Explainer: Establishing the First Dáil
The First Dáil met in public session in the Round Room of Dublin’s Mansion House on 21 January 1919. Proceedings began at 3.30pm when 27 men who had been elected as members to the Westminster parliament in the December 1918 general election gathered to proclaim Dáil Éireann as a legislative assembly for Ireland.
Background to the First Dáil
In the December 1918 general election, the Sinn Féin party won 73 of the 105 Westminster seats allocated to Ireland. As a number of Sinn Féin candidates contested – and won – in more than one constituency, 69 party members in all were elected. Each and every one of them was pledged to abstain from attendance at Westminster, the party’s election manifesto promising instead the establishment of a ‘constituency assembly’ of its own. Dáil Éireann delivered that assembly.
Who attended the first meeting of Dáil Éireann?
All victorious candidates in the 1918 election from Irish constituencies were invited to attend the First Dáil. Unsurprisingly, unionist MPs declined the offer, but so too did the 6 successful Irish parliamentary party candidates - they would boycott this and all subsequent sittings of the Dáil. As a result, the First Dáil effectively became the Sinn Féin Dáil, albeit the majority of their representatives were not in a position to attend on 21 January. Of the 69 Sinn Féin members elected in December 1918, only 27 were present at the first public sitting of the Dáil. Many others were in prison, on the run or on undercover missions.
Prominent absentees were Constance Markievicz (the first woman elected to the Westminster parliament) and Sinn Féin President, Éamon de Valera, both of whom were in prison in England. Absent too, though marked present, were Michael Collins and Harry Boland who at the time were in England organising de Valera’s escape – he would be sprung from Lincoln jail at the beginning of February 1919.
What happened at the first public meeting of Dáil Éireann?
The proceedings of the opening session of the First Dáil were conducted almost exclusively in the Irish language.
The opening voice heard on 21 January 1919 was that of Count Plunkett, TD for Roscommon North and father of Joseph Plunkett, the executed rebellion leader and 1916 proclamation signatory. Count Plunkett then nominated Cathal Brugha, TD for Waterford County and veteran of the 1916 Rising, to act as Ceann Comhairle or speaker for the Dáil. Brugha then called upon Fr. Michael O’Flanagan, Vice-president of Sinn Féin, to say a prayer.
Then, after a roll of members was read, the main business of the assembly was attended to. It involved the adoption of the provisional constitution of the Dáil, which provided for a President and four Ministries, as well as three key foundational texts: a Declaration of Independence, a Message to the Free Nations of the World which outlined the basis of Ireland’s claim to independence, and a Democratic Programme which set out a proposed social agenda of the new Republic.
The Declaration of Independence:
This declaration - read in Irish, English and French - made reference to the centuries of occupation and resistance, to the Easter Rising of 1916 and to the democratic mandate achieved at the previous month’s general election.
It reflected, in the words of historian Mary Daly, ‘the Dáil’s hybrid origins in revolution and in parliamentary democracy’. The declaration referred to the seven centuries through which the Irish people had repudiated and protested ‘in arms against foreign usurpation’, the holding of Ireland under English rule by ‘force and fraud and maintained by military occupation’ and how, acting on behalf of the Irish people, the Irish Republican army had proclaimed the Irish Republic on Easter Monday 1916. It was this Republic to which the ‘overwhelming majority’ of Irish people had given their allegiance in the December 1918 elections. The Declaration asserted that the right of the new parliament to represent the ‘ancient Irish people’, demanded the evacuation of the English garrison and claimed the ‘recognition and support of every free nation in the world, and we proclaim that independence to be a condition precedent to international peace hereafter.’
Message to the Free Nations of the World:
This document asserted Ireland’s right to self-determination ‘before the new world emerging from the War, because she believes in freedom and justice as the fundamental principles of international law’.
The message emphasised Irish antiquity and distinctiveness. Ireland was ‘one of the most ancient nations in Europe’ and different to England by virtue of its race, language, customs and traditions. Alongside the historical references was a very clear pitch to the present where Ireland’s assertion of the right to self-determination was rooted in the ‘fundamental principles of international law’ and in the interests of the creation of a ‘permanent peace of Europe’. Invoking Wilsonian rhetoric, the message was a direct address to the international community as Ireland, ‘at the dawn of the promised era of self-determination and liberty’ called upon ‘every free nation to uphold her national claim to complete independence as an Irish Republic’.
