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Ireland in 1919

Ireland in 1919               Gerry O'Shea

November 11th, 1918 is remembered as Armistice Day  which effectively ended the First World War. The Treaty of Versailles was signed six months later in June 1919; it confirmed the victory of the Allies and a humiliating defeat for Germany.

The British perspective on The Great War, as it is called, gained widespread public support in Ireland in the early years of the fighting. Army recruiters were given the green light by the powerful Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) and indeed by the Catholic Church many of whose leaders felt that they were supporting their co-religionists in Belgium.

Following the upsurge in nationalist sentiment after the 1916 Rising, the  appeal of a rejuvenated Sinn Fein gradually outstripped the IPP, which lost its popular leader, John Redmond, to a heart attack in March of 1918. The Republican appeal was especially strong with young people, who were greatly empowered by Westminster legislation which massively extended the franchise in Ireland from less than 700,000 voters to close to 2 million.

The December 1918 election resulted in a landslide victory for Sinn Fein, 73 seats out of 105, signaling the demise of the Irish Parliamentary Party which for more than 50 years had dominated Irish nationalist politics. Sinn Fein had pledged not to take their seats in Westminster, which from their Republican perspective was a foreign parliament, and instead they met in formal session at the Mansion House in Dublin  on the 21st of January 1919, declaring their allegiance to a united 32-county republic.

The Sinn Fein policy of parliamentary abstention from Westminster prevails to the present day. They still follow the 1918 decision of denying any allegiance or legitimacy to the London parliament.

Is this the best way to serve their constituents today? Is it wise to refuse to engage in the British House of Commons on the crucial issues around the Tory policies that have led to the Brexit debacle?

The Irish Border is at the center of the deliberations on how Britain can disengage from Europe. Ten Unionist MP's have a major impact on these discussions with the seven Sinn Fein MP's elected as representatives of Irish nationalism silenced by their own choice.

 There are important political decisions at stake for Northern Ireland, so abstention based on outmoded Republican ideology makes no sense. Sinn Fein needs to be heard and should pull its weight in Westminster especially at this vital time.

Back to life in Ireland a hundred years ago. The Spanish flu, often dubbed La Grippe and considered the worst pandemic of all time, tormented the entire international community during 1918 and 1919. It killed more people - around 40 million - than the Great War, which accounted for about 25 million deaths. In Ireland an estimated 23 thousand went down because of the flu epidemic.

The legacy of 1916 included an openness to engage British forces in Ireland militarily. The results of the 1918 election  gave legitimacy to the Irish Volunteers, gradually  becoming better known as the Irish Republican Army, to pursue full Irish independence by engaging in a guerilla war against British forces in the country.

On the January day in 1919 that the elected representatives gathered in the Mansion House to declare a republic, the first shots in what is called the War of Independence were fired in Soloheadbeg in County Tipperary, resulting in the deaths of two policemen. This war would continue until a truce was declared in July 1921.

British colonial policies in 19th and spilling into the 20th century in Ireland centered around the idea that their language, their games, their literature - even their religion - were far superior to any expression of the local Irish culture. Cricket and rugby were promoted as much more attractive than hurling and Gaelic football; English literature was deemed superior to Irish writing; and the Irish language was demeaned as gobbledygook spoken by backward people living mostly along the west coast.

The nationalist revival confronted all this colonial propaganda which had seeped into the self perception of many Irish people. The Gaelic Athletic Association was founded in 1884 to highlight the beauty and skillfulness of Irish games; the Gaelic League was started a few years later to promote the Irish language; and writers of that time like William Butler Yeats, John Millington Synge and George Bernard Shaw were assessed  as at least as talented as their English counterparts.

Sinn Fein supporters strongly resented this widespread assertion of superiority which seemed to be inbred in the English establishment. So not surprisingly the inaugural meeting of the first Dail in the Mansion House was conducted under the  chairmanship of Cathal Brugha - Charles Burgess on his birth certificate - entirely in the Irish language. Never mind that many of those present would not have been fluent in the native tongue.

 Significantly, translators provided copies of all the speeches in English and French, deemed of equal importance by the organizers - perhaps the most important symbolic act by Irish nationalists a hundred years ago.

The declaration of independence at the historic meeting in the Mansion House was widely covered by the press in Ireland and abroad. The Irish Times, the voice of unionism and the status quo in those years, labeled the revolutionary developments as farcical and dangerous. Nationalist newspapers around the country saw the situation differently. They spoke of the January gathering as the beginning of a new era and reported on a widespread sense of tentative hope for better days ahead for the Irish people.

In those years women were largely excluded from participation in political decision-making in Britain and beyond. Proposals to change this situation in Westminster were shamefully opposed by the Irish Parliamentary Party. However, there were other important Irish voices that disagreed with the IPP. Women were respected members of the Irish Citizens Army and some played prominent roles in the 1916  revolution where James Connolly especially welcomed their involvement.

True to this spirit, Eamonn De Valera, who took over as president of the new parliament after he escaped from Lincoln  prison in early February of that year, appointed Countess Markievicz, a protege of James Connolly, as the Minister for Labor. Unfortunately, there was a long lapse before the next woman, Maire Geoghegan-Quinn,  was given a ministerial portfolio in an Irish Government in 1979.

Ironically, the prime minister who chose most of the government ministers during the intervening seventy years was the same man as made the radical appointment of the Countess in 1919. Food for thought there! For the record, there are four women serving in the present cabinet in Dublin.

The Sinn Fein parliament met thirteen times before the British banned it from functioning in September, 1919, but members still came together in secret to continue their work, especially in promulgating the Sinn Fein court system throughout the country.

The British prime minister, Lloyd George, introduced a bill in December, 1919 that proposed two Home Rule parliaments in Ireland, one in Belfast and one in Dublin. Sinn Fein remained committed to an all-island republic. Going into 1920 what was later widely spoken of as the Black and Tan War between the IRA and British forces intensified.

Gerry OShea blogs at


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