Irish Free State


Finally, Ireland's last opportunity was lost of extracting from the World-War emergency any tolerable Home Rule settlement by constitutional methods when, without a protesting word, the Hibernian Party consented to the destruction of the Liberal Home Rule Cabinet placed in power for the express purpose of "giving full self-government to Ireland," and the substitution in its place of a Coalition Cabinet in which Mr. Bonar Law, Sir E. Carson and Mr. F. E. Smith, the versatile English lawyer who trained for the Lord Chancellorship of England as "Galloper" at the Orange rebel reviews, became by far the most potent figures.

The inevitable followed, with the surefootedness of Nemesis. The Irish Republic arose to take up the power which the Irish Parliamentary Party had shamefully misused. The young men of Ireland, long chafing under the spectacle of incapacity in Parliament and venality at home, heard their hour of deliverance from the Hibernian nightmare strike when the World-War proclaimed new and giddy possibilities of Self-Determination for "the small nationalities." In an ecstacy of sacred madness, which makes the best men mad by their contagion, they rose up in the Easter Week of 1916 at the gates of Dublin Castle, and whatever else they failed to do—owing to their cargo of German arms being less fortunate than Sir E. Carson's—brought the degenerate Parliamentary movement once for all to its ignoble ending. England also received the meet reward of her politicians' perfidy. In place of the amiable and all-too modest petitions for peace which the Irish race had spent forty years in tendering, and tendering in vain, to England, the flag of the Irish Republic was frankly run up by the new generation, and in a few years conquered its way to Downing Street.

It was by the stone-blindness of the confederate Liberal and Hibernian Parties the policy of an Irish settlement by consent was baffled throughout the years from 1903 to 1918, in any one of which, had there only been statesmanship at the helm, there might have been achieved a Peace Treaty which would have secured to Ireland all that the Treaty of 1921 gave her, and more, for the victory would have been achieved for an Undivided Ireland, not for a Partitioned Ireland, and it would have been achieved half a generation sooner and at less than one-thousandth part of the cost in blood and treasure. As the stern justice of things would have it, the two powerful Parties responsible for the mischief were, the one and the other, virtually annihilated at the polls in 1918, and the soul of Ireland was saved. With their disappearance stops the special function of this book, which is to elucidate the real causes of the Irish Revolution, and to restore events heretofore utterly distorted and falsified to their true perspective, in the light of waning years. There will be found in its pages documentary records of letters and interviews between the writer and Mr. Lloyd George, Mr. Bonar Law, Sir E. Carson, Sir Henry Duke, Mr. Arthur Griffith, Mr. De Valera, Lord Dunraven, Lord Northcliffe, Mr. William Martin Murphy and others. My communications with Ministers, it will be observed, took place invariably on the initiative of Ministers, and only began after the Rising of Easter Week, when Mr. Lloyd George conceived his first fantastic scheme (never, until now, I think, publicly heard of) for an Irish Provisional Government to be immediately established.

His object in inviting, only at that particular stage, counsels heretofore rejected with the cynicism of the politician who has to choose between the views of a Party of Seven, as opposed to those of a Party of Seventy, was, I am afraid, scarcely to be mistaken. The Party of Seventy had miserably foundered in the storm of Easter Week. The Ministerial hope too obviously was that the respect in which our doctrines were known to be held by a powerful and unpurchaseable section of the young men who had not yet quite gone over to the Republic, and by a considerable section of those who had,[7] might still give me influence enough to patch up some semblance of peace in a country subdued, but far from subjugated, by Martial Law. In this connection, the message from "an influential member of the Cabinet" intimating—"I know so much more than O'B. can know of the North East people. I know how hard and almost impossible it is for them to confer with R. or he with them. O'B. has got very near the Northerns. He, if any one, can bridge the last gap." is, also, not to be lost sight of.

