1 September 2014 Edition
Derry Ard Fheis next year not first major republican rally in Maiden City
The extension of the franchise to women was particularly important in Derry, given the large numbers of women who had come to the city to work in the shirt factories
TWO THOUSAND republicans will gather in Derry next March for the annual Sinn Féin Ard Fheis. It may be the first time Derry has hosted the Ard Fheis but it is certainly not the first time the city has hosted such a large gathering of republicans.
Following the recent election success of Sinn Féin throughout Ireland, comparisons have been made with the landslide elections of 1918 but the comparisons do not end there.
In that historic year, Derry hosted a series of mass Sinn Féin meetings, culminating in a ‘monster meeting’ in St Columb’s Hall attended by more than 2,500 people.
The former parish hall in the city centre is located next to the Millennium Forum theatre which will host next year’s Ard Fheis.
While modern health and safety standards will not allow such a large crowd for the 2015 Ard Fheis, it will undoubtedly be the largest mobilisation of republicans in Derry for many years.
The series of mass meetings began in 1917 during a period of heightened political activity across Ireland.
In the aftermath of the Easter Rising and the executions of its leaders, separatist feeling was increasing throughout the country but Derry appeared to be isolated from the rest of the island.
In July 1917, an RIC County Inspector, in a report to a British Government Under-Secretary, stated that Sinn Féin was “not making any headway in Derry city” and that the only evidence of any republican activity was a number of flags on display in other parts of the county.
• The conscription crisis in 1918 led to a surge in support for Sinn Féin in Derry
That situation was to change rapidly over the course of the next year with the formation of the PH Pearse Sinn Féin Cumann, which had its headquarters in rooms on Richmond Street, close to where the Millennium Forum now stands.
As the First World War dragged on, Britain was becoming increasingly short of recruits and was preparing to introduce conscription in Ireland, a plan that was highly unpopular among nationalists and even among some unionists.
The issue led many nationalists who had previously been supporters of Home Rule to support Sinn Féin.
It resulted in the first of the major meetings in St Columb’s Hall in 1918 when the newly-formed Anti-Partitionist Irish Nation League, led by Bishop of Derry Charles McHugh, held an anti-conscription rally.
The meeting was addressed by Hugh C. O’Doherty, who later became the first nationalist mayor of Derry.
The conscription crisis led to a surge in support for Sinn Féin in Derry and, on 2 September 1918, the party held its first public meeting in St Columb’s Hall attended by more than 2,000 people.
Chief of Staff of the Irish Volunteers and co-founder of the Gaelic League, Professor Eoin MacNeill, addressed the meeting alongside Laurence Ginnell, Independent Nationalist MP for Westmeath North.
An RIC Inspector who made a report on the meeting dismissed the large crowd, claiming it was “mostly from reasons of curiosity” despite the fact that many of those present completed applications to join Sinn Féin.
• The extension of the franchise to women was particularly important in Derry, given the large numbers of women who had come to the city to work in the shirt factories
Two months later, shortly after the end of the First World War, Sinn Féin in Derry selected Eoin MacNeill as its candidate in the forthcoming election.
Following a meeting between Cardinal Michael Logue and Sinn Féin leaders, Bishop of Derry Dr McHugh backed Professor MacNeil’s candidacy, writing a letter of support to the Derry Journal and making a donation to his election expenses.
The next week the largest political demonstration ever held in Derry took place in St Columb’s Hall when more than 2,500 people attended a meeting in support of Professor MacNeill.
Councillor Hugh C. O’Doherty also addressed the meeting and praised the role of women in the struggle for Irish freedom.
His speech came just weeks after the passing of the Representation of the People Act, which extended the franchise to women.
This was particularly important in Derry, given the large numbers of women who had come to the city to work in the shirt factories. The legislation meant that numbers of the electorate in Derry jumped from 6,000 to 16,000 just ahead of the election.
The results of the election showed that the huge attendance at the meetings was based on more than curiosity when Eoin MacNeill was elected as the Sinn Féin representative for Derry.