One of the most endearing mysteries of Irish Labour history, which Emmet O’Connor valiantly attempts to answer here, is why ‘Big’ Jim Larkin was so respected, even beloved, despite being an absolutely terrible human being. “Jim Larkin and his most immediate associates can think of nothing else but Jim Larkin. It is difficult to argue or venture any opinion that does not coincide with his own,” wrote Harry Pollitt, a leading British Communist, before conceding, “and yet the man is undoubtedly a leader.”
Pollitt saw first-hand Larkin’s capacities for leadership during his visit to Ireland in April 1924. In Roscrea, Co. Tipperary, roadmen dissatisfied with both their employment and their nominal union, the ITGWU (Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union), appealed to Larkin to attend their fundraising hurling tournament.
Larkin did not need to be asked twice, given how he had been feuding with the ITGWU ever since his return from the United States to find his former fiefdom not nearly as subservient as he had left it. Having failed to force the resignation of his main rivals and been expelled himself instead, Larkin formed his own counter-union, the Irish Worker League (IWL), and prepared for war.
Larkin arrived in Roscrea to see a mass of streamers welcoming him. Over five hundred IWL members had paid to travel with their hero, resulting in what Pollitt was told was one of the largest meetings ever seen in Roscrea. With good reason was Pollitt convinced that the IWL had a “tremendous chance” if Big Jim managed to take it seriously.
In that regard, Pollitt was missing the point. Larkin had already lost a court case he brought against the ITGWU two months earlier, accusing his former colleagues of illegally using union funds for political purposes. The fact that he was citing the anti-union legislation of the 1913 Trade Union Act did not seem to have embarrassed him.
Acting as his own legal counsel, Larkin proved to be, according to O’Connor, “more than usually disorganised, vituperative, petty and unfair to witnesses.” Not that Larkin had much chance of winning in the first place, which begs the question as to why he bothered at all. The likeliest explanation that O’Connor offers is that he just could not help himself.
In his personal life, Larkin was no more amiable. Estranged from his wife, he was living with his siblings, Delia and Peter, both of whom were also involved in trade unionism. Peter was used as a go-between as the other two were not on speaking terms. When he was away, others would have to step in. “It was a dreadful position for grown-up people to create,” as one unfortunate guest recalled with a shudder, “particularly when to make any political headway friendship and comradely tolerance were an absolute necessity.”
Necessary or not, such virtues were to be in short supply. With his brother’s support, Peter had formed the Workers’ Union of Ireland (WUI), attracting defections from two-thirds of the ITGWU’s Dublin membership. That set the tone for relations between the two unions which, from June 1924, were locked in a fierce battle for control, with disputes breaking out in places as varied as fish markets, docklands and cinemas as the WUI protested at the employment of ITGWU members.
The Irish Worker, of which Larkin was editor, was unabashed in its naked ambition:
The Transport Union Card is nothing but a pass to a scab. There is only going to be one labourers’ union in Ireland and that will be the Workers’ Union, which has earned its place by right of conquest.
But it was within the WUI that the nadir of this intolerance and venom was reached. From August 1924, the union was in dispute with the Great Southern and Western Railways Works in Inchicore. Leading the strike was Seán McLoughlin, the ‘boy commandant’ of the Easter Rising, now secretary for the WUI branch involved. By September, the Railways Works had offered to take back all strikers save for the hundred or so whose places had already been filled by strike-breakers.
McLoughlin wanted to hold out for a better deal, one with no victimisations, but Larkin took the offer and blamed it all on McLoughlin. The branch secretary won a showdown with Larkin a month later at a meeting held in the Inchicore Picture House, where the WUI executive and about two hundred members were present. The mood in the room turned against the union leadership and Larkin stormed out but McLoughlin knew that his days in the union were numbered and left soon afterwards, upon which Larkin accused him of absconding with branch funds.
All of which makes for fascinating, if grisly, reading, and O’Connor fully exploits the range of sources open to him, from contemporary newspaper reports, private correspondence, Soviet archives and police files from both sides of the Atlantic (Larkin was frequently a ‘person of interest’ to the authorities, wherever he was).
From these, O’Connor deftly weaves a story that would not be amiss for a medieval monarch or a particularly despotic cult leader. Sometimes the seemingly endless succession of bitter feuds and spiteful machinations can grow exhausting to wade through, though mitigated by titbits of bone-dry humour from O’Connor, such as when Larkin implored an audience to “’hold up the hands of Stalin’; perhaps the only analogy ever drawn between Stalin and the Biblical Joshua.”
After 300+ pages of such malice and mayhem, it is surprising that the book ends on a positive note for its subject: “What Larkin did achieve can never be taken from him. He remains the greatest of Irish Labour leaders.”
Was he? Those on the receiving end of his perniciousness might have disagreed but Larkin captured the public imagination in a way that no other Irish Labour leader has since. Anyone who gets a statue to themselves in Dublin’s O’Connell Street must be something special, after all.
Certainly, Jack Carney never lost his faith in the man he served loyally for many years. By the time he was sixteen, Carney had found himself working eighty-four hours a week for a pittance, with nothing better awaiting him:
My dreams were smashed, and I had not a single hope in life…until one Sunday I heard ‘Jim’ Larkin speaking…always to me he will be the big-hearted champion of his class – incorruptible and unpurchaseable. Crucified he will be, nailed to a Cross of a misunderstanding people…but ‘Jim’ has left his mark on his people…they are better men and women because of his coming.
Perhaps. Perhaps not. Whether Larkin was a hero or wrecker – the question posed to us in the book’s subtitle – he was most definitely a force of nature, which are rarely gentle to those caught in their wake.
There was a pause in the hall as Arthur Griffith conferred with Count Plunkett on stage. Griffith then stepped forward to announce a troubling development.
Plunkett, he said, had denied him permission to speak. He had wanted to explain his reasons for seconding Seán Milroy’s proposal – where he had called for a loose alliance between the various separatist groups, as opposed to the Count’s demand for a new, centralised organisation – but that was not going to happen now.
“I have nothing further to say than this,” Griffith told his audience, and proceeded to speak further. “Sinn Féin, for which we all stood when many of the men here today were our opponents, still stands. Sinn Féin will not give up its policy nor its constitution. Sinn Féin will work with every section in Ireland that works to destroy the corruption of Ireland.”
He finished on a note of J’accuse: “I am finished. Count Plunkett refused me permission to speak.”
To a mixed chorus of cheers and boos, Griffith told his audience of how for eighteen years he had been fighting for the cause of Irish freedom. If he lived for eighteen more he would still be fighting. He warned that if they decided today not to hold an alliance against John Redmond and his Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), then Redmond would win as surely as he, Griffith, was standing before them.
Adopting an air of being above it all, Count Plunkett said he had no intention of commenting on these accusations. He had never misrepresented Griffith, and he had heard no misrepresentations of him. Why Griffith felt the need to defend himself against nothing was rather puzzling, Plunkett added primly.
Pulling back somewhat from his previous hard-line stance, Plunkett said that there was no reason why, in the coming elections, men who did not see eye to eye on everything could not unite to pull down the common foe in the IPP. The nation was above personal quarrels and petty disputes.
It was a magnanimous line, one worthy of the statesman Plunkett clearly believed himself to be. Dissenting calls of “why did you refuse to hear Arthur Griffith” and “a good many of us here are not in favour of that at all” showed that, however, for some, the Count’s munificence was not convincing.
A Way Out?
This turn of events, as reported in the Freeman’s Journal:
…led to much excitement, and those on the platform rose to their feet and conversed – in some cases very heatedly – in small groups, while murmurs of protest throughout the room testified that opinion was divided on the action taken.
Attempting to gain some ground in the tug-of-war being played out, Milroy moved that his proposal be put to the convention, insisting that it did not clash with Count Plunkett’s own. It is questionable as to whether Milroy actually believed this. Count Plunkett certainly did not. He replied that, au contraire, Milroy’s resolution *did* clash with his.
At best, a stalemate seemed inevitable at this point; at worst, open hostilities and a split.
William O’Brien, the Labour delegate from the Dublin Trades Council, was seated by the podium, having little input in the proceedings after delivering his speech (he had only attended in the first place to be polite, he later said). He belatedly realised there was a commotion between Plunkett and Griffith happening before him, though he was unclear as to its cause.
He saw Father Michael O’Flanagan move across the platform to sit next to a “flushed and evidently upset” Griffith.
The enmity between the two leaders had been festering for quite some time. According to Laurence Nugent, a close friend of Rory O’Connor – who Nugent accredited with most of the Convention’s organising – the Count had refused to send admission tickets to Griffith and Milroy, forcing Father O’Flanagan to take two spare tickets from the mantelpiece of Plunkett’s house.
Plunkett’s daughter, Geraldine Dillon, told a different version. Her father had indeed invited Griffith who refused until Tommy Dillon, her husband and the Count’s son-in-law, persuaded him otherwise. Even then, Griffith had not endeavoured to make things easy, sitting sulkily at the back of the hall. When he made to leave after locking horns with the Count, it took the entreaties of O’Flanagan and another priest, Father William Ferris from Kerry, to convince him to stay.
Coming to Heel
As a way out of the impasse, Father Ferris suggested that these questions be left in the hands of Father O’Flanagan and Griffith. This at least was met with general approval. If Plunkett felt to the contrary, he kept his opinion private for a change. He did, after all, owe a lot to O’Flanagan. “The old man came to heel,” sneered Kevin O’Shiel, as he remembered it.
O’Flanagan announced that, after discussing with Griffith, it was agreed that an organising committee be formed. Those national groups pledged to Irish independence should get in touch with this committee and apply to be recognised. Likewise, all the new branches of these various groups that formed as a result of this convention should contact the committee.
The members of this committee were to be – besides the Count, Griffith and the ubiquitous Father O’Flanagan – Milroy, Dillon, Tom Kelly and Stephen O’Mara. O’Mara had already enjoyed a lengthy political career as the mayor of Limerick and a Parnellite MP in Co. Laois. Along with the rest of the Irish Nation League, of which he had been a founding member, he had disagreed with Plunkett’s decision to abstain from his Roscommon parliamentary seat.
Tom Kelly was one of the founders of ‘old’, pre-1916 Sinn Féin and had worked in a number of public positions, from an alderman in Dublin Corporation to campaigning in the 1880/90s on behalf of imprisoned Fenians. O’Mara, Kelly and Milroy could be expected to back Griffith, with Dillon and O’Flanagan more inclined towards the Count.
According to O’Brien, O’Flanagan read out the names before asking Griffith to second them. Griffith said that while he had no objections, surely Labour should have a voice as well? For this, he slyly suggested O’Brien as another member, clearly considering him to be an ally.
Thinking quickly, the priest replied that he had no problem with O’Brien, whom he did not know but was sure to be a decent sort. But if Labour was to be included, then so should the women of Ireland. For this, he proposed Countess Plunkett, sitting by the stage near her husband.
Having stopped the tensions from escalating, Father O’Flanagan was taking no chances with the Committee numbers being stacked in Griffith’s favour. More than anyone, he had been responsible for bringing the new movement together, and he was determined to keep it that way.
O’Brien, for his part, was to plead ignorance of the manoeuvrings unfolding before him:
For a portion of the meeting I had no idea what was going on and a great many people couldn’t know and I thought the whole business was the nearest thing you could imagine to a break-up.
There seems to have been some confusion in the sources over the exact composition of the committee. O’Brien neglected to mention Tom Kelly but included Cathal Brugha, as did Geraldine Dillon in her memoirs. On the other hand, the Freeman’s Journal – a contemporary and the most comprehensive account of the Convention – made no mention of Brugha.
However, New Ireland, the organ of the Irish Nation League, named him as being on the committee in its 28th April edition, so it seemed that Brugha had made his way in at some point. A militant Republican and a combatant in the Rising, during which he had been seriously wounded, his inclusion was a boon to Plunkett, and he would come to take a leading role in the factional negotiations that were to come.
(Another version was from Dillon’s account. Here, Helena Molony, the feminist and socialist, objected to the absence of a woman on the committee. Father O’Flanagan obliged by adding her and Countess Plunkett. No one else mentions Molony at this point, not even Molony herself, so this seems to be incorrect on Dillon’s part. Molony was later co-opted, along with three other women, onto the Sinn Féin Executive Committee in October 1917, which could explain Dillon’s confusion.)
The Plunkett Convention had been a lengthy, and for some gruelling, event, having taken most of the day. Much had been agreed upon, but the Plunkett-Griffith enmity was to be the most remembered aspect. One attendee was to describe it in suitably dramatic terms:
Almost from the moment that the meeting opened, antagonism to Griffith was shown by Count Plunkett…Such as Count Plunkett’s apparent anger that a serious disturbance arose on the platform. I think everyone at the meeting expected that those on the platform would be utterly divided…Griffith was regarded as a pacifist at that time, and Count Plunkett was obviously out of patience with him from the moment he saw him on the same platform.
Which was not entirely correct – the Convention had managed for some time before the said disturbance arose. Still, there could be no hiding the unpalatable fact that the new movement was already poised to be at war with itself.
Somehow, the day managed to end on a cordial note when Count Plunkett announced the closing of the proceedings, with the reminder that they would be called again if needed. History was on the march, and there was no certainty as to where it would lead.
Surveying the Aftermath
In the days afterwards, the Mansion House hosted a gift sale that was to raise funds for the families of those in the Rising. The choice of items on display, and the swiftness in which they sold, showed that the presence of 1916 was as keenly felt as ever:
An ancient Irish costume, worn on one occasion before Pope Pius X by Éamonn Ceannt.
A gold-mounted fountain pen, presented by Ceannt’s widow.
A pair of gloves worn by James Connolly.
An Irish pike-head which had belonged to Michael Joseph ‘The O’Rahilly’, slain during the fighting.
A pocket flask belonging to Éamon de Valera, presented by his wife.
A first edition of poems by W.B. Yeats, with an autograph by Joseph Plunkett.
The sword which had fatally wounded Lord Edward FitzGerald in 1803, owned by Patrick Pearse.
A handbill of the ‘Proclamation of the Irish Republic’.
As someone who prided himself on keeping his ears close to the ground, Monsignor Michael Curran lingered around the Mansion House. From the talk he picked up on, reactions to the Convention had definitely been positive, as he later described:
While Plunkett was not regarded as a suitable leader or director, it was felt that the new organisation would bring the groups together and that the general body of public opinion would follow Arthur Griffith and that Griffith’s policy of working with the less advanced Nationalist sections was correct.
The situation, however, was a good deal more complicated than that, as not everyone believed that Griffith’s approach was the right one.
Another attendee, Liam de Róiste, had come as a delegate for the Cork Sinn Féin Executive. He found that while Count Plunkett lacked general support, Griffith’s policy of passive resistance to British rule was not sufficiently exciting for the more impatient types in the audience. That Griffith was rumoured to have been opposed to the Rising at the time, for all his subsequent reaping of the benefits, also counted as a black mark against him.
Count Plunkett had succeeded in getting his motion passed for a new, centralised organisation. He had also managed to shut Griffith up, at least for a while. But, outside the convention, this did not mean very much. At the end of the day, neither man had scored a definite victory over the other. Their feud, and its potential for damage, remained unabated.
To Griffith, Count Plunkett was a hot-headed upstart who was trying to both usurp and wreck the Sinn Féin party to which he had dedicated his life. To Plunkett, and the hard-liners who backed him, Griffith was a has-been who blew neither hot nor cold but unacceptably lukewarm.
The forming of the Mansion House Committee, as timely as it had been in preventing an irreversible rupture, could be little more than a stopgap. Much to his displeasure, O’Brien was to find himself on the frontlines of the feud. In keeping with his reluctance to become embroiled in Nationalist politics at the possible expense of Labour, he tried talking himself out his new duties. Even a lengthy chat with Griffith, who pleaded with him to remain, was not enough to change his mind.
When O’Brien was asked by Milroy to attend the first meeting of the new committee at the Gresham Hotel on the 3rd May, O’Brien declined. When Milroy pressed O’Brien to come and explain his reasons in person, at least as a courtesy to Griffith, the trade unionist reluctantly submitted.
And so O’Brien arrived at the Gresham with Milroy, finding the rest of the committee already present. As they went upstairs, Griffith gave O’Brien a nudge.
Griffith: We want you to preside at this meeting.
O’Brien: Oh, that is quite impossible. I can’t act on the committee.
Griffith: Oh. You ought to act for the present anyhow. There is no way out. Stephen O’Mara will propose you.
When they were in the allocated room, O’Flangan said: “Now, we want a chairman.”
Plunkett appeared taken aback by this. Before anyone else could speak, O’Mara proposed O’Brien, right on cue, and O’Brien found himself as the chair. Even if Griffith had no interest in power for himself, he was still determined to deny it to his bitter rival.
The Liberty Clubs
Count Plunkett had called for a new organisation, one that would be primed to advance the cause of Irish freedom – on his own terms, that is. Others would answer that call throughout the country, with Co. Cork providing a microcosm of the new political enterprise and its budding grassroots.
On the 11th May, Hugh Thornton wrote from Bandon, Co. Cork, about the interest he had received from like-minded individuals. He had formerly been of the ‘Kimmage Garrison’ at the Rising that had been under the command of the Count’s son, George. Thornton explained that he had only been in Bandon for a fortnight but had nonetheless impressed the “right men” of the importance of forming a branch of the Liberty Clubs, which was what Plunkett’s brainchild would become known as.
Thornton had attended the conference the month before and knew the main objectives. Nonetheless, he pressed upon the Count the importance of receiving the necessary paperwork to put before the respective recruits before he could convene a first meeting.
Six days later, on the 21st May, Thornton wrote back to confirm that he had received the copies of the rules and constitution of the Liberty Clubs as requested. A Club had been formed accordingly in Bandon, encompassing fifteen members and with more expected.
Thornton had spoken truly, for by the 26th, he felt it necessary to write again, asking for fifty more membership cards and a hundred copies of the constitution. The success of the Club in Bandon had stimulated interest in nearby Castlelake, where there were plans to start one of its own.
Later, a letter from the committee of the new Liberty Club in Castlelake was received on the 4th June, asking for thirty membership cards. It was addressed to Count Plunkett as president, with a question mark at the end of the title, suggesting an uncertainty as to how the organisation was structured.
The Clubs Take Root
Thornton wrote to ask Plunkett if they could have a talk when the latter visited Cork on the 19th June, specifically so he could report on the local conditions. He also asked more mundane questions such as whether duplicate membership cards should go to Plunkett or if the Club secretaries (which Thornton was for his own group) should hold onto them. It was the sort of nuts-and-bolts decisions that make up the growth of every fledgling movement.
Others expressed similar interest. Cornelius O’Mahony wrote from Ahio Hill, Co. Cork, to say that while there were no clubs around due to the isolated nature of the area, he was optimistic that any organisers sent out there would have an impact, if only because the sight of a stranger was a novelty in itself.
John Linehan from Tullybase, Co. Cork, told Plunkett that he would be all too happy to render assistance. He shrewdly suggested that if the parish priest was also to help, then the Club would be a success. Tullybase was fertile ground, Linehan assured the Count, as “the great majority of the people here are all Sinn Feiners, and followers of the Irish Party were always few.”
Linehan clearly did not think that a Liberty Club would be incompatible with Sinn Féin. Others were not so sure. P. Casey felt the need to ask the Count if there was any difference between the two organisations. He added that he was in a “splendid position for collecting names of the right-type of men” due to his position as a barber in Cork City.
Elsewhere in the country, the existence of Sinn Féin was a stumbling block for the Clubs. Timothy Flanagan told of how there was no Liberty Club in Killinaboy, Co. Clare, as everyone there was already part of the older organisation.
Likewise, James Connaughton believed that since Sinn Féin was already established in Limerick, attempts to form a Club would risk a clash. However, Connaughton had not given up hope that a Club could be set up and suggested that the process might be eased if some joint plan of action was arranged between the two separatist groups.
Others were not so optimistic. The Cork Sinn Féin Executive delivered a warning on the 22nd May that “if our forces are split up into possible rival organisations it will have a disastrous effect upon the whole movement.” In order to prevent this fracturing, the Executive claimed the right to direct matters in its city without outside interference.
Hugh Thornton would never get a chance to talk with Plunkett, for the latter was to cancel his planned visit to Cork. In a letter to the Cork Examiner, the Count explained that his reasons for doing so were because the situation was not yet right:
The purpose of the gathering was not for a mere personal compliment, but to thoroughly organise the city and county of Cork – to move Munster and bring it to the front in Ireland’s struggle for complete independence.
I defer meeting the people of Cork for the present, because the workers at the head of the advanced movement are at this moment considering the means of welding the strong national bodies into one organisation, with one administration. Irish opinion cannot become the power it should be until its combined forces are wielded as one instrument to a common end.
I am certain that the formation of Liberty Clubs and other clubs differing in name, but working equally for the advanced cause, will be actively promoted at once, so that Cork may take its share in our united effort to open the road to freedom.
The Cork Examiner took a less sanguine view, reporting that:
It is now admitted but there is a split in the Sinn Fein camp between those who favour Count Plunkett and those whose allegiance goes to Mr Griffiths resenting Count Plunkett’s visit to Cork put pressure on headquarters, and Count Plunkett has now cancelled his visit.
The newspaper was far from an unbiased source, being a supporter of the IPP and thus hostile to its patron’s rivals. But Laurence Nugent, by now a full time organiser for Sinn Féin, suspected that Plunkett’s refusal to attend Cork was due to the Sinn Féin people there being of the old, pro-Griffith adherents who did not want him.
Nugent would remember an exasperated Father O’Flanagan complaining privately to him about how the Mansion House Committee could never agree on anything. At least the general public took it for granted that progress was being made, even if uncomfortable rumours were circulating within Sinn Féin circles of how just hollow the public façade of unity really was.
The situation was such that, on the 5th June, O’Brien was called on by a delegation from the Cork Volunteers. They explained to him that there was dissatisfaction back home regarding the confused situation with the Liberty Clubs and where they stood with Sinn Féin. In an attempt to clarify matters, they had been dispatched to Dublin to interview a number of individuals, who had suggested that they talk to O’Brien.
He had by then resigned from the Mansion House Committee, whose membership he had never wanted in the first place. Still, as an avowed Republican, he was seen as a sympathetic ear by the Volunteers. O’Brien was friendly with both Plunkett and Griffith, but told the Corkonians that, in his opinion, neither man counted for much.
The Irish Volunteers, O’Brien told his guests, were the only body in the country which could see the ideals of the Easter Rising realised. If they wished to accomplish this, then they should make their views known to both the Count and Griffith. O’Brien added that if the two men refused to come around to their point of view, then the Volunteers should simply brush both aside and act on their own.
Further efforts at public unity were made in May, when the by-election in South Longford provided the chance for Plunkettites, Volunteers and Sinn Féiners to campaign together on behalf of their candidate, Joseph McGuinness, against the IPP selection. However much they distrusted each other, they could at least agree to dislike the Irish Party even more.
McGuinness’ success on an absentionist ticket – the second such win that year after Plunkett’s in North Roscommon – was satisfying but did nothing to assuage the tensions. Shortly afterwards, the election committee met to consider whether it should be established as a permanent organisation under the title of ‘The Irish Freedom Election Committee’.
Although Griffith did not say so openly, it seemed clear to O’Brien – who still attended such meetings despite his resignation – that Griffith was opposed to this proposition, stealing as it would the attention away from Sinn Féin. However, he departed early, allowing the others in his absence to agree to this latest development – not the best way, perhaps, for an already fragile group to make decisions.
A further meeting of the election committee was held on 30th May at which Griffith again questioned its necessity. Another lengthy discussion followed, punctuated by a sharp exchange between him and Count Plunkett.
Meanwhile, a public rally at Beresford Place, Dublin, was set for the 10th June to protest at the conditions in which the Rising prisoners were held in English jails. When the authorities proscribed the meeting, its organisers agreed for it to be postponed.
