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10 February 2000 Edition

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Remembering the Past: An address to the Free Nations

As early as July 1918, following Arthur Griffith's victory in the East-Cavan by-election the previous month, the Sinn Féin leadership was becoming confident that Sinn Féin would win the next general election. With this in mind, James O'Mara (Director of Elections at the time) asked Robert Brennan (Director of Publicity the following year, 1919) to select two men to travel to Europe to prepare the way for the presentation of Ireland's case to the anticipated peace conference to follow the ending of the First World War. The war in fact ended on 11 November 1918.

The two men selected were `Jean Christophe' (a pseudonym of Roger Chaurive, a French lecturer at University College Dublin), and Mario Esposito (a Dublin-educated translator of Latin manuscripts). They were given £2,000 in cash and £2,000 in gold to fund their efforts. Nothing tangible seems to have come of their expedition and Michael Collins complained that Esposito hadn't even submitted a report on his work.

While still awaiting the full results of the December elections, the Sinn Féin Ard Chomhairle (Executive) was forced to appoint a special foreign affairs committee to urgently deal again with Sinn Féin's plans regarding the imminent peace conference. The reason for the urgency was the arrival in mid-December of US President Woodrow Wilson. The committee members appointed on December 19, Seán T. Ó Ceallaigh, George Gavan Duffy, Robert Barton and Michael Collins, were also tasked with establishing contacts with foreign sympathisers, governments and journalists. They were to travel to London, and it was there that they drafted then ``An Urgent Preliminary Note''... from the Irish delegates'' to President Wilson in late December. The document stated that if the principle of self-determination, the ``cardinal doctrine of his peace policy'', was not applied in Ireland's case, ``the President will return to his people with his mission made a mockery''.

The committee then organised to send a deputation to Paris to address the U.S. President. At the preliminary meeting of the Sinn Féin deputies, held on 7 January 1919, five days after it was originally meant to meet, it was decided that along with the Declaration of Independence and the Democratic Programme, the first public meeting of An Chéad Dáil would also hear and agree a Message to the Free Nations of the World.

During the opening day of Dáil Éireann, 21 January 1919, following the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, Pádraig Ó Máille, representing the Connemara constituency, rose and nominated three delegates to be sent as representatives of Dáil Éireann to the Peace Conference being held in Versailles, France. The three were Eamonn de Valera, Arthur Griffith and George Plunkett. Two of the three were imprisoned in England at the time.

Seán T. Ó Ceallaigh then rose and read in Irish the Message to the Free Nations of the World. When he was finished, George Plunkett read it in French, followed by Robert Barton reading the Message in English.

The address called on ``every nation to support the Irish Republic by recognising Ireland's national status and her right to its vindication at the Peace Congress''. It declared that Ireland was ``resolutely and irrevocably determined, at the dawn of the promised era of self-determination and liberty, that she will suffer foreign domination no longer''.

To further the cause of Ireland internationally, the Dáil accredited Seán T. Ó Ceallaigh as envoy of the Government of the Irish Republic to the Paris Peace Conference. His first duty was to secure a hearing of Ireland's case at the conference. Seán travelled to Paris and remained there for many months trying in vain to get the hearing. In a letter to President Wilson, dated 8 February 1919, he explained his mission to Paris and extended an official invitation from Dublin Corporation to visit Ireland. As part of the campaign to gain a hearing for Ireland's case, the Sinn Féin members on Dublin Corporation had succeeded on 3January 1919 in conferring the Freedom of the City on the US President. Two months later, Wilson responded saying that his engagements made a visit to Ireland impossible.

It later emerged that as early as 27 February a decision had been made by Wilson that Ireland could have no voice in the Peace Conference, since the Irish question was a matter between England and Ireland. This Reuters report was later denied.

Seán T. Ó Ceallaigh travelled to Paris as envoy from an Chéad Dáil Éireann and addressed a letter to US President Wilson at the Versailles Peace Conference 81 years ago this week. (More on the First Dáil next week).

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