British Rule’s Last Stages, What The Elections Meant.
We have seen how in ancient Ireland the people were themselves the guardians of their land, doing all for themselves according to their own laws and customs, as interpreted by the Brehons, which gave them security, prosperity, and national greatness, and how this was upset by the English determination to blot out Irish ways, when came poverty, demoralisation and a false respect for English standards and habits.
The English power to do this rested on military occupation and on economic control. It had the added advantage of social influence operating upon a people weakened and demoralised by the state of dependence into which the English occupation had brought them. Military resistance was attempted. Parliamentary strategy was tried. The attempts did not succeed. They failed because they did not go to the root of the question. The real cure had to be started—that the people should recover belief in their own ways and ideas and put them into practice.
Secret societies were formed and organised. The Land League came into existence. The Gaelic League came. Sinn Féin grew and developed. All these societies did much. But the effort had to be broadened into a national movement to become irresistible. It became irresistible in the Republican movement when it was backed by sufficient military force to prevent the English forces from suppressing the national revival.
The challenge of Easter Week and its sacrifices increased the growing national self-belief. All these things made a resistance against which the English, with their superior forces, pitted themselves in vain. Ireland’s story from 1918 to 1921 may be summed up as the story of a struggle between our determination to govern ourselves and to get rid of British government and the British determination to prevent us from doing either.
It was a struggle between two rival Governments, the one an Irish Government resting on the will of the people and the other an alien Government depending for its existence upon military force—the one gathering more and more authority, the other steadily losing ground and growing ever more desperate and unscrupulous.
All the history of the three years must be read in the light of that fact. Ireland had never acquiesced in government by England. Gone for ever were policies which were a tacit admission that a foreign Government could bestow freedom, or a measure of freedom, upon a nation which had never surrendered its national claim. We could take our freedom. We would set up a Government of our own and defend it. We would take the government out of the hands of the foreigner, who had no right to it, and who could exercise it only by force.
A war was being waged by England and her Allies in defence, it was said, of the freedom of small nationalities, to establish in such nations ‘the reign of law based upon the consent of the governed’. We, too, proposed to establish in Ireland ‘the reign of law based upon the consent of the governed’. At the General Election of 1918 the Irish Parliamentary Party was repudiated by the Irish people by a majority of over 70 per cent. And they gave authority to their representatives to establish a National Government.
The National Government was set up in face of great difficulties. Dáil Éireann came into being. British law was gradually superseded. Sinn Féin Courts were set up. Commissions were appointed to investigate and report upon the national resources of the country with a view to industrial revival. Land courts were established which settled long-standing disputes. Volunteer police were enrolled. (They were real police, to protect life and property, not military police and police spies to act with an enemy in attacks upon both.) A loan of £400,000 was raised. The local governing bodies of the country were directed, inspected, and controlled by Dáil Éireann. We established a bank to finance societies which wished to acquire land. But these facts must be concealed.
At first the British were content to ridicule the new Government. Then, growing alarmed at its increasing authority, attempts were made to check its activities by wholesale political arrests. The final phase of the struggle had begun. In the first two years all violence was the work of the British armed forces who in their efforts at suppression murdered fifteen Irishmen and wounded nearly 400 men, women, and children.
Meetings were broken up everywhere. National newspapers were suppressed. Over 1,000 men and women were arrested for political offences, usually of the most trivial nature. Seventy-seven of the national leaders were deported. No police were killed during these two years. The only disorder and bloodshed were the work of the British forces. These forces were kept here or sent here by the British Government to harass the development of Irish self-government.
They were intended to break up the national organisation. They were intended to goad the people into armed resistance. Then they would have the excuse which they hoped for. Then they could use wholesale violence, and end up by the suppression of the national movement. But they did not succeed. In the municipal elections in January, 1920, the people answered afresh.
In the rural elections in May and June, 1920, the people repeated their answer. The people supported their leaders and their policy by even larger majorities than the majorities given by the election in November, 1918. The British Government now decided that a greater effort was needed. The moment had come for a final desperate campaign.
The leading London newspaper, The Times, declared in a leading article of November 1st, 1920, that it was ‘now generally admitted’ that a deliberate policy of violence had been ‘conceived and sanctioned in advance by an influential section of the Cabinet’. But to admit such a policy was impossible. It was necessary to conceal the real object of the Reign of Terror, for the destruction of the national movement, which was about to begin.