Agreed by all, but one. O’Brien was very much surprised upon learning that Plunkett was going ahead with the meeting, regardless of what the others had decided.
Trouble at Beresford Place
Perhaps Plunkett’s contrariness was motivated by the reports of the treatment of his sons, George and Jack, in prison, from the scanty amounts of poor quality food to homosexual rape, which their sister Geraldine “knew afterwards from Jack’s nightmares, did happen.”
Or maybe it was out of desire to buck both the British authorities and his ‘colleagues’. Either way, people in the streets of Dublin on the morning of the 10th June were handed leaflets on their way from church by a number of young men and women. Headed ‘Strike in Lewes Jail’, the handbills notified their readers of the time and place of the meeting: 7:30 pm at Beresford Place.
Such brazen publicity also alerted the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) were also alerted, a squad of which was being present at Beresford Place by the advertised time. Meanwhile, a 200-strong crowd made its way across Butt Bridge from the south side of the Liffey River. At the back of the procession was a hackney car with Plunkett and Brugha inside.
When the crowd reached Beresford Place, the car pulled up in front of Liberty Hall. Inspector John Mills pushed his way at the head of a police party through the press of bodies and ordered Brugha to get down from the top of the car on which he was addressing the crowd. When Brugha persisted in speaking, Mills pulled him down while, on the other side of the car, Plunkett was likewise arrested.
The mood of the onlookers turned ugly at the sight of their heroes being manhandled, and the policemen found themselves being followed as they led their prisoners away. The DMP sergeant with Plunkett advised him to hurry along for fear of trouble. Seeing the milling, agitated people all around, with the potential for violence heavy in the air, the Count agreed by quickening his pace.
As the police passed underneath the railway arch at Beresford Place, a young man stepped forward. Without warning, he struck Inspector Mills on the back of the head with what witnesses described as a hurling stick.
Constable John Dooley grabbed the assailant by the collar as the latter turned to escape. The crowd closed in on them and Dooley received a blow to the head in turn, driving him to his knees as he doggedly held on. The culprit finally wriggled free and ran down Lower Abbey Street, turning at one point to brandish a revolver at Dooley, before disappearing out of sight.
Meanwhile, Superintendent Brennan was leading another police party in pushing the unruly mob back by Eden Quay. When he heard a shout of “The Inspector is killed”, he ran to find Mills on the ground, blood oozing from his left ear.
After casting some stones, the crowd dispersed, its energies spent. In addition to Plunkett and Brugha, three more had been arrested: the cabdriver who had brought them, a youth for drawing a dagger and a stone-throwing man. The prisoners were taken to Sloane Street Station, before transferred to Arbour Hill the following night.
Mills had been driven to Jervis Street Hospital, where he died of shock and haemorrhaging from what the doctor described as the worst injury he had seen in his professional career. The 51-year-old native of Co. Westmeath left behind a widow and three children. According to Geraldine Plunkett, her father had said upon seeing Mills collapse: “Oh, the poor man! I hope he’s not hurt.”
It says much about the relative obscurity of Brugha at the time that he was “a man named Burgess” and “a man who gave his name as Cathal Burgess” when the Irish Times reported him alongside the far better known Count Plunkett.
Despite talk of those arrested being tried for the murder of Inspector Mills, they were released from Arbour Hill on the 18th June as part of the general amnesty for political prisoners. This include the remaining inmates from the Rising, and the Count’s two sons were discharged accordingly, finally returning home after almost a year of imprisonment.
‘Hot and Strong’
The British authorities were not the only ones attempting a diplomatic solution. It was clear that the divide between Sinn Féin and the Liberty Clubs, rapidly deepening into a split, could not continue.
So far, the upper hand was held by Sinn Féin. The Liberty Clubs were hampered by the lack of public association with the Rising which Sinn Féin possessed, however undeservedly, and the absence of a central office to which to send the all-important affiliation fees – another advantage Griffith enjoyed. Instead, correspondence for the Liberty Clubs were sent to and from the Count’s residence at 26 Upper Fitzwilliam Street, creating a slightly ramshackle feel, as if the man who was one of the country’s best-known political figures could manage no better.
Despite these drawbacks, Dillon could observe how the Liberty Clubs were:
…making progress and stories began to reach us of Sinn Féin Clubs and Liberty Clubs in the same parish. They were by no means on friendly terms with one another. The Royal Irish Constabulary [RIC] were quick to take advantage of the reputation of Sinn Féin to stir up trouble. ‘So ye’re afraid to call yourselves Sinn Foeners’, they would say to members of Liberty Clubs.
Trouble was astir, indeed. The monthly report of the RIC Inspector General in May speculated on how the movement:
…may divide into two sections, a revolutionary party under the leadership of Count Plunkett, and another and perhaps more numerous party, who realising the futility of armed insurrection, will try to achieve their aim by more passive measures.
Before matters could get to that point, an attempt at resolution was held in Brugha’s house in Upper Rathmines Road, a courtesy made on account of his still-healing leg wound from the Rising. Despite his slightly debilitated state, Brugha would take up the role of advocate for hard-line Republicanism, proving in the process to be a far more forceful character than Count Plunkett.
Dillon could not remember precisely who was in Brugha’s house that evening, though the conclave included his father-in-law, Griffith, Michael Collins and Rory O’Connor, as well as some other members of the Mansion House Committee. Nor could Dillon recall the resulting conversation exactly – it was not until 1967 that he put his account to paper – other than it had been “hot and strong, without being too acrimonious.”
Griffith was asked, or rather told, to hand over control of Sinn Féin to the Irish Volunteers. He held his ground, insisting that Sinn Féin would not surrender the name he had spent years toiling to build. Furthermore, he added, he had been elected president by a Sinn Féin convention and so could only hand over the role to someone elected at another such convention.
Walking the Plank
As it was getting late and the last trams home were due, Dillon summed up their options: to found a new organisation – as had been proposed at his father-in-law’s convention – or to reform Sinn Féin on conditions to which Griffith and the Plunkettites would find acceptable. Dillon added that the second was the simplest.
Sensing the support for this in the room, Griffith changed tact. He agreed to put before the Sinn Fein National Council the proposal that half of them would retire to make room for six representatives of the Liberty Clubs and the Mansion House Committee. Dillon would be joint honorary secretary along with the current one, with the president and his paid officials remaining unchanged until the next party Ard Fheis, set for October. Soon after, Dillon received a note to say that the National Council had agreed to these terms.
It was a gracious retreat on Griffith’s part, though perhaps he had had little choice.
O’Brien learnt from Brugha, with whom he had grown close, of the compromise arrangements decided upon in the latter’s house. When O’Brien was told that the new constitution for Sinn Féin would include the recognition of the Republic as proclaimed in the Rising, O’Brien was surprised. He did not think Griffith – a cautious man by nature – would go so far on such a charged point.
“Do you mean that Griffith has accepted the Republic?” O’Brien asked.
“He had to or walk the plank,” answered Brugha grimly.
Even Griffith’s allies had accepted that a surrender on his part was inevitable. From listening to the Sinn Féin branch meetings, Seán T. O’Kelly came to the conclusion that the ‘military’ men in the movement – those who had taken part in the Rising – would never accept Griffith as their leader. But Griffith still had his friends and admirers, even among said ‘military’ men, who disliked the idea of deposing a man who had done such sterling work for the country over the past twenty years.
With this conundrum in mind, O’Kelly was one of several men who went to Alderman Walter Cole’s home in 3 Mountjoy Square on the 24th October, the night before the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis was due. Cole told them that he had taken the liberty of asking Griffith to come along as well.
By the time Griffith arrived, the others had arrived at an unhappy but inescapable conclusion: should he run again as Sinn Féin president, he would be defeated. It would thus be best to retire gracefully. It fell to Cole to inform Griffith of this collective opinion.
Griffith took it in good stead. After talking it out with the others for half an hour with what O’Kelly considered to be admirable dispassion, Griffith told them that he would give their advice serious consideration. His decision would be announced the next day. It was the most Griffith was prepared to concede at that point, and his friends did not press it.
Such talks and manoeuvrings had been largely kept hidden from the majority of delegates who lined up outside the Mansion House to have their passes checked by the Irish Volunteers posted on the doors. It was soon apparent that the Ard Fheis would be a packed one. Half an hour before the opening and the Round Room inside was already crowded, with more guests continuing to stream in at a steady pace.
It was stated by party officials that 1,700 delegates, representing 1,009 Sinn Féin clubs throughout the country, were present. But in the opinion of the Freeman’s Journal – no friend of radical politics otherwise – the actual numbers far exceeded this estimate.
‘A Soldier and a Statesman’
Count Plunkett and his wife were among the early arrivals. As the proceedings began, Éamon de Valera and W.T. Cosgrave, the Members of Parliament (MPs) for East Clare and Kilkenny City respectively, stepped on the platform, followed by Griffith. Beneath the applause that greeted each man, the excitement and anxiety were acutely felt by all.
The Plunkett Convention six months ago, held in that very same hall, had showed that even in the heart of the movement’s power and display, a split was not impossible. Given the simmering tensions since then, it was not even implausible.
This time, the risk centred on the three candidates for the presidency. In the opinion of Kevin O’Shiel, Griffith was the obvious choice. He was, after all, one of the founders of Sinn Féin as well as the current office holder. But his openness to an Ireland continuing under the British Crown as part of some dual monarchy idea of his, and his initial opposition to the Rising, made him anathema to many.
As for Count Plunkett, he was more distinguished by his sons than his own qualities. That had not stopped him from attempting to take central stage in the movement. Despite having canvassed for the Count in the momentous by-election earlier in the year, O’Shiel soon resented the sense of entitlement:
Since his big victory in [North] Roscommon, he and his supporters had come to regard him as the predestined leader of the Irish people on whom “the mantle of Elijah” had fallen, charged with the definite leadership of the country in the new struggle.
Whatever the doubts of O’Shiel, Griffith and others, Plunkett could rely on the Republican elements for support. But the Liberty Clubs, intended to be his powerbase, had not been able to replace Sinn Féin as Plunkett had hoped, largely due to their failure to overtake Sinn Féin in the public mind as the originator of the Rising. It was on this critical factor that politics in the post-1916 Ireland would rise or crumble.
The third contender, de Valera, was the dark horse in the race. Despite the lack of fame as enjoyed by the other two, he did possess certain advantages. His record as a Rising participant, and a senior officer in the Irish Volunteers at that, bestowed credibility of the sort Griffith could never attain. At the same time, de Valera made it clear that he had arrived at his Republican position by his belief that that was what the Irish public wanted, an open-mindedness which reassured moderates that here was someone they could work with.
When the subject of the presidency came up, a hush fell over the room. Everyone tensed to see what would unfold. A minute ticked by, feeling like an hour. Then Griffith rose and, to the surprise of many, announced that he was not putting himself forward. He thereupon withdrew his nomination, declaring instead for de Valera, in whom, Griffith informed his audience, “we have a soldier and a statesman.”
The resulting applause went on for some minutes, due in no small part to the relief that a split had just been avoided. Obviously following the same script, Count Plunkett also withdrew, ensuring that de Valera’s election as the new President of Sinn Féin was a unanimous, not to mention mercifully uneventful, one.
The New Leadership
Not that this had been entirely unexpected. The night before, de Valera had come to talk to Kathleen Lynn and Helena Molony, both as Labour representatives. After informing them he was being put forward as a compromise between Plunkett and Griffith, he asked if that would be acceptable. The two women agreed, and Molony was much satisfied with the arrangement. They had kept out Griffith, whom she despised for his moderation. While she had supported Plunkett, that had been for the sake of his martyred son, Joseph, and not so much for him. In terms of leadership quality, she found de Valera to be by far the better choice.
The new Sinn Féin Executive that emerged from the Ard Fheis bore little resemblance to the ones of the past ten years. Those few ‘old’ party hands who remained on the twenty-four-strong body did so because they, like the rest, had some connection to the Rising. From then on, the course of the party would be guided by its militants.
Seeing where the wind was blowing, both the Liberty Clubs and the Irish Nation League folded and amalgamated into Sinn Féin, ensuring that the party would be a ‘broad church’, reflecting both hard-line and moderate opinions. In truth, it was not now dissimilar to the IPP in the past, which had had room for constitutionalists like Charles Stewart Parnell and John Redmond, as well as former Fenians such as Michael Davitt and James J. O’Kelly, the late MP for North Roscommon who Count Plunkett had succeeded.
With Sinn Féin set to defeat IPP come the next election, the new had replaced the old in more ways than one, though few in the reformed Sinn Féin were inclined to appreciate the historical repetition. A line had been drawn in the sand, and a break made with the past. The days of compromise were over, or so those in the Ard Fheis told themselves.
Both Plunkett and Griffith were consoled for their self-denial of the presidency with their election as dual Vice-Presidents. This may have been the point in which the Count actually joined Sinn Féin. He had been content to have it campaign on his behalf in North Roscommon but at his April convention he had been markedly hostile, determined to have the party replaced with one more to his liking.
Not that this had stopped him from being a contender for the Sinn Féin presidency. It says much about the confusion and fluidity of the times that one action did not necessarily negate a contradictory other.
Many had gone into the Ard Fheis fearing a split between Griffith and Plunkett. Instead, Sinn Féin had been able to retain both men. Whether by accident or design, the top echelons of the party upheld a balance between the two opposing viewpoints in the movement – the constitutional and the militant – a difference which would be, if not conciliated, then at least pacified…for long enough, at least.
Not that the two men would ever completely bury the hatchet. Five years, in May 1922, Griffith was speaking to the Dáil when Count Plunkett made, according to the Irish Times, “an observation which was imperfectly heard.”
Whatever was said, Griffith did not assume it to be favourable towards him. He responded by saying that he had been campaigning for the rights of Ireland at a time when Plunkett was receiving the King of England and hanging out flags (which were presumably Union Jacks).
“I did not pull down the Irish flag,” said Plunkett, who seems to have misheard somewhat.
Griffith did not let up, insisting that the other man had received the King in Cork – a reference to the 1903 Exhibition, which Plunkett had helped supervise – when he had sworn allegiance to the visiting Edward VII.
“I never swore allegiance,” Plunkett protested.
“Maintain the dignity of the Dáil,” said Brugha, intervening in defence of his friend.
“Keep this man from interrupting,” Griffith retorted. “I will not be interrupted by a humbug.”
There were cries of ‘shame’ at this insult, forcing Griffith to withdraw it.
Not that it mattered anyway. Their feud was already old news. So was Count Plunkett’s career as leader of the new national movement. Like his Liberty Clubs, his ascendancy would be a short-lived phenomenon, one swiftly forgotten.
The Plunkett Convention, followed by the Clubs, had marked the peak of his influence. He would remain on the political scene, such as when he led in the very first elected Teachtaí Dálas (TDs) at the opening of Dáil Éireann on the 21st January 1919, while looking “very distinguished” as Geraldine remembered. There, he was appointed Minister for Foreign Affairs, and later the Minister for Fine Arts at the second Dáil in August 1921, the latter post being well suited for the distinguished art scholar that was Count Plunkett.
But never again would he enjoy such success as he had had, when his had been the name on the lips of friend and foe alike, and the future looked his to mould and command.
“It is difficult for us at present to visualise the circumstances under which this Convention was held,” so the Monsignor Michael J. Curran recounted in later years about the Plunkett Convention that took place on the 19th April 1917. The closest thing Ireland had had to a ruling party since the days of Parnell, the Irish Parliament Party (IPP), was a spent force by then, drained and discredited, but who or what would take its place was by no means certain.
The most visible alternative for the moment was George Noble Plunkett. The 66-year old Papal Count had been better known in the past as a celebrated art scholar whose comfortable life of genteel indolence, along with much else in the country, had been upturned in the Easter Week of 1916. His eldest son had been executed for his part in the Rising, the other two imprisoned, and himself stripped of his National Museum directorship and exiled to England.
The wheel had turned yet again upon his election in January 1917 to the parliamentary seat of North Roscommon. Plunkett had not even needed to be present for the most part – he only returned to Ireland in the last few days before polling – with most of the work being done by an impromptu alliance of groups and individuals, united in their frustration at the political stagnation. Much had been promised by the IPP in the form of Home Rule, and yet Ireland was as much an unwilling ward of the British Crown as ever.
Immediately after his election, the Count had transformed from a respectable gentleman to a firebrand as he lambasted the failings of the IPP while half-promising, half-predicting a cleansing of the country’s woes with the certainty of a Biblical prophet. That attempts had been made, almost certainly by the IPP, to discredit him only inadvertently confirmed his status as standard-bearer of the new movement. Yet not everyone could look at the Count and agree with such elevation.
Police reports to Dublin Castle, while noting the apathy that gripped the Irish Party, commented on how “the Count as a party leader does not appear to inspire enthusiasm.” In that, the police, and many of Plunkett’s so-called allies, were unknowingly in accord.
Clouding matters further was there had been no elections, either for Parliament or local government bodies, since before the start of the war in Europe. These public bodies were left with men (they were invariably men) who did not necessarily speak for their constituents anymore, particularly the young, who had gone through such a dramatic transformation in the wake of the 1916 Rising. What opposition there was in Ireland to the IPP or British rule was unfocused, fragmentary and, as often as not, at odds with each other.
If nothing else, the convention called by Count Plunkett was the first attempt to voice the new feeling in the country and hear what it had to say. If it could somehow smooth over the differences in the various opposition groups as well, then so much the better.
Differentiating these factions was not always easy, for in their hostility to the IPP and the desire to break the British connection, they could often appear indistinguishable to each other. Nonetheless, several distinct strands of thought could be discerned from the morass of post-1916 feeling:
Sinn Féin, as envisioned by its founder, Arthur Griffith, with a preference for constitutional methods.
Sinn Féin but remoulded on more Republican lines, an option popular among those who had fought in the Rising.
The Liberty Clubs, set up by Count Plunkett as a hard-line alternative.
Another group was the Irish Nation League. Formed in Derry in July 1916 as an anti-Partition lobby. It had spread from the Ulster counties to the rest of the country, holding a rally in Dublin in September which had been attracted considerable attention. But that had been the high point for the League. Now it was stagnating for lack of drive and a failure to secure the newly popular radical ground. The League’s mistake had been to try and replace the Irish Party at the time when the IPP was a failed model.
Of these bodies, the Liberty Clubs were the most recent, being formed from May 1917 while riding the momentum of the Plunkett Convention from the month before. Sinn Féin, meanwhile, was the oldest and enjoyed the benefits of being an already established name. It was perhaps only fitting that the two men at the heads of these two groups, Plunkett and Griffith respectively, should be at loggerheads from the start.
They stood on the opposite ends of the Nationalist spectrum, the Count demanding immediate action, against a more cautious Griffith. But there were times when the animosity spilled from the strictly political to the unpleasantly personal. According to the Count’s daughter, Geraldine, in her not-unbiased memoirs, Griffith had written “several savage letters”, accusing him of making political capital out of his dead son, to which the Count had managed to reply “with his habitual courtesy.”
At the Plunkett Convention, however, its namesake would prove to be the aggressive one, attempting what amounted to a hostile takeover of Sinn Féin, forcing Griffith on the defensive.
Their initial point of contention was absentionism. The Count knew exactly where he stood there: he would not under any circumstances take his seat for North Roscommon at Westminster. As well as making this publicly clear, he expected his allies to commit to the same principle. At a meeting in Plunkett’s house in February, the trade unionist William O’Brien voiced his concerns that taking such a definite stand so soon would risk alienating the wider Irish public. He was taken aback when Griffith, who was also present, agreed.
O’Brien had reason to be surprised, for Griffith had long pioneered absentionism as a means of separating the country from Britain. For this, Geraldine and her brother Joseph – the future 1916 signatory – had admired him, along with his “fine historical sense….and policy of self-reliance” for Ireland. But in the new post-Rising country, Griffith’s position was more tenuous than he cared to admit.
‘Sinn Féin’ had been popularised, in one of those quirks of history, by the British authorities who had labelled the Irish Volunteers as such due to the perception of the actual Sinn Féin as a quixotic cause. The journalist Darrell Figgis remembered how the pre-1916 Sinn Féin “was a title of opprobrium. It was a title of a small minority, considered to be more noisy than numerous, expostulant but powerless.”
This was a view shared by Seán T. O’Kelly, who estimated that Sinn Féin, of which he was a joint-honorary secretary, had had no more than a hundred members in Dublin before the Rising.
And now – what a difference! Sinn Féin Clubs were everywhere, with affiliation fees pouring into the head offices of 6 Harcourt Street, allowing Griffith the luxury of keeping two paid organisers on the road. That the front-page header of the Nationality (the latest newsletter of his) bore the subtitle ‘edited by Arthur Griffith’, the first time his name had been so displayed, showed how much of an asset his name had become.
And it had been thanks to Dublin Castle’s misnomer of the Easter Rising as the ‘Sinn Féin Rebellion’ that it was now the leading political brand in Ireland. This was despite Sinn Féin having had nothing to do with the insurrection, a misunderstanding that Griffith was in no hurry to correct, much to the annoyance of those who had actually been involved in the fighting and were resentful of his piggybacking on their efforts.
Besides, Griffith was seen as far too moderate for their tastes. In Count Plunkett, they saw a more agreeably hard-line totem around which to rally.
The Game of Politics
Some disdained the use of politics altogether. In Frongoch Camp, those prisoners who were initiates in the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) held a series of meeting to determine their future course of action. At one, attended by Michael Collins and Richard Mulcahy, it was agreed that, upon being freed, they would bring the IRB into the realm of politics in order to best serve the national cause. After all, news from Ireland told of how the IPP was weak and their own popularity strong, so the time seemed ripe to replace the old establishment with one more in tune with their aims.
One IRB member, Eamon T. Dore, had not been invited to this particular meeting, which he attributed to a falling-out he had had with the increasingly influential Collins. In any case, Dore did not approve of the decision, fearing that the IRB would be enmeshed with the usual intrigue and compromise of politics.
Dore met with Mulcahy and another Frongoch alumni/IRB member, Michael Staines, in Sackville (now O’Connell) Street, Dublin, after their release. It was February 1917 and the North Roscommon by-election was underway. Mulcahy persuaded the other two to come with him to Griffith’s house in the North Strand, as he wanted his advice on what to do next. Evidently a generous man with his time, Griffith told them that, in his opinion, they should focus on bringing Ireland’s case to the Peace Conference, set to be held in Paris after the war in Europe was over.
This was not to Dore’s liking. He argued that if Britain won the war, it would never give Ireland a fair chance and, if it lost, well, then it would be in no position to tell them what to do anyway. To Dore, this exchange was symptomatic of the sort of woolly thinking that was all too common amongst men like Griffith.
Even those willing to lend a hand in the political arena disdained those who were too involved. Laurence Nugent had helped organise the Plunkettite campaign in North Roscommon. He was close to Rory O’Connor, one of the few Rising leaders who had escaped imprisonment. For his part, O’Connor was working both on the Count’s behalf and in helping to reorganise the Irish Volunteers. Through O’Connor, Nugent witnessed the attitudes of many who adapted to the new political landscape while remaining contemptuous of it.
“We were not politicians, although we were now well initiated into the game of politics,” was how Nugent put it. The politicians were a different breed: “They saw no hope of recovery on Republican lines,” preferring instead the passive resistance espoused by Sinn Féin.
Nothing could have been further from the minds of those like O’Connor who were using the period of calm to prepare for the next round in the fight against Britain, one that would not be confined to Dublin but with the whole of Ireland as its battlefield. As O’Connor had said of his men when he saw that the Rising was doomed: “Send them home. We shall want them again.”
