In 1170, at the request of the king of Leinster, Richard Fitzgilbert de Clare (Strongbow) the Earl of Pembroke lead a Norman army from England into Ireland. The Normans swiftly conquered the island and Ireland came under the domination of the English kings. Ireland spent the next 700 years, to varying degrees, under English rule (or misrule, as often was the case). Thereafter, almost every generation of Irish experienced an uprising against the foreign overlords. These uprisings were brutally crushed, Irish lands parceled off to absentee lords in England and the Irish people starved and beaten into submission. By the end of the 19th century Ireland was a poor backwater of the vast British Empire, ruled by a parliament in London who neither understood or cared about the island.

In the late 19th and early 20th century a series of bills were introduced in Parliament that would provide for limited home rule in Ireland. These bills were supported by a majority of the Irish People, but bitterly opposed by the Protestant minority who resided mainly in 6 northern counties. In 1907 Arthur Griffith, who favored a completely independent Irish Republic, founded Sinn Fein (We Ourselves). This party sought to gain independence by non-violent means as an alternative to home rule. This would provide for an independant Irish republic.

Largely due to opposition in northern Ireland and in the House of Lords, legislation for home rule failed until just prior to World War I. At this time home rule was postponed, supposedly, until the end of the war. To many people in Ireland, this was just another excuse to deny the nation any form of independence. Insurrection had always been just below the surface in Ireland and postponement of home rule gave a radical organization called the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) the support that it needed to increase subversive activity.

Ruins of the General Post Office (GPO) in Dublin soon after the Easter Rising.

By 1916 the war in Europe had badly drained British manpower and fear increased that Irish men would be conscripted into the army. This, coupled with the possibility of guns being supplied from Germany, lead the IRB to plan a general uprising for April 24, Easter Monday. That morning, bands of the Irish Volunteers, under the direction of the IRB, captured a number of strong points in Dublin. A proclamation establishing the Irish Republic was read from the General Post Office (GPO) in the center of the city.

The British reacted quickly and by the end of the week the Easter Rising was put down and its leaders captured. Not the least of the problems with the rising was that it did not have the popular support of the Irish people. Many Irish felt that the rising was ill timed and a stab-in-the-back to the thousands of Irishmen then fighting in France. The failure of the IRB might have been complete but for a colossal blunder by the British. In secret military tribunals the leaders of the Rising were condemned to death and, one by one, shot at Kilmainham jail in Dublin. These included such leaders as Patrick Pearse, Tom Clarke, who was the first to sign the Proclamation of the Republic, and James Connolly who was so ill from a wound that he had to be tied to a chair to be shot.

Scott #120 (1941) commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Easter Rising. A volunteer is posed with a bayoneted rifle in front of the GPO. The words, in Irish, are the opening lines of the 1916 Proclamation.

Scott #206-213 (1966) commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising. The seven signers of the Proclamation of the Republic and a symbolic representation of the GPO are illustrated.

Left. Scott #214 (1966) commemorating the death of Roger Casement. Casement, who was Irish born with a Protestant background, attempted to supply the IRB with weapons from Germany. He was captured, tried for treason and hanged. Right. Scott #249 (1968) commemorating the centenary of James Connolly's birth.

Scott #460 (1979) commemorating the centenary of the birth of Patrick Pearse. The design is a play on "Liberty Leading the People" (right) a painting by Eugene Delacroix of fighting at the Parisian barricades during the revolution of 1848. On the Irish Stamp the Lady Liberty is depicted in front of the GPO and carries the Irish "tri-colour" (green, white and orange) rather than the French colors (blue, white and red).

The executions, along with other restrictive measures taken by the British government, changed the sentiment of a large number of Irish people and support for the British evaporated. In the parliamentary elections of 1918 Sinn Fein won an overwhelming victory except in the largely Protestant north. This was taken by the Republicans as a signal that Ireland wanted nothing less than total independence from Britain. The more moderate alternative of home rule was effectively dead as independence became the only option acceptable to an apparent majority of the Irish people.

Sinn Fein representatives refused to take their seats in the British Parliament and began to meet secretly as the Dail Eireann (the Irish Parliament) in Dublin. Eamon De Valera, the highest ranking survivor of the Easter Rising, was elected President of the Dail. This was illegal, in British eyes, and largely unsuccessful attempts were made to arrest members of the Irish government.

