May 3, 2022

The Partition of Ireland

The Partition of Ireland

May 3, 1921. The Government of Ireland Act comes into force, officially partitioning Ireland into two separate countries.


Cold Open

It’s late morning on April 24th, 1916, in Dublin, Ireland.

A group of thirty men and women march through the center of the city. They are all members of the Irish Citizen Army – a nationalist paramilitary organization whose goal is Irish independence from Great Britain. Leading the way is a 34-year-old captain in the Irish Citizen Army, Sean Connolly. Connolly’s heart pounds as he sees the turrets of Dublin Castle looming up ahead. This monstrous building is the center of the British administration in Ireland and – to Irish nationalists – it’s a symbol of occupation.

The door of the castle gatehouse swings open and a policeman steps out.

Connolly removes his pistol from its holster and cocks the weapon. Startled by the sight of Connolly’s rebel soldiers, the policeman scrambles to unholster his weapon. But Connolly is faster... and the policeman falls to the ground dead. 

Connolly and the rest of the rebels storm the gates, intent on reaching the British officials inside. But as they charge across the castle courtyard… they come under heavy fire from British rifles. Realizing they’re outgunned, Connolly orders his men to retreat. They fall back and hurry through the city center until they reach the rebel stronghold at Dublin City Hall.

There, Connolly and his rebel soldiers race upstairs… and take up a defensive position on the roof, crouching low to stay out of sight. Connolly lifts his head to check the enemy’s position. But as he peers out over the city… he is struck by a British sniper’s bullet. 

Sean Connolly will be the first rebel soldier killed during this insurrection, which will come to be known as the Easter Rising. For six days, battles will rage across Dublin, as Irish nationalists attempt to overthrow the ruling British government. The Easter Rising will ultimately fail, but the actions of Sean Connolly and others will inspire a surge in support for the cause for which they fought and died: Irish independence.

But on the issue of national sovereignty, Ireland is largely divided into two camps: the nationalists who want independence; and the unionists who prefer to remain part of the United Kingdom. The split between these two groups will spark a period of sectarian violence that will culminate in the partition of Ireland into two countries, a separation that comes into force by an act of parliament on May 3rd, 1921.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is May 3rd: The Partition of Ireland.

Act One: 1918 Election

It’s December 28th, 1918, in Lincoln, England; two years before the partition of Ireland. 

Inside his cell at Lincoln Jail, a tall and thin prisoner named Éamon de Valera paces back and forth, his hands clasped behind his back.

Éamon is the leader of an Irish nationalist party called Sinn Féin. For years, Sinn Féin existed on the fringes of the political mainstream. Many of its adherence believed the best way to achieve sovereignty was not through acts of parliament; but through violent insurrection. And for a time, the party’s tactics frightened many moderate Irish people who shared Sinn Féin’s goal of independence. But then came the Easter Rising. After this failed insurrection, the British Government rounded up the people responsible and put them to death by firing squad. As a result, many formally moderate Irish nationalists began to rally around Sinn Féin.

Fearing the growing influence of this controversial political party, the British government decided to muzzle its charismatic leader, Éamon de Valera. In 1918, the government accused Éamon of colluding with Germany during World War I. There was no truth to the allegations, but that didn’t stop the authority from imprisoning him in Lincoln Jail.

But even behind bars, Éamon exerts a tremendous influence. Ten days ago, the citizens of the United Kingdom went to the ballot box to vote in a general election that, in a sense, was a referendum on the question of Irish independence. In Ireland, Members of Sinn Féin who want independence are running to unseat members of the political establishment who want to remain part of the United Kingdom.

Today, as Éamon paces in his cell, he anxiously awaits the results of the election. Soon, he hears the jangling of keys as a guard approaches and tosses a newspaper through the bars. Éamon scoops the paper up from the ground and scrambles to look at the front page. Triumph flashes across his face. The headline reads: Sinn Féin Sweeps Ireland!

Candidates aligned with Éamon and Sinn Féin win in Southern Ireland driving most of the establishment politicians from office. And following the election, in Dublin, they form their own government and declare Ireland’s independence.

Éamon is ecstatic, but he knows this declaration won’t go unchallenged. He sees struggles for his people on the horizon, and he wants to lead them. So, Éamon decides it’s time to break out of prison.

Éamon is a devout Catholic and volunteers in the prison chapel. And while working there one day, he spots the means of his salvation: the chaplain’s key to a door that leads to the perfect escape route; the prison exercise yard. Éamon collects soft wax from the candles in the church. While the chaplain is distracted, he makes an impression of the key. Now, all he has to do is send the key’s design and dimensions to Sinn Féin members on the outside.

