The history of Sinn Féin
The second part of our feature on the history of the Sinn Féin movement in its centenary year.



The 1921 Ard-Fheis of Sinn Féin showed a steady increase of membership, the number of Cumainn affiliated up to date being close on 1,500. At this Ard-Fheis, Mrs Wyse-Power and Eamonn Duggan were elected Treasurers and given custody of the funds of Sinn Féin, made up of affiliation fees and monies subscribed by the public. A resolution pledging allegiance to Dail Eireann was passed.

On July 11, 1921 came the Truce. In December, 1921 the so-called Treaty. Forces were divided. In rejecting the Treaty, Mr de Valera said: “I stand definitely for the Irish Republic, as it was established in 1916 -as it was constitutionally established by the Irish Nation in 1919, and I stand for that definitely, and I will stand by no policy whatever, that is not consistent with that - we will, as in the past, stick to the Sinn Féin Constitution.”

All the women in the Dail opposed the Treaty, but by a majority of seven, the Republic was surrendered.

A special Ard-Fheis of Sinn Féin was held in the Mansion House, Dublin, on February 21 and 22, 1922 for the following purpose: “To interpret the Constitution of Sinn Féin with reference to the situation created by the signing at London, of the Articles of Agreement for a Treaty, and the approval of Dail Eireann by 64 votes to 57, and to decide the policy of Sinn Féin in view of possible forthcoming elections.”

On the second day a draft agreement, prepared by de Valera and Griffith, was submitted to the Ard-Fheis and passed without a dissentient. The text of the Agreement was as follows:

“In order to avoid a division of the Sinn Féin Organisation, and to avert an opportunity to the signatories of the London Agreement to draft a Constitution, so that when the people are asked to vote at elections to decide between the Republic and the Saorstat the Constitution of the latter may be definitely before them.

It is hereby agreed:

1. This Ard-Fheis shall stand adjourned for three months.

2. That in the meantime:

a. The Officer Board of the organisation shall act as a Standing Committee.

b. Dail Eireann shall meet regularly and continue to function in all its departments as before the signing of the Articles of Agreement, and that no vote in Dail Eireann shall be regarded as a Party vote requiring the resignation of the President and Cabinet.

c. That in the meantime no Parliamentary Election shall be held, and that when held the constitution of the Saorstat in its final form shall be presented at the same time as the Articles of Agreement.

3. That this Agreement shall be submitted to the Ard-Fheis, and if approved shall be binding.

This Agreement was ratified by Dail Eireann on March 2.

It was not until May 1922 that the pre-election “Pact” was drafted by de Valera and Collins. When this “Pact” was broken by Collins, de Valera -- who had been appointed sole trustee of Sinn Féin funds by a resolution of the Standing Committee in February 1922 -- wrote to the Treasurers (both of whom supported the Treaty) for a list of assets, deposit receipts, etc. The return correspondence was evasive, the only result being the closing down by Mrs Wyse-Power and Eamonn Duggan (Treasurers) of the Headquarters at 6 Harcourt Street, and the lodging of the funds -- then amounting to #8,610 5s 11d in Chancery without any reference whatever to the Officer Board of Sinn Féin, or any authority from an Ard-Fheis of Ard-Chomhairle. Austin Stack and Harry Boland, Honorary Secretaries, wrote to the Treasurers protesting against this action and continued, despite the closing down, to address their correspondence as from 6 Harcourt Street.

It has to be borne in mind in considering the comparative inactivity of Sinn Féin at this juncture, that during the whole period there was violent conflict and open war; that on July 30 Harry Boland, Honorary Secretary of Sinn Féin was fatally shot by Free State troops at Skerries, that on July 5, Cathal Brugha fell fighting in Dublin; that on August 22, Michael Collins was killed in action in Cork. Later Seamus Devins, TD, died fighting in the West; Joseph McDonagh died on being transferred from Mountjoy Jail to the Mater Hospital and Dr Ferran died in the Curragh Internment Camp. Moreover, Padraig O’Keeffe, the paid Secretary of Sinn Féin, was now Governor of Mountjoy Jail, and his attitude towards Sinn Féin need not be stressed.