On the military front the IRB had been resurrected under the leadership of Michael Collins. Irish Volunteers, the military wing of the IRB, became known as the Irish Republican Army or the IRA. Collins was an organizational and military genius of the first order, and proceeded to develop an intelligence and counter-intelligence network that totally defeated British attempts to penetrate Irish Republican organizations. British soldiers and police units were never safe from ambush as Collins developed the tactics of urban and guerrilla warfare that have become commonplace during the 20th century. By 1920 the British had effectively lost control of much of the Irish countryside.

A photograph of Michael Collins taken in 1918. Collins was the genius behind the IRA's largely successful military campaign against the British. He became the first man since George Washington to force the British Empire to the negotiating table.

The British countered IRA tactics with brutal reprisals, commonly murdering completely innocent civilians in revenge for IRA killings. To supplement troop strength in Ireland auxiliary units made up of unemployed ex-soldiers were sent from Britain. These paramilitary, referred to as the "Black & Tans," were responsible for some of the worst atrocities of the war. The British actions succeeded only in increasing Republican support among the Irish people.

Left. Scott #284-285 (1970) commemorating the 50th anniversary of the death of Tomas MacCurtain and Terence MacSwiney. MacCurtain, Lord Mayor of the city of Cork was murdered in his bed by a band of Black & Tans for criticizing the Royal Irish Constabulary. MacSwiney, also mayor of Cork, was imprisoned by the British for Republican sympathies and died after a 73 day hunger strike. His death helped move English public opinion against the war in Ireland. Right. Scott #288 (1970) commemorating the 50th anniversary of the death of Kevin Barry, a medical student executed by the British for Republican activities.

By 1921, despite having popular support and a superior intelligence network, the IRA was facing a crisis. They had neither the guns or manpower to defeat the British military might and the Irish people were becoming increasingly sickened of the war. However, the war had little popular support in England and the British public were clamoring for an end to the conflict. It seemed that the IRA was winning and that there was little prospect for British victory. Therefore, Prime Minister David Lloyd George invited the Irish to negotiate and a July 21, cease-fire was arranged.

The Irish negotiating team was lead by Arthur Griffith and a reluctant Michael Collins, who felt himself ill-fitted as a politician or statesman. Both Collins and Griffith would rather have had the more politically experienced Eamon de Valera negotiate in London. Michael Collins may have underestimated his own abilities though. He was a multidimensional man who had a very clear vision of the Ireland that he wanted to create. Collins saw Ireland as a completely secular state based on democratic principals where all Irish, regardless of religion or ethnic heritage, would have an equal share in the governing of the island.

The British negotiating team was headed by David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill. Lloyd George was a very clever politician who felt that he had to insure that Ireland remained tied to the British Empire in order to appease the Unionists in Northern Ireland and maintain his own political viability in the United Kingdom. The treaty negotiated gave Ireland "Free State" or dominion status in the British Empire, very much like Canada. The status of the largely Protestant counties of northern Ireland would be decided by a boundary commission and eventually the north would be politically united with the south.

Scott #670 (1986) commemorating Arthur Griffith, the founder of Sinn Fein and President of the Provisional Irish Government from January, 1922 until his death in August of that year. Griffith, along with Michael Collins and others, negotiated a peace treaty with the British. The design of the stamp is based on the photograph on the right from the National Library of Ireland collection.

Griffith and Collins recognized that the treaty provisions were short of total independence but would be a step toward the eventual establishment of an Irish Republic. (The Republic of Ireland did indeed become a reality in 1949 when Ireland severed all political ties with the British Empire). A large faction in the Dail, lead by de Valera objected to the provisions of a loyalty oath to the British monarchy and the partition of the north. However, the Dail voted to accept the treaty and the vote was verified by a referendum of the Irish people who were eager for peace. In January, 1922, De Valera, who apparently approved of democracy only when it went his way, angrily walked out of the Dail with his followers and Arthur Griffith was elected President in his stead. The Irish Republican Brotherhood largely remained loyal to Michael Collins but the IRA split into a pro-treaty faction that became the Free State Army and an anti-treaty faction that continued to call itself the Irish Republican Army. Civil War broke out when the anti-treaty faction occupied the Courts of Justice and other government buildings in Dublin and Collins ordered them ousted.

The Irish delegation to London in 1921. Arthur Griffith is seated on the far left and Michael Collins seated third from the left.

Scott #534 (1982) commemorating the centenary of the birth of Eamon De Valera. After the Irish Civil War de Valera turned his back on the IRA and continued in politics. He eventually became prime minister of the Irish Free State and later President of the Republic of Ireland.

Eamon de Valera (center) with other anti-treaty members the Dail Eireann during the treaty debates. By walking out of the Dail, de Valera made Civil War inevitable.

