Over recent months it has been frequently claimed that the 1916 Rising brought the gun into Irish politics. Without doubt this is an important question, given role of violence in modern Irish history. However even the most cursory of glances at our history illustrates violence was central to politics in Ireland long before 1916. If anything it has been declining since the revolutionary period.
While modern Irish politics emerged around the 1798 rebellion and the savage reprisals that followed, as this politics took shape in the 19th century it was deeply rooted in violence.While much has been made of Daniel O’Connell’s largely peaceful movement for Catholic Emancipation this was not representative.
The early 19th century was a time of rising social inequality and social upheaval. For example attempts in the 1830s to force the poor to pay tithes to the Church of Ireland resulted in a social conflict known as the Tithe War. Centred in the counties of Kilkenny and Tipperary hundreds were killed between 1831 and 1836. In just one incident in Carrickshock in Co. Kilkenny 14 policemen were killed by a crowd when they attempted to collect tithes.
The Great Famine
Unsurprisingly in the 1840s the horrors of The Great Famine produced a violent reaction from those who suffered. Resistance to the exports of food frequently resulted in violent riots in port towns while there were numerous assassinations linked to evictions of tenants in arrears. There can be little doubt by the mid 19th century violence was a key part of politics and political discourse that had emerged in Ireland.
Furthermore since the 18th century and earlier, secret societies such as the Ribbonmen and Rockites played very important roles in communities across the island. In an Ireland where most, from catholic backgrounds at least, felt disenfranchised from the legal system, these secret societies stepped into the breach. They frequently defended perceived rights of communities and punished those who transgressed them.
They often exerted their influence and power through violence. To punish individuals, cattle stocks could be maimed, individuals attacked or even murdered. In 1816 in The Burning of Wildgoose Lodge in Co. Louth saw a secret society kill eight members of a family including an five month old infant. In 1882 the Maamtrasna Murders saw five members of one family brutally killed in what appears to have been a dispute over land.
While both political and social violence was common, understanding the context is key. Ireland was and had been for centuries a highly divided and unequal island. Since the 18th century society had been one internally divided along sectarian lines by the British authorities. Its agrarian economy was structured in a fashion so that it would not threaten British industry. This impoverished millions and ultimately was one of the root causes of The Great Famine of 1845-52. Furthermore millions were alienated from the power structures of society between sectarian discrimination and a very limited franchise. Dissent was treated extremely harshly. Capital punishment or deportation were not uncommon. In this society there were few ways for many to voice discontent in an effective manner. This added to a culture of violent responses to societal problems.
The Great Famine by no means brought this to an end. While it created deep resentments among survivors, the West of Ireland remained one of the most impoverished regions in Western Europe where food shortages were common. Furthermore the poverty of the tenements in Dublin became notorious.
Violence in the late 19th century
Unsurprisingly in this context, the Fenians an organisation formed in 1858 and committed to Irish Independence through armed insurrection, drew the support of thousands. While their attempt to organise an insurrection failed in 1867, social tensions continued to produce widespread violence in the late 19th century.
As famine threatened in 1879 the Land League was formed to resist attempts by landlords to evict impoverished tenants. This struggle known as the Land War saw widespread if low level violence across the country but particularly in the West of Ireland. Even its most famous tactic the boycott was predicated on the threat of violence for those who broke the boycott.
In the run up to 1916, numerous events indicate that the Rising emerged from what had been a violent society rather than the process which created one. In 1914 the arming of the Unionist Ulster Volunteers with thousands of rifles, matched by the unwillingness of the British Authorities to disarm them resulted in highly militarised society. Later that year the Irish Volunteers followed suit and also imported weapons. This militarisation of politics was not to support or resist an insurrection but instead over the constitutional introduction of Home Rule. If anything this underscored the belief in the legitimate use of violence in wider politics.
Violence had long been central to politics and social struggles in Irish society long before the Rising and if anything began to decline after 1922. The 20th century was without doubt much more peaceful than the 19th century across the island as a whole.
What do you think, who or what is responsible?