The Irish Question, 1916-1949 | The Democracies

The years between the wars were of great importance for Ireland. In 1916 the British put down the Easter rebellion with grim determination, creating nearly a hundred Irish political martyrs. The British government did not dare extend conscription to Ireland until April 1918, and that attempt led Irish nationalists to boycott the British Parliament. The crisis of 1914, postponed by the war, was again at hand.

But by 1919 home rule as decreed in 1914 was not enough for many Irish nationalists. The Sinn Fein party (Gaelic for “ourselves alone”) wanted complete independence. The years 1919-1921 were filled with violence, ambushes, arson, and guerrilla warfare, as the Irish, who now had their own illegal parliament, the Dail Eireann, moved into full revolution. The British were not prepared to use force effectively; the Irish were organized, fully aroused, and ready to fight.

The immediate result of the violent phase of the revolution was a compromise, for the Sinn Fein split in two. The moderate wing was willing to accept a compromise in which Protestant Ulster would remain under direct British rule and the Catholic counties would be given dominion status under an independent assembly. The moderates negotiated with the British, and in 1921 obtained for the twenty-six counties of southern Ireland dominion status under the name of the Irish Free State.

The Free State had its own parliament, the Dail, and was completely self-governing, with its own army and its own diplomatic services. It did, however, accept the British Crown as symbolic head. The six predominantly Protestant counties of Ulster maintained their old relationship with Britain, including the right to send members to the Parliament at Westminster, but they also acquired their own parliament at Belfast and considerable local autonomy. Henceforth, Britain was officially known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The radical wing, led by Eamon De Valera (18821975), insisted that the whole island, Protestant and Catholic, achieve complete independence as a unified republic. For the radicals, the compromise negotiated by the moderates was unacceptable. The Irish revolution now became a civil war between partisans of the Free State and those of a single republic, with a return to burning, ambush, and murder.

But when the moderate leader Michael Collins (1890-1922) was assassinated, public opinion began to turn away from the extremists. De Valera, after refusing to sit in the Dail because he would have had to take an oath of loyalty to the British king, attacked the civil war and ultimately decided to bring his party, the Fianna Fail, into the national parliament in 1927.

De Valera’s party won a plurality in the Dail in 1932 and a majority in 1933; thereupon it abolished the oath of loyalty to the Crown and cut the threads that still tied the Free State to the United Kingdom. In 1938 De Valera became prime minister, and in 1939 the Free State showed that it was free from British domination by maintaining neutrality throughout World War II. In 1949 the final step was taken when Britain recognized the fully independent republic of Eire (Gaelic for “Ireland”).

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