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1 March 2019 Edition

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The future so full of hope

Centenary of the First Dáil Éireann

Crowds thronged Dublin’s Dawson Street that Tuesday in January 1919. At the Mansion House, official residence of the Lord Mayor of Dublin, the Round Room was crowded all day. In the morning a reception was held for former prisoners of war. However they were not, as you might expect, Irish Republicans. They were members of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers Regiment of the British Army who had been in prisoner of war camps in Germany. In an amazing scene, the Fusiliers filed out of the Round Room onto Dawson Street, where many hundreds, if not thousands, of Sinn Féin members and supporters were waiting for a new era in Irish history to begin. 

There was no animosity shown as the old was replaced by the new. In fact, it is probably safe to say that many of those soldiers had voted for Sinn Féin in the General Election of December 1918, just as many former soldiers in the British Army would go on to join the Irish Republican Army and fight the in the struggle for freedom. 

The man who made the Round Room available to both the Fusiliers and to Dáil Éireann was the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Lawrence O’Neill. In April 1918, he had hosted the conference at which the leaders of Sinn Féin, the Irish Party, and the trade union movement initiated a national movement against the British threat of Conscription, a movement so widespread and successful, including a one-day General Strike, that the British government never attempted to introduce Conscription. The fact that O’Neill had a son in the British Royal Army Medical Corps did not stop him playing a leading role in the campaign nor in facilitating Sinn Féin in its preparations for the General Election and for the convening of Dáil Éireann. 

Sinn Féin election 1918

• In the 1918 General Election Sinn Féin won an overwhelming victory

To add to the historic irony, the Round Room, which on this day was decorated with a single large Tricolour, was originally built as a ballroom for the 1821 visit to Dublin of King George IV. Now, on 21 January 1919 it hosted the inaugural meeting of Dáil Éireann, many of whose elected members were experiencing the prison hospitality of that monarch’s successor George V. Two weeks earlier on Sunday 5 January, all over Ireland public meetings were held by Sinn Féin demanding the release of those prisoners. 

The air was electric, the energy and enthusiasm of those present in the Round Room and those following events from near and far, seemed boundless. They were predominantly young people. Frank Gallagher wrote:

“Looking through that hall that day, I saw young Ireland as I had seen it at the first Ard Fheis of the new Sinn Féin. There were, again, a few grey heads and some white ones, but the gathering itself was of the young men and women who had brought this day to pass.” 

The starting time was set for 3.30pm: 

“At the stroke of the hour the great doors at the back of the hall opened, and then there swept over that audience a passion of demonstration. Standing, each thronged side faced the centre aisle, and as to their cheering the Deputies came slowly up the passage, tall Volunteers who acted that day as stewards stood to attention.” (Frank Gallagher, ‘The Four Glorious Years’.)

One of those young people present in the Round Room was a member of Cumann na mBan from Wexford, Máire Comerford. In her book ‘The First Dáil’, published in 1969, she describes the scene: 

“People waiting asked one another ‘Did you ever think you and I would live to see this day?’ I was with a Wexford contingent. Never was the past so near, or the present so brave, or the future so full of hope. We filed into the Round Room and pressed around until every inch of standing room was full. I don’t believe I even saw the seating arrangements that first day, the crowd was so great. 

“We did see Cathal Brugha presiding and we repeated the words of the Declaration after him, and felt we had burnt our boats now. There was no going back.” 

Máire Comerford

• Máire Comerford

The Declaration of Independence to which Máire Comerford refers was indeed unequivocal. Following on from the 1917 Constitution of the new Sinn Féin and the movement’s manifesto for the 1918 General Election, the Declaration ratified the establishment of the Irish Republic “proclaimed in Dublin on Easter Monday, 1916, by the Irish Republican Army, acting on behalf of the Irish people”. The Declaration said that the Irish Parliament “is the only Parliament to which the people will give its allegiance” and demanded “the evacuation of our country by the English Garrison”. 

No such open challenge had ever before been thrown down to British rule in Ireland and it was a challenge based on the first truly democratic electoral mandate in Irish history, obtained by Sinn Féin in its landslide victory in the 1918 General Election. That was the first election in which women – albeit those over 30  - had the vote and all men could vote without property qualification. Sinn Féin had won an overwhelming victory, taking 73 of the 105 seats in Ireland. Unionists won 26 and the Irish Parliamentary Party six (down from 80). The majority vote for Sinn Féin was 70 per cent: 24 of the 32 Counties returned only Sinn Féin TDs. Of Dublin’s 11 TDs, all but one were Sinn Féin. The myth of nine-county Ulster being Unionist was exposed. Unionists polled a majority in Antrim, Armagh, Derry and Down, but there were nationalist majorities in Cavan, Donegal, Fermanagh, Monaghan and Tyrone. 

The will of the Irish people was crystal clear. The question was how would the British government respond to that mandate as expressed in the Mansion House on that momentous day?

