Ireland’s Wars: 21st January 1919 – The First Dail

The commonly accepted start date for the Irish War of Independence is the 21st January 1919. It is this date because, purely by sheer coincidence, two completely separate events took place that proved momentous in forwarding the cause of Irish independence and Irish nationalism. On either side of the country, two groups of men came together, one group to establish a parliament for the Irish nation, and the other to kill for it.

First, we will discuss Dublin. In the 1918 General Election campaign, Sinn Fein had gone to voters with a promise to found “a constituent assembly” which could “speak and act in the name of the Irish people”, an aim that went hand-in-hand with the policy of abstention from Westminster. The scale of Sinn Fein’s victory insured that this would be set-up as an independent governing body for Ireland, directly opposed to that of Britain. Sean T. O’Kelly chaired a committee tasked with organising the practicalities. On the 7th January, Sinn Fein’s representatives met in a private session, and agreed to assemble “Dail Eireann”, from the Irish for “assembly”, within a few weeks. This was to be a unicameral body. Soon, it was decided that it would be the legislative body that would act for the “Irish Republic”, inevitably setting it against the London government.

Three days later the DMP raided Sinn Fein offices, and found documents that gave a firm idea of what the party was intending, but no official response was forthcoming. It was probably a very belated, but ultimately very wise, decision to not add fuel to the fire by attempting to intervene, as the arrest of even more MP’s would hardly improve the situation regards the increasing radicalisation in Ireland. The other possible reason was the unintended paralysis of British higher government, owing to Lloyd George’s and others presence in Paris for the recently opened peace conference (more on that in a later entry). At several more meetings further details were hammered out, while Sinn Fein also formulated plans to try and get involved with the Paris conference. The 21st January was picked as the day of days.

The meeting was not, as some have thought it since, a secretive affair. It was held in the middle of the day at the residence of the Dublin’s Lord Mayor, the Mansion House (chosen specifically for its lack of ties to the British administration), with a public gallery that was, by all accounts, packed with people, and crowds on the street outside, to the point that the elected representatives had to ask people to decline from cheering. Many Irish and international journalists were in attendance, elements of the Irish Republican Army patrolled the crowd, and even members of the DMP were nearby, though they made no move to stop the gathering.

Invitations had been sent to every Irish MP. The elected members of the Unionist’s and the IPP obviously declined to attend, though some of the IPP may have thought about it, and plenty of Sinn Fein’s elected MP’s were then in British prisons (“imprisoned by the Foreigners”, as the Dail roll would record, as Gaeilge), with others unable to gather for other reasons. In the end, 27 Sinn Fein MP’s arrived to take their seats. They included among their number Eoin MacNeill, Count Plunkett, Cathal Brugha and Sean T. O’Kelly. Rejecting the British designation of “MP”, they chose instead to call themselves “Teachta Dala”, a “Deputy to the Dail” commonly abbreviated to “TD”. Despite the rejection of British titles, much of the procedure’s of the Dail would be lifted verbatim from the Westminster model.

The first official words of the new body were given to Count Plunkett, with Fr Michael O’Flanagan blessing the proceedings with a prayer. Cathal Brugha was elected Ceann Comhairle, or Speaker. From the start then, the Dail had a militaristic flavour, its deputies and officials all either Volunteers, or connected to them strongly. The work of that first day was carried out almost entirely in Irish – which caused some consternation among journalists – and was less a debate, and more a procession of declarations agreed by popular affirmation.

The first was the acceptance of a provisional constitution for Dail Eireann. This named the Dail as having the power to make and enact national legislation, established that executive power would be held by “the Ministry”, to consist of a President and four Excutive Officers, one of which would be for “National Defenece”, and set out rules relating to Ministry selection and power to raise funds. It was a short document for its apparent importance. Brugha was elected unopposed as the first President, though with the tacit understanding that he was holding it in trust for a still imprisoned Eamon de Valera. This role was to be the de facto head of state, and in time to come at a least a symbolic commander-in-chief.

The first ministerial posts were divided among different major figures in the movement at the time, namely Count Plunkett, Eoin MacNeill, Michael Collins and Richard Mulcahy, and before too long additional ministries would be given to the likes of Constance Markievicz, W.T. Cosgrave, Arthur Griffith and Brugha. The common thread for most was service during, or a deep connection to, the Easter Rising, something that would be a recurring theme for the next few decades of Irish political life. It was a time of war, even if it was only starting, and military figures were already dominating.

The second document proclaimed was a Declaration of Independence. This piece of paper is often relegated in importance next to its progenitor in 1916, and indeed references the Irish Republic proclaimed in 1916. The document is full of bold pronouncements on military matters: it makes note that the Irish peoples “have repeatedly protested in arms against foreign usurpation; insists that British authority over Ireland amounted to “a military occupation”; claims that the “Irish Republican Army” acted in 1916 “on behalf of the Irish people” (a dubious claim); demands British withdrawal of their “foreign government”; and claims that independence is a prerequisite for peace. In the end, while not saying so obliquely, it is essentially a declaration of war as well as of independence, rejecting any facet of British authority, and calling down “divine blessing” on the continuing “last stage of the struggle”.