The difficulties created by the withholding of the funds at this critical time cannot be overestimated and in June 1923 the number of Cumainn affiliated fell to 16, and a re-organising committee was set up to cope with this debacle.

This organising committee was conducted from Sinn Féin Publicity Bureau at 23 Suffolk Street and proved so successful that Sinn Féin decided to contest seats at the General Election in August 1923, and put forward 87 candidates on an abstentionist policy. The Manifesto issued stated that: “The Sinn Féin candidates in this election, stand as they have stood in every election since 1917, for the unity and untrammelled independence of Ireland.”

Of the 87 chosen, 64 were prevented from addressing their constituents by reason of being in prison or “on the run” de Valera himself and the Director of Elections were among those arrested. In the net result 44 Sinn Féin candidates were elected, an increase of 8 over the number elected in June 1922 and although Free State military and police continued a campaign of persecution, successful meetings continued a campaign of persecution, successful meetings continued to be held, and two more seats were won in bye-elections in November 1924: Sean Lemass, Dublin, and Dr Madden, Mayo.

At the Ard-Fheis on October 16, 630 Cumainn were represented. A week later 424 political prisoners in Mountjoy went on hunger-strike, and hunger-strikers in Newbridge, Kilmainham and other camps and prisons followed immediately.

Sinn Féin’s activities focused around the prisoners and their dependants. At a meeting of the Ard-Chomhairle in the Mansion House on November 29, 1923, figures were submitted showing that affiliated Cumainn had increased to 729, including three in England, and representing every county in Ireland except Tyrone and Fermanagh.

One of the resolutions dealt with “the withholding of Sinn Féin funds, by persons who were no longer members”.

In February 1924 three bye-elections were contested until the Sinn Féin vote had increased considerably. In the same month Sinn Féin decided to boycott the Tailteann Games unless the prisoners were released, on the grounds that when Aonach Tailteann was agreed on in 1921 de Valera was elected Honorary President and now in 1924 he and 1,200 other Republicans were in jail, so the Games would not be representative of the National sentiment and would give visitors a false impression.

In July 1924, though Fermanagh still had no Cumainn, Tyrone had six, and in the same month de Valera and Austin Stack who had been interned were released, and a highly successful meeting was held in Ennis on August 15. An Ard-Fheis was fixed for November 4, 1924. More than 1,000 Cumainn were in existence. All attempts to kill Sinn Féin had failed.

Lectures were printed and distributed to the Cumainn and an employment bureau for ex-internees was set up.

At the bye-elections early in 1925 two more Teachtai were elected -- Oscar Traynor in Dublin and Sam Holt in Sligo-Leitrim -- showing a steady revival of Republican spirit. About this time it was decided to commemorate officially on Easter Sunday each year all those who gave their lives for the freedom of Ireland in 1916 and afterwards.


About July 1925, whatever the reason, it was reported by the Director of Organisation -- Eamonn Donnelly -- that there was a falling-off in enthusiasm and that the organisation in Limerick, Clare and Tipperary was not in a healthy condition. Great Britain was visited by Austin Stack and Art O’Connor and cheering reports came from them “that Sinn Féin was the only National Organisation, officially recognised in England and Scotland.”

In this month the Ard-Chomhairle instructed all members to refuse to vote at the forthcoming election of Senators to the Free State Parliament and the election proved little better than a fiasco.

On November 17,18 and 19 was held the Ard-Fheis which had been postponed from October. To it was submitted the Cahirciveen resolution, calling for an undertaking from Sinn Féin deputies “to enter only a Republican Parliament for all Ireland”. The majority of the delegates clearly favooured it. It was persistently opposed by de Valera.

After two days speechmaking it was agreed that no change be made for the present in the policy of the organisation, in view of the fact that for two months previously what was called a “Sinn Féin platform” was being hammered out by a sub-committee, with Father O’Flanagan as Chairman and JJ O’Kelly (Sceilg) as Secretary. De Valera, who was a member of the Committee, was absent from most of the meetings, his absence being explained by illness.

The findings of this Committee , though duly published, were never implemented. When early in 1926 de Valera proposed to the Ard-Chomhairle that an extraordinary Ard-Fheis be held on March 10, strained relations were already evident among members of the Standing Committee many of whom saw -- too late -- the need there had been for the Cahirciveen resolution.

