A Choice of Green: The South Longford By-Election, May 1917

Vote for McGuinness who is a true Irishman,

Because he loved Eireann and fought in her cause,

And prove to the Party and prove to the world,

That Ireland is sick of her English-made laws.[1]

(Sinn Féin election song)

The Changing of the Guard

It was not the first time that the death of John Phillips had been reported, having been erroneously done so twice before the 2nd April 1917, when the long-standing Member of Parliament (MP) for South Longford, who had been in poor health for some time, breathed his last at the age of seventy-seven. It was the end of an era in more ways than one.

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Longford Leader, 7th April 1917

“During his long career he was one of the staunchest Nationalists in Co. Longford, and in his earlier days he was one of the most vigorous,” reported the Longford Leader. Phillips had been a leading Fenian in the county before choosing, like so many of his revolutionary colleagues, to throw his support behind the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), under the leadership of Charles Stewart Parnell, as a constitutional alternative when the physical force methods of the Fenians appeared to be going nowhere.

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Charles Parnell

During the Parnell Split of 1890, Phillips remained loyal to his leader. It was a choice that placed him in the political minority, a characteristic decision, considering how, throughout the years, Phillips proved willing to put himself at odds with others, as alluded to gently in his obituary:

At times he might have differed from some of the local national leaders, yet there was never at any time one who was not prepared to acknowledge the honest and well meaning intentions of Mr Phillips.

The voters evidently agreed as they elected Phillips, first to the Chairmanship of Longford County Council in 1902, and then as their MP in 1907, a role he held until his demise. It had been an eventful life and a worthy career, but power abhors a vacuum and the question now was who would replace him.

And a fraught question it was, for the upcoming by-election would take place in a very different environment to when Phillips entered the political stage. For one, the electoral franchise had been expanded, ensuring that it now “embraces all classes in the community, and from the highest to the lowest, every man on the voters list will be entitled to cast his vote for the man of his choice.”

This was a heady responsibility indeed and, deeming itself duty-bound to offer a few words of advice, the Longford Leader urged for a spirit of inclusivity:

Let every man whoever he may be, be heard at the coming election with respect and without any stifling of free speech. Let the electors be given an opportunity of hearing to the full the pros and cons of the different arguments put forth by each side…If the electors follow these lines we are quite confident that the election will not be a curse but a blessing to this part of Ireland.[2]

Noble words, but confidence was one thing the newspaper and its political patrons in the Irish Party were lacking. Times had changed and, more than that, the electoral franchise had shifted with it, as the once-almighty IPP found itself under threat from a new and hungry challenger.

“It is announced in Longford that Mr. John MacNeill, who is at present in penal servitude, will be put forward as Sinn Fein candidate for the vacancy,” read the Irish Times, printing in italics the name the IPP least wanted to hear.[3]

‘An Issue Clear and Unequivocal’

None were more conscious of the looming threat to the Irish Party’s hegemony – and, indeed, its survival – than its Chairman.

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John Redmond

“The remarkable and unexpected result of the election in North Roscommon has created a situation in which I feel it my duty to address you in a spirit of grave seriousness and of complete candour,” John Redmond wrote on the 21st February 1917 in what was intended as a letter to the press, to be read by the Party faithful, still reeling from the shocking defeat eighteen days ago on the 3rd February, when Count George Plunkett scored a victory at the aforementioned by-election.[4]

And a crushing victory it was, with the dark horse candidate trouncing his IPP opponent by 3,022 votes to 1,708, more than twice as much. As if to rub salt into the wound, Plunkett had promptly declared his intent to abstain from taking his seat in Westminster, an antithesis to the strategy the Irish Party had long pursued towards its Home Rule goal since Parnell. This announcement of the Count’s had come as a surprise to many in his constituency, as their new MP had said little during his campaign, having not even been present in Roscommon until two days before polling.

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Anti-IPP cartoon, in the wake of its Roscommon defeat, from the Roscommon Herald, 10th February 1917

He had been in England for the most part, exiled there by the British authorities on suspicion of his role in the Easter Rising, ten months ago. Such punishment had been mild compared to that of his son’s, Joseph Plunkett, executed by firing squad, and it was seemingly as much due to empathy for a father’s loss as anything political that the Count succeeded like he did.[5]

Which raised a question Redmond felt compelled to ask.

“If the North Roscommon election may be regarded as a freak election, due to a wave of emotion or sympathy or momentary passion,” he wrote, “then it may be disregarded, and the Irish people can repair the damage it has already done to the Home Rule movement. If, however –” and it was a big ‘if’ – “it is an indication of a change of principle and policy on the part of a considerable mass of the Irish people, then an issue clear and unequivocal, supreme and vital, has been raised.”

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Anti-IPP cartoon from the Roscommon Herald, 10th February 1917

On the Defence

What followed in the letter was a brief rumination on recent history, from the start of the Home Rule movement in 1873 to its recent acceptance by Westminster in 1914. With the promised gains of a self-governing Ireland, free from the diktats of Dublin Castle:

It is nonsense to speak of such an Act as this as worthless. Its enactment by a large majority of British representatives has been the crowning triumph of forty years of patient labour.

True, Home Rule hung in suspension, not yet in effect, but only, Redmond assured his readers, until the end of the current war in Europe. And yes, there remained the ‘Ulster question’, with truculent Unionists threatening partition, but Redmond was confident that this would be “quite capable of solution without either coercion or exclusion.”

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Anti-Home Rule postcard

What otherwise was the alternative? If physical force methods were to take the place of constitutional ones, and withdrawal from Westminster adopted in support of complete separation, the consequences would be:

Apart from inevitable anarchy in Ireland itself, not merely the hopeless alienation of every friend of Ireland in every British party, but leaving the settlement of every Irish question…in the hands of Irish Unionist members in the Imperial Parliament.

Whether the electorate cared about such details, however, was yet to be answered. Redmond was honest enough to admit the central weakness of his party, namely that it had been around for so long, with the resulting “monotony of being served for 20, 25, 30, 35 or 40 years by the same men in Parliament.”

If so, Redmond was prepared to make capitulation into a point of principle, as he closed his letter with the following proclamation: “Let the Irish people replace us, by all means, by other and, I hope, better men, if they so choose.”[6]

It was probably because of this depressing note on which it ended, reminiscent of a disgraced Roman about to enter a warm bath and open his veins, that three of Redmond’s colleagues – John Dillon, Joe Devlin and T.P. O’Connor – met to dissuade their leader from publishing the missive. Redmond could wallow in all the gloom and doom he liked, but the Irish Party was not yet done and its adherents, as was to be shown in South Longford, remained ready to slug it out to the bitter end with the Sinn Féin challenger.[7]

Teething Troubles

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Arthur Griffith

Flush with success following the Roscommon breakthrough, the victors were nonetheless going through their own bout of second-guessing each other. As president, Arthur Griffith, had summoned the Sinn Féin Executive, co-opting a few more members, but “no one seemed to know what to do,” recalled Michael Lennon, one of the new Executive inductees. “Sinn Féin had three or four hundred pounds in the bank but organisation there was none.” Instead, “things political were somewhat chaotic just now.”

Compounding problems was the same man who had achieved their first victory. While Plunkett was happy to use the Sinn Féin name for his Roscommon campaign, he evidently did not consider himself beholden to the party, as he was soon busy setting up a network of his own, as Lennon described:

Count Plunkett and his friends were organising a Liberty League with Liberty Clubs, but this was being done without any reference to Sinn Féin or to Mr. Griffith, then probably the best-known man out of gaol.

Griffith had the brand recognition but not the political muscle, nor did his powerbase: “It is now abundantly clear that at this stage the founder of the Sinn Féin movement had a large but scattered following.”

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Arthur Griffith’s treatise for Irish indepedence

Worse, the ardent republicans who were flocking to the Sinn Féin banner had little time for the Sinn Féin president. His proposed model for Irish self-rule, a ‘dual-monarchy’ akin to the Austria-Hungarian one, married to a return of the 1782 Constitution between Westminster and Ireland, ensued that he was seen as only another compromiser in their eyes, and they did not bother hiding how they regarded:

…Mr. Griffith with unconcealed contempt and aversion, referring to him and his friends as the “1782 Hungarians,” a clownish witticism at the expense of a policy which, at least, ensured a practical method of securing Ireland’s recognition as a sovereign state from England.

Even though some time had passed when he put pen to paper, Lennon burned with the injustice of it all.[8]

The Plunkett Convention

Still, the two leaders were able to keep their growing rivalry out of public view – that is, until the 19th April 1917, when delegates from the various Sinn Féin branches throughout the country – accompanied by representatives from the Irish Volunteers, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Cumann na mBan and the Labour Party – gathered inside the Mansion House, Dublin. The large clerical presence was also noted, as were, according to the Irish Independent, “many ladies and gentlemen well-known in literary and artistic circles.”[9]

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The Mansion House, Dublin

They had all come in response to an open invitation by Plunkett, who, fittingly enough, presided over the assembly as the Chair. He was soon to make clear just how seriously he took his authority.

“The meeting was like all political meetings of Irishmen,” wrote Lennon witheringly:

In the early stages there were pious utterances about freedom and the martyred dead, all present cheering and standing. Then, after the platitudes had been exchanged, sleeves were tucked up.[10]

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Count Plunkett

Onstage, in full view of the attendees, Count Plunkett locked horns with Griffith. The main point of contention was how and in what shape the new movement was to proceed, with the latter favouring an alliance of like-minded groups under the umbrella-name of Sinn Féin, against the Count’s preference to start anew in the form of his Liberty Clubs.

On the question of abstentionism, Plunkett was adamant – on no account would they send any more Irish representatives to Westminster, a point on which Griffith was apparently less dogmatic, to judge from his silence over it. As the tensions mounted, Griffith took Plunkett aside – and then announced to a shocked audience that the other man had denied him permission to speak.[11] 

“Callous and Disdainful”

Lennon could not but cringe as he remembered how:

There was something of a scene, dozens rushing to the platform and everyone saying that the leaders must unite…The scene was most discouraging, and I think the delegates who had come from the country were rather disappointed at the obvious division among prominent people in Dublin.[12]

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Father Michael O’Flanagan

With the movement teetering on a split barely after its inception, Father Michael O’Flanagan stepped in. The priest had played a leading role in Plunkett’s election in Roscommon, where he had distinguished himself as a speaker and organiser. Such talents had earned him the respect of everyone involved, making him ideally suited to play the role of peacemaker. After a quiet word between him and Griffith, it was agreed that a committee be formed, consisting of supporters of both Griffith’s and Plunkett’s, including delegates from the Labour movement.

With this ‘Mansion House Committee’ serving as a venue for both factions to each have their say, Sinn Féin would continue organising about the country, as did Plunkett’s Liberty Clubs. It was not an ideal solution, more akin to papering over the cracks than filling them in, but it allowed the convention to end in a reasonably dignified manner.

Besides, there was still the common enemy to focus on. Before the convention drew to a close, Griffith read out an extract from a letter by Sir Francis Vane, who had exposed the murder of civilians by British soldiers during Easter Week. Vane met with Redmond in the House of Commons on the 2nd May 1916, before the executions of the Rising leaders took place. Redmond, Vane believed, could have used his influence to save their lives, and yet did not. Instead, his manner, Vane wrote, had been “callous and disdainful.”

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Sir Francis Vane

Griffith let that sink in. “This man,” he said, twisting the knife, “should be smashed.”[13]

The Most Important Thing

Afterwards, Griffith and a few others withdrew to the front drawing-room of 6 Harcourt Street, where Sinn Féin had its offices. Father O’Flanagan was reading out a poem he had written for use at the Longford election when the door was thrown open and a pair of men strode in, one strongly-built, the other frail and sickly. It was Michael Collins and Rory O’Connor, two of the strident young republicans from Count Plunkett’s hard-line faction. As was to be typical of him, Collins took the lead in speaking.

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The Sinn Féin offices at 6 Harcourt Street, Dublin

“I want to know what ticket is this Longford election being fought on,” he demanded as soon as he caught sight of Griffith, seated in the middle of the room. Griffith was unperturbed as he smoked his cigarette, but whatever answer he gave – Lennon could not remember the specifics – only infuriated Collins.

“If you don’t fight the election on the Republican ticket,” he thundered, “you will alienate all the young men.”

Lennon, for one, was taken by surprise:

This was likewise the first time I heard anyone urge the adoption of Republicanism in its open form as part of our political creed. Mr. Griffith remained silent and composed. Mr [Pierce] McCann suddenly intervened by asking: “Isn’t the most important thing to win the election?”

