Less than a year after the ceasefire, former comrades were fighting and killing each other in a bloody civil war
IN 1933, Fianna Fáil's Minister for Education, Tomás Derrig, suggested in a letter to the Department of Defence that it would be desirable to take steps to collect and preserve the political records of the War of Independence period for historical posterity. He expressed concern about the ignorance of students in relation to this period, in particular "lack of knowledge of the 1916 leaders and of the events subsequent to 1916". What was needed, he concluded, was "a record of facts from the Irish point of view" to match "the prevailing British view of the period".
Derrig's letter was a reminder that the preservation and discussion of history are not guaranteed; there is always a danger that a new generation will not embrace the history of its country unless it is assisted in doing so. The letter also made it clear that there are often contemporary political reasons for encouraging such memory and knowledge -- to challenge the validity or the dominance of the view from 'the other side'.
The period of Irish history Derrig referred to is still disputed, but historians have done much in the past 70 years to create a more inclusive approach to it. The events of 1916-23 were complicated and difficult and there was considerable vulnerability and uncertainty. It should not be the job of historians to romanticise what was such a painful period for many, marked by pride, but also suffering and conflicting allegiances.
What happened in the five years after the 1916 Rising -- until July 1921 when a ceasefire was called between the British Crown Forces and the IRA -- is often referred to as 'the Irish Revolution'. It brought down the quest for home rule that the constitutional nationalists had promoted since the 19th century; in its place the demand was now for an Irish republic.
Although the Easter Rising was crushed and its leaders executed, it led to a change in public opinion that saw Sinn Féin triumph in the general election of 1918 and the commencement of the War of Independence in 1919.
The War of Independence witnessed guerrilla warfare, assassination, reprisal and counter-reprisal. There was an attempt by Sinn Féin and the IRA to supplant the British administration in Ireland, with mixed results. There was also an intelligence war fought and a crusade to undermine the Royal Irish Constabulary, the country's armed police force since 1822. The war involved psychological, political and propaganda battles. By the end of 1919, there were over 40,000 British army troops in Ireland.
It was overwhelmingly a revolution of the young and the inexperienced. Many of them took huge risks for little or no reward, but the bonds of friendship and common purpose that they shared helped them in their quest. There were chilling executions, anger about alleged spies and informers and sometimes a resistance to the IRA when it was deemed not to be acting in the interests of the communities it claimed to represent.
There were many resourceful women in Cumann na mBan, the female wing of the IRA, whose structures proved efficient and reliable and whose role in the war was absolutely indispensable.
Less than a year after the ceasefire that ended the War of Independence, former comrades were fighting and killing each other.
There was a deep sadness that the negotiation of the Anglo-Irish Treaty resulted in a civil war that made for a bloody birth of a Free State, divided families and friends and created poisonous political divisions that lasted for decades.
In more recent times, debate about the Irish revolution has sometimes been framed in the context of what some people believe should have happened, instead of what did happen. Some historians and journalists who rose to prominence in the 1970s were deeply uncomfortable with the bloody foundation of the State and their analysis of the early 20th century was profoundly affected by the outbreak of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
Much has changed, politically, socially and economically in the intervening years, but it is important to record, remember and debate the significance of the events of 1916-23.
As Derrig emphasised more than 70 years ago, it is necessary for people, particularly younger people, to be reminded of what happened and why and what the significance of those events was. The illustrated supplements that will appear in the Irish Independent over the next three days -- on the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence and the Civil War -- are designed to do just that; not to sermonise or open old wounds, but simply to tell the story of the Irish revolution. Using rare photographs, some of which have not been seen before, the supplements are also a reminder that documenting the events of this period is an ongoing process; pieces of the jigsaw continually come to light and perspectives are constantly evolving.
At a time of considerable crisis in Ireland, it is important to remind ourselves of previous crises, achievements and mistakes; of the origins of this State, the actions that brought it into being and the thoughts and deeds of the men and women who made it happen.
Diarmaid Ferriter is Professor of Modern Irish History at UCD. His new television history of 20th-century Ireland, 'The Limits of Liberty', will be broadcast on RTE in June.