W.B. Yeats' The Tower marks a shift away from references to Irish mythology, toward an increasingly political consciousness. "1919" and "Meditations in Time of Civil War" are the most specific in terms of their then contemporary and now historical subject matter-the former refers to the first year of the Anglo-Irish War (1919-1921), the latter to the Irish Civil War (1922-23). The Tower is an unavoidably political collection of poetry. Even while its name suggests the poet’s willed isolation, Yeats could not escape the radical changes that his country underwent in the 1920s. Written in 1928, the collection serves as a type of retrospective on Ireland’s tumultuous decade, the two major events of which were the Anglo-Irish War (1919-1921) and the Irish Civil War (1922-23).
Ireland was invaded by the British in the 12th century and remained its colony until the 20th. Various reformers had sought measures of self-determination (called Home Rule) for Ireland in the 19th century. The two most famous of these were Daniel O’Connell, a Catholic who gathered huge rallies, and Charles Stewart Parnell, a Protestant who represented the Irish cause to the British until news of his adultery split his following in half. At the beginning of WWI, the Irish nationalists (or Republicans) agreed to fight if they were promised self-rule. The British promised, but continued to delay the day on which Ireland would be given its own parliament. This strategy sufficed during the war, with the exception of a rebellion in 1916—quashed by the British within a week—but fell apart in 1918, when WWI ended. The British no longer had an excuse.
The Irish Republican Army (IRA) had its roots in older organizations, but began to coalesce and recruit in earnest before launching a guerrilla campaign against the British army in 1919. The violence, centered in Western and Southwestern Ireland, targeted many Protestant homes, and, of course, British soldiers. Britain responded by sending over a notoriously brutal auxiliary force, the Black and Tans, who were also ineffective in stopping the IRA.
In 1921, Britain ended what they called a Rebellion, what many in Ireland called the War of Liberation, and what the rest of the world called the Anglo-Irish War. The peace treaty, signed by Prime Minister Lloyd George and Irish Republican Leader Michael Collins, included the partition of Northern Ireland and a requirement that the independent nation give a vow of allegiance to the British king. Michael Collins famously said, “I’m signing my death warrant.”
As soon as Collins returned to Ireland to set up the new state, known as the Irish Free State, he was met with resistance from the hardcore members of the IRA, led by Eamon de Valera. Enraged by the proposed allegiance to the king, they launched a civil war, pitting the Irregulars—the hardcore IRA members—against the more moderate Free Staters. When it became clear that there was no constituency to support the Irregular guerrilla fighters, as there had been to support the IRA during the Anglo-Irish War, the violence ceased, but not after much brutality on both sides.
The years following 1923 were spent healing wounds and mounting the framework for a welfare state. Yeats himself briefly served as a senator in the new Irish Free State, and presided over the decision to make the Irish language mandatory in schools. Yeats was ambivalent about the independence movement, because he supported its aims but not its means, and he was aghast at the Civil War.