Keeping it in the Family
While waiting for the resumption of war, O’Connor was hard at work arranging the Plunkett Convention for April. He was helped in this by Thomas Dillon, the Count’s son-in-law. Dillon had married Geraldine on Easter Sunday 1916, following which the newlyweds had watched from their hotel balcony on Sackville Street as her brothers marched up towards the General Post Office (GPO) at the head of their men to begin the Rising. When Geraldine asked to help inside the GPO, it was O’Connor who was sent out to turn her away on Joseph’s behalf.
O’Connor was also romantically involved with a Plunkett daughter, and had worn throughout that turbulent week in Dublin a holy medal in his pocket, given to him by Fiona Plunkett. He would remain on close terms with the family up until his execution in the Civil War. According to Nugent, Josephine Plunkett, the Count’s wife, acted as go-between for O’Connor while he was occupying the Four Courts in 1922, as “speaking to her was the same as speaking to Rory.”
He and Fiona never got as far as marriage, with Geraldine describing their romance as a “very frustrating” one for her sister. Nugent, as O’Connor’s friend, put it more delicately: “the bullet that killed him in Mountjoy affected the life of a lady member of a great Irish family.”
Another budding revolutionary leader who benefitted from the support of the Plunketts was Michael Collins. Geraldine first met him when he was a “very tired young man”, newly arrived from London. He was put to work handling their rent books, answering official letters and filing away papers. Collins took lunch with the Plunketts and quickly made an impression, at least on Geraldine, in whose opinion: “no one ever had a better clerk.”
(Not every member of the family had such a fond image of the Big Fella. Eoghan Plunkett, Geraldine’s nephew, remembered the future hero as a “pup, a nasty piece of work.” Among his sins was avoiding the living-room carpet in favour of the bare part of the floor in order to make more noise. However, Eoghan would not have been born then and his stories are second-hand).
Under Collins’ supervision, the muddled financial books began to take some semblance of order (no one in the family could be accused of being too worldly). But Collins did not intend to shuffle papers and juggle sums forever. He had been recommended to Joseph by the IRB in London, of which Collins had been a member, and he continued to act in that capacity in Dublin, helping Joseph to organise the embryonic uprising while serving as his bodyguard in a measure of the growing trust between them.
Collins became a common sight on the family property at Larkfield, south-west of Dublin. The Volunteers who were based there would see him passing as they churned out shotgun pellets and cast-iron grenades in preparation for the coming insurrection. He impressed them with his “sense of hurry and earnestness,” while causing annoying with his brusqueness and amateurish attempts to instruct them in their work.
Collins’ lack of tact did not seem to have improved by the time of the North Roscommon by-election at the start of 1917. “The reactions of many being that he was a typical Corkman – some people thought he was a pusher [as in pushy] – and he was resented at that time,” according to William O’Brien, who met Collins while they were both assisting in the Plunkett campaign.
On the other hand, another canvasser, Kevin O’Shiel accredited Collins – along with Griffith and Father Michael O’Flanagan – with the smooth running of the election by convincing his more bellicose colleagues of the gains to be had through the electoral process.
Collins’ influence was such that many observers attributed the rise of the Liberty Clubs not so much to Count Plunkett but to him and the IRB. To Richard Walsh, a future TD and a member of the IRB himself at the time, the Clubs were “the public or outward expression” of the IRB which sponsored the Clubs in order “to give public expression and support to the IRB’s policy of physical force.”
Certainly, the militant philosophy espoused by the Clubs was in line with the IRB’s. Furthermore, as Walsh described, “Collins’ position as Secretary to Count Plunkett meant that he was acting as Secretary of the Liberty Clubs.”
Dillon also linked the growth of the Clubs to Collins and the IRB:
The Liberty Clubs proposed by Count Plunkett were being founded, probably [emphasis mine] under the aegis of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, which Michael Collins had begun to reorganise throughout the country immediately after his release from internment in Frongoch, at the end of 1916.
The use of word ‘probably’ indicates that not even the Count’s son-in-law was entirely sure what was going on.
Not so easily impressed was Dore, whose account of how he and Collins came to the Plunkett Convention puts the latter in a different light to the near-omniscient mastermind as he is often portrayed. Collins, Dore, Staines and some others were hanging about Dublin one lazy afternoon when they heard there was something going on at the Mansion House. Arriving late, they were only allowed in because Dore knew one of the doormen.
A Union of Advanced Thought
Delegates from the various public bodies throughout Ireland arrived at the Mansion House on the 19th April as per the instructions sent out by Count Plunkett. Admission tickets were checked at the doors by members of the Irish Volunteers acting as stewards, a sign of how the closely the new radical politics and the military men were in concord.
The large number of female attendees was notable, as were those from the younger male generation, politics in Ireland previously being the reserve of elderly or middle-aged men. Even the Freeman’s Journal, an organ of the IPP and thus a bitter critic of the Count, recognised that something exceptional was taking place with its headline NATIONALISM – NEW STYE – COUNT PLUNKETT’S “UNION” OF ADVANCED THOUGHT.
In keeping with the mood of the country, Sinn Féin badges were conspicuously displayed throughout the hall. Rousing cries of “Up Sinn Féin” greeted Count Plunkett as he made his way on the platform to take the chair. The callers may not have done so had they known what the Count truly thought of Sinn Fein and Griffith, and vice versa.
Plunkett began by thanking his guests for attending, particularly those who had had to travel from great distance. He then asked for a vote of commemoration to be made: “That this assembly, at its first meeting, desire to honour the memory of the men who have died for Ireland.”
The audience stood in respect as the vote was passed. The second request was also accepted without condition: “In honour of those who faced death for Ireland and who are now in prison as felons, and those men and women who had been exiled.”
Unstated, but palatable, was the knowledge that among these said men were members of the Plunkett family: Joseph, executed before a firing squad, Jack and George, both sentenced to lengthy penal sentences, and their father, the Count himself, banished to England until two months ago. After all, as Griffith had cruelly (if not altogether inaccurately) said, Plunkett had built a fine career out of such loss.
A Free-Souled Nation
Count Plunkett said he would not insult these captives in question by asking for their release, insisting instead that they should be treated as prisoners of war. These men should be paid at least the same respect that a German or any other foreign POW would be treated, instead of degraded with the status of criminals.
“It is an honour,” a voice interrupted from the assembly. Plunkett said that he knew that these men took it as such and that they were prepared to suffer accordingly but – in a statement that was especially meaningful coming from him – “we should not suffer it for them.”
After the resulting applause had died down, Plunkett congratulated his audience and Ireland upon the occasion of this great and representative gathering. It was hard to realise that this was the first free assembly of Irishmen on their own soil for many a century (cheers). It was the one of the first assemblies in the history of the country in which the leading note was a disregard for all aliens (cheers).
“In your name,” continued the Count, warming to his theme, “I made a series of declarations which you can assent by standing up. They are that –”
We proclaim Ireland to be a separate nation.
We assert Ireland’s right to freedom from all foreign control, defying the authority of any foreign Parliament to make laws for the country.
We affirm the right of the Irish people to declare their will in law, and enforce their decisions in their own land.
To maintain the status of Ireland as a distinct nation, we demand representation at the coming Peace Conference in Paris.
It is the duty of those nations taking part in the said Conference to guarantee the liberty of small nations like Ireland.
Our claim to complete independence is founded on human right and the law of nations.
We declare that Ireland has never yielded in our power to attain complete liberty.
Each of these declarations was greeted with hearty cheers and the standing in assent by all those present. Further capturing the mood were the two women who, after the lunch break, draped a tricolour over Plunkett’s table on the podium, prompting fresh acclaim and refrains of ‘A Soldier’s Song’ and ‘Who Fears to Speak of Easter Week’.
A New Organisation?
So far, so good – nothing said had been met by anything other than approval and enthusiasm. Plunkett introduced the two Labour delegates from the Dublin Trades Council. Its vice-president, Thomas Farren, wished God-speed to the work started that day.
“We believe,” Farren said, “that this is the start of a pure political organisation for this country. Organised labour in Ireland is prepared at all times to make any sacrifice necessary on behalf of an Irish Republic.”
The other Labour man, William O’Brien, spoke next. He was brief but precise, with a promise to adhere to every word of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, making this the only explicitly republican – as opposed to merely separatist – utterance made at the event.
After the hour for lunch, the Count resumed proceedings by announcing his wish to explain his proposals for the national organising of Ireland. He added that he was not calling it the reorganisation as the country within their time had never been organised – at least, not in any way to speak on behalf of its people (hear, hear).
“Two things the Irishman could not separate from life were,” said the Count grandly, “first, his reverence and subjection to God, and, secondly, his duty to his fellows in establishing liberty.”
Plunkett proceeded to outline how this establishment of liberty would be done. Clubs or circles would be formed in villages, towns and parishes, under a central body in Dublin and supported by an annual subscription from each member.
A New Name?
Their first business would be to prepare for future elections. “However long delayed,” the Count said, relishing the imminent fate of the hapless IPP, “the axe will fall, and political executions will be considerable.”
In the lead-up to this, he continued, they must prepare themselves. Every parish in the country was to have groups of men ready to secure the polling booths and ensure that the will of the people be carried out.
Luckily, a new generation of young men had emerged and were standing for Ireland (hear, hear). They could not vote but they had the future of the country in their hands, and so should be used accordingly as a national army (cheers).
Now at his own demagogic, Plunkett strove to leave his audience in no doubt as to the immediacy of the situation:
They might be required to at any moment to have a movement going like lightning across the whole of Ireland, stirring the whole people, making them as one man, establishing a series of resistance which no government could ignore and which no government could withstand.
There might be, the Count admitted, almost as an afterthought, certain impediments to these ambitions of his, namely the presence of similar societies already in existence. In this regard, Plunkett was prepared to be accommodating – within certain parameters.
Any such group would have a right to be included in the new organisation, providing that they adhere to certain standards, namely abstentionist and a demand for nothing short of complete independence for Ireland. If they agreed to these terms, then they would be accepted as a valid part of the organisation. It was an offer of assimilation that the Count clearly believed to be a generous one.
Offhandedly, he added, he would be prepared to accept a new name to fit this new organisation. Most of the audience would have assumed that this was simply the Count thinking aloud. They would have had little idea that his stated willingness to discard old names – names like, say, Sinn Féin – amounted to a declaration of war on some others who were present.
A New Alliance?
A close friend and ally of Griffith’s, Seán Milroy, spoke next. He moved that there existed an urgent need for united action between such bodies as Sinn Féin, the Irish Nation League, the Irish-American Alliance, the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Labour Party.
In order to effect this coalition, a body to be called the Executive Council of the Irish National Alliance should be formed, consisting of five members elected by the convention, with three more appointed by each of the groups involved. Such level of detail suggested that Milroy, and possibly Griffith, had spent some time thinking this out beforehand.
From there, they would begin the process of contesting the next elections and presenting Ireland’s case at the coming Peace Conference. The culmination of this broad front would be the formation, at the earliest possible date, of a constitutional assembly to be known as the Council of the Irish Nation. Griffith seconded this motion, warning the audience that unless they banded together, the IPP would return to prominence.
Herbert Pim also weighed in with his support, saying that he spoke on behalf of Sinn Féin, one of the groups responsible for these proceedings. Had it not been for Sinn Féin, Pim said, this convention would not now be happening. Speaking as the self-confessed jealous guardian of the Sinn Féin name, he joked that it would be a pity to lose a brand so distasteful a flavour in the mouths of their Saxon friends (laughter).
There was but the slightest of elbowing here, with Plunkett’s advocacy of an entirely new organisation rubbing up against Pim’s reminder of the work Sinn Féin had already accomplished. Still, neither Milroy, Griffith nor Pim had ventured anything irretrievably at odds with the Count’s grand vision.
A New Problem
Had the mood been different, the relationships more trusting, this might have been taken as healthy discourse, different takes on essentially the same thing. Instead, the Count heard their stated preference for a confederation of groups, as opposed to his single centralised one, as a sop to those who were not yet sold on the abstentionist policy. It was not a point Plunkett was interested in stepping back from.
Standing his ground, Plunkett told them that they had pledged against sending their representatives to Westminster. From now on, Ireland must approach the Peace Conference as nothing other than a separate nation. He added a warning that perhaps doubled as a threat: did they think the young men of Ireland would support them otherwise?
There was only one sacrifice, the Count continued, to be asked of an Irish patriot, and that was to put his life at the behest of the nation (hear, hear). He had not left his comfortable position as Director of the National Museum to be told his policy was too advanced or that he was alone in his views.
(Technically, Plunkett had not so much left the Museum as was fired, but no one was churlish enough to point this out.)
He was *not* alone, he assured the hall. They must show England that they were not half-hearted, that they would resolutely hold on to the principles for which their martyred compatriots, his son included, had died (cheers).
Accordingly, Plunkett moved for the following resolution:
That we, the assembly of Irish Independence, desire to establish an organisation to unite Irish advanced opinion and provide for action, as the result of its conclusions.
The Convention secretary was at hand to second it. The resolution for a new organisation was declared carried, but the accompanying cries of ‘no, no’ from the hall indicated that this was not a unanimous, or even popular, decision. The tension gestating beneath the surface, away from public sight since the Roscommon election two months ago, was finally rising to the fore, ready to ooze out.
In keeping with the not-yet-uttered adage by Brendan Behan, the first thing on the victors’ agenda following the North Roscommon election was the split.
The two main sources for the private meetings that saw the partnership between Count Plunkett and Arthur Griffith deteriorate almost as soon as it had begun are Kevin O’Shiel’s and William O’Brien’s written accounts. They differ in details, particularly in regards to chronology, but tell more-or-less the same story.
According to O’Shiel, a meeting was held immediately post-election in Bowles’ Hotel, Boyle. For all his canvassing on Plunkett’s behalf, O’Shiel had not been overly impressed upon first seeing his candidate, who appeared to him as a dazed old man, “bowed down and rendered feeble by sorrow and misfortune.”
Plunkett gradually got into the spirit of his own campaign, speaking well when required, but he remained, in O’Shiel’s eyes, a forlorn, pitiful figure. As his campaign was aiming for the sympathy vote on account of his sons’ and his own misfortunes, this was not necessarily a disadvantage.
But, upon success, quite a change came over the 66-year-old Count. Where before he had been weighed down with age and woe, now he straightened into a proud, almost regal, individual, one who “no longer supplicated; he commanded; and it seemed to all that he had made up his mind that he was going to rule whatever organisation was to take shape from his triumph.”
Whatever organisation, indeed. For while Sinn Fein, the Irish Nation League and their fellow travellers had needed the Plunkett name to win North Roscommon, the Count did not necessarily believe that he depended on them in quite the same way.
His supporters got a taste of the new man that evening in Bowles’. There were perhaps thirty to forty people in the room, many from the disparate groups that had thrown their support behind the candidate. The list of names present reads like an assemblage of those who would be at the forefront of the subsequent revolution:
Father Michael O’Flanagan, Michael Collins, Joe McGrath, Seán Milroy (who would later break out of Lincoln Prison with Éamon de Valera in 1919), the Independent MP Laurence Ginnell, J.J. O’Kelly (the editor of the popular Catholic Bulletin), Michael O’Callaghan (later the mayor of Limerick, murdered by the Black and Tans) and Rory O’Connor. O’Shiel was under the impression that O’Connor was the fiancé of the Count’s daughter; in fact, the two were in romantically involved – which may explain his dedication to her father’s cause – but they never got as far as engagement.
The talk quickly came round to the question of absentionism. Now that their man was a bona fide MP, there could be no more ducking the matter. Those of the Irish Nation League were against it, considering such an absolutist stance to be, at best, premature. The Sinn Fein delegates, while naturally in favour of boycotting Westminster, agreed against taking hasty steps. Better, instead, to wait until a more representative gathering could be called before deciding on anything concrete.
The man of the hour had taken the chair but, after opening the meeting with a short call for suggestions, the Count “lapsed into almost complete silence and aloofness – another change, as he had been the most approachable and communicative before.”
When he finally spoke up again, it was to come down firmly on the side of absentionism. He would not, under any circumstances, take his seat in Parliament. Despite the resulting criticism from the League attendees and the calls for caution by the Sinn Féiners, the Count not only remained unmoved but “made it clear…that he would set about immediately to establish a new organisation of his own based on ‘Liberty Clubs’.”
O’Shiel almost certainly jumped the gun here in his narration, for Plunkett would not make his plans for his Liberty Clubs known until further in the year. O’Shiel admitted in his reminiscences that his memories at this point were hazy, but otherwise his account meshes well with O’Brien’s.
In O’Brien’s version, the divisive meeting did not take place until the 15th February, in the Count’s residence on 26 Upper Fitzwilliam Street. Otherwise, the details are very similar to O’Shiel’s, as well as many of the names of those present: Father O’Flanagan, Michael Collins, Rory O’Connor, Laurence Ginnell, J.J. O’Kelly, Michael O’Callaghan and Arthur Griffith.
Here, Plunkett announced his decision early in the session to abstain from his new seat, despite objections from many present, including Griffith, who agreed in principle but did not think his own policy would be popular with the Irish public quite yet. Most of the sunsequent talk revolved around this sticking point, absent the Count, if not in body, then at least in practice: “[he] did not give any particular lead or announce any definite policy himself and on the whole was rather unhelpful as a chairman of a meeting.”
(O’Brien took care to date the event in his memoir but the Count had made his decision on absentionism known before. The news should have come as no surprise to his audience by the time of the 15th. It is more believable that Plunkett was reiterating what he had already said rather than springing anything new on his allies.)
Finally, it was agreed to hold off any further discussion in favour of setting up a committee who would look into the question at a later date. This was merely a stopgap solution but better than nothing. Plunkett and Griffith would each be on this committee to represent their opposing viewpoints, accompanied by J.J. O’Kelly and Seamus O’Doherty (for the Irish Nation League and Sinn Féin respectively) and the trade unionist O’Brien.
O’Brien protested that since he was there in an individual capacity, he could not be called upon to influence the policy of Labour. Given his position as secretary of the Dublin Trades Council, not to mention his importance in general – the noted socialist Peadar O’Donnell described him as the “Lenin of the Labour Movement”– this attempt to abrogate responsibility was not very convincing.
(Privately, O’Brien’s concerns were to keep the Dublin Trades Council aligned with the Labour Party and away from anything overly Nationalist. He was prepared to support the cause of Irish independence as long as it did not mean committing himself or his union.)
The others, however, seemed willing to take O’Brien’s evasion at face value, perhaps content that one neutral party on the committee would at least not act against them.
Ten days later, O’Brien was taking a walk with Collins, Seamus O’Doherty and Michael Staines. O’Brien had met Collins in June 1916 when they had been imprisoned together in Frongoch Camp. Staines had been among those O’Brien had dispatched to North Roscommon to assist the Plunkettite campaign after Kitty O’Doherty, Seamus’ wife, had come to O’Brien, pleading for help (her husband being the election director). O’Brien was thus already on familiar terms with all three.
The Irish Volunteers, they told him, were determined to have any new movement on strictly republican lines, which was not something they felt they could trust Griffith on (Collins presumably kept such opinions to himself when he and Griffith were negotiating the Treaty together in London in late 1921).
A sympathetic listener, O’Brien agreed to help the other men in whatever way he could. So much for neutrality, then.
He also found the time to meet Griffith, who did not mince words: “Griffith said Plunkett knew nothing whatever about present day political circumstances, that it was useless talking to him and that he would be useless as a political leader.”
O’Brien heard him out without interruption. Inured to the quarrels between his fellow trade unionists, he was careful to remain neutral between the warring factions in the new nationalist movement.
The committee met later but failed to agree upon any recommendations on which course their burgeoning movement should take. Griffith pushed an idea of an umbrella council to encompass the number of like-minded groups. Plunkett, on the other hand, insisted on a fresh start with a new organisation altogether. In this, he was backed by Collins and Rory O’Connor.
Such talks ended in stalemates more often than not and only after a good deal of wasted time. One surreal story O’Connor told to a friend was of a woman found dead behind a door, apparently of starvation or cold, at the end of one such meeting, such had been its length.
The committee having fallen short of a solution, there was another meeting on the 2nd March in the Mansion House. Plunkett, Griffith, Father O’Flanagan, Collins, O’Connor and O’Brien were among those present. No one from the Irish Nation League was there, though O’Brien does not say if they had excused themselves or simply not been invited. Once again the agenda was on absentionism, with Griffith adamant that the country was not yet ready for such a step.
It was eventually agreed that the Count would issue a circular. It was to be in his own name, thus leaving him with the responsibility, and addressed to the various public bodies and societies throughout Ireland, inviting them to send delegates to a special conference. There, they would help appoint a national council whose main aim would be securing Ireland’s interests at the Peace Conference that was to be convened in Paris at the end of the War.
As Griffith had been pushing for such a move, this was a victory of sorts for him. In contrast, many in the Irish Volunteers were increasingly dissatisfied, feeling that the initiative they had had since the Rising was slipping back into the hands of political types.
Disclosure and a Concert
For all the gnawing tension behind closed doors (with or without dead women behind them), Plunkett could take grim comfort in how the IPP and its media outlets had clearly designated him as their number one threat. On the 3rd March, the Freeman’s Journal published COUNT PLUNKETT’S AMBITIONS – A DISCLOSURE, with the boast that:
We make public to-day a fact that will be of interest to the supporters of Count Plunkett, and will help to show the Nationalists of the country the characters of some of the men who are now held up to them as patriots of the most exalted and self-sacrificing type.
The promised disclosure was that Plunkett, back in 1914, had applied for the position of Under-Secretary of Ireland upon the retirement of the previous holder. Had the Count succeeded, as the newspaper archly pointed out, “he would have been in duty bound to give orders last April for the suppression of the insurrection.”
If the Count was fazed or embarrassed, he did not show it at a concert in the Mansion House two days later, put on by the Irish-American Alliance. He responded to the enthusiastic welcome from the attendees – many of whom had been forced to wait outside on Dawson Street, such were their numbers – with some fighting talk directed towards the IPP:
People might say what is the moral of the Roscommon election? Well, there are eighty-two constituencies pledged to some form of Home Rule, and the moral of Roscommon is that we are going to take those eighty-two seats.
It was said that in North Roscommon, Plunkett continued, he had had the boys and young men with him, which was something. Also said was how the women had been with him – that too meant a good deal. But he had had the old men with him as well – poor, feeble old men who had crawled across the snow with tears, in their eyes, to whisper in his ear: “I was out in ’67” [the Fenian Rising of 1867].
His only mention of the Freeman’s exposé was an indirect one. He insisted that he did not care to refer, even in the most passing way, to things intended to affect him personally (an encouraging voice called out: “Never mind them”). That such attempts to discredit him were made at all only showed the desperation of his enemies.
With that unpleasant topic out of the way – that he had fallen short of an actual denial was overlooked by an indulgent audience – Plunkett repeated his pledge not to take his seat at Westminster. He ended by asking the audience to pledge themselves, in the name of Ireland, to never rest until the country was cut loose from foreign oppression.
The loud cheers ringing in the Count’s ears as he left showed that once again his public appearance had been a success. The only low-note was when cries of “G-men” broke out, causing a journalist present to be mistaken for a Dublin Castle detective. The unfortunate man was assaulted and thrown out, his notebook torn up and the pieces thrown in the air like confetti.
True to form, the Freeman painted a much more dramatic picture of that evening. According to the newspaper, posters about the city, as well as the notices on sandwich-board-men, had announced ‘Count Plunkett is not a Place-Hunter, Mansion House this (Monday) evening at 8 o’clock’ and ‘Count Plunkett will explain, Mansion House this (Monday) evening at 8 o’clock’.
In addition, handbills were handed out out, saying ‘Count Plunkett applied to be Under-Secretary for Ireland. He must and will tell you tonight the reason why’ and ‘What would be have done during Easter Week?’
Given such publicity, it is unsurprising that such a large crowd was present that evening. At the end of Plunkett’s speech, a young man wearing a press badge was asked his business. He explained he was from the Freeman’s Journal, going as far as to write his name down if they wanted to verify with his office.