Collins treated this as the foulest of heresies. The Roscommon election had been conducted under the Republican flag, he railed, and so the same must be done in Longford. Having played the diplomat before, Father O’Flanagan tried again:

He said that although the tricolour was used at Roscommon, the idea of an independent Republic was not emphasised to the electors, and that the people had voted rather for the father of a son who had been executed.

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Michael Collins

With neither side giving away, the argument cooled somewhat, enough for Collins, his piece thus said, to withdraw with a wordless O’Connor to a nearby table, where they counted out the donations from the Convention. But the question was not yet settled, with neither Collins nor Plunkett appearing the type to let it drop.

“It was difficult to work in harmony,” Lennon wrote with feeling.[14]

Choosing

Among the many remaining matters to resolve, the most pertinent for Sinn Féin was who was to be its candidate in South Longford – or, indeed, if there was to be one at all. The Irish Times had first announced Eoin MacNeill, the imprisoned Chief of Staff of the Irish Volunteers, but his controversial decision to cancel the 1916 Rising at the last minute, leading to a clash of orders and general confusion, made him too controversial a choice within the revolutionary movement.

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William O’Brien

At a meeting with Count Plunkett, Michael Collins, Rory O’Connor and the trade unionist William O’Brien, Griffith proposed J.J. O’Kelly, the writer and editor, better known by his pen-name ‘Sceilg’. South Longford would be a harder nut to crack than North Roscommon, Griffith warned, being an IPP bastion as well as a generous contributor of recruits to the British Army. O’Kelly’s role as editor to the Catholic Bulletin, a journal sympathetic to their cause, should at least be a start in countering these disadvantages.[15]

The others disagreed, preferring that a prisoner from the Rising should be their man, and so they settled on Joe McGuinness, a man otherwise unknown to the public. The decision made, Sinn Féin moved swiftly, and the Irish Times reported on how, less than a week after John Phillips’ death:

At a conference of Sinn Fein representatives in Longford on Saturday [7th April], Mr. Joseph McGuinness, a draper in Dublin, who is now undergoing three years’ imprisonment in connection with last year’s rebellion in Dublin, was selected as their candidate in South Longford.[16]

However, it seemed that the said representatives had neglected to inform McGuinness of his nomination before making it public. A couple of days later, the selection committee was called together again with the news that the inmates in Lewes Prison, England, where McGuinness was housed, had decided that none of them would stand in any election.

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Joe McGuinness

Objections

As O’Brien recalled: “We were very disconcerted at this announcement.” Their grand scheme to dethrone the IPP and revise the game-plan for Irish freedom looked in danger of being stopped in its tracks. In response, the committee sent an emissary over to Lewes to contact McGuinness through the prison chaplain:

Michael Staines was selected for this job and it was subsequently learned that the statement was correct but when our message reached McGuinness the matter was re-discussed and it was decided to leave each prisoner free to accept or reject any invitation he might receive to contest a parliamentary constituency, and so we went ahead with McGuinness as candidate.[17]

Further details on the controversy were provided in later years by Dan MacCarthy, a 1916 participant who had been sent out to Longford to help manage the Sinn Féin campaign, setting up base in the Longford Arms Hotel. Initial impressions were not encouraging – they had no funds and little in the way of organisation but, after forming an election committee of his own, including the candidate’s brother, Frank, and his niece, and hiring a few cars, they were able to drive through the area, setting up further committees of supporters as they did so to help shoulder the workload.

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The Longford Arms Hotel today

In a taste of the ferocity to come, they were attacked in Longford town after returning from a meeting by a crowd consisting mostly of women. There was no love lost between Sinn Féin and the dependents of Irishmen serving abroad in the British Army, or ‘separation women’ as these wives were dubbed, and a member of MacCarthy’s party needed stitches after being struck on the head with a bottle.

Secrets Kept

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Dan MacCarthy

At least Sinn Féin had the advantage of having the one candidate to promote. The Irish Party, on the other hand, wasted precious time vacillating between three prospective names. “I think that this was responsible for our eventual success,” MacCarthy mused.

He was hard at work when Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith arrived unexpectedly to see him, bringing the unwelcome news that a letter had come in from McGuinness, demanding that his name be withdrawn:

Collins and Griffith added that they had not mentioned this to anybody in Dublin and that I was the first to know of it. I said: “What are you going to do?” and they said they were going on with it for the reason that a man in gaol could not know what the position was like outside.

Still, it was not a secret that could be kept forever. MacCarthy, acutely aware of the damage this sort of publicity could do, suggested that they find themselves a printer they could rely on to keep quiet. As they did not know of any in Longford, MacCarthy decided that they should go outside the county, to Roscommon, and meet Jaspar Tully, a local bigwig who owned, among other things, a printing press for his newspaper, the Roscommon Herald.

Tully was not the most obvious of allies, for he had run as the third candidate in the North Roscommon election against Plunkett but, while he was not of Sinn Féin, he loathed the IPP, and that was enough. MacCarthy, Collins and Griffith wrote up a handbill, explaining the Sinn Féin position should McGuinness’ decline become public knowledge, and had 50,000 copies printed in Roscommon in readiness.

MacCarthy’s instinct for who to trust had proved correct:

The secrets of this handbill was well kept by Jaspar Tully and his two printers. Although they worked all night on it and knew precisely what its contents were, they disclosed nothing.

As it turned out, the handbill was not needed. MacCarthy learnt that the Lewes prisoners had had a rethink and, while the majority remained convinced that parliamentary procedure was not for them, a significant minority decided to trust their comrades at liberty – significant enough, in any case, for McGuinness to keep his name on the ballot and allow Sinn Féin to proceed with its campaign. MacCarthy and his colleagues could breathe a sigh of relief.[18]

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Sinn Féin election poster, showing Joe McGuinness

‘A Most Deplorable Tangle’

The Irish Party, meanwhile, were showing themselves to be far less adroit at hiding their disarray. Redmond was suffering from eczema – an apt metaphor for the state of his party – when he received a letter from John Dillon, the MP for East Mayo. Writing on the 12th April, Dillon warned him that “the Longford election is a most deplorable tangle.”

And no wonder, given that they had yet to decide on the most important question: “All our reports go to show that if we could concentrate on one candidate we could beat Sinn Fein by an overwhelming majority.”

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Joseph Mary Flood (in the robes of a barrister)

Instead of one contender to rally behind, the Parliamentary Party was split between three competing ones: Patrick McKenna, Joseph Mary Flood and Hugh Garrahan.

Meanwhile, “the Sinn Feiners are pouring into the constituency and are extremely active, and we of course can do nothing.” For Dillon, the whole mess “most forcibly illustrates the absolute necessity of constructing without delay some more effective machinery for selecting Party candidates.”[19]

Which was an extraordinary statement. Dillon was speaking as if he and his Chairman were complete greenhorns entering politics for the first time. The Longford Leader bemoaned the “lassitude and indifference which has led to the decline of the Irish National Organization” in the county. Had the IPP adherents listened to the advice of J.P. Farrell, the MP for North Longford – not to mention the newspaper’s proprietor – and held a national convention to settle the question of the candidacy, it could have:

…defied any ring or caucus or enemy to defeat them. Now they are faced with not one but many different claimants between whom it is impossible to say who will be the successful one.

If the matter was not solved, and soon, the Longford Leader warned, then the election might very well result in a Sinn Féin win. If so:

It will be further evidence for use by our enemies of the destruction of the Constitutional Movement and the substitution of rebellion as the National policy. And yet we do not believe that any sane Irishman, and least of all the South Longford Irishmen, are in favour of such a mad course.[20]

Not that the Irish Party could take such sanity for granted. Acutely aware of the growing peril, its leaders scrambled for a solution. On the 13th April, Dillon wrote to Redmond about a talk he had had with Joe Devlin, their MP for Belfast West: “We discussed your suggestion about getting the three candidates to meet.”

Dillon was also wondered whether it would be worthwhile to send someone to meet the Most Rev. Dr Joseph Hoare, the Bishop of Ardagh, though the lukewarm Church support received so far enraged Dillon. “The blame of defeat of the constitutional cause will lie on to the Bishops and priests who split the Nationalist vote,” he fumed.

A Decision Made

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Patrick McKenna

It says much about the level of lethargy the IPP had sunk to that it was not until the 21st April, more than a week since his last letter, that Dillon could inform Redmond that McKenna, Flood and Garrahan had agreed to stand down and leave the selection process in the Chairman’s hands.[21]

Four days later, Redmond was able to write to Dr Hoare that McKenna had been picked to run as the IPP’s sole candidate. In contrast to Dillon’s choice words about workshy clergy, Redmond took care to thank the Bishop profusely

I need scarcely say how grateful I am to your Lordship for your action in this matter…another added to the many services which you have given to the Irish Cause, and the Party and the Movement will be forever grateful.

The Bishop of Ardagh was similarly appreciative in his own letter the day after: “We will all now obey your ruling, and strive for Mr. McKenna. I hope we shall reverse the decision of Roscommon.”

Conscious of the fragility of both Redmond and the party he led, Dr Hoare added: “I hope you will soon be restored to perfect health, and that your policy and Party will remain, after the Physical Force had been tried and found wanting.”[22]

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Dr Joseph Hoare, Bishop of Ardagh

The Bishop added his public backing to the private support on the 4th May, when he signed McKenna’s papers inside the Longford courthouse. Elsewhere in South Longford that day, at Lanesborough and Ballymahon, some men who were putting up posters for McKenna were pelted with stones and bottles by a crowd and their work torn down.

Tricoloured ‘rebel’ flags could be seen flying from trees, windows and chimneys all over the contested constituency, save for the town of Longford. But even there held no sanctuary for the IPP, as one of its supporters, John Joseph Dempsey, was put in critical condition from a blow to the head, delivered in public on the main street.[23]

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Sinn Féin postcard

Escalation

Despite such incidents, the Irish Times believed that the election so far had been “rather tame.” That changed with the arrival, on the 5th May, of four MPs: John Dillon and Joe Devlin for the IPP, as well as Count Plunkett and Laurence Ginnell on behalf of Sinn Féin, at the same time and at the same station. Rival crowds had gathered to greet their respective champions but, despite some confusion on the platform, the two factions were able to withdraw to their separate hotels in an orderly manner.

This lull did not last long. Later that day, as speeches were being delivered in front of the hotel that served as the IPP headquarters, a pair of motor cars drove towards the audience, the tricolours fluttering from the vehicles marking their occupants as Sinn Féiners. The crowd parted to allow through the first car, possibly out of chivalrous deference to its female passengers, but the second vehicle was mobbed as it tried to follow, with the loss of one of its tricolours, torn away before the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) could intervene and prevent worse.

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Men of the Royal Irish Constabulary

By the next day, the 6th May, the Irish Times had found that:

Longford was crowded with partisans, who seem to have flocked to their separate standards from all parts of Ireland…The flags of the rival parties are displayed at every turn, and incessant party cries become grating to the ear. Nothing is being left undone by either side to further its prospects.

The newspaper judged Sinn Féin to be the superior in terms of organisation, with more speakers at hand than needed and a fleet of motor cars at their disposal. But the IPP appeared to be making some overdue headway, particularly in Longford town, where Dillon and Devlin were due to speak.

A procession of their supporters were preparing to set off for the rally when a line of cars, bedecked with green, orange and white flags, drove into view. As before, a rush was made by the crowd to seize the offending tricolours, and a melee ensued as the passengers fought back. Sticks were wielded and stones thrown, until the RIC again came to the rescue and forced a passage through the press of bodies for the vehicles to motor past.

Order had been restored – until, that is, the IPP procession, en route to hear Dillon and Devlin, again encountered the same Sinn Féin convoy, and another scrum unfolded in the street.[24]

Choices

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Kevin O’Shiel

“The opposition was particularly strong in Longford town,” remembered Kevin O’Shiel, a Tyrone-born solicitor and Sinn Féin activist. “Indeed, it was quite dangerous for any of us to go through the streets sporting our colours.” There, and in the other towns of the county, the IPP could finally flex its muscles again, with rallies that “were larger and more enthusiastic than ours, all colourful with Union Jacks and flags.”[25]

At one such event, on the 7th May, Dillon took the stage in the market square of Longford town to make the case for the constitutional movement. The issue was now clear, he said. In North Roscommon, there had been no such clarity. The electors there had voted for Count Plunkett out of sympathy for the hardships the old gentleman had endured by the loss of his son and his own exile. No political case had been made by the Count’s supporters, not even a warning that he would refuse to take his seat at Westminster.