This particular scheme had the brilliancy of all Mr. Lloyd George's improvisations, but it had, too, the defect that rendered most of his brilliant improvisations void—a brilliancy without knowledge. The awakening of the British politicians came too late. The suggestion of a Provisional Government, in which apparently All-for-Irelanders and Ulster Unionists were to act in concert, might at one time have done wonders to produce a united Ireland; but the mad notion of Mr. Healy and myself joining Sir E. Carson and Mr. Redmond, on the morrow of the Insurrection, in a Cabinet founded upon Mr. Redmond's expression of "horror and detestation" of the Insurgents, while their lives were trembling in the balance, and upon Sir E. Carson's offer to cooperate with him in "putting down these rebels for evermore"—the rebels in whose glorious unselfishness we saw the one gleam of hope for the salvation of Ireland from the politicians—was a conception that could only have occurred to the inmate of a padded cell—or to a British Minister addressing himself to Irish affairs. In my second interview with Mr. Lloyd George, at which Sir E. Carson was present, he had already abandoned the March hare he had started; the Provisional Government was no longer mentioned, and my own suggestion of the only emollient policy at that moment practicable was ignored with the old self-complacent fatuity. The reader will be able to study, documents in hand, a good deal of the secret history of the next Irish project of Mr. Lloyd George's fertile brain—his "Irish Convention" of 1917—which seemed to catch at the solution we had been all along advocating, but adopted it only in a form that made its failure unavoidable. The Convention's only real achievement was the downfall of Mr. Redmond and his pathetic death.

So long as there was left the stump of a sword in our hands, we thought it a duty to struggle on, endeavouring to reconcile the Coalition Government to measures of a very different character which, after years of bloody travail, they were destined to submit to, without gratitude from Ireland and without deserving it. Not the least instructive of those communications was my last correspondence with the Prime Minister in July, 1919, when he spurned the all but certain prospect of peace with the most redoubtable of the Insurgent leaders—one under whose feet he was happy enough later on to spread his softest carpets as his visitor in Downing Street. Mr. De Valera more than three years afterwards told me "he had been all along in favour of peace with England, and at one time he could have carried it all right, if Lloyd George placed him in a position to offer the young men a measure of National Independence for the whole country upon some reasonable terms of External Association." Once more ugly shadows obscured the bright lights of Mr. Lloyd George's intellect. The reader will, I am afraid, find it painfully evident that Mr. De Valera's reasonableness at the zenith of his power was despised because the assumption had not yet been flogged out of the British politician mind, that the Irish leader must be already a beaten and broken man when he began to tolerate the notion of an accomodation with England.

The truth is that in neither country had Parliamentarianism in any shape a chance any longer. Once it was made clear that it had become impossible to obtain an official hearing, on either side of the Irish Sea, for remedies whose days of efficacy had passed away, all that remained for us of the All-for-Ireland League to do was to blot ourselves out, unequivocally and entirely, from the controversy in order to leave a freehand to those of a new generation who had resolved to have done with an outworn and decomposing Parliamentarianism altogether. They had already done Ireland three precious services which they alone had the necessary strength to do. It was they who had defeated Conscription; it was they who had dethroned the squalid sham-Catholic Ascendancy which was reducing the National Ideal to something scarcely distinguishable from Orangeism, except that the war-whoop: "To h—— wi' the Pup!" was replaced by the scarcely chaster one of "Up the Mollies!" Better than all, it was they who had delivered Irish public life from conditions in which the price of Partition had been paid to gratify the greed for places, emoluments and titles for which an eminent Irish ecclesiastic and man of letters [8] could find no suaver description than "putrefaction." It was the youth of Ireland, by their purity of purpose, and their all but superhuman readiness—nay, enthusiasm—for death in a holy cause, who had the glory, in a three years' war in which the odds counted a thousand to one against them, of expelling every vestige of English rule from Dublin Castle, and from three-fourths of the country, where the squeezability of Irish politicians and the faithlessness of British ones had made havoc of more moderate demands and gentler methods. In that attitude of unmeddling and uncaptious fairplay towards those upon whose shoulders the burden of the nation's fortunes had now fallen, we have persisted loyally to the last. A history of the romantic war by which the day was gained against Satanic powers and barbarities scarcely to be imagined—gained, it must never be forgotten, with the succour of all that was noblest in the civilization of Britain—must be the work of some younger and more fully-informed pen.