De Valera’s motion to this Ard-Fheis showed clearly his eagerness to enter Leinster House if the Oath was removed. This motion was countered by an amendment by Father O’Flanagan, repudiating the idea of entrance to a partition parliament on any terms. But, though this was carried as an amendment, it did not get the requisite majority when put as a substantive motion. A composite committee was then set up in an effort to restore harmony and arrive at some agreement by which the former unity of the Sinn Féin organisation could be maintained.

It was agreed that copies of the findings of this committee should be sent to the Ard-Chomhairle of Sinn Féin and to the Second Dail. De Valera then and there resigned the Presidency of Sinn Féin, and soon founded Fianna Fail, after which he was deposed from the Presidency of Dail Eireann, the Government of the Republic. Having announced his intention to enter the Free State Parliament only if the Oath to the King of England were removed, he soon led his Party into the usurpers house, swallowed the Oath, and swung into Power over the backs of the Republican prisoners with the slogan: “Put them in to get them out”.

At a subsequent meeting of the Ard-Chomhairle of Sinn Féin a resolution was passed calling on all Teachtai who has embraced the “new departure” to hand in their resignations, as members of Dail Eireann to the Ceann Comhairle (Sceilg), and to notify Sinn Féin Secretaries that they no longer represented the Organisation which had nominated them and secured their election, and to refund their election deposits which were supplied by Sinn Féin. This the Fianna Fail deputies refused to do, denying that they owed their election or election deposits to the Sinn Féin Organisation.

Some years later -- July 1933 -- Mr de Valera, speaking in Leinster House on the subject of the Republican funds -- which included American Bonds -- said: “I stated the moneys belong to the Second Dail -- I believe it. If in 1927, when we were still outside this House, we had got a majority in the election, we would have summoned the Second Dail and accounted to it. The money had been subscribed for an Irish Republic for all Ireland; the Free State is not that Republic for all Ireland; the Free State is not that Republic, and the balance of the funds should not go to that State. Those who have continued in that Organisation (Sinn Féin) which we have left, can claim the same continuity that we claimed up to 1925. They can do it.”

In July 1947 a move was being made for the misappropriation of those funds then amounting to #25,000 by using them for pension purposes and Sinn Féin decided to contest the issue in the Law Courts in an attempt to defeat this move.

There is no gainsaying the fact that de Valera had a very substantial following and that his defection severely depleted the ranks of Sinn Féin.


We were left without resources -- there being only about #26 left in the Treasury -- and we soon had to evaluate the expensive headquarters in Suffolk Street and move to 16 Parnell Square. Those premises were burnt out and many of our historical documents lost. We led a roving existence for some time, holding our meetings in Dawson Street, Molesworth Street, etc and were subjected to raids by Free State troops who searched, or attempted to search those present, and confiscated documents and literature which were never returned.

In 1956, Sinn Féin pitted its strength against all the resources of Empire, and marched into its stolen territory -- the Six Counties -- claiming its right to represent every inch of Ireland by contesting on an abstentionist policy, every one of 12 constituencies in the Westminster General Election. Even one success in this historic field would do more to end, partition than all the lip-service of professional politicians.

The Organisation threw its full force into those elections, with the result, that not only one, but two seats were won -- by prisoner candidates -- Philip Clarke in Tyrone-Fermanagh, and Thomas Mitchell in Mid-Ulster -- a total of 152,310 votes being cast for Sinn Féin.

In addition the propaganda value of the campaign was enormous and the results were a severe shock to the Unionists, who at once lodged a petition to unseat Clarke on the grounds that “a convicted felon” serving over 12 months imprisonment is a disqualified person.

They knew this of course when his nomination was accepted, but they never visualised his return at the head of the poll.

The steps taken in Mitchell’s case were different: he was unseated by the British Imperial Parliament, and another bye-election was ordered. Sinn Féin once more nominated Mitchell, who was again returned, with over three times the majority he had in the General Election. This time the Unionists lodged a petition as in Clarke’s case, and in due course both were declared unseated and their seats awarded to their Unionist opponents. In a third Mid-Ulster election, Mitchell won 24,124 votes against Unionist and “Nationalist” opposition.

[to be continued]

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