One hundred years ago, Ireland witnessed great change. While the conflict and political unrest of the First World War was drawing to a close, the island was experiencing its own. In May 1921, following the Government of Ireland Act 1920, Ireland was divided into two self-governing polities. The early 1920s were marked by upheaval, conflict for some, together with wider social and economic change. Here are some photographs from National Museums NI’s extensive collections that help create a picture of the events and atmosphere in the years surrounding partition.
Violence and disruption of the 1920s
Home Rule debates
The Home Rule movement, and subsequent anti-Home Rule efforts, are key to understanding partition. The Home Rule movement in Ireland emerged in response to 1801 Act of Union with Britain, and campaigned for Irish self-governance within the United Kingdom. Home Rule efforts received Unionist opposition, largely from Protestants, who were the numerical majority in Ulster. In 1913, the Unionist militia of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) was formed in resistance to Home Rule, which was soon followed by the formation by the rival Irish Nationalist group, the Irish Volunteers, who wished to safeguard the movement. Over the course of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, four Home Rule bills were introduced in the House of Commons (1886, 1893, 1912-14, 1920). Following the failure of the first two acts in passing parliament, the implementation of the third was delayed and complicated by the arrival of the First World War and the events of the 1916 Easter Rising. It was instead replaced with the Government of Ireland Act 1920, leading to Ireland’s partition.
National Museums NI holds a wealth of material relating to the Home Rule movement in Ireland in its collection. Here are just a few examples. They give an insight into how pro and anti- Home Rule efforts manifested themselves, ranging from twelfth of July decorations to large scale gatherings, and how these efforts were communicated, in Ireland and beyond, through visual culture, including postcards.
 James McConnel, ‘Irish Home Rule: An imagined future’ BBC
War and revolution 1914-1919
Between 1914-1919 over 200,000 men from Ireland fought in the First World war. Against the backdrop of global conflict, many significant developments, leading to partition, were happening in Ireland. One event that notoriously led to increased support for Irish independence took place in April 1916; the Easter Rising. This armed insurrection, launched by Irish Republicans to overthrow British Rule, ended with the executions of 16 of its leaders. Negotiations concerning a Home Rule that excluded Ulster and Irish conscription followed but failed. The power of Sinn Fein, committed to an Irish Republic, and led by Eamon De Valera increased. Forming their own Parliament in 1919, they made a declaration of independence. Home Rule was no longer enough. The objective was an Irish Republic.
 Creative Centenaries - 1914 Outbreak of the First World War
Irish War of Independence
Partition took place during, and partly in response to, the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921). This campaign against government forces was mounted by the Irish Volunteers, increasingly known at the time as the Irish Republican Army. In 1921, the total death toll had come to 405 police, 150 military, and an estimated 750 IRA and civilians. Within Belfast, the death toll was 416, 257 of which were Catholics, despite only forming a quarter of the city’s population. In 1921 a truce was reached and the Anglo-Irish treaty was signed, creating an Irish Free State, which Northern Ireland officially opted out of in 1922. While there are no photographs of the guerrilla warfare that ensued within National Museums NI’s collections, there are images relating to the key groups involved, including the IRA and the Royal Irish Constabulary.
 S.J Conolly, Oxford companion to Irish History (Oxford, 2011), pp, 16-17.
 Jonathan Bardon, Belfast: a century (Belfast, 1999), p. 41.
Violence and disruption of the 1920s
Partition did not see the end of violence. Between 1922-3 the Irish Free State witnessed the Irish Civil War between the pro-treaty Irish Government and the anti-treaty IRA. Northern Ireland was not free from disruption. While ‘ethnic division had manifested itself in waves’ throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century in Belfast, sectarian division, conflict and rioting, were exacerbated by fears surrounding Home Rule and partition.
Some photographs in National Museums NI’s collections relate to the ‘Troubles’ of the early twenties in Belfast. These include a number of images of buildings in the city, reportedly burned by the IRA in May 1922. Sectarian segregation in workplaces, and expulsion of Catholic workers and perceived sympathisers (most notably in 1920-22 when up to 1,000 were shut out) also led to a decrease in immigration to the city. A photograph showing the Valleleys, a Catholic family from County Tyrone, can be seen below. This family were migrating to Canada in 1929. Rural to urban migration occurred at a tremendous scale in the early twentieth century, as Belfast industry boomed. As well as industrial decline, sectarianism and violence may have discouraged many families to move to Belfast, emigrating further afield.
 S.J Conolly, Oxford companion to Irish History (Oxford, 2011), p. 44.
Opening of Parliament
On 22 June 1921, the official state opening of the Northern Ireland parliament took place in Belfast City Hall. The King and Queen were in attendance and were received with ‘a wholehearted welcome’ by the throngs that gathered. The Northern Whig reported that, ‘The Royal route was densely lined by vast crowds, and senses of unparalleled enthusiasm marked their majesties’ progress to and from the City and Ulster halls’. This elevated photograph taken by Belfast photographer R.J Welch records the vast crowds and atmosphere of the occasion. In this image, the barricade between the crowd and the procession can be seen, which included some vehicles, seen bottom left, and lines of troops, some of which are on horseback. The local press commented that, while it was essential to separate the crowds from the objects of their loyalty and devotion ‘a real Ulster welcome’ would have involved ‘a fierce grip of the hand, and possibly an ordeal known as chairing’.
 Northern Whig, 23 June 1921.