The War of Independence is remembered as a phase in the national struggle when public opinion, radicalised in the aftermath of the 1916 Rising, stood firm behind Dáil Eireann and the republican guerrilla campaign enjoyed universal public support.
This simple narrative belies the broad spectrum of public opinion between 1919 and 1921. Irish unionists were intractably opposed to Dáil Eireann, large groups of moderate Irish Party supporters remained opposed to the republican campaign and many republicans expressed unease at the violent methods of the IRA.
Rather than being consistent and homogeneous, public opinion was influenced by newspapers, propaganda and censorship, local circumstances and the changing nature of the campaign for independence.
Support for Dáil Eireann
In December 1918 the majority of Irish voters expressed approval for Sinn Féin at the ballot box. From January 1919, Dáil Eireann set about creating the structures of a parallel administration to prove that republican self-government was a viable ambition.
Popular support for Dáil Eireann was most clearly manifest in the generous subscriptions to the Dáil Loan, floated in April 1919 by Minister for Finance Michael Collins to bankroll the parallel administration in Ireland.
Eventually oversubscribed to the tune of £371,000, the striking success of the bond drive was the result of sympathetic public opinion as well as sound organisation at constituency level and the support of the majority of the Ireland's Catholic clergy. Archbishop Walsh’s subscription in November 1919, for example, was an important publicity coup for the Dáil Eireann.
The propaganda machine
Severely curtailed by the restrictions on the press imposed by the British government, Dáil Eireann’s Propaganda (later Publicity) Department directed its resources towards influencing British and international opinion.
Its widely-distributed daily news sheet, the Irish Bulletin published a litany of 'British atrocities’ in order to convince its international audience that the use of force against a popular national movement was morally wrong.
Republican propaganda in Ireland was expressed through actions rather than in column inches. The establishment of the Dáil Courts, in particular, proved a tangible and popular aspect of the republican counter state, and its activities were widely reported in the provincial press.
Sinn Féin’s popular mandate was reinforced in the local elections of January and June 1920 when it emerged as the largest party and the vast majority of local government bodies declared allegiance to the Dáil.
By January 1921 the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland reported that
‘Estimates before the commission of the percentage of Irish population which is favourable to the Republican Government either by act of ballot or in state of mind varied a good deal, but all were high’.
The Church's view
In Catholic Ireland of 1920, pronouncements from the pulpit were as influential as political edicts. While the majority of the Irish clergy supported the republican party and Dáil Éireann, many condemned the use of violence by the IRA.
Such condemnations declined in the last quarter of 1920, which saw the full deployment of the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries, and the increasingly violent nature of Crown-force reprisals. Clerical condemnation was focused instead on the Crown forces as primarily responsible for the bloodshed.
A famous exception was the decree of the Bishop of Cork, Daniel Cohalan, of 12 December 1920 in which he excommunicated anyone in his diocese who took part in ambushes, kidnapping or murder.
At a time when newspapers and periodicals were the only source of information for most people in Ireland, the press played a significant role in informing public opinion. Despite intimidation from both sides, most Irish newspapers remained conscientious commentators on events in Ireland during the War of Independence.
In 1919, influential nationalist newspapers such as the Irish Independent, the Cork Examiner and the Freemans’s Journal were increasingly supportive of Dáil Eireann, but all expressed disgust at the catalogue of dastardly crimes and ‘shocking murders’ perpetuated by the IRA.
Like the Catholic Church, the nationalist press refocused its criticism to the extreme British counterinsurgency measures from late 1920. Mounting attacks on newspaper offices, however, meant that the coverage of their behaviour was relatively restrained.
The unionist Irish Times remained completely hostile to the IRA but shared the opinion of all Irish newspapers that the ultimate responsibility for the violence in Ireland lay with the British government.
Brutal reprisals begin
The most significant influence on Irish public opinion was the effect of British counterinsurgency on lives, homes and businesses. Dublin Castle’s answer to the ‘outrages’ of early 1919 was the introduction of Special Military Areas where all public meetings were forbidden. This included fairs and markets, which interrupted local commerce and antagonised public opinion.
By 1920, unofficial reprisals for attacks by the IRA were inflicting much larger-scale suffering on the civilian population. Widespread by the summer of 1920, reprisals ranged from spontaneous police riots to larger scale retaliations.
Crown Forces targeted towns and villages, shooting indiscriminately into buildings, burning houses and looting business premises.
Co-operative creameries and large businesses were a favourite target for police vengeance as their destruction would affect whole districts. The burning of the Deeds, Templar & Co. hosiery factory during the ‘Sack of Balbriggan’ in September 1920 rendered more than 420 people unemployed.
Attacks on property peaked in November–December 1920, when 180 such incidents were recorded, climaxing in the ‘Burning of Cork’ on 11–12 December 1920. The physical damage was matched only by the emotional distress of the civilian population.
Balbriggan Town Councillor John Derham testified that for a week after the sacking of the town, its people ‘spent the night in the country ... in the farmers’ stables or barns or haylofts or anything they could get, or in the ditches.’
The death toll rises
The civilian death toll increased after the introduction of the Restoration of Order in Ireland Act on 9 August 1920, which allowed for the internment and court martial of civilians. It also saw increasing numbers of Volunteers going ‘on the run’.
These men banded together to form the nucleus of active service units or ‘flying columns’, such as that headed by Tom Barry in West Cork which, on Sunday 28 November 1920, ambushed and killed seventeen Auxiliaries.
The Kilmichael Ambush together with the events of Bloody Sunday in Dublin earlier in November and the Burning of Cork meant that the events in Ireland could no longer be described as mere police actions.
Veterans of the Kilmichael Ambush share their memories
On 10 December 1920 Martial Law was proclaimed, and curfew imposed in the south-western counties of Cork, Kerry, Limerick and Tipperary. Four more counties – Clare, Waterford, Kilkenny and Wexford – were added on 29 and 30 December.
Under Penalty of Death
A system of official reprisals was also introduced, and the death penalty announced for carrying arms. Violation of the terms of martial law sometimes ended in fatality. Answering questions in the House of Commons about the death of a child in Dublin in November 1920, Chief Secretary for Ireland Sir Hamar Greenwood confirmed that ‘men who are ordered to halt and do not halt are fired at.’
A guerrilla campaign could not be waged without a significant degree of public support. However, the emphatic claim by IRA leadership in December 1920 that they had the ardent goodwill of the population was an exaggeration.
Levels of support for and collaboration with revolutionary activity were entirely dependent on local conditions. In some counties violence and reprisals became daily occurrences while in others violence remained the exception rather than the rule.
Even in areas of relative inactivity, rank and file Volunteers engaged in coordinated attacks on ‘lines of communication’. This included cutting telegraph cables, raiding the mail, blocking roads and blowing up bridges, all of which impacted heavily on the lives of civilians.
The Crown Forces were not alone in doling out punishment to the civilian population. The IRA also conducted a campaign of intimidation and violence against civilians. In the most extreme cases, civilians suspected of being spies were captured and shot. Kerry IRA veteran Seamus O’Connor believed fear prevented many people voicing opposition:
The hardcore of British sympathisers were kept quiet during the Tan time by fear, and for this Michael Collins and the intelligence service were largely responsible ... Drastic punishment was so certain that and was so imminent that it was as much as a man’s life was worth to utter a discordant note.
This article is based on The Atlas of the Irish Revolution edited by John Crowley, Donal Ó Drisceoil, Mike Murphy and John Borgonovo, and its contents do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