29 January 2009 Edition
An Chéad Dáil: 90th anniversary commemoration
‘Sure, where else would you be?’
BY ELLA O’DWYER
THE Sinn Féin commemorative evening to mark the 90th anniversary of An Chéad Dáil, held in the Mansion House on Wednesday evening 21 January – in the actual venue and on the actual anniversary of the original event – was an inspiring occasion.
My first inkling of the size of the attendance was when, while heading up from Kildare Street towards Dawson Street, I was met by a lengthening queue of people waiting to get into the Mansion House. For some, the wait would be in vain as the historic Round Room was packed to capacity with about 800 people inside and hundreds more outside. I got in because I was covering the event for An Phoblacht. On my way in I was confronted by the faces of leading republicans leaving. The 1986 Ard Fheis sprang to mind – another split or what? “Where are ye going,” I asked? “We’re going out to leave room for others,” they replied in a comradely chorus. Not a split in sight.
When I got in I met more than a few familiar faces, faces from the four corners of Ireland, who had arrived about 2pm and remained all day, determined to see the finale and squatting to the bitter end.
While it was disappointing that so many couldn’t get in, the massive attendance spoke volumes for the importance of the First Dáil in the Irish psyche and, from what I’ve heard, our comrades who were left outside didn’t begrudge the joy of those who did get in. But people who did get in were very concerned for those left outside and many generously gave up their seats so that other republicans could witness this historic spectacle.
Bairbre de Brún MEP expressed her pride at the huge numbers. “The crowd here and outside shows the strength of feeling amongst people about the importance of this date.”
Josie Sheppard, an older and well-known Dublin republican stalwart, spoke of her joy at being present: “It’s an honour to be here on such an important occasion – where else would you be tonight? Martin McGuinness gave up his seat for me!”
Martin left the Mansion House to make room for someone else and stayed with the crowd outside. Gerry Adams also went out to update the waiting crowds on developments before returning to give the keynote speech. He left a kind of iconic image – the republican leader standing on a wall to let people know what was going on.
Dáil leader Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin and Sinn Féin Councillor Christy Burke likewise left to make space for others and to be with the people outside. There were, in fact, very many republicans beyond the leadership who gave up their seats to let Irish citizens in, went to Mansion House Security to say they’d left their place and “now there’s room for another”. Gradually, others were let in.
When you did get in you were met with an impressive exhibition in the Round Room representing republican history from the early 20th century to modern-day republicanism – pictures of Connolly, the GPO, Markievicz, the First Dáil, Mairéad Farrell, Bobby Sands, Máire Drumm, the 100th anniversary of Sinn Féin...
The whole evening’s event was laced with renditions from talented singers and musicians including Mary Mullen, Niamh Denameade, Darren Magee and James Mahon. Of particular interest was a theatrical performance scripted by Sinn Féin’s Shane MacThomáis and enacted by Jack Moylett, Alison Mullin, Paul Ward and Oisín Mac Suibhne. The enactment brought the reality of events surrounding the 1918 election to life for the audience.
Narrator Jack Moylett addressed the audience:
“Sinn Féin candidates scored a spectacular victory in the 1918 Westminster elections. The result announced on 28 December gave the party 73 out of a total of 105 seats. Of the remainder, the Irish Parliamentary Party got just six seats and the remaining 26 went to unionists.
“Sinn Féin candidates stood on the policy of self-determination for Ireland and declared they would not be taking their seats in the Westminster parliament. This abstentionist policy has been adopted by Sinn Féin candidates in all elections since 1917.”
Actress Alison Mullen went on to quote an actual excerpt from The Freeman’s Journal, a paper which was sympathetic to the Irish Parliamentary Party:
“The meaning of the Irish vote is as clear as it is emphatic. More than two thirds of the electors throughout nationalist Ireland have endorsed the Sinn Féin programme. They invited the people to join in the demand for the Republic as something immediately obtainable, practicable as well as desirable – the declaration that they would accept nothing else and nothing less.”
Before making a presentation to special guest and SIPTU President Jack O’Connor on the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the Irish Transport & General Workers’ Union, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin sparked a round of resounding applause when, referring the rushed, stuffy and rather unimaginative Oireachtas-organised event the day previously, he said:
“I was here in this room yesterday with republicans and others at an event that marked the 90th anniversary of the First Dáil. Tonight I’m at a celebration!”
Going on to introduce Jack O’Connor he said:
“The ITGWU for the first time organised the unorganised, the lowest-paid and the most harshly treated workers in Ireland. Jim Larkin lit a fire that blazed in 1913 and forged in the struggle of the Great Lock-Out a trade union movement that grew from strength to strength.
“James Connolly led the vanguard of that movement in the Irish Citizen Army without which there would have been no rising in 1916.
“Organised labour defeated conscription in the General Strike of 1918.
“The ideals of Connolly were enshrined in the Democratic Programme adopted by the First Dáil here 90 years ago.
“Ever since then, the most progressive sections of the republican and trade union movements have always acted on James Connolly’s words: that the cause of Ireland is the cause of labour and the cause of labour is the cause of Ireland – they cannot be separated.
