Ireland’s global revolution: how the struggle for independence went worldwide

Events in Ireland were strongly influenced by the first World War and other world conflicts

How might we best understand – and commemorate – the revolution that occurred in Ireland a century ago? Was it largely determined by events on the island? Or was it shaped more by the wave of unrest which redrew Europe’s borders, and those of other parts of the world, after the first World War?

One striking development in 2016 was the extent to which Irish experiences of war and revolution were seen as interconnected. Long after independence, accounts of Irish participation in the first World War and the Easter Rising existed as parallel narratives, the latter overshadowing the former despite vastly contrasting levels of fatalities. The centenary of the Rising brought much greater awareness of how the wider war presented Irish rebels with the opportunity, rationale and psychological motivation for insurrection, and how Britain's fateful response was driven by broader considerations. As the late Keith Jeffery argued: "As surely as Verdun or the Somme, Dublin in 1916 was a first World War battlefield."

As we embark on commemorating the next phase of the Irish revolution, there is a danger that the narrative will again turn inward. The War of Independence, Maurice Walsh has observed, tends to be interpreted "in a claustrophobic Anglo-Irish setting, with the global war a mere backdrop to the drama in Ireland". The events proposed for State remembrance by the Expert Advisory Group to mark this period, for example, all occurred within Ireland (or the UK). This is hardly surprising. When we consider the War of Independence, we think of such events as the establishment of the First Dáil, the Soloheadbeg ambush and the execution of Kevin Barry. Historians of this era have also been more readily drawn to the local than the global. Since David Fitzpatrick's groundbreaking 1977 study of revolutionary Clare, Politics and Irish Life, 1913-1921, accounts of the War of Independence have often focused on a single county.


Two events currently being commemorated – the 1918 general election and the foundation of the first Dáil in January 1919 – illustrate how the global framed the national in ways that are easily lost sight of. Why did the election take place in December 1918? Why was Sinn Féin so successful? Why did republicans establish a parliament, and why did they believe a small country, lacking military and financial resources, could challenge a superpower that had emerged victorious from the most terrible conflict in history? Much of their thinking was rooted in their understanding of the significance of events beyond Ireland.


Called immediately after the Armistice, the 1918 election was a wartime event, its results delayed until late December to allow soldiers’ ballots to be counted. The massive expansion of the UK electorate, from which Sinn Féin benefited, was a wartime measure. The issue most responsible for Sinn Féin becoming a popular movement – its leadership of the campaign against conscription in April 1918 – was also directly linked to the wider war.

Sinn Féin’s manifesto indicated the importance of world affairs. Four means to secure an Irish republic were identified: abstention; agitation; an Irish parliament; and an appeal “to the Peace Conference for the establishment of Ireland as an Independent Nation”. Republicans essentially appealed for a mandate at home to place their case before the world: “Vote so that president Wilson may have overwhelming proof of Ireland’s demand to be free.” In one respect, this strategy made little sense as the Allies were hardly likely to side – against Britain – with a movement which had identified itself with its “gallant” German allies in 1916. Self-determination, moreover, was intended for the peoples of the defeated Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman empires, rather than those ruled by the winners.


In propaganda terms, though, Sinn Féin's appeal to a Peace Conference which had declared its intention to settle "the future of the Nations of the world . . . on the principle of government by consent of the governed" was astute. Republicans and imperialists alike understood the revolutionary implications of Wilson's Fourteen Points which heralded a new world order determined by the principle of self-determination and international law rather than military might. In the weeks prior to the election, republics had been proclaimed in Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Britain and France had even felt it necessary to affirm (insincerely) that governments should derive "their authority from the initiative and free choice of the indigenous population". In demanding independence, republicans knew that the tide of history was on their side.

To what extent did this underpin rising expectations in Ireland? For many voters, Home Rule seemed a relic of the old pre-war order. Sinn Féin's leaflets highlighted how its demands had already been achieved by other peoples emerging from the wreckage of empire: "Poland free! An object lesson for Ireland. Poland is now sinn féin." Republicans believed that Ireland – with its ancient culture and clearly defined boundaries (unionists were rarely acknowledged) – had a far stronger case than the new republics: "The Czecho-Slovaks are demanding independence. Nobody is quite sure who the Czecho-Slovaks are but the whole world knows who the Irish are."

The establishment of the Dáil on January 21st, 1919 demonstrated that many republicans, at that time, assumed that attaining independence would rest more on politics than violence. "Above all concentrate on the Peace Conference," urged Arthur Griffith, writing from Gloucester Prison two days later. The Declaration of Independence, intended for a global as much as an Irish audience, demanded "the recognition and support of every free nation in the world". Calling "upon every free nation to support the Irish Republic by recognising Ireland's national status and her rights to its vindication at the Peace Congress", the Dáil's Message to the Free Nations of the World was directly addressed to the international community.


Rather than the Poles, though, the position of republicans was more analogous to that of anti-colonial nationalists, such as Ho Chi Minh, who were also excluded from the Peace Conference. With their hopes initially raised – and then dashed – by what Erez Manela described as the "Wilsonian moment", Indian and Egyptian revolutionaries (the countries with which Ireland, internationally, was most frequently compared) embarked on similar campaigns: rejecting offers of limited self-government, agitating at home and abroad, and drawing on Wilsonian rhetoric to articulate longstanding grievances in a drawn-out struggle which eventually led to independence. Recent work by scholars such as David Brundage and Kate O'Malley has recovered the transnational networks linking anti-imperialists with other revolutionary causes, such as female suffrage and racial equality, in post-war metropoles such as London and New York.

An excessive focus on “raids and rallies” over the next two years may obscure how the republican campaign at home was underpinned by a sophisticated effort to mobilise global public and political opinion. The Dáil sent diplomats abroad, while its propagandists skilfully cultivated the international press. Advances in communications saw press reports, photographs and newsreel of Irish atrocities rapidly circulate the globe. Populations of Irish descent were mobilised as never before in Britain, the US, and throughout the dominions to support (or, in the case of loyalists, to subvert) Irish independence. Though he failed to secure diplomatic recognition and divided Irish-American opinion, De Valera’s presence in the US from June 1919 to December 1920 demonstrated the importance attached to American money and political power. Republican publicity constrained the British campaign in Ireland and pressured London to reach a political accommodation.

In other, more subterranean, ways republicans demonstrated global ambition. Founded in America, and spanning the "Irish world", the Irish Republican Brotherhood provided a valuable network. "Our dream is a worldwide organisation," Harry Boland confided to a leading American Fenian, "whereby we can meet the enemy not alone in Ireland but all over the globe. Thus only can Britain be shewn the power of Ireland . . . To Australia, Canada, South Africa, India, Egypt and Moscow our men must go to make common cause against our common foe." Combining physical force, propaganda and political mobilisation, at home and abroad, Irish republicans fashioned a modern template for revolutionary struggle, one that would influence liberation movements over the following century.

Postwar high tide

A global horizon reveals how Sinn Féin’s success in 1918 formed part of the postwar high tide for national self-determination movements. British actions in Ireland, such as the ill-fated decision to form the “Black and Tans” (resulting from concerns about military resources in the Middle East), are also better understood within this wider context which challenges the idea that the UK and its Empire largely escaped post-war instability.

Comparisons with other parts of Europe where the period between 1918 and 1923 saw a continuation, rather than an end, to mass violence, provide useful perspective. The shift from state to ethno-nationalist conflict, as scholars such as Robert Gerwarth and John Horne have noted, produced new forms of paramilitary and communal violence which blurred distinctions between combatants and civilians. Comparisons also allow for consideration of differences. In contrast to the vacuum in central and eastern Europe, British state power ensured that Ireland's revolution was a managed process, greatly limiting its violence, but also frustrating aspirations for full independence.

Globalising the story of Ireland’s revolution provides new perspectives on old questions as well as new themes – such as the importance of debates about race – to explore. Further widening the focus, from the story of the Irish overseas to the global significance of the “Irish question”, allows us to chart how extensively the conflict in Ireland was debated in anti-imperial, labour, suffragist and other international circles. Ultimately, it helps us to see how Ireland’s revolution formed part of a wider moment in world history.

Fearghal McGarry leads the AHRC-funded project, A Global History of Irish Revolution, 1916-1923, based at Queen's University Belfast and the University of Edinburgh. Ireland's Global Revolution will be published by History Ireland in April 2019.