As the centenary of Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising approaches, many questions as to how to proceed with the commemoration of this event are arising. Indeed, an event of such significance is worthy of commemoration, having set into a motion a sequence of events which eventually led to the establishment of the Republic of Ireland. That much is not in question. But, let’s take a moment and examine the popular narrative surrounding the Easter Rising. The version of the Easter Rising that has enjoyed wide acceptance over the years states that: following a period of military training, often in full view of the British Army, Irish Patriots, through force of arms, occupied key locations in Dublin City, the General Post Office being one of them. Commandant Padraic Pearse read the Proclamation from the steps of the GPO (there are no steps) and a five day siege of the building ensued. Following the surrender of the rebels, they were marched to British Army bases while being pelted with rotten fruit and vegetables along the way. The leaders wee executed by firing squad in Kilmainham Gaol thereby turning public opinion against the British and sealing the fate of the Empire’s future in Ireland.
While I have offered a simplified version of the Easter Rising in the above paragraph, lengthier accounts have, I believe, followed a very similar trajectory. Were one to accept the standard version of the Easter Rising as it has been presented over the past one hundred years, it naturally follows that both the ensuing Anglo-Irish War or the “Tan War”, and the Irish Civil War, would also gain acceptance in spite of the fact that the respective accounts of these formative events also suffer from the same narrow perspective that marginalizes somewhat the historical integrity of the Easter Rising narrative.
The hyper-shortened version of the Anglo-Irish War goes like this: With the popular opinion of the Irish people turned completely against the British following the execution of the Easter Rising’s leaders at Kilmainham Gaol in May of 1916, the Sinn Fein party swept elections all over the country and the Irish Republican Army began operations against the British in Ireland. Britain responded by introducing the Black and Tans and other auxiliary forces who subsequently committed countless atrocities against the civilian population of Ireland, further demonizing the Empire in the eyes of the Irish people.
Simple, succinct, and easy for those in search of a national identity to swallow. Likewise, the narrative of the Irish Civil War avoids any rendezvous with controversy by tying up the story in a neat little bow. Collins, Griffith, and Barton led the Irish Delegation meeting with David Lloyd, Lord Birkenhead and party in an effort to secure freedom for all Ireland. The Irish Plenipotentiary Delegation was only partially successful signing the Anglo-Irish Treaty which created the twenty-six county Irish Free State and left six counties in the province of Ulster under British control. The ensuing civil war between pro-treaty and anti-treaty forces was won by the pro-treaty side, giving us the twenty-six county Irish State we know today.
This view of Irish history is the generally accepted fare that is served up to those who are in pursuit of what might be thought of as the patriotic/romantic story of the formation of modern Ireland.
However, this accounting of Irish history is, at very least, incomplete, and I would submit possibly intellectually dishonest. The events in Irish history that took place between 1914 and 1923 are told from an Irish Nationalist/Catholic perspective. While I approach this work as an Irish American Catholic, I believe that in the pursuit of historical balance, room must be made at the table for another perspective, that of the Irish Protestant. The story of these seminal events which is told both in Ireland and in the vast majority of the Irish diaspora, seems to intentionally ignore the existence of Protestants who had a stake in the collective outcomes of the Easter Rising, the Anglo Irish War, and the Irish Civil War. This writer would submit that to essentially write everyday Protestants out of Irish history is to deny them succor at the teet of Mother Ireland. By not including Protestants in Irish history beyond the role of invader and oppressor, is to disenfranchise them from the Irish nation and to render the Irish tricolor little more than a disingenuous, cloth platitude.
This essay shall examine the watershed issues that occurred between 1800 and 1923 from the perspective of contemporary Irish Protestants. At this juncture, I will pose the question: If history is written by the victors, and there are apparently no victors here, given the existence of the six county Northern Ireland, who owns the narrative? The French have Bastille Day, the Mexicans have Cinco de Mayo, and the United States has the Fourth of July. Ireland has no equivalent to other country’s independence days which I believe leaves the question of the ownership of the historical narrative open. In the interest of introducing balance into the historical landscape, this paper will focus upon accounts of events from Protestants of the time while engaging in critical analysis of their participation in Irish society during the period.
Protestants and Loyalists
When one is seeking to gain an understanding of the Protestant perspective vis a vie the Easter Rising, Anglo-Irish War and the Irish Civil War, it is necessary to look back through history at some of the events that were formative of the Irish Protestant psyche. One such event was the 1800 Act of Union. Following the 1798 Irish Rebellion, the British Cabinet and the British Prime Minister took action to reduce the likelihood of another troublesome Irish uprising by passing the Act of Union. Contained within this piece of legislation was the promise of Catholic emancipation which was meant to make the bill more palatable for Catholic legislators and their constituents, but there were problems.
