Opinion: 1918 was a year of civic action, the end of war in Europe, women voting for the first time and a groundbreaking election result

2018 will mark the anniversary of a number of major events with far-reaching consequences as we enter the second phase of the decade of centenaries. This year’s centenaries focus our minds on civic actions, the end of war and a major democratic landmark in our history as women voted for the first time. However, just as the Easter Rising is best understood in the context of the first World War, little that we commemorate this year will make sense without engaging with wider social and political shifts taking place around the globe.

Post-Rising Ireland

As 1918 opened and franchise legislation received Royal Assent on 6 February, the Irish Convention, called to settle the home rule question, was coming towards to its conclusion. Like other efforts since 1912, it would fail to find a solution to the opposing wishes of nationalists and unionists. Amidst the Convention’s final meetings, its most significant advocate and Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) leader John Redmond passed away on March 6. The leader of Irish nationalism since 1900, Redmond had enjoyed a long and successful political career, but left behind a party battling a revitalised Sinn Féin.

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British Pathé footage of attendees arriving for the Irish Convention at Trinity College Dublin

April saw the British government attempt to extend compulsory military service to Ireland. Such a move was swiftly opposed by the IPP, Sinn Féin, Cumann na mBan, labour groups and the Catholic Church. Rallies were held around the country from rural villages to major urban centres as Irishmen and Irishwomen demonstrated defiant opposition to the measure. 

A general nationwide strike was called for April 23 and women’s groups organised "Lá na mBan" for June 9. The significance of this movement cannot be understated and almost a century later, it serves to highlight the power of organised civic action. The government ultimately abandoned the proposals. The IPP, having endorsed voluntary military service in 1914, gained no credit for opposing forced service as Sinn Féin gathered momentum.

A Cumann na mBan protest outside Mountjoy Gaol in Dublin in 1920

With just eleven days to go until Christmas in 1918, voters across Ireland and Britain went to the polls. It was a momentous election by any measure, as the franchise was extended for the first time to women aged 30 and older with property qualifications and to all men aged 21. In Ireland, it also signified a major changing of the political guard as Sinn Féin swept to victory over the Irish Parliamentary Party.

An end to war

The German spring offensive, which prompted the British to consider conscription in Ireland, receded and war finally ended with the Armistice signed on November 11. As detailed in the recent efforts to reassert the centrality of Irish war involvement in the historical narrative, the conflict exercised a heavy toll on many Irish families that lost loved ones at the front, while thousands others returned to a changed country.

As war ended, nationalists around the world clamoured for recognition and even Herbert Asquith "recanted" his previous opposition to women’s suffrage, citing their wartime contribution. The ideas of US President Woodrow Wilson energised people across Europe and beyond, as he promised self-determination for small nations and extended voting rights in a world to be "made safe for democracy".

Women on the home front

As historians such as Margaret Ward and Senia Pašeta have pointed out, Irish women had played active roles in the Ladies’ Land League and had been instrumental, along with counterparts in Britain, in the campaign for suffrage. However, although individual members had been favourable to women’s suffrage, the IPP had been unwilling to force the issue on the British Liberal government before the war. 

In 1918, women contributed to the campaigns of Sinn Féin, the IPP and the Unionist Party by organising, canvassing, and updating electoral registers Yet the IPP lagged behind the other two parties in its engagement of women activists. It fielded no female candidates while Sinn Féin put forward two women: Constance Markievicz, who was victorious in the Dublin St Patrick’s constituency and the first woman elected to the British parliament, and Winifred Carney, who represented Sinn Féin in Belfast Victoria.

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From The History Show on RTÉ Radio One, author Lindie Naughton discusses how history has viewed the artist, playwright, theatre director and activist Constance Markievicz

The 1918 election

While the IPP’s role in the development of political culture in Ireland remains significant, it had been displaced by 1918 by Sinn Féin as the voice of nationalism. The party clearly lacked its opponent’s dynamism and Eileen Davitt scoffed at the idea that the IPP carried on the work of her father’s generation. Its organisation had decayed during the war and it was unused to facing contests in many constituencies. 

Rebuilding work in May 1918 on Dublin's Sackville Street (now O'Connell Street). Photo: R. Humphrey/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Fatally undermined by the failure to achieve home rule, it was reduced to just six MPs in Ireland. Although it still retained support, the IPP was ruthlessly punished under the first-past-the-post electoral system. Only one of its successes was outside Ulster; its survival there was aided by an electoral pact brokered to avoid splitting the nationalist vote in unionist areas. As Labour stood side, Sinn Féin won spectacularly and took 73 seats. It set its eyes on the Paris Peace Conference and would abstain from Westminster, instead establishing the first Dáil on 21 January 1919.

In 1918, Ireland was very much part of a global mood of excitement and change after the destruction of the previous four years; as future centenaries should note, it would not be alone in facing violence in the years which followed either. However, in the hopeful first months of a post-war world, for many of the men and women who voted on 14 December, Sinn Féin had emerged as the Irish face of self-determination.

Martin O’Donoghue is academic director of the Parnell Summer School which will take place in Avondale, Co Wicklow in August 2018 on the theme of "Democracy Triumphant?"

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