1922.

The Irish Civil War effectively began on 13th April 1922, when anti-Treaty IRA “Irregulars” seized the Four Courts. Although the Provisional Government considered this to be an act of rebellion, they hoped for a political solution.

Tensions simmered throughout the summer as the anti-Treaty forces armed themselves by raiding former RIC and British Army barracks. The June 1922 general election demonstrated decisive support for W.T. Cosgrave‘s party Cumann na nGaedheal, which formed the first constitutional Free State administration, but this only made the militant Republicans more intent on rebellious action.

The government ordered the Republicans to evacuate the Four Courts and when this order was ignored, they opened fire on the Irregular garrison, who surrendered after two days. Fighting continued on the streets of Dublin until 5th July, and then the conflict intensified in Munster and Connacht, involving sniper attacks, ambushes and raids, accompanied by the destruction of buildings, bridges and other installations.

Strongly republican, much of Munster remained in the hands of anti-Treaty fighters for almost ten months even though most of the main towns were in Free State hands by August.

Republicans assassinated Government figures such as Kevin O’Higgins and Michael Collins, now aged 31 and leading the Free State Army against the rebels. His funeral in Dublin was the biggest the city had ever seen.

The Dáil approved special powers allowing the army to enforce the death penalty for offences including possession of arms. Amongst those shot were Dubliner Liam Mellows and the leading Protestant patriot Erskine Childers. By April 1923, 77 Republicans had been executed.

Guerrilla fighting dragged the war out, but the Republicans lacked popular support. On 24th May 1923, when De Valera ordered his followers to lay down their arms. Over 4,000 people had died.

Cosgrave’s government restored civil order, granted suffrage to women in 1923, and brought electricity to western Ireland. In 1927, de Valera broke with Sinn Féin and the IRA and founded his own political party, Fianna Fáil [Soldiers of Destiny] in order to both participate in government and oppose the Treaty non-violently. They took their seats in the Dail, swearing the oath of allegiance to the British Crown “by legal imperative”.

De Valera was Taoiseach [Prime Minister] for much of the next 20 years. In line with his vision of Ireland as a self-sufficient nation of small farmers, he broke up the remaining large landholdings, reneged on previously agreed compensation payments to former landowners, and imposed high tariffs on imports, provoking a trade war with the UK that battered the Irish economy until 1938.

The IRA was outlawed in 1936. Many Irish volunteers fought for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, despite De Valera’s conservative and reactionary government’s tacit approval of General Franco‘s “crusade against godless atheism”. Former IRA member General Eoin O’Duffy’s fascist Blueshirts were faced down in Ireland and humiliated in Spain.

Ireland’s first referendum in 1937, the voters approved de Valera’s new autochthonous Irish Constitution, which laid claim to jurisdiction over the whole island of Ireland and acknowledged the “special position” of the Catholic Church. Eire was not utterly intolerant, however, and several non-Catholics occupied prominent positions, including the new, mainly ceremonial Presidency.

De Valera chaired the League of Nations in 1938.

Ireland did not participate directly in the Second World War (known as The Emergency). Some people supported Germany against Britain, but many Irish citizens identified with the Allies and around 50,000 served in the British army. The German Luftwaffe bombed Dublin (probably by mistake) on two occasions. German and British combatants were interned. To Winston Churchill‘s fury, Eamonn de Valera visited the German embassy in Dublin to express condolences on the death of Adolph Hitler. However, Irish “neutrality” was clearly weighted in favour of the Allied cause, perhaps under the powerful influence of US President F.D.R. Roosevelt.

Eire was finally declared a Republic in 1948, and left the British Commonwealth in 1949. Irish politics became reduced to parish pump contests between the ideologically similar Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael parties, with brief input from the anti-partitionist and relatively progressive Clann na Poblachta party led by Dr. Sean McBride (later winner of both the Nobel and Lenin Peace Prizes) and Dr. Noel Browne, whose humane scheme to assist unmarried mothers met powerful opposition from the Catholic Church.

De Valera’s successors, Sean Lemass and Jack Lynch, boosted the Irish economy by ditching protectionism in favour of foreign investment. Social Welfare and health care coverage improved considerably. The cross-party commitment to promoting Irish kept the language alive, but not very popular. Censorship of films, books and magazines was strictly enforced.

The Catholic clergy were very powerful, especially the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Charles McQuaide, who expressed reluctance to implement the reforms initiated by Pope John XIII and introduced by Vatican II. Phoenix Park attendance figures at the 1966 Eucharistic Congress were surpassed only by the 1979 Papal Mass celebrated by John Paul II.

Secular values were promoted by the erratically socialist Labour Party and progressive elements in the media, especially the Irish Times and RTE, the national radio and television network. British broadcasts were also influential, especially after the widespread introduction of cable TV. Discrimination against the itinerant Travellers’ community became a major social issue.

In 1973, both the UK and Ireland entered the European Economic Community. EEC / European Union funds proved crucial to helping Ireland reduce its dependence on the UK and renovate the country’s infrastructure, but did not prevent a severe mid-80s recession, due in part to the Northern Ireland “Troubles” but also to the greed and corruption of Taoiseach Charles J. Haughey (Fianna Fail) and his cronies, leading to the formation of the small but powerful Progressive Democrat splinter party.

The 1990 election as President of Mrs. Mary Robinson (née Burke), a socialist feminist intellectual, marked a sea change in Irish social attitudes. The constitutional prohibition of divorce was lifted by a referendum vote of 50.1%. Victorian legislation criminalizing homosexuality was abolished, and the AIDS crisis forced the government to adopt relatively enlightened policies on contraception and sex education. A series of sexual scandals in the 1990s severely weakened the authority of the Catholic Church, and secular values became more widespread. However, abortion remained a bitterly divisive issue, and RTE continued to broadcast the Angelus call to prayer on radio and TV. The Internet rendered censorship irrelevant.

Thanks mainly to a forward-looking educational policy and an exceptionally liberal corporate tax regime, high technology firms began to invest in Irish workforces. The Republic’s economy grew so fast that it was nicknamed “the Celtic Tiger”; effectively, Ireland skipped straight from an agricultural economy to a post-industrial one. Tourism also increased massively. The long tradition of emigration ceased, and people began returning from abroad for jobs in new industries. Immigration from undeveloped countries became an issue, together with racism in all its forms.

Although still very much in the minority, Church of Ireland, Presbyterian and Methodist numbers increased after a long decline. While many Jews emigrated to Israel,, other faiths began to make their presences felt as new Protestant sects recruited members and Orthodox Christians arrived from Eastern Europe. Buddhism, Hinduism and other exotic imports also made an appearance. The number of Muslims grew enormously, and several mosques opened around the country. Roman Catholic Mass attendance figures plummeted, and the number of people declaring themselves atheist or agnostic increased substantially. Self-declared “pagans” ,  usually associated with New Age movements, also appeared.


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