But any correspondence from prisoners must first get by the prison censors. So Éamon employs the help of another prisoner, a fellow Irish nationalist. Éamon’s cohort creates a postcard featuring an elaborate cartoon of a drunk man trying to fit a giant key into a tiny keyhole. Hidden in plain sight on the drawing are the designs and dimensions of the chaplain’s key. But the censors don’t catch it, and soon, the postcard is sent on its way.

Before long, Éamon receives a gift at the prison: a fruitcake with a key baked inside. It takes him multiple attempts, but eventually, on February 3rd, 1919, Éamon unlocks the door, slips into the exercise yard, scales the fence, and walks to his freedom. Éamon will one day serve as Ireland’s Prime Minister, but for the time being, he's the man on the run, and he flees to the United States to garner support and funds for Sinn Féin’s newly declared independent Ireland.

But as Sinn Féin gains ground with overseas supporters and across the southern region of Ireland, in the Northern part of the country, there’s a different political party on the rise, one that vehemently opposes independence: the Ulster Union Party.


It’s July 12th, 1919, seven months after the 1918 general election.

In Belfast, several thousand people have gathered to hear a speech by the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, Sir Edward Carson. Carson – a towering, barrel-chested aristocrat – shakes his fist as he rails against Sinn Féin’s attempt to turn Ireland into an independent republic. Carson’s voice booms across the crowd as he announces: “we confidently reassert that a Parliamentary Union with Great Britain is essential for the preservation of our liberties.”

The people roar their approval. 

The northern Irish province of Ulster is very different from the rest of the Ireland. In the seventeenth century, English agricultural workers flocked to the uninhabited region of Ulster to establish plantations, and with them, they brought their religion – Protestantism. But the rest of Ireland remained staunchly Catholic. And it wasn’t long before this religious divide sparked political disagreement.

The British government refuses to recognize the legitimacy of this new Irish Republic. But still, many Ulster Unionists are afraid for their future. For one thing, they’re a Protestant minority in a Catholic country. For another, Ulster’s industrial economy relies on links with Great Britain and her Empire; independence could be financially devastating. 

So they work hard, organize, and become a political force in the north. And this rise of the Ulster Unionists doesn’t go unnoticed by the leaders of Sinn Féin. But with Éamon de Valera in America, the Irish nationalist fight will have to find a new leader at home: an Irish intelligence expert named Michael Collins. Michael’s often brutal tactics will lead to a further rise in violence and a deadly clash that will come to be known as Bloody Sunday.

Act Two: Bloody Sunday

It’s fall of 1920 in a Catholic Church in Dublin, about six months before the partition of Ireland.

A man named Vinny Byrne steps into a confessional and kneels. Vinny is a member of the growing military wing of Sinn Féin known as the Irish Republican Army, or the IRA, Vinney speaks through the lattice work that divides penitent from priest and says, “Bless me father, for I have sinned.”

Under the command of Michael Collins, IRA’s Director of Intelligence, Vinny works in a special unit known by members as “The Squad.” Michael Collins has ordered these soldiers to carry out hits on spies and informants who have worked their way into Sinn Féin and the IRA. Vinny has recently killed one of these spies. And he’s here, in this church, to confess. 

Vinny does not hold back the truth. He tells the priest that he shot a man dead. Vinny says he did it because he’s a soldier, and it’s his duty to kill spies. The priest listens to Vinny’s confession and his reasoning. And before giving Vinny his blessing, the priest smiles and says, “Good man…”

Michael Collins has worked hard to bring members of the Catholic Church to his side. Michael is a student of history. And he knows his battle cannot be waged with guns alone, it must also be fought with words and ideas. Through a powerful propaganda machine, Michael has managed to win the hearts and minds of majority of the Irish Catholics in the South, including many of the country’s priests and bishops.

But even with support from the Church, Michael, and the IRA face a legion of enemies. The Ulster Unionists continue to rally support in Northern Ireland, especially with Protestants. And British authorities have established a vast intelligence unit in Ireland to support the soldiers they have on the ground and to undermine the nascent Sinn Féin government.

Michael is well aware that the IRA can never outman the British military or the British-backed police in Ireland. But he does believe if he can strike military leaders and cause enough damage, the IRA will continue to gain ground and ultimately, force the British to leave Ireland for good. Michael says he is “a builder not a destroyer.” But he makes it clear he’s not afraid to “get rid of people” if they hinder his work. And soon enough, Michael will decide to get rid of some British Army officers.