This did little to settle the increasingly hostile group that had gathered, demanding to know why he was not seated at the press table with the rest. His explanation that he had seen no other available chair failed to calm the situation any better than before. He was seized by the coat label, with suggestions made to take him outside, search his pockets and/or throw him in the Liffey.
The main demand was for his notebook (indicating that the crowd thought him a spy rather than a journalist from an unfriendly newspaper). When the pressman tried leaving with his notes still in his coat, he was seized, pushed, shaken, punched and even threatened with sticks. As he paused to pick up his fallen hat, he received a couple of kicks and a punch to jaw.
Some others in the hall interceded on his behalf with cries of “Don’t disgrace the movement” and helped to hustle him away. Despite such efforts, the journalist was safe only after he had been led out of the building through a side-door, though not without a final kick as he departed.
An Announcement in Sligo
Still enjoying his political honeymoon, Count Plunkett visited Sligo on the 17th March, St Patrick’s Day, to receive the freedom of the town. He arrived the day before, when a torchlight procession escorted him to his hotel. That he was booed on the way by a crowd of IPP partisans showed that the country was not entirely behind him or the new nationalism he was pioneering but no matter.
On the evening of the holiday, a large crowd waiting outside the town hall greeted their honoured guest to an outburst of cheers as he arrived in an open carriage. After the freedom was bestowed by the mayor, the Count took the opportunity for another of those rousing speeches of his that were going down so well wherever he went.
He repeated his pledge to not accept anything short of complete independence for Ireland. As for Home Rule, there was not much point in flogging that dead horse anymore. He had a plan, of which the public would hear more of soon, about an assembly to be held in Dublin, where a body would be formed to represent the whole of Ireland and push forward its case at the Paris Peace Conference.
First absentionism, now this assembly – whatever he may have thought of them, the Count was proving himself adept at appropriating Griffith’s ideas.
Following this announcement, a circular in Count Plunkett’s name was sent to all councils for counties, boroughs, urban and rural districts, asking them to nominate delegates for an all-Ireland assembly in a month’s time on the 19th April, the chosen venue being the Mansion House (a locale Plunkett was becoming familiar with).
Addressed from the Count’s house at Upper Fitzwilliam Street, the circular laid out the invitation and the national stakes involved:
Would it be possible for you to immediately call a mass meeting of the people of your County with the object of proclaiming:
Ireland’s right to be represented at the Peace Conference.
To protect against the forced settlement on the part of His Majesty’s Government of the Irish Question.
To consider the urgent questions of taxation and food supply.
If you personally cannot undertake this, would you approach the most likely persons in your County and invite them to do so?
It is a vital necessity that Ireland should affirm its intention of rejecting a scheme involving permanent or temporary partition.
The circular was issued on the 17th March, the day the Count had spoken in Sligo, which gave its receivers a month to consider it. Plunkett’s initiative, however, quickly ran into a brick wall. As most public bodies in Ireland still consisted largely of IPP nominees, the majority proceeded to ignore the circular, sometimes making a display of doing so.
The Limerick County Council voted 7 to 5 against sending delegates. One naysayer said that while everyone had to have a certain amount of feeling for Plunkett, given the loss of his son, he had no right or authority to call such a convention. The Count’s past as a museum director was used against him: “Count Plunkett had received a salary as a Government official, and his circular was nothing but an insult to the Irish people and their representatives.”
Similar sentiments were expressed at a special meeting of the Sligo Board of Guardians which also voted to decline the invitation by 17 to 12. Again, there was sympathy for Plunkett’s bereavement but:
The policy which he has adopted is in danger of sowing dissension and disunion throughout the country. We all know the Irish Parliamentary Party, during the past four years, may not have done everything that the people may have wished.
At the same time we cannot deny that the people of Ireland owe their prosperity and their freedom to the exertions of the Irish Party.
It would thus be ungrateful to spurn the IPP after all it had done. The example of Michael Davitt was raised as one who had tried his hand at physical force but ended up returning to constitutional methods. “If Ireland is to be represented at a Peace Conference I think it should be represented by the Irish Party.”
Others expressed their distaste for the circular in stronger terms. In a meeting of the Kilmallock Rural Council, the proposition that the letter be thrown onto the fire was carried by 13 to 11. At the Arklow Urban Council, the question as to whether to read out the invitation was met with “No, don’t, it is only nonsense,” followed by the suggestion to throw it into the wastebasket and move onto the next order of business.
Not all public bodies refused the invitation, however, with some agreeing to send delegates as requested. Even the ones that voted to reject it often did so by small margins. Plunkett was not without his defenders as well as detractors. At the Ballinasloe Guardians, one member addressed the rumour that the Count had applied for the position of Under-Secretary for Ireland some years past.
If so, why hold that against him when MPs, who drew a salary from the state, were just as much government servants? And, in any case, would he not have been a better man to govern his own country than the ones who did?
The ‘Socialist Part of Ireland’?
Plunkett would soon have to contend with another, considerably more dangerous rumour. As if he did not have enough to be concerned about, the Freeman’s Journal and its sister paper, the Evening Telegraph, gleefully published on the 16th April, three days before his conference was due, an “extraordinary document” that had been sent in “by one of the most influential priests in the Dublin Diocese” who had received it in the mail, as had many other clergymen throughout the country.
Purporting to come from the ‘Socialist Party of Ireland’, the circular proclaimed its objective to be:
To replace the present chaotic state of society by an organised Commonwealth in Ireland, in which the Land, Railways and all other instruments of production, distribution and exchanges shall be owned and controlled by the whole people.
As standard socialist fare, this was suspect enough in a strongly conservative Ireland but worse was to follow. The document announced that at the forthcoming Plunkett convention, a delegate from the Labour Party would propose a series of resolutions, from the abolition of capitalism and the passing of female suffrage to the transference of schools from clerical management to public control.
As if the last point was not enough to cause the blood of every good Catholic to boil, the document quoted a passage from a 1913 edition of the Irish Worker, a newspaper that every reader would have known was aligned with that epitome of radical politics, James Larkin. The excerpt was especially derogative to the Church, denouncing its clergy as fence-sitters whose attitudes over the past centuries had been “cynical and disgusting to the last degree.”
Straining credulity, the circular ended by calling for Countess Markievicz to represent the women of Ireland, Larkin for the workmen and Count Plunkett for national aspirations, as delegates to the Peace Conference in Paris. The document could not have been better designed to taint Plunkett with the stain of Bolshevism, Larkinism and other heinous forms of social upheaval.
An Apple of Discord
Canon Murphy felt strongly enough to write a letter to the editor of the Freeman that same day, indicating that the editor had been thoughtful enough to show the Canon a copy of the circular prior to publishing. In a response published a page down from the offending document, the Canon urged his fellow priests to be “staunch patriots” who would not be “stampeded by any passing waves of Sinn Fein Larkin lunacy.” After all, they set an example to the rest of the country, being “Ireland’s best political barometer.”
Murphy ended with a pointed question to his colleagues: “How many will support the Plunkett convention?”
Genuine or not, the missive from the ‘Socialist Party of Ireland’ was having an effect. James McGlinchey, the Dean of St Columbs College, Derry, declined the invitation despite being “heart and soul with the Policy.” He cited the circular as his reason, writing to the Count: “I do not think you would approve of this doctrine or policy: if this is allowed at your convention it will put a very different and very objectionable phase on it.”
At the same time, the Reverend Edward MacCormac, from Longford, asked the Count by letter on whose authority the circular was issued. If Sinn Féin was responsible, then there must be a renunciation of its principles “in which you are so interested.” While Father MacCormac was open to the possibility that the circular had been “manufactured for political purposes, as an attempt to discredit your meeting,” the Reverend needed confirmation, and asked for Plunkett to “kindly oblige me with a reply as soon as possible.”
Not every man of the cloth was so credulous. The Reverend W.P. Hackett from Crescent Green, Limerick, reassured the Count that he did not believe the “crazy document” to be anything but a “red herring” and “an apple of discord flung amongst your supporters.”
‘A Worthy, Practical Catholic’
The idea of Count Plunkett as the victim of a smear job was taken up even by individuals who did not otherwise see eye to eye with him. One reader of the Irish Independent, J.K. O’Byrne, wrote in to say that:
Though a vast number cannot see how the least practical good for Ireland can result from Count Plunkett’s political action, they feel deeply pained that infamous reflections should be cast upon him. Those who are scholars say he is extremely distinguished for his culture and attainments, and those who know him personally assert that he is a worthy, practical Catholic, and a very amendable gentleman.
“Can so much be said of public men generally?” O’Byrne added wryly. There was a certain irony in how the Count could still draw respect from those in disagreement with his newfound hard-line politics while many who were officially on his side were struggling to take him seriously.
Also demonstrating the prejudices which actual socialism would face in trying to take root in Ireland, O’Byrne finished his defence of Plunkett with: “To refer to him in connection with ‘socialism’ is unjust, because its principles, as usually understood, could not possibly be sanctioned by any true Catholic or patriot.”
Also writing to the IrishIndependent were clergymen, the same class of men that the circular was designed – assuming it was fake, which was increasingly the public consensus – to inflame. Under the telling headline, A BOGUS CIRCULAR, the newspaper quoted a number of priests, one of whom did not know how anyone could take the document seriously. As for the IPP, another cleric gave the Party leaders the benefit of the doubt that they knew nothing about the letter.
A layman quoted in the article was less charitable. Described as a “prominent supporter of the Count,” the unnamed individual blamed the circular as “the work of a well-known Dublin politician.”
A similar line was taken by a priest writing to the Independent as ‘One of the Regular Clergy’. According to him, that the “infamous circular is well-known to everyone in Dublin is quite evident from the remarks one hears on all sides.” Regarding the IPP, this ‘regular clergyman’ spoke more in sorrow than in anger: “This said that the Party, which once had the confidence of the Irish people, and were elected to safeguard their interests and procure self-government should have descended to such employment.”
Count Plunkett had weathered the storm. The identity of the ‘Socialist Party of Ireland’ would never be proven, but it had, perhaps fittingly, done the most harm to the Irish Party. That most people would assume it to be the work of the IPP, out to discredit a vexatious rival, showed how low the stock of the former party of Parnell had sunk.
The outcome of Plunkett’s convention – there was no doubt that it was his convention – was yet to be seen. The number of public boards who had appointed delegates remained low but the Plunkett party dismissed this setback.
In a private review of the situation, titled ‘Analysis of Action on Circular by Public Boards’ (either by the Count or one of his allies), it was noted that representatives from organisations such as Sinn Féin, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Cumann na mBan, Irish National Foresters and the National Volunteers, among others, were due to attend.
“On the other hand, what can the Partition Party claim,” the ‘Analysis’ asked scornfully. “The small majority of the Boards, which do not represent the spirit of the country, and they cannot claim a single National Organisation in the country.” The IPP was “defunct and desperate efforts are at present being made to resurrect it.”
How true that was remained to be seen. Also uncertain was what – if the Irish Party was indeed on its last legs – was going to replace it. Some, like Griffith, was sure that that would be Sinn Féin.
Count Plunkett, as it turned out, had other ideas…
It did not seem like much, that small article on the fourth page in the Freeman’s Journal for the 15th January 1917, tucked away on the top right-hand corner as if the newspaper was faintly embarrassed by it. Under the headline ROYAL DUBLIN SOCIETY – COUNT PLUNKETT’S MEMBERSHIP, the Society announced its call on the member in question to consider his position:
The Council of the Royal Dublin Society [RDS] intend a meeting to bring forward a resolution calling upon Count Plunkett to resign his membership of the Society. Under the statutes of the Society, if a member fails to comply with such a resolution within fourteen days he ceased to be a member of the society.
Having delivered the message, the Freeman was moved to comment in an editorial on the same page:
We hold no brief for Count Plunkett, but common justice urges us to point out that not only has he never been tried upon any charge, but that no charge has even been preferred against him.
In a moment of panic he was ordered by the Government to remove his residence to England – he was not even interned – but nothing that any fair-minded man could regard as a trial was afforded him. Yet the “non-political” Royal Dublin Society now proposes to pass their sentence upon him.
The newspaper felt strongly enough to reprint the story the following day, accompanied by some strongly-worded letters from its readers. One compared the RDS to the brutish Lieutenant Hepenstall who had helped crush the 1798 Rebellion with wanton torture. Another sarcastically wondered if Plunkett had been accused of pickpocketing in the Society’s reading-room or perhaps of stealing an umbrella. Because otherwise: “It seems atrocious to thus blacken a man’s character, without even mentioning the crime of which he is accused.”
Nonetheless, the RDS pressed on remorselessly with its brand of rough justice. Three hundred of its members arrived at a meeting in Leinster House on the 18th January, making it the largest of its gatherings in many a year. The determination of many of the attendees was evident, as several aged and almost infirm gentlemen pressed on despite needing to be helped out of their motorcars amidst the snow and slush of a winter’s day.
Mindful of the sensitivity of its event, the RDS Council did not admit any representatives from the press. But if they had assumed the meeting would pass by without fuss or challenge, then they had misread the mood of its members, many of whom believed the Count to be the aggrieved party. The excitement of the meeting spilled outwards as messages were hurriedly dispatched to the Kildare Street Club and nearby hotels to find participants who had not yet turned up, as the RDS ‘whips’ began seeking the reinforcements they had not expected to need.
The session inside the Leinster House was to total two hours. The recommendation of the RDS Council, that Plunkett be called upon to resign, was countered with a proposed amendment that the matter be referred back for a further report as to the nature of the charges against the Count, complete with the necessary evidence. Which was the fault-line in the Council’s case – the lack of explanation as to what Plunkett had actually done to merit such blackballing.
All the Chairman of the Council offered was a reminder of how the Count had been arrested and deported to England as a danger to the Realm, in addition to being dismissed from his post as Director of the National Museum. But when the dissenters in the hall clamoured for something more substantial, the Council had nothing to add.
A Storm of Indignation
William Field, the Member of Parliament (MP) for Dublin St Patrick’s, was one of those who spoke up for the absent Count, whose friendship he had known for many years.
George Plunkett, he said, was a gentleman who would never stoop to an unworthy action. If there had been any clear connections between him and the recent insurrection in their city, surely he would have been imprisoned in Frongoch Camp along with the hundreds of others, many of whom had subsequently been released for the lack of evidence in their own cases.
Yes, the three sons of the Count had been involved, with the eldest one executed as a consequence and the other two sentenced to penal servitude. But, Field argued, why single out the father for the deeds of the younger generation?
Field finished on what would be a note more prescient than he could have guessed: he would leave the matter to public opinion, having no doubt that those supporting the amendment to save Plunkett from expulsion would be endorsed by the vast majority of Dublin citizens. It was emblematic of the role Count Plunkett would play later in the year – even without being present, he was a mascot for others’ sense of injustice and their need to respond.
Despite the vigorous defence mounted by Field and a handful of other stalwarts, the Council ended up having its way, and Plunkett was expelled by a vote of 236 to 58. At least the Count and his partisans could take solace in the sympathetic coverage by the Freeman, which guaranteed the story a wider audience than the internal complications of the RDS would normally enjoy.
The Tipperary Board of Guardians, for one, was sufficiently moved to adopt a resolution condemning the “extremely bigoted action” of the RDS, predicting that a “storm of indignation” would occur, not only in Ireland, but throughout America and Australia as well.
As it turned out, while expecting those overseas to take much notice was a hope too far, the Guardians were not wrong in regards to the rest of the country.
It was a sign of how drastically the Count’s circumstances would shift, and the mood of Ireland as a whole, that he and the RDS would be reconciled and he reinstated in 1921. “On that occasion,” to quote one historian, “the society displayed a shrewder sense of timing.”
Meanwhile, plans were underway for an equally dramatic, though perhaps more important, contest in North Roscommon. Its long-time MP, James J. O’Kelly, had died in December after a lengthy illness. The Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) was expected to replace its fallen member with another of its own, and made the first steps in this direction at its convention in Boyle, Co. Roscommon, on the 23rd January. Nominated there was Thomas J. Devine, a well-connected Roscommon native who had already served as a county councillor.
From the IPP’s point of view, Devine was a logical, if not terribly exciting, choice. The only hiccup at the event was the proposal by Father Michael O’Flanagan, the curate for nearby Crossna, that Count Plunkett be selected instead. When this was ruled out of order, the priest left the convention with a dozen other delegates.
One has to wonder the course Irish history might have taken had the IPP agreed to field Plunkett after all, melding their constitutional approach with his connections to the Rising. After all, the Party could already claim its fair share of radicals in the past, such as the land agitator Michael Davitt and the late O’Kelly, a former Fenian.
But the IPP saw no need to try out novelties like running the elderly father of a rebel leader as one of its own. A generous observer might have concluded that the Irish Party was too intent on its hard-fought battle for Home Rule in the corridors of Westminster to be distracted. Critics would have dismissed it as hidebound.
It was, admittedly, a peculiar attempt by Father O’Flanagan. As a Dublin-based art scholar and poet, Plunkett had not the slightest connection with Roscommon. He had dabbled in politics before in a series of brave attempts and doomed endeavours when he stood unsuccessfully for elections, once in Mid-Tyrone (during which he had been punched in the face by an angry mob) and twice in Dublin. He had stood by the side of Charles Stewart Parnell during the ‘Divorce Crisis’ of 1890, a minority stance which had required courage and a willingness to buck orthodoxy that even his friends were surprised by.
But all that had been a long time ago. Yet O’Flanagan had come to the IPP convention with Plunkett in mind, having spoken in support of his man four days earlier at a meeting in Castlerea. What the curate saw in Plunkett, still in exile in England, was not obvious, and it was doubtful that the elderly intellectual would have crossed anyone’s mind if his ejection from the RDS had not been covered in-depth by the newspapers earlier that month. Which did not in itself seem to merit O’Flanagan’s praise of him as the only worthy candidate or the man who would best represent Ireland in the anticipated Peace Conference in Paris when the war in Europe was done.
There had been no mention in Castlerea of any political parties or policies. Speaking alongside Father O’Flanagan was Laurence Ginnell, the MP for North Westmeath, but he was an Independent who had long been a renegade from mainstream Irish politics and his support did not indicate much in itself.
It was not until later that Plunkett was identified with Sinn Féin, where he was described as the party’s candidate by the Freeman in its edition for the 25th January. The candidate himself did not indicate any great desire to be associated with Sinn Féin, however. On his official nomination papers, submitted to the Boyle Courthouse on the 26th January on his behalf (he would not return to Ireland until the 31st), he was marked down as President of the Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language and Vice-President of the Royal Irish Academy – two worthy, if distinctly non-political, posts.
Having previously defended the Count’s honour against the RDS, the Freeman was obliged to move against him as the struggle for the North Roscommon by-election intensified. He was, after all, standing against the candidate for the IPP, the party for which the newspaper served as a mouthpiece.
And so, under the headline COUNT PLUNKETT – WHAT IS HIS POLICY? – SOME PERTINENT QUESTIONS, the newspaper laid out a series of questions in regard to Count Plunkett:
Was he a member of Sinn Féin or a supporter of its abstentionism policy? If elected, would he take the oath of allegiance to the British Crown as an MP?
Did he approve of the recent Rising in Dublin?
What policy did he propose to adopt in Westminster?
Did he intend to reapply for his former position as Director of the National Museum?
“It will be very interesting,” purred the Freeman, “to learn from him on what platform he stands in the contest, for so far no light whatever has been afforded on to the public on this subject.”
‘An Amiable Old Whig’
The Freeman was not alone in wanting to prise open a chink in the Plunkett armour. Jaspar Tully became the third candidate in what was now a three-way contest for the North Roscommon seat. A local businessman and the former MP for South Leitrim, Tully owned, among other things, the Roscommon Herald. Needless to say, the interview questions that the newspaper posed to its proprietor were distinctly tame, if not prearranged with the candidate.
Nonetheless, the points Tully thought necessary to raise or counter told a good deal about how the Count was perceived, albeit by a rival:
Interviewer: I imagined it was claimed last week that Count Plunkett was the candidate of the Sinn Feiners?
Tully: So it was said in surreptitious whispers at the opening of the contest, but we succeeded in getting to the root of the intrigue, and we discovered that the Dublin Sinn Feiners – or Irish Volunteers as they should be more properly called – had nothing to do with putting forward the Count as candidate. It was the work of this Seven Attorneys League from Tyrone, who are placeholders and seekers of posts under the Government.
Interviewer: What impression did the Count make on his audiences?
Tully: Oh, the very worst. The poor old man was unable to be heard a yard away from where he was speaking, and his mumbled platitudes were quite unintelligible to the people.
Interviewer: I thought he was to represent Ireland at the Peace Conference?
Tully: He could not represent Ireland at even a District Council meeting, as the members would so tire of him that they would not listen to him for half an hour. An amiable old Whig is a correct description of the Count. Then the fact that was brought to light that in the days in which he said he had a nodding acquaintance with Parnell and Davitt, he was touting the Tory Government for the post of Resident Magistrate throws a keen light on the class of man he is.
Interviewer: But then his son was shot by orders of Sir John Maxwell’s courtmartial?
Tully: Quite so; we all have the deepest reverence for the sacrifice he made, but I fail to see how the devotion of the son can change a Tory father into something he never was.
To illustrate his point, the candidate quoted a line that had been bandied about in Roscommon during the Land League days: ‘Many a good son reared a bad father.’
“As Count Plunkett’s party are trading altogether on this question of the poor boy that died,” Tully continued, referring to the executed Joseph Mary Plunkett, “it should be known widely that so did the father and son differ long before Easter Week that the son did not live with him and had to live in a place for himself.
There was much more of a similar sort throughout the Herald in its lead up to polling day. As an Independent, Tully was also competing against the IPP runner. The fact that Tully focused the bulk of his personal jabs against Plunkett and not Devine made for a backhanded compliment, a salute to the danger that the “poor old man” was perceived to truly be.
Much of Tully’s attacks could be dismissed as part of the electioneering game. After all, while Joseph did indeed leave the family house at 26 Upper Fitzwilliam Street, the rest of Plunketts, including his father, proceeded to move in with him on their property in Larkfield. As for the Count’s supposed inability to articulate, Tully and his pet newspaper had been the only ones to suggest such a thing.
(The journalist M. J. MacManus, who heard Count Plunkett speak at the by-election, remembered his “level, cultured tones.” While it was perhaps “the voice of a man who was more used to addressing the members of a learned society than to the rough-and-tumble of the hustings,” Plunkett seemed to manage his share of the public oratory well enough.)
Yet both the Freeman and Tully had, in their different styles, touched upon a sensitive question for the Plunkett campaign: that of abstentionism. While Sinn Féin was canvassing for the Count in North Roscommon, so too were others, including the Irish Nation League – the ‘Seven Attorneys League’ mentioned by Tully – an anti-Partition group formed recently in Ulster. The former organisation opposed taking seats in Westminster, while the latter did not. So where, between them, did the Count stand?
As well as Plunkett’s commitments to Sinn Féin, it was also questioned how committed was Sinn Féin to him. According to Laurence Nugent, a worker during the campaign, the party not only refused to support the Count at first but did everything it could to stop him from standing.
Another election activist, Kevin O’Shiel, told of a more nuanced reaction by Arthur Griffith, Sinn Féin’s founder. To any who asked, Griffith’s response was: “If Plunkett goes for Roscommon, all nationalists should support him.” In private, however, Griffith was distinctly cool towards a candidate he knew so little about.
This uncertainty permeated the rest of Griffith’s organisation. Seamus Ua Caomhanaigh was an accountant on the Sinn Féin Executive when a man named Gallagher called in to see him in Dublin. Count Plunkett’s name had just appeared in the papers in connection with the by-election, and Gallagher, a native of Roscommon, wished to ensure that the candidate was “all right from the Sinn Féin point of view” before granting his support. Ua Caomhanaigh replied that, as far as he knew, the Count was indeed alright but first he would have to seek clarification from party headquarters.
