The History of Sinn Féin
The History of Sinn Féin

One hundred years ago this year, the Sinn Féin Organisation was formally established at a Convention of the National Council, held in the Rotunda, Dublin, on November 28, 1905, under the chairmanship of Edward Martyn. The impact of the British regime for so long aided and abetted by the so-called ‘National’ education system, based on British Imperialistic ideas, had practically obliterated the idea of separate nationhood.

Arthur Griffith, who had been ploughing a lonely furrow in the columns of his paper the United Irishman (partly financed by the IRB) was the mainspring of this new party. He gathered round him a small group of nationally-minded men and women, mainly recruited from the Celtic Literary Society, Inghinidhe na hEireann and the Gaelic League, all functioning at the time in very restricted fields, but all determined to restore and build up the National morale. Under the motto “Sinn Féin” the organisation was launched from which emerged the movement that converted Ireland from being one of the British Isles into a 32-County Republic.

The title “Sinn Féin” had its origin in a small newssheet, published in Oldcastle, Co Meath, in 1902-3, by Maire Ni Bhuitleir (Mrs O Nuallaion). She suggested the name to Arthur Griffith for a National Revival movement -- she was a language enthusiast -- and he adopted it.

The policy of “Sinn Féin” was laid on constitutional lines, following the economic doctrines of Fredrich Liszt, a German economist, and aimed at making Ireland independent industrially, as well as agriculturally. National independence, in every sense of the term, being the permanent idea.

Within a few months Belfast had set up over 20 branches and the movement in Dublin and Cork was going from strength to strength. The weekly paper Sinn Féin edited by Griffith, continued its propaganda, and fearlessly ranged itself on the side of all victims of political or religious intolerance. With little backing and less resources, a Sinn Féin Co-Operative Bank was set up and did well for a time.

Only supreme courage, and implicit faith in Ireland’s destiny, stimulated those pioneers -- among them were a few old Fenians -- and carried them on through the years from 1906 to 1916. The work accomplished was mainly cultural, though they did contest and gain a few seats at Municipal elections and the platform afforded by those elections was availed of for furtherance of the Sinn Féin policy, and appeals for the restoration of the Irish language.

Even in those early years a change was taking place in the character of the organisation; in 1910 Sean Mac Dermott published a fortnightly paper called Irish Freedom, a definitely Republican organ, carrying all the marks of the IRB (Irish Republican Brotherhood) with its slogan: “Damn your concessions England, we want our country.” This departure was a shock to those who regarded Sinn Féin and its associates as being merely academic.

The 1914 World War showed very emphatically the side on which Sinn Féin stood, and the threat of conscription was met by stout resistance from every creed and class in the community. The Irish Labour movement staged a one-day strike, which was the most spectacular and complete demonstration ever seen in Ireland, and an anti-conscription pledge was signed by the nationally-minded people in practically every Parish throughout the country. At a meeting in the Mansion House, Dublin, it was declared:

“That the passing of the Conscription Bill by the British House of Commons must be regarded as a declaration of War on the Irish Nation.”

A manifesto from the Bishops of Ireland stressed and supported this view, styling the Bill “an oppressive and inhuman law which the Irish people have a right to resist by every means, consonant with the law of God.” The tiny seed planted by Sinn Féin was taking root.

The Rising of 1916 removed any doubts as to the organisation’s Republican outlook, though it had little influence at the time. The caption “Sinn Féin Rebellion” and the title “Sinn Féiners” were really imposed on the Irish Volunteers and the IRB who were responsible for the Insurrection. Sinn Féin as a civil organisation had no military commitments.


The winter of 1917 cast the shadow of famine over Europe and Sinn Féin took steps to ensure that cattle, oats, butter, etc would not be exported to the detriment of the Irish people. It set up a Sinn Féin Food Council. This action increased the popularity of Sinn Féin and helped materially to conserve food supplies for home use.

Deportees of the Rising were being released by February 1917 and in that month a by-election occurred in Roscommon. Count Plunkett then an internee in Oxford, was asked to stand as candidate. He was elected, and his election was taken as an endorsement by the people, of the Rising of 1916. Father Michael O’Flanagan, a curate from Crosna did Trojan work during this campaign. He continued, up to his death a few years ago, as a staunch Sinn Féiner, and was both President and Vice-President of the organisation at various times.

In April 1917, a bye-election was won at Longford by Joe McGuinness. In July, Eamonn de Valera won a seat in Clare. In August, WT Cosgrave was successful in Kilkenny. Arthur Griffith captured a seat in Cavan. The flame was spreading.

The first National Convention, at which a Republican Constitution of Sinn Féin was submitted, was held in Dublin on October 25 and 26, 1917. The Constitution was unanimously accepted and the following officers elected:

President: Eamonn de Valera.
Vice-Presidents: Rev M O Flanagan and Arthur Griffith.
Treasurers: WT Cosgrave and Larry Ginnell.
Secretaries: Austin Stack and Darrell Figgis (later Harry Boland)

Austin Stack retained his post as Honorary Secretary of Sinn Féin until his death in 1929.

An intensive organisational drive was undertaken in the winter of 1917 and met with great success. When the British parliament was dissolved in November, 1918 Sinn Féin was in a position to contest every seat, and did, except Trinity College, North Down and four other Ulster Constituencies, that, by agreement, were allocated to the Parliamentary Party.

Polling day was December 14 and John Dillon declared that “the Irish Party will fight Sinn Féin with all the resources at their disposal,” and of course they were considerable. Sinn Féin, on the other hand, was overwhelmed with disabilities. Over a hundred leaders were in jail, papers were suppressed, the Post Office held up literature, etc. In spite of all, when the results were declared on December 28, out of a total of 105 seats, Sinn Féin had won 73, Unionists 26, and the Irish Party 6. Dillon lost his seat to de Valera in Mayo.

There was no ambiguity about the Manifesto issued by Sinn Féin to the electorate. It plainly declared that Sinn Féin stood for sovereign independence and an Irish Republic, and pledged itself to “make use of any and every means available to render impotent the power of England, to hold Ireland in subjection, by military power or otherwise.”

On January 21, 1919 the first Dail Eireann met. The President of Sinn Féin, Mr de Valera, being in Lincoln Jail, Count Plunkett proposed that Cathal Brugha should preside, and Father O’Flanagan recited the prayer to the Holy Ghost for wisdom and guidance.

Of the 73 elected 36 were in jail. The Dail set up its various Ministries, and proceeded to legislate for the country. Austin Stack - Secretary of Sinn Féin - as Minister of Justice, set up law courts, and soon the King’s Writ no longer ran in Ireland.

Those Courts were availed of by the most unexpected litigants, and their decrees were carried out to the letter. Then the Black and Tans arrived; terror followed terror; the jails were filled; burnings and lootings by Crown Forces became frequent, but, through it all, the Sinn Féin Courts and the IRA operated with the help and backing of the Irish people at home and abroad.

On Armistice Day, 1920, the Partition Bill passed its third reading in the British House of Commons. In December, Arthur Griffith was arrested, and de Valera returned from America, where he had passed in triumph from State to State, as the representative of the Irish Republic.

[to be continued]

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