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So, who were the IRA?

Updated: Apr 21, 2022

Who were the IRA?

At the start of the 20th century Ireland was part of the United Kingdom. The majority of Irish MPs in the Westminster Parliament wanted home rule for Ireland and to have their own parliament.

A minority, mainly from the Unionist tradition which had dominated the wealthy Irish landowning and industrial class for centuries, resisted home rule.

To do this they mobilised a militia in the northeast of the country, the Ulster Volunteer Force.

In response, the majority home rule movement formed their own militia, the Irish Volunteers.

Then the First World War broke out.

The UVF and almost all the Irish Volunteers served in the British Army.

But a small group of Irish Volunteers were determined to fight for Irish freedom and in 1916 they allied with the trade union organised Irish Citizen Army to mount the Easter Rising.

The Rising, concentrated in Dublin, failed and its leaders were executed.

But outside Dublin the remaining Irish Volunteer organisation was still intact and by 1917 they were recruiting and organising.

Historian John Borgonov wrote: “ The Volunteers built a parish-by-parish organisation.

“The smallest unit, called a company, was based in a village, rural parish, or urban neighbourhood.

“Membership typically numbered between 20 and 150 (in large cities).

“The next unit level was a battalion, comprised of a number of companies (anywhere from three to 10).

“A battalion was often based in a large town, and took in companies from the surrounding district. Battalion membership figures usually extended from the low hundreds to one or two thousand.

“A number of battalions comprised a brigade, which was the highest unit formation until spring 1921. Brigade membership typically numbered from one to several thousand.”

The new organisation, the IRA, had 115,000 members, “yet only a handful were full-time activists”.

In 1919 the IRA was ready to fight and the War of Independence raged until 1921.

IRA membership was strongest in counties Kerry, Clare, Longford, Sligo, Mayo and Limerick.

“The IRA remained very poorly armed throughout the War of Independence,” Borgonov says. By 1921, they had about 3,000 rifles and were “shockingly out-gunned” by 55,000 British military and local paramilitary police, the RIC.

The strength of the IRA lay in its organisation and guerilla tactics. The IRA was an “effective mass movement” backed by the women’s organisation Cumann na mBan, which operated as the IRA’s intelligence and communication network.

In 1922 a treaty was signed ending the war with the British. It partitioned the country. The provisions of the Treaty split the IRA, pro and anti.

The West Mayo IRA in 1922.

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