The Democratic Programme:
This was the final document presented to the first session and it too, like the documents presented before it, was international outlook and influence. It was drafted by Labour leader Thomas Johnson and re-written by Sinn Féin’s Seán T. O’Kelly and was inspired, in part, by Padraig Pearse’s The Sovereign People. The presentation of the programme signalled a keenness on the part of Sinn Féin to win the support of the labour movement for its republican agenda and acknowledge their role, by stepping aside in the December general election, in guaranteeing the Sinn Féin landslide.
The Democratic Programme asserted that Irish sovereignty extended not only to all men and women of the nation, but also to all the nation’s material possessions. It further asserted that ‘all right to private property must be subordinated to the public right and welfare.’
It echoed some of the social democratic elements of the 1916 Rising and set out the various responsibilities of the state for which it sought international recognition. The ‘first duty’ of the government of the Irish Republic, the programme declared, would be to ‘make provision for the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of the children, to secure that no child shall suffer hunger or cold from lack of food, clothing, or shelter, but that all shall be provided with the means and facilities requisite for their proper education and training as Citizens of a Free and Gaelic Ireland.’ Other duties included the abolition of the ‘odious, degrading and foreign Poor Law System’ and its replacement with a ‘sympathetic native scheme for the care of the Nation's aged and infirm’, the duty to promote and develop the Nation’s resources and determine ‘a standard of Social and Industrial Legislation with a view to a general and lasting improvement in the conditions under which the working classes live and labour.’
How many times did the First Dáil meet and what did it do?
The First Dáil met 14 times throughout 1919 and only 21 times in total between January 1919 and its final meeting on 10 May 1921.
The second meeting of the Dáil took place the day after the first, except this time it was in private session. 24 TDs were in attendance and letters and telegrams of congratulation on the Declaration of Independence of the Irish Republic were read. This meeting also approved the following appointment as Ministers:
President – Cathal Brugha
Finance Minister – Prof. Eoin Mac Neill (the TD, Piaras Béaslaí, dissented in regard to this appointment)
Home Affairs Minister – Michael Collins
Foreign Affairs Minister – Count Plunkett
National Defence Minister – Richard Mulcahy
In addition, Seán T. O’Kelly was appointed speaker of the House.
More than two months passed until the Dáil met again: its third meeting did not occur until 1 April 1919. It would prove the best attended of any, as it followed the March release of the Sinn Féin men and women who had been interned on trumped-up ‘German plot’ charges in May 1918. 52 members attended the Dáil’s third meeting, amongst them Constance Markievicz, imprisoned in Holloway jail the previous January, and Éamon de Valera, who had escaped from Lincoln Jail in February. De Valera was duly elected as President to replace Cathal Brugha, who assumed responsibility for the Defence portfolio in a revamped and enlarged Cabinet, which included Markievicz as Minister for Labour.
This meeting also addressed issues of TDs expenses to cover railway fares to and from Dáil meetings and a daily maintenance allowance. And on a standing order moved by Éamon de Valera, it was decided that a ‘quorum for conducting business at a meeting of Dáil shall consist of one half of the Deputies who have signed the Roll and who are in Ireland and not prevented from attendance by enemy action, or of 20 Deputies, whichever shall be the greater number.’
The work of Dáil Éireann in seeking recognition from the international community and assuming the responsibility for the practical operations of the state – from financing to trade to courts – led to its proscription by the British authorities on 10 September 1919. The British ban created both challenges and opportunities. On the one hand, it made it difficult and dangerous for members to attend meetings. On the other, the efforts to suppress the Dáil proved of tremendous propagandist value to Irish republicans abroad.
Both of these points were raised in the final meeting of the Dáil for 1919, held on 27 October. Meeting in private session in the Mansion House, the Acting President Arthur Griffith (he deputised for de Valera after he departed for America in June) stated:
‘Since our last meeting over two months ago, Dáil Éireann, a body composed of the elected representatives of the Irish people, has been proclaimed a dangerous association by the enemy. In convening this meeting, the Ministry sent out a peremptory request to certain members not to attend because there was a possibility that the attendance of these members might involve imprisonment. There are some members whose health would not stand the strain, and there are others who must retain their liberty to carry on the work of the Dáil.
The period since last session has been one of strenuous activity by the Enemy Government. On the 13th September they made a general raid throughout the country, issued a Proclamation suppressing Sinn Féin, The Irish Volunteers, The Gaelic League, Cumann na mBan, and the Sinn Féin Clubs, and this Proclamation was promptly followed up by the suppression of the National Press. The effect of these proclamations and suppressions has been of tremendous usefulness to the campaign in the United States of America. The President's letters testify to that. I regard all these acts which succeed each other in regular procession as of the greatest assistance to our efforts in the United States, and it is there that the centre of gravity of the whole political situation is for the present fixed.'