Others were quick to grasp the potential of the Count as political horseflesh. The trade unionist William O’Brien was talking with P.T. Keoghane, managing director of Gill Publishers, who he knew from the board of the Irish National Aid and Volunteer Dependants’ Funds. The conversation took place in early January, before Plunkett’s candidacy became common knowledge:
Keoghane: What do you think about fighting North Roscommon?
O’Brien: Well, there are enough obstacles.
Keoghane: What are they?
O’Brien: Well, in the first place, money. I don’t know anybody who has any.
Keoghane: Apart from money, what are the objections?
O’Brien: Well, you want a suitable candidate and you want a programme.
Keoghane: As regards a candidate, what would you say to Count Plunkett?
O’Brien: I think he would be excellent because he would not require any programme. All you need do is introduce him as the father of Joseph Plunkett, who was executed in Easter Week.
O’Brien had first met Count Plunkett inside Richmond Barracks following the collapse of the Rising. Both men had played supporting roles in the build-up to the insurrection and were subsequently detained (O’Brien was not released until August 1916). Despite their shared experience, O’Brien did not think of the Count as much of a Nationalist, which did not stop him from approving of the other man as a candidate.
His account of the conversation with Keoghane – perhaps written with the benefit of hindsight – neatly captured the central plank of the Plunkett campaign: who the candidate was being less important than what he represented in a post-1916 Ireland.
This is Going to Cost Money
While others sought to make sense of what was happening, Nugent had proceeded from Dublin to North Roscommon. Besides Nugent’s own lack of experience, the challenges he found were formidable: there was barely any organisation on behalf of the Count, and what funds there were had been donated by friends of Father O’Flanagan to help cover the curate’s expenses.
Nugent had discussed the matter at length with Rory O’Connor, a close ally of Plunkett’s, but the only advice O’Connor could give was “Do what you think is right.” The few forlorn Plunkettites Nugent met in the local Sinn Féin circles knew all too well that they could not expect any assistance from the rest of their party. They had not even known that Nugent was coming.
Meanwhile, having heard no more about North Roscommon, O’Brien assumed the election was going well. He was, in any case, busy with his work for the Dublin Trades Council, of which he was secretary. At one of its meetings, he was taken aside by the vice-president, Thomas Farren, and introduced to Kitty O’Doherty, wife of the Plunkettite director of elections. She broke the troubling news that the campaign was at the point of collapse. While they had plenty of helping hands from the Roscommon youth, none of them knew what they were supposed to be doing.
Stirred into action, O’Brien and Farren went straight to the Count’s house at Upper Fitzwilliam Street. When they saw him, he had no collar or tie on, and was in the process of undressing when his visitors came. O’Brien relayed what he had just been told, not that Plunkett seemed very interested.
(O’Brien was unaware, but the Count had only just returned from his English exile, having ignored his probation to stay in Oxford. Tiredness would explain his apparent apathy.)
Plunkett did, at least, ask what should be done. O’Brien suggested sending out to Roscommon a couple of experienced workers from Dublin. The Count seemed to perk up at this:
Plunkett: Do you think these men could be got?
O’Brien: I do not know for sure, but I think so. Do you authorise me to see them?
Plunkett: Yes, certainly.
At this point, Farren nudged O’Brien and made a point of asking if he had any money. The Count took the hint:
Plunkett: Well, who is going to pay for all this?
O’Brien: Count, this is going to cost money.
Plunkett: All I have is £5, you can have it.
O’Brien: Very well, I will take it.
O’Brien thought Plunkett had been anticipating the question, for he took out the aforementioned fiver from his pocket and handed it over. Having only just come back from banishment would also explain the Count’s shortage of ready cash.
Blood from the Lips
For all the doubts and confusion, the nominations of the three candidates on the 26th January had made Plunkett’s standing at least official. Four days later, an appeal for motorcars to assist in the canvassing was issued from the Plunkett residence on Upper Fitzwilliam Street. The Count would not return home from England until the following day on the 31st, so the appeal was probably made by O’Connor, who was using the house for his own work in reorganising the Irish Volunteers.
The deep snow in North Roscommon made travelling a challenge but the summoned cars got there all the same, giving the Plunkettites a small fleet of vehicles to match the IPP’s own. The campaign was starting to take shape.
Nugent’s wife arrived on the 31st January, a day before the Count was due in North Roscommon. She relayed a message from O’Connor, giving her husband their candidate’s itinerary, as well as instructions to meet the Count at Dromod Station, in Co. Leitrim, just outside Roscommon.
When Nugent did so, he explained to Plunkett the progress of his campaign, stressing “upon him the certainty of victory. [Plunkett] was rather bewildered as it was not easy to believe these statements unless one saw it for themselves.”
The Count was able to see it for himself when he continued to his last stop at Carrick-on-Shannon station, where he was greeted a huge crowd. These well-wishers formed a procession to accompany him across the bridge into Roscommon, where Father O’Flanagan was waiting.
Despite days of speaking in the icy cold, the priest remained unflinching, even when his lips broke and blood flowed freely down his jaw as he addressed the crowd. Count Plunkett spoke next in those level, cultured tones of his and, while he could not compete with a practised demagogue like O’Flanagan, he made, in Nugent’s estimate, “a great impression on his listeners.” By the time the rally was done, the previously befuddled candidate had been infused with a new sense of purpose.
However much of an enigma the Count presented to friend and foe alike, that did not prevent the electorate of North Roscommon from voting him in by a landslide. Stationed at the polling booth in Rooskey, Nugent saw men vying with each other for the honour of being the first to cast a vote for Plunkett. They joked that as Roscommon had seen no action during Easter Week, they would make up for it by firing their ‘shot’ into the ballot box.
Monsignor Michael J. Curran, secretary to the Archbishop of Dublin and a keen observer of Irish politics, recorded in his diary at the time:
Rarely has there been so much excitement over an election result. Count Plunkett started at the eleventh hour with little local backing…Though his supporters had hopes of his success, they never for a moment dreamed of such a resounding victory.
Up to Saturday, the Irish Party believed that they were winning. The news of the success astounded and delighted the ‘man in the street’…Count Plunkett’s success was entirely due to his own banishment, to the memory of his son, Joseph, and the imprisonment of two others.
“Doubtless, too,” the Monsignor added wryly, “he was helped by his expulsion from the Royal Dublin Society.” Curran, like O’Brien, clearly did not attribute Plunkett’s victory to his own qualities. Perceptively, Curran also made note of how the issue of an Irish republic, as distinct from straightforward independence, was absent during the election.
(This omission – or flexibility, depending on one’s perspective – would be cited by none other than Michael Collins, one of the many young Turks who would cut their teeth working on the Plunkett campaign. A few years later, in the course of the Civil War, Collins was to argue that the example of North Roscommon proved how “absence of key principles was not incompatible with the strength of national feeling.”)
Count Plunkett returned to a hero’s welcome in Dublin on the 6th February, three days after his stunning victory. A large crowd had been waiting at Broadstone Station and cheered upon the arrival of his train, with hearty cries of “Up Roscommon!” and “Up the rebels!”
Upon disembarking, the Count was carried out of the station on the shoulders of his supporters to where a crowd – estimated by the Irish Times to be in the thousands – had assembled with much singing, cheering and shouting. Plunkett obliged the onlookers with a short address which was frequently applauded. When that was done, the people accompanied their hero as he was driven in a taxi-cab through the city centre, albeit slowly amongst the press of bodies, to his stop at 26 Upper Fitzwilliam Street.
Plunkett had only just entered the building when the apparently insatiable masses outside called for another speech. In response, the newly-minted MP appeared at a window on the first floor. As a tricolour was waved beside the Count in a suitably dramatic fashion, he indulged his adoring followers.
An Alternative Parliament for a Free People
He had come back, he told them, with a message for the city. A blow had been struck for Ireland and he would ask his fellow citizens, many of whom would recall his efforts to be elected for St Stephen’s Ward some twenty years ago – though it was questionable as to how many actually did remember an event two decades past – to ensure that their public representatives would no longer be beholden by the false need to wait upon an alien parliament in Westminster.
When he had travelled down to Roscommon, his chances of success had seemed very slim, indeed. A local man there who owned a newspaper – Plunkett did not deign to name Tully who had so insulted him – had had it said that he, Count Plunkett, was a feeble old man with no work left to give for Ireland. As for the other losing candidate, a very respectable townsman of whom Plunkett would never say anything unkind, he had had behind him the full machinery of the Irish Party. What had been the result?
“You are in,” answered a voice from the crowd below to appreciative cheers.
Roscommon had arisen, the Count continued, and had swept his opponents away. Irishmen should see that in the future their leaders would be the soul of the nation. For that to happen, it was necessary to carry on with the work already begun until the whole of Ireland’s representatives were pledged to serve in Ireland and nowhere else; until, indeed, enough men were elected to form an alternative parliament for a free people. And at this, Plunkett finally withdrew into his house for some well-deserved rest.
The Sinn Féin Candidate?
All this talk of abstaining from Westminster in favour of an Irish counter-parliament was straight out of the Sinn Féin playbook. Griffith had long expounded upon the need for such an assembly, one wholly divorced from any foreign system.
Plunkett was something of a late convert to this ideal. There is certainly nothing in his history to suggest he had been anything other than a conventional parliamentarian. His election director in Roscommon went as far as to interview him beforehand to ensure he was standing on an abstentionism platform but others in the Sinn Féin camp were not so convinced that Plunkett was one of them even while they campaigned on his behalf.
Either way, the Count quickly made his mind known. In North Roscommon, he had announced in his acceptance speech that he would not be taking his seat in the House of Commons, causing “a mild form of consternation” amongst those who had only just voted for him and were not expecting their new MP to be quite so…different to the usual. Any doubts as to what he had said were cleared up when he arrived back to Dublin and spoke to the crowd outside his home.
At no point did Plunkett acknowledge Griffith as the originator of the abstentionism policy. To hear the Count talk, one would have thought he had come up with the stance entirely on his own volition.
“It is a true fact that the greatest swordsman in Italy would not fear the second greatest but would fear the worst, for that one would be unpredictable” – The Masque of Red Death (1964)
A Simple Soul
Towards noon on Easter Monday 1916, Monsignor Michael J. Curran received word that Count George Plunkett was waiting outside his office. Guessing that this would be about some new development in the unfolding, but so far still uncertain, situation in Dublin, Monsignor Curran agreed to see him.
Five minutes later, Curran was sitting with the Count, grey-haired and bearded. His caller asked to see the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr William Walsh, to whom Curran was secretary. Curran replied that His Grace was ill in bed and not to receive anyone except his doctor.
Which was not entirely true but the Monsignor’s duties included acting as gatekeeper to his master. Things were tense enough as it was, what with the news of Roger Casement’s arrest in Kerry, the planned mobilisation of the Irish Volunteers and the abrupt countermanding orders by their Chief of Staff, Eoin MacNeill.
“Well,” said the Count, according to Curran’s recollections, “it is not necessary that I see him personally but, if you would tell him, it would be alright.”
Plunkett proceeded to inform Curran that there was going to be an uprising in Ireland and that he had already visited Pope Benedict XV in Rome to inform him of such. His Holiness had been asked not to be shocked or alarmed as the rebellion was to be purely in pursuit of the same independence that every country was entitled to. The Count had then asked for the Pontiff’s blessing for the endeavour.
Monsignor Curran was still listening to the story when the telephone rang in his office. Curran answered it to learn that the General Post Office (GPO) had just been seized and occupied by the Irish Volunteers. He returned to inform his visitor that the uprising the latter had warned about was already underway. Curran would later consider it noteworthy that Plunkett had come to him on the day the rebellion began and not before, presumably to leave no window of opportunity for the Archbishop to change anyone’s mind.
Once his visitor had left, Curran hurried to relay what had occurred to his superior. Even after being told the Count’s message, Walsh was more concerned about what MacNeill, rather than Plunkett, might do, looking upon the Count as less of a leader and more “as a simple soul and [he] could not conceive a man like him being at the head of a revolution.”
A Conservative Catholic Gentleman
The Archbishop’s scepticism was understandable, considering how the Count had never shown a radical bone in his body. As far as many were concerned, he was simply:
…a conservative Catholic gentleman with harmless literary and cultural tastes which his job as Director of the National Gallery (bestowed on him by the Liberal Government) gave him ample time and opportunity to indulge in.
This, at least, was the view of the political activist Kevin O’Shiel. It was not an altogether wrong one, though O’Shiel was incorrect about the Gallery. According to Geraldine Plunkett, her father had been offered its directorship by Dublin Castle in the spring of 1916 on the condition that his family stay out of politics but he defiantly turned it down (being already the director of the National Museum, which was probably what O’Shiel meant).
Similar sentiments were expressed by William O’Brien, a trade unionist who had been closely involved in the planning of the Rising. O’Brien knew very little about Plunkett by the time the latter grew in prominence in early 1917, only that he had previously only seen his name “in connection with various projects supported by people of the Unionist type.” Whatever else about the Count, O’Brien certainly did not think of him as much of a Nationalist.
In fact, the Count had had a reasonably active time in politics as a Nationalist, and an honourable one at that. This tended to be overlooked, much like how Walsh, O’Shiel and O’Brien were content to discount the man in general. And yet, for a while, it looked as if the post-Rising upheaval would be regarded as the Plunkett Revolution.
Born in 1851 as a privileged scion of an illustrious name (the 17th century St. Oliver Plunkett was an ancestor), George Noble Plunkett was sent abroad to a Jesuit school in Nice at the age of six. The reason for this was to protect his health and, as he was the only one of his three siblings to survive to adulthood, this may have been a wise precaution.
Recently ceded to France by Italy, Nice was at a cultural crossroads, and there young George grew up fluent in French, Italian and Niçoise. George, according to a flattering write-up in the Catholic Bulletin, was sufficiently immersed in such a cosmopolitan environment to temporarily forget English but he remained, nonetheless, “in feeling intensely Irish.”
This may be a slight exaggeration as he was not to return to Ireland until 1862, aged eleven. Afterwards, though, he would have ample opportunity to show the intensity of these Irish feelings of his.
Even at an early age, his passion for art, literature and other forms of high culture was evident. He became a regular visitor to various art galleries in Europe, and collected a string of presidencies or vice-presidencies at societies such as the Academy of Christian Science, the Royal Irish Academy and the Society of Catholic Poetry.
George soon developed a system on how best to explore a gallery: (1) a visit should never last more than two hours, for past that and mental fatigue sets in, (2) always focus on the best pieces even to the exclusion of the rest (advice he was happy to pass on to anyone interested).
George made his mark on the literary scene when he published a collection of his poetry, God’s Chosen Festival (A Christmas Song) and Other Poems in 1877. Many of the poem titles – such as ‘Ave Maria’, ‘The Sleep of the Infant Jesus’ and ‘An Orphan’s Prayer to the Blessed Virgin’ – display a distinctly Catholic sensibility, with the occasional foray into Irish nationalism, such as in ‘To Ireland’, where he laments the subject’s history:
Upon reviewing some later poems of Plunkett’s in 1921, the novelist Katherine Tynan summed up the main themes as “two strains – God and Ireland, sometimes single, oftener intermingled.” As Plunkett was then prominently involved in Irish politics, Tyan could not resist making the connection: “In a sense, such poetry…bears witness for Sinn Fein. That the singer of these noble numbers should be of the movement is eloquent.”
One could debate the quality of the poems and perhaps compare them unfavourably to that of his eldest son’s, Joseph Mary Plunkett, whose works, such as ‘I See His Blood Upon the Rose’ and ‘I Saw the Sun at Midnight’, are still recited today. George Plunkett’s efforts, on the other hand, have almost entirely receded from public consciousness. As a literary man, his legacy can perhaps be felt through that of Joseph’s, who followed in his father’s footsteps in his ambition to be a poet.
Taste and Scholarship
George did not hoard his talents to himself. From 1883 to 1884, he was editor of the Hibernia, a literary journal with a good deal of, in Tynan’s opinion, “taste and scholarship.” As a budding writer herself, Tynan had contributed a couple of her poems. That the Hibernia, alas, did not last long, Tynan attributed to it being “too bookish” for the philistines of Dublin (she remained friends with Plunkett, with him donating a few books for her shelves, and later sent a cheque for copies of her first publication).
He had by then married his second cousin, Mary Josephine Cranny (who went by her middle name), in 1884. A fruitful union, the couple went on to produce seven children – four girls and three boys. Their two families had worked closely for years, becoming rich in property together. As a sign of how little money was a concern, George and Josephine were set up a year after their wedding in 26 Upper Fitzwilliam Street, Dublin, the residence having been bought, furnished and decorated by the former’s father.
George could be equally generous with others. The nuns of the Little Company of Mary had been asked by Pope Leo XIII in 1883 to set up a centre in Rome. George happened to be there at the time and in a position to assist with the purchasing and refurbishment of the new convent.
He was rewarded a year later with the title of Papal Count. It was, apparently, something of a “source of great embarrassment and annoyance to him… as an ardent Nationalist he did not like being mistaken for some kind of English or Continental aristocrat” (Josephine, on the other hand, was delighted to be addressed as Countess by friends and servants alike). It was not until he was requested by the Vatican to use the title, and from then on, he was Count Plunkett to the world.
That is, at least, according to his daughter Geraldine, who left a memoir that is revealing in its depiction of the Plunkett home life but also problematic due to her naked prejudices. She adored her father and loathed her mother, and it is thus not surprising that her reminisces frequently leaned in favour of one parent at the expense of the other.
For one, Geraldine overlooked how her father was capable of stubborn streaks throughout his life, and it is unlikely that even the Holy Father could have forced him into bearing a title he did not want (he was not above using it for political point-scoring, though – when a rival Nationalist sneered at the title, Plunkett retorted that since it had been awarded by the Pope, any slight on the title was thus a slur against the Vicar of Christ).
Secondly, Geraldine’s depiction of her mother as an insufferable, tight-fisted harridan does not necessarily chime with that of others’. The future Fianna Fáil minister, Todd Andrews, was a regular visitor to the family house after the Civil War, and found the Countess to be “a kind and humorous woman who could laugh at her own oddities.”
But then, Andrews did not have to live with her. George came out of his study one time to find his wife beating their daughter Moya mercilessly with her fists in the hallway, the crime of the wretched girl being to ask her miserly mother to buy her sister Fiona a coat for the winter.
As told by Geraldine, ‘Pa’ Plunkett somehow interpreted the scene as Moya attacking the Countess instead of vice versa, and began thrashing Moya with his walking-stick. Joseph intervened to snatch the stick away and break it over his knee:
Ma took this as a personal insult and redoubled her screaming. Joe comforted Moya while Pa, realising his mistake, stood helplessly patting her on the head to show he was sorry. By the time I came in, Pa had retreated to the study, Ma to the dining-room, and Joe was still trying to comfort poor Moya.
At least Fiona ended up with a new winter-coat after all that.
“You must remember that Mammy is only a little girl,” Plunkett told Geraldine by way of explanation after the latest fight with her mother.An indulgent parent, more a friend than an authority figure to his children, Count Plunkett preferred to avoid household drama – Jane Austen’s Mr Bennett would have understood.
One Missing Plank
One source of drama which Count Plunkett did display an interest in was politics; unfortunately, those already in politics did not reciprocate with an interest in him. He wrote to T.D. Sullivan, the Nationalist Member of Parliament (MP), in 1885, asking to be proposed for the Irish National League of Charles Stewart Parnell, whose words Plunkett quoted about how the national platform lacked but “one plank” – with himself presumably being that missing plank.
If Plunkett had been hoping to ingratiate himself with Parnell’s colleagues, then he was in for a rude awakening. Sullivan’s reply could not have been more condescending. Plunkett, he wrote back, must have taken the line about the plank too literally. “It seems to me,” Sullivan continued, “that if that be so, your joining the League might possibly some day bring disappointment to you, and I would not like to be party thereto.”
The main barrier to Plunkett was his hostility towards the Land League, by then supressed and to which the National League was intended to replace, focusing this time on the issue of Home Rule rather than of land distribution like before. Plunkett’s attitude towards the Land League still rankled with Sullivan: “I can well remember how bitterly opposed you were.”
Academic debates, Sullivan warned, were not enough to win Home Rule – which sums up what he thought of the other man’s style. Also, Home Rule would not be the sole focus of the new League. With the issues of land unresolved and requiring their full attention for the moment, Sullivan took “the liberty of suggesting that you should very well consider your course before ‘casting your lot,’ as the saying is, with the leaders of the National League.”
Although stonewalled from politics, Plunkett could not avoid being affected by the ‘Divorce Crisis’ in 1890, which saw Parnell exposed as an adulterer and a political liability. Most of his allies deserted him, including the caustic T.D. Sullivan; one who did not was George Plunkett.
That the Count would stand by the stricken statesman surprised even the former’s friend, Tynan, who saw him as “one of those trusted Catholic laymen who represented the best and most orthodox Catholic feeling of Dublin” – in other words, a very conventional man. Yet he was prepared to go against the tide when he felt it necessary, a fact that impressed Tynan. Together, they endured the “obloquy, the unjust condemnation, the wrongs”, as she put it, from the Anti-Parnellites (while such words may strike the modern reader as excessively dramatic, events in Mid-Tyrone would show them to be, if anything, understated).
Such unjust obloquy did much to toughen up the Count. In a letter to John Redmond in 1895, Plunkett advised his fellow Parnellite on the best ways to deal with power-brokering clerics such as Dr William Walsh. Redmond was feuding with the Archbishop over stories unflattering to the Church that had appeared in newspapers controlled by the politician. Due to past experience teaching him to “neither fear nor despise the clergy,” Plunkett advised Redmond to moderate such stories, which would hopefully persuade the Archbishop to side with them against their Anti-Parnell rivals.
Such talk sat oddly with his public proofs of piety – in addition to the papal counthood, he amassed an impressive set of papal medals: the Cross of Commander of the Holy Sepulchre, the Grand Cross of Saints Cyril and Methodius, the Cross of the Order of the Advocates of St Peter, and two medals of the Cross of St John of Lateran for him and his wife.
But then, as indicated by his earlier defence of Parnell in the teeth of clerical condemnation – and how his visit to Rome on the eve of the Easter Rising would show – Count Plunkett was quite capable of following his own mind, even where Holy Mother Church was concerned.
Plunkett stayed loyal to Parnell to the end, the latter dropping in to see him before leaving for England in 1891. Unfortunately, the Count was out of the house at the time. After waiting for a long while, Parnell left, saying only as he departed: “Perhaps it is just as well.” He died shortly afterwards. Plunkett, who was already upset at having missed Parnell, mourned him deeply.
From then on, the Count took a more active role in politics, albeit with mixed results. In the 1892 general election, he stood as the Parnellite candidate for Mid-Tyrone, the sundered Irish National League no longer able to be quite so fussy in who it took.
That the Parnellite faction could put forward a candidate at all was a surprise. When the news was announced on posters around the town of Omagh, many Anti-Parnellites were inclined to regard it as a joke. It was not until a delegation of Parnellites left Omagh on the evening of the 18th June to greet their incoming candidate that the matter was confirmed.
The Count arrived in town, with a torchlight procession and the sounds of band music, through streets filled with knots of curious onlookers. Plunkett – “who spoke under difficulties,” according to a local newspaper – explained to the crowd his Party’s stance, which was that of the late Parnell, “the policy which his followers over his grave at Glasnevin had pledged themselves to carry out.” Though an outsider, Plunkett busied himself with paying personal visits around the constituency.
The election was to be a three-way contest. According to Geraldine, her father withdrew in order to support his Anti-Parnellite counterpart, Matthew Joseph Kenny, lest he split the Nationalist vote and allow in a Unionist. However, that is untrue, as the parliamentary records show that he continued to stand and received 123 votes, compared to Kenny’s 3,667 and the Unionist candidate’s 2,590. The best that could be said of such a result is that at least Plunkett’s share was too small to have threatened the other Nationalist.
