Introduction From the United Irishmen of the 1790s to the Irish Republican Army (IRA) of the 20th century, Irish republicanism has generally been associated with organizations prepared to use physical force to achieve their aims. Its political ideology emphasizes the need for Ireland's complete separation from British rule and the attainment of a united 32-county republic. Although influenced by the republicanism of the American and French revolutions, characterized by egalitarianism and opposition to monarchy, Irish republican organizations place greater attention on the importance of separatist nationalism.
Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen The first influential republican movement in Ireland was the Society of United Irishmen founded in 1791 in Belfast and Dublin, and predominantly supported by middle-class Presbyterians and Catholics. It advocated a non-sectarian independent republic based on universal male suffrage. After its suppression by British government authorities, it became a secret society and planned for armed rebellion. Its most famous leader, Wolfe Tone, urged Irishmen of all denominations to unite against British rule, which he described as ‘the never failing source of all Ireland's ills’. He accompanied an unsuccessful French military expedition to Ireland during the Rebellion of 1798 but was captured and committed suicide. His grave at Bodenstown became a focus of commemoration for Irish republican organizations.
Young Ireland In the 1840s Young Ireland, led by Thomas Davis, stressed the importance of the spiritual rebirth of Ireland and its people's shared history of opposition to British domination. It comprised social radicals such as Fintan Lalor, who urged a peasant revolution, alongside social conservatives such as John Mitchel who was an extreme nationalist. In 1848, against the background of the Great Famine and inspired by European romantic nationalist ideas and the legacy of the Rebellion of 1798, Young Ireland organized a disastrous rebellion.
Irish Republican Brotherhood Irish republicanism remained a conspiratorial elite throughout the 19th century. The most significant strain to emerge was the Fenian movement which originated among Irish-Americans in the USA in the 1850s, and was dedicated to insurrection. Its Irish branch, known as the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), was founded by James Stephens in 1858. Following a futile rising in 1867, the IRB regrouped and began a ‘New Departure’, cooperating with Charles Stewart Parnell's Home Rule Party to agitate for land reform in the Land War 1879–82. At the turn of the century, the revival of Gaelic culture and the growth of Arthur Griffith's Sinn Fein, reinvigorated republicanism. The formation of the Irish Volunteers in 1914 (its leadership infiltrated by IRB members) and the outbreak of World War I offered the potential for another strike against the British government.
Easter Rising Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) leader John Redmond's support for Britain in the war split the Irish Volunteers, and backing from its anti-war minority enabled the IRB military council, led by Patrick Pearse, to attempt another rising. The Irish Republic was proclaimed at Dublin's General Post Office on Easter Monday 1916. The rhetoric of the Proclamation combined the physical force nationalism of the IRB with the socialism of James Connolly, whose Irish Citizen Army also fought in the rising. The Proclamation, with its commitment to achieving a united Irish Republic through force of arms, was the most influential document of 20th-century republicanism. Although the rising was a military failure, its aftermath of executions and reprisals increased public support for republicanism.
Independence The 1918 general election saw the republican Sinn Fein party, led by the 1916 veteran Éamon de Valera, crush Redmond's IPP, and indicated the first widespread support for republican objectives. In 1919 Sinn Fein members of parliament abstained from Westminster and established the Dáil Éireann (Irish parliament) in Dublin, declaring the Irish Republic. At the same time, the Irish Volunteers (soon known as the IRA) began the Anglo-Irish War, a campaign of guerrilla warfare against British government authorities that ended with the Anglo-Irish Treaty (1921). The treaty, which established the Irish Free State within the British Commonwealth and endorsed partition, divided pro-Treaty republicans, willing to accept a compromise that fell short of an independent Irish republic, from anti-Treaty republicans, who wanted to continue the military struggle for full independence. Following the defeat of the anti-Treaty faction in the Irish Civil War (1922–23), Irish republicans abstained from the Free State Dáil. The most important section of republican opposition, led by de Valera, split from Sinn Fein to form Fianna Fáil and entered the Dáil in 1927. Sinn Fein dwindled into insignificance but the IRA remained a potent force. When de Valera gained power in 1932 he succeeded in drawing most Irish republicans into the democratic process and the influence of the IRA (divided between left-wing socialists and militarists) declined. For more extreme republicans, who accused de Valera of selling out, the characteristics of true republicanism became abstention from parliament, a deep-rooted suspicion of politics, and a commitment to physical force.
‘The Troubles’ The IRA's bombing campaign in England 1939–40 and border campaigns of the 1950s were failures. In 1969, against a background of mounting violence in Northern Ireland, the IRA split between its left-wing, the Official IRA, and militarists, the Provisional IRA. In the violent 1970s the latter became the dominant force within Irish republicanism. In the 1980s the Provisional IRA adopted the strategy known as ‘the armalite and the ballot box’, which combined militarism with political activism. The 1990s, with two extended ceasefires and years of negotiations, saw Sinn Fein, the political wing of the republican movement become more dominant than the IRA. The republican movement also modified its demand for a complete British withdrawal from Northern Ireland to acceptance of an interim stage of power-sharing under British authority.
de Valera, Éamon
Parnell, Charles Stewart
Pearse, Patrick Henry
Tone, (Theobald) Wolfe
home rule, Irish
Redmond, John Edward
Irish Republican Army
Irish Free State
Davis, Thomas Osborne
Northern Ireland peace process
Rebellion of 1798