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John Dillon

But now, in contrast, South Longford was faced with a clear choice: to continue the pursuit of Home Rule, and the connection with Great Britain that it entailed, or abandon that in favour of complete separation in the form of an Irish Republic.

The latter policy was nothing novel. Others had previously tried to force it on Parnell, heaping on him the exact same abuse now levelled at Redmond: he was a traitor, he was a sell-out, a tool of British imperialism and so on. Yet, as history showed, the alternative to the slow-but-steady approach produced only disaster:

If the constitutional party were driven from the battle, and the counties were to adopt the program of Sinn Fein and the Republican Party, it could only have one result in the long run – an insurrection far more widespread and bloody than the rising of last year, followed by a long period of helplessness and brutal Orange ascendancy, such as followed 1798 and 1848.

Contrary to what was being said in regards to the Rising, the Irish Party had not been negligent, continued Dillon. There were thirty men now alive thanks to the efforts their MPs had made in saving them from a firing-squad. While sixty others languished in penal servitude, there would have been over three hundred in such a plight, including the prisoners freed from Frongoch five months ago, had it not been for the IPP:

The party did not look for gratitude, nor expect it, for their action in these matters, but solid facts could not be dislodged by lies, no matter how violently their opponents screamed.

Joe Devlin was up next. Echoing his colleague, the MP for Belfast West posed his audience two stark choices: the Constitutional movement or armed rebellion, with no halfway house possible. The former had brought Ireland to the brink of self-rule through bloodless means. Were they to cast that aside in favour of a violent gamble for an impossible end? Ireland had had enough of war, Devlin said. It wanted peace.[26]

Joe Devlin

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Joe Devlin

At least one foe in the crowd was impressed. “Joe was an extremely eloquent speaker with an extraordinary emotional ring in his penetrating tenor voice,” Kevin O’Shiel recalled, “which his sharp Belfast accent accentuated, particularly to southerner ears.”

The Ulsterman was also willing to role his sleeves up in a fight. Reaching into his bag of oratorical tricks, he waved a large green banner, adorned with the national symbol of a harp in gold, declaring:

Here is the good old green flag of Ireland, the flag that many a heroic Irishman died under; the flag of Wolfe Tone, of Robert Emmet, of Thomas Davis; aye, and the flag of the great Charles Stewart Parnell.

As his audience applauded, Devlin moved in for the rhetorical kill:

Look at it, men and women, it has no yellow streak in it, nor no white streak. What was good enough for Emmet, Davis and Parnell is good enough for us. Long may it fly over Ireland![27]

Devlin clearly did not intend to leave the ‘green card’ entirely for the challenger’s use. He and Dillon departed from Longford on the following day, the 8th May, the latter needed for his parliamentary duties in Westminster. He was confident enough to write to Redmond, proclaiming how:

Our visit to Longford was a very great success [emphasis in text]. So far as the town and rural district of Longford goes, we are in full possession. Our organizers are very confident of a good majority.

Nonetheless, he signed off on a jarringly worrisome note: “If in the face of that we are beaten, I do not see how you can hope to hold the Party in existence.” The use of ‘you’ as the pronoun hinted at how Dillon, a consummate politician, was already shifting any future blame on to someone else.[28]

Fighting Flags

Devlin was not the only IPP speaker to distinguish himself with turns of phrase and a willingness to make an issue out of flags. “Rally to the old flag,” the MP for North Longford, J.P. Farrell, urged his listeners. “Ours is the old green flag of Ireland, with the harp without the crown on it. There is no white in our flag, nor no yellow streak.”

Another slingshot of his was: “Don’t be mad enough to swallow this harum scarum, indigestible mess of pottage called Sinn Féin. You will be bound soon after to have a very sick stomach, and jolly well serve you right.”[29]

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J.P. Farell, MP

Another Member of Parliament – Tommy Lundon of East Limerick, O’Shiel thought, though he was not sure by the time he put pen to paper for his memoirs – went further when he proclaimed how the tricoloured flags the opposition were so fond of waving had, upon inspection, revealed themselves to have been made in Manchester.

“There’s Sinn Féin principles for you,” he crowed.[30]

The other side, meanwhile, were giving as good as they got. When a number of Irish Party MPs and their supporters arrived in Longford by train, they were met at the station by a crowd of children carrying Union Jacks.

To their excruciating embarrassment, in an election where the definition of Irishness was as much at stake as a parliamentary seat, the newcomers had to march through town accompanied by a host of the worst possible colours to have in Ireland at that time. The culprit was a Sinn Féin partisan who had bought the Union Jacks in bulk and handed them out to whatever children he could find, the young recipients being delighted at the new toy to wave.

“The Sinn Féin election committee was not responsible, but the IPP did not know that and they were very angry,” according to one Sinn Féin canvasser, Laurence Nugent. It was a low trick but Nugent was unsympathetic. “But why should they [be]? It was their emblem. They had deserted all others.”

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Sinn Féin postcard

It was a point Nugent was more than happy to press. When John T. Donovan, the MP for West Wicklow, was on a platform speaking, Nugent called out from the crowd, asking whether Donovan would admit that Redmond had sent him a telegram on the Easter Week of the year before, with orders to call out the National Volunteers to assist the British Army in putting down the Rising.

When a flummoxed Donovan made no reply, not even a denial, there were shouts of ‘Then it’s true’ from the onlookers. Nugent could walk away with the feeling of a job well done.[31]

‘Clean Manhood and Womanhood’

laurence_ginnell
Laurence Ginnell

The scab of 1916 was further picked at by Laurence Ginnell, the maverick MP for North Westmeath who had thrown himself into the new movement. Speaking at Newtownforbes – an audacious choice of venue, considering that it was McKenna’s hometown – on the same day as Dillon and Devlin, the 8th May, Ginnell repeated the allegation that the IPP representatives had cheered in the House of Commons upon hearing of the executions of Rising rebels.

While not saying anything quite as inflammatory, his partner, Count Plunkett, likewise wrapped himself in the mantle of Easter Week. “I would not be here today,” he told his listeners. “If I thought the people of South Longford had anything of the slave in them. To prove they are not slaves, let them go and vote for the man who faced death for them.”

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Countess Plunkett

Other Sinn Féin speakers there included his wife, Countess Plunkett, and Kathleen Clarke, widow of the 1916 martyr. They returned to Longford town in a convoy of thirty, tricolour-decked cars, cheered at different points along the way – that is, until they reached the main street, where a different sort of welcome had gathered. ‘Separation women’, armed with sticks, rushed the cars, singling out the one with the Count and Countess Plunkett, and Ginnell, on board, while pelting the Sinn Féiners with stones, one of which struck the Countess in the mouth, while their chauffeur was badly beaten.

Throughout South Longford, the RIC found itself frequently called upon to step in and prevent such brawls from escalating. Other notable victims of the violence raging through the constituency were the visiting Chairman of the Roscommon Town Commissioners, and Daniel Garrahan, uncle to one of the original IPP candidates, who was held up in his trap and pony, and assaulted.[32]

“Party fighting for their lives with porter and stones,” Ginnell wrote to his wife in a telegram. But he was undeterred. “Clean manhood and womanhood will prevail.”

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Sinn Féin election poster, depicting McKenna’s ‘separation women’ supporters as drunken and deranged

Ginnell received a telegram of his own from the Sinn Féin election committee, on the 8th May, warning him that an attack had been planned for when he left his accommodation. “In the circumstances we would suggest that it might be best not to leave the hotel this evening.”[33]

Not all encounters were violent. Patrick McCartan, a Sinn Féin canvassers, was able to observe a range of reactions:

Some of them were friendly. Some of them just told you bluntly that they were going to vote for McKenna. I remember a woman who was a staunch supporter of McKenna. Her husband was not in, but she knew McKenna and McKenna was a decent man, and they were going to vote for him and that was all about it.

Nonetheless, McCartan and the woman were able to part on good terms. As they shook hands, he asked her to pray for the freedom of Ireland. “God’s sake!” she exclaimed. “Ye may be right after all!”[34]

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Patrick McCartan

‘A Powerful Hold’

Amidst the noise and turmoil, the loyalties of two distinct demographics could be seen.

At the forefront of pro-McKenna crowds were the ‘separation women’. Their choice of Union Jacks for flags to wave was probably not appreciated by the Irish Party, but there was no doubting the women’s zest. An Australian soldier on leave found himself the centre of attention from a harem of admiring females, one of whom threw her arms around his neck and called: “May God mind and keep you. It’s you who are the real and true men.”[35]

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Children with both tricolours and a Union Jack during the Longford election

On the other side, the young men of the constituency were standing with Sinn Féin, prompting the Irish Times to marvel at how:

The more closely one gets in touch with the situation in South Longford the more one is convinced that Sinn Féin has a powerful hold on the youth of the country. Whether the real import of its doctrine is understood is not clear. Indeed, the youthful mind is not inclined to bother about ascertaining it.

If every Longford youth had a vote, so the Irish Times believed, then Sinn Féin would win without a doubt. The generation divide had even entered family households, where it was reported that sons were refusing to help with farm work, and daughters striking on domestic duties, without first a promise from their fathers to cast a vote for McGuinness.

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Sinn Féin postcard

In some families, however, such bolshiness was not necessary, as Sinn Féin activists skilfully played on the fear of conscription, with warnings that every young man in the country would be called up for the British Army unless their candidate was elected. “This threat seems to be having its desired effect in remote rural districts, where farmers, apprehensive for their sons, will vote for Mr McGuinness.”

Not that the fight was finished. Thankfully for the Irish Party, sniffed the Irish Times, “youthful fervour does not count for much at the polling booths.”

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Sinn Féin activists during the Longford election

Assisted by veteran campaigners, including MPs, the Parliamentary Party was working hard to make up for the slow start and the other side’s zeal, and could already claim the majority of votes in Longford town. The question now was whether this would be enough to offset the rural votes, the bulk of which were earmarked for McGuinness as shown by the number of tricolours festooning the branches of trees.[36]

South Longford was on a knife-edge, poised to tilt either way for McKenna or McGuinness – just the time for a dramatic intervention in the form of not one, but two, letters from the country’s highest spiritual authorities.

Episcopal Intervention

The first was an ecumenical piece, signed by eighteen Catholic bishops and three Protestant prelates. Topping the list of signatures was Cardinal Michael Logue, Primate of All Ireland, with Archbishop William Walsh of Dublin, Primate of Ireland, directly following, in a reflection of their place in the hierarchy of the Irish Catholic Church.

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Cardinal Michael Logue (standing) with other Catholic clergy

“Fellow countrymen,” the letter began:

As there has been no organised effort to elicit the expressions of Irish opinion regarding the dismemberment of our country, and it may be said that the authoritative voice of the Nation has not yet been heard on this question, which is one of supreme importance.

The dismemberment in question meant the proposed Partition of Ulster, specifically the six counties in the North-East corner with prominent Unionist populations, from the rest of Ireland. In the absence of any such organised efforts, the Princes of the Catholic Church and their Protestant allies moved to fill the leadership vacuum:

Our requisition needs no urging. An appeal to the Nationalist conscience on the question of Ireland’s dismemberment should meet with one answer, and one answer alone. To Irishmen of every creed and class and party, the very thought of our country partitioned and torn as a new Poland must be one of heart-rending sorrow. [37]

No reference was made to any particular political group. Yet no reader could have thought it anything but a criticism of the Irish Party, on whose watch in Westminster this Polandification was threatening to happen. Archbishop Walsh went further with a letter of his own, published in conjunction with that of his fellow clergymen:

Dear Sir,

The question may, perhaps, be asked, why a number of us, Irish Bishops, Catholic and Protestant, have thought it worth our while to sign a protest against the partition of Ireland. Has not that miserable policy, condemned as it has been by the unanimous voice of Nationalist Ireland been removed, months ago, from the sphere of practical politics?

Nothing of the kind. Anyone who thinks that partition, whether in its naked deformity, or under the transparent mask of “county opinion,” does not hold a leading place in the practical policies of to-day, is simply living in a fool’s paradise.

As a final sting, Dr Walsh added in a postscript:

I am fairly satisfied that the mischief has already been done, and that the country is practically sold.[38]

Practically sold? Again, no names were cited, but they did not have to be, and the Fourth Estate quickly picked up the cue. “The venerated Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Walsh, has sent out a trumpet call against the treachery that the so-called Irish Party are planning against Ireland,” thundered the Midland Reporter.

