Joining in the party on Irish history 1912-1923

irish historyTHERE may be no such thing as a free lunch but there may be such a thing as an free online course in history. Irish Central told me today Trinity College Dublin started a class in Irish history called “Irish lives in war and revolution: Exploring Ireland’s history 1912-1923.” There’s no diploma at the end of it (though you can buy a certificate) but if nothing else it could be useful learning and a possibly stimulating discussion on the most tumultuous era in Ireland since Napoleonic times.

It might be a large discussion. Trinity are expecting 17,000 people to sign up for this Massive Open Online Course. Though it began eight days ago, it’s not too late to join and I became student #17001 today. The course is expected to take six weeks, at five hours a week, with little expectation of prior knowledge of the history (though some knowledge will speed up the process). The 12 years chosen are watershed years. After 112 years of political union with Westminster, 1912 was the year Irish Home Rule was finally passed by the House of Commons (at that stage a bill covering the 32 counties) and 1923 was the end of the undeclared civil war that ensured a Treaty government in Dublin had a lot more power than home rule, but at the cost of six counties ceded to Britain. These events were framed by the modernism that was shaking the world and the Great War that almost tore that world asunder.

I did my catch up week today, and with the aid of fictional characters speaking real words, it introduced the three great main strands of early 20th century Irish political history: parliamentary reform, revolution, and unionism. The unionism is this context is the political union with Britain, not the Trade Unions, who were active but never organised as well in Ireland as they were across the water. The Unionist is the first character and she is a working class Protestant woman in Belfast dedicated to her family, her religion and her culture. Their proud shipbuilding tradition had just taken a huge hit with the sinking of the Titanic. Allied to the catastrophic news that London might approve a parliament in Dublin, it led to a deep sense of troubled times among northern Protestants. Home Rule was Rome Rule to these people, who feared a Catholic parliament would discriminate against them, destroying their industrial base in the process. Led by firebrand lawyer Sir Edward Carson (a nemesis of Oscar Wilde), the Unionists raised a volunteer force of 100,000 men at arms dedicated to stopping Home Rule by force.

The second voice was a moderate Catholic Dubliner. This man was a Redmondite, a follower of Irish Parliamentary Party leader John Redmond, who seemed ready to succeed where the great Parnell had failed and convince London to vote for Home Rule. The Third Home Rule bill was being introduced to Westminster and the hostile Lords could only defer it for two years, meaning that by mid 1914 Ireland would have a parliament again. The Dubliner’s biggest worry was that huge volunteer army massing to the north in opposition. But he had a second worry and that was radicals in the south who were not satisfied with Redmond’s rapprochement with London. They wanted nothing less than full independence.

These radicals are represented by the third voice, a nationalist youth from Cork. This voice was much younger than the other two, a schoolboy influenced by a teacher spreading his own nationalist zeal. These people were frustrated by the delays in handing over power and wanted to speed up the process. They poured their energies into Irish cultural pursuits like Na Fianna and Gaelic games.

The year 1913 was all about escalating tensions. The Home Rule bill was passed three times by the House and rejected three times by the Lords. Unwilling to wait for a solution from London, the Unionists prepared for civil war with the south. The south copied the Unionists and organised their own large-scale paramilitary force.

When 1914 came, there was more frustration for the Nationalists. Instead of the long promised Home Rule, there was a Great War erupting on the continent. The Unionists, determined to show their loyalty, immediately deployed their entire force to this new conflict. Redmond too had no choice but to support the war. Like most people he believed it would be over in a matter of months and he encouraged service for the King in Flanders to help the Irish cause after the war. The Nationalists were more suspicious. Though never a large number, they believed England’s difficulty was Ireland’s opportunity. They formed a breakaway volunteer movement dedicated to complete rupture from Britain.

Reading the course notes, this Week 1 material aims to introduce the broad themes of the era as well as grappling with the chronology. It also looks at more broad questions of history such as what voices and what perspectives tell the story and why they are selected over others. I look forward to the next few weeks and providing my own perspective on turbulent times.

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