How the election of December 14, 1918, led to the sitting of the first free Dáil.
The Great War ended on November 11, 1918. Soon to follow would be the general election on December 14. It would be a crucial step on the journey to Irish nationhood.
There were four critical actions that led to Irish freedom:
- The 1916 Easter Rising
- The general election of 1918 and the subsequent establishment of the First Dáil
- The War of Independence 1919-1921
- The Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 6, 1921
Count Plunkett leads the way
The general election of 1918 was as important as the other three events because for the Irish state to come into existence there must be not only a military solution but also a political one. And the Sinn Féiners, as they were called, became very good at the polling booth from 1917 on.
It should be noted that the Irish felt endangered by England’s adventure on the continent. The biggest danger throughout 1917 and into 1918 was the English threat to start conscripting, or drafting, Irishmen into the British army. For once, the country, from the Republican leadership to the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), to the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, stood united.
The rebels’ introduction to electoral politics came in early 1917 when James J. Kelly, MP, of the Irish Parliamentary Party representing the North Roscommon constituency, died. It was decided that Count George Noble Plunkett, father of 1916 martyr Joseph Mary Plunkett, would stand for the seat. His campaign was run by Father Michael O’Flanagan.
In her important book, “All in the Blood,” Geraldine Plunkett Dillon, daughter of Count Plunkett, recalls the campaign. “Pa made a favourable impression of good feeling, culture and proper democracy and he would go into a pub and take a drink and converse politely with everyone. Joe’s death was still a heavy grief to him and, in spite of his efforts not to show it, it got him down sometimes. Ma [Countess Plunkett], who joined him there, was not a success. She condescended too much and her political gossip was idiotic.”
Plunkett political victory on February 3, 1917, shocked everyone, including Plunkett and the IPP.
“Pa polled 3,022 votes,” Dillon wrote, “was elected with a majority of about 1,200. We had thought he might scrape in but the big majority was incredible. There was great rejoicing. The people in sympathy were experiencing a sensation new to people of that time, a sensation of success—a new kind of victory for them and for Ireland. The actual amount of support for a revolutionary policy was surprising and it became apparent that the work had to go on and that it was being pushed from below. The Irish Party followers were stunned, they described the Roscommon result as ruinous and took it very badly.”
Plunkett’s victory also would lead to another important symbol of resistance.
At that point, the IPP led by John Redmond was still urging Irishmen to join the British army and be slaughtered on the fields of France. The IPP was also still sitting in the parliament at Westminster, the seat of the British government.
Plunkett decided that he would not take his seat at Westminster in protest against the British.
“I am returned to Dublin pledged by the electors of North Roscommon to recognize no foreign authority,” Count Plunkett wrote, “to maintain the rights of Ireland to independence and to initiate Ireland’s work of taking control of her own affairs.”
By taking this stand, Plunkett—and all future elected Republican parliamentary figures—would be taking Ireland’s future into their own hands without British interference.
“Put Him In to Get Him Out”
Three months later in May 1917, the Sinn Féin had another opportunity in Longford. Michael Collins thought it would be a good idea for Joseph McGuinness, locked up in Lewes jail for his actions during 1916, to stand for the seat. Eamon de Valera, also incarcerated in England at this time, didn’t agree.
“As regards the contesting of elections questions,” de Valera wrote, “it is so extremely dangerous from several points of view that most of us here consider it unwise.”
Collins decided to ignore de Valera. Even without McGuinness’ permission, Collins put him up for election with a poster proclaiming: “Put Him In to Get Him Out.”
It was a close race.
According to Tim Pat Coogan in his “Michael Collins: A Biography,” “On the first count the Irish Parliamentary Party candidate, Patrick MacKenna, was declared elected. However, as [Collins biographer Piaras] Beaslai puts it, ‘a bundle of uncounted votes was then discovered’ and McGuinness won by thirty-seven votes.”
That’s the sanitized account. Others have said that the “recount” happened with Michael Collins holding a .45 at the head of the tallyman. The end result was that the rebels gained another seat that would not be represented at Westminster.
