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From a global conflict to a war of independence

This interactive introduction presents the period which led to the Irish independence in 1922. You can dig deeper into several of the themes through the numerous online resources available: articles, archive photos and videos, radio podcasts...


From a global conflict to a war of independence

On 21 January 1919, the first shots of the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921) echoed in the corridors of Westminster. In the aftermath of the Armistice, the British government had observed, with much concern, the growing political unrest brewing in Ireland. During the First World War, when 134,000 volunteers had joined the British Army, Ireland had experienced a short-lived insurrection in April 1916, the gradual collapse of the Irish Parliamentary Party during the four by-elections in 1917, along with a series of political blunders by the British government. All this had rapidly inflamed nationalist Ireland and paved the way for the political accession of the republican party, Sinn Féin. During the December 1918 General Elections, Sinn Féin secured 73 out of the 105 seats across Ireland. Bolstered by their victory, the newly-elected MPs refused to sit at Westminster, gathered to proclaim the independence of their nation and to form the first democratically elected Irish assembly, Dáil Éireann, on 21 January 1919.

First assembly of the Dáil Éireann, 21 January 1919
First assembly of the Dáil Éireann, 21 January 1919

© National Library of Ireland

Destroyed RIC barracks at Ballytrain, County Antrim, captured and sacked by the IRA on 14 February 1920
Destroyed RIC barracks at Ballytrain, County Antrim, captured and sacked by the IRA on 14 February 1920

© National Library of Ireland

Shootings and intimidations

In order to militarily defeat the British Army, the Irish Republican Army (IRA), a paramilitary organisation, was raised. Approximately 115,500 citizens belonged to the IRA, even though it is generally argued that only about 15,000 took an active part in the armed struggle. But in 1919, the republicans constituted an inexperienced army. Training was an absolute necessity. Some Irish veterans of the Great War were a valuable contribution to the number of instructors and proved to be significant assets to the IRA for conducting military operations against British forces. Between 1919 and 1921, republican brigades inflicted heavy losses on the British authorities in Ireland. In May 1920 alone, the IRA murdered 182 policemen and 50 soldiers. Several district inspectors such as Philipp Kelleher (County Longford) were murdered on active service. Republicans restlessly threatened, hunted down and shot down policemen and British soldiers. Soldiers were attacked on the streets, barracks were raided and bombed. Between May and July 1920, 566 members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) gave their resignation.

Harassment, ostracism and retaliation

During the War of Independence, any perceived or actual loyalty to the British Crown turned civilians into potential targets for the IRA. In order to effectively ostracise British troops and policemen, republicans needed to compel local populations to turn their backs on any representative of British rule in Ireland. This was intended to dissuade people from maintaining contacts with the authorities. Two local girls in Ballinfull (County Sligo) had their hair cut by republican activists in 1921 for having talked to the police. Edward Thompson gave assistance to the RIC in Ballinasloe (County Galway) and was taken prisoner for three days by armed men before being released. Any contact with the police was enough for any civilian to be considered a potential collaborator, which is exactly what happened to Laurence Ryan. The ex-serviceman was kidnapped twice by armed men on 24 and 26 July 1920. His crime: to have spoken to the police. Incongruous, though by no means insignificant, offences could have a severe impact on people’s lives. Women were shaved, boys shot dead publicly in the streets, men kidnapped and tortured. In addition, families loyal to the British government were harassed in their hundreds and forced to flee to the north of Ireland, Great Britain, the British dominions or the United States.

One of the Rolls-Royce armoured cars used during the Irish War of Independence, 1920
One of the Rolls-Royce armoured cars used during the Irish War of Independence, 1920

© National Library of Ireland

Three Black and Tans patrolling the streets of Dublin, 1920
Three Black and Tans patrolling the streets of Dublin, 1920

© National Library of Ireland

Lawlessness and British rule

In July 1920, when it became necessary to devise a policy for countering the effectiveness of the IRA guerrilla attacks, the British government decided to raise a police force entirely composed of British WWI ex-servicemen and officers

The Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries were political responses to the issue of unemployment among British veterans, while at the same time making use of the military skills of ex-servicemen in order to defeat the IRA once and for all.