Under the Union, Ireland had an administration separate from that of the United Kingdom,
directed by a Lord Lieutenant and Chief Secretary, and real integration of the two
countries did not take place. The power to make laws had moved from Dublin to London,
but the same Protestant Ascendancy remained in control of the central and local govern-
ment in Ireland. Those who had so eloquently opposed the Union soon took office in the
Dublin Government. As J.C. Beckett says, “Within two decades, the Irish Protestants, as
a body, had become ardent supporters of the Union, which they regarded as their only
protection against the Irish Catholic majority. They were convinced that this support, self-
interested as it was, gave them a special claim on government favour; and they tended to
judge every governments’ Irish policy by its effect on their own position and influence.”
The Roman Catholics, whose leaders had supported the Union, turned against it
especially when the promise of Catholic Emancipation was not kept. The Act of Union
was the context of all subsequent political activity in the nineteenth century, and in the
The above passage does indeed convey a sense of nervousness among the minority Protestant population of Ireland in regard to their standing in Ireland during the nineteenth century. However, while Catholic Emancipation was not delivered by the 1801 Act of Union, its supporters would not be silenced.
In 1823, Catholic Emancipation was taken to the people by Daniel O’Connell as their
concern and as a popular campaign when he established the Catholic Association.
O’Connell was a democrat and a Dublin lawyer who had close contact with the social
and economic of the Irish through his work in the minor courts. He had seen the effects
of English rule on the Irish. He decided to crusade to liberate the Irish socially,
economically and politically by taking one step at a time within the system. His ultimate
aim was Home Rule.
In April, 1829, the Catholic Emancipation Act was put through Parliament by
Wellington’s ministry with a great deal of support from Lord John Russell and the Whigs.
An Gorta Mor and Protestantism (1842-1850)
Relations between Catholics and Protestants were further strained between 1842 and 1850 by An Gorta Mor, Protestant leaders pointed towards a religious answer for the crisis: Catholic Emancipation had brought God’s wrath down on all those, both Catholic and Protestant, who suffered as a result of phyto infestans.
The hunger was a heavenly opportunity to impose upon Catholics an agenda of strict
moral adherence. This view perceived the potato blight as a direct warning from the
deity to avoid all actions which might in any way interfere with the functioning of his
own laws. Irish Protestants—as well as many British commentators—encouraged the
view that the Irish Catholics were guilty by locating “the blame for the state of Irish society
squarely on the moral failings of Irish men of all classes.” The Irish sulked in the
unintelligent margins of the rest of British Calvinist society and the mass starvation was
perceived as divine judgement—and thus it was beyond the analysis of mere mortal
economic rationale. Such a mode of thought was referred to at the time as
“providentialism”, the doctrine that human affairs are regulated by divine agency for
human good. It remains that such idealogical positions on the mass hunger were
justified and magnified by the popular attitude among Protestants that the potato disease
had been delivered by God for an identifiable agenda.
England viewed her relationship to the other members of the United Kingdom as being “paternal”. If An Gorta Mor constituted a test of English paternalism, then the Young Ireland Rebellion of July 1848 was rejection of this most perverse brand of governance. While unsuccessful, the Rebellion illustrated in no uncertain terms, just how resentful the Irish People were of their government.
As the years went by, the ebb and flow of Irish Catholic resentment towards their Protestant overlords once again manifested itself in violence when on 5 March 1867, John Stephens issued the Fenian Proclamation which said in part:
The soil of Ireland, at present in possession of an oligarchy, belongs to us, the Irish
people and to us it must be restored. We declare also in favor of absolute liberty of
conscience and the separation of church and state. We intend no war against the people
of England; our war is against the aristocratic locusts, whether English or Irish, who have
eaten the verdure of our fields.
The Fenian Rising had an international component which speaks to the desire of many Irish expatriates for the establishment of an Irish nation. the Fenian Brotherhood planned attacks in the English cities of both Chester and Manchester in 1867. Both attacks were foiled, with three Fenians being executed in Manchester following their capture.
In North America, the Fenian Rising was launched with a series of raids into Canada by the Fenian Brotherhood. Comprised mainly of Irish veterans of the American Civil War, the Fenian Brotherhood conducted five notable raids into Canada, all of which were unsuccessful. The purpose of these raids was to take and hold areas of Canada until such time as Great Britain released her hold on Ireland. While admirable in its scope, the Fenian Rising was too ambitious and doomed to failure from the start.
Irish Nationalist leaders were nothing if not tenacious during the nineteenth century, much to the consternation of Ireland’s Loyalist Protestants.
