Many republicans watching this week’s shambolic events at the Dublin parliament would have been bitterly aware that they came on the 92nd anniversary of the inauguration of the First Dail. A look back at that historic day.
The First Dail (Irish: An Chead Dail) was Dail Eireann as it convened from 1919-1921. In 1919 candidates who had been elected in the Westminster elections of 1918 refused to recognise the Parliament of the United Kingdom and instead assembled as a unicameral, revolutionary parliament called “Dail Eireann”.
In 1918 Ireland was a part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and was represented in the British House of Commons by 105 MPs. From 1882-1918 most Irish MPs were members of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) who strove in several Home Rule Bills to achieve self-government for Ireland within the United Kingdom through the constitutional movement for reform. This approach put the Third Home Rule Act 1914 on the statute book but the implementation of this legislation was temporarily postponed with the outbreak of the First World War. In the meantime the more radical Sinn Fein movement grew in strength.
Sinn Fein’s founder, Arthur Griffith, believed that nationalists should emulate the means by which Hungarian nationalists had achieved partial independence from Austria. In 1867, led by Ferenc Deak, Hungarian representatives had boycotted the Imperial parliament in Vienna and unilaterally established their own legislature in Budapest. The Austrian government had eventually become reconciled to this new state of affairs which became known as an Ausgleich or “compromise”. Members of Sinn Fein also, however, supported achieving separation from Britain by means of an armed uprising if necessary.
Between the Easter Rising of 1916 and the 1918 general election, Sinn Fein’s popularity was increased dramatically by the execution of most of the leaders of the 1916 rebels, the party’s reorganisation in 1917 and by its opposition to military conscription in Ireland (see Conscription Crisis of 1918). The party was also aided by the 1918 Representation of the People Act which increased the Irish electorate from around 700,000 to about two million.
Voting in the 1918 general election occurred in most constituencies on 14 December and elections were held almost entirely under the traditional ‘first-past-the-post’ system. Sinn Fein won 73 out of the 105 Irish seats in the Westminster parliament, including 25 uncontested without a ballot.
Once elected the Sinn Fein MPs chose to follow through with their Manifesto’s plan of abstention from the Westminster parliament and instead assembled as a revolutionary parliament they called “Dail Eireann”: the Irish for “Assembly of Ireland”. Unionists and members of the IPP refused to recognise the Dail, and three Sinn Fein candidates had been elected in two different constituencies, so the First Dail consisted of a total of seventy Deputies or “TDs”. Forty-three of these were absent from the inaugural meeting as they were imprisoned or on the run from the British. Six Sinn Fein MPs were elected in what are now the Six Counties. Of these two also held seats in other parts of the country.
The first meeting of Dail Eireann occurred on 21 January 1919 in the Round Room of the Mansion House: the residence of the Lord Mayor in Dublin. It attracted huge crowds and there was an air of anticipation and high excitement around the Mansion House as the time (3.30pm) approached for the inaugural meeting.
Orderly queues formed in Dawson Street, visitors’ tickets had been already distributed and the Round Room was soon crammed. Those occupying vantage points in neighbouring windows were by no means all Sinn Fein sympathisers -- they included police chiefs and several military officers.
A piquant touch was added to the occasion as a group of ex-POW Royal Dublin Fusiliers left a reception in their honour in the Mansion House just before the Sinn Fein people moved in. This caused a local trader to remark, to some laughter, “no city in Europe can beat Dublin after all!” I nside the building there were more than twice as many journalists (from European, North American, British and Irish newspapers) as the newly-elected representatives.
As the meeting began, there was loud applause when the elected members took their seats. As Ceann Comhairle [Chairperson], Cathal Brugha dominated the two-hour session and set the uncompromising tone. A severely-wounded hero of 1916, he was destined to die in a last stand at the start of the Civil War.
The Irish Times noted that the Sinn Fein representatives were nearly “all young men, there being no grey hairs among them and very few wrinkled brows”. They were obviously highly conscious of the historic significance of the event as they set about, in Cathal Brugha’s words, “the most important task since the Gaels came to Ireland”.
Being the first and highly symbolic meeting, the proceedings of the Dail were conducted for the only time entirely in the Irish language, except for previously drafted declarations that were repeated in other languages as well.
A number of short documents were adopted. These were the:
From its first meeting the Dail also set about attempting to secure de facto authority for the Irish Republic throughout the country. This included the establishment of a parallel judicial system known as the Dail Courts.
In September 1919 the Dail was declared illegal by the British authorities and thereafter met only intermittently and at various locations. The First Dail held its last meeting on 10 May 1921. After elections on 24 May the Dail was succeeded by the Second Dail which sat for the first time on 16 August.
The First Dail and the general election of 1918 have come to occupy an important place in Irish republicanism. The 1918 general election was the last occasion on which the entire island of Ireland voted in a single election held on a single day. The landslide victory for Sinn Fein was seen as an overwhelming endorsement by the Irish people of a united, independent, sovereign Ireland.
Ireland’s War of Independence followed.