The British government was a war-time Coalition led by Prime Minister Lloyd George and including Liberals and members of the Conservative and Unionist Party who were vehemently opposed to any form of Irish self-government , and were in league with Unionists in Ireland. Lloyd George exploited the British Empire’s victory over Germany and, in Britain, the election was to be remembered as the ‘Khaki Election’, as officers and men in uniform featured so prominently as candidates and election workers. The mood of jingoism was high, but tinged with trauma and a thirst for revenge following the appalling slaughter of the war which escalated from August 1914 to its close on 11 November 1918. There was no mood in Britain, least of all among the Establishment, to recognise the democratic wishes of the ‘ungrateful’ Irish. 

Máire Comerford Book

The British Establishment felt triumphant and more a world power now than ever, with its main European rival, Imperial Germany, gone down in defeat, along with the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Turkish Empire. To counter-balance British imperialism, Dáil Éireann pointed to US President Woodrow Wilson’s rhetorical commitment to the self-determination of nations, supposedly the basis on which the United States entered the war on the side of Britain and France in 1917. In its Message to the Free Nations, read in Irish, English and French on 21 January, the Dáil referred to Ireland’s strategic position, a key reason for England holding on to the country: 

“Internationally, Ireland is the gateway of the Atlantic. Ireland is the last outpost of Europe towards the West: Ireland is the point on which great trade routes between East and West converge: her independence is demanded by the freedom of the seas: her great harbours must be open to all nations instead of being the monopoly of England.” 

However the British ensured that the nations they held in subjection – including Ireland, India and Palestine, to name but three – would have no hearing at the Peace Conference then convening in Paris, a key demand of Sinn Féin. Britain and France had already agreed on the carve-up of the Middle East between them, with a Zionist homeland guaranteed in Palestine, and oil flowing to the West, leading to a century of disaster for the people of that region that continues to this day. 

First Dáil meeting April 1919

Seen from the perspective of January 1919, however, it seemed that Imperialism may be ending altogether and that working people were coming into their democratic inheritance. The popular uprising of soldiers, sailors and workers in Germany had ended the war and toppled the Kaiser and looked set to emulate the victory of socialism in Russia under the Bolsheviks in October 1917. Working-class militancy was on the rise all over Europe. Ireland was no exception, as the General Strike against Conscription had shown. Yet, the country was still predominantly rural and agricultural. Against this background the Democratic Programme adopted by Dáil Éireann, the third declaration of 21 January, can be seen as radical and progressive and relevant up to our own time. 

Máire Comerford wrote that “nobody survived the 1916 Rising to take part in Dáil Éireann who had had any important part in creating the literature of the insurrection, or who understood its motives in depth”. In this, no doubt, she had in mind principally James Connolly and PH Pearse. However, if they did not survive to participate in the Dáil, their ideas certainly formed the basis of its Democratic Programme. Pearse’s last major piece of writing before the Rising was his essay ‘The Sovereign People’, which was undoubtedly influenced by Connolly’s socialism. The Democratic Programme stated: 

“In the language of our first President, Pádraig Mac Piarais, we declare that the Nation’s sovereignty extends not only to all men and women of the Nation, but to all its material possessions, the Nation’s soil and all its resources, all the wealth and all the wealth-producing processes within the Nation, and with him we reaffirm that all right to private property must be subordinated to the public right and welfare.” 

Rita O’Hare and Máire Comerford

• Rita O’Hare and Máire Comerford

The Programme described the “first duty of the Republic” as ensuring that all citizens were provided with the necessities of life. Its final and rarely quoted paragraph was internationalist in outlook: 

“It shall also devolve upon the National Government to seek co-operation of the Governments of other countries in determining a standard of Social and Industrial Legislation with a view to a general and lasting improvement in the conditions under which the working classes live and labour.” 

What happened to the declarations of the First Dáil in the months and years that followed is beyond the scope of this article. The hope of a new era of freedom and equality was not fulfilled, the united 32-County Republic was not achieved, the Democratic Programme was not implemented. But for countless numbers of republicans the hope and the commitment never died. For many, that commitment led to early graves as British and later Free State repression was met with republican resistance. For many others, it lasted all their lives. One of those for whom the flame lit on 21 January 1919 never went out was Máire Comerford. In every decade after 1919, up until her death in 1982, she worked for the Republic. She supported the republican prisoners in the H-Block of Long Kesh and Armagh Jail during the 1981 Hunger Strike. In a last conversation with Belfast republican Rita O’Hare, she said: “I’m going to die soon but I have some work to do first.” 

Writing Máire Comerford’s obituary in An Phoblacht in December 1982, Rita O’Hare re-echoed the call that Máire heard that never to be forgotten day in the Mansion House:

“Máire’s work will not be complete until we build the Republic she spent her life working for, the socialist Republic, where all the children of the nation will be cherished equally.” 

• Mícheál Mac Donncha’s book - ‘The Mansion House and the Irish Revolution’ is due to be published in early 2019

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