The Organizations Involved in Easter Rising and the Anglo-Irish War

The Anglo-Irish conflict, like many asymmetrical conflicts, can be confusing because of the vast amount of people and organizations involved. I have often wished there was a simple chart that I could refer to as I am reading about the conflict, so I made my own.

The first chart is of the various political and military organizations that were key players in the events leading up to Easter Rising. I did not include the many cultural organizations, like the Gaelic leagues, for clarity purposes, even though they played a pivotal role in fostering nationalistic feelings.

Organizations Involved with 1916

Starting from left to right, the organizations are broken into three groups: the Ulster Volunteers, the four groups that would make the Army of the Irish Republic, and the Irish political parties (I excluded the British parties since I wanted to focus on the Irish organizations that led up to Easter Rising and the Anglo-Irish War. Although it should be noted that Britain’s greatest contribution towards eventually revolutionary was denying Ireland Home Rule for the third time)

The Ulster Volunteers were created by James Craig and Edward Carson in response to the third attempt at passing Home Rule through British Parliament. Home Rule would have created a bicameral Irish Parliament to be created in Dublin, the abolition of Dublin Castle (the center of British power in Ireland), and continuing to allow a portion of Irish MPs would sit in Parliament. It was supported by many nationalists in Ireland, but despised by the Unionists, especially those concentrated in the North. James Craig created the Ulster Volunteers to ‘protect’ Unionists and their source of power within the British Empire. While there is some disagreement as to how prepared the Unionists were for military engagement, they were able to create the impression that they were well-armed, well-trained, and would revolt and go after nationalists and Catholics, should Britain pass Home Rule.

The Irish Volunteers were created by Nationalists to counter the Ulster Volunteers. Their members were pulled from the Gaelic Leagues, the Irish Parliamentary Party, the secret society the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and the various groups that were uniting to make Sinn Fein. The Volunteers were created and led by Eoin McNeill and Bulmer Hobson. They trained and drilled for combat and run a number of gun running mission (the most famous being Howerth led by Erskine Childers). McNeill and Hobson believed in creating a force to protect their own communities but were dubious of a major uprising. They wanted to believe that John Redmond could convince Britain to pass Home Rule. Then Archduke Ferdinand was shot, and Britain put the Home Rule Bill on hold indefinitely.

Within the Irish Volunteers was the secret society the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). Originally created in 1858 by James Stephens, it was meant to be a nameless secret society dedicated to earning Irish freedom purely through physical force. It passed a constitution in 1873 and adopted the IRB as its official name, although many of its members were known as Fenians. It’s sister organization in the United States was the Clan na Gael. It survived with limited success through the tumultuous years between 1873 and 1916, eventually being resurrected by Tom Clarke and Sean Mac Diarmada (McDermott). This secret society within the Irish Volunteers believed in taking advantage of Britain’s involvement in the First World War to lead a mass insurrection, making an alliance with Germany in the process. McNeill disagreed with this idea and the IRB continued without him, icing him and Hobson out of their plans for Easter Rising.

Cumann na mBan was founded by a group of Irish women who wanted to help fight for Irish independence. Agnes O’Farrelly was the first president and, like the IRB, the organization believed in using physical force to achieve Irish independence. In 1916, Cumann na mBan would be an auxiliary group of the Irish Volunteers and many of its members served in Easter Rising (one of its most famous members being Constance Markievicz).

The Irish Citizen Army was a paramilitary group created by James Connolly, James Larkin, and Jack White to fight for worker rights. Connolly believed that republicanism and nationalism was useless if it didn’t center the worker. Created after the great strike of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, also known as the Lockout of 1913, the organization transformed itself in 1914 into an organization that was prepared for the long fight. Connolly was skeptical of the Irish Volunteers until he met Irish Volunteer and IRB member, Padraig Pearse, who told him about their plans for Easter Rising. Connolly and his second in commands Michael Mallin, and Constance Markievicz would provide a steady and quasi-military presence to the Rising. Even Michael Collins admitted that during the Rising he would have gladly followed Connolly into Hell but would have to think about it if Pearse asked.

The Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) was created by Isaac Butt and came out of the Home Rule League (which was one of the first parties to argue for Home Rule from 1873-1882). It reached its zenith under the leadership of Charles Stewart Parnell (who had a close relationship with Britain’s PM William Gladstone) and came close to achieving Home Rule, but Parnell was destroyed by a political scandal and the Irish Parliamentary Party struggled to recover. It was revigorated by John Redmond, who told his constituents that he and the Asquith Government had an understanding and were close to passing Home Rule. However, between Asquith’s own disdain for the IPP and the idea of Home Rule and the pressure from the Ulster Volunteers, Redmond’s hopes were either misplaced or delusional. The First World War was the exact excuse Asquith needed to put Home Rule on hold indefinitely. That combined with Redmond urging for Irish men to enlist and fight for Britain, killed Redmond’s political future and weakened the IPP to the point that Sinn Fein could rise and threaten to take its place within Irish politics.

Sinn Fein was a political party created by the merging of Cumman na nGaedheal, a group created by Arthur Griffith to unite Irish politics under one party, the National Council created by Maud Gonne for the exact same reason, and the Dungannon Clubs created by Bulmer Hobson. Sinn Fein did not believe in acknowledging British Parliament as legitimate within Ireland, so, even though they took seats from IPP during elections, they never sat in Westminster. While this made sense in principle, Ronan Fanning makes a convincing argument that it hurt the Irish people in the long run because IPP’s representation in Parliament was shrinking, by the Ulster Unionist Party was strong and could make Unionist’s concerns heard. Sinn Fein did not know about Easter Rising and had only minimum connections with the Irish Volunteers/IRB. However, that wouldn’t prevent the British from blaming them for the uprising or calling it the Fenian Uprising.

