From Ireland to Israel, & Beyond

Why the Irish War of Independence Still Matters
A July 1921 prayer vigil outside the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations, marking the end of the Anglo-Irish War (National Library of Ireland / Wikimedia Commons)

On St. Patrick’s Day 2019, Americans all over the country—and not only the 33 million of direct Irish descent—drank green beer and waved at marching bands, just as they do every year. ’Tis grand to be Irish for a day. Yet it is unlikely that many of them had any idea that the centennial of Ireland’s War of Independence had just occurred. Imagine if Americans abroad were to overlook July 4—let alone a landmark date such as the bicentennial of American independence in 1976 or the upcoming 250th anniversary in 2026. Inconceivable. But that is the scale of the oversight by Irish Americans and the American press, for January 21 and the War of Independence (otherwise known as the Anglo-Irish War) are equivalent in Irish history to July 4 and the American Revolution.

The date passed without a ripple of notice in the United States. No acknowledgment by the American media. No celebrations or commemorative events hosted by civic leaders. No statements from the president or any other prominent public figure, including Irish Americans who often parade their Irish connections (and not just on March 17 alongside St. Paddy’s Day marchers). Not from Irish-American political notables such as Joe Biden, Paul Ryan, John Kerry, or Susan Collins. Not from Cardinals Sean O’Malley of Boston or Timothy Dolan of New York. Not even from Bill Clinton, who helped broker the Good Friday Agreement of April 1998, which finally brought peace to the island after three-quarters of a century of bombings and gun smuggling at the northern border.

Unlike the Easter Rising—which was no more than a small, thwarted rebellion in the center of Dublin during the middle of World War I—the War of Independence has never resonated with the Irish-American community. The Rising’s centennial in 2016 (commemorated in Ireland in late March, rather than on the actual historical date of April 24) was publicized with a PBS special, numerous headlines in the American press, and widespread acknowledgment in Irish-American circles. Even more widely commemorated was the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising back in 1966, when prominent Irish-American politicians sent greetings to Irish President Éamon de Valera.

Why the discrepancy between the two events? Why does an ill-planned, disorganized, botched insurrection, which was crushed by British troops in a week and scarcely known about outside of Dublin, become a world event? Why has it become the single greatest historical landmark in the Irish political (and even literary) imagination? And why has a nationwide revolution against a tyrannical neighbor that victimized Ireland for eight centuries been forgotten? A year-long war that resulted in independence for 80 percent of the counties seems to have disappeared down the memory hole. One might think it would be the other way around. A wee putsch should be relegated to oblivion and Irish Independence Day should be proudly celebrated. Right?

Strange indeed, but not inexplicable. The twin causes of this paradox are subtle yet compelling. First, the power of emotions—ranging from romantic passion to shame and guilt. Second, the roles of historical contingency and context: events do not occur in isolation. What precedes or follows an event serves either to put it in the spotlight or let it fall into obscurity.

 

The Easter Rising had it all: passion and poetry, terror and beauty

By any objective accounting, the War of Independence, which lasted seventeen months and ended in July 1921, was far more consequential than the Easter Rising. Whereas the short-lived Rising was a humiliating defeat and inspired no imitators abroad, the Anglo-Irish War was the first successful colonial revolt in 140 years—that is, since the American colonists battled their way to freedom from Britain.

Unlike most revolutions, the Irish War of Independence ultimately led to a democracy, not an autocracy ruled by a new gang of tyrants. Most independence movements result in unstable coalition governments or boomerang into bloody counterrevolutions. The examples before and after Ireland are legion, from the Soviet Union in 1918 to the colonial revolts that ended in dictatorship throughout Africa, the Middle East, and Asia (India excepted). By contrast, the Irish soon instituted a genuine democracy. Political logrolling and corruption notwithstanding, the Dáil (Irish Parliament) has governed a nation of free men and women.

The Anglo-Irish War also set the standard for the military strategists and tacticians of future independence movements. For example, Zionist fighters learned much from the Irish Republican Army (sometimes even in direct training sessions) in their campaign to drive the British out of Palestine. So, too, did the Algerians in their revolt against the French in the late 1950s. The legacy of Ireland to the Israelis, Algerians, and other revolutionaries—including the North Vietnamese—is admittedly a violent one. Among the techniques and tactics they adopted were guerrilla campaigns of endurance and attrition, hit-and-run raids, political assassinations, boycotting businesses, family “blood” reprisals, and random bombings. To their opponents, such practices were sheer terrorism. To their supporters, they were the military tactics of freedom fighters outmanned by an occupation army of the British Empire.

The brutal character of the War of Independence arouses shame and guilt in some Irish, and this is one reason that it has been upstaged by its abortive predecessor, the Easter Rising. Although the Rising was a military fiasco, it was a theatrical triumph of the first order—courtesy of the foolish obtuseness of the British. The Rising has gone down in history as a failure, yes, but a noble failure, a grand and ultimately even heroic misadventure. Aiming to teach the Irish people a lesson, the British executed sixteen leaders (without a trial, except in a single case) and thereby turned a forgettable week of ineptitude into the stuff of tragedy. The Irish rebels were dragged from their jail cells, blindfolded in the prison courtyard, and gunned down by a British firing squad.