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Dr William Walsh, Archbishop of Dublin

Those newspapers allied to John Redmond scrambled to respond, with the Freeman’s Journal taking the time to deny in a lengthy rebuttal the accusation that its patrons had ever thought of being acquiescent to a national carve-up. Which was only further proof of guilt, according to the Northern Whig: “As is evident from the troubled and rather incoherent comments of their official organ, the Redmondite leadership were as ready to partition now as they were last June.”[39]

‘Between Two Devils and the Deep Sea’

While most other news outlets did not venture quite that far, they were still in full agreement: Archbishop Walsh was the hero of the hour, Partition was a dead issue, and so was Home Rule if it fell short of anything but an intact Ireland. If His Grace was the instrument of this reversal, then the Irish Independent had been his mouthpiece in its publication of his letter.

mrtpoconnor
T.P. O’Connor

The hostility of the newspaper was well-known to the IPP leadership. “Between the Sinn Fein, the anti-exclusionists of Ulster, and the Independent,” complained Dillon in a letter to T.P. O’Connor on the 19th August 1916, “we are between two devils and the deep sea [emphasis in text].”[40]

He and his colleagues might have brooded on the bitter irony of how the spectre of Partition was being used as a rod to beat them with; after all, they had lobbied as best they could in Westminster to prevent such a possibility. “Do settle the Irish question – you are strong enough,” Willie Redmond, brother of John, had urged the Prime Minister in a letter on the 4th March 1917:

Give the Ulster men proportional and full representation and they cannot complain. If there is no settlement there will be nothing but disaster all round for all.[41]

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David Llyod George

But David Lloyd George could not be budged into overriding the Orange veto. “There is nothing I would like better to be the instrument for settling the Irish question,” he told Willie silkily, two days later. “But you know just as well as I do what the difficulty is in settling the Irish question.”[42]

And that was that. Two months later, Nationalist Ireland was closing ranks against its former standard bearer, leaving the Irish Parliamentary Party out in the cold, while its challenger swooped in for the kill. A printing press in Athlone was used to publish the Archbishop’s damning words in pamphlet form, while Sinn Féin activists gleefully bought up every newspaper copy they could find with the letter, some bringing bundles of them from as far as Dublin, ready to be handed out in Longford on the morning of the 9th May – polling day.[43]

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Electoral pamphlet with Archbishop Walsh’s letter, issued by Sinn Féin

Final Judgement

The Irish Party could at least take solace in how it had not been completely deserted by the ecclesiastical powers, as Bishop Hoare entered the Longford Courthouse to cast his vote for McKenna. Cheers greeted His Grace’s arrival, though that might have been deference for a man of the cloth rather than support for his political stance, as there was further acclaim when a man called for applause for Archbishop Walsh.

As the polls closed at 8 pm, spokesmen for Sinn Féin anticipated a win by three hundred votes. More demurely, those for the IPP predicted a small minority for McKenna.[44]

In private, Dan MacCarthy had discussed the probabilities with Griffith. Whether a victory or loss, MacCarthy estimated it would be by a margin of twenty votes. Either way, it was going to be close.[45]

35265481_1292738137523017_4673116579179790336_nOn the 10th May, MacCarthy watched as the ballots were collected inside the Courthouse to be counted by the Sub-Sheriff’s men. The one assigned to McKenna’s papers started by separating them into bundles of fifties but, when that seemed inadequate to the sheer volume before him, he switched to the system the McGuinness counter was using and piled them by their hundreds.

The high turnout was testament to the passions the election had inspired in South Longford. The hundred-strong batches of ballot papers for each candidate were piled criss-crossing each other, allowing for the Sub-Sheriff to make reasonable progress in counting. But not quickly enough for the IPP representative, who passed a slip of paper through the window before the Sub-Sheriff could declare his findings.

The paper read: McKenna has won.[46]

Kevin O’Shiel was among the crowds outside. When the Sinn Féin supporters saw the note:

We were dumbfounded, our misery being aggravated by the wild roars of the triumphant Partyites and their wilder “Separation Allowance” women who danced with joy as they waved Union Jacks and green flags.

O’Shiel was in particular dismay. After all, having bet ten pounds – a hefty amount back then – on McGuinness succeeding, he now looked to be leaving Longford a good deal poorer than when he had entered.[47]

Lost and Found

Inside the Courthouse, however, one of the Sinn Féin tallymen, Joe McGrath, was protesting that the count did not match the total poll. Seeing a glimmer of hope, MacCarthy demanded that the process be gone through again.[48]

Among those present was Charles Wyse-Power, a solicitor who had come to Longford on behalf of Sinn Féin in case the IPP tried declaring McGuinness’ candidacy invalid on the grounds of him being a convicted felon. Seeing their supporters, including Griffith, standing mournfully outside on the other side of the street, McGrath urged Wyse-Power to go and announce the decision for a recount, as much to reassure their side as anything.[49]

Wyse-Power did so. Calling for silence, he announced that a bundle of the votes had been overlooked and, as such, a recount was in order. Seeing that he might not be soon short a tenner after all, O’Shiel could only hope for the best:

A drowning man hangs on to a straw, they say, and we certainly (myself in particular) held with desperation on to the straw Charles had flung us.[50]

As it turned out, as MacCarthy described:

The mistake was then discovered that one of the bundles originally counting as 100 votes contained 150. Having discovered this, it tallied with the total poll, giving McGuinness a majority of 37.[51]

Frank McGuinness, standing in for his imprisoned brother, unfurled a tricolour from a window of the courthouse, shouting out that Ireland’s flag had won, to the cheers of his supporters and some flag-waving of their own. For all the jubilations, it had been a painfully close call. “I don’t think that McGuinness would have won that election had it not been for the letter of Archbishop Walsh,” said a relieved O’Shiel.[52]

MacCarthy was not so sure. The letter had come too late in the election to change anyone’s minds, he believed, which would already been made up by the time Sinn Féin workers were pushing printed copies of the Archbishop’s words into people’s hands on polling day. In his opinion, the delay of the IPP in selecting a sole candidate had been its losing factor.[53]

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Sinn Féin poster on a carriage, 1918

On that, he and the Longford Leader were in agreement. For even after McKenna had been chosen over Flood and Garrahan, the newspaper bemoaned:

The selected Nationalist Candidate had a great deal of uphill work to face, even while the other two candidates had withdrawn. As against the Party candidate the Sinn Feiner had a whole fortnight in which to over run the constituency and they did so in great style.

It was a moxie that even an avowed enemy like the Longford Leader was forced to admire:

For two consecutive Sundays they had the ear of the people at all the masses in all the chapels, and no one who knows how hard it is to get an Irishman to change his view once he has made his mind up but must admit that this was a serious handicap.[54]

But perhaps the explanation is as simple as the one offered by Joseph Good, a Sinn Féin activist: “This victory can be attributed to Joe McGrath’s genius for mathematics.”[55]

McGrath
Joe McGrath (far left), seated next to Michael Collins

‘A Confusion of Factions’

Up, Longford, and strike a blow for the land unconquered still,

Your fathers fought their ruthless foe on many a plain and hill.

Their blood runs red in your Irish veins,

You are the sons of Granuaile.

So show your pride in the men who died,

And vote for the man in gaol.[56]

(Sinn Féin election song, South Longford, 1917)

Regardless of the whys and whats, a win was a win. The RIC on standby were drawing up between the two groups of partisans to prevent a repeat of the violence but that proved unnecessary. When McGuinness proposed a vote of thanks for the Sub-Sheriff and his team, the request was seconded by McKenna, who took his defeat with good grace, saying that, sink or swim, he would stand with his old party and old flag. That his defeat had been so close, he said, showed that the fire lit in North Roscommon had dwindled already to a mere flicker.

Punch_Longford_RH_12_May_17.jpg
Anti-Redmond cartoon from the Roscommon Herald, 12th May 1917

The Sinn Féiners, naturally, did not see things that way. The man of the moment, McGuinness, was absent, as much a guest of His Majesty in Lewes as ever, but others were there to inform the tricolour-bearing crowd, after they had returned to the Sinn Féin campaign headquarters in town, what that day’s result meant.

For Griffith, this had been the greatest victory ever won for Ireland at the polls, and in the teeth of stern opposition at that. Cynics had scoffed that Sinn Féin won North Roscommon only by concealing its aims – well, there could be doubting what such aims were now, Griffith declared.

Count Plunkett predicted that this was but the beginning, with more elections to follow that would sweep the IPP away. Privately, he and Griffith continued to loathe each other, and their struggle for the soul of Sinn Fein had not yet ended but, in the warm afterglow of success, they could put aside mutual acrimony – for now.

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Anti-Redmond cartoon from the Roscommon Herald, 21st May 1917

Elsewhere in the country, the results were nervously anticipated. When a placard was shown from a window of the Sinn Féin offices in Westmoreland Street, Dublin, the audience that had gathered there broke into applause. More crowds greeted the returning Sinn Féin contingents at Broadstone Station with waved tricolours, which were promptly seized by killjoy policemen, who dispersed the procession before it could begin.

Not to be deterred, a flag with the letters ‘I.R.’, as in ‘Irish Republic’, was flown above the hall of the Ancient Order of Hibernians in North Frederick Street. If Sinn Féin had shied away from running on an explicitly Republican policy, at least for now, then there were some who knew exactly what they wanted.

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Anti-Redmond cartoon from the Roscommon Herald, 28th May 1917

“Up McGuinness!” cried a party of students as they paraded through Cork, waving tricolours, while a counter-demonstration of ‘separation women’ dogged them, singing ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’ and ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’, in between cheers for the Munster Fusiliers and other Irish regiments their menfolk were serving in.[57]

In Lewes Prison, whatever doubts the captive Irishmen had had about the value of contesting elections were forgotten as their excitement at the news almost brimmed over into a riot. McGuinness was hoisted onto a table in a prison hall to make a speech, the building ringing with the accompanying cheers. It was only with difficulty that the wardens were able to put their charges back in their cells.[58]

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Anti-Redmond cartoon from the Roscommon Herald, 5th June 1917

More muted was the reaction in Belfast, where the chief interest among Unionists was the impact the result would have on the Home Rule proposals, due to be submitted to Westminster in the following week. The odds of such a measure succeeding now looked as shaky as the IPP itself. If Archbishop Walsh’s intervention had hardened Nationalist Ireland against Partition, it equally made Protestant Ulster even more sure not to be beneath any new parliament in Dublin.

Indeed, Ireland looked more uncertain a place than ever. “The country is a confusion of factions,” read the Daily Telegraph. “A unanimous Nationalist demand, which could be faced, and which could be dealt with through an accredited leadership, no longer exists.” The old order may have been as dead as O’Leary in the grave, but what would come next had yet to be seen.[59]

See also: An Idolatry of Candidates: Count Plunkett and the North Roscommon By-Election of 1917

References

[1] Doherty, Bryan (BMH / WS 1292), p. 5

[2] Longford Leader, 07/04/1917

[3] Irish Times, 04/04/1917

[4] Meleady, Dermot (ed.) John Redmond: Selected Letters and Memoranda, 1880-1918 (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018), p. 274

[5] Roscommon Herald, 10/02/1017

[6] Meleady, pp. 275-6

[7] Ibid, p. 274

[8] Lennon, Michael, ‘Looking Backward. Glimpses into Later History’, J.J. O’Connell Papers, National Library of Ireland (NLI) MS 22,117(1)

[9] Irish Independent, 20/04/1917

[10] Lennon

[11] Freeman’s Journal, 20/04/1917

[12] Lennon

[13] Irish Independent, 20/04/1917

[14] Lennon

[15] O’Brien, William (BMH / WS 1766), pp. 105-6

[16] Irish Times, 10/04/1917

[17] O’Brien, pp. 106-7

[18] MacCarthy, Dan (BMH / WS 722), pp. 12-4

[19] Meleady, p. 277

[20] Longford Leader, 14/04/1917

[21] Meleady, p. 277

[22] Ibid, p. 278

[23] Irish Times, 05/05/1917

[24] Ibid, 07/05/1917

[25] O’Shiel, Kevin (BMH / WS 1770, Part 5), pp. 40-1

[26] Irish Times, 07/05/1917

[27] O’Shiel, p. 41

[28] Meleady, p. 278

[29] Irish Times, 07/05/1917

[30] O’Shiel, pp. 41-2

[31] Nugent, Laurence (BMH / WS 907), pp. 98-9

[32] Irish Independent, 07/05/1917

[33] Ginnell, Alice (BMH / WS 982), p. 17

[34] McCartan, Patrick (BMH / WS 766), pp. 63-4

[35] Irish Times, 07/05/1917

[36] Ibid, 08/05/1917

[37] Irish Independent, 08/05/1917

[38] Ibid, 09/05/1917

[39] Ibid, 10/05/1917

[40] Meleady, p. 267

[41] Ibid, p. 271

[42] Ibid, pp. 271-2

[43] McCormack, Michael (BMH / WS 1503), p. 9 ; Nugent, p. 100

[44] Irish Times, 09/05/1917

[45] MacCarthy, p. 14

[46] Ibid, p. 15

[47] O’Shiel, pp. 42-3

[48] MacCarthy, p. 15

[49] Wyse-Power, Charles (BMH / WS 420), p. 14

[50] O’Shiel, p. 43

[51] MacCarthy, p. 15

[52] Irish Times, 11/10/1917 ‘ O’Shiel, p. 44

[53] MacCarthy, pp. 13-4

[54] Longford Leader, 12/05/1917

[55] Good, Joseph (BMH / WS 388), p. 31

[56] Doherty, p. 5

[57] Irish Times, 11/10/1917

[58] Shouldice, John (BMH / WS 679), p. 13

[59] Irish Times, 11/10/1917

Bibliography

Newspapers

Irish Independent

Irish Times

Longford Leader

Roscommon Herald

Book

Meleady, Dermot (ed.) John Redmond: Selected Letters and Memoranda, 1880-1918 (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018)