The present narrative stops with the Truce of July 11, 1921. All that has occurred since can only be dispassionately judged whenever the course of the secret negotiations which ended in the signing of the Treaty of Downing Street on the night of December 5-6, 1921, comes to be revealed. But to those who can find nothing but Irish incorrigibility in the tragedies that followed while the merits or demerits of the Treaty were debated in a murderous Civil War between the comrades who had come off victorious over the militarism of aliens, certain observations have to be made, if the lessons taught by this book are not to be neglected anew in the coming time.

The first is: the sins of the Irish Revolution are primarily the sins of those who, in Ireland and in Westminster, made the Revolution a necessity. If bloodshed and chaos lurk in the train of all armed uprisings for Liberty, however nobly planned, of such are the pangs and travail of which nations are born or re-born. The aid of Revolution, once invoked, almost everywhere exacts its penalties in similar, and often incomparably worse, scenes of agony and shame. The United States themselves —the soberest of Revolutionists—did not think four years of a devastating Civil War and the sacrifice of a million of lives an excessive price to pay for their National Unity in what was really a war against Partition. And it may put some check on England's propensity to sermonize her neighbours if she will only remember that her sympathies were with the Partitionist rebels in the American Civil War, as they were, and, I am afraid, are, with the Partitionist rebels of Ulster. She must really not be over-scandalized if the process of casting her out from Ireland has produced agonies in the half-delivered country more acute than when the evil spirit of English rule wholly possessed our nation.

Those of us who have lived long enough to realize that the Absolute of the Idealist can have no existence in this perverse world, will not grudge a large indulgence to negotiators who, in circumstances of cruel difficulty and under pressure of not very creditable threats, acted on the injunction of Cardinal de Retz that the function of a statesman is to make a good choice between grave inconveniences. It would, however, be foolish of people in England, and still more foolish of people in Ireland, to blind their eyes to the fact that there are objections to the Treaty deeper and more likely to endure than those of the visionaries. It is simply not true that the Irish Free State is the embodiment of "Ireland a Nation." The Irish Free State is not a Free State of Ireland at all, but a very different thing. It is only one of two Irish States, and of two States expressly carved out to be hostile States in race and creed. The existence of an Irish Papist was not recognized by law in the Penal Ages. The very name of Ireland as a unit has ceased to exist in law under the Statute which deliberately substitutes "Northern Ireland" and "Southern Ireland" as the legal designations of the two rival States.

We are plied with the consolation that the liberty accorded to Ireland is Canadian Home Rule. Again, it is simply not the truth. The Home Rule of the Irish Free State is what Canadian Home Rule would be, if the province of Quebec were separated from the Dominion, and annexed to France or to the United States, and if, moreover, Canada were subjected to a compulsory Imperial contribution, and aggressively stripped of the right of Secession. England remains in possession of an English Pale richer and more populous than she was able to maintain from the twelfth to the seventeenth century. And for the much advertised "British evacuation of Ireland," England retains within the seas of Ireland an army powerful enough to reoccupy Dublin within a week. The graves of St. Patrick and St. Brigid, and of the last of the High Kings of Ireland—the

Derry of St. Colmcille—the Armagh palaces of the Red Branch Knights of Irish chivalry—the most glorious battlefields of Ireland's history from Blackwater and Benburb to Antrim Fight—the church of the Dungannon Convention—the Cave Hill of Wolfe Tone's United Men—have all become conquered territory and foreign soil.

Affronts like these to the most cherished sentiment of a nation older than any in Europe are not to be got rid of by printing the Northern Ireland and the Southern Ireland of the British Statute Book within sarcastic "quotation marks" in our newspapers. The Treaty is a compromise, and in one respect an all but fatal compromise. Where, in our design, the varied tints of universal Ireland might have been united, rainbow-wise, to form one arch of peace, there are left, in place of one dissentient minority, three new minorities smarting under memories which it may take many years of healing patriotism to render supportable. Within the Six Counties, the Catholic minority already count their martyred dead by the thousand and their ravaged homes by tens of thousands. The Unionist minority in the South, who, had they accepted Home Rule as frankly in 1912 as they have done in 1921, might be figuring by this time amongst the foremost leaders of their countrymen, have been obliged to put up with sufferings of their own which, although immeasurably fewer than those of the Catholics of the North, are none the less cruel and detestable. Pray Heaven that certain abominations of the Civil War of 1922, from the responsibility for which neither side is free, may not finish by creating and perpetuating a Republican Minority still more dangerously discontented! Until some way can be found out of these complexities it would be wicked to flatter England into the delusion that she will not still be pursued and haunted by the disaffection of an Irlanda Irredenta.

