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Irish Revolution and Civil War of 1918-1923


The Irish Revolution and Civil War that started gathering impetus on the eve of the World War I and came to the peak by its end was unique in nature. Many forces fueled it and determined its direction and form. In Bitter Freedom: Ireland in a Revolutionary World, Maurice Walsh argues that “the Irish Revolution was part of the unraveling of empires provoked by the First World War, but the state born at its conclusion was unique in western Europe.”1 This paper aims to analyze Walsh’s ideas about the place of the Irish Revolution and Civil War in the context of the postwar world and the struggle for self-determination.

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Self-Determination of Nations in the Framework of Post-War Modern Movement

The main idea of Maurice Walsh, the author of Bitter Freedom: Ireland in a Revolutionary World, was to place Ireland in a global context since, as a rule, the Irish Revolution was viewed only in the context of the confrontation between Ireland and Great Britain. In particular, the authors traditionally placed Ireland in an “island context.” They identified only two driving forces – the supporters of the home rule and unionists, south-east Catholics and north-east Protestants. However, when analyzing the events that later became known as the Irish Revolution and Civil War of 1918-1923, it is important to consider the influence of events and trends associated with World War I.

First, the outbreak of the war enabled Ireland, which in 1914 had broad support for the Irish Conservative Party and its leader, John Redmond, to side with Great Britain against the Habsburg Empire, in return for the promise of home rule after the war ends.2 Redmond convinced Irish volunteers and advocates of a more radical solution to the Irish independence to participate in the war for their country’s greater good. Redmond believed that the idea of more radical nationalists to take advantage of Britain’s vulnerability during the war was doomed to fail. However, the war did not last four months, as Redmond expected, but four years, and therefore by 1918, the issue of the Irish home rule was relegated to the background. Of course, this situation caused discontent among volunteers and a direct protest from radical nationalists.

On the other hand, the end of the World War and the signing of the Versailles Peace Treaty on June 28, 1919, unofficially secured European nations’ right to self-determination. One of the main reasons for the rise of nationalist movements and their success was the policy of American President Woodrow Wilson. He sought to demonstrate to Europe the advantages of American liberal democracy.3 The signing of the Versailles Peace Treaty implied a change in many states’ borders and was a symbol of the collapse of empires in Germany, Russia, and Turkey.

By the end of WWI, Woodrow Wilson had outstanding support among the European population. He saw the Versailles Peace as the beginning of a new era in Europe and the end of the imperialists’ old world. Therefore, he promoted the idea that the boundaries of an ideal state should coincide with the historical territories of certain peoples. Within the framework of this approach, new states were formed in Eastern Europe: Hungary, Czech Republic, Ukraine, and Poland.

New Challenges for Commonwealth

The Treaty of Versailles transferred many territories that previously belonged to Germany into the possession of Great Britain, including Palestine, the Persian Gulf, and East Africa.4 However, given the emergence of the “New World,” Great Britain’s role had to change from an ambitious owner of many overseas territories to the role of a wise mentor who helps immature states fight external hostile influences and establish democracy. In fact, Great Britain remained a super-state, under the influence of which there were many colonies and dominions. But by form, in the New World, the British government now needed to pay much more attention to the moral objections or ‘pretensions’ of peoples from its colonies.5 Moreover, thanks to the invention of the telephone and the telegraph, political news now spread much faster. Therefore, incorrect actions concerning one of the colonies’ protest mood could become a reason for unrest or unpredictable consequences in another. In other words, Great Britain fell prey to the ‘overstretched’ empire phenomenon.

According to the unwritten rules of the New World, the globe was divided on a national and race basis, into the developed countries of the old Europe, whose peoples were ready to accept responsibility for self-government, and the countries of the “colored nations,” who needed British leadership.6 This unprecedented situation has made it possible for Ireland to appeal that it remains the only European nation denied independence. The success of the Irish Revolution was also shaped by Woodrow Wilson’s desire to see Europe as a peaceful market for American goods.

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Interestingly, some American companies have started investing in Ireland, using it as a local European outlet for their factories. The first such investor was Henry Ford, who built a car factory there. Noteworthy, modern Irish society plunged into a kind of cultural chaos after the arrival of thousands of demoblized American soldiers when young people had to choose between traditional Irish and new American culture: figuratively speaking, between Irish dancing and American jazz and cinema.

Irish ‘Martyrs’ and Sinn Fein Political Movement

In 1914, on the eve of WWI, Sinn Fein was an Irish political party that few people knew. But due to many circumstances, after the war, it became extremely popular. It won 73 seats in the parliamentary elections of 1918, leaving the former leader – the Irish Parlamentary Rarty with only six seats.7 One of the most critical factors in the growing popularity of Sinn Fein, which translated as “freedom within” or “freedom in you” or “freedom in ourselves,” was the failure of Redmond’s initiative, which planned to exchange support in the war for Irish self-government.

In particular, in 1918, when the more radical and nationalist part of society realized the conservatives’ failure, Sinn Fein decided to take power in the country by force through an armed uprising. Polite and attentive to their people, but armed rebels occupied Dublin residents’ houses, hiding from persecution and fighting the British police.8 However, the British reaction to the uprising was overwhelming when they decided to execute all eight party leaders. This decision changed the moderate mood and made the executed young politicians martyrs and a symbol of the struggle for freedom in Ireland.

Sinn Fein grew rapidly, recruiting young progressive Irishmen, and by the elections of 1918, the number of political clubs roughly coincided with the number of Catholic parishes in the country.9 It is noteworthy that according to the new electoral law, women over 30 took part in the elections for the first time, and the age limit for men was reduced to 21 years. As a result, the number of voters increased from 700 thousand to 1.9 million.10 Women came to the polls en masse to express their opinion on the future of the state, which the Irish pinned on the hopes of a Sinn Fein’s victory.

The party leader was Eamon de Valera, who came across as a patriotic realist. Interestingly, the global context for the Irish emergence as an independent state was different from Poland or Hungary’s circumstances. In particular, Eastern European countries were no longer dependent on the will of the disintegrated Russian and German empires. On the other hand, the British Empire retained its greatness and power, although it changed shape under the influence of the tendencies of the New World. Therefore, Ireland counted on the United States’ political support, another empire with growing global influence. Hence, Ireland’s victory in the struggle for independence was due to the right time and external circumstances, and the existence of a united internal front.

Thus, Walsh’s ideas about the place of the Irish Revolution and Civil War in the context of the postwar world and the struggle for self-determination were analyzed. After World War I, Ireland had many prerequisites for continuing the struggle for independence. The main ‘pillars’ of the movement were enduring internal strength in the form of the growing political party Sinn Fein and the concept of a New World to be built on the ruins of old empires, brought by Woodrow Wilson as a gift from the American liberal democratic society. Therefore, Great Britain, which had many colonies where it was necessary to maintain order, found itself in a situation of no choice regarding Ireland’s future. Fear of the consequences of Irish independence for other colonies likely provoked Great Britain into a prolonged confrontation, which could be avoided if Irish volunteers’ participation in the war was immediately appreciated.


Walsh, Maurice. Bitter Freedom: Ireland in a Revolutionary World. New York: WW Norton & Company, 2016.

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  1. Maurice Walsh, Bitter Freedom: Ireland in a Revolutionary World (New York: WW Norton & Company, 2016), 25.
  2. Walsh, Bitter Freedom, 21.
  3. Ibid., 40.
  4. Ibid., 47.
  5. Ibid., 49.
  6. Ibid., 51.
  7. Ibid., 39.
  8. Ibid., 31.
  9. Ibid., 33.
  10. Ibid., 28.

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