Bureau of Military History Statements

Doherty, Bryan, WS 1292

Ginnell, Alice, WS 982

Good, Joseph, WS 388

MacCarthy, Dan, WS 722

McCartan, Patrick, WS 766

McCormack, Michal, WS 1503

Nugent, Laurence, WS 907

O’Brien, William, WS 1766

O’Shiel, Kevin, WS 1770

Shouldice, John, WS 679

Wyse-Power, Charles, WS 420

National Library of Ireland Collection

J.J. O’Connell Papers

 

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Plunkett’s Liberty: Count Plunkett and the Liberty Clubs, April-August 1917 (Part V)

A continuation of: Plunkett’s Gathering: Count Plunkett and His Mansion House Convention, 19th April 1917 (Part IV)

The Rift

There was a pause in the hall as Arthur Griffith conferred with Count Plunkett on stage. Griffith then stepped forward to announce a troubling development.

Plunkett, he said, had denied him permission to speak. He had wanted to explain his reasons for seconding Seán Milroy’s proposal – which had called for a loose alliance between the various separatist groups, as opposed to the Count’s demand for a new, centralised organisation – but that was not going to happen now.

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Arthur Griffith

“I have nothing further to say than this,” Griffith told his audience, and proceeded to speak further. “Sinn Féin, for which we all stood when many of the men here today were our opponents, still stands. Sinn Féin will not give up its policy nor its constitution. Sinn Féin will work with every section in Ireland that works to destroy the corruption of Ireland.”

He finished on a note of J’accuse: “I am finished. Count Plunkett refused me permission to speak.”

To a mixed chorus of cheers and boos, Griffith told his audience of how for eighteen years he had been fighting for the cause of Irish freedom. If he lived for eighteen more, he would still be fighting. He warned that if they decided today not to hold an alliance against John Redmond and his Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), then Redmond would win as surely as he, Griffith, was standing before them.

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Count Plunkett

Adopting an air of being above it all, Count Plunkett said he had no intention of commenting on these accusations. He had never misrepresented Griffith, and he had heard no misrepresentations of him. Why Griffith felt the need to defend himself against nothing was rather puzzling, Plunkett added primly.

Pulling back somewhat from his previous hard-line stance, Plunkett said that there was no reason why, in the coming elections, men who did not see eye to eye on everything could not unite to pull down the common foe in the IPP. The nation was above personal quarrels and petty disputes.

It was a magnanimous line, one worthy of the statesman Plunkett clearly believed himself to be. Dissenting calls of “why did you refuse to hear Arthur Griffith” and “a good many of us here are not in favour of that at all” showed that for some, however, the Count’s munificence was not convincing.

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The Mansion House, site of the Plunkett Convention

A Way Out?

This turn of events, as reported in the Freeman’s Journal:

…led to much excitement, and those on the platform rose to their feet and conversed – in some cases very heatedly – in small groups, while murmurs of protest throughout the room testified that opinion was divided on the action taken.[1]

Attempting to gain some ground in the tug-of-war being played out, Milroy moved that his proposal be put to the convention, insisting that it did not clash with Count Plunkett’s own. It is questionable as to whether Milroy actually believed this. Count Plunkett certainly did not. He replied that, au contraire, Milroy’s resolution *did* clash with his.

At best, a stalemate seemed inevitable at this point; at worst, open hostilities and a split.[2]

William O’Brien, the Labour delegate from the Dublin Trades Council, was seated by the podium, having little input in the proceedings after delivering his speech (he had only attended in the first place to be polite, he later said). He belatedly realised there was a commotion between Plunkett and Griffith happening before him, though he was unclear as to its cause, and watched as Father Michael O’Flanagan moved across the platform to sit next to a “flushed and evidently upset” Griffith.[3]

The enmity between the two leaders had been festering for quite some time. According to Laurence Nugent, a close friend of Rory O’Connor – who Nugent accredited with most of the Convention’s organising – the Count had refused to send admission tickets to Griffith and Milroy, forcing Father O’Flanagan to take two spare tickets from the mantelpiece of Plunkett’s house.[4]

Plunkett’s daughter, Geraldine Dillon, told a different version. Her father had indeed invited Griffith who refused until Tommy Dillon, her husband and the Count’s son-in-law, persuaded him otherwise. Even then, Griffith had not endeavoured to make things easy, sitting sulkily at the back of the hall. When he made to leave after locking horns with the Count, it took the entreaties of O’Flanagan and another priest, Father William Ferris from Kerry, to convince him to stay.[5]

Coming to Heel

As a way out of the impasse, Father Ferris suggested that these questions be left in the hands of Father O’Flanagan and Griffith. This at least was met with general approval. If Plunkett felt to the contrary, he kept his opinion private for a change. He did, after all, owe a lot to O’Flanagan. “The old man came to heel,” sneered Kevin O’Shiel, as he remembered it.[6]

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Father Michael O’Flanagan

O’Flanagan announced that, after discussing with Griffith, it was agreed that an organising committee be formed. Those national groups pledged to Irish independence should get in touch with this committee and apply to be recognised. Likewise, all the new branches of these various groups that formed as a result of this convention should contact the committee.

The members of this committee were to be – besides the Count, Griffith and the ubiquitous Father O’Flanagan – Milroy, Dillon, Tom Kelly and Stephen O’Mara. O’Mara had already enjoyed a lengthy political career as the mayor of Limerick and a Parnellite MP in Co. Laois. Along with the rest of the Irish Nation League, of which he had been a founding member, he had disagreed with Plunkett’s decision to abstain from his Roscommon parliamentary seat.

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Tom Kelly

Tom Kelly was one of the founders of ‘old’, pre-1916 Sinn Féin and had worked in a number of public positions, from an alderman in Dublin Corporation to campaigning in the 1880/90s on behalf of imprisoned Fenians. O’Mara, Kelly and Milroy could be expected to back Griffith, with Dillon and O’Flanagan more inclined towards the Count.[7]

According to O’Brien, O’Flanagan read out the names before asking Griffith to second them. Griffith said that while he had no objections, surely Labour should have a voice as well? For this, he slyly suggested O’Brien as another member, clearly considering him to be an ally.

Thinking quickly, the priest replied that he had no problem with O’Brien, whom he did not know but was sure to be a decent sort. But if Labour was to be included, then so should the women of Ireland. For this, he proposed Countess Plunkett, sitting by the stage near her husband.

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Having stopped the tensions from escalating, Father O’Flanagan was taking no chances with the Committee numbers being stacked in Griffith’s favour. More than anyone, he had been responsible for bringing the new movement together, and he was determined to keep it that way.

O’Brien, for his part, was to plead ignorance of the manoeuvrings unfolding before him:

For a portion of the meeting I had no idea what was going on and a great many people couldn’t know and I thought the whole business was the nearest thing you could imagine to a break-up.[8]

There seems to have been some confusion in the sources over the exact composition of the committee. O’Brien neglected to mention Tom Kelly but included Cathal Brugha, as did Geraldine Dillon in her memoirs. On the other hand, the Freeman’s Journal – a contemporary and the most comprehensive account of the Convention – made no mention of Brugha.[9]

However, New Ireland, the organ of the Irish Nation League, named him as being on the committee in its 28th April edition, so it seemed that Brugha had made his way in at some point. A militant Republican and a combatant in the Rising, during which he had been seriously wounded, his inclusion was a boon to Plunkett, and he would come to take a leading role in the factional negotiations that were to come.[10]

(Another version was from Dillon’s account. Here, Helena Molony, the feminist and socialist, objected to the absence of a woman on the committee. Father O’Flanagan obliged by adding her and Countess Plunkett. No one else mentions Molony at this point, not even Molony herself, so this seems to be incorrect on Dillon’s part. Molony was later co-opted, along with three other women, onto the Sinn Féin Executive Committee in October 1917, which could explain Dillon’s confusion.[11])

The Plunkett Convention had been a lengthy, and for some gruelling, event, having taken most of the day. Much had been agreed upon, but the Plunkett-Griffith enmity was to be the most remembered aspect. One attendee was to describe it in suitably dramatic terms:

Almost from the moment that the meeting opened, antagonism to Griffith was shown by Count Plunkett…Such as Count Plunkett’s apparent anger that a serious disturbance arose on the platform. I think everyone at the meeting expected that those on the platform would be utterly divided…Griffith was regarded as a pacifist at that time, and Count Plunkett was obviously out of patience with him from the moment he saw him on the same platform.[12]

Which was not entirely correct – the Convention had managed for some time before the said disturbance arose. Still, there could be no hiding the unpalatable fact that the new movement was already poised to be at war with itself.

Somehow, the day managed to end on a cordial note when Count Plunkett announced the closing of the proceedings, with the reminder that they would be called again if needed. History was on the march, and there was no certainty as to where it would lead.[13]

Surveying the Aftermath

In the days afterwards, the Mansion House hosted a gift sale that was to raise funds for the families of those in the Rising. The choice of items on display, and the swiftness in which they sold, showed that the presence of 1916 was as keenly felt as ever:

  • An ancient Irish costume, worn on one occasion before Pope Pius X by Éamonn Ceannt.
  • A gold-mounted fountain pen, presented by Ceannt’s widow.
  • A pair of gloves worn by James Connolly.
  • An Irish pike-head which had belonged to Michael Joseph ‘The O’Rahilly’, slain during the fighting in Dublin.
  • A pocket flask belonging to Éamon de Valera, presented by his wife.
  • A first edition of poems by W.B. Yeats, with an autograph by Joseph Plunkett.
  • The sword which had fatally wounded Lord Edward FitzGerald in 1803, formerly owned by Patrick Pearse.
  • A handbill of the ‘Proclamation of the Irish Republic’.[14]

As someone who prided himself on keeping his ears close to the ground, Monsignor Michael Curran lingered around the Mansion House. From the talk he picked up on, reactions to the Convention had definitely been positive, as he later described:

While Plunkett was not regarded as a suitable leader or director, it was felt that the new organisation would bring the groups together and that the general body of public opinion would follow Arthur Griffith and that Griffith’s policy of working with the less advanced Nationalist sections was correct.[15]

The situation, however, was a good deal more complicated than that, as not everyone believed that Griffith’s approach was the right one.

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Liam de Róiste

Another attendee, Liam de Róiste, had come as a delegate for the Cork Sinn Féin Executive. He found that while Count Plunkett lacked general support, Griffith’s policy of passive resistance to British rule was not sufficiently exciting for the more impatient types in the audience. That Griffith was rumoured to have been opposed to the Rising at the time, for all his subsequent reaping of the benefits, also counted as a black mark against him.[16]

Count Plunkett had succeeded in getting his motion passed for a new, centralised organisation. He had also managed to shut Griffith up, at least for a while. But, outside the convention, this did not mean very much. At the end of the day, neither man had scored a definite victory over the other. Their feud, and its potential for damage, remained unabated.

To Griffith, Count Plunkett was a hot-headed upstart who was trying to both usurp and wreck the Sinn Féin party to which he had dedicated his life. To Plunkett, and the hard-liners who backed him, Griffith was a has-been who blew neither hot nor cold but unacceptably lukewarm.

Committee Politics

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William O’Brien

The forming of the Mansion House Committee, as timely as it had been in preventing an irreversible rupture, could be little more than a stopgap. Much to his displeasure, O’Brien was to find himself on the frontlines of the feud. In keeping with his reluctance to become embroiled in Nationalist politics at the possible expense of Labour, he tried talking himself out his new duties. Even a lengthy chat with Griffith, who pleaded with him to remain, was not enough to change his mind.