For all that, there is no more reassuring proof of the prodigious advances made by the Irish Cause than the difficulty of getting the Republican youth to form a tolerant estimate of the amazing powers and liberties which the Treaty, with all its limitations, does indisputably embody. Its one organic vice is not so much the fault of the Sinn Féin negotiators as of the Hibernian negotiators who preceded them and fettered their hands. It cannot be beyond the compass of an enlightened patriotism to find a happy solution of these difficulties within the country and between the two countries, and that not by the rude hand of armed Revolution, but by unwearying good humour and by a magnanimity towards minorities that will take no rebuffs.

But three things seem to my poor vision to be essential things: (1) The old "loyalist" minority, inside and outside the Six Counties, must have their apprehensions allayed in that spirit of conciliatory tenderness, allied with quiet firmness of purpose, of which the nominations to the Free State Senate have given a substantial guarantee. (2) Love of Ireland must not be confounded with an insane hatred of England—the England of actual life. There must be a generous recognition of the extent to which the masses of the British people have come to a deep heart on the subject of their relations with Ireland. Self-interest, no less than our finer instincts, counsels us to understand and appreciate the supreme fact that nothing short of some intolerable aggression on our own part will henceforth tempt the honest common people of Britain to undertake the armed reconquest of Ireland. (3) Before and above every other consideration whatsoever, I would place the condition that means must be found of reconciling and restoring good comradeship among those portions of the two armies of the Civil War who were comrades in a nobler war up to the Truce of July 11, 1921. Nobody is more acutely sensible than I how trying to their elders often enough are those Republican youngsters who, in their passionate devotion to the soul of Ireland, are apt to forget that there is also a body of Ireland which has some rights in the partnership. It is Tourguénief's everlasting incompatibility of "Fathers and Sons"—of the greyheads who cannot help knowing and the adolescents who need nothing but faith in their own bright imaginings. Nevertheless, fortunate is the nation the worst reproach of whose youth is the excess of spirituality and self-renunciation which impelled them, in the face of a terrorism that made the strong men stagger, to pluck up the Irish Cause out of the pit of corruption and disaster into which the "Constitutional" politicians, Irish and British, had sunk it. Unnatural, indeed, would be the Irishman who would not suffer injuries at their hands in silence—who would not extend an infinite indulgence even to their unreason—rather than find any comfort in seeing the young founders of our liberties hunted down and put to death, or traduced as the scum of the earth, by their own ungrateful countrymen.

It is too soon to say more with any confidence, excepting this: Amidst the gloom which hangs over our country as heavily as a funeral pall, while these pages are written, there shines forth one consolation of immortal efficacy—we can never permanently lose anything we have won (and we have won many and marvellous things); and whatever remains will of a certainty be added unto us—it may be through the mediation of the League of Nations, to whose council board Ireland will now have free access—not, in any case, we may pray, through any new recourse to the barbarities of armed Revolution, but through the wise exercise of the powers which the Revolution was needed in order to place within our reach. For which reason, however our hearts are saddened by the smoking monuments all around us of the existing war of fratricides, the story of the earlier and united struggle of the pre-Truce days will for centuries still in the womb of time kindle in the soul of Ireland a pride in her young men and an unconquerable faith that what they did highly and holily then, they will be found capable of doing again at need, so long as the ocean breaks against our irremovable landmarks as a Nation.

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The Irish Revolution

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William O'Brien was a County Cork M.P. who participated in the negotiations for Home Rule in Ireland. In this account, first published in 1923, he provides an insight into the politics and politicians of the time - John Redmond, John Dillon, Arthur Griffith, Sir Edward Carson, Bonar Law, Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, etc. - and gives his analysis of the origins of the Easter Rising of 1916 and the subsequent Irish Civil War. From his own perspective, O'Brien was very much anti-Partition, and was evidently frustrated at the failure to give adequate reassurance to the Northern Unionists.

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