The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) was formally created in 1905 with a constitution, although its existence can be traced back to the 1880s-the same time Gladstone first introduced the concept of Home Rule. In the 1910s, it was led by Edward Carson, who, along with James Craig and the Ulster Volunteers, fought long and hard against Home Rule, holding Asquith’s government ‘hostage’ as they threatened an uprising should the Home Rule Bill pass. However, as Ronan Fanning argues, this really played into Asquith’s and then Lloyd George’s hands as they didn’t want to pass the Home Rule bill either.

The second chart is of the organizations involved with the Anglo-Irish War and the Civil war (1919-1923).

Organizations involved with Anglo-Irish War

As can be seen, nothing really changed in North Ireland after 1916 in terms of organizations. Craig and Carson worked hard to ensure Home Rule would stay dead and Lloyd George all but agreed that should there ever be a time when the Irish Question had to be reconidered, North Ireland would be treated separately from the rest of the Ireland.

After Easter Rising, the Irish Volunteers were either executed or sent to various prisons (rebel universities). When they were released, they refashioned themselves into the Irish Republican Army (IRA), built around a core number of members from Sinn Fein (who was now formally allied with the IRA and led by Eamon De Valera) and the Irish Republican Brotherhood. They also retained their relationships with Cumann na mBan (now led by Constance Markievicz) and the Irish Citizen Army (now led by James O’Neill). Who led the IRA can be an explosive question. In 1919, Eamon de Valera was elected president of the first Dail Eireann. The IRA was supposed to answer to the Dail, however, there was considerable tension between the military leadership (Michael Collins and Richard Mulcahy) and the civilian ministers (De Valera and Cathal Brugha). To make matters worse, De Valera left for the United States in 1920, leaving, technically Brugha, but really Collins in command. While Collins persecuted his intelligence war, Mulcahy struggled to instill discipline and uniformity into IRA units who sometimes heeded GHQ, but often times did their own thing. Collin’s and Mulcahy’s partnership determined the shape of the war-to Brugha’s distrust and chagrin.

Additionally, it grows even more complicated when considering that Collins and Mulcahy were heavily involved with the IRB. After Easter Rising, Thomas Ashe became president of the IRB. Mulcahy and Ashe had fought together at the Battle of Ashbourne (the only real victory for the rebelling Irish during 1916) and Collins gave Ashe’s eulogy after he died in prison because of a botched attempt at force feeding (Ashe had gone on hunger strike). Then Sean McGarry became president until 1919, when Harry Boland took over. The IRB would continue to be a secret, oath bound society that was the core of the IRA and a great source of distrust from people like De Valera, Brugha, and Austin Stacks. Collins’ would become its president in 1920 and he would attempt to make it the core of the Free State Army during the civil war. Mulcahy supposedly took over the IRB after Collins’ death in 1922 and used it both as a source of support in his own battles against the Cosgrave administration as well as a foundational bedrock for the National Irish Army. The IRB disappeared after Mulcahy was forced to resign from Irish government following the 1924 Army Mutiny, although it’s not clear if it was because of a formal decision to disband or if it simply disintegrated.

The biggest political winner out of Easter Rising was Sinn Fein. The executions of the leaders of 1916 galvanized public support, destroying the IPP’s base and injecting Sinn Fein with new life. Sinn Fein would be a powerful force in Irish politics until the civil war tore it in two between those who supported the treaty and those who did not. Sinn Fein would continue its policy of not taking seat in the now Irish Free State Dail, allowing Cosgrave’s party to take advantage of having no real opposition. De Valera would eventually leave Sinn Fein to create his own party Fianna Fail. Sinn Fein would continue to hover outside Irish politics until the 1970s, when it would finally decide to sit within the Dail and Stormont in North Ireland.

The biggest loser of Easter Rising might be the Irish Parliamentary Party. After losing Home Rule and supporting enlistment, both Redmond and the IPP lost any popular support they once enjoyed. IPP would eventually split into many split groups such as the National Party led by John McGrath and the Nationalist Party of North Ireland. However, like Sinn Fein, it would always compete against the two biggest parties in Irish politics following the civil war: Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.

Finally, Cumman na nGaedheal returns, but this time as the party of the pro-treaty government of the Irish Free State. First led by Arthur Griffith, then led by W. T. Cosgrave after Griffith’s death in 1922, it would guide Ireland through the civil war, the boundary commission, the Army Mutiny of 1924, and attempt to help Ireland heal until 1932, when it was defeated by De Valera’s party. After their defeat, Cumman na nGaedheal would merge with the National Centre Party and the National Guard (also known as the Blue Shirts, a pseudo-fascist group that would later be kicked out) to create Fine Gael. Fine Gael would be led by Cosgrave from 1934-1944 and by Richard Mulcahy from 1944-1959.

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References:

The Republic: the Fight for Irish Independence by Charles Townshend, 2014, Penguin Group

Fatal Path: British Government and Irish Revolution 1910-1922 by Ronan Fanning, 2013, Faber & Faber

Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion by Charles Townshend, 2015, Penguin Group

Richard Mulcahy: From the Politics of War to the Politics of Peace, 1913-1924 by Padraig O Caoimh, 2018, Irish Academic Press

A Nation and Not a Rabble: the Irish Revolution 1913-1923 by Diarmaid Ferriter, 2015, Profile Books

Green Against Green: the Irish Civil War by Michael Hopkinson, 2004, Gill Books

Michael Collins and the Anglo-Irish War: Britain’s Counterinsurgency Failure by J. B. E. Hitte, 2011, Potomac Books

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