Random killings were a feature of the Irish Revolution and both sides were held accountable for atrocities and crimes against civilians. Nonetheless, the outrageous acts of murder and robbery perpetrated by the new intake of British soldiers particularly appalled the civilian population. For instance, on 11 December 1920, a group of Auxiliaries and Black and Tans attacked, beat, and tortured Nicholas Prendergast in Fermoy (County Cork). His body was then dragged along the road before being thrown into the river. Local authorities and communities unanimously condemned the lawlessness and violence of British forces arguing that they were irrevocably tarnishing the image of the British Empire. A few days later, in Cork City, in retaliation for an IRA ambush, one Auxiliary patrol set fire to several buildings, which resulted in the burning of the city-centre of Ireland’s third-biggest city.

The burning of Cork: two of the main streets in the business district after the fire, 13 December 1920
The burning of Cork: two of the main streets in the business district after the fire, 13 December 1920

© National Library of Ireland

Cork was renamed the Irish Louvain, in reference to the Belgian city destroyed by the German army in August 1914
Cork was renamed the Irish Louvain, in reference to the Belgian city destroyed by the German army in August 1914

© National Library of Ireland

Diplomacy and political expectations 

While the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921) is usually regarded as an Anglo-Irish conflict, it is worth noting that Dáil Éireann sought to conduct sustained negotiations with world powers in order to succeed in having Ireland recognised as an independent nation. It would be wrong to assume that the fight for Irish independence was merely conducted from a military point of view. An Irish delegation was sent to Paris in February 1919. Seán T. Ó Ceallaigh and George Gavan Duffy were tasked with approaching George Clemenceau, President of the Paris Peace Conference, and convincing the French government to allow Ireland to have a seat at the Peace Conference. In the climate marked by the insistent invocation of the principle of self-determination, fuelled by Woodrow Wilson’s post-war internationalism, the Irish hoped to achieve full independence through international recognition. However, Clemenceau never consented to receive the Irish delegation, knowing perfectly well that it would infuriate the British government. When it appeared clear that nothing would be achieved in Paris, Éamon de Valera (President of Dáil Éireann) left for the United States in June 1919 and toured the country to gather support from Irish-Americans. This did not change much as the Treaty of Versailles included no reference to Irish sovereignty or even autonomy. All this contributed to the idea that the battle had to be fought on Irish soil, and the operations of the IRA precipitated an unprecedented scale of political violence. 

Seán T. Ó Ceallaigh (O'Kelly), Mary Kate O'Kelly (née Ryan), and Harry Boland at Kingsbridge Station en route to Paris, 1919
Seán T. Ó Ceallaigh (O'Kelly), Mary Kate O'Kelly (née Ryan), and Harry Boland at Kingsbridge Station en route to Paris, 1919

© National Library of Ireland

Online exhibition From Turmoil to Truce by the National Library of Ireland
Online exhibition From Turmoil to Truce by the National Library of Ireland

Truce, bitter divisions, and the road to the Civil War

In July 1921, after months of intense fighting and as losses mounted on both sides, the British government and Dáil Éireann, the Irish parliament, agreed to a truce. When both sides signed the truce, Northern Ireland had already been established as a single entity, following the 1920 Government of Ireland Act. Six of the nine counties of Ulster were separated from the rest of the island and formed an autonomous government in June 1921, pledging allegiance to the British Crown and determined to avoid at all costs the establishment of an independent Ireland. Partition had been enacted and nothing would compel Northern Ireland to belong to what would soon become the Irish Free State. After several weeks of bitterly disputed negotiations, in December 1921 Michael Collins signed the controversial Anglo-Irish Treaty which was then presented to Dáil Éireann for ratification

Even though the Treaty endorsed partition with Northern Ireland and maintained the pledge of allegiance to the British monarch, it did offer a way out of the impasse of war against the British. It gave the 26 southern (largely nationalist) counties the status of a dominion within the British Empire. Accepting or refusing the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty resulted in acrimonious confrontation between radical and moderate republicans. On 7 January 1922, the Treaty was ratified by 64 votes against 57. Staunch republicans categorically rejected the agreements signed with the British, repudiating the right of Dáil Éireann to accept any treaty that did not match the expectations of the War of Independence. As the newly founded Irish Free State gradually took over from the old British administration, republicans split over the Anglo-Irish Treaty. It was a matter of months before Civil War broke out.


Scientific direction: Dr Emmanuel Destenay, Fellow of the Royal Historical Society


The Médiathèque offers a wide selection of additional resources on the subject: the collection is available in free access and open to all (Mon-Fri: 2pm-6pm, until 8pm on Wednesdays).