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13 January 2005 Edition

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The First Dáil - Remembering the Past


On 21 January 1919, 86 years ago, the first freely elected 32-County Irish assembly met as the first Dáil in the Mansion House in Dublin.

Following the end of World War One, the British Prime Minister Lloyd George, decided to hold a General Election in December 1918. Republicans, many of whom had returned from English jails after the 1916 uprising, were determined to take full advantage of the opportunity provided.

Sinn Féin ran its campaign in an atmosphere of massive intimidation, including the arrest and jailing of over 100 prominent Sinn Féin candidates and activists, the confiscation of election material and the suppression of republican papers. The election result showed that when the Irish people were asked, for the first time in history, to choose between an Irish Republic as expressed in the Sinn Féin manifesto or to support the policies of the Irish Parliamentary Party, which in effect meant the continuing domination of Ireland by Britain, they overwhelmingly and unequivocally demanded an independent 32-County Republic.

They expressed this demand by electing 73 republicans out of a total of 105 seats. Although Sinn Féin won 73 seats, they only had 69 members elected, due to the fact that Eamon de Valera, Liam Mellows, Arthur Griffith, and Eoin MacNeill were each elected to represent two constituencies. The rest of the 105 seats were held by 26 Unionists, all but three in the Six Counties, and by six members of the Irish Parliamentary Party.

The election was the last occasion on which the entire island of Ireland voted in a single election held on a single day, and the landslide victory for Sinn Féin was an overwhelming endorsement of the principle of a United Ireland.

Dáil Éireann assembled for the first time in the Round Room of the Mansion House on Tuesday 21 January 1919. Thirty out of a possible 105 attended. The Unionists and Parliamentary Party members were invited but refused to attend and 34 Sinn Féin elected representatives were held in jail by the British. Michael Collins and Harry Boland were recorded present to conceal the fact that they were in England getting ready to spring de Valera from Lincoln Jail.

The proceedings of the First Dáil were conducted in Irish, French and English. The Dáil elected Cathal Brugha as its Ceann Comhairle. A number of documents were then adopted. The first was the Dáil Constitution and then the Declaration of Independence.

When Cathal Brugha, who read the Declaration of Independence, had finished, he declared to the Hall: "Delegates, you understand from what is asserted in this declaration that we are now done with England. Let the world know it and those who are concerned bear it in mind."

Brugha continued: "Caithfear briseadh do dhéanamh ar an gceangal seo idir an dúiche seo is Sasana. Mura ndéantar sin ní bheidh aon tsíocháin ann." (The connection between this jurisdiction and England must be broken. If it is not there will be no peace).

After the reading of the Declaration, the Message to the Free Nations of the World was read out in Irish by Brugha, in French by Gavan Duffy and in English by Eamon Duggan.

The last document ratified was the Democratic Programme, drafted by the Labour leader Thomas Johnston. The principles of the final document were clearly influenced by James Connolly and have defined Sinn Féin's policies to the present day.

While reiterating the sentiments expressed in the 1916 Proclamation, the Democratic Programme committed Dáil Éireann to "make provision for the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of the children, to secure that no child shall suffer hunger or cold from lack of food, clothing or shelter, but that all shall be provided with the means and facilities requisite for their proper education and training as Citizens of a Free and Gaelic Ireland".

It agreed to replace the Poor Law system with "a sympathetic native scheme for the care of the Nation's aged and infirm, who shall not be regarded as a burden, but rather entitled to the Nation's gratitude and consideration". It would also be the duty of the Dáil to "safeguard the health of the people and ensure the physical as well as the moral well-being of the Nation".

The Programme stated that Dáil Éireann would be responsible for the promotion and development of "the Nation's resources" and the "recreation and invigoration of our industries" in the "interests and for the benefit of the Irish people". The Dáil would be obligated to "prevent the shipment from Ireland of food and other necessaries until the wants of the Irish people are fully satisfied and fully provided for".

Its final provision was for the development of "a standard of Social and Industrial Legislation with a view to a general and lasting improvements in the conditions under which the working classes live and labour".

When Dáil Éireann had risen from its first sitting after two hours, it was greeted outside the Mansion House in Dawson Street by tumultuous cheers from thousands of supporters. The First Dáil had shown that Ireland would no longer accept the rule of Westminster.

And as the crowds cheered the newly-formed government leaving the Mansion House, three IRA men almost echoing the words of Cathal Brugha were returning from a small quarry in Tipperary, they had just taken part in the first action of the Tan War.

Next week: The Solohead-beg ambush

An Phoblacht Magazine


  • The first edition of this new magazine will feature a 10 page special on the life and legacy of our leader Martin McGuinness to mark the first anniversary of his untimely passing.
  • It will include a personal reminiscence by Gerry Adams and contributions from the McGuinness family.
  • There will also be an exclusive interview with our new Uachtarán Mary Lou McDonald.

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