Ireland Coat of Arms, photo credit – Setanta Saki – Own work. Using 1937 official state updated brian boru harp design as shown on Irish coinage [1]
Arms of Ireland. Blazon: Azure, a harp or stringed argent.

The Past as Prologue1

The Norman Conquest of England is a tale often told, but the Norman invasion of Ireland lesser so. Commencing with the Battle of Hastings in 1066, the Normans rapidly gained control of the English island. A century later, Normans and English having intermarried at all levels of society, an Anglo-Norman invasion was launched across the Irish Sea. Ireland was never fully conquered, but large swaths of land came under the control of English nobility. This land became known as the lordship of Ireland; and the English monarch took the additional title of Lord of Ireland. The land outside of the lordship was known as Gaelic Ireland. This status continued from 1177 to 1541 and is commonly referred to as the Lordship of Ireland.2 The whole of the island was sometimes claimed for the king, but in fact, the extent of that lordship tended to fluctuate from generation to generation, sometimes larger, sometimes smaller. At times, the extent of lordship land was reduced to regions immediately surrounding Dublin, enclosed by a palisade, and known as the Pale. Gaelic Ireland was beyond the Pale.3 In 1542, Ireland entered into a so-called personal union4 with Great Britain following the 1541 Irish Parliament’s acknowledgement of the King of Great Britain as also the King of Ireland. In 1800, the union became a so-called real union5 known as The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The term Home Rule began to be used in the 1800s as the label for the emerging political concept of a self-governing subject, or an independent dependent, such as a self-governing colony within the British Empire. Ireland, seeking self-governance, became the subject of multiple successive Home Rule Bills in the British Parliament in 1886, 1893, 1914 and 1920. The 3rd Home Rule Bill, the first to be ratified, was passed in 1914, but its implementation was suspended due to the outbreak of World War 1. The 4th Home Rule Bill, passed in 1920 in the middle of the Irish War for Independence, legally established the northern six counties as a distinct entity from the southern 26 counties, while providing for home Rule for both the North and South within the United Kingdom. This was the partition of Ireland.

The Easter Uprising

April 24, 1916, Easter Monday, at four minutes past noon, standing on the main boulevard before the General Post Office in downtown Dublin, Patrick Pearse read out the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, and declared for the freedom of Ireland from Great Britain.

In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom.

Monday April 24, The Uprising began. Shots rang out and continued day by day. Six days later, Saturday, April 29, the rebels surrendered to the British.

Martial Law was declared April 26 and British General John Marshall was charged with restoring order. 3,507 men and women were arrested including the seven signatories to the Proclamation, and many innocent bystanders. Brief military trials began without due process. And then followed the executions. On May 3, Patrick Pearse and Thomas MacDonagh and Thomas Clarke were executed by firing squad. On May 4th, four more were shot. The firing squad continued until May 12 and a total of fifteen executed. The roughness of the British response dramatically moved public opinion against Great Britain. Seeing the change in attitudes, the same John Maxwell predicted that in the next election the moderate Irish Parliamentary Party, IPP6, would likely be replaced.

The 1918 Election

By 1918, the world was entering the 4th year of that Terriblest War. In 1914 and 1915, many of Ireland’s sons volunteered to fight alongside their United Kingdom brethren in the trenches of France and Belgium. Following the 1916 uprising, Irish enlistments into the British army fell off dramatically. When, in the Spring of 1918, seeking to counter a massive German offensive on the continent, Britain introduced conscription in Ireland, the public response was fierce; akin to the hell no we won’t go reaction decades later to America’s conscription for the Vietnam War. In the Summer, the virus that would become known as the Spanish Flu struck. By Autumn, the disease was so pervasive that, on Armistice Day November 11, 1918, mothers would not allow their children to go out into the streets to celebrate the war’s end. A month later, December 1918, at the end of that miserable year, the Irish went to the polls to vote in the general election.

Sinn Fein7 won in a landslide. The IPP, the nationalist party since the 1880s had not won less than 70% of the available seats in any election over the past 3 decades. In 1818, Sinn Fein won 70%. It was an astonishing victory for the radical young party against the established moderate party which had effectively dominated Ireland’s politics since the 1880s. If it is unclear what precisely the populace wished to gain in the future, it is nevertheless crystal clear what they were rejecting from in the past. Clear on the people’s rejection of the past, the leaders proclaimed independence. Unclear on what the leaders would do, the people got war.

The Irish War of Independence 1919-1921

The election had been to fill the seats in the House of Commons of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. The office winners chose not to sit in the British parliament in Westminster and instead established an Irish parliament in Dublin. Thus, not 40 days after the election, on January 21, 1919, the Dail Erieann was established and The Declaration of Independence adopted. De Valera escaped from prison February and was elected the first president of the Dail Erieann on April 1, 1919, issuing the statement: “There is in Ireland at this moment only one lawful authority, and that authority is the elected Government of the Irish Republic” . In May he issued a letter to the Paris Peace Conference repudiating Great Britain’s presumption to negotiate on Ireland’s behalf. In June, he departed for America to seek support for independence and that same month the U.S. Senate passed a resolution requesting the Paris Peace Conference to grant a hearing to the delegation from the Dail Erieann. In September, Great Britain outlawed both the Dail Eireann and Sinn Fein.