Militarily, the Fenian Rising had been a failure, but its repercussions were being felt in political circles.
William Ewart Gladstone (1809-98) became British Prim Minister in 1868 and remained
in office until 1874. “My mission is to pacify Ireland”, he immediately affirmed. The fear of
Fenian violence, especially in England, as well as the growing awareness of the strength
of Nationalist feeling compelled Gladstone to tackle the “Irish question”. Among his first
measures, was the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, a recognition that it was
inappropriate to have a formal link between the state and a denomination supported by a
minority of the people.
The disestablishment of the Church of Ireland had several consequences. Firstly, a strong bond of antidisestablishmentarianism was fostered among the church’s adherents. Secondly, the Church of Ireland lost considerable financial resources and prestige. Furthermore, the disestablishment created a sense of shared Protestantism among the island’s different Protestant denominations.
The Protestant population on the island of Ireland developed a siege mentality as their stature seemed to be diminishing continually. The perception among Protestants was that if their churches were being marginalized, then they were experiencing the effects of an ascendant Catholic Church on the island. What would be next, they wondered, home rule?
The Land League Movement
As the river of time inevitably placed An Gorta Mor in hindsight, the behavior of Ireland’s mostly Protestant landlords became evident to the world. The evictions, coercion, and misappropriation of relief monies combined with Ireland’s burning desire for self-determination and gave birth to the Land League.
In 1879, the Land League was formed with Charles Stewart Parnell as its president. The aim of the Land League was to rid Ireland of predatory landlords and return the land to the Irish people. Michael Davitt, a farmer from Mayo, had organized many of his fellow farmers to oppose recently imposed tax increases and invited Parnell to speak out against the landlords, thereby launching the Land League onto the bigger stage.
As the Land League movement gained momentum, it gained much support in the upper echelon of Irish nationalism. The great Irish Patriot, O’Donovan Ross, had this to say about the situation:
That is enough to show my readers, that notwithstanding all the tenant-right bills that
England has passed for Ireland during the past fifty years, England, and England’s lords
hold Ireland today with as tyrannical control as they have held it—Every day of the past
seven hundred years.
With the Land League rising to prominence under the leadership of Parnell and Davitt, a coalition was formed with the Home Rule party to hammer both the land and Home Rule campaigns home. The combined resources of the two entities proved formidable but lacked the political support that was needed to push Home Rule through Parliament.
A New Century
With the dawn of a new century, a resurgent Irish nationalist movement appeared on the world stage. The Irish Republican Brotherhood, which had been lying dormant since the failed Fenian Rising, returned to organize challenges to crown rule. In 1905, Arthur Griffith, unhappy with the Nationalist movement’s aspirations of nationhood within the United Kingdom, set up the Sinn Fein Party. The creation of an Irish Republic separate from Great Britain altogether stood as the goal of the brash idealistic new political party. Sinn Fein viewed simple “home rule” as falling short of the Irish people’s aspirations and committed to delivering a true republic.
At the close of the nineteenth century, the second Home Rule bill was narrowly defeated. The bill passed in the British House of Commons, but was defeated in the upper house.
It had long been apparent to Ireland’s Protestants that the walls were closing in on them. Armed rebellions had been alternating with political campaigns for over fifty years and the
loyalist Protestant saw themselves losing ground.
Not everyone in Ireland favored Home Rule. Protestant resistance to the idea was fierce,
particularly in the north of the country. Belfast played host to riots and mass rallies as the
anti-Home Rule movement gained traction on the bigger stage.
Ulster’s mainly Protestant population feared Home Rule was a first step to an
independent Catholic Ireland. they were concerned also that a Dublin parliament would
introduce economic policies favorable to farming in the rural south. This would have the
effect of penalizing the rich industry in the north, of which Belfast’s shipyard and linen
mills were the proud standard bearers.
Ulster’s Loyalists were vehemently against Home Rule and found their voice in two men, James Craig and Sir Edward Carson.
On 23 September 1911, at a huge demonstration in the grounds of James Craig’s house,
Craigavon, in East Belfast, Sir Edward Carson, the new Unionist Leader, told his
audience that he was entering into “a compact”, or bargain with them. He continued,
“with the help of God, you and I joined together—I giving you the best I can, and you
giving all your strength behind me—we will yet defeat the most nefarious conspiracy that
has ever been hatched against a free people.
