Ireland’s Wars: The Rise Of Sinn Fein

Even while it was still taking place, the Easter Rising was being dubbed “the Sinn Feiner Rebellion”, in reference to the political entity led by Arthur Griffith that was associated with nationalist thinking. This was, of course, an error: Sinn Fein were not involved in the Easter Rising (as an entity anyway, some of their membership certainly were). Indeed, at the time of the Easter Rising Sinn Fein was not even a republican group, instead backing a strengthened form of Home Rule under a duel monarchy system. It was also in dire straits, having failed to make any kind of impact electorally and was struggling financially (Griffith being legendarily lackadaisical when it came to subscriptions).

The Easter Rising, and Sinn Fein’s association with it, led to a transformation in the fortunes of the party, that saw it become one of the leading political organisations of the island, all the way up to the present day. Regardless of whether its leadership wanted to be seen as such, Sinn Fein were perceived as being synonymous with the movement that had led to the Rising, and as such stood to benefit from it. But the process would indelibly change the party too. Arthur Griffith was imprisoned by the British after the Rising despite his disapproval of it; when he was released in 1917, he stepped back into a very changed political landscape.

Reinvigorated nationalists, disillusioned Home Rulers, angry Catholics, dispossessed farmers, suffragette women, anti-partitionist clergy, they all were seeking a means to turn their feelings post-Rising into tangible action. The Irish Parliamentary Party was clearly not that outlet, and the next best thing appeared to be Sinn Fein. Mass sign-ups followed. By the later stages of 1917, the party’s size would have ballooned to over 100’000, with branches in every part of the country (especially in the south) becoming part and parcel of everyday life. It coincided with a partial breakdown in the unity of the IPP, with many of its locals officials defecting, and growing concerns over conscription being introduced in Ireland. The growth of the movement is comparable in many ways to the Gaelic revival or the early days of the Irish Volunteers, a mass representation of political feeling in Ireland following the end of the Easter Rising. And that movement would not be satisfied just with posters and marching.

It began with a by-election in February 1917. Owing to the large number of seats to be filled in Westminister – 670 in 1910 – by-elections were not uncommon as members retired, sought different office or died. Many of them in that time-period would have been uncontested, amounting to little more than the political party concerned picking a replacement, owing to an agreement between political factions on account of the First World War. In 1916 alone, Ireland saw seven take place; in six cases the seat was retained by the party who had previously held it.

The exception was a November vote in West Cork, when the IPP gained a seat from the incumbent “All-For-Ireland League” of William O’Brien. The AIL ran a Frank J. Healy, a Frongoch internee, and the decision to do so provoked rancour in the party. Sinn Fein did not support Healy (though they did not run against him either) and other Frongoch internees refused to recognise him as a representative of their cause, owing to his refusal to confirm he would not take his seat if elected. There was a split, a rival AIL candidate ran, and Healy lost by just 56 votes to the IPP’s Daniel O’Leary. Despite the loss, it was clear, for those with a mind to see, that change was coming to Irish politics.

The bombshell for the IPP came with the death of James Joseph O’Kelly, MP for North Roscommon. In the by-election to replace him, held in miserable snowy weather on the 3rd February 1917, the IPP put a local Councillor named Thomas Devine up for the seat, widely expected to retain it. His opponents were Independent Jasper Tully and Count George Noble Plunkett, father of Joseph, who ran nominally as an Independent, but with the backing of of a large number of nationalists and nationalist groupings, include elements of Sinn Fein.

Plunkett, always a nationalist, had become increasingly radicalised following the execution of his son and imprisonment of his other children. Ostracised from the upper echelons of Dublin society, he had flung himself into the new brand of politics, and benefited from a campaign in North Roscommon backed by an army of locals and Cumann na Mban volunteers as well as the organisation of Fr Michael O’Flanagan, a Sinn Fein member (though Plunkett himself, incarcerated in England for a time, only arrived in North Roscommon two days before the vote). Plunkett was put forward as a representation of the Easter Rising, and stunned the once confident IPP by winning the vote in a landslide. He almost immediately announced he would not take his seat in Westminster. While Plunkett was not a Sinn Fein member at the time, his future membership of the party led to retroactive labelling of the North Roscommon result as the first electoral victory for Sinn Fein.

Plunkett found himself at the centre of republican politics, and took full advantage of the position. In April he called a “Convention” of like-minded individuals, among them Griffith, to discuss how best to move forward. Plunkett, representing the more radical element, and Griffith, a moderate, disliked each other, and a more permanent schism between the two seemed inevitable. But, thanks to the work of men like Fr O’Flanagan, such a divide was avoided, for the time being. A group of men, known sometimes as the Mansion House Committee after where the Convention met, or the Council of Nine, was chosen to forward the cause of nationalism, with Plunkett officially joining Sinn Fein shortly afterwards.

