The Irish War of Independence

irish war of independence

A World War I recruiting poster pitched at the men of Ireland

The suppression of the 1916 Easter Rising did not end conflict or settle the questions of Home Rule or Irish Republicanism. The British had won the battle but the Irish war of independence had not yet begun. The Easter Rising was a military failure but a propaganda victory for the Republicans and Sinn Fein, which gained considerable support following the heavy handed British response to the rebellion. Another contributing factor in rising Republicanism was the issue of military conscription. In early 1918 the British government, planning a major offensive on the Western Front but critically short of troops, decided to extend conscription to Ireland. More than 120,000 Irishmen had volunteered to fight since August 1914; London now hoped to raise another 30,000 through compulsory service. The introduction of conscription in Ireland created a significant backlash from the public, the Catholic clergy and various political groups. Ireland’s disparate Nationalist groups – socialists, radical Republicans and moderate reformers – set aside their political differences and united to form the Irish Anti-Conscription Committee. On April 23rd 1918 this group coordinated the largest general strike in Ireland’s history, followed by a series of massive anti-conscription rallies in several cities.

The political beneficiary of this movement was Sinn Fein. Previously a fringe group with uncertain aims, Sinn Fein emerged from the Easter Rising and the anti-conscription campaign as a political party committed to the idea of an independent Irish republic. Sinn Fein support grew rapidly as other Irish Republicans fell behind the party. In the British general election of December 1918, Sinn Fein won 73 seats in the House of Commons, making it the third-largest party in the British parliament. But Sinn Fein’s leadership adopted a policy of abstention, choosing not to take up these seats. Instead, the Sinn Fein politicians gathered in Dublin’s Mansion House in January 1919, declaring the formation of an independent Ireland and proclaiming themselves to be the Dail Eireann (‘Assembly of Ireland’). In April they elected Eamon de Valera, a veteran of the Easter Rising, as their president; another young Republican, Michael Collins, became finance minister. Through the middle of 1919 Sinn Fein agents traveled abroad seeking international recognition and financial support for this alternative Irish government. In September 1919 London declared the Dail Eireann an illegal body, forcing it to meet less regularly and in secret locations.

irish war of independence

Sinn Fein members of the first Dail Eireann in 1919

These political developments were accompanied by an escalation in violence. On the same day the Dail Eireann convened in Dublin several Republican agents, acting on their own initiative, shot and killed two Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) officers in County Tipperary. Most consider this act the start of the Irish War of Independence, also known as the Anglo-Irish War. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) was formed in early 1919 from the Irish Volunteers, along with remnants of the Irish Citizens Army. The new Republican government worked hard through 1919 to bring the IRA under its control – not an easy task given that  the IRA and its antecedent bodies had always acted independently and never answered to others. Eventually, through the efforts of Michael Collins and others, the IRA became the legitimate army of the Dail Eireann. Though the Sinn Fein government never formally declared war, it later claimed that a state of war existed between the new Irish republic and Britain, at least while the latter continued its occupation of Ireland.

Irish War of Independence

Black and Tans search a suspect during the Irish War of Independence

“The Irish War of Independence was an unnecessary and often brutal little war. It was unnecessary in that the democratic wishes of the Irish people should have been adhered to… In the general election of December 1918 some 72 per cent of the population of Ireland voted for independence – but democracy was again denied. When democracy fails, as it did not once but twice, all that remains is to take up arms.”
Joseph McKenna, historian

The Irish War of Independence was a brutal internecine war, fuelled by sectarianism and retaliatory violence between the IRA, RIC and the notorious Black and Tans. It was fought not on battlefields but in cities, towns and among civilian populations. The war caused more than 2000 deaths, as well as extensive destruction and damage to infrastructure and private property. The IRA’s military objectives were to drive the British from Ireland by making it too difficult to govern and too dangerous to occupy. IRA leader Michael Collins, a brilliant tactician, ordered raids on RIC headquarters across Ireland to seize weapons for his men. Once armed, small groups of IRA fighters began ambushing and assassinating RIC members and British political and military targets. The IRA was significantly outnumbered by the enemy but this was offset by Collins’ use of clandestine and evasive guerrilla-style tactics. Under Collins’ direction the IRA was organised into ‘flying columns’ that could carry out hit-and-run raids. Another specialist unit, dubbed the Twelve Apostles or simply ‘The Squad’, carried out assassinations against British intelligence agents and pro-British police.

In 1920 London responded to the worsening situation in Ireland by recruiting ex-military personnel to join the RIC as special constables. These volunteer units, dubbed the Black and Tans, were given three months’ training and attached to RIC stations around Ireland. The Black and Tans, so called for the non-matching uniforms they were issued in 1920, soon became notorious for their poor conduct and arbitrary use of violence. Given significant authority but lacking a firm command structure, the Black and Tans often acted independently and used methods not sanctioned by the British government. There were reports of Black and Tans employing threats, beatings and even torture when interrogating suspected Republicans. On November 21st 1920 the IRA’s Twelve Apostles squad assassinated 14 British MI5 officers at various locations in Dublin. The RIC and Black and Tans retaliated with horrific violence at a Gaelic football game at Croke Park. After surrounding the ground with the intention of searching for suspected Republicans, rogue police and Black and Tans started firing indiscriminately, killing 14 people and injuring 66 others. The events of this particular day, the first of Ireland’s ‘Bloody Sundays’, highlighted how the Irish War of Independence was fuelled and perpetuated by retaliatory violence.

northern ireland

1. Irish Republicanism gained support after the 1916 uprising and a British plan to introduce conscription in Ireland.
2. Its anti-conscription campaign saw Sinn Fein grow rapidly. In late 1918 it won 73 seats in the British parliament.
3. In early 1919 Sinn Fein’s MPs declared an independent Ireland, formed the Dail Eireann and elected a president.
4. The Irish Republican Army became Dail Eireann’s military wing, launching attacks on the police and British targets.
5. The Irish War of Independence culminated in the Anglo-Irish Treaty, signed in December 1921. This treaty created the Irish Free State, a self governing British dominion. Northern Ireland was allowed to opt out of the Free State, which it immediately did. The treaty caused a split in Sinn Fein and the IRA and led to the Irish Civil War (1922-23).

© Alpha History 2016. Content on this page may not be republished or distributed without permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use.
This page was written by Rebekah Poole and Jennifer Llewellyn. To reference this page, use the following citation:
R. Poole and J. Llewellyn, “The Irish War of Independence”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date],