Irish Struggle for Freedom: Landmark Events

By Ita Marguet

Ireland was inhabited by Celts from about the sixth century B.C. English invasions began in the twelfth century under Henry II, although the whole of Ireland was not conquered until the time of the Tudors. Revolts against English rule had led to English and Scottish families being settled on confiscated land; in parts of Ulster the descendants of Protestant settlers form the majority.

Following centuries of rebellions and revolutionary struggle for independence, Ireland achieved its goal as a nation in 1921 creating a centenary landmark in 2021. The path to freedom was an embattled period in Irish history that continued throughout the twentieth into the twenty-first century.

‘A Nation Once Again’? is the title of Chapter 2 of a Revised and Updated version of the much lauded book by author Robert Kee, ‘Ireland A History’. His quote reads: ‘History is a difficult prison to escape from, and the history of Ireland is as difficult as any.’ The ‘Catholic Herald’ qualifies it ‘Deserves to remain for a long time on the Best-seller list.’ Indeed, the prominent Irish nationalist and politician, Charles Stewart Parnell (1846-91), stated ‘Ireland is not a geographical fragment but a nation.’ He also said … ‘No man has the right to fix a boundary to the path of a nation …’ (‘Vanity Fair’ cartoon).

After an unsuccessful rebellion in 1798, the union of Britain and Ireland followed in 1801 as a result of the Act of the Union (1800). Increased prosperity was experienced in Protestant Ulster but not in the rest of the island, and after the failure of the potato crop, known as the Grand Famine (1845-1849), or the Great Hunger, many thousands died and thousands more emigrated. At the time of the Union the British government decided to abolish the Irish parliament concentrating representation through legislative union in Westminster, but maintained Dublin Castle as the seat of government in Ireland.

An initial attempt to pass the Union failed in 1799, but through the ruthless use of patronage, bribery and intimidation, it succeeded in 1800. Skilfully directed through the House of Commons by the Chief Secretary for Ireland, Castlereigh, the Union came into effect on 1 January, 1801, creating the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. When George III refused to accompany the measure with Irish Emancipation, the British Prime Minister, William Pitt (1759-1806), and other leading politicians, including Castlereagh, resigned in protest.

After 1801 the main issues in Ireland were emancipation and repeal of the Union. The former was achieved in 1829, but repeal proved far more difficult. Various attempts to secure home rule failed and it was only after Ireland was partitioned by the Anglo-Irish Treaty* of 1921 that it ceased to apply. The Treaty gave the southern part of Ireland dominion status as the Irish Free State. It was followed by the Free State government and the republicans led by Eamon de Valera (1882-1975) who had rejected the Agreement.

Although it banished the British from twenty-six counties in Ireland, the date also marked the hostilities among the Irish Republicans. It laid the foundation for Ireland to be divided into two separate areas of sovereignty, that of twenty-six counties and the remaining six counties who had previously chosen to remain with the Crown. It was to be known as ‘Northern Ireland’, with a parliament of its own but under the overall sovereignty of the British government of Westminster.

It was viewed as an illogical solution to the Irish problem since the most northerly point of Ireland, Malin Head, in County Donegal was and still is, as a result of that Treaty, not in Northern Ireland but in what is popularly known as the South. It also commenced a civil war with atrocious violence and attacks with nearly a century of accusations and recriminations.

The Treaty was enthusiastically received in Britain and by the spring of 1922 had been comfortably passed by the Parliament. In the twenty-six counties, however, it split all elements of nationalist opinion winning only a narrow majority in the Dáil government and in the Dáil Éireann itself. A considerable majority of the IRA opposed what they regarded as a sell-out of the Republic. British insistence on the Treaty terms ended any hope of a compromise in the South where a civil war started in late June.

Despite the relatively easy pro-Treaty victory in the ensuing conflict and electoral support for the Treaty in 1922-23, the document continued to polarise political opinion for most of the following century. Eamon de Valera was also opposed to the terms of the Treaty but went on to lead and shape the new State after the Irish Free State General Election in 1932, when he progressively dismantled the Treaty. The American-born Irish Statesman was elected Taoiseach, or Prime Minister.

He served as the third President of Ireland between 1959 and 1973, and was largely responsible for the new Constitution in 1937 which created the State of Éire. The Republic of Ireland Act was passed on 21 December, 1948. Éire remained neutral during WWII; it joined the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973; in 1974 it left the Commonwealth and became fully independent as the Republic of Ireland.

The Irish Republican Army (IRA) was the military arm of Sinn Féin, aiming for union between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. It was formed during the struggle for independence from Britain (1916-21) and remained in existence towards achieving the Irish Republic as declared in the Proclamation of the Rising in 1916. In 1969, it split into the Official IRA and Provisional wing. The Official IRA became virtually inactive while the Provisional wing stepped up the level of violence against military and civil targets in Northern Ireland, Britain and Europe.

The IRA declared a ceasefire in 1994 and another in 1997. It was a brutal and bloody affair with violence and acts of extreme brutality on both sides. The highest profile atrocity took place on 21 November, 1920 during a match at the Croke Park Stadium in Dublin when the British military launched an indiscriminate reprisal shooting into the crowds, that is still known as Bloody Sunday. On 21 November, 2020, the centenary date of the attack was marked by the official laying of wreaths in remembrance of the victims.

The historical 1998 Good Friday Agreement was signed and in 2005 the IRA formally ended its armed campaign and completed decommissioning of its weapons under the supervision of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning.
United Nations Security Council.

Ireland joined the United Nations in 1955 and has constantly contributed to the UN Peacekeeping Missions and other UN programmes. On 18 June, 2020, Ireland was elected to the UN Security Council’s fifteen member body for 2021-2022. Ireland campaigned on the themes of Partnership, Empathy, and Independence as the key attributes that the country brings to its engagement with the United Nations and which will drive its work in the Security Council.

Note: Acknowledgement is given to encyclopaedic and other reference sources used in preparation of this text. It is intended as a contribution to the Centenary Year 1921-2021 of the Anglo-IrishTreaty.* Content of the official text of the Agreement states in Point 1 Ireland shall have the same constitutional rights in the Nations known as the British Empire, as the Dominion of Canada, the Commonwealth of Australia, the Dominion of New Zealand and the Union of South Africa with a parliament having power to make laws for the peace, order and good government of Ireland and executive responsible to that parliament. Amongst others, this text relates to titles ‘Highwaymen in Ireland and Beyond’, and ‘Irish Republican Brotherhood’, November 2020, by Ita Marguet, as part of the documented timeline in Irish history. Earlier texts by the author have been written on Ireland’s contribution to United Nations Peacekeepers.