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.
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.