The general election of 1918
On November 11, there were celebrations by loyalists—Trinity College students, British soldiers and Dublin Metropolitan Police—in Dublin. Drunk with hubris at the Allies’ victory, they marched up to Sinn Féin headquarters at #6 Harcourt Street and a riot ensued.
Led by Harry Boland, Republicans took to the streets with cudgels to mute said celebrations. The Mater, St. Vincent’s and Jervis Street hospitals filled with injured loyalists, much to the pleasure of Michael Collins as he wrote to Austin Stack: “As a result of the various encounters there were 125 cases of wounded soldiers treated at the Dublin hospitals that night….Before morning, 3 soldiers and 1 officer had ceased to need any attention and one other died the following day. A policeman too was in a very precarious condition up to a few days ago when I ceased to take any further interest in him. He was unlikely to recover.”
Thus, the stage was set for the General Election on December 14, 1918. The Republicans echoed Count Plunkett and said that they would not go to Westminster but would have their own parliament in Dublin.
What resulted was an overwhelming victory for Sinn Féin as described by Tim Pat Coogan in his Collins biography: “For the moment the country was so grateful for the defeat of conscription that it obliterated the Irish Parliamentary Party and gave Sinn Féin a majority in all but four counties, Antrim, Derry, Armagh, and Down. Sinn Féin won 73 out of 105 seats. The Irish Parliamentary Party was reduced from 80 to 6 seats. The Unionists, whose voices sounded so loud at the Council Chambers of the mighty in London, made a fainter sound in Ireland, securing 315,394 votes out of a total of 1,526,910. But this was not the customary four-fifths majority of Home Rule. In this election, the electorate had cast their votes for a party that said it stood for the All-Ireland Irish Republic, sovereign and independent of England.”
The first Dáil Éireann convenes
While Ulster’s loyalist MPs headed for Westminster, the first Dáil convened at the Mansion House in Dublin on January 21, 1919. The Republic’s first Teachtai Dála, Deputies to the Dáil, or TDs (the Irish version of MP), were sworn in. Twenty-five—including Collins who was in England trying to break de Valera out of Lincoln Gaol, were listed as “i láthair” or “present.”
Forty-three, including de Valera, were not as lucky. In their absence, they were described as being “fé ghlas ag Gallaibh,” or “imprisoned by the foreign enemy.”
De Valera, sprung from prison, became the Príomh-Aire, or First Minister (AKA, Prime Minister) of the Dáil. Then in May of 1919, he disappeared to America and signed himself into the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City as the august “President” of the Irish Republic. Thus, with a flick of the pen, Príomh-Aire was no more and the world got themselves “President” de Valera.
In de Valera’s absence, the Minister for Finance, Michael Collins, swiftly moved in to fill the void.
In the summer of 1919 he created his infamous assassination Squad, the “Twelve Apostles,” and there was a full-blown guerrilla war underway, not only in the countryside but also in the streets of Dublin.
During the height of the War of Independence, the Government of Ireland Act (AKA, the fourth Home Rule Bill) was introduced in 1920. It was described, apparently with a straight face, as “An Act to provide for the better government of Ireland.”
Under this Act, the government of Northern Ireland was created on May 3, 1921. It consisted of the Ulster counties of Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Derry and Tyrone. When the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed on December 6, 1921, the Northern Ireland parliament petitioned King George V to opt out of the Treaty which created the Irish Free State and which by 1949 would morph into the Republic of Ireland. Thus, on the small island of Ireland, there were two distinct and separate governments.
The Anglo-Irish Treaty was approved by Dáil Éireann on January 7, 1922. The final vote was 64-57. With the establishment of the Free State, Ireland was, albeit fractured, a nation once again.
* Dermot McEvoy is the author of the “The 13th Apostle: A Novel of Michael Collins and the Irish Uprising” and “Our Lady of Greenwich Village,” both now available in paperback, Kindle and Audio from Skyhorse Publishing. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at www.dermotmcevoy.com. Follow The 13th Apostle on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/13thApostleMcEvoy.