First, the ground had to be prepared. In August, 1920, a law was passed ‘to restore law and order in Ireland’. This law in reality abolished all law in Ireland, and left the lives and property of the people defenceless before the British forces. It facilitated and protected—and was designed to facilitate and protect—those forces in the task they were about to undertake. Coroners’ inquests were prohibited, so that no inquiry could be made into the acts of violence contemplated. National newspapers, that could not be trusted to conceal the facts and to publish only supplied information, were suppressed. Newspaper correspondents were threatened.
The ground prepared, special instruments had to be selected. ‘It is’, said the London Times, ‘common knowledge that the Black and Tans were recruited from ex-soldiers for a rough and dangerous task’. This ‘rough and dangerous task’, which had been ‘conceived and sanctioned’ by the British Cabinet, was to be carried out under three headings.
Certain leading men, and Irish Army officers, were to be murdered, their names being entered on a list ‘for definite clearance’. All who worked for or supported the national movement were to be imprisoned, and the general population was to be terrorised into submission.
A special newspaper, The Weekly Summary, was circulated amongst the Crownage to encourage them in their ‘rough and dangerous task’. As an indication of its intention it invited them in an early number ‘to make an appropriate hell’ in Ireland. Excuses, for the purpose of concealment, had to be invented.
The public had to be prepared for the coming campaign. Mr. Lloyd George in a speech in Carnarvon, October 7, 1920, spoke of the Irish Republican Army as ‘a real murder gang’. We began to hear of ‘steps necessary to put down a murderous conspiracy’. ‘We have got murder by the throat’, said Mr. Lloyd George. The murders were the legitimate acts of self-defence which had been forced upon the Irish people by English aggression.
After two years of forbearance, we had begun to defend ourselves and the life of our nation. We did not initiate the war, nor were we allowed to select the battleground. When the British Government, as far as lay in its power, deprived the Irish people of arms, and employed every means to prevent them securing arms, and made it a criminal (in large areas a capital) offence to carry arms, and, at the same time, began and carried out a brutal and murderous campaign against them and against their National Government, they deprived themselves of any excuse for their violence and of any cause of complaint against the Irish people for the means they took for their protection.
For all the acts of violence committed in Ireland from 1916 to 1921 England, and England alone, is responsible. She willed the conflict and fixed the form it was to take. On the Irish side it took the form of disarming the attackers. We took their arms and attacked their strongholds. We organised our army and met the armed patrols and military expeditions which were sent against us in the only possible way. We met them by an organised and bold guerrilla warfare.
But this was not enough. If we were to stand up against the powerful military organisation arrayed against us something more was necessary than a guerrilla war in which small bands of our warriors, aided by their knowledge of the country, attacked the larger forces of the enemy and reduced their numbers. England could always reinforce her army.
She could replace every soldier that she lost. But there were others indispensable for her purposes which were not so easily replaced. To paralyse the British machine it was necessary to strike at individuals. Without her spies England was helpless. It was only by means of their accumulated and accumulating knowledge that the British machine could operate.
Without their police throughout the country, how could they find the men they wanted? Without their criminal agents in the capital, how could they carry out that removal of the leaders that they considered essential for their victory? Spies are not so ready to step into the shoes of their departed confederates as are soldiers to fill up the front line in honourable battle. And even when the new spy stepped into the shoes of the old one, he could not step into the old one’s knowledge.
The most potent of these spies were Irishmen enlisted in the British service and drawn from the small farmer and labourer class. Well might every Irishman at present ask himself if we were doing a wrong thing in getting rid of the system which was responsible for bringing these men into the ranks of the opponents of their own race. We struck at individuals, and by so doing we cut their lines of communication and we shook their morale. And we conducted the conflict, difficult as it was, with the unequal terms imposed by the enemy, as far as possible, according to the rules of war.
Only the British Government were attacked. Prisoners of war were treated honourably and considerately, and were released after they had been disarmed. On the English side they waged a sort of war, but did not respect the laws and usages of war. When our soldiers fell into their hands they were murderers, to be dealt with by the bullet or the rope of the hangman. They were dealt with mostly by the bullet. Strangely enough, when it became law that prisoners attempting to escape should be shot, a considerable larger number of our prisoners attempted to escape than when the greatest penalty to be expected was recapture.