Armed skirmishes between the Irish and the British had occurred irregularly since the date of the declaration of independence. But they grew in frequency and intensity into what became known as the War for Independence. A week and a half following the outlawing of the Dail, Michael Collins formed the “Squad”, the counter intelligence and assassination arm of the IRA. In December, Great Britain commenced recruitment of ex-WW1 servicemen for duty in Ireland, which became known as the Black and Tans.8 10,000 of which came The guerrilla war would continue for the next two years ultimately disrupting the British government in Ireland until a truce was agreed upon for July 11, 1921.

The Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921

On December 6, 1921 the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed. The treaty brought to the people the desire of decades, Home Rule. It was an indisputable movement away from British rule and towards freedom, but it fell short of the fully independent republic that had become the hope in the last few years.

The treaty provided for a kind of “independence” for Ireland, but as a Dominion9 within the British Commonwealth, with England’s monarch remaining the head of state. The treaty disestablished the independent Irish Republic proclaimed in 1919, together with its Dail.10 Members of the new government were required to swear an oath as follows, I… do solemnly swear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of the Irish Free State as by law established, and that I will be faithful to His Majesty King George V, his heirs and successors by law in virtue of the common citizenship of Ireland with Great Britain and her adherence to and membership of the group of nations forming the British Commonwealth of nations. Just words, some might say; but it so happened that at that time Britain was possessed with the fear of the dissolution of her empire. If Ireland achieved full independence, it could lead to other of Britain’s many colonies and dominions clamoring for the same. The Paris Peace Conference had just been concluded, and everywhere President Wilson’s rhetoric of self-determination occupied the political conversation.

The treaty also provided that Great Britain’s Royal Navy would occupy the main ports of Ireland along its western coast for security purposes. This also was a dictate from Britain’s fear. Having just survived a World War. Britain realized as much as ever that the Sea was her security. Ireland’s western ports must be secure for Britain to be secure in the world.

To many in Ireland, the Treaty represented a tangible and satisfactory step towards ultimate independence from Britain, the best movement in the past century. To many others in Ireland, the Treaty plainly fell short of that full independence that occupied their imaginations since the Uprising. And so Ireland’s line of partition, that just 18 months previous did not exist, and then appeared as but a geographical marker in the front of the six northern counties, would now be now carved deep and wide across every county and through every family and every heart on both sides of the Atlantic as each individual was inexorably drawn to choose a side.

The Irish Civil War 1922-1923

De Valera, president of the First Dail Eireann, had returned from America in December 2020 after 18 months. Seven months later in the Summer of 1921, with an end to the war in sight, as president he directed Michael Collins to lead the delegation to England to negotiate the treaty. With the treaty signed in December 2021, the Dail Eireann voted on the Treaty on January 7, 2021 and ratified it by the narrow margin 64-57. De Valera duly resigned the presidency of the former Irish Republic, stood for election as president of the newly constituted Irish Free State and was very narrowly defeated 60-58. Rather than remain in the new parliament as leader of a loyal opposition, De Valera broke from the body, declared the Treaty illegal and began to speak out against the Treaty. The split was reflected in Irish Republican Army, the original IRA, and fighting broke out and escalated. People were forced to choose sides. Those in favor of the Treaty became known as pro-Treaty or Free Staters, sometimes nicknamed staters by those opposing them. Those opposing called themselves Republicans, became known as anti-Treaty IRA and were called Irregulars by the pro-treaty side. Fighting was fierce and bitter. The opposition to the Free State laid down their arms on May 24, 1923.

Perhaps more Irish died in the civil war than in the war for independence. Michael Collins died. Eamon de Valera survived. The deep divide survived in the memories; and lived on in the hearts and minds of the people.  The dominating political parties for the twentieth century were Fine Gael, which came directly from the pro-Treaty Fee State faction, and, Fianna Fáil, which issued directly from the anti-Treaty Republicans. Almost all of Ireland’s political leaders until the 1970s were veterans of the Civil War. And many of their sons and daughters entered politics extending the bitter feud to the end of the century.


  1. borrowed from Shakespeare, with perhaps a little irony, whose Antonio said to Sebastion in the The Tempest, “What’s past is prologue.”
  2. Some consider this the oldest root, though perhaps not the deepest root, of Britain’s subsequent Irish Problem.
  3. Thus, the figure of speech beyond the pale connotes a venture or behavior beyond the pole marking the limit of protection or civilization.
  4. that is, two independent states united by a single monarch. A personal union in politics occurs when more than one state acknowledges fidelity to a single monarch. In this case, King Henry VIII of England (and just recently Wales, thus constituting Great Britain) was acknowledged as King of Ireland.
  5. more unified than a personal union, less unified than a political union, states in a real union share some but not all state institutions, the weaker state generally experiencing a reduction in sovereignty.
  6. The Irish Parliamentary Party was heir to the Home Rule movement dating back to 1870. It worked “within the system” and brought forth the succession of Home Rule Bills.
  7. Sinn Fein was formed in 1905. It placed Irish interests at center and advocated passive resistance to Great Britain such as withholding payment of taxes. It was radical, leftist, considered as fringe group with little influence, and used as a brand used by British commentators for anyone not agreeing with mainstream politics.
  8. so called for the appearance of their uniforms, khaki trousers and dark green caps, tunics and belts. Black and Tans evolved as a kind of joke that the appearance reminded one of beagles on a foxhunt.
  9. “Dominion” is an ingenious term of political arts and crafts. It was, in effect, a return to the personal union status of Ireland from 1542 to 1800.
  10. The dail is the legislative assembly. The First Dail established in 1919 was a unicameral parliament. Subsequent parliaments have been bicameral, the Dail Eareann being the lower house and Seanad Earann being the upper house. The Dail Eareann, being directly elected, is the more powerful house in Irish politics.