Why Irish Revolutionaries Had to Go Global

tags: Sinn Fein, Irish history, Irish Republican Army

Dr. Brian Hanley is an AHRC Research Fellow in Irish History at the University of Edinburgh, working on the story of Ireland’s global revolution, 1916-23.

Addressing the House of Commons in December 1921, Winston Churchill wondered where, what he called the ‘mysterious power’ of Ireland, came from. After all, he opined, it was a ‘small, poor, sparsely populated island, lapped about by British sea power.’ How then was it ‘that she sways our councils, shakes our parties, and infects us with great bitterness … How is it she has forced generation after generation to stop the whole traffic of the British Empire in order to debate her domestic affairs?’ By this point, Irish republicans were negotiating face to face with a London government that had, not long before, called them a ‘murder gang.’ Though the IRA’s war from January 1919 had been crucial in making the British government take republican demands seriously, it was nowhere near achieving a military victory. Indeed regular British losses (approximately 260 dead) were a fraction of what their army had been losing on a daily basis only three years before. Though the IRA had brought its war to Britain itself, the estimated damage in human cost (11 dead) and financial cost (around £675,000) were again hardly enough to bring the Empire to its knees. Even with the undoubted commitment and dynamism of the IRA at local level, it remained chronically under-armed and short of modern equipment. Its own estimates suggested that it possessed just over 3,000 rifles, 5,000 handguns and around 60 machine guns in October 1921. In contrast, the British had modern equipment for every one of their 50,000 soldiers and 17,000 paramilitary policemen, as well as armour, aircraft and naval forces if required. Yet, as Churchill complained, Ireland had forced itself into the centre of British affairs.

This was because Irish revolutionaries understood that they were operating on the world stage. Their efforts coincided with several new factors in international affairs; the era of ‘self-determination’ as promoted by President Woodrow Wilson, the Russian revolution and the emergence of a new consciousness among colonial peoples. As the Volunteer journal An t-Óglac asserted in October 1918: ‘the rise of democracy and republicanism on both sides seems to be the determining factor that is forcing the belligerents on both sides to peace; and the ruler most definitely committed to the principles of democracy and self-determination seems destined to have the greatest voice in a peace settlement. A good omen for Irish Republicans.’ In the same period Eoin MacNeill noted that ‘self determination is now the Watchword in World Politics … the world war was the death agony of an old world and the birth-agony of a new world.’ Sinn Féin welcomed the rise of republicanism in Europe, Fr Michael O’Flanagan telling one Mayo audience that ‘Poland and Finland and the Ukraine were today free from the subjugation of the Russian yolk … in Austria the Bohemians and the Czechs were also free, and there was no hearts in Europe more rejoiced than Irish hearts that Bohemia was a republic.’ In this context, it was difficult to claim that the demand for an Irish republic was illogical.

But the reach of Irish republicanism went much further than identification with the new European republics. British commentators genuinely feared the impact that trouble in Ireland would have on the Empire, because as the Conservative writer Richard Dawson suggested: ‘in India, in Egypt, in South Africa, wherever England has a vulnerable spot or disaffected subjects, these are the places and the people for which Sinn Féin has the most special regard and to which it is most profuse in its promises of help.’ Indeed the Indian nationalist Lala Lajpat Rai promised the Irish Race Convention in Philadelphia in March 1919 that ‘by 1925 there would be far more Sinn Feiners in India than in Ireland.’ Irish activists in the United States asserted that as ‘India is the pivot of the British Empire … that pivot must be broken by the combined efforts of India, Ireland, Egypt, Persia, Russia and China.’ As An t-Óglac informed IRA volunteers in late 1920, ‘[the] Irish War of Independence is not the only war England is engaged in. She is fighting over half Asia against Arabs, Turks, Persians and Russians and must provide men, stores and money for those operations. The plain fact is that England now has her hands full … We here in Ireland cannot guarantee that the English will be beaten by the Turks or Arabs, but we can guarantee that they will take no troops to Asia because they were safe from us.’ Both sides then, were aware that Irish independence could be an existential danger to the Empire itself. Irish activists were also able to take their message to America with its powerful diaspora population.

Read entire article at RTE

comments powered by Disqus