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20 January 2000 Edition

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Remembering the Past: An Chéad Dáil Éireann opens

By Aengus Ó Snodaigh

(Continued from last week)

Dáil Éireann assembled for the first time in the Round Room of the Mansion House, Dublin on 21 January, 1919. Irish republicans took the first bold step towards democracy. The plans for Dáil Éireann were in line with the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis in October 1918 and with the Sinn Féin Executive's decision on 19 December several days before the election results were announced, that it would ``convoke the Dáil Éireann''.

Sinn Féin's 1918 election manifesto stated that:

``Sinn Féin aims at securing the establishment of that Republic:

``1. By withdrawing the Irish Representation from the British Parliament, and by denying the right and opposing the will of the British Government or any foreign Government to legislate for Ireland.

``2. By making use of any and every means available to render impotent the power of England to hold Ireland in subjection by military force or otherwise.''

Despite the fact that only 26 of the 69 Sinn Féin members (some TDs represented two constituencies) were at liberty to attend, it was decided to proceed with the audacious plan. It had been agreed at the January 7 meeting of Sinn Féin TDs, with one dissenting voice, that of Thomas Kelly, ``that we, the Republican Members of the Irish Constituencies, in accordance with the National Will, are empowered to call together the Dáil Éireann and proceed to act accordingly.''

A raid on the Sinn Féin Head Office in Harcourt Street, Dublin, netted for the police several of the draft documents which were being prepared for the opening day of Dáil Éireann. Despite this, as stated in last week's article, the authorities decided not to take action against the revolutionary assembly. One possible reason may be that the newly appointed Chief Secretary for Ireland, Ian Macpherson, was not in situ in Dublin Castle. The proceedings of the first day though, were viewed by the Chief Commissioner of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, Colonel Wedgeworth Johnston, and the Royal Irish Constabulary's Inspector-General, Sir James Byrne, from a building across the road (probably the same building from which their successors in the Garda Síochána viewed those attending Sinn Féin Ard Fheiseanna until recent years).

As the Sinn Féin members and the audience entered the Mansion House, they passed a group of British soldiers of the Dublin Fusiliers who had been prisoners of war in Germany and who were attending a welcome home reception. The audience in the Mansion House included a large number of women, two US Navy officers, around 50 priests, leaders of the labour movement and of the cultural movement as well as members of the press.

By coincidence or by design, the date selected for the establishment of Dáil Éireann was the same date 15 years previously that Arthur Griffith published his policies of alternative government and abstensionism, The Resurrection of Hungary: A Parallel for Ireland.

The feeling of republicans on this momentous occasion for the Irish people were described by Máire Comerford, who was among the packed gallery that day: ``No day that ever dawned in Ireland, has been waited for, worked for, suffered for like that January Tuesday.''

``There was an air of expectancy,'' said one observer, ``in every look and in every movement of the vast outside gathering.''

At 3.30pm, Count George Plunkett called the inaugural meeting to order and nominated Cathal Brugha to be Ceann Comhairle for Dáil Éireann. Pádraig Ó Máille seconded the proposal. Cathal Brugha rose and spoke in Irish saying:

``A chairde, tá obair thábhachtach le déanamh inniu, an obair is tábhachtaí do rinneadh in Éirinn ón lá a tháinig na Gael go hÉireann''. Three clerks were nominated for the day before Brugha called for no cheering during the proceedings. This call, and much of the proceedings of the First Dáil was done through Irish. Brugha, addressing the deputies, clerks and packed public gallery of visitors and press, said that there may be people present who didn't understand the Irish language as a result of the type of education in Ireland for many years.

He proceeded then to the roll-call, 28 Teachtaí Dála were present, absent were 37 deputies, while 34 were ``faoi ghlas ag Gallaibh'' (imprisoned by the foreign enemy). Another three were recorded as being ``ar díbirt ag Gallaibh'' (deported by the foreign enemy). One of these, Liam Mellows, was Teachta Dála for two constituencies. Several other TDs represented more than one constituency.

The first woman elected to parliament, Constance Markievicz, could not be in attendance as she too was imprisoned. In her absence she was elected as Minister for Labour in the new government.

Two of those originally recorded as present were later marked in the official record as absent; they were Michael Collins for South Cork and Harry Boland (South Roscommon). Whether or not they were present and had the official record altered to confuse the enemy and mask their involvement in the rescue of Eamonn De Valera, Seán Milroy and Seán McGarry and others held in Lincoln Jail, is not clear. Máire Comerford said that both were indeed present but left early.

Cathal Brugha stated after the reading of the roll call that it would be noticed that many of those named were absent, though they had received an invitation to attend. In Irish, he said that as Wolfe Tone had stated, there are those who do not wish to toil for Ireland and that work must be done in their absence and that work would be done. He explained that those imprisoned by England had no charges proferred against them by the country ``which professes to the world that it is a friend to small nations''. ``In prison in England,'' he said, ``is the most courageous women born in any country, Countess Markievicz''.

An Chéad Dáil took the bold step and held its first public meeting in the Mansion House, Dublin, on 21 January 1919, 81 years ago this week.

(more next week)

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