Michael Collins and the War of Independence
Episode 23 of the Irish Identify (2016)
Featuring Marc Conner
I also found the 23rd episode, focusing on the 1921 Irish War of Independence, really valuable. For the 120 year lead up to the war see Hidden History: The Long War for Irish Independence
In the 1918 UK election Sinn Fein, which ran on a platform of full Irish independence, won all the seats in southern Ireland. Instead of taking their seats in London, they formed their own Irish National Assembly. This Assembly, in turn, voted to declare Ireland an independent Republic with Eamon de Valera as president and Michael Collins as minister of finance. It also founded the Irish Republican Army (IRA), as well as demanding the withdrawal of all British troops.
Originally born in New York City, De Valera had been imprisoned after the 1916 Easter Rising. He now returned to the US to raise funds for the coming revolution, leaving Collins to fill his shoes as president.
The Irish War of Independence began in January 1919, when the IRA, under Collins’ leadership, attacked a Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) outpost to seize their explosives and killed two RIC officers.
Collins, considered the father of modern urban warfare, conducted a mainly guerilla war aimed at assassinating both RIC* members and the large British spy network that supported them.
Focused on keeping order in the cities, by 1920 the RIC had totally lost control over rural Ireland. The British responded by recruiting Irish criminals as mercenaries. Referred to as the “Black and Tans” for their irregular uniforms, they became notorious for their lawless brutality against unarmed civilians.
By 1921, it became clear that the IRA lacked the numbers and weaponry to defeat the British military. De Valera, who had returned from the US, sent Collins and Arthur Griffith (founder of Sinn Fein) to negotiate a truce with British Prime Minister Lloyd George.
The best deal they could achieve was a December 1921 treat that created and Irish Free State (consisting of all but six countries in Northern Ireland**) which remained a member of the British Commonwealth and required all public servants to swear a fidelity oath to the British monarch. The treaty stipulated the withdrawal of all British troops except for designated bases.
Ireland would remain a Commonwealth member until 1936, when a new constitution transformed it into a full republic.
*The RIC was an internal police force made up primarily of Irish Catholics. Many who weren’t killed resigned in preference to attacking fellow countrymen.
**Britain had long encouraged the settlement of Northern Ireland by Scottish Protestants who they rewarded with large land estates. The 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty redrew the boundaries for the six counties to guarantee the region a 2/3 Protestant majority. The resulting political system denied Catholics access to land, adequate housing, and government positions – resulting in a virtual system of apartheid.
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