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17 June 1999 Edition

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Remembering the Past: Electoral success - the first step

By Aengus O Snodaigh

The death of the Irish Parliamentary Party MP for North Roscommon, James J. O'Kelly a former IRB member who supported John Redmond, in late 1916 led to one of the most important by-election in Irish history.

Following the 1916 Rising, republicans were in disarray, but within months they were reorganising and planning for the future.

George Noble Count Plunkett (the title Count was a papal award) was director of the National Museum when he was sworn into the Irish Republican Brotherhood in April 1916. A distinguished scholar, poet and antiquary he was sent to Rome to see Pope Benedict XV and to counteract British propaganda about Ireland in the Vatican. Enroute in Berne, Switzerland, he sent a message from the IRB leadership to Roger Casement who was recruitment drive and arms gathering mission in Berlin.

Count Plunkett arrived back in Ireland the Thursday before the rising and immersed himself in its preparations. After the rising he was removed from his job and was exiled (paroled) to Oxford along with his wife. His son, Joseph Mary, one of the main organisers of the rising was executed for his role in declaring the Irish Republic and two other sons, George and John were also sentenced to death, though this was commuted and they were sent to jails in England.

An election convention called by the ``National Organisations'', Irish Independence Party, Ancient Order of Hibernians and the United Irish League on January 22 heard the surprising announcement that Sinn Féin were considering running a candidate after which Fr Michael O'Flanagan and 20 others walked out of the convention and set up a Sinn Féin election committee.

Though inexperienced in electioneering they literally threw themselves into the work, with Seamus O'Doherty of Derry as Director of Elections. Count Plunkett broke his parole and returned to Ireland days before the nominations closed on January 26 and set about touring the constituencies. Two other candidates declared themselves for the elections, the Irish independence Party' Thomas Devine and an independent candidate Jasper Tully editor and owner of the Roscommon Herald.

And if their inexperience was not a big an obstacle, the days before the election saw the worst snow storms for years and most of the roads in the county were blocked by snow drifts. Undeterred, teams of Volunteers and local farmers were organised throughout the area to drive lanes through the snow, for miles in some cases so as to allow a route to the polling stations. A county council official was obstreperous enough to ask who gave one team of workers permission to clear the roads. He was answered quite bluntly.

The scene was set for polling day.

(More on 1917 electoralism next week)

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