The War of Independence (1919 - 1921)

Quietly they drew away from the parapet of O’Connell Bridge, turned their backs on the flame red sky and melted into the crowd, which duly shuffled forward so yet even more Dubliners could have a front line view of the burning of the Custom House.

The day - May 25, 1921 - started as any other since the beginning of the War of Independence in early 1919 - cautiously. Dubliners had many reasons to tread the streets of their native city most carefully. There were the checkpoints the military threw up - O’Connell Bridge was a much favoured location. There was the wait, the harassment, the searches, the trigger happy soldiers flirting with the girls while the wind whipped up the Liffey and scalded the people on the bridge with cold. And the curfews - they might begin at midnight or even earlier if the radical nationalist Volunteers were rattling British nerves too much. The theatres, the dance halls and the pubs put on good faces and early shows but if, on the way home, you were halted on O’Connell Bridge by a searchlight and forced to look down the barrell of a gun - well, you stayed at home the next night.

There were less obvious, but most feared, reasons not to venture onto the streets: The lone assassin who steps out from the crowd and shoots a scion of the British empire; or the bomber who, unseen on a roof or in an open window, drops his home made explosive onto a military vehicle beneath. Then came the aftermath - the shoot outs, the running battles, citizens scattering in all directions, falling on their knees for mercy, even scaling the quay walls preferring a cold death in the Liffey to their blood being spilled on the street. Then shortages and skyrocketing prices made life harder than ever and most especially for the tenement poor who were hungrier and sicker than ever. 

Though Dubliners stood firm behind the Volunteers, hiding them in their overcrowded homes or in their shops. For who would forget the hangings, the hunger strikers and November 21, 1920 in Croke Park? How the British trained the guns on men, women and children, gathered to watch a friendly game? Afterwards, Dubliners buried their innocent dead quietly - they had to as the military would allow no processions, no flags, nothing. Unlike their own dead, paraded with all honours down the quays, past O’Connell Bridge and the salutes of the waiting dignitaries, and onto the waiting ship at the North Wall. Well, maybe the burning of the Custom House - May 25th 1921 - would turn the tide and make the British realise their extended stay in Ireland was over. Ireland would be independent - whistling steamships on the Liffey would, one day, declare her so.

The War of Independence ended in a truce in July 1921 and the Anglo Irish Treaty was signed that December, eventually bringing the Irish Free State into being.

by Annette Black, Wicklow
Published on 02nd September 2013