Addressing the current political and economic context, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin said:
“Attempts are being made to further drive down pay and conditions in the private sector. The spectre of the lengthening dole queue is with us again. Never was there a greater need for the Left in Irish politics to join with the trade union movement and with the vast majority of people in calling to account the greed-driven William Martin Murphys of our time who have created this economic disaster.”
Ó Caoláin then called on the audience to give “a warm republican welcome” to the SIPTU president, presenting him with a painting of James Connolly by Caoilfhionn Ní Dhonnabháin.
To huge applause, Jack O’Connor stepped forward to accept the presentation. In appreciation of the gesture, O’Connor said:
“I am very honoured and privileged to be here and very much appreciate the poignancy of the presentation you have just made. The presentation acknowledging our centenary could have been made in any place or at any time during this year. But we note that you have chosen to make this presentation on this unique occasion, in this unique place, at this unique time.
“We interpret that not simply as an acknowledgement of the centenary of working people organising for fairness at work and justice in our society but also in acknowledgement of the role played by the people who formed that union, by the trade union movement and, if I might say so, perhaps by the labour movement as well, in the great events which lead to what we are commemorating here tonight.”
The SIPTU union leader observed that of all the political parties claiming the right to commemorate An Ceád Dáil only Sinn Féin saw fit to pay tribute to the achievements of the Irish trade union movement.
“Only one – your party, Sinn Féin – has thought it important to acknowledge the contribution made by the people who were in my union then, by the people who were in the trade union movement then and by the people who were in the labour movement then.
“Only your party, of all those who trace their ancestry to the events which took place in this place all those years ago on this day, thought it appropriate to acknowledge my union’s centenary and chose to do it in such a poignant way here this evening.
“The others conspired over the years to airbrush our role out of history and in doing so they acted entirely consistently with the approach they have displayed to the legacy of the Democratic Programme.”
On the right of workers to organise, he said:
“Workers don’t even enjoy the constitutional right to organise without fear of victimisation and discrimination.”
He condemned the Government’s proposed pay cuts in the public service, saying that those cuts would be pushed right across the economy. Planting the blame for the current economic crisis squarely on the table of Government, he said:
“Working people have no role in the events which brought about the calamity that we are suffering now, which was entirely due to the subservient and slavish acceptance of the neo-liberal model of capitalism by the authorities here over the last ten years which is now collapsing across the globe with enormous consequences for all of humanity.
“What was sold to us 30 years ago by Thatcher and Reagan has turned out to be not something new but a cruel deception. It was only old-fashioned 19th century liberalism all dressed up, as Connolly would say, in the way of old wine in new bottles.”
The SIPTU leader went on to say:
“The trade union movement has always acted in the national interest. We’re not ignorant of the scale of the problems facing this country. But the problem is that the national interest has been confused with the interests of the better-off.
“The burden of the resolution of the problems facing this country now will not be placed exclusively on the shoulders of working men and women and their families.
“We haven’t heard a word about how those who gained most from the Celtic Tiger years are going to play their part in the resolution of this crisis. We want the answer to that question before we say much more about what working people should contribute.”
CONTINUING THE STRUGGLE
Speaking from the platform, Sinn Féin General Secretary Rita O’Hare summarised the essential meaning of the occasion:
“Tonight for us is not just the marking of this anniversary date, it is about continuing the struggle for what they struggled for: an Ireland united, free and independent.”
Going on to make presentations of reproductions of the original Cumann na mBan brooches to women elected representatives of Sinn Féin – Michele Gildernew MP; Bairbre de Brún, representing our MEPs; Martina Anderson, on behalf of the women MLAs; Críona Ní Dhálaigh, representing Sinn Féin women councillors; and Gráinne Mhic Géidigh, representing Udarás na Gaeltachta – Rita O’Hare added: “These too are brave and committed women.”
In a very appropriate gesture, Michelle Gildernew then presented a surprised Rita with another of the same brooches.
The keynote speech from Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams (printed in full in last week’s An Phoblacht), received a robust and warm response from the floor, particularly when he remarked on the fact that the day of the inaugural meeting of An Chéad Dáil was “also the day in which the first shots were fired in Soloheadbeg, County Tipperary, in what became the Tan War”.
Adams recounted how the streets outside the Mansion House were crowded with enthusiastic people on the day, and how the hall itself was packed. In an uncanny turn of events, a similar scenario emerged on the 90th anniversary with the hall packed to capacity and the street outside lined with enthusiastic people who just couldn’t get in. Another uncanny throwback to that era was the image of a republican leader – Gerry Adams standing up on a wall addressing the people – a familiar image of republican leaders over hundreds of years.
Whether you got in or just managed to make it to the outside of the venue you still felt an enormous pride and sense of purpose. As Dublin republican Josie Sheppard said: “Sure where else would you be on such an important occasion?”
• The keynote address by Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams to the 90th anniversary commemoration of An Chéad Dáil, other speeches and photographs are available to view at: www.firstdail.com
• A WOMAN'S PLACE... is in the struggle – Sinn Féin women are honoured