There was nothing that could be said against Plunkett’s courage, however. While making the electioneering rounds by wagon, his party was attacked upon stopping at the Catholic churchyard of Carrickmore by its Anti-Parnellite congregation when their parish priest recognised the rival candidate (it is unclear if the padre had incited the crowd or merely made his hostility known to them). Plunkett was punched in the mouth and, bleeding heavily, hurried back with his companions to their wagon, on which they narrowly escaped amidst a hail of stones.
Little wonder, then, that after the election results were read out on the 8th July, Plunkett praised his fellow loser, the Unionist candidate, as having behaved honourably, while pointedly omitting Kenny and the conduct of his followers.
At least his time there was not to be a complete waste. Three years later, the poet Alice Milligan asked him for the names of Tyrone Nationalists to help gather interest for her politically-themed publications. Literature, art and culture were always there as consolations for Count Plunkett when politics failed.
St Stephen’s Ward
Plunkett picked himself up from this loss to stand again for Parliament in 1895, this time for the St Stephen’s Green Ward, Dublin, which was at least a more plausible seat than faraway Tyrone. He was also better prepared this time, taking care to announce and explain his candidacy in an open letter to the newspapers:
Having been selected by a National Convention to contest your division, I gladly accept the task imposed on me.
I am in complete accord with the Independent [Parnellite] Party. I have always held the Policy of Independence of English Parties to be Ireland’s only hope in the Imperial Parliament.
As I do not seek a seat in Parliament as a stepping-stone to office, I will not subordinate the interests of Ireland to any other interest whatsoever.
As a Catholic, I am in favour of Denominational Education.
I am in favour of Peasant Proprietary for Ireland.
I sympathise warmly with the movement for the release of political prisoners,
I will do all in my power for the welfare of the Irish working man, and for the promotion and protection of Irish industries.
It is now our duty to wrest the St Stephen’s Green Division from the Unionist, and to show by our energy and enthusiasm that Ireland is solid for Home Rule.
To secure the result, upon which such vital interests may depend, EVERY HOME RULE VOTE MUST BE POLLED.
His support for peasant landownership may have come as a surprise to those who had known his aversion towards the Land League. Everything else was standard Nationalist aspiration, particularly the appeal to Home Rule, even if that was very much dead in the water for the while.
This time Count Plunkett was the sole Nationalist candidate, standing against a Unionist, William Kenny (who, by a strange coincidence, shared the same surname as Plunkett’s archenemy in Mid-Tyrone three years ago, although there was no relation). Still, the election was a tense one, with the Irish Times noting that on polling day:
The aspect of Dublin yesterday was unusual. The air was fully charged with political electricity, and for years past the city has not seen busier or more anxious hours than those of the intervals during which the polling booth remained open.
Plunkett and Kenny were seen putting in their fair shares of electioneering work as they drove around to the various polling stations and encouraged their respective adherents throughout the day. Despite the Count’s efforts, Kenny was to be announced as the victor, beating his Nationalist foe by 3,661 votes to 3,205.
Opportunity knocked again for Plunkett the aspiring politician when, three years later, Kenny was appointed a judge, prompting a by-election for St Stephen’s Ward. Once more, Plunkett was defeated by a Unionist candidate, though the results were closer this time – 3,525 to 3,387.
The cause for this second defeat was attributed by Nationalist critics to a system whereby “lodgers” – the sons of local Unionists – who normally lived in England could stay in their families’ homes in Dublin for a minimum of twelve months to count as lodgers and thus vote in the elections.
Polling day had been notably skittish. Even before the results were known, Plunkettite canvassers were handing out cards objecting to the unfair odds against them. “Notice to Lodger voters take notice,” they read, “That the vote of every person who is registered as a lodger, and who has not signed his claim himself, is objected to, and if necessary, will be objected to on a petition.”
Large placards to the same effect were put up around the constituency. The rebellious mood spread to the polling booths. In Pembroke, a polling clerk made himself conspicuous by pestering ‘lodger’ voters with questions like “What rent do you pay?” Another clerk of Nationalist sympathies attempted to stop a voter on the grounds that he had already left the house for which his name was on the register. The voter, however, insisted on his rights and his contribution to the ballot was duly noted.
The military authorities had caught wind of the tension. To avoid the risk of further unrest, they confined their troops stationed nearby to their barracks for the duration of the poll. Those soldiers entitled to vote were allowed passes to leave on condition that they return at once when done.
Stymied yet again, Plunkett at least had found a cause to work on, and he campaigned for two years to change these rigged electoral procedures. His efforts bore fruit by 1900 when a Nationalist candidate finally took St Stephen’s Ward at 3,429 votes to the Unionist’s 2,873.
The Count had not stood that time. Geraldine attributed his withdrawal from politics to the mutual dislike between him and John Redmond, leader of the reunited Irish Party, not to mention the opposition of his hard-headed wife (who held the purse-strings) to any more expensive elections.
Corroborating this explanation are letters by John Redmond, one from 1896 in which he regretfully – but nonetheless quite firmly – declined to pay for the expenses incurred by Plunkett as part of the unsuccessful election for St Stephen’s Ward the previous year. The Count made one last push for reimbursement in 1902, but received the same rebuff from Redmond, who pleaded money shortages – “It is not a fact I am sorry to say that the National Organisations are well provided with funds” – and ended with how he saw “great difficulty in dealing with the matter satisfactorily to you.”
For all his hard work and money spent, Plunkett had not progressed in the Irish Party from anything higher than a hanger-on. The professional politicians who the Count had aspired to join had had a use for him before, and now, with the Party reunited, they did not.
Frustrated, Plunkett threw himself into his studies, in particular the writing of a scholarly work on Sandro Botticelli, the Renaissance painter about whom he felt strongly enough to name one of his dogs after. The Renaissance in general was a topic close to his heart; his favourite reading material being, besides the Bible, Dante’s Divine Comedy. When Todd Andrews was invited to inspect the Count’s considerable library, he was too distracted by the “splendid collection” of books on Renaissance art to investigate the rest of the shelves.
Published in 1900, Sandro Botticelli was a success, and earned its author a string of honorary memberships at the Academy of St Luke in Rome, the Academy of the Fine Arts in Florence, and the Pontifical Academy of Fine Arts and Letters of the Virtuosi al Pantheon.
Plunkett went from strength to strength in 1907 when he was made Director of the National Museum. He would regard it as much a calling as a job, and as work in service to the nation. “To my mind a museum is more than a system,” he told a conference of the Museums’ Association in 1912. “It is a part of the national life, it is an expression of the national life and of the higher qualities of the people to whom it belongs.”
One cause for development was that, while the Museum had many ancient objects from Ireland – “We are fortunate in having the greatest collection of Celtic antiquities in Europe,” as he put it – the exhibitions were lacking in later items: “There is the long period during the occupation of Ireland by the English, which is hardly represented at all. We have works of extraordinary beauty extending down as far as the thirteenth century, but then occurs this gap which we have hitherto been unable to fill.” And it was important that this gap in question be filled, “so that our people may be in a position to realise vividly the elements of their own past.”
Equipped with this vision and passion, Plunkett thrived, as did the Museum, such as when he succeeded in dramatically increasing attendance levels from a hundred students in one year to three thousand in another. A theatre room was built, where the Director took the opportunity to mix pleasure with business, and used the venue to deliver lectures of his own.
“To have had lessons on art history from a master such as Count Plunkett does not fall to the lot of many,” was how an appreciative Andrews described his time with him.
He was to remain in that happy role for nine years until the Easter Week of 1916 threw the country into turmoil and uprooted his quiet, orderly life. It was an upset he had had some small hand in.
A Family Affair
By the time of the Rising, the Plunkett family had already been steeped in the sort of politics that Dublin Castle had tried to tempt the Count out of with its National Gallery offer. The clan patriarch was preoccupied with the demands of running his museum (there was no doubt that it was ‘his’), and so it was the new generation who led the charge.
In November 1913, Joseph, saw a notice in certain newspapers, calling a meeting to organise an Irish Volunteer force in order to ensure and, if necessary, fight for the passing of the Home Rule Bill The notice was signed by Eoin MacNeill, co-founder of the Gaelic League.
Joseph was intrigued but, stricken with tuberculosis as he was, not think much of his chances of being accepted, plaintively asking his sister Geraldine: “Do you think I could be of any use? I’m afraid I won’t be able to do very much.”
Geraldine encouraged him to try anyway. After an encouraging talk with MacNeill, Joseph attended the meeting, held on the 25th in a skating rink at the back of the Rotunda Rooms on Parnell Square. Much to his surprise, Joseph found himself on the platform and nominated to the Provisional Committee of the newly-founded Irish Volunteers, under the chairmanship of MacNeill and in the company of other soon-to-be celebrated men such as Patrick Pearse and Thomas MacDonagh.
Joseph returned home excited and not a little confused by his sudden elevation, which Geraldine attributed to his friendships with insiders in the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), some of whom were also on the committee. In time, he would be inducted into that oath-bound secret society and, later, its Military Council (which also included Pearse and MacDonagh).
This was despite not being, as his brother Jack admitted, the most practical of people (few in the family were, their mother notwithstanding), his talents instead lying with the suggestion of ideas that others could then implement.
Personal connections also played a role. Joseph had met MacDonagh when the latter was hired in 1909 to tutor him for exams. His resultant low marks did not stop the two from developing a friendship. Both shared literary and poetic tastes, and the pair worked together on the Irish Review magazine, of which MacDonagh was editor. MacDonagh might also have been the one to introduce Joseph to fellow poet Pearse, possibly in 1910 or 1911, making the Military Council sometimes seem like the continuation of the same social circle.
The other Plunkett siblings were not to be left out. Though still a schoolboy, Jack also joined the Volunteers, later working full-time on Joseph’s staff. His main duties were the rigging of wireless radios, at which he admitted to being largely unsuccessful (Jack was still the most technically-minded Plunkett, and in later years would indulge in his hobby of tinkering with motor-car engines).
For her part, Geraldine made to join Cumann na mBan, but was dissuaded by Joseph. Unwilling to risk letters or telephones, her older brother wanted her to relay messengers on his behalf to his co-conspirators, a role which would be easier to perform without attracting the notice of Dublin Castle detectives if she was unknown to them.
Secrecy became the watchword of the day. Jack only learnt years later that he and the third Plunkett brother, George Oliver, had worked on the same project – he could not remember which – despite the two of them living under the same roof. It was not until Easter Week, when the brothers were holed up together in the GPO, that Joseph felt comfortable enough to talk to Jack about certain, previously hush-hush matters.
The family property at Larkfield in Kimmage, south of Dublin, was utilised into a base for the younger Plunketts as they became more involved in radical politics. Consisting of twelve acres of land, with yards, paddocks, an old farm and a mill, complete with a “beautiful middle-sized house…and a garden full of roses,” Larkfield had originally been purchased by the Countess for the family (one of the few times Geraldine was prepared to concede when her mother had not been a complete ogress).
Given the poor state of Joseph’s health, it was easier for his IRB partners to visit him in Larkfield as he had taken to living there along with the rest of the family. Their paterfamilias was the last to join them, and 26 Upper Fitzwilliam Street was left to store his books, receive mail but otherwise gather dust. The Count soon settled into a pleasant routine of heading off to the Museum for a day’s work before walking back to Kimmage from the tram at Harold’s Cross.
He was presumably unconcerned about the growing number of young men on the Larkfield property. Unsettled by the threat of conscription, these newcomers had departed from Britain, intending to fight at home for their country rather than in France for another.
“Suddenly one morning about forty young men descended on us,” was how Geraldine remembered the beginning of the ‘Kimmage Garrison’, as they became known by. The numbers of this impromptu company swelled to approximately ninety members, fresh off the boat from cities such as London, Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow.
They were kept busy with military drills in between the manufacture of munitions, namely shotgun pellets and cast-iron grenades. One member proudly recounted how, on a peak night, they could produce up to five thousand lead pellets and twenty grenades, sometimes working twenty-four hour shifts.
Joseph’s work on the Military Council intensified. After Christmas 1915, he told Geraldine that he was off to Germany, which she assumed was for the purpose of procuring weapons. He entrusted his sister with the cipher he would use in any letters sent, to be passed on to her via a cousin and then forwarded to Pearse or another of the conspirators.
He did not trust his mother as much, telling her only that he was leaving for the Continent. In an insight into the complicated dynamics of the household, Joseph changed his mind and informed the Countess that he was going on Volunteer business that might take him to Germany. When Geraldine asked him why “on God’s earth he had done such a thing,” he replied that their mother, adept at prying as she was, would have found out anyway.
Count Plunkett’s involvement, if any, goes unstated in Geraldine’s memoir until early April 1916, when the reader learns of him being sworn into the IRB by Joseph. Geraldine did not record her father’s thoughts on the matter, only that “he was very pleased that his son was now his superior officer.”
But Pa Plunkett was not to be just another ordinary member, for his son had a very particular mission in mind for his new subordinate.
On Easter Sunday, W.J. Brennan-Whitmore was preparing for the start of the uprising in Dublin when he was informed by his commanding officer, Thomas MacDonagh, that Count Plunkett had just returned from Rome, bringing with him the blessing of the Pope for their venture. While pleased to hear such news, Brennan-Whitmore could not help but wonder, just a little, for “it seemed unusual,” and he was still not wholly convinced by the time he penned his memoirs years later.
Brennan-Whitmore was not the only one uncertain, and it was to answer such doubts that Count Plunkett told his side of the story in a brief article for the Irish Press newspaper in 1933:
I have heard that it is denied that I went to Rome immediately before the Rising of 1916 to communicate with His Holiness, Pope Benedict XV. I had no desire to publish information that at the time was not intended for the Press; but now I must disclose certain facts in the interest of truth.
Why he had waited so long before revealing all was left unstated. A need for secrecy seems unlikely, given the length of time that had passed, not to mention how participation in the Rising rapidly became a badge of honour (and political asset) in the months that followed. That the Count had managed for seventeen years to refrain from publicising his role in the most celebrated rebellion in national history – despite the advantages it would have brought to his subsequent career as a Republican firebrand – was an impressive act of restraint in itself.
About three weeks before the Rising, I was, through my son Joseph, commissioned by the Executive of the Irish Volunteers (the Provisional Government) to act as their Envoy on the Continent.
According to Geraldine (whose account fills in some of the gaps in her father’s), Joseph had heard news of the visit of the British Prime Minister, H.H. Asquith, to the Vatican. Concerned that His Holiness might be pressured or persuaded to instruct his Irish bishops to condemn any rebellion, Joseph decided that his father would make the best emissary to plead their case. As a papal count, he was, after all, entitled to such an audience.
One task given to me I needed not particular here. When it was carried out, I went onto Rome, according to my instructions.
The task in question was to send a communication to Germany where Sir Roger Casement was attempting to solicit aid for the rebels. The Count was to memorise the message (papers being too vulnerable to carry around) before sending it from neutral Switzerland en route to Italy. Again, it is unclear as to why he felt the need to omit this detail – perhaps he was simply concerned about the length of the article.
Having arrived at his destination, the Count was granted his audience with Pope Benedict:
For nigh on two hours we discussed freely the question of the coming struggle for Irish independence. The Pope was much moved when I disclosed the fact that the date for the Rising was fixed and the reason for that decision. Finally, I stated that the Volunteer Executive pledged the Republic to fidelity to the Holy See and the interests of religion. Then the Pope conferred His Apostolic Benediction on the men who were facing death for Ireland’s liberty.
The wording makes it sound as if Plunkett was handing the country over on a silver platter. Most likely, he was reassuring the Pope that the insurgents had no distastefully left-leaning, anti-clerical or – God forbid – socialist tendencies.
(Such consideration for papal sensitivity was not untypical. Four years later, Sean T. O’Kelly stressed to the same pontiff that “as practising Catholics we have never allowed our national movement for independence to be contaminated by anti-religious or other dangerous movements condemned by the Church.”)
The article also gives the impression that the Pope took all of this in with serene acceptance. Plunkett gave a more dramatic version to Geraldine, in which the Vicar of Christ bestowed his blessing with tears of sympathy pouring down his face.
Monsignor Curran’s record of what the Count had told him on Easter Monday was less striking but perhaps more likely. Here, Benedict XV comes across as noticeably circumspect upon being asked to approve of a venture that had just been sprung on him:
The Pope showed great perturbation and asked was there no peaceful way out of the difficulty…Count Plunkett answered every question, making it plain that it was the will of the leaders of the movement to act entirely with the good-will or approval – I forget which now – of the Pope and to give an assurance that they wished to act as Catholics. It was for that reason they came to inform his Holiness. All the Pope could do was express his profound anxiety.
One consistent detail in the different versions is how Plunkett informed the Pope that the date of the uprising was fixed, leaving the latter with no chance at dissuasion. It was the same Machiavellian deference he would apply when dropping in to see Archbishop Walsh. The Count may have been a man of a lofty intellect and cultured tastes, but he was also capable of low cunning when it was called for.
Count Plunkett finished his article with his return to Ireland, just in time for the big event:
Back in Dublin on Good Friday, 1916, I sent in my report on the results of my mission to the Provisional Government. In the General Post Office, when the fight began, I saw again the portion of that paper relating to my audience with His Holiness in 1916.
According to Geraldine, her father arrived back in Ireland on Holy Thursday and spent the remaining four days before the Rising travelling around the country to meet with various bishops to request that they also refrain from condemnation. Geraldine thought he visited five bishops altogether, but Monsignor Curran was not aware of any of this when he saw the Count on Easter Monday, and it is hard to believe that these other bishops would not have passed word to the Archbishop of Dublin beforehand.
Count Plunkett omitted his talk with Curran in his 1933 article and also how afterwards, according to Geraldine, he had made his way to the GPO, with the Rising unfolding all around, to ask Joseph to take him on as another Volunteer. Recognising that a 65-year old man did not make for an credible soldier, Joseph told his father that they had enough men inside already and instead sent him home.
In the meantime, the members of the ‘Kimmage Garrison’ had been preparing themselves. Pearse had addressed them a week before, urging them to be ready. His enthusiasm was infectious and the men looked forward to Easter Sunday when they would finally see action.
When Sunday came, the ‘Garrison’ was assembled and armed when a car pulled up at Larkfield with the news that the operation was cancelled.
The following day saw the men in a sullen mood. Before, they had been early risers to a man but now they did nothing but lounge about. The only flicker of interest was in the talk of heading into town to start their own insurrection, orders and countermands be damned.
It was sometime before noon when a whistle blew, calling the ‘Garrison’ into line. George Oliver Plunkett, the 22-year old younger brother of Joseph, had been placed in charge – no one seemed perturbed by such nepotism – and was now wearing, according to one of his subordinates, “a broad, proud, confident smile.”
George read out a dispatch, saying they were to parade at Liberty Hall. To the men, this could mean only one thing: they would have their Rising after all. Enthusiasm overrode discipline as they broke ranks and ran to gather their weapons.
Now prepared, the Volunteers marched to where they boarded a tram (their fares paid for by a considerate George) and were taken to the city centre, where they disembarked at O’Connell Street. Making their way to Liberty Hall, they saw Joseph waiting for them outside. He was, as one of them recalled, “beautifully dressed, having high tan boots, spurs, pince-nez and looked like any British brass hat staff officer.”
It had been a turbulent few days for Joseph as he tried balancing the imminent rebellion with his love life. His fiancée, Grace Gifford, remembered him in high spirits the previous week. Things took a darker turn on the Saturday when Michael Collins visited her at home to deliver, on Joseph’s behalf, a revolver and money, one to fight with and the other to bribe a British soldier if needs be. Grace did not know of which to be more frightened.
When she saw her betrothed the next day, he was “wretched looking”, having skipped the nursing home he was due to check into. Afterwards, Grace could not recall what they had talked about, not even if it was about their wedding, for they were due at the altar the next day, alongside his sister Geraldine and her nuptials in the same church.
Grace and he had been discussing marriage dates for some time. Joseph had suggested Lent which Grace, as a newly converted Catholic, was against. She suggested Easter instead, but Joseph at first resisted on the grounds that “we may be having a revolution then.”
Though Grace and Joseph would not have their wedding until they were in a prison cell, hours before the latter was due to be executed, Geraldine plunged ahead with her own on Easter Sunday. The happy couple cycled to the Imperial Hotel on Sackville (now O’Connell) Street for the night.
The following morning, Geraldine watched from the hotel window with her new husband as uniformed Volunteers advanced up the street and halted in front of the GPO. She recognised her brothers, Joseph and George, the older accompanied by his aide-de-camp Michael Collins, as they and their men set to work constructing barricades.
One Volunteer tried to drive an abandoned tram into another but failed to pick up the necessary speed. Instead, Joseph threw a Larkfield-made bomb into the vehicle and shot it with his pistol from about thirty yards away – “a beautiful shot,” as Geraldine remembered. The shot detonated the bomb, mangling the tram and rendering it a perfect obstacle.
This was the last time Geraldine would see her brother. When she tried talking her way into the GPO, she was told on behalf of Joseph to go home as the building was already full up. It was the same line Joseph gave his father. He may have been willing to risk his own life but he drew a line at certain family members.
Count Plunkett was arrested on the 1st May, two days after the collapse of the Rising. His experiences were described in two short documents: a pencil manuscript in the Count’s hand in the first person, and a typescript in the third, possibly intended for publication.
The Count was in his Upper Fitzwilliam Street residence when a body of soldiers demanded admittance. Despite their lack of a warrant, Plunkett decided that compliance was the wisest course. The men searched the house, breaking open desks and spilling their contents onto the floor, while taking the opportunity to pocket a number of items, including the Count’s prized collection of papal medals.
Also seized were two historical dress-swords which the Count had labelled for loan to the Museum. Plunkett was unaware of these thefts at the time as the only item officially taken was a third ceremonial sword that came with his uniform as Director. The soldiers also tried to get him to admit to having guns in the house but he insisted there was none.
Their search complete, the soldiers arrested Plunkett and took him in an iron-sided van to Dublin Castle. There, he was brought to a small, dirty cell, occupied by twenty others, where they spent the night. His roommates were a mixed bunch, some being “men of education” like himself, others having been arrested for looting. A few were injured, indicating that they had played a part in the recent fighting.
“I cannot” – at this point, the manuscript broke off. The typescript continued the unhappy narration. After a breakfast of canned ‘bully beef’, stale biscuits and tea served in cans, the prisoners were ordered out and marched through the streets to Richmond Barracks, “being subject to insult by the military and the disreputable camp-followers on the way.”
Upon reaching the Barracks, they were again crammed, twenty-seven of them, into a space intended for eleven. As before, their confinements were filthy despite the presence of wounded men who received no special consideration (one fellow prisoner who shared the cell with Plunkett corroborated the crowded squalor of their confinement, and how the prisoners discovered that a pair of boots could make a much-welcomed pillow).
For nearly a week, the prisoners were left to sleep on bare floorboards. Sometimes it was so cold that even the weariest were kept awake through the night. Mealtimes were a drudge of hard biscuits, ‘bully beef’ and black tea, assuaged only when the guards were bribed for food from outside. The Count – or least the document – made the claim that he broke three teeth on a biscuit, but as this is mentioned nowhere else, it was probably untrue.
Things improved somewhat when their treatment was publicised in the newspapers, and the medical staff warned of a fever outbreak should conditions remain as they were. The prisoners were first given rugs to lie on. Sanitary arrangements improved. Food became at least tolerable.
After a fortnight, the Count was finally granted a bed; a hard one, but better than the floorboards. He began receiving visits from his family except his wife, who had been arrested in turn two days after him, a fact he had been previously unaware of.
Twice he was taken to Kilmainham Jail and brought out to the grounds where a court-martial had been convened, apparently for a session, but each time he was sent back, still untried. At least such outings allowed him to see Joseph, George and Jack, also waiting as prisoners. A soldier later said within earshot that all three had been shot. Another clarified a few days later that George and Jack had ‘only’ been sentenced to ten years. All their father could glimpse of the pair was from a window before they were dispatched to Portland Prison in England.
