Dr Conor Mulvagh: 'How loss of Ireland signalled the end of the British Empire'
From the corporate memory of the British army to the folk memory of the IRA, the Irish independence struggle has traditionally been seen through the lens of a military conflict; a guerrilla insurgency that dislodged an occupying power from more than four-fifths of the territory of Ireland.
Edward Carson's reaction to the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921 was prescient of a century of decolonisation which ended with the lowering of the Union Jack in Hong Kong in 1997. Back in December 1921, a dejected Carson told the House of Lords that: "[T]he reason why they [the government] had to pass these terms of treaty, and the reason why they could not put down crime in Ireland was because they had neither the men nor the money, nor the backing, let me say that is an awful confession to make to the British Empire. If you tell your empire in India, in Egypt, and all over the world that you have not got the men, the money, the pluck, the inclination, and the backing to restore law and order in a country within 20 miles of your own shore, you may as well begin to abandon the attempt to make British rule prevail throughout the empire at all."
Ireland's independence struggle needs to be understood in the context of its time: a time of crumbling empires and emerging nationalisms. However, it also needs to be seen in a longer history of the British Empire and Commonwealth which would see the end of empire in South Asia, Africa and beyond through the 20th century. From Egypt to India and from Cuba to South Africa, Ireland was one of the case studies that aspiring revolutionaries looked to.
Please sign in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.
Dan Breen's 'My Fight for Irish Freedom' was translated into Hindi as early as 1924.
Parallel to the military struggle, Irish republicans succeeded in a concerted campaign of civil disobedience. They also constructed a credible counter-state in line with the vision Arthur Griffith had outlined in his 1904 book 'The Resurrection of Hungary: a parallel for Ireland'. A clear mandate had been won in the 1918 General Election and the convocation of the first Dáil was the earliest and most significant expression of Griffith's ideas in practice.
Four key documents were passed during the Dáil's first meeting: a constitution, a declaration of independence, a 'message to the free nations of the world', and the democratic programme. In laying down a written constitution from the outset and in making a declaration of independence, the American revolutionary allusions would not have been lost on any of the press or politicians present. Meanwhile, the ideals of the French Revolution echoed through the text of the democratic programme. Curiously, liberty and equality were to be accompanied by justice rather than fraternity in the Irish case.
The founding documents of Dáil Éireann were passed in Dublin but they were meant for a global audience. Arthur Griffith directed the foreign policy of the new revolutionary parliament, displaying a remarkable grasp of world history as well as his trademark mastery of propaganda. "In sending out the address to the nations there ought to be a covering letter to each separate state or nation recalling Ireland's associations with it," he wrote in a letter from Gloucester prison. "Thus in the case of the S[outh] American states...[have] stress laid on O'Higgins of Chile, Admiral Brown of Argentina...Serbia's first organiser and leader against Turkey 1810 was Colonel O'Rourke... Remind Liberia and Haiti that Ireland is the only European country that never engaged in the slave trade."
Griffith's letter reminds us just how many 'free nations of the world' there were in 1919 and how highly Ireland valued their support in the face of concerted British efforts to keep America on its side and to keep President Wilson insulated from any attempted advances by Ireland's envoys.
Three plenipotentiaries - de Valera, Griffith and Count Plunkett - were selected to travel to Paris but substitutes had to be found for each. One of those who took their places was future President of Ireland, Seán T O'Kelly.
In early March, he wrote home to Cathal Brugha in need of money. In doing so, O'Kelly gave a clear insight into the grubby realities of what history painted as a watershed moment of statecraft and peace at Paris. "Nothing whatever can be done here without money and plenty of it... What I want is a few thousand pounds for the purpose of smoothing a passage to the presence of the great men here and of securing the ear of the press. You can get nothing whatsoever done otherwise. They all expect it. They are in the habit of getting it."
While O'Kelly was struggling to impress the capitalists of Paris, in Berne, Thomas Johnson and Cathal O'Shannon attended the Socialist International and were more successful in their efforts with the left. They circulated the Dáil's democratic programme widely and the two Irish delegates were recognised separately from Britain's, a major coup for the fledgling government.
Many scholars have picked at the holes in the Dáil counter-state over the years. Critics point to the slow and patchy rollout of the Dáil courts, the questionable functionality of republican 'police', and the liquidity of the Sinn Féín bank.
However, led by historians including Mary Kotsonouris, Marie Coleman and, more recently, Brian Hughes, the significance of civil disobedience and the counter-state to the victory of the Dáil over the Crown has been rehabilitated in the face of a narrative that traditionally emphasised the military history of the period.
The inability of the British government to collect tax, and especially the transfer of allegiance of local government were nails in the coffin of British rule in Ireland. In these ways, the tactics of the land war - boycott, rent strikes, intimidation - were reinvented for the independence struggle. These tactics proved decisive. Above all, it did not necessarily matter that Dáil courts or Sinn Féin banks did not function like the institutions they aimed to supersede. Their highest value was in the propaganda war. Another cornerstone of non-violence, hunger strikes, played a key role in eroding Britain's moral high ground and ramping up international pressure for peace.
Returning to Carson's excoriation of the British government in the wake of the treaty, what is perhaps most significant about the Irish independence struggle is not how much it took to bring Britain to the negotiating table but rather how comparatively little.
India would have to wait until the aftermath of World War II to win its independence; other European nations - see Finland, Russia, Turkey - were born in rivers of blood incomparable in scale to the Irish case. Like the Boers in South Africa before them, Ireland's rebels proved what could be done in the face of overwhelming economic and military might. Carson was right, the loss of Ireland spelled the loss of empire.
Dr Conor Mulvagh is lecturer in modern Irish history at UCD and author of 'The Irish Parliamentary Party at Westminster, 1900-18' and 'Irish Days, Indian Memories: V. V. Giri and Indian Law Students at University College Dublin, 1913-1916'