What’s going to happen to Tom Branson and Lady Sybil?
As “Downton Abbey” fans watch Sunday for the next plot twists of the popular “Masterpiece” series on PBS, some might be wondering about the backdrop in Ireland at the time. Season Three begins with Tom and Sybil living in 1920s Dublin.
Here’s a quick primer on what happened in Irish politics immediately before and during this period:
Season One of “Downton Abbey” begins in April 1912 with news of the Titanic disaster. Men like Branson were talking again about Ireland becoming an independent country after centuries of English (and later British) rule. In the spring of 1914, the British Parliament authorized a form of limited domestic autonomy for Ireland called home rule. But the political accommodation was immediately suspended due to the outbreak of war with Germany. Matthew Crawley and the footmen William and Thomas fight; Branson didn’t go because as an Irish national, he wasn’t subject to the draft.
Though Britain promised to reinstate home rule after the war, militant republican factions among Irish nationalists grew restless. (Here, “republican” means favoring elected representation instead of a monarchy, not the American political party.) At Easter 1916, republicans launched an insurrection in Dublin by seizing several government buildings and posting the Proclamation of the Irish Republic:
IRISHMEN AND IRISHWOMEN: In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom…
The revolutionaries had scant support in Dublin and the rest of Ireland, since many Irish men volunteered to fight on the continent with British troops. The “Easter Rising” was crushed in a week. Branson remarks in Season Two that he would have returned to Ireland to fight with the republicans if the fighting hadn’t ended so fast. Plus, he was sweet on Sybil.
The British government soon made the tactical error of executing the revolutionary leaders. This created a backlash in Ireland (and America) that shifted popular support to the nationalist cause. By January 1919, two months after the armistice ending World War I, Irish republicans once again declared independence, established their own government in Dublin and began a guerilla war against British military and police forces. The conflict, known as the Irish War of Independence or Anglo-Irish War, took place about the time that Season Three starts.
The brutality of the period is probably best exemplified by the events of “Bloody Sunday” in November 1920. Irish republican operatives under the direction of Michael Collins carried out the assassinations of 19 British Army intelligence officers living in Dublin. The British retaliated later the same day by opening fire on the civilian crowd at a football match, killing 14 and wounding scores more.
The two sides reached a ceasefire in the summer of 1921 and began to negotiate a peace treaty. In early 1922 this resulted in the creation of the Irish Free State for 26 counties in southern Ireland. Six northeast counties remained linked to Britain and were partitioned as Northern Ireland.
Free State status was similar to Britain’s arrangements with Canada and Australia. It provided more domestic autonomy than originally contemplated by home rule, but Ireland remained under the monarchy and far short of an independent republic. This caused a split between hardline republicans and moderate nationalists. The ensuing Irish Civil War over the next year claimed more lives than the three-year conflict with Britain.
The Free State forces prevailed by the summer of 1923 and a decade of violence in Ireland finally came to an end. The 26 counties of the south would not achieve republic status until 1949. The six northeast counties remain partitioned to this day.
For “Downton” fans looking for more details, the BBC has an excellent online presentation that explores the entire period “through essays, photographs, sound archive, music and newspapers from the period.” The Irish Bureau of Military History also has a deep archive of interviews, maps and images from the war years.