When O’Brien was asked by Milroy to attend the first meeting of the new committee at the Gresham Hotel on the 3rd May, O’Brien declined. When Milroy pressed O’Brien to come and explain his reasons in person, at least as a courtesy to Griffith, the trade unionist reluctantly submitted.

And so O’Brien arrived at the Gresham with Milroy, finding the rest of the committee already present. As they went upstairs, Griffith gave O’Brien a nudge.

Griffith: We want you to preside at this meeting.

O’Brien: Oh, that is quite impossible. I can’t act on the committee.

Griffith: Oh. You ought to act for the present anyhow. There is no way out. Stephen O’Mara will propose you.

When they were in the allocated room, O’Flangan said: “Now, we want a chairman.”

Plunkett appeared taken aback by this. Before anyone else could speak, O’Mara proposed O’Brien, right on cue, and O’Brien found himself as the chair. Even if Griffith had no interest in power for himself, he was still determined to deny it to his bitter rival.[17]

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Gresham Hotel, Dublin, modern

The Liberty Clubs

Count Plunkett had called for a new organisation, one that would be primed to advance the cause of Irish freedom – on his own terms, that is. Others would answer that call throughout the country, with Co. Cork providing a microcosm of the new political enterprise and its budding grassroots.

On the 11th May, Hugh Thornton wrote from Bandon, Co. Cork, about the interest he had received from like-minded individuals. He had formerly been of the ‘Kimmage Garrison’ at the Rising that had been under the command of the Count’s son, George. Thornton explained that he had only been in Bandon for a fortnight but had nonetheless impressed the “right men” of the importance of forming a branch of the Liberty Clubs, which was what Plunkett’s brainchild would become known as.plunkett

Thornton had attended the conference the month before and knew the main objectives. Nonetheless, he pressed upon the Count the importance of receiving the necessary paperwork to put before the respective recruits before he could convene a first meeting.[18]

Six days later, on the 21st May, Thornton wrote back to confirm that he had received the copies of the rules and constitution of the Liberty Clubs as requested. A Club had been formed accordingly in Bandon, encompassing fifteen members and with more expected.[19]

Thornton had spoken truly, for by the 26th, he felt it necessary to write again, asking for fifty more membership cards and a hundred copies of the constitution. The success of the Club in Bandon had stimulated interest in nearby Castlelake, where there were plans to start one of its own.[20]

Later, a letter from the committee of the new Liberty Club in Castlelake was received on the 4th June, asking for thirty membership cards. It was addressed to Count Plunkett as president, with a question mark at the end of the title, suggesting an uncertainty as to how the organisation was structured.[21]

The Clubs Take Root

Thornton wrote to ask Plunkett if they could have a talk when the latter visited Cork on the 19th June, specifically so he could report on the local conditions. He also asked more mundane questions such as whether duplicate membership cards should go to Plunkett or if the Club secretaries (which Thornton was for his own group) should hold onto them. It was the sort of nuts-and-bolts decisions that make up the growth of every fledgling movement.[22]

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Count Plunkett at work

Others expressed similar interest. Cornelius O’Mahony wrote from Ahio Hill, Co. Cork, to say that while there were no clubs around due to the isolated nature of the area, he was optimistic that any organisers sent out there would have an impact, if only because the sight of a stranger was a novelty in itself.[23]

John Linehan from Tullybase, Co. Cork, told Plunkett that he would be all too happy to render assistance. He shrewdly suggested that if the parish priest was also to help, then the Club would be a success. Tullybase was fertile ground, Linehan assured the Count, as “the great majority of the people here are all Sinn Feiners, and followers of the Irish Party were always few.”[24]

0209Linehan clearly did not think that a Liberty Club would be incompatible with Sinn Féin. Others were not so sure. P. Casey felt the need to ask the Count if there was any difference between the two organisations. He added that he was in a “splendid position for collecting names of the right-type of men” due to his position as a barber in Cork City.[25]

Elsewhere in the country, the existence of Sinn Féin was a stumbling block for the Clubs. Timothy Flanagan told of how there was no Liberty Club in Killinaboy, Co. Clare, as everyone there was already part of the older organisation.[26]

Likewise, James Connaughton believed that since Sinn Féin was already established in Limerick, attempts to form a Club would risk a clash. However, Connaughton had not given up hope that a Club could be set up and suggested that the process might be eased if some joint plan of action was arranged between the two separatist groups.[27]

Others were not so optimistic. The Cork Sinn Féin Executive delivered a warning on the 22nd May that “if our forces are split up into possible rival organisations it will have a disastrous effect upon the whole movement.” In order to prevent this fracturing, the Executive claimed the right to direct matters in its city without outside interference.[28]

Teething Troubles

Hugh Thornton would never get a chance to talk with Plunkett, for the latter was to cancel his planned visit to Cork. In a letter to the Cork Examiner, the Count explained that his reasons for doing so were because the situation was not yet right:

The purpose of the gathering was not for a mere personal compliment, but to thoroughly organise the city and county of Cork – to move Munster and bring it to the front in Ireland’s struggle for complete independence.

I defer meeting the people of Cork for the present, because the workers at the head of the advanced movement are at this moment considering the means of welding the strong national bodies into one organisation, with one administration. Irish opinion cannot become the power it should be until its combined forces are wielded as one instrument to a common end.

I am certain that the formation of Liberty Clubs and other clubs differing in name, but working equally for the advanced cause, will be actively promoted at once, so that Cork may take its share in our united effort to open the road to freedom.[29]

The Cork Examiner took a less sanguine view, reporting that:

It is now admitted but there is a split in the Sinn Fein camp between those who favour Count Plunkett and those whose allegiance goes to Mr Griffiths resenting Count Plunkett’s visit to Cork put pressure on headquarters, and Count Plunkett has now cancelled his visit.[30]

The newspaper was far from an unbiased source, being a supporter of the IPP and thus hostile to its patron’s rivals. But Laurence Nugent, by now a full time organiser for Sinn Féin, suspected that Plunkett’s refusal to attend Cork was due to the Sinn Féin people there being of the old, pro-Griffith adherents who did not want him.

Nugent would remember an exasperated Father O’Flanagan complaining privately to him about how the Mansion House Committee could never agree on anything. At least the general public took it for granted that progress was being made, even if uncomfortable rumours were circulating within Sinn Féin circles of how just hollow the public façade of unity really was.[31]sinn_fc3a9in_newspaper

William O’Brien

The situation was such that, on the 5th June, O’Brien was called on by a delegation from the Cork Volunteers. They explained to him that there was dissatisfaction back home regarding the confused situation with the Liberty Clubs and where they stood with Sinn Féin. In an attempt to clarify matters, they had been dispatched to Dublin to interview a number of individuals, who had suggested that they talk to O’Brien.

He had by then resigned from the Mansion House Committee, whose membership he had never wanted in the first place. Still, as an avowed Republican, he was seen as a sympathetic ear by the Volunteers. O’Brien was friendly with both Plunkett and Griffith, but told the Corkonians that, in his opinion, neither man counted for much.

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Irish Volunteers

The Irish Volunteers, O’Brien told his guests, were the only body in the country which could see the ideals of the Easter Rising realised. If they wished to accomplish this, then they should make their views known to both the Count and Griffith. O’Brien added that if the two men refused to come around to their point of view, then the Volunteers should simply brush both aside and act on their own.

Efforts towards public unity had been made in May, when the by-election in South Longford provided the chance for Plunkettites, Volunteers and Sinn Féiners to campaign together on behalf of their candidate, Joseph McGuinness, against the IPP selection. However much they distrusted each other, they could at least agree to dislike the Irish Party even more.

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Longford election poster for Joseph McGuinness, May 1917

McGuinness’ success on an absentionist ticket – the second such win that year after Plunkett’s in North Roscommon – was satisfying but did nothing to assuage the tensions. Shortly afterwards, the election committee met to consider whether it should be established as a permanent organisation under the title of ‘The Irish Freedom Election Committee’.

Although Griffith did not say so openly, it seemed clear to O’Brien – who still attended such meetings despite his resignation – that Griffith was opposed to this proposition, stealing as it would the attention away from Sinn Féin. However, he departed early, allowing the others in his absence to agree to this latest development – not the best way, perhaps, for an already fragile group to make decisions.

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Arthur Griffith

A further meeting of the election committee was held on 30th May at which Griffith again questioned its necessity. Another lengthy discussion followed, punctuated by a sharp exchange between him and Count Plunkett.

Meanwhile, a public rally at Beresford Place, Dublin, was set for the 10th June to protest at the conditions in which the Rising prisoners were held in English jails. When the authorities proscribed the meeting, its organisers agreed for it to be postponed.

Agreed by all, but one. O’Brien was very much surprised upon learning that Plunkett was going ahead with the meeting, regardless of what the others had decided.[32]

Trouble at Beresford Place

Perhaps Plunkett’s contrariness was motivated by the reports of the treatment of his sons, George and Jack, in prison, from the scanty amounts of poor quality food to homosexual rape, which their sister Geraldine “knew afterwards from Jack’s nightmares, did happen.”[33]

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Jack Plunkett, mugshot

Or maybe it was out of desire to buck both the British authorities and his ‘colleagues’. Either way, people in the streets of Dublin on the morning of the 10th June were handed leaflets on their way from church by a number of young men and women. Headed ‘Strike in Lewes Jail’, the handbills notified their readers of the time and place of the meeting: 7:30 pm at Beresford Place.

Such brazen publicity also alerted the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) were also alerted, a squad of which was being present at Beresford Place by the advertised time. Meanwhile, a 200-strong crowd made its way across Butt Bridge from the south side of the Liffey River. At the back of the procession was a hackney car with Plunkett and Brugha inside.

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Crowd gathered at Beresford Place to hear Count Plunkett and Cathal Brugha

When the crowd reached Beresford Place, the car pulled up in front of Liberty Hall. Inspector John Mills pushed his way at the head of a police party through the press of bodies and ordered Brugha to get down from the top of the car on which he was addressing the crowd. When Brugha persisted in speaking, Mills pulled him down while, on the other side of the car, Plunkett was likewise arrested.

The mood of the onlookers turned ugly at the sight of their heroes being manhandled, and the policemen found themselves being followed as they led their prisoners away. The DMP sergeant with Plunkett advised him to hurry along for fear of trouble. Seeing the milling, agitated people all around, with the potential for violence heavy in the air, the Count agreed by quickening his pace.

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Arrested

As the police passed underneath the railway arch at Beresford Place, a young man stepped forward. Without warning, he struck Inspector Mills on the back of the head with what witnesses described as a hurling stick.

Constable John Dooley grabbed the assailant by the collar as the latter turned to escape. The crowd closed in on them and Dooley received a blow to the head in turn, driving him to his knees as he doggedly held on. The culprit finally wriggled free and ran down Lower Abbey Street, turning at one point to brandish a revolver at Dooley, before disappearing out of sight.

Meanwhile, Superintendent Brennan was leading another police party in pushing the unruly mob back by Eden Quay. When he heard a shout of “The Inspector is killed”, he ran to find Mills on the ground, blood oozing from his left ear.

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Inspector Mills being moved to a stretcher after being struck on the head

After casting some stones, the crowd dispersed, its energies spent. In addition to Plunkett and Brugha, three more had been arrested: the cabdriver who had brought them, a youth for drawing a dagger and a stone-throwing man. The prisoners were taken to Sloane Street Station, before transferred to Arbour Hill the following night.

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John Mills

Mills had been driven to Jervis Street Hospital, where he died of shock and haemorrhaging from what the doctor described as the worst injury he had seen in his professional career. The 51-year-old native of Co. Westmeath left behind a widow and three children. According to Geraldine Plunkett, her father had said upon seeing Mills collapse: “Oh, the poor man! I hope he’s not hurt.”

It says much about the relative obscurity of Brugha at the time that he was “a man named Burgess” and “a man who gave his name as Cathal Burgess” when the Irish Times reported him alongside the far better known Count Plunkett.[34]

Despite talk of those arrested being tried for the murder of Inspector Mills, they were released from Arbour Hill on the 18th June as part of the general amnesty for political prisoners. This include the remaining inmates from the Rising, and the Count’s two sons were discharged accordingly, finally returning home after almost a year of imprisonment.[35]

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George Oliver Plunkett (front right) and his brother Jack (front left), with some other prisoners, upon their release in June 1917

‘Hot and Strong’

The British authorities were not the only ones attempting a diplomatic solution. It was clear that the divide between Sinn Féin and the Liberty Clubs, rapidly deepening into a split, could not continue.