He had already witnessed his eldest son on the day of Joseph’s court-martial, standing in the square of Richmond Barracks, from a first storey window. The two looked at each other for a long while before Joseph was moved on, soon to be before a firing-squad. The Count was weeping as he told this to Geraldine: “Even after the executions, it was not thought right to weep openly, but Pa did, and it was one of the reasons I loved him.”
For all the hardship, Count Plunkett did his best to stay in good humour. A friendly priest, Father Eugene Nevin, visited him in Kilmainham, finding the “dear old man in a small white-washed room, the only furniture of any kind being what looked like a large soap box on which he sat reading the last evening’s Mail.”
Not only could Plunkett greet his visitor with a smile, but he was soon laughing out loud, finding much merriment in the published correspondence between the Bishop of Limerick, Dr Edward O’Dwyer, and General Maxwell. Bishop O’Dwyer had replied to Maxwell’s requests for cooperation with a notably acerbic pen, and Plunkett could at least vicariously enjoy the Bishop’s defiance of the man who had overseen Joseph’s execution two weeks before.
Another source of humour, albeit of a black kind, was a piece of pantomime by him and his fellow prisoners. Plunkett played the role of judge in a mock-trial of Éamon de Valera, awaiting his own court-martial in Kilmainham, who was ‘charged’ with conspiring to become King of the Periwinkles and Emperor of the Muglins.
Everyone present would have known of similar ‘trials’ performed by the imprisoned Young Irelanders after their own failed uprising almost seventy years before. Despite the intent of the charade to relieve some of the tension, de Valera could not help but be unsettled, particularly when the onlookers took the game a little too far by clapping their hands to imitate the sound of a firing squad.
But such diversions could not hold off the reality of the situation indefinitely. When Geraldine was able to visit her father on the 8th May, a week after his arrest, she was shocked by what she saw:
We were taken upstairs to a guardroom where Pa was alone, sitting on the bed. I hardly recognised him. He had been arrested more than a fortnight before and was extremely dirty and miserable and more pleased to see the soap and towel than the food. His beard had practically all fallen off and although he was only sixty-five, he looked eighty-five, a poor tired old man.
Under such conditions, it is unsurprising that his attempts at poetry, composed on scraps of paper and spare envelopes, should have a suitably anguished tone:
The Countess was having it no better. Another woman imprisoned at Mountjoy in the cell next to Josephine’s remembered her being “in a terrible state about her son having been executed, and she used to get awfully lonely and upset at night.” Talking to each other through the wall brought at least a measure of comfort.
Relief came for the pair when they were both notified on the 5th June that they could be released on condition of signing a form, agreeing to deportation to a place in England of their choice. Both signed, with Oxfordshire decided as their destination. They were reunited at Upper Fitzwilliam Street and spent four days there before leaving the country on the 9th, taking their daughter Fiona with them.
As part of their agreement, the couple promised to “abstain from making any speeches or attending or taking part, directly or indirectly, in any political or other demonstration or meeting before leaving Ireland.” They also agreed not to return home without written permission from the Home Secretary or the military authorities.
Exactly why either of them had been arrested at all is unclear. Unlike their sons, they had not been arrested at the scene of an armed uprising. Neither had held leadership positions or any rank among the Irish Volunteers. The lack of a court-martial or trial means that whatever evidence the authorities had against the couple, as well the reasons for detaining two aging non-combatants in the first place, will remain unknown.
The exiles arrived in London on the morning of the 10th before pressing on to Oxford. Count Plunkett attended Mass the following day before getting down to business and writing to the Prime Minister and later the Home Secretary to ask for a meeting (there is no indication that either replied, however).
Always ready to balance politics with his craft, he sent copies of some verse to a number of Irish publications. Hinting at his state of mind was the title of one: ‘O Blessed Gift of Poverty’.
While their Oxford lodgings were a far cry from the luxurious residence on Upper Fitzwilliam Street or the idyllic surroundings of Larkfield, materially the couple could have been worse. A natural entrepreneur, the Countess crafted furniture to sell and, though Geraldine snidely commented on their quality in her memoirs, she made enough to cover the rent and shopping (the latter task falling to Fiona). For home fires, the family made do with old newspapers and lumps of sugar.
Still, the future looked bleak. They were to be dispossessed for an indefinite period, many of their belongings in Dublin had been stolen, and their eldest son was dead with the other two were about to embark on lengthy penal sentences. The National Museum lay over a burnt bridge, the Count having received notice of his suspension as its director. His position would “be determined upon the receipt of a Report from the Military Authorities,” which made any chance of reclamation an unlikely one.
As if to rub salt into the wounds, Count Plunkett, who had chosen Oxford for access to its famous Bodleian Library, had his application for a library ticket refused.
Elijah approached the people and said, “How long will you not decide between two choices? If the Lord is the true God, follow him, but if Baal is the true God, follow him!” (1 Kings 18:21)
James J. O’Kelly
‘The Election of the Snows,’ they were to call it in North Roscommon and with good reason. A heavy blizzard had broken out on the Thursday night of the 25th January 1917, accompanied by a strong wind that resulted in snowdrifts of up to ten to twelve feet in places. The snowfall continued all through Friday and showed no signs of abating by Saturday. Nowhere was the snow any less than two feet in depth except for the few spots that the wind had managed to blow clear.
As abominable as it was, the weather was not enough to deter the armies of canvassers who had descended on Roscommon. Three rival candidates standing in a by-election for a prize too good, with stakes too high for any hesitancy or half-measures.
The Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) had sent sixteen of its Members of Parliament (MPs) and forty organisers – as estimated by a local newspaper – to assist its candidate, Thomas J. Devine. That some of these Party partisans hailed from the opposite ends of the country such as Dublin, Belfast and Cork showed the extent of the support that the heirs of Charles Stewart Parnell could still muster.
For almost thirty years, the late James J. O’Kelly had had his constituency in North Roscommon since his initial election as its MP in 1880. The former Fenian-turned-politician had been thirty-five then, a tender age in Westminster terms, but one that belied his personal qualities. “His firm tread and erect carriage told at once that he was a trained soldier, and his flashing blue eyes, deeply-set below a broad, high forehead,” wrote a panegyrical obituary, “told friend and foe alike that here was a man who must be reckoned with.”
He had stood by Parnell during the ‘Divorce Crisis’ of 1890, a minority position which he had paid for when he lost his seat in 1892 to an anti-Parnellite rival. He regained it three years later and, from then on, he was returned unopposed to the North Roscommon constituency until his death.
Those had been the glory days of the IPP, when it had few rivals but itself, but times had changed, the country had moved on, and the party’s dominance was no longer assured. Usurpers and opportunists were sizing up their chances, and O’Kelly’s death on the 22nd December 1916 was just the opening they needed.
Like the Thane of Cawdor, nothing in O’Kelly’s career, as lengthy and impressive as it was, became him like the leaving of it, as the resulting by-election was to have monumental consequences for the rest of the country.
As the only one of the three candidates to be truly an Independent, Jasper Tully compensated for the lack of party machinery behind him with sheer chutzpah and friendly media coverage. While the IPP workers were working hard to cover every inch of the constituency, Tully announced himself already done and confident of success.
His self-assurance was shared by the Roscommon Herald at least. The newspaper followed his campaign extensively and generously, as well it might, considering how Tully was its editor and proprietor.
The third candidate was not faring too well. That is, if one were to take the Herald at face value. Count George Plunkett was cutting it fine with his arrival in North Roscommon from Dublin on the 1st February, just two days before polling. His first meeting:
…was very small, and the Count proved to be such a wretched speaker that the people who came to hear him walked off in disgust.
The Count proceeded to Boyle, where his efforts were only a little more successful. His main advocate, Father Michael O’Flanagan, was:
…vigorously groaned, and when he turned on some of the old women who were taunting him, was soon proved to be no march for them with the tongue, and he had to retire crest-fallen.
The truth was, the Herald said, that Count Plunkett was a nice old man but hardly suitable material to represent North Roscommon in Westminster. He had been a Tory all his life, to such an extent that his son, Joseph Mary Plunkett – one of those brave patriots executed ten months earlier – had been unable to live under the same roof as his father and moved out.
The Herald was to spare the Count no mercy in its denunciations, introducing him to its readership under a headline that managed to weld his name and his lack of Roscommon roots into a single jibe: A COUNT BUT NOT A COUNT-Y MAN.
The rest of the Herald’s article gave a brief, derisive summary of the subject’s life so far:
The Count is a venerable old man, nearly seventy years of age, with a long flowing white beard. His father was a builder in Rathmines, and he got his title from Pope Leo the Thirteenth. His son was one of the sixteen shot in the Rebellion.
The Count, who was a Government official, was ordered to reside in England by Sir John Maxwell, but the Count has repeatedly declared in the Press that he had nothing to do with the Rebellion.
It was typical of Tully, for whom the best defence was always attack. His world, in the words of one local historian, was a “welter of animosities, hatreds and personal obsessions.” But then, what else could be expected from a man who, upon the death of his wife, redirected her mail with “Not known at this address. Try Hell”?
His personal temperament notwithstanding, Tully had long been a fixture on the midlands political scene. He had begun as an ally of Parnell, for whom he had worked as an organiser in the Land League. The two men had even shared a prison sentence together in Kilmainham Gaol, which had not stopped Tully from siding with Parnell’s opponents in the 1890 ‘Divorce Crisis’, and it was on an anti-Parnellite platform that he was elected MP for Leitrim South from 1892 to 1906.
Never one to stay out of trouble, he was prosecuted in 1886 for printing an intimidatory article in his Herald. He walked when the jury disagreed on the verdict but, by the following year, he was again in court on more charges of intimidation, and yet again in 1900 when he was finally convicted, and received six months of hard labour – his second spell in jail – for publishing an article inciting people to threaten farmers.
Time and prison did nothing to mellow his temperament. He sabotaged his chances for re-election on an IPP basis in 1905, when he brought a court action to overturn the results of the county and district elections, which had not gone his way. As part of the suit, he accused the successful Party candidates of – among other things – bribery, voter fraud and conspiracy to murder (!).
That the court awarded him damages came at the expense of his bridges with his colleagues being well and truly burned. One of those he had accused was Thomas J. Devine, giving the 1917 North Roscommon by-election the feel of the latest round in a long-running feud.
Thomas J. Devine
Compared to Tully’s Trump-esque behaviour and the near absence of the Count, the IPP seemed a model of demure efficiency. The nomination procedure on the 23rd January saw the attendance of a sizeable crowd in Boyle, with the encouraging addition of a number of clergymen.
John J. Hayden, the MP for South Roscommon, announced to the delegates the “unanimous selection” in private of Devine as their chosen candidate. Devine had merited the selection on the basis of his impressive curriculum vitae, having been a county councillor, the Chairman of the Executive of the IPP and the County Vice-President of the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
Attendees who had been hoping to have an actual say in the choosing process were to be disappointed. The Irish Party had never been a particularly open organisation and it was not about to change.
Hayden next had the task of outlining to the convention attendees the party agenda. With considerable understatement, he told them that “a great many things had occurred since the beginning of the war which must obtain their most careful consideration.”
The first point to consider was an agricultural one: the breaking up of hitherto uncultivated land, with a warning against landowners who tried to tempt tenants into tilling their soil without any intention of selling of them. Having spearheaded one of the great triumphs of Irish politics in the form of the Land War and the resultant improvements for tenant farmers, the Party was loathe to risk such hard-worn gains.
The second point, and the other legacy to safeguard, was “the great question of National Self-Government,” namely Home Rule.
After many years of toil in the debating-hall of Westminster, John Redmond and his cohorts had at last succeeded in passing the Bill for Home Rule into law. Many had been sneering throughout the long wait, doubting it would ever come about.
But these cynics and scoffers had been proven wrong. Home Rule was no longer a domestic concern but an international question, with the attention of not only Irish and British statesmen but those from around the world. There was to be an Imperial Conference next month in London, and here Ireland would be one of the issues on the table for discussion.
Should that question come up, how could Ireland best safeguard her interests? Was it by having one constituency represented one way and another in another way; was it by men responsible only to themselves, or was it by having a strong, disciplined, united party of proved and tried Nationalists representing each and every part of Ireland?
It was a simple, if transparent, tactic: an appeal to unity in the pursuit of a common goal. The question remained, however, as to whether it would be enough.
The Irish Nation League
The opposition, meanwhile, was far from idle themselves. Four days before the IPP Convention, Laurence Ginnell, the Independent MP for North Westmeath, and Father O’Flanagan, the curate for Rossna, had opened the Plunkett campaign with a meeting of their own in Castlerea on the 19th January. The two men quickly became the backbone of the Plunkett campaign, with Ginnell contributing his considerable experience in politics, much of which had been spent in defiance of the establishment, whether Britain’s or the Irish Party’s.
He had been a member of the latter until 1909, when he had resigned over his colleagues’ overly casual attitudes towards party funds. A demand at a closed-doors session to see a statement of finances resulted in him being locked out of the room; in return, he stood as an Independent in North Westmeath the following year and – with sweet vindication – defeated the IPP choice by a large margin.
The Party responded by passing a resolution “excluding all factionists,” although it is unlikely that the target of their ire cared much. Likewise, Ginnell’s win as a lone wolf did not seriously challenge the IPP’s hegemony over the country’s politics.
A rebel ever in search of a cause – one historian described him as an “unpopular and a lonely figure” at Westminster but one whose courage and sincerity was never in doubt– Ginnell found two in the wake of the Easter Rising: post hoc support for the rebellion, and a rekindling of his ire towards former colleagues. As a speaker at an anti-Partition rally in Belfast on the 18th July 1916, he accused the IPP of “trying to throw dust in the people’s eyes” in its alleged consent towards “the proposal for the destruction of Ireland.”
The danger of Partition was an obvious matter of concern in the Ulster counties, and in Derry the Anti-Partition League was formed in July, becoming the Irish Nation League a month later. Its stated intent was to be “thoroughly democratic” and, of particular importance, free from the influence of the IPP.
Originating as a Northern phenomenon, the League achieved some success in the rest of the country, holding its first Dublin meeting on the 10th September in Phoenix Park. A large crowd listened as resolution after resolution was adopted, calling for the immediate release of political prisoners, conscription to be resisted, and full and complete self-government for the country without division. All Irish Party MPs were to resign their seats and make way for fresh elections.
‘A Nation Once Again’ was sung at the end, and a stream of young men left the Park to march along the Quays, singing rebel songs and waving tricolours. Two branches of the League were swiftly formed in Dublin, one each for the North and South sides, followed by another in Limerick. Having found a receptive audience for its message, the League seemed poised to seriously challenge the IPP as the mouthpiece of the country.
As one of its founding members, Ginnell provided his services to the League when he could, such as speaking at a Limerick rally at the beginning of October. His work as an MP was similarly eventful, being suspended several times from the House of Common, one of them being in July for refusing to withdraw his accusations towards the military authorities of a number of misdeeds during the Easter Rising, namely bombarding the Cumann-na-mBan headquarters and mistreating its nurses.
He later apologised and regained access to the Commons on the 17th October. His contrition did not last long, and the Irish Times noted later in the month that he was “beginning to reassert himself, and his questions are once again becoming as difficult, not to say offensive, as of old.”
As if all this was not enough, Ginnell was also busy visiting the barracks in England where the prisoners from the Easter Rising were kept. He brought the inmates cigarettes and papers, and left with their forbidden letters smuggled on his person.
What had him barred from any further visits was his telling the prisoners that they were martyrs for Ireland. Ginnell resorted to signing the prison visitors’ book with the Irish equivalent of his name, ‘Labras MacFingail.’ Convicted of obtaining admission under false pretences, Ginnell was given the choice of either a fine or three weeks’ imprisonment. Possibly inspired by the example of the prisoners, a defiant Ginnell opted for jail.
A day after his conviction was upheld on the 10th October, a meeting by the Irish Nation League in Dublin broke up amongst scenes of chaos, the ostensible point of contention being who should take the chair for the occasion. The one who eventually gained the chair took the opportunity to denounce the leaders of the League as undemocratic and acting against the interests of the country. The ill-fated meeting was adjourned for an indefinite period. The Freeman’s Journal reported this in gloating terms; unsurprisingly so, given that it was a mouthpiece for the IPP.
Kevin O’Shiel, a Tyrone-born barrister, authored The Rise of the Irish Nation League, to help explain the new organisation. The booklet ended with a call for “sincere patriots [to] join it in their thousands,” with a promise that “there is a place in its ranks for every good Irish man and every good Irish girl,” but said good Irishmen and girls suddenly did not seem so inclined to accept the invitation.
The Dublin branches struggled on as best they could, but the League ultimately gained little support in the city or elsewhere in the country outside of its Ulster origins. O’Shiel retrospectively attributed its difficulties to its attempts to “give constitutionalism a final chance” when constitutionalism had had its day: “We in the Nation League were speaking a political language that had become archaic in six months, and we were talking that archaic tongue in an atmosphere that was changing rapidly even while we spoke.”
Factional disputes and disagreements on the best course of action furthered sapped morale. After such a promising start, the League was about to grind to a halt. It is thus unsurprising that Ginnell and the rest of the League should turn their energies to a fresh battleground in North Roscommon.
Ginnell was initially unsure on which one candidate to support. He received a letter from Tully on the 12th January 1917, saying he had been pressed to stand in North Roscommon (that he had needed much pressing is unlikely), and with request for his help. As Tully had been one of his few supporters in his 1910 election to North Westmeath, this was not an appeal he could easily ignore.
The next day, Alice Ginnell travelled to Oxford, to where the Count had been deported after the Rising. She asked him if he too had been approached to stand in the North Roscommon by-election and, if so, had he agreed. The answer was ‘yes’ to both.
Still undecided, Ginnell left London for Ireland on the 17th. When he arrived in Boyle on the night train, two motorcars were waiting for him, one from Tully and the other from Father Michael O’Flanagan.
Ginnell chose to go in Tully’s but then had a “very unsatisfactory interview” with his old ally. In a petty display of power, Tully had Ginnell refused admittance to a hotel that the candidate owned, forcing the MP to stay the night in a private house. A second interview two days later went no better. In her reminisces, Alice Ginnell gives no reason for the suddenly strained relationship between the two men, saying only that her husband was extremely upset at being unable to repay his former friend for his past services.
Whatever the cause, Ginnell now committed himself to the Count. He would soon display his prowess as a campaigner, walking ten miles through the cutting weather from Boyle to Elphin to address a crowd there. In contrast, a group of young pro-Plunkettites left Roscommon town by motorcar in an attempt to clear a path with shovels, but were forced to turn back. Experience took no second place to youth, it seemed.
Father Michael O’Flanagan
Tully did not waste time mourning the loss of his friendship with Ginnell. When the Roscommon Herald announced Plunkett’s candidacy, it did so almost in passing:
The Count is standing for North Roscommon as the nominee of the recently formed place-hunting Irish Nation League, which is usually called the “League of the Seven Attorneys,” as it is run by seven Attorneys in the North of Ireland who were disappointed in getting places from the last Government.
(The use of the sobriquet ‘League of the Seven Attorneys’ to mock the Irish Nation League – due to the abundance of attorneys and barristers like O’Shiel in its ranks – was not original to the Herald. O’Shiel attributed an otherwise obscure Donegal-based newspaper for the nickname, which was quickly taken up by others.)
Significantly, Sinn Féin was nowhere mentioned. At the time it was less of a coherent entity and more, as O’Shiel described, the “extremely variegated and anti-Irish Party Nationalism.” Instead, O’Shiel was in no doubt that the Plunkett campaign originated from Father O’Flanagan: “That remarkable, brilliant and most eloquent young man.”
O’Flanagan’s energy and indefatigability made him almost a one-man movement, inspiring the Irish Times – which was far from sympathetic to the Plunkett cause in general – to describe him in almost Biblical terms:
For twelve days and nights he was up and down the constituency, going like a whirlwind and talking in impassioned language to the people at every village and street corner and cross-roads where he could get people to listen to him.
Having delivered the burial service at the iconic public funeral for Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa in 1915, O’Flanagan was an experienced performer. He was shrewd enough to base his message in North Roscommon on the then overriding concern to all: the fear that conscription into the British Army for its war in Europe would be imposed on Ireland.
Conscription, so O’Flanagan said, would have been implemented already had it not been for the Rising. As one of the Count’s sons had been executed and another two imprisoned for their roles in that rebellion, ergo, a vote for the Count was a blow against conscription.
How one would lead to the other was not explained in any great detail. After all, conscription was still an issue and it was not as if Plunkett was proposing another uprising. But then, few political messages have suffered from oversimplification.
Whatever his deficiencies as an analyst, O’Flanagan more than made up for them with his gift for imagery. It was easier for the young men, so he told his rapt audiences, to carry their father to the polls to vote for Plunkett than it would be for them to serve as conscripts in France. The potential of youth to make a difference and the bridging of generations for a worthy cause were favoured themes of O’Flanagan’s, to which he would return.
The padre was also unafraid to get down into the mire with an opponent. He responded at one meeting to Tully’s printed mockeries with some fighting words of his own. Tully, he said, did not love his country. Tully had always been a trimmer and was not fit to clean the Count’s shoes (cheers). As for the Count, he did not get his title from England but from the Pope (more cheers). O’Flanagan appealed to every man, woman and child in the parish to assist Count Plunkett, a cultured Irish Catholic, and thus honour the memory of the dead who died for Ireland (cheers again) – a clear reference to those of Easter Week. The Plunkett campaign was finding that a connection to the Rising was a political boon that its rivals could not hope to duplicate.
The Freeman’s Journal
The nominations for the three candidates in Boyle on the 26th January made the three-way nature of the contest official. The Freeman’s Journal stressed the unanimous selection of Devine at the IPP convention and praised him as a “man of proved record in the National fight,” by which he meant the Home Rule movement.
For Tully, the paper had nothing but scorn, pointing out that he could have put himself forward at the same convention like the others but he did not: “Probably because he knew he would not be selected.” His running as an Independent, therefore, could “only be regarded as a wanton attempt to divide the constitutional forces in the consistency.”
For Plunkett, the Freeman showed a certain grudging respect, acknowledging that his candidacy was a “direct challenge to the policy of the Irish Party, and is, therefore, an issue clear and well-defined.” Unlike Tully’s Roscommon Herald, the Freeman refrained from a direct attack on the Count, at least at first.
Instead, it waxed lyrically about the record of the late James J. O’Kelly: “one of the old Fenian Guard who had kept fully the spirit of Ireland alive in the darkest and most evil days” until his conversion to “the great policy of constitutionalism which Parnell had undertaken.”
O’Kelly had proceeded to traverse the length and width of Roscommon. He had done so before as a revolutionary, drawing converts to the Fenian cause, but upon his metanoia, he made instead followers to the path of parliamentarism. This was a course which would, no doubt, settle for good the pressing question of Irish self-rule. The candidacy of Count Plunkett was a divergence from this course, one that could only set back the gains made already.
The Freeman made a plea for consistency: “The men who were represented so faithfully and so long by James O’Kelly will not consent to be represented by anyone except a man who will honestly and loyally follow in his footsteps” – a man like Devine, in other words.
In contrast to such a heritage, Plunkett did not seem to represent much. Until his deportation to England for the Rising – something the newspaper informed its readers he seemed to have had no sympathy for – he had been a Government official, making him an unlikely Sinn Feiner. Attempting to strike a tone of judicious concern, the Freeman concluded:
It is certainly much to be hoped that the doubt which now exists will be cleared up without delay, for, in the present circumstances, the Count would appear to stand for nothing and nobody but himself.