Ulster’s Solemn League and Covenant
Being convinced in our consciences that Home Rule would be disastrous to the well being
of Ulster as well as the whole of Ireland, subversive of our civil and religious freedom,
destructive of our perilous to the unity of the Empire, we, whose names are underwritten,
men of Ulster, loyal subjects of His Gracious Majesty, King George V, humbly relying on
the God, whom our fathers, in days of stress and trial confidently trusted, do hereby
pledge ourselves in solemn Covenant throughout this our time of threatened calamity to
stand by one another in defending for ourselves and our children, our cherished position
of equal citizenship in the United Kingdom and in using all means which may be found
necessary, to defeat the present conspiracy to see up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland.
And in the event of such a Parliament being forced upon us, we further solemnly and
mutually pledge ourselves to refuse to recognize its authority.
In sure confidence that God will defend the right, we here to subscribe our names.
And further, we individually declare that we have not already signed this Covenant.
The above was signed by me at _________________ “Ulster Day.”
Saturday, 28th September 1912
God Save the King
The “Ulster League and Covenant” was signed by 237,368 men and its sister document known as the “Ulster Covenant and Declaration”, was signed by 234,046 women across the province. With nearly a half million signatories, the Ulster Covenant was altogether unambiguous in its message to the Crown: We will oppose, with all of our resources, any attempt to impose Home Rule upon Ulster.
The Ulster Covenant is unique in several ways. Firstly, the Covenant declares its great loyalty to the King and asserts the desire of its signatories to remain citizens of the United Kingdom, not so unusual for documents such as this. However, in the passage “using all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland”, the Covenant issues a thinly veiled threat of violence against the Crown should the government bow to the desires of the Nationalists and Republicans. Up to this point, Britain had never been put on notice by any other group who basically stated, “we love you so much that if you reject our loyalty, we will be forced to kill you in order to maintain our loyalty to you!” This position presented a quandary to the government. Legitimate arguments for Home Rule were regularly being brought before the government which challenged the justification for one people holding sway over the affairs of another. Yet, another group voraciously called for the maintenance of the status quo. What to do?
Another glaringly obvious feature of the Ulster Covenant was the sheer number of signatories to the document. While five hundred thousand people signed the two documents, many of the men, at least, signed as the head of household representing an entire family thereby bringing the numbers up substantially. Loyalist Ulster had the British government over a barrel with the Ulster Covenant and before long, the British government would blink.
The Covenant made the power of Loyalist Ulster obvious, not only to the government, but also to the Irish Nationalist movement. It exhibited the Loyalist movement’s ability to network and organize, to articulate its desires and demands in a concise manner, and to be inclusive of all those who believed in maintaining the Union, both men and women. But most importantly for Unionists, the Ulster Covenant showed Ireland’s Unionists themselves that while they might be a minority of the population on the island of Ireland, they were unquestionably the majority of the population of Ulster.
The Ulster League and Covenant was the birth of modern Unionism. At the event itself, Unionists, primarily from Ulster, but also from across the United Kingdom, met and established relationships that would benefit the cause of Unionism for decades to come. Orange Order lodges pledged to mutually support each other in the difficult times ahead and rank and file Orangemen were filled with a feeling of fraternity.
A direct result of the newly strengthened networks enabled by the Ulster Covenant, was the establishment of the Ulster Volunteer Force. The UVF was founded in 1913 to put teeth into the Covenant’s promise to use “all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland.” These were heady times for Ulster’s loyalists. A distinct sense of “us against them” permeated the loyalist community of Ulster.
On the night of 24 April 1914, the Ulster Volunteer Force pulled off what, to this day, remains the largest gun smuggling event in the history of Ireland.
However, pressure to arm the UVF came from some of the officers of the force. In
particular, in January, 1914, General Sir William Adair, commanding the Antrim division of
the UVF, met with Sir Edward Carson and James Craig.
He stated that the UVF in County Antrim was 10,700 strong and had access to just
200 rifles. Adair believed that his men were becoming bored of drill and the prompt issue
of rifles was needed to revive morale.
This was the context for the large-scale UVF gunrunning of April 1914. An impressive
military operation masterminded by and led by Major Fred Crawford, the UVF’s director of
ordinance who had seen service in the Boer War.
Crawford purchased 20,000 rifles and 2,000,000 rounds of ammunition in Hamburg in
These rifles were embarked on a Norwegian vessel, the SS Fanny, on April 2, 1914.
While the German authorities may have turned a blind eye to Crawford’s activities, he
had no direct held from them.
