In 1937, WB Yeats wrote: “Parnell came down the road, he said to a cheering man:/ ‘Ireland shall get her freedom and you still break stone.’” These bleak lines indicate the poet’s scepticism about the value of Irish independence. He is saying that it required more than a political revolution to improve the lot of the ordinary people. His words reflect a disappointment, shared by many, that the achievement of independence had not been accompanied by social revolution.
Some elements of the Irish revolution of 1912-1923 – for instance, the participation of the citizen army in the Easter Rising and the adoption of the democratic programme by the first Dáil in 1919 – had seemed to indicate that there would be a social dimension to the revolution, but it was not to be. For many (and perhaps for Yeats too), that compromised the independence won with so much blood and sacrifice.
However, focusing on the absence of a social revolution in tandem with the political one is to miss an important point. There had been a social revolution in Ireland – though it occurred before the political revolution. The revolution of 1912-1923 was the end of a process of change in Ireland, not the beginning.
The changes had begun with the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1869 – and that was followed by the Ballot Act 1872, which introduced the secret vote and hence strengthened Irish nationalist representation at Westminster.
Then came the Land War, leading eventually, with Wyndham’s Land Act 1903, to the wholesale transfer of the land of Ireland to owner occupation.
In addition, 1898 saw the democratisation of local government in Ireland, and in 1908 the National University was created – and it would provide educational opportunities previously denied to the Catholic elite in Ireland.
All these developments, carried by Liberal and Tory administrations under pressure from the Irish Party at Westminster, changed the social and economic landscape in Ireland. Today, they are overshadowed by the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence.
But the 1916 Rising and the struggle for political independence that followed must be seen as but the tip of the iceberg in a greater Irish revolution spanning the preceding 50 years.
The societal landscape that characterised the new state was in place well before the revolution
The Land War was a critical part of that greater revolution, and the one with the most profound consequences. Traditionally portrayed in our history books as the inevitable consequence of, and response to, a rapacious landlord system, this is no longer regarded as a tenable interpretation of what happened. Historians now tend to see the Land War more as a “revolution of rising expectations” resulting from the determination of tenant farmers to preserve their recent material gains in a period of temporary agricultural crisis.
The social and economic advances enjoyed by the vast majority of the Irish people in the period since 1869 created the circumstances that brought about the revolution.
They had prompted expectations of further advances. Home Rule, as envisaged since 1886, would have been the next step in this process of incremental progress. The aspiration to self-government was, however, frustrated. Expectations were dashed, and revolution ensued.
The revolution did not repudiate the Irish parliamentary tradition. On the contrary, it was played out as much in the arena of constitutional politics as in the violence of 1916 and the War of Independence – with critical byelections in 1917 and 1918, Sinn Féin’s victory in the 1918 general election and the subsequent establishment of Dáil Éireann and its shadow administration to challenge that of Dublin Castle.
Indeed, the fact that the War of Independence was prosecuted under the nominal authority of the first and second Dáils was, and remains, its source of legitimacy. Unlike the Rising, it could claim an electoral mandate.
The Westminster model was the form of political activity that they adopted both during and after the revolution. It is, therefore, a gross exaggeration to suggest that “All changed, changed utterly” in the Irish revolution of 1912-1923. The strong element of continuity evident in the political sphere parallels the failure to effect a social revolution alongside the political one.
The societal landscape that characterised the new state was in place well before the revolution, the result in large measure of the process of change in Ireland that stretched back to 1869.
That landscape was essentially unaffected by the revolution, though ironically the changes that had already occurred helped create the circumstances – the “rising expectations” – that led to revolution.
Felix M Larkin is a former academic director of the Parnell Summer School