So far, the upper hand was held by Sinn Féin. The Liberty Clubs were hampered by the lack of public association with the Rising which Sinn Féin possessed, however undeservedly, and the absence of a central office to which to send the all-important affiliation fees – another advantage Griffith enjoyed. Instead, correspondence for the Liberty Clubs were sent to and from the Count’s residence at 26 Upper Fitzwilliam Street, creating a slightly ramshackle feel, as if the man who was one of the country’s best-known political figures could manage no better.banc-sf-1917-1024x824

Despite these drawbacks, Dillon could observe how the Liberty Clubs were:

…making progress and stories began to reach us of Sinn Féin Clubs and Liberty Clubs in the same parish. They were by no means on friendly terms with one another. The Royal Irish Constabulary [RIC] were quick to take advantage of the reputation of Sinn Féin to stir up trouble. ‘So ye’re afraid to call yourselves Sinn Foeners’, they would say to members of Liberty Clubs.[36]

Trouble was astir, indeed. The monthly report of the RIC Inspector General in May speculated on how the movement:

…may divide into two sections, a revolutionary party under the leadership of Count Plunkett, and another and perhaps more numerous party, who realising the futility of armed insurrection, will try to achieve their aim by more passive measures.[37]

Before matters could get to that point, an attempt at resolution was held in Brugha’s house in Upper Rathmines Road, a courtesy made on account of his still-healing leg wound from the Rising. Despite his slightly debilitated state, Brugha would take up the role of advocate for hard-line Republicanism, proving in the process to be a far more forceful character than Count Plunkett.

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Cathal Brugha

Dillon could not remember precisely who was in Brugha’s house that evening, though the conclave included his father-in-law, Griffith, Michael Collins and Rory O’Connor, as well as some other members of the Mansion House Committee. Nor could Dillon recall the resulting conversation exactly – it was not until 1967 that he put his account to paper – other than it had been “hot and strong, without being too acrimonious.”

Griffith was asked, or rather told, to hand over control of Sinn Féin to the Irish Volunteers. He held his ground, insisting that Sinn Féin would not surrender the name he had spent years toiling to build. Furthermore, he added, he had been elected president by a Sinn Féin convention and so could only hand over the role to someone elected at another such convention.

Walking the Plank

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Tommy Dillon

As it was getting late and the last trams home were due, Dillon summed up their options: to found a new organisation – as had been proposed at his father-in-law’s convention – or to reform Sinn Féin on conditions to which Griffith and the Plunkettites would find acceptable. Dillon added that the second was the simplest.

Sensing the support for this in the room, Griffith changed tact. He agreed to put before the Sinn Fein National Council the proposal that half of them would retire to make room for six representatives of the Liberty Clubs and the Mansion House Committee. Dillon would be joint honorary secretary along with the current one, with the president and his paid officials remaining unchanged until the next party Ard Fheis, set for October. Soon after, Dillon received a note to say that the National Council had agreed to these terms.[38]

It was a gracious retreat on Griffith’s part, though perhaps he had had little choice.

O’Brien learnt from Brugha, with whom he had grown close, of the compromise arrangements decided upon in the latter’s house. When O’Brien was told that the new constitution for Sinn Féin would include the recognition of the Republic as proclaimed in the Rising, O’Brien was surprised. He did not think Griffith – a cautious man by nature – would go so far on such a charged point.

“Do you mean that Griffith has accepted the Republic?” O’Brien asked.

“He had to or walk the plank,” answered Brugha grimly.[39]

Hard Truths

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Seán T. O’Kelly

Even Griffith’s allies had accepted that a surrender on his part was inevitable. From listening to the Sinn Féin branch meetings, Seán T. O’Kelly came to the conclusion that the ‘military’ men in the movement – those who had taken part in the Rising – would never accept Griffith as their leader. But Griffith still had his friends and admirers, even among said ‘military’ men, who disliked the idea of deposing a man who had done such sterling work for the country over the past twenty years.

With this conundrum in mind, O’Kelly was one of several men who went to Alderman Walter Cole’s home in 3 Mountjoy Square on the 24th October, the night before the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis was due. Cole told them that he had taken the liberty of asking Griffith to come along as well.

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3 Mountjoy Square Dublin

By the time Griffith arrived, the others had arrived at an unhappy but inescapable conclusion: should he run again as Sinn Féin president, he would be defeated. It would thus be best to retire gracefully. It fell to Cole to inform Griffith of this collective opinion.

Griffith took it in good stead. After talking it out with the others for half an hour with what O’Kelly considered to be admirable dispassion, Griffith told them that he would give their advice serious consideration. His decision would be announced the next day. It was the most Griffith was prepared to concede at that point, and his friends did not press it.

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Inside 3 Mountjoy Square

Such talks and manoeuvrings had been largely kept hidden from the majority of delegates who lined up outside the Mansion House to have their passes checked by the Irish Volunteers posted on the doors. It was soon apparent that the Ard Fheis would be a packed one. Half an hour before the opening and the Round Room inside was already crowded, with more guests continuing to stream in at a steady pace.

It was stated by party officials that 1,700 delegates, representing 1,009 Sinn Féin clubs throughout the country, were present. But in the opinion of the Freeman’s Journal – no friend of radical politics otherwise – the actual numbers far exceeded this estimate.[40]

‘A Soldier and a Statesman’

Count Plunkett and his wife were among the early arrivals. As the proceedings began, Éamon de Valera and W.T. Cosgrave, the Members of Parliament (MPs) for East Clare and Kilkenny City respectively, stepped on the platform, followed by Griffith. Beneath the applause that greeted each man, the excitement and anxiety were acutely felt by all.

The Plunkett Convention six months ago, held in that very same hall, had showed that even in the heart of the movement’s power and display, a split was not impossible. Given the simmering tensions since then, it was not even implausible.

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The Round Room, Mansion House

This time, the risk centred on the three candidates for the presidency. In the opinion of Kevin O’Shiel, Griffith was the obvious choice. He was, after all, one of the founders of Sinn Féin as well as the current office holder. But his openness to an Ireland continuing under the British Crown as part of some dual monarchy idea of his, and his initial opposition to the Rising, made him anathema to many.

As for Count Plunkett, he was more distinguished by his sons than his own qualities. That had not stopped him from attempting to take central stage in the movement. Despite having canvassed for the Count in the momentous by-election earlier in the year, O’Shiel soon resented the sense of entitlement:

Since his big victory in [North] Roscommon, he and his supporters had come to regard him as the predestined leader of the Irish people on whom “the mantle of Elijah” had fallen, charged with the definite leadership of the country in the new struggle.

Whatever the doubts of O’Shiel, Griffith and others, Plunkett could rely on the Republican elements for support. But the Liberty Clubs, intended to be his powerbase, had not been able to replace Sinn Féin as Plunkett had hoped, largely due to their failure to overtake Sinn Féin in the public mind as the originator of the Rising. It was on this critical factor that politics in the post-1916 Ireland would rise or crumble.

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Éamon de Valera, in the uniform of an Irish Volunteer

The third contender, de Valera, was the dark horse in the race. Despite the lack of fame as enjoyed by the other two, he did possess certain advantages. His record as a Rising participant, and a senior officer in the Irish Volunteers at that, bestowed credibility of the sort Griffith could never attain. At the same time, de Valera made it clear that he had arrived at his Republican position by his belief that that was what the Irish public wanted, an open-mindedness which reassured moderates that here was someone they could work with.

When the subject of the presidency came up, a hush fell over the room. Everyone tensed to see what would unfold. A minute ticked by, feeling like an hour. Then Griffith rose and, to the surprise of many, announced that he was not putting himself forward. He thereupon withdrew his nomination, declaring instead for de Valera, in whom, Griffith informed his audience, “we have a soldier and a statesman.”

arthur-griffith-at-left-with-eamon-de-valera-at-the-irish-delegation-gbh7ba
Arthur Griffith and Éamon de Valera

The resulting applause went on for some minutes, due in no small part to the relief that a split had just been avoided. Obviously following the same script, Count Plunkett also withdrew, ensuring that de Valera’s election as the new President of Sinn Féin was a unanimous, not to mention mercifully uneventful, one.[41]

The New Leadership

helenamoloney
Helena Molony

Not that this had been entirely unexpected. The night before, de Valera had come to talk to Kathleen Lynn and Helena Molony, both as Labour representatives. After informing them he was being put forward as a compromise between Plunkett and Griffith, he asked if that would be acceptable. The two women agreed, and Molony was much satisfied with the arrangement. They had kept out Griffith, whom she despised for his moderation. While she had supported Plunkett, that had been for the sake of his martyred son, Joseph, and not so much for him. In terms of leadership quality, she found de Valera to be by far the better choice.[42]

The new Sinn Féin Executive that emerged from the Ard Fheis bore little resemblance to the ones of the past ten years. Those few ‘old’ party hands who remained on the twenty-four-strong body did so because they, like the rest, had some connection to the Rising. From then on, the course of the party would be guided by its militants.[43]

Seeing where the wind was blowing, both the Liberty Clubs and the Irish Nation League folded and amalgamated into Sinn Féin, ensuring that the party would be a ‘broad church’, reflecting both hard-line and moderate opinions. In truth, it was not now dissimilar to the IPP in the past, which had had room for constitutionalists like Charles Stewart Parnell and John Redmond, as well as former Fenians such as Michael Davitt and James J. O’Kelly, the late MP for North Roscommon who Count Plunkett had succeeded.

With Sinn Féin set to defeat IPP come the next election, the new had replaced the old in more ways than one, though few in the reformed Sinn Féin were inclined to appreciate the historical repetition. A line had been drawn in the sand, and a break made with the past. The days of compromise were over, or so those in the Ard Fheis told themselves.

President Arthur Griffith
Count Plunkett (front row, far left), Father Michael O’Flanagan (back row, far left), Éamon de Valera (front row, centre) and Arthur Griffith (besides O’Flanagan)

The End

Both Griffith ad Plunkett were consoled for their self-denial of the presidency with the elections of the former as one of the dual Vice-Presidents (Father O’Flanagan being the other) and the latter to the twenty-four-strong Executive Council. This may have been the point in which the Count actually joined Sinn Féin. He had been content to have it campaign on his behalf in North Roscommon but at his April convention he had been markedly hostile, determined to have the party replaced with one more to his liking.

Not that this had stopped him from being a contender for the Sinn Féin presidency. It says much about the confusion and fluidity of the times that one action did not necessarily negate a contradictory other.

Many had gone into the Ard Fheis fearing a split between Griffith and Plunkett. Instead, Sinn Féin had been able to retain both men. Whether by accident or design, the top echelons of the party upheld a balance between the two opposing viewpoints in the movement – the constitutional and the militant – a difference which would be, if not conciliated, then at least pacified…for long enough, at least.

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(From left to right) Arthur Griffith, Robert Barton, Éamon de Valera, Count Plunkett and Laurence O’Neill

Not that the two men would ever completely bury the hatchet. Five years, in May 1922, Griffith was speaking to the Dáil when Count Plunkett made, according to the Irish Times, “an observation which was imperfectly heard.”

Whatever was said, Griffith did not assume it to be favourable towards him. He responded by saying that he had been campaigning for the rights of Ireland at a time when Plunkett was receiving the King of England and hanging out flags (which were presumably Union Jacks).

“I did not pull down the Irish flag,” said Plunkett, who seems to have misheard somewhat.

Griffith did not let up, insisting that the other man had received the King in Cork – a reference to the 1903 Exhibition, which Plunkett had helped supervise – when he had sworn allegiance to the visiting Edward VII.

“I never swore allegiance,” Plunkett protested.

“Maintain the dignity of the Dáil,” said Brugha, intervening in defence of his friend.

“Keep this man from interrupting,” Griffith retorted. “I will not be interrupted by a humbug.”

There were cries of ‘shame’ at this insult, forcing Griffith to withdraw it.[44]

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Members of the first Dáil, 1919, with Count Plunkett in the front row, fourth from the left, with an umbrella-carrying Cathal Brugha besides him

Not that it mattered anyway. Their feud was already old news. So was Count Plunkett’s career as leader of the new national movement. Like his Liberty Clubs, his ascendancy would be a short-lived phenomenon, one swiftly forgotten.