The importation of these 20,000 guns into Ulster by the UVF had a multidimensional effect upon the already complex situation in Ulster at the time. Much like the Ulster Covenant itself, the success of the gun running operation emboldened the Unionist community and struck fear in the hearts of English politicians who felt they were losing control of the situation. Another by-product of the UVF gun running operation at Larne was the catalytic effect that it had upon the newly minted (1913) Irish Volunteers. This nationalist military organization was formed in direct response to the UVF and conducted its own gun running operation at Howth, Dublin on 26 July 1914. Commenting on the situation, Padraic Pearse opined—“The Orangeman with a gun is not as laughable as the Nationalist without one.” (Pearse)
To all observers, it seemed that the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Irish Volunteers were destined to come to blows. Indeed, both organizations had found willing arms dealers in Germany and no shortage of willing arms bearers in Ireland.
While drilling continued, the IRB requested Balmer Hobson to approach The O’Rahilly,
a prominent nationalist, to approach Eoin MacNeill, Professor of Early and Medieval Irish
History in University College Dublin. MacNeill had written an article, “The North Began”,
In An Claidheamh Soluis, the Gaelic League’s Newspaper, stating, “It is evident that the
only solution now possible is for the Empire either to make terms with Ireland or to let
Ireland go her own way.”
Speaking at a labor rally later in 1914, MacNeill, now a leader of the Irish Volunteers had this to say:
We do not contemplate any hostility to the Volunteer movement that has already been
initiated in parts of Ulster…The more genuine and successful the local Volunteer in Ulster
becomes, the more completely does it establish the principle that Irishmen have the right
to decide and govern their own national affairs. We have nothing to fear from the existing
Volunteers, nor they from us.
The confident/dismissive tone struck by MacNeill in the above comments was meant to keep the Ulstermen off balance. While it was widely known that the Larne operation supplied the Ulster Volunteer Force with upwards of 20,000 rifles, the Irish Volunteer operation at Howth had been comparatively circumspect, leading to speculation among Unionists as to how many rifles the Nationalists possessed. Soon, it wouldn’t matter.
WWI and the Somme
Beginning in August of 1914, World War One, also known as the Great War, eclipsed events in Ireland. With the fires of their misguided patriotism already stoked, Ulster Unionists sought to demonstrate their fidelity to the crown through military service. Irish Nationalists had a very different view of the political landscape as outlined in the Irish Volunteer, the official publication of the Nationalist movement:
“It is for each Volunteer to give the answer—“Yes” or “No”. “Yes; we are willing to
cooperate with the British Army, to serve under the British War Office, to break with
Irish Nationality as understood by every Irish patriot from Hugh O’Neill to Parnell”. Or
“No, we will fight only under an Irish authority, continue the old tradition, cling to the old
faith, and act upon the principle of every Irish leader for seven hundred years, given to us
in the words of Daniel O’Connell—‘England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity’—to
There are two paths. Irish Volunteers, make your choice. For Ireland alone or for
Ireland with the British Empire.
There is no room for misinterpretation in the above statement. Likewise, the following speech by Sir Edward Carson to the Ulster Unionist Council on 3 September 1914 is fully void of any ambiguity:
England’s difficulty is not Ulster’s opportunity. (Cheers) England’s difficulty is our
difficulty.—(Renewed cheers)—and England’s sorrows have always been and will
always be our sorrows (Hear hear). I have sometimes seen it stated that the Germans
had hit upon an opportune moment owing to our domestic difficulties to make their
bullying demand against our country. They little understand for what we are fighting.
We were not fighting to get away from England. And the power that attempted to
to lay hand upon England, whatever might be domestic quarrels, would, at once, bring
us together—as it has brought us together—as one man…If we are betrayed whilst we
are acting loyally to our country, the infamy will not be ours…We do not seek to purchase
terms by selling our patriotism…on the question of Home Rule, we stand where we have
always been. (Cheers) It will never be law in our community. (Renewed cheers) We will
postpone active measures in the interest of the country and the Empire, but when the
country is once again safe, we will once again assert our powers as before.
In considering the above two passages, we bear witness to the intentions of Ulster Unionist and the Irish Nationalists. But the onset of war further complicated the situation. The question of conscription now attached itself to the larger Irish question. Should Irishmen be compelled to serve in the British military? The Home Rule matter had been put on hold for the duration of the war, leading to debate among Nationalists as to the appropriateness of the Home Rule aspiration.
The outbreak of war in August 1914 had a consequence for Ireland as dramatic as its
implications for the ultimate settlement of Europe. Before August 1914, the solution to
the Irish question “belonged” to Asquith’s Liberal government, but the combination of
Ulster Unionists and Conservative opposition denied it to him. After that date, the Irish
question became almost negligible by contrast with the grand political and strategic
issues arising out of the war. Before August 1914, Redmond’s party of Irish MPs was
prepared, with varying degrees of enthusiasm and reluctance, to recommend to their
voters Asquith’s schemes for Home Rule, notwithstanding their diminishing scope.