That searing image of valiant Irishmen lined up and shot became indelibly imprinted in the national consciousness and served as a potent symbol of eight hundred years of British misrule. Among the martyrs were the dashing, handsome dreamer Pádraic Pearse; the badly wounded socialist visionary James Connolly, unable to walk or even to stand, tied to a chair, helpless and suffering. Even Loyalist supporters of the Crown were appalled—and some of them even became nationalist sympathizers.

Like many great historical tragedies, the Rising was memorialized by a magnificent elegy: “Easter, 1916” by William Butler Yeats. With the shedding of the martyrs’ blood, Yeats wrote, “a terrible beauty is born.” So the Easter Rising possessed the pity and fear of classical tragedy. It had it all: passion and poetry, terror and beauty. The Rising was baptized in blood by its sequel, thus illustrating how historical contingency and context influence cultural memory. If not for the heartbreaking execution of its leaders, the Rising would likely be no more than a footnote, little remembered except as the prelude to the War of Independence.  

 

Today, more than two decades after the Good Friday Agreement, Ireland’s psychic and emotional wounds still haven’t healed completely.

All that explains why the Easter Rising is remembered and commemorated today, not just by the Irish, but also by Irish Americans. But what about the War of Independence? Why is it not remembered in the same way? Although the War is acknowledged by the media in Ireland, it is not officially commemorated. (That may one day change if a non-binding resolution in the Irish Senate in 2017 to designate January 21 as Declaration of Independence Day is ever passed into law). Among Irish Americans, the War is blotted out completely. A thought experiment may help us see why.

Imagine that the heroic American Revolution ended inconclusively, with an only partially satisfactory deal with King George III, providing for a “British” North and an “American” South—something like the division between British-governed Protestant Northern Ireland and the Catholic south of the Irish Free State, forerunner of the Republic of Ireland. Next, imagine that this divided America, perhaps separating the thirteen colonies at the Mason-Dixon Line, is so intolerable to some American revolutionaries that they will settle for nothing less than a United America. Imagine this intransigence plunging the country into civil war, not in 1861 but in 1777, with Northerners such as Franklin, Hamilton, John Adams, and Paul Revere pitted against Southerners such as Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and Patrick Henry—founding father against founding father.

And what if, after all this bloodshed in a civil war fought to attain, not preserve, the union, the United America remained divided, with the North still governed by the British? In that case, would George Washington still be lionized as hero of the Revolution and father of the nation by northern schoolchildren? Or would he rather be reviled as an architect of appeasement, a traitor to the revolutionary dream of a United America, the double dealer who brought peace at the price of honor and settled for a disunited America? Would Franklin be hailed by southern schoolchildren as the Grand Old Man of the Revolution and the diplomatic genius who won France to our side? Or would he instead be execrated as a hypocrite and ex-Loyalist—an opportunistic Benedict Arnold-in-reverse, a man who spent fifteen years in England cozying up to the Crown only to return to the United States in 1777 and suddenly emerge as a Britain-bashing nationalist and Francophile?

If we can entertain this thought experiment, then we will have some idea how the recent Irish past still burdens the present—and why Ireland’s War of Independence will never be celebrated like the American Revolution. The aftermath is just too painful. If Americans were faced with such a sequence of events, would we be likely to celebrate Independence Day with undimmed pride?

While the failure of the Easter Rising itself is redeemed by its tragic aftermath—the rebels’ executions—the War of Independence is forever overshadowed by the year-long Irish Civil War that followed almost immediately in its wake. The Anglo-Irish War itself had resulted in a largely triumphant outcome, at least from the standpoint of most of the Irish. But within eleven months, triumph gave way to a confusing conflict between purists in the Irish Republican Army who insisted on an undivided Ireland and the pragmatic nationalists who were willing to accept a divided Ireland. The Anglo-Irish War had witnessed Irishmen of all parties united in their hatred of a common foe. Now the country was embroiled in a family feud, pitting fathers against sons, brothers against brothers. Despite some ugly incidents, the loss of life in the Anglo-Irish War was modest—just fifteen hundred deaths. Though six months shorter, the Civil War claimed four thousand deaths. The gore and atrocities of the Civil War generated divisions in Irish society between radicals and moderates, IRA sympathizers and peace-seeking compromisers. Today, more than two decades after the Good Friday Agreement, those psychic and emotional wounds still haven’t healed completely.

Within a generation the Easter Rising and the War of Independence became blurred in the Irish imagination—and above all, in the Irish-American consciousness. The confusion is partly attributable to the fact that few Irish Americans know any Irish history at all. Both of us are Irish historians. Our students, mostly Irish Americans in Philadelphia, usually have had little knowledge and even less interest in Ireland’s checkered past. They have a vague notion about the Great Hunger, known colloquially as the potato famine, or have heard about the legend of St. Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland, and that’s about it.

Ireland’s War of Independence need not be celebrated, but it should at least be remembered, above all by the Irish-American community. If the Easter Rising was the immortal moment when “the terrible beauty” of modern Ireland was born, the Revolution was the event that put the nation on the rocky path to freedom and unity on which it still trudges a century later.

Published in the October 2019 issue: 

John Rodden writes about modern Irish history for a wide range of publications. John P. Rossi is professor emeritus of history at La Salle University.

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