The third document was the “Message to the Free Nations of the World”, a missive meant for international, especially American, consumption. It called for international support and recognition of the Irish Republic, most assuredly in the context of the opened peace conference in Paris. The document bombastically repeats the claim that the Irish people have repeatedly asserted “the National right” by resort to arms over the past 700 years all the way to “her last glorious report of arms in 1916”. It appealed directly to President Woodrow Wilson by having a section on Ireland’s importance as a naval trading position, its independence crucial to Wilson’s own desire for “Freedom of the Seas”, essentially an attempt to make Ireland seem a far grander part of the pan-Atlantic post-war political system than it maybe was. Later, it describes an “existing state of war, between Ireland and England” that cannot be concluded until the British have evacuated, something demanded in the name of Europe’s “permanent peace” plans. It concludes by demanding international recognition and time at the peace conference, to confront “English wrong”. This was mostly propaganda, and as we will see the Irish had precious little chance at really getting involved at Versailles, but it does draw attention to an often under-stated aspect of the War of Independence, the fight for international attention, and the effort to get international pressure placed on Britain.

The fourth and final document of the First Dail’s first meeting was the since oft-debated “Democratic Programme”. Commonly perceived as a gift or sop to the Labour movement, in gratitude for their decision not to contest the 1918 election, the Programme was mostly written by Thomas Johnson, with some significant editing by Sean T. O’Kelly afterwards. This was mostly a repeat of the social aspects of the Proclamation, and covered expectations and pledges of the Republic’s supports for its citizens on a variety of fronts. Like the Proclamation, it was mostly idealistic, and little regarded by those outside of socialist circles: many of the assembled TD’s hadn’t even read it on the day it was agreed to. These pieces of business concluded, the first sitting of the Dail ended too.

Michael Collins and Harry Boland were incorrectly registered as being present on the 21st January, and the Dail record was later amended to note their absence on that momentous day. The two were actually in England at the time, at the heart of an audacious scheme to break de Valera out of Lincoln Gaol, carried out on the night of the 6th February. After stealing the prison chaplin’s key, and making an impression in candle wax, de Valera arranged for the dimensions to be sent back home, where replica keys were made and sent back, hidden in cakes. After a few aborted attempts, de Valera got one of the prison doors open and left with Collins, Boland and a few others, soon to return to Ireland and take up the position of President of Dail Eireann.

The First Dail would meet only 21 times during the course of the War of Independence, with most of those meetings taking place in 1919, ahead of the British administration official proscription of the body late that year. At most 52 TD’s attended, mostly to discuss Ministerial reports, generalities of policy and optimistic post-war planning. The Dail could debate the actions of the war, and the nature of Ireland’s relationship with Britain, but it did not dictate the direction of the war, and it would not be until later in 1919 that the relationship between the IRA and the Dail would be formalised anyway.

Further, with the exception of Defence, Finance and Justice, the Dail Ministries were talking shops with little to no authority or purpose, maintained mostly for propaganda purposes. Defence, first under Mulcahy, then later under Brugha, had responsibility for the war, but in many cases it was GHQ making the decisions, the source of the Brugha/Collins feud that would overshadow much of the Ministry’s work (this would be made more serious by Collins’ election to the Presidency of the IRB in 1919, a position that organisation considered as leader of the Irish Republic). Collins himself would find his more permanent position at Finance, where his work on securing funding, bonds and loans for the Dail was vital, but in many ways his primary role was still in military matters, specifically as Director of Intelligence. It would be rare to non-existent, the number of times the Dail would get the chance to have a look in on such matters.

But the Dail was important for it’s sheer symbolism. Independence had been declared, and while there was still a question mark over the exact nature of the state it claimed to be the legislative assembly for, the Dail was perceived by many as being the foremost representation of the “Irish Republic”. Without it, the War of Independence could be framed as a battle between a lawless band of brigands against an established government (and some certainly attempted such a framing). With it, the cause of the IRA was elevated into something far more legitimate, a sanctioned fight endorsed by the elected representatives of the people meeting in public session. The movement itself was further legitimised, in the larger fight for international approval. As I said before, war is politics by other means, and here was the politics. An Irish parliament, nominally of civilian representatives (though many of them were also involved actively on the military side) was sitting, debating, directing the political life of the country, in defiance of a “foreign” occupier, with nominal civil authority over military action.

And that military action was underway. On that day in the Tipperary countryside, very few were paying much attention to what was happening in Dublin, but soon those in Dublin would be paying a lot of attention to what was happening in Tipperary.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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8 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: 21st January 1919 – The First Dail

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