Subsequently, the implications—both direct and indirect—of the war on Ireland, changed
the ostensible context of the demand in Ireland. Instead of Home Rule, the Irish wanted
independence; instead of negotiation, they resorted to the use of force, both physical and
moral. Asquith and Redmond, the names before the war, were replace by Lloyd George
and DeValera Lloyd George was dependent on Conservative support and deValera on
that of the gunmen.
The Nationalist position on Home Rule had been settled. John Redmond, a great proponent of Home Rule, was rendered virtually politically impotent, owing to the belief among the majority of Irish people was that if Home Rule left them potentially vulnerable to conscription, then complete independence from England was the best way forward for Ireland.
This position contrasted sharply with the Unionist position regarding the war, further deepening the rift between Unionists and the now unified Republicans.
The reaction to the outbreak of war varied greatly between Unionists and Nationalists. On the one hand, Unionists saw the war as being their problem and acted by forming the 36th Ulster Division.
Thus it came about that the New Army of “Kitchener’s Men” was created. By the end of
the year, 1,200,000 men had enlisted and one of the new divisions so made was the
36th Ulster Division, known to many English soldiers as “Carson’s Army”. It was these
volunteers who formed a very extensive part of the army which fought at the Somme.
With the Ulster Unionists fully involved in the war on a strictly voluntary basis, the question of conscription for Ireland was settled. There would be no conscription for Ireland.
The announcement that Ireland would not be subject to conscription sent shockwaves through the Unionist community all over the island and, indeed, throughout the United Kingdom. The questions being raised by Unionists were: How did Ireland want to be regarded in England? Why didn’t Ireland desire to shoulder her part of the load? And, how could we ever be associated with Ireland again?
Protestant Ireland was mortified. The Nationalist/Republican movement had assumed, in their eyes, a position which conferred upon them the mantle of total disgrace. Ireland, however, in the view of the Republicans, had no gripe with Germany and saw the war as none of their business. They wanted full independence from Britain and were making war plans of their own which did not include hostilities with Germany.
The Easter Rising
The manifestation of Irish Republican aspirations took place on 24 April 1916, Easter Monday, when the Irish Volunteers, Irish Citizen Army, Cuman na mBan, and Fianna Eireann combined to occupy key locations around Dublin City while declaring the Irish Republic. The action was meant to be an island-wide uprising, but poor planning and bad decision making found the Easter Rising virtually limited to Dublin with smaller actions taking place in Meath and Wexford. The epicenter of the Easter Rising in Dublin was the General Post Office on what was then known as Sackville Street. Here, the rebels, now known a the Irish Republican Army, fought against the British Army for five days until their surrender to General Maxwell on Saturday, 29 April 1916.
The Easter Rising had not enjoyed popularity among the people of Ireland regardless of their affiliation. Dublin’s city center had suffered widespread destruction and many innocent civilians had been shot by nervous British soldiers seeking revenge on the Irish people for their perceived betrayal. Also, James Connolly, one of the Rising’s leaders, was viewed as a rather unsavory character by many people for his socialist politics and pro-Germanism. Many Catholic families in Ireland had fathers, sons, brothers, and uncles who had enlisted in the British Army of their own free will and viewed perceived pro-German activities in a dim light. The position of Catholic families in regard to the Rising may seem inconsistent with their long held resentment of Britain, but later events would change that. On the other hand, Protestant Unionists never strayed from their views concerning their relationship with Britain. In July 1916, in contrasting the Battle of the Somme with the Easter Rising, the Reverend R.S. Morrison, Rector of Saint
Saviour’s, Portadown, had this to say to a gathering of Orangemen:
A feeling of profound and heartfelt sorrow held chief place in their minds for their gallant
and noble brothers who had made the supreme sacrifice for King and country…the
bravest of the brave—whose splendid dads and deathless glory would ever shine
resplendent on the pages of British history, whose names would be cherished in the
hearts and affections of all loyal Ulstermen from generation to generation the world wide
over…Ulster was poor and weaker by their loss, but gloriously strong and richer by the
memorial of invaluable service so willingly rendered, and involving such costly self
sacrifice to our Empire in her hour of greatest need. Whatever the future might hold for
the Empire, their sacrifice has not been made in vain….The Sinn Fein Rebellion…in the
midst of such a national crisis…was an irrefutable impeachment of the Nationalist party…
which no Loyalist Britisher would ever forget…To talk of a future compromise arrived at by
the patriotic Irishmen who have fought side by side on the banks of the Somme, and
whose forefathers fought against each other on the banks of the Boyne, was the dream of
These words, spoken by a Protestant minister, encapsulate the feeling of betrayal that became commonplace among the Ireland-wide Unionist community. But while Britain may have turned the Easter Rising into a public relations victory, she bungled the affair altogether.