The Plunkett Convention, followed by the Clubs, had marked the peak of his influence. He would remain on the political scene, such as when he led in the very first elected Teachtaí Dálas (TDs) at the opening of Dáil Éireann on the 21st January 1919, while looking “very distinguished” as Geraldine remembered. There, he was appointed Minister for Foreign Affairs, and later the Minister for Fine Arts at the second Dáil in August 1921, the latter post being well suited for the distinguished art scholar that was Count Plunkett.[45]

But never again would he enjoy such success as he had had, when his had been the name on the lips of friend and foe alike, and the future looked his to mould and command.

 

References

[1] Freeman’s Journal, 20/04/1917

[2] Ibid

[3] O’Brien, William. Forth the Banners go: Reminiscences of William O’Brien, as told to Edward MacLysaght (Dublin: The Three Candles Limited, 1969), p. 148

[4] Nugent, Laurence (BMH / WS), pp. 91-2

[5] Plunkett Dillon, Geraldine (edited by O Brolchain, Honor) In the Blood: A Memoir of the Plunkett family, the 1916 Rising, and the War of Independence (Dublin: A. & A. Farmar Ltd, 2006), p. 258

[6] O’Shiel, Kevin (BMH / WS 1770), Part V, p. 133

[7] O’Shiel, p. 32 ; O’Kelly, Seán T. (BMH / WS 1765), Part I, p. 63

[8] O’Brien, Forth the Banners go, p. 148

[9] FJ, 20/04/1917

[10] Dillon Plunkett, p. 258 ; FJ, 20/04/1917 ; New Ireland, 28/04/1917

[11] Dillon, Tommy, ‘Birth of the new Sinn Féin and the Ard Fheis 1917’, Capuchin Annual 1967, p. 394 ; Ceannt, Áine (BMH / WS 264), p. 53 ; Molony, Helena (BMH / WS 391)

[12] Good, Joseph (BMH / WS 388), pp. 30-1

[13] FJ, 20/04/1917

[14] IT, 28/04/1917

[15] Curran, M. (BMH / WS 687), p. 220

[16] De Róiste, Liam (BMH / WS 1698) Part II, p. 168

[17] O’Brien, Forth the Banners go, pp. 112-4

[18] Count Plunkett Papers, National Library of Ireland, MS 11,383/6/12

[19] Ibid, MS 11, 383/6/13

[20] Ibid, MS 11, 383/6/14,16

[21] Ibid, MS 11, 383/6/17

[22] Ibid, MS 11, 383/6/16

[23] Ibid, MS 11, 383/6/10

[24] Ibid, MS 11, 383/6/07

[25] Ibid, MS 11, 383/6/8

[26] Ibid, MS 11,383/3/15

[27] Ibid, MS 11,383/11/5

[28] Ibid, MS 11,383/6/26

[29] Cork Examiner, 15/06/1917

[30] Ibid, 06/06/1917

[31] Nugent, pp. 93, 95

[32] O’Brien, pp. 130-133

[33] Plunkett Dillon, p. 260

[34] Ibid ; Irish Times, 11/06/1917, 12/06/1917, 17/11/1917

[35] Irish Times, 19/06/1917

[36] Dillon, p. 395

[37] Police reports from Dublin Castle records (National Library of Ireland), POS 8544

[38] Dillon, pp. 395-6

[39] O’Brien, pp. 136-7

[40] Freeman’s Journal, 26/10/1917

[41] O’Shiel, pp. 85-8 ; O’Brien, p. 102

[42] Molony, pp. 50-1

[43] Dillon, p. 399

[44] Irish Times, 03/03/1922

[45] Plunkett Dillon, pp. 268, 308

 

Bibliography

Newspapers

Cork Examiner

Freeman’s Journal

Irish Times

New Ireland

Books

O’Brien, William. Forth the Banners go: Reminiscences of William O’Brien, as told to Edward MacLysaght (Dublin: The Three Candles Limited, 1969)

Plunkett Dillon, Geraldine (edited by O Brolchain, Honor) In the Blood: A Memoir of the Plunkett family, the 1916 Rising, and the War of Independence (Dublin: A. & A. Farmar Ltd, 2006)

Bureau of Military Statements

Ceannt, Áine, WS 264

Curran, M., WS 687

De Róiste, Liam, WS 1698

Good, Joseph, WS 388

Molony, Helena, WS 391

Nugent, Laurence, WS 907

O’Kelly, Seán T., WS 1765

O’Shiel, Kevin, WS 1770

National Library of Ireland Collections

Count Plunkett Papers

Police Report from Dublin Castle Records

Article

Dillon, Tommy, ‘Birth of the new Sinn Féin and the Ard Fheis 1917’, Capuchin Annual 1967

 

 

Plunkett’s Agenda: Count Plunkett against Friend and Foe, February-April 1917 (Part III)

A continuation of: Plunkett’s Turbulence: Count Plunkett and his Return to Ireland, January-February 1917 (Part II)

Tensions Brew

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.

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Count Plunkett

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.”[1]

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.

Kevin O’Shiel

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:

O'Shiel2
Kevin O’Shiel

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’.”[2]

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.

William O’Brien

Fitzwilliam
26 Upper Fitzwilliam Street

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.

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William 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”[3] – 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.[4]

Factions

Michael-Collins-1
Michael Collins

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.

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Arthur Griffith

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.

Locking Horns

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.

027_rory_oconnor
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.[5]

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.”[6]

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].

ed92-countplunkettposterad1

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.[7]

Thrown Out

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.

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The Mansion House, Dublin

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.[8]

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.

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The Count and Countess Plunkett

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.[9]

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:

Dear Sir,

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.

Please do what you can as soon as possible.[10]

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.[11] 

Rejects

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?[12]

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.

Eamon
(left to right) Éamon de Valera, Count Plunkett, Arthur Griffith and Austin Stack

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?”[13]

priests
Priests  at Maynooth University

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.”[14]

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.”[15]

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.”[16]

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Count Plunkett

‘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.”

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Father Michael O’Flanagan, one of the Count’s most ardent clerical supporters

Also writing to the Irish Independent 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.”[17]

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.”[18]

Moving Onwards

plunkettCount 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.”[19]

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…

To be continued in: Plunkett’s Gathering: Count Plunkett and His Mansion House Convention, 19th April 1917 (Part IV)

 

References

[1] O’Shiel, Kevin (BMH / WS 1770), Part V, pp. 29-30

[2] Ibid, pp. 31-2

[3] MacEoin, Uinseann, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980), pp. 22-3

[4] O’Brien, (WS 1776), pp. 98-101, 108 ; O’Brien, William, Forth the Banners go: Reminiscences of William O’Brien, as told to Edward MacLysaght (Dublin: The Three Candles Limited, 1969), p. 148

[5] O’Brien, Forth the Banners go, p. 135 ; O’Brien (WS 1776), pp. 101-103, 108 ; Little, Patrick (BMH / WS 1769), pp. 21-2

[6] FJ, 03/03/1917

[7] Irish Times, 06/03/1917 ; Irish Independent, 06/03/1917

[8] FJ, 06/03/1917

[9] Irish Times, 19/03/1917

[10] Count Plunkett Papers, National Library of Ireland (NLI), MS 11,383/3/11

[11] O’Shiel, pp. 33-4

[12] Cork Examiner, 02/04/1917 ; Sligo Independent, 14/04/1917 ; Irish Independent, 28/03/1917 ; Evening Telegraph, 16/04/1917

[13] Freeman’s Journal, 16/04/1917 ; Evening Telegraph, 16/04/1917

[14] NLI, MS 11,383/4/6

[15] Ibid, MS 11,383/4/3

[16] Ibid, MS 11,383/4/2

[17] Irish Independent, 17/04/1917

[18] Ibid, 18/04/1917

[19] NLI, MS 11,383/1/7

 

Bibliography

Books

MacEoin, Uinseann, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980)

O’Brien, William, Forth the Banners go: Reminiscences of William O’Brien, as told to Edward MacLysaght (Dublin: The Three Candles Limited, 1969)

Newspapers

Cork Examiner

Evening Telegraph

Freeman’s Journal

Irish Independent

Irish Times

Sligo Independent

Bureau of Military History Statements

Little, Patrick, WS 1769

O’Brien, William, WS 1776

O’Shiel, Kevin, WS 1770

National Library of Ireland Collection

Count Plunkett Papers

Plunkett’s Turbulence: Count Plunkett and his Return to Ireland, January-February 1917 (Part II)

A continuation of: Plunkett’s Rising: Count Plunkett and His Family on the Road to Revolution, 1913-7 (Part I)

Failure to Comply

royal-dublin-society-rds-90It 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.[1]

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.”[2]

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Count George Noble Plunkett

Forced Resignation

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.

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The Royal Dublin Society (front)

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?

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William Field

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.[3]

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.[4]

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.”[5]

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The Royal Dublin Society (interior)

Unconventional

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.[6]

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.

plunkett_cartoon
Cartoon of Count Plunkett

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.[7]

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.

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Laurence Ginnell

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.[8]

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.

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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.”[9]

‘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.’

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Joseph Mary Plunkett

“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.[10]

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.

Count Cypher

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.

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The Count and Joseph Plunkett

(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.[11])

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.[12]

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Arthur Grffith

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.[13]

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.[14]

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.

william_x-_o27brien
William O’Brien

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.[15]

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.

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Rory O’Connor

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.[16]

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.

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Count Plunkett

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.[17]

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.

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Boyle, Co. Roscommon, in the blizzard of 1947

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.

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Father Michael O’Flanagan

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.[18]

‘Up Roscommon!’

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.[19]

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.[20]

plunkett“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.”[21])

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!”

broadstone_dublin_jan_3_200
Broadstone Station

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

Fitzwilliam
26 Upper Fitzwilliam Street

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.[22]

The Sinn Féin Candidate?

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‘The Resurrection by Hungary’ by Arthur Griffith (1904)

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.[23]

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.[24]

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.

To be continued in: Plunkett’s Agenda: Count Plunkett against Friend and Foe, February-April 1917 (Part III)

 

References

[1] Freeman’s Journal, 15/01/1917

[2] Ibid, 16/01/1917

[3] Ibid, 19/01/1917

[4] Ibid, 22/01/1917

[5] Laffan, Michael. The Resurrection of Ireland: The Sinn Féin Party, 1916-1923 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 79

[6] FJ, 23/01/1917

[7] Laffan, Moira. Count Plunkett and his Times (1992), p. 13 ; Tynan, Katharine, Twenty-Five Years: Reminisces (New York: The Devin-Adair Company, 1913), p. 383

[8] FJ, 27/01/1917

[9] Ibid, 01/02/1917

[10] Roscommon Herald, 03/02/2017

[11] Irish Press, 15/03/1948

[12] Nugent, Laurence (BMH / WS), p. 67

[13] O’Shiel, Kevin (BMH / WS 1770), Part V, pp. 28-9

[14] Ua Caomhanaigh, Seamus (BMH / WS 889), p. 116

[15] O’Brien, William, Forth the Banners go: Reminiscences of William O’Brien, as told to Edward MacLysaght (Dublin: The Three Candles Limited, 1969), pp. 124, 139-40

[16] Nugent, p. 70

[17] O’Brien, Forth the Banners go, p. 141

[18] Nugent, pp. 72-4

[19] Ibid, p. 76

[20] Curran, M. (BMH / WS 687), pp. 199-200

[21] Talbot, Hayden (preface by De Búrca, Éamonn) Michael Collins’ Own Story (Dublin: Edmund Burke Publisher, 2012), p. 40

[22] Irish Times, 07/02/1917

[23] O’Doherty, Kitty (BMH / WS 355), p. 37 ;  O’Kelly, Seán T. (BMH / WS 1765), p. 120

[24] Roscommon Herald, 10/02/1917

 

Bibliography

Books

Laffan, Michael. The Resurrection of Ireland: The Sinn Féin Party, 1916-1923 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)

Laffan, Moira. Count Plunkett and his Times (1992)

O’Brien, William. Forth the Banners go: Reminiscences of William O’Brien, as told to Edward MacLysaght (Dublin: The Three Candles Limited, 1969)

Talbot, Hayden (preface by De Búrca, Éamonn) Michael Collins’ Own Story (Dublin: Edmund Burke Publisher, 2012)

Tynan, Katharine. Twenty-Five Years: Reminisces (New York: The Devin-Adair Company, 1913)

Newspapers

Freeman’s Journal

Irish Press

Irish Times

Roscommon Herald

Bureau of Military History Statements

Curran, M., WS 687

Nugent, Laurence, WS 907

O’Doherty, Kitty, WS 355

O’Kelly, Seán T., WS 1765

O’Shiel, Kevin, WS 1770

Ua Caomhanaigh, Seamus, WS 889