The fact was that when the men whose names were upon the list were identified at once, they were shot at once. When they were identified during a raid, they were taken away and shot while attempting to escape. Or they were brought to Dublin Castle or other place of detention and questioned under torture, and on refusing to give information were murdered because they revolted, seized arms, and attacked their guards. For these murders no members of the British forces were brought to justice.
The perpetrators were but enforcing the law—restoring law and order in Ireland. No matter now damaging the evidence, the prisoners were invariably acquitted. Necessarily so. They were but carrying out the duties which they had been specially hired at a very high rate of pay to execute.
To excuse the terrible campaign, the world began to hear of reprisals, the natural outbreaks of the rank and file, A campaign which could no longer be concealed had to be excused—a campaign in which sons were murdered before the eyes of their mothers—in which fathers were threatened with death and done to death because they would not tell the whereabouts of their sons—in which men were made to crawl along the streets, and were taken and stripped and flogged, and sent back naked to their homes—in which towns and villages and homes were burned, and women and children left shivering in the fields.
Excuses were necessary for such deeds, and we began to hear of some hitting back by the gallant men who are doing their duty in Ireland. The London Westminster Gazette of October 27, 1920, published a message from their own correspondent at Cork which gives an instance of the way in which these gallant men performed their duty:
‘A motor lorry of uniformed men, with blackened faces, arrived in Lixane from the Ballybunion district. Before entering the village they pulled up at the house of a farmer named Patrick McElligott. His two sons were pulled outside the door in night attire in a downpour of rain, cruelly beaten with the butt ends of rifles and kicked. The party then proceeded to the house of a young man named Stephen Grady, where they broke in the door. Grady escaped in his night attire through the back window. Searchlights were turned on him, but he made good his escape through the fields. His assistant, named Nolan, was knocked unconscious on the floor with a rifle, and subsequently brought outside the door almost nude and a tub of water poured over him. The party then broke into the room where Miss Grady and her mother were sleeping, pulled Miss Grady out on the road and cut her hair’.
The account tells of the burning of the creamery and of further escapades of the gallant men on their return through the village.
An instance symbolic of the fight, of the devotion and self- sacrifice on the one side, and the brutish insensibility on the other, was the murder on October 25, 1920, of young Willie Gleeson, of Finaghy, Co. Tipperary. Officers of the British Army Intelligence Staff raided the house of his father, looking for another of his sons.
Hearing his father threatened with death if he would not (or could not) disclose where his son was, Willie came from his bed and offered himself in place of his father. The offer was accepted, and he was taken out into the yard and shot dead. On the same night the same party (presumably) murdered Michael Ryan, of Curraghduff, Co. Tipperary, in the presence of his sister. Ryan was lying ill in bed with pneumonia and the sister described the scene in which one officer held a candle over the bed to give better light to his comrade in carrying out the deed.
Such reprisals could not be explained as a severe hitting back, and a new excuse was forthcoming. They were suggested as a just retribution falling upon murderers. Mr. Lloyd George was ‘firmly convinced that the men who are suffering in Ireland are the men who are engaged in a murderous conspiracy’. At the London Guildhall he announced that the police were ‘getting the right men’.
As it became more and more difficult to conceal the truth the plea of unpremeditation was dropped, and the violence was explained as legitimate acts of self- defence. But when the Terror, growing evermore violent, and, consequently, ever more ineffective, failed to break the spirit of the Irish people—failed as it was bound to fail—concealment was no longer possible, and the true explanation was blurted out when Mr. Lloyd George and Mr. Bonar Law declared that their acts were necessary to destroy the authority of the Irish National Government which ‘has all the symbols and all the realities of government’.
When such a moment had been reached, there was only one course left open for the British Prime Minister—to invite the Irish leaders, the murderers, and heads of the murder gang to discuss with him terms of peace. The invitation was:
‘To discuss terms of peace—to ascertain how the association of Ireland with the community of nations known as the British Empire may best be reconciled with Irish national aspirations’.
We all accepted that invitation.