Q&A: What happened in 1921 in Ireland?

All the years in the Decade of Centenaries are significant but 1921 is the most critical of all

What happened in 1921 in Ireland?

A lot is the short answer. The two jurisdictions on this island which are now the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland date from this year. On May 3rd, 1921 Southern Ireland (26 counties) and Northern Ireland (six counties) were established under the Government of Ireland Act (1920). The Northern Ireland parliament was set up in June 1921 but Sinn Féin rejected the Act. It was replaced in the South by the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921 which founded the Irish Free State as a self-governing dominion within the British Empire. The year also saw British forces and the IRA fight themselves to a standstill leading to a truce which allowed for negotiations.

How important is 1921 in the history of Ireland?

All the years covered by the Decade of Centenaries (1912-1923) are significant in their own way but 1921 is arguably the most critical of all. It was the year partition was established, the culmination of a set of events which began with the passage of the Home Rule Act in 1912 and the signing of the Ulster Covenant. The controversy over how to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland this year demonstrates how much we are still living with the consequences of the events of 1921.


Set the scene for us

By the end of 1920, the War of Independence had being going on for almost two years, developing into a large scale campaign during that year. Claims by the British prime minister David Lloyd George in October 1920 that his government had "murder by the throat" in Ireland were confounded a month later by Bloody Sunday in which 14 British security agents and 18 Royal Irish Constabulary auxiliaries were killed at Kilmichael, Co Cork. The burning of Cork by British forces on December 12th, 1920 added to condemnation at home and abroad about the activities of Crown forces in Ireland. There was a desire on the part of many in the London government to make peace, especially after the Government of Ireland Act (1920) became law on December 23rd, 1920. On Christmas Eve the British cabinet agreed to postpone "any future approach to Sinn Féin until the Government of Ireland Act was brought into operation". This settlement was greeted with alacrity by the Ulster Unionist Party opening the way for the British to deal with the second part of its "Irish question". The British began peace feelers through the Irish-born Patrick Joseph Clune, the Archbishop of Perth, whose nephew Conor Clune had been killed by the British as a reprisal for Bloody Sunday. Archbishop Clune was trusted by Lloyd George to intervene, but the talks foundered on an insistence by the British that the IRA disarm before entering negotiations. However, they left the way open for negotiation when they did not arrest Éamon de Valera on his return to Ireland from the United States on January 2nd, 1921. At the same time as the British were pursuing "peace balloons", as one of their officials called it, they imposed martial law in Cork, Kerry, Limerick, and Tipperary in December 1920 and extended it to Clare and Waterford in January 1921.

What happened in the War of Independence in 1921?

The six months between January 1st, 1921 and the end of the war on July 11th were the bloodiest of the conflict. According to The Dead of the Irish Revolution by Daithí Ó Corrain and Eunan O'Halpin, almost 1,500 people died in political violence, North and South, in 1921, the bulk of them in the South. The IRA continued its offensives especially outside Cork where much of the fighting had been concentrated. The IRA carried out successful ambushes at Glenwood, Co Clare; Clonfin, Co Longford; Dromkeen, Co Limerick; Millstreet, Co Cork; Carrowkennnedy and Tourmakeady in Co Mayo, and Headford in Co Kerry. These engagements saw heavy casualties inflicted on the British forces. Equally though, there were significant reverses for the IRA at Clonmult and Upton in Co Cork, Drumcondra in Dublin and Selton Hill in Co Leitrim. Tom Barry's fabled flying column narrowly escaped encirclement at Crossbarry and fought its way out.

The IRA’s most ambitious action in 1921, the burning of the Customs House in Dublin on May 25th, was accomplished though with the deaths of five IRA men and the capture of 80 others. The year was also characterised by an escalation in the number of civilians shot as spies by the IRA.

How did it all end?

The War of Independence ended in a truce on July 11th, 1921 between the IRA and the British government. It was a stalemate. Both sides realised they could not defeat the other. As the late Prof David Fitzpatrick wrote in Politics and Irish Life, 1913-1921: "By mid-1921 the IRA had reached an impasse. Despite its vast improvement as a fighting force since the days of close-order drilling after Sunday Mass, it was too poorly armed to have much hope of dislodging the enemy from his heavily fortified strongholds. But the opposing forces, and the government behind them, had also reached an impasse." Some historians believe the IRA, by virtue of having stayed in the fight against a better equipped and more powerful enemy, won by forcing the British to the negotiation table. The celebrated speech by King George V at the opening of the Northern Ireland parliament on June 22nd, 1921 was widely interpreted as a peace feeler. He urged "all Irishmen to pause, to stretch out the hand of forbearance and conciliation, to forgive and to forget, and to join in making for the land they love a new era of peace, contentment, and good will". The IRA's response two day later was to attack a train carrying the king's escort at Advoyle, Co Armagh killing five soldiers and 20 horses. On July 8th, as Sinn Féin leader de Valera telegraphed Lloyd George calling for a cessation of hostilities. The British prime minister sent the South African prime minister Jan Christian Smuts to broker a ceasefire. Many on both sides believed the truce would not hold, but it did.

What happened after the truce?

De Valera and Lloyd George first met on July 14th, three days after the truce came into operation. On July 20th, the British government made its first offer of dominion status within the British Empire, but only for the 26 counties. This initial offer was rejected. Lloyd George came back with a formula to restart talks on the basis of "how the association of Ireland with the community of nations known as the British Empire can best be reconciled with Irish national aspirations". The Irish side appointed five plenipotentiaries led by Arthur Griffith. De Valera famously did not attend the final talks in London and was enraged when the Irish delegation signed the treaty without referring back to him. The deal offered Ireland dominion status within the British Empire but there was an oath to the king, the British got the use of several ports in the South – the treaty ports – and partition of the island was to be dealt by the Boundary Commission.

What happened in Northern Ireland in 1921?

The first election in Northern Ireland were held in May 1921. James Craig's Ulster Unionist Party won 40 of the 62 seats, initiating a one-party hegemony which lasted until the fall of Stormont in 1972. The North was convulsed by violence in 1921 and the truce in the South did not apply to the North. On Bloody Sunday, July 10th, there were 16 deaths in a clash between unionists and nationalists in Belfast and 23 further deaths over the surrounding four-day period. There were 23 deaths in August and 35 in November. The violence continued into 1922.