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Exploring the Irish Wars Through Photographs, 1919-1923

Pictured above: Armoured car on Henry Street, Dublin

The War of Independence (1919-1921) and the Irish Civil War (1922-1923)

The aftermath of the First World War saw national borders re-drawn and calls for independence grow around the world. In Ireland, nationalists had rebelled against British rule for centuries, and had recently fought unsuccessfully against the British in the 1916 Rising in Dublin and in isolated pockets in Ireland such as Wexford, Galway and Meath. The execution of the Rising’s leaders and the incarceration of thousands of Irishmen and women strengthened republican feeling across the country. This was further reinforced by the Conscription Crisis of 1918, and the 1918 General Election saw mass support for Sinn Féin candidates who, instead of taking their seat in Westminster in London, formed Dáíl Éireann. This new government of Ireland rejected British authority and declared independence from Britain by establishing counter- government, justice and policing systems.
In 1919 the Irish Volunteers, now known as the Irish Republican Army, resumed their armed struggle with the British forces who were now widely seen as an army of occupation.  Acting as the military arm of the newly-proclaimed Irish government, the IRA embarked on a campaign of harassment and guerrilla activity. However, wars are fought on many different fronts; hunger strike was also a powerful weapon used by Republican prisoners throughout the revolutionary years, and the state executions of republican prisoners sparked protests and labour strikes among the general population. This brought international attention and sympathy for the Irish cause. The British authorities retaliated with brutal force to the developments in Ireland. This war resulted in the deaths of thousands of people; Volunteers, soldiers and police, and civilians.
As the British forces were unable to quell the conflict in Ireland by 1921, the British Prime Minister and the IRA agreed a ceasefire and began negotiations to end the war. The resulting Anglo-Irish Treaty led to the formation of the Irish Free State in 1922, consisting of 26 counties, and a separate six county Northern Ireland which was to remain under British control. It also led to the divisive Irish Civil War (1922-1923), where former comrades fought for different visions of a free and independent Ireland. 

Explore these conflicts through a selection of the collections of the National Museum of Ireland below.

British soldiers patrolling city streets
After the 1916 Rising the Irish Volunteers, now the IRA, faced the difficulty of re-arming themselves for the coming conflict. Shotguns were a common IRA weapon due to their use on farms.
The War of Independence in Ireland took the form of a series of attacks and reprisals. The IRA raided and destroyed hundreds of police barrack buildings during 1920 and 1921, with the aim of taking the barracks’ weapons and intimidating Irish RIC police officers into leaving the service.  In return, the British authorities – now reinforced with Auxiliary forces – carried out reprisal attacks on communities across the countryside, burning and looting towns and destroying the homes and livelihoods of the population and attacking, even killing, indiscriminately. Atrocities were carried out by both sides, and both suffered many casualties.
The Irish War of Independence was fought using different methods.  The elected MPs of the new Dáil established Irish bodies of government, such as courts and police, as a rejection of British rule.  Military actions by both British forces and the IRA were aided by special Intelligence units gathering information through a network of spies and double agents. At the same time both sides fought a Propaganda War; the IRA used images of atrocities against civilians to gain the support of the general population, while the British authorities created and distributed scenes depicting battles won by their forces. Hunger strikes by Irish republican prisoners, as well as their executions, gained worldwide attention and sympathy for the cause of Irish independence. Labour strikes and protests were also a powerful weapon.
During the Civil War, both the Free State and the anti-Treaty IRA took actions they believed to be justified, but which the other side considered to be inexcusable.  The memory of these very personal betrayals divided friends and relatives, and contributed to a long-lasting schism in Irish society, which is only now being healed.
How did men who had fought together for the ideal of a free and independent Ireland come to kill each other? To a great extent the division was between those who had worked with Michael Collins and been influenced by his charismatic personality, and those fighters far from Dublin who had followed other leaders with different views. Few of the IRA commanders in the field supported the treaty, and the majority of rank and file men followed their local commander.
Auxiliaries at Dublin Castle
A Black and Tan in Dublin, smoking and carrying a Lewis gun, February 1921
Dublin slums. 1919
Constance Markievicz was a leader in the fight for Ireland’s independence and a political pioneer. She was the first woman elected to Westminster parliament, and among the first female cabinet ministers in Europe.


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