The concordat was important, as more by-elections were forthcoming. The next was in South Longford in May, called upon the death of IPP MP John Phillips. The IPP, after a fractious process of selection, put up a Patrick McKenna, opposed only by Sinn Fein’s Joe McGuinness. McGuinness was an Easter Rising veteran, having fought with the 1st Battalion around the Four Courts, and was then interned in Lewes Prison. Famously, McGuinness did not want to put himself forward, with he and his fellow prisoners, including Eamon de Valera, believing the cause to be pointless. Sinn Fein, buoyed on by Michael Collins and employing the semi-legendary slogan of “Put him in to get him out”, nominated McGuinness anyway.

Collins, now freed, was becoming quite the critical figure, butting heads with Griffith on the matter and actively campaigning in Longford on McGuinness’ behalf. It was the first anniversary of the Rising and the executions, something Sinn Fein campaigners took full advantage of. The IPP was confident of victory, but after a recount, McGuinness took the seat by a scant 36 votes. The result contributed to the British decision to release the remaining prisoners by June 1917, though McGuinness did not, of course, take up his seat in Parliament. British attempts to orchestrate their own political solution for Ireland, through an “Irish Convention” held in July, were ignored by Sinn Fein and ended in no agreement between moderate nationalists and unionists.

The release of the prisoners only galvanised Sinn Fein more. It was de Valera’s turn next, despite his professed reluctance, in East Clare. As previously noted, the seat there was vacated by the death of Major Willie Redmond at the Battle of Messines. East Clare had always been held by moderate nationalists, with the late Redmond holding it unopposed since 1900, but that was going to change. De Valera, having rapidly become the figurehead of the new Sinn Fein owing to his perceived status as the highest ranking survivor of the Rising, ran another active campaign with many speeches and rallies that attracted thousands, with the candidate addressing crowds in Volunteer uniform, as if the point needed to be made. Local priests were also active in the campaign, imbuing the republican cause with that of Catholicism. On election day de Valera won easily from the IPP’s Patrick Lynch (who would join Sinn Fein the next year; in time to come de Valera would appoint him Attorney General of the state).

It was clear now that the political momentum in Ireland had swung decisively away from the IPP, but one more example in 1917 re-emphasised this. John Redmond was already reeling from the death of his brother, and suffered another blow with the passing of Pat O’Brien, a close friend, confident and the IPP MP for Kilkenny. In the by-election held in August the IPP’s candidate, John Magennis, was no match for another spirited Sinn Fein campaign, running another Rising veteran, this time W.T. Cosgrave, who had fought in the South Dublin Union. Cosgrave won easily, beginning a political career that would eventually make him the leader of the country.

Sinn Fein called an assembly, using the term “Ard Fheis”, for October. There, the possibility of a split between the moderate and republicans again threatened to become a reality, but in the interests of continued unity a compromise was reached. Griffith voluntarily stepped down from the Presidency of the party, realising that it simply didn’t reflect many of his own key beliefs any more; he and Fr O’Flanagan became vice-presidents, with de Valera elevated to the top position. Sinn Fein then adopted an outwardly republican position, staying clearly that its primary aim was “securing the international recognition of Ireland as an independent Irish republic”, though, as a sop to Griffith, they also committed to allowing the Irish people to decide their own form of government once freedom was achieved. They also did not outline how exactly they planned to get that freedom. Smaller nationalist organisations merged with Sinn Fein, who were able to move forward with a greater show of unity.

The period was not all unqualified success however. The authorities were not totally sedentary in the face of Sinn Fein’s rise, and there were arrests throughout 1917. The most prominent was undoubtedly Thomas Ashe, the Volunteer leader of the Ashbourne skirmish during the Easter Rising. Having been released from internment in June 1917, Ashe was arrested again, on a charge of sedition, after a well-noted tour of speaking engagements across the country. Convicted, he was sentenced to two years hard labour.

In prison, Ashe and others, like Fionan Lynch and Austin Stack, demanded prisoner-of-war status. Refused, they commenced a hunger strike in September. After having boots and beds removed from cells as a punitive measure, the prisoners were subjected to forced-feeding: Ashe died after such a procedure, on the 25th September. The others would be released in November.

Ashe’s funeral called to mind that of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa in 1915, owing to its a staged nature and the mammoth crowds that attended. Irish Volunteers escorted the casket in uniform, Fr O’Flanagan said the funeral mass and the graveside oratory was given by Michael Collins. With words that obviously seemed to echo those of Padraig Pearse several years earlier, Collins foreshadowed the conflict to come, stating that the volley of shots fired over the grave “is the only speech which is proper to make above the grave of a dead Fenian”.

For Sinn Fein, the greatest opportunities were to come. In 1918, things would come to a head on the western front, with dire consequences for the British position in Ireland.

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