So what *did* Plunkett stand for? By himself, very little, as readily admitted by many of his supporters in the years afterwards, with one remarking that “we youngsters…did not care what the Count did so long as he was elected.” Another thought at the time that the Count did not need a political platform of his own, as simply being the father of an Easter Rising martyr would be sufficient.
And there lay the secret of Plunkett’s appeal. In dismissing him as an empty vessel, the Freeman and other critics were entirely missing the point. The candidate was not intended to be himself but as a cup for others to pour into.
The IPP’s adherents would attempt further to hammer away at Count Plunkett’s radical credentials. The Freeman’s Journal scorned Tully’s campaign tactics as abusive and crude – “in thoroughly characteristic fashion” for him – but the IPP, when push came to shove, proved to be not so above it all, after all.
John Hayden, the South Roscommon MP, told a rally in Boyle that he had in his pocket a letter:
…written by Count Plunkett saying he was in total ignorance of what was taking place [during the Rising], and that he spent Easter Week taking charge and looking after the property of the Government in the Dublin Museum of which he had charge. He apologies for the conduct of his sons in that affair, because, he says, they were mere boys.
Plunkett’s policy was not in keeping with the rebels of Easter Week and thus not in line with that of Sinn Féin. What then was his policy? As for Tully, he stood only for himself, and without a party or wider movement behind him, what could he hope to achieve alone?
Hayden closed his speech with an exhortation to “stand by the policy of Parnell and James O’Kelly, to stand by a united and disciplined Irish Party…and thus show that no policy of any sort or kind, whether it be Sinn Fein, Irish Nation League or Tullyism will be tolerated in opposition to a pledge-bound Irish Party.” Such language spoke much about the mindset of the IPP and how it still saw itself as the only viable option for the nationalist vote.
The Roscommon Messenger sided with Devine. While it had not previously covered the election in any great detail, its edition for the 3rd February – timed for the day of the vote – made its allegiance explicit with a list of reasons to support the candidate:
He was the unanimous choice of the IPP Convention, or the “Convention of the people,” as the newspaper phrased it.
He supported the constitutional movement of Parnell, Michael Davitt and James O’Kelly, “which had proven effective for the winning of every reform demanded by the Irish Party.”
Repeating much of what the IPP machine had already said, the Messenger dismissed Tully as representing no party and no politics. Plunkett had been drawing “a Government salary for looking after old fossils, bones and stuffed birds in the Dublin Museum.” He would find North Roscommon, the paper warned, a tougher prospect to deal with than his dead birds and antiquarian knick-knacks.
Another local newspaper, the Roscommon Journal, was not so obliging, and took a gloating pleasure in recording the mishaps of F.E. Meehan. The MP for North Leitrim was speaking on behalf of Devine in Loughglynn when he was challenged to answer one question.
When Meehan consented to do so, he was asked: “How many recruitment speeches did you make on recruiting platforms?”
“Oh, that has nothing to do with the election,” Meehan replied.
“Oh, yes, it has,” said his challenger from the crowd. With the looming threat of conscription, anything to do with the British Army was now treated as the mark of Cain. When Meehan declined to answer any further, his audience, according to the Journal with a frisson of schadenfreude, “melted away from him and he was left a bird alone in the snow.”
The Roscommon Journal had already decided to align itself with Tully. It joined the Herald in its generous coverage of the man, including the number of notable endorsements he had earned, such as Father Monaghan. The priest appealed to the voters of Fairymount district to support the Independent candidate, citing his previous record of fighting against high taxation while on Roscommon County Council.
The Boyle Town Commissioners also came out in support, describing Tully, who happened to be their chairman, as a “devoted and worthy man…one whose effort has been to improve the condition of the country, and of the people amongst whom he lives.” Tully may not have had a party or policy to call his own but he did at least know how to use his local contacts.
He decided to make up for lost canvassing time by addressing two large meetings, one after another, in Boyle on the 27th January. The first was an open-air event in the town centre, notable mainly for the arrival of a small band of disrupters from Sligo who were quickly driven away. Tully and his listeners then withdrew inside a hall for his second hearing.
Never short of bravado, he told his listeners that his canvassing was already done (not that he had been doing too much of it to begin with). Everybody in the constituency knew him and everything that could be said for or against him. The IPP had sent sixteen MPs and forty organisers against him, but where were they now? All snowed under, unable to do anything but warm their toes at hotel fires. Just as Napoleon could fight everything but the snow, so was the sixteen horse power MP machine of John Redmond helpless against the elements.
An unwise heckler felt the edge of Tully’s tongue: “I hope, Mr Rafferty, you will try to restrain yourself. You are now trying to pose as a Sinn Feiner, while your brother is out in the trenches fighting for England.”
To general laughter, he proceeded to taunt the “little sham of Sinn Feiners” in the Plunkett camp, painting a lurid picture of them kissing and hugging the Sherwood Foresters who had pacified the country after the Rising. “These twopenny, halfpenny, tin-whistlers were great fighters now with their mouths,” he sneered.
Contrary to what they may have heard, Tully told his audience, the Count had not been put forward by Sinn Féin. After all, Sinn Féin did not believe in Parliamentary elections, and if a real Sinn Féiner was to be elected, he would not sit, so why would one be running in the first place? That left just him, a local boy, the only one who could hope to do a particle of good for North Roscommon.
Seconding Tully on the platform was M.J. Judge. As a member of the Irish Volunteers (one of the very few to support a candidate other than Plunkett), that alone gave him some weight. Judge quickly picked up Tully’s thread: it was not Sinn Féin but the ‘League of the Seven Attorneys’ who were behind the Plunkett campaign. Each of these said attorneys was only interested in obtaining an easy job in the government, and would use Roscommon as a bargaining chip towards this.
Tully announced himself happy to step down in favour of a “real Sinn Feiner” but not for a man who, before becoming a government servant, was:
…always known in Dublin as an amiable old Whig. He is now a very feeble old man, and a delicate man. It is really the Dublin people who should take him up for Parliament, if he is anxious for a seat, but I do not believe he knows anything about North Roscommon except seeing it on the map.
Tully cited Eoin MacNeill as an example of a ‘real Sinn Feiner” for whom he would be willing to move aside. As the imprisoned Chief of Staff to the Irish Volunteers was unlikely to be in Roscommon anytime soon, Tully could happily make such empty promises.
It was notable that Tully made the point of criticising those purporting to be of Sinn Féin rather than the party itself, an indication in itself of the direction in the public mood. The first time the name of Sinn Féin was raised in connection with the election was the report by the Roscommon Herald in the first week of January 1917 about rumours in local Sinn Féin circles of running someone for the election.
While this possible candidate remained anonymous, the paper did drop hints as to his identity:
The gentleman’s name is one of the most important – if not the most important of the leaders of the Irish Volunteer movement. He is now undergoing penal servitude in England as a result of trial and sentence by courtmartial in Dublin.
Although this gentleman’s name would never be confirmed, the clues would point towards it being Eoin MacNeill. There was also a mention of efforts to entice Dr Michael Davitt, son and namesake of the famed Land League founder, to stand but other than his refusal upon his mother’s objections, no further details were given.
The following week’s edition of the Herald told of how a “Mr O’Doherty of Dublin” had been in Boyle and other parts of North Roscommon, bearing a petition to invite Count Plunkett to stand in the constituency for Sinn Féin.
Despite the novelty of Sinn Féin running for a parliament whose authority it repudiated, interest in the petition was mostly limited to its possible short-term consequences. There was fear that the petition would bring down the wrath of the authorities in the form of wholesale arrests. Sympathisers of Sinn Féin argued instead that it would assist in freeing the prisoners from the Rising.
The “Mr. O’Doherty of Dublin” was Seamus O’Doherty, actually from Derry. He would become the director of elections for Count Plunkett, at least in name, for Father O’Flanagan seems to have been that in effect. Indeed, the priest and O’Doherty wrote the Count’s election address in the latter’s house, according to his wife, Kitty.
Seamus had first obtained from the Count assurance that he stood on the platform of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. Given that the Count had lost a son on account of the Rising, with two others imprisoned over it, he was hardly going to refute their efforts.
It is unknown if O’Doherty took the time to inform Plunkett of his role as acting head of the reorganised Supreme Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), the Count himself having been sworn into the IRB a few weeks before the Rising. Despite O’Doherty’s status, the rest of the Council did not approve of his forays into electoral politics and refused the Plunkett campaign access to their funds. Regardless of this setback, O’Doherty was still able to contact IRB cells in Roscommon and persuade them to assist him in the election.
The journalist J.J. O’Kelly (also known by his penname ‘Sceilg’) gave his own account of the baby steps of the Plunkett-Sinn Féin campaign. He had spoken at a Sinn Féin conference in North Roscommon, organised by – who else? – Father O’Flanagan. The name of Dr Michael Davitt had been put forward and approved by the majority of those present. O’Kelly had returned to his office in O’Connell Street, Dublin, where he was followed by O’Flanagan. Davitt had declined the offer, so O’Flanagan proposed another candidate.
As editor of the Catholic Bulletin, an officer in the Gaelic League and a participant in the Irish National Aid and Volunteer Dependants’ Fund, O’Kelly was a man of some influence. But it was the priest – according to O’Kelly – who decided on Plunkett as their replacement.
O’Kelly knew the Count already, both having served on the committee for the Society of the Preservation of the Irish Language, and had visited his Dublin house many times in the past.O’Kelly wrote that same evening to his old friend in Oxford with the offer to stand (a letter from O’Kelly discussing the matter would date this to early January).
This would clash somewhat with Kitty O’Doherty’s version, in which it was her husband who did the bulk of the preliminary work. Whoever was responsible, Sinn Féin now had their man.
That Sinn Féin would become synonymous with the Plunkett campaign was surprising to many. There was, after all, not much to Sinn Féin at the time. As a party, it was “practically non-existent,” in the opinion of one Plunkettite canvasser, to the point of it not being mentioned in any of the campaign speeches.
O’Shiel, took a similarly dim view of Sinn Féin, describing it as being defined less by what it was and more by what it was not: “the then extremely variegated and anti-Irish Party Nationalism.”
Nonetheless, according to O’Doherty, his petition was able to attract the signatures of “hundreds of prominent people.” This may be something of an exaggeration, given how newspapers like the Freeman’s Journal and the Roscommon Herald – both usually so attuned to potential threats to their respective candidates – failed to mention the petition in anything more than passing terms.
Regardless, the petition was enough to kick-start the Plunkettite drive. It made no mention of the Rising – somewhat surprisingly, given its ex post facto popularity – or any specific Sinn Féin policies, preferring instead to keep things simple:
We declare our adhesion to the doctrine of Ireland a Nation which has been handed down to us by our fathers. We believe that the Irish Nation has as much right to freedom as any other nation. The fact that the Great Powers at present warring on the continent of Europe have again and again appealed to this principle of Nationality is clear proof of its potential moral power.
We believe that at the present moment Ireland has a magnificent chance of reaching the goal of freedom by merely insisting on her National claims and making them known throughout the world. In this way we can secure a hearing before the Nations when they assemble at the end of the war to re-build civilisation upon its new basis.
It was, in O’Shiel’s unromantic opinion, an “innocuous enough if pathetically hopeful statement, and, as a declaration of policy, extremely vague and shadowy.”
An issue that the petition neglected to touch upon was that of abstentionism. It was a keystone to Sinn Féin’s policy but not one that the rest of the Count’s supporters – the majority of them, in O’Shiel’s estimation – were willing to accept, at least not yet. Plunkett himself had said nothing on the issue, but then, he had said nothing about anything beyond agreeing to stand. Not that anyone seemed overly concerned with clarifying the matter with him. It was a question best left unasked in the meantime for the sake of everyone getting along.
O’Shiel travelled to Roscommon on the 31st January, more on behalf of the Irish Nation League than Sinn Féin. He reached Boyle after an extremely cold and uncomfortable journey, and stayed in the only hotel that was open to a Plunkettite (lodgings, as well as newspapers, could be used as weapons of politics). The next day, he travelled by motorcar to Carrick-on-Shannon, where the Count was due to come by train from Dublin.
This journey was as arduous as the one before, the driver having to occasionally dig a way through the snowdrifts on the road with a shovel. Despite the conditions, O’Shiel was impressed to see the number of people also making their way to the station. Some of these fellow travellers were wearing the newly fashionable colours of green, white and orange in buttonholes, or carrying flags of the same tricolour.
O’Shiel arrived to join the large and enthusiastic crowd that greeted Count Plunkett as he stepped off the train, accompanied by one of his daughters, Seamus O’Doherty and two priests. The crowd was largely a youthful one, which surprised O’Shiel, accustomed as he was to the predominance of the middle-aged and elderly in political meetings. Young women as well as lads were in attendance, an oddity for the times, and indicative of the new feeling that was sweeping the country.
Many of these young attendees were more than just passive observers. Groups of them paraded the streets on a nightly basis, singing such rousing doggerel such as:
Even the disagreeable weather could be utilised as another campaign tool, with the omnipresent snowfall providing a canvass for campaign slogans to be traced then filled in with ash. This created such a stark impression that passers-by could not help but read such exhortations like:
For many patriotically-minded youths, the election was a welcome relief from the listlessness around them. Roscommon had been entirely unprepared for the Rising, and when nothing of note had happened during Easter Week, the county seemed doomed to remain a revolutionary backwater.
Twenty-two year old Patrick Mullooly was sitting by the fire with some friends when someone came in to tell them that Father O’Flanagan was in the local hall at Kiltrustan. They went there to find a guest speaker regaling the audience with tales of the fighting during Easter Week.
When the newcomer was done, O’Flanagan leapt on stage to point at the Banner of St Patrick hanging on the wall. The priest pointed at the rallying cry on the foot of the flag – “Freedom comes from God’s right hand and needs a godly train and righteous men must make our land a Nation Once Again” – and said in a near-shout: “If you do not believe in those words, tear down that banner of St Patrick and trample on it!”
Nothing could have been better calculated to bring about the desired response. As Mullooly remembered it:
This evoked tremendous enthusiasm, everyone springing to their feet and cheering loudly and as the young men went home over the hills that night, you could hear their defiant cheers echoing from hill to hill.
What made such efforts so notable – besides anyone choosing to stay outdoors after dark in such temperatures at all – was that most of these young men would not be able to contribute a vote and women of any age not all. Universal suffrage would not come into effect in Ireland until the following year in the 1918 general election.
Yet still they turned out to help at almost every opportunity. Father O’Flanagan and O’Shiel in particular had reason to be grateful when their motorcar was stuck in a windscreen-high snowdrift and soon dug out by a group of young men at hand from the local Irish Volunteers.
The Irish Volunteers
The role played by the Volunteers was another innovation, though there had been doubt that they would be involved at all. The trade unionist William O’Brien was discussing the state of the country with Arthur Griffith when the subject of the ongoing by-election came up. O’Brien remembered how a vacancy had occurred in the West Cork constituency, near the end of the previous year. The Volunteers there had opposed the running of a Republican candidate, resulting in a win by the IPP. In light of that example, O’Brien told Griffith that he doubted that the Volunteers would be any more accommodating in North Roscommon.
He would be proved wrong. Young men from the Irish Volunteers became a familiar sight during the election. They canvassed voters, collected funds and stood on guard at meetings, not to mention the simple but essential task of shovelling snow off the roads, lest potential voters be blocked from their civic right.
It was not all for the sake of democracy. Electioneering duties also provided a convenient cover for organising the Volunteers in areas that had up to then been neglected. One Volunteer from Longford would remember such work as very much an ad hoc, albeit productive, one, with him travelling through North Roscommon with others in motorcars, arranging meetings and setting up impromptu units whenever they had the chance.
Another worker, Seán Leavy, only joined the Volunteers when he began assisting in the Plunkett campaign. He was inducted in with a minimal of fuss, with no oaths taken or ceremony stood on, just a membership card provided and the duty of organising a company in Leavy’s home parish of Scramogue, Roscommon.
Leavy not only succeeded in Scramogue but helped set up similar companies in Strokestown, Cloonfree, Carnistra, Curraghroe, Tarmonbarry, Kilbrustan and Northyard, as well as smaller units in Slatta, Kilglass and Rooskey. The companies were initially small but they would provide bases from which to work on in the near future.
There is no indication that there was any central leadership in the Volunteers directing operations. Members joined in, as individuals or in groups, as the mood took them, and the mood was a heady one indeed.
The experiences of Michael Staines were not untypical. Freshly released from Frognoch Camp for his part in the Rising, Staines obtained a position in the National Aid Association. As part of this, he toured the country to investigate claims for assistance from the dependants of those killed on the Easter Week, while taking the opportunity to help reorganise Volunteer companies as he found them.
On the suggestion of his friend, Seamus O’Doherty (he of the petition), he dropped by Roscommon to assist in the Plunkett campaign, one of his roles being to meet Michael Judge. Judge was one of the few Volunteers not to side with the Plunkett, instead sharing a platform with his chosen candidate, Jaspar Tully. Staines was tasked with persuading Judge to withdraw from helping Tully any further but such efforts floundered when the other man failed to arrive for their agreed appointment.
He had more success convincing some others, upon a brief return to Dublin, to come and assist in Roscommon. Staines was to be one of the two pro-Plunkett workers in the village of Frenchpark on polling day, the other being a certain Michael Collins. It was the first time the two of them met, making the election, amongst other things, a valuable time to make acquaintances and establish contacts.
Then fire from the Lord came down and burned the sacrifice, the wood, the stones, and the ground around the altar. It also dried up the water in the ditch. When all the people saw this, they fell down to the ground, crying. (1 Kings 18:38-39)
The tallying of the votes began at 10 am on the Saturday of the 3rd February, to be finished by noon and announced to a waiting crowd. Attendance was a heroic feat in itself. Fences along the public roads and through fields were smothered under blankets of snow, and any landmarks that could have provided direction had been covered from sight. On a number of occasions, intrepid travellers who had attempted to bypass the blocked roads by striking out over the fields were almost swallowed up by snow-obscured drains.
Despite such inclement conditions, supporters of both Devine and Plunkett announced themselves confident of success. Tully was more restrained for once, merely expressing the opinion that he had done “very well.” The Freeman’s Journal had already identified the contest as between Devine and the Count, relegating Tully to the status of an irrelevance. On both accounts, the IPP organ would prove prescient.
When it came to deciding the contest, it turned out that the results, as they were read out that Monday, were not even close:
Count George Plunkett – 3,022
Thomas J. Devine – 1,708
Jaspar Tully – 687
It was not so much a win and a loss as a triumph by one and crushing defeats for the others. None could have been more surprised than the winner. For all the fighting talk, no one in the Plunkett camp – other than the irrepressible Father O’Flanagan – had really thought they had a chance of actually winning.
The victor began by proposing a vote of thanks to the election officials for carrying out their duties in a most admirable manner. He was equally gracious to his two opponents, towards which he held no ill will. The election had tested the integrity of Irish democracy. After all, a Dubliner had just been elected by Roscommon men – perfect evidence of the firmness, fairness and justice of the proceedings. As for North Roscommon, if it had been sleeping before, it was awake now at last.
With considerable emotion, the beaten Devine spoke next. He seconded the vote of thanks to the officials. The other candidates and he were on the best of terms, and it was his wish that no bitterness remained. While otherwise a fair loser, Devine did express his view that his side had been handicapped but declined to elaborate.
In keeping with his past conduct, Tully gave the most verbose speech out of the three. Despite finding himself at the bottom of the poll, he professed to be delighted at the result as it meant the defeat of the Party machine, his votes totalling with the Count’s as the voice of North Roscommon defying the IPP.
It is doubtful that Plunkett really needed Tully’s share of the votes in order to send such a message. It might also be marvelled at the ease in which Tully switched from Plunkett as the target of his insults to the stricken IPP, mocking John Redmond, as “weak” and “wretched.”
The Roscommon Herald followed the direction of its owner. Two cartoons printed side by side caricatured the IPP’s mishaps, the first showing the IPP in the form of a crocodile arriving at Roscommon with a Union Jack waving in its tail, the other with the Party as a whimpering dog being given the boot.
The Post-Mortem by the Irish Times
The Irish Times identified the victor’s success as being due to a combination of conscription fears, which Father O’Flanagan had relentlessly played on, and the appeal to people’s sentiments concerning the Rising, which Plunkett undoubtedly had a claim to by his family’s involvement alone.
In contrast, the once-mighty, now flaccid election machine of the IPP could barely compete, particularly when compared to the impassioned speeches and tireless work done by Father O’Flanagan. But he was not the only man of the cloth swayed to new ways, with the Irish Times noting the “curious change in the attitude of the younger clergy.”
While the IPP convention where Devine was nominated had been attended by a large number of priests, these tended to be mature in years. Their younger colleagues, on the other hand, were notable by their absence. Father O’Flanagan’s entry into the Plunkett campaign – at least openly so, for it is clear that the curate was there from the start – was followed by several other clerics of similar age. From there, said the Irish Times with the benefit of hindsight, “it merely became a question of Count Plunkett’s majority.”
In the event of a general election, the Irish Times predicted that the IPP would be “swept out of three-fourths of their seats in rural Ireland.” The newspaper could scarcely hide its horror at such a possibility but felt compelled to state it all the same.
The Post-Mortem by Father O’Flanagan
While at polar opposite ends politically, Father O’Flanagan’s pen-portrait of the election was broadly in agreement with the Irish Times’. Writing a month afterwards in an article for the Catholic Bulletin (no doubt with the encouragement of its editor, J.J. O’Kelly), O’Flanagan told of meeting a six year-old boy as the former was walking down the empty streets of Strokestown one morning. As the priest passed by, the boy looked up from where he was playing in the snow and called out: “Up Plunkett!”
When O’Flanagan asked what the other was doing, the lad replied: “Making graves.”
Pointing to the two little mounds he had made in the snow, he explained: “That’s Tully and that’s Devine.”
When O’Flanagan pointed out that both of those two names were still alive, the boy clarified: “No, but we’re pretending they’re dead,” before turning to resume in his play.
Another anecdote concerned the elderly. One octogenarian refused to avail of the motorcar provided by the Plunkettites to take him to the polling booth. Instead, he waited for a vehicle from the Devine camp as he felt entitled to a trip at the IPP’s expense. As he left the booth, having completed his democratic duty, the old timer finally gave vent with a cheer for Plunkett (and was left to walk back home).
To O’Flanagan, the secret behind the North Roscommon win was a simple but profound one: “The enthusiasm of the young was wonderful, but the enthusiasm of the old was more wonderful still.”
Count George Plunkett
Perhaps the final word should go the Inspector-General of the Royal Irish Constabulary. Trained to follow the happenings throughout the country, the policeman eschewed the lengthy analysis of the Irish Times and the folksy myth-making of Father O’Flanagan. Instead, he kept his report to Dublin Castle short and crisp:
It is reported that Count Plunkett’s supporters appeared to work much harder than those of the other candidates, but one of the principal features of the election is that many persons, including a number of priests, who had not hitherto shown Sinn Fein sympathies, identified themselves on this occasion with the Sinn Feiners.
At the end of the day, the diverse collection of renegades, radicals and revolutionaries who rallied behind the Plunkett banner had wanted to win more than their opponents. In addition, they had been able to convert the ordinary mass of voters to their brand of nationalism, one that seemed fresher and more appetising than the stale, Home Rule-flavoured kind peddled by the Irish Party for so – for too? – long.
There could only have been one result. But, as wonderful as it might have been, the question was now what the victor would do with it. As for the groups who had trudged through the snow on his behalf – Sinn Féin, the Irish Nation League, the Irish Volunteers, even the IRB – the Count had given no indication as to where he stood with any of them.
Did he share their beliefs or follow their ideals? Did he agree with one in particular over the others? Was this win to be a once-off, a protest vote and nothing more? The first of more to come? Did the new MP have a plan or was he just taking things as they came?
All that was known for sure was that Count George Plunkett had lost a son in the Rising and beaten the Irish Party. For now, in the giddy aftermath of the Election of the Snows, that was enough.