On November 21st, 1920, four men walk down a quiet street in south Dublin. They’re members of a notorious IRA hit squad known as “the Twelve Apostles”. One of the assassins clutches a piece of paper with the names and addresses of British Army officers reportedly living in the area. With the peaks of their flat caps pulled down low, the assassins approach the first house and kick in the front door. In a bedroom upstairs, they find a British officer asleep in his bed. They draw their pistols and riddle him with bullets.

All around Dublin, similar scenes are unfolding as part of an elaborate scheme masterminded by the IRA’s Director of Intelligence, Michael Collins. Before the morning is over, nine British officers will be dead.

When the British authorities learn about the assassinations, they demand retaliation. Soon, they receive a tip that IRA gunmen are hiding in the crowd at a Gaelic football match in Croke Park, a stadium in Dublin.

So later that afternoon, British constables descend on the area. The scene quickly descends into chaos when the constables begin firing indiscriminately into the crowd. By the end of Bloody Sunday – as this day of violence will come to be known – twenty-nine people will be dead, including fourteen innocent civilians.

And in a few short weeks, war rages all across Ireland, as British-backed Irish police clash with the IRA over control of the country. The conflict is known as the Irish War of Independence, and between 1919 and 1921, it will claim over 2,000 lives.

Even as Ireland burns with the flames of civil war, politicians in London are desperate to find a solution to the Irish Problem. That solution will be known as “Partition.”

“The Government of Ireland Act”, as it's called, partitions the country into two self-governing political entities: Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland. The measure will largely be ignored by Sinn Féin. And it will be met with resentment from many Ulster Unionists, as well. As a solution to a crisis, the partition seems to make almost no one happy.

The division lines leave Catholic minorities in the North, and Protestant minorities in the South, and both feel as though they’re being abandoned. But as the act officially comes into effect on May 3rd, 1921, a new, unpopular political reality takes hold in Ireland. But May 3rd comes and goes without much in the way of resistance.

One month later, Britain’s King, George V, will come to Belfast to inaugurate the new Northern Irish parliament. The monarch will address a cheering crowd, and the King will voice his sincere hopes for reconciliation between the north and south; but ultimately, in vain.

The partition of Ireland will mark a new chapter in a sectarian conflict that will rage throughout the 20th century; one that will give rise to a violent struggle in Northern Ireland known as “The Troubles”, a period of bloodshed that will last from the late 1960s to the late 1990s. It won’t be until nearly a hundred years after the date of Partition that the violence finally wanes and reconciliation is sought, and unification becomes a new possibility.

Act Three: Northern Ireland Centennial

It’s May 3rd, 2021 in Lisburn, Northern Ireland.

A band marches down the rain-soaked streets of the city. Cheers from the windows of houses and from small groups gathered along the road blend in with the music.

The band is marching to commemorate the date 100 years earlier when Partition officially created Northern Ireland. The celebration is small due to restrictions related to the global pandemic caused by COVID-19.

But the fervor of the participants cannot be muted. Soon, the band passes a group of protestors; some hold signs calling for a united Ireland that would bring the Republic of Ireland in the South and Northern Ireland back together.

Similar events are taking place across the region. Bands are marching and church services are being held. But many Irish people are not sure what they’re supposed to be celebrating. The spectacles in the street do not erase the many questions that remain about the region’s future, or its difficult past.

At a parade in Belfast, Northern Ireland’s largest city, Sinn Féin makes their presence known. Members of the Irish nationalist political party drape a large banner over a tower block. Along with the Sinn Féin logo, the banner reads, “A United Ireland is for everyone. Let’s talk about it.” Before the day is over, authorities will take the banner down.

And British Prime Minister Boris Johnson issues a measured statement, saying: "The government will continue to showcase all the brilliant things Northern Ireland contributes to the rest of the UK and the world…[but] it is also important that we pause to reflect on the complex history of the last 100 years.”

The “complex history” between Ireland and the United Kingdom began long before the formation of Northern Ireland. But 100 years on, the scars remain from the conflict that pit neighbor against neighbor and tore families apart along dividing lines that were made official when the country was partitioned by the Government of Ireland Act, which came into effect on May 3rd, 1921.


Next on History Daily. May 4th, 1553. Carthusian monks are hanged, drawn, and quartered for their refusal to acknowledge King Henry VIII as the Supreme Head of the Church of England.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Derek Behrens.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.