Beginning on 4 May 1916, the British forces in Ireland executed fifteen of the Easter Rising’s leaders in Kilmainham Gaol. Commandant James Connolly was the last to be shot on 12 May 1916. Connolly’s battle wounds had turned gangrenous, so he was tied to a chair and shot by a firing squad.
The executions of the leaders of the Easter Rising did not sit well with the general population. Public opinion rapidly turned against the British as a result of what were regarded as unfair trials followed by summary murders.
Conversely, the Unionist community adopted a “serves you right” posture consistent with their feelings in regard to the Rising’s timing during the Battle of the Somme.
Another aspect of the Easter Rising’s aftermath was the imprisonment of many Irishmen in Frongoch, Wales. While the Irish Republican Army began the Rising in Dublin with 1600 members, and did suffer substantial casualties, the British interned as many as 1800 in Frongoch Prison Camp. The removal of these IRA men and suspected IRA men from Ireland to Wales further alienated the population from the government. Unlike the general population of the country, Unionists supported the internment, viewing it as justified given the circumstances. The schism would lead not to peace in Ireland, but to a wider, more popular uprising.
The Anglo-Irish War
The ramifications of the British mishandling of the Easter Rising became apparent:
In Ireland, the Rising and its aftermath helped to turn Nationalist or barely Nationalist
Ireland to sympathy for the rebels. If not support for their cause, on account of the
measures taken by Asquith’s government to deal with the problem; martial law,
executions, deportations, and imprisonment resulted in the emergence of heroes and
leaders, and in sufficient strength of feeling to bind the various organisations and their
members into a “movement”, which became known, inaccurately, in England, as Sinn
The ensuing Irish War of Independence or Anglo-Irish War, put a tremendous strain upon Great Britain and resulted in the use of continued controversial methods of policing and suppression by the government.
The failures in the relationship between the administrations of Ireland and their
government in London is what allowed the Anglo-Irish War to become known as
the Irish War of Independence. To say that there was a breakdown in communication
between Dublin and London is a gross understatement. The very fact that any measure
of negotiated truce followed by independence, tempered as it was, granted unto a group
of organised rebels by the British Empire speaks volumes regarding the failures of the
British administration in both Dublin and London. The Irish did not win the war on their
own; the British also lost theirs.
Obviously, the British government misunderstood the situation on the ground. While the Nationalist leadership recognized the Irishness of the island’s Protestants, that view did not always extend to rank and file Nationalists and Republicans.
In July, 1917, an Irish Convention representing a broad spectrum of interests met in the
vain hope that Irishmen might work out a political settlement satisfactory to all. Here, the
Anglo-Irish were represented and participated in an attempt to decide the destiny of their
country. Irish Nationalists of senior standing, both in the Home Rule party and later in the
Sinn Fein party, were keen to assure the Anglo-Irish community that its political and civil
rights would be respected in an independent state.
Though, generally speaking, Irish Protestants fared fairly well in the Free State and the
Republic, the experience of many Anglo-Irish families during the War of Independence
and the Civil War of the 1920’s was dreadful. Many were intimidated and murdered.
Demoralised by the War of Independence and the burning of some 200 Big Houses,
many fled to England. The very existence of the Anglo-Irish seemed under threat, not
only from economic and political forces, but also from such factors as the Ne temere
papal decree (1908) which required, in practice, that at the children of mixed marriages
be raised as Catholics. This drastically reduced the numbers of Protestants as a
percentage of the population dropped from 10% to 6% in the twenty five years after
The Irish War of Independence was a brutal island-wide conflict which found Britain increasing troop strength all across Ireland. Officially, the war is said to have started in 1919, but in actuality, hostilities began late in 1916 with Nationalist attacks upon government troops and police.
The 1918 general election saw the revolutionary Sinn Fein party win seventy three out of one hundred and five seats in Parliament. This political victory inspired great confidence in the Nationalist movement so that in January of 1919, the first Dáil declared an Irish Republic. Britain outlawed the Dáil in September of 1919 following a rash of attacks on the Royal Irish Constabulary across Ireland.
In January 1920, the British formed an auxiliary para-military police force to augment the RIC. This group would come to be known as the Black and Tans. The brutality of the Black and Tans was legendary as observed by Mr. Edward Grace, the Chief Executive Officer of Ford and Son in Cork City following the burning of the city center.
There seems to be little room left in the minds of the general public for doubt as to whom
are guilty of the burning and looting of this district. in order to explain who the Auxiliary
Police and the Black and Tans are, I wish to point out that up to this time, there have been
four separate and distinct bodies in Ireland…the Black and Tans, so called because of
their wearing part soldiers uniform and part police uniform. These are a band of men sent
over from England and seem to be without any proper discipline. They have not been
under the control of either the military or police, but seem to carry on as they please
without respect to any common decency…judging from the appearance of their faces,
would say that they are a lot of the scum of England who have accepted the high pay
offered them to do police duty and have spent the same on booze—that is when they
are not able to steal it.
This scathing indictment of the Black and Tans written by a Protestant captain of industry helps to illustrate the anger felt by anyone who found themselves being brutalized by this notorious group.
By 1921, the British government no longer had the stomach for war. The exploits of the Black and Tans had been counterproductive, giving Britain a public relations black eye on a worldwide basis. The escalation and success of guerrilla operations by the IRA, and the voracity of Nationalist arguments against the occupation made the situation untenable. It was time for Britain to parlay.
On 27 June 1921, the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, invited Eamonn DeValera to a peace conference in London. The talks proved successful with a new truce taking effect on 11 July 1921. With cooler heads prevailing, the Plenipotentiary Delegation, lead by Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins, went to London in October of 1921 to begin treaty negotiations. On
6 December 1921, after brutal negotiations, the Anglo-Irish treaty was signed by both delegations granting Ireland dominion status within the commonwealth and partitioning Ireland with six north eastern counties retaining membership in the United Kingdom.
The Anglo-Irish Treaty was subsequently ratified in the Irish Dáil by a slim margin (64-57) and the Irish Free State was established.
The treaty had proved to be a volatile issue, so much so that civil war ensued between the pro-treaty and anti-treaty factions. Former comrades now faced each other with drawn swords and pointed guns. Caught on the sidelines and vilified for their religion and perceived loyalty to Britain, Ireland’s Protestants suffered greatly during the Irish Civil War. In April of 1922, over a three day period, between April 26th and April 28th, a spate of violent killings plagued the Dunmanway area of west Cork. Eighteen people died violently in this three day period.
The killing of Michael O’Neill seems to have sparked a welter of shootings. Over the
following two nights, ten more civilians were shot dead in towns and villages around
Dunmanway in west Cork. Parties of armed men made night time raids on houses in
the Dunmanway, Ballineen, and Murragh area, called out their targets by name and shot
them dead. All of the victims were Protestant males. Many were believed to be loyalists
and informants to the forces. Two of the dead were sixteen year olds and one was over
60. The perpetrators were not identified, but it seems they were likely IRA personnel.
The Irish Civil War caused widespread destruction not only to property, but also to the economy and to the population of Ireland who had suffered greatly in the previous years. On 24 May
1923, Frank Aiken, Commandant of the Irregular Forces (IRA) ordered a general stand down of his troops and a relinquishing of their arms. DeValera conceded defeat, and the Irish Civil War came to an end.
The Protestant experience in Ireland has been fraught with tension and controversy, from the inorganic plantation of Ulster as a way for England to solve her political problems, to the Act of Union, to the Ulster Covenant, and beyond. Ireland’s Protestant/Unionist community has never felt comfortable enough in her collective skin to turn her back on her Catholic/Nationalist neighbors. Undoubtedly, Ireland’s Protestants and Catholics have enjoyed cordial relationships down through time and all across the island. However, on a higher level, interaction between the two communities has been contentious to say the least.
As humans do, both communities rely on past experiences when forming new relationships, so the question becomes: How do the parties move forward in peace given the bad blood that existed for centuries?
Present day Nationalists point to the Irish Tri-Color and say: Look, we recognize your tradition and have done so for over one hundred years. You will be respected in a united Ireland! Loyalists reply: Never! We will never surrender our Loyalist tradition, not to the Irish Republic, nor to the British monarchy.
Given this long held intransigence, it is reasonable to expect that relatively little progress towards the reconciliation of differences will occur in the near future. Perhaps if the arrival and dispersement of Protestants in Ireland had followed the course of more traditional patterns of immigration through history, we might now see an Ireland where both traditions work in harmony to solve their common problems and achieve their common goals. But commonality between the two is an elusive commodity.
It is apparent that the events of the past two centuries mean different things to different people. While each group recognizes this fact, neither is in any hurry to make concessions.
As Ireland as a whole walks on political eggshells, Unionists and Nationalists trumpet the same old tune. I, therefore, conclude that Ireland’s Protestant/Unionist community will stay in her comfort zone and continue to look inward, rather than outward at the bigger world. They shall remain strident anti-assimilationists.
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