War of Independence seen as Catholic war on Protestants
Rite & Reason: Nationalist Ireland almost universally condemned the Soloheadbeg killings as murder
The site of the Soloheadbeg ambush, which started a chain of events that brought about not just one but three civil conflicts that were fought primarily between Irish people. Photograph: Ronan McGreevy
On January 21, 1919, the Sinn Féin MPs elected to Parliament in 1918 implemented a policy of abstention from Westminster and met as Dáil Éireann, affirming the Republic proclaimed in Easter week 1916.
In light of current political challenges, what is the historical significance of those events?
Since 1922, nationalists have despised as insignificant the Home Rule won by the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP). Yet the passing of the 1912 Home Rule Bill was constitutionally revolutionary for imperialist Britain, and catastrophically revolutionary in Irish unionist eyes.
It was revolutionary in another way: with self-government finally extracted from Britain, the primary historic project or challenge in Ireland shifted to the problem of building a political community that could govern itself.
Recognising this shift did not – and still has not – come easily. The coming of the Ulster Volunteers in 1912 and the Irish Volunteers in 1913, followed in 1914 by each side arming itself, presaged civil war, not self-government.
Reluctantly recognising the challenge, IPP leaders like John Redmond and John Dillon started to talk to unionists. But their delicate bridge-building was swept away by the first World War, leading to the Easter Rising, the rise of Sinn Féin, and the Irish Volunteers’ desire for war.
The events of January 21st, 1919, represent a decisive nationalist refusal of the challenge.
The inauguration of the Dáil could have been a positive event, if those at it had proceeded in a spirit of realism. But as Ernest Blythe (elected TD for North Monaghan in December 1918, and minister for finance from 1923 to 1932) remarked, it started by pretending that an all-Ireland Republic actually existed and that the Ulster unionists did not exist.
Both involve refusal to face the challenge.
More serious was Sinn Féin’s abstention policy, since it allowed British governments to decide Irish policy without nationalist input. The abstention policy also led nowhere: sooner or later there would have to be negotiations with Westminster.
Far more destructive in relation to the self-government challenge was the Soloheadbeg ambush. It started a chain of events that brought not just one but three civil conflicts. These were fought primarily between Irish people: Protestants and unionists vs Catholics and nationalists in Belfast, the Bandon valley and elsewhere; Sinn Féin and the IRA vs a nationalist “establishment” of the IPP and the RIC; and, eventually, the Civil War over the Treaty.
At Soloheadbeg, Seán Treacy and Dan Breen knew that they were killing other Irishmen. Their war was aimed at destroying, not just the RIC (most of whose members were nationalists), but the Home Rule political groups and the government system that was intended for transfer to a Home Rule administration.
From 1916 on, republicans saw the Home Rulers, the “Castle Catholics”, the RIC, and all those who thought Britain and Ireland had certain common interests, as the real enemy. In the words of one: “Better martial law and [General] Maxwell” (who approved execution of the 1916 leaders).
Their thinking had been shaped by Pádraig Pearse and the journalist D P Moran, who castigated Home Rulers as degenerate Irish people, corrupted by British culture and parliamentary politics.
Nationalist Ireland almost universally condemned the Soloheadbeg killings as murder. But the Volunteers did not see themselves as answerable to any higher authority (such as the Dáil). Nor did Volunteer GHQ in Dublin change course.
Years later, Richard Mulcahy, IRA chief of staff during the War of Independence, acknowledged that the GHQ’s policy was to accustom the people to violence.
To Protestant-unionist eyes, a nationalist War of Independence was in practice a Catholic war on Protestants: so it was in the 1970s, so it was in 1920.
In the North, the two conflicts blurred into each other, with southern republicans oblivious of this fact. Not until the 1973 Sunningdale Agreement did southern nationalist politicians begin to accept the challenge.
Faced with the threats of Brexit and a faltering power-sharing in the North, we have no choice but to “confront” our past, as Hannah Arendt once put it. Leaving the dead to bury their dead, the living need to choose what in the past is serviceable for the current challenge of building a new Irish political community.
What happened on January 21st, 1919*, was retrograde in relation to that challenge. It is time to recognise that fact.
Fr Séamus Murphy is an Irish Jesuit and professor of philosophy at Loyola University, Chicago, US
*Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly referred to 2019 rather than 1919