It was a meeting that changed Irish history forever. But what was it like to be in the Mansion House on that fateful day? 

Dublin's Dawson Street was thronged with an excited crowd of spectators and journalists on the afternoon of Wednesday 21 January 1919. Some were invited guests, while others had been lucky enough to secure tickets for the historic first sitting of 'An Dáil Éireann’, notification of which had been appearing in the national press since early January.

Tickets could be obtained from Sinn Féin headquarters at 6 Harcourt