In many ways the Irish Civil War was more bloody and tragic than the war against the British as families split over the treaty and former comrades turned against each other. The anti-treaty forces were strong in the south and west of Ireland but were no match for the Free State Army lead by Michael Collins. By late summer the anti-treaty forces largely were defeated. In August of 1922 Arthur Griffith, worn out by the strain, died of a stroke. A few days later Michael Collins was killed in an ambush in southwest Ireland as he was trying to arrange a cease-fire. Ireland was thus deprived of two of its greatest leaders.

Scott #807 (1990) depicting General Michael Collins in uniform as commander of the Army of the Irish Free State. The stamp design is based on the photograph of Collins on the right which was taken at the funeral of Arthur Griffith on August 12, 1922. Just 10 days later Michael Collins was killed in an ambush in the southwest of Ireland.

Due, in part, to the Civil War and to reluctance on the part of the British to offend the Protestant majority in northern Ireland, a boundary commission was never established and the partition of Ireland became a permanent fixture of the 20th century. This has lead the continuing "troubles" in the northern 6 counties of that island.

Scott #711 (1988) commemorating William T. Cosgrave. A veteran of the Easter Rising, he became the President of the Provisional government of Ireland after the death of Arthur Griffith.

Closing Notes:

The above essay, accompanying the images of stamps and photographs represent my own understanding, developed after having spent a good part of 1995 and 1996 living in Ireland. I made my most recent trip to Ireland in October, 2001 to conduct research at University College Dublin. I am a geologist, not an historian or political scientist. However, I endeavor to understand as best as I can the historical context of the present "troubles" in Ireland.

In the time that I lived in Ireland I experienced the duel disappointments of the Tory government in Great Britain bungling away every opportunity for peace and the breaking of the 1995 cease-fire by the Provisional IRA. I do consider the later to be a much greater transgression than the former. The British government does not make it a policy to murder innocent people, the IRA and their various factions have!

There seems to be a real hope for lasting peace in Northern Ireland. The "marching season" of 2001 seems to have taken place with less than the usual amount of animosity and violence. The Provisional IRA has finally agreed to weapons inspections, and recently, a begining at decommissioning. There still is much to be done as the IRA has yet to completely disarm and very little has been said about disarming the Loyalist militias.

It is my fervent hope that the cease-fires will be permanent and that agreements can be reached that will accommodate the legitimate interests of both the Unionist (Protestant) and Nationalist (Catholic) communities in the 6 counties of northern Ireland.

Eventually the declining influence of the Catholic Church in the Irish Republic coupled with the emerging European Community will make sectarianism in Northern Ireland an anachronism. Ireland, both north and south, will be an integral part of a united Europe, while maintaining its own unique Celtic culture and heritage. Then, perhaps, there truly will be a "united" Ireland and Irish people, with no regard to religion. This was the dream that Michael Collins left unfulfilled.

I apologize for any inaccuracies in the above essay, and hope that you will not hold it against me if your opinions differ from my own. I would like to hear from anyone who wants to point out factual mistakes that I have made, would like to make suggestions for future additions to this page or just wants to exchange ideas. For a more in-depth discussion of this period of Ireland's history I suggest checking out a page maintained by Damian Luby on the Liberation of Ireland. I can also provide you with a list of books that I used to form my ideas and opinions and am always on the lookout for other good reading.

Finally, I want to thank those who have contacted me about this page with suggestions and comments. Most have been very supportive and helpful. I hope that I remembered to include all of the corrections of mistakes (especially the incorrect dates that I had for Griffith's and Collin's deaths and the nationality of Roger Casement). I would like to put together a second historical page concerning Irish stamps that commemorate the late 17th century period of the conflict between Kings James II and William of Orange, the "Williamite Wars". (During this same period my Quaker ancestor, William Gregg , emigrated from Ireland to Pennsylvania with William Penn). Not only did this period have important impact on the subsequent history of Ireland, but it also had a profound effect on the establishment of the American Republic. I do not know when I will get time for this project as I have recently been appointed Chair of Geology & Geophysics and will be quite occupied with that. Hopefully, around Christmas, 2002? Contact me by E-mail at:

Scott # 827 (1991) commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Easter Rising. The stamp depicts the statue of Cuchulain that is displayed in the main lobby of the General Post Office on O'Connell Street in Dublin. The bronze statue honors those who fought and died in the Easter Rising. Cuchulain was the ancient Irish hero who, when mortally wounded, tied himself to a stake so that he would face his adversaries even in death. His enemies were afraid to approach his body until a raven landed on his shoulder. The text is the 1916 Proclamation declaring the establishment of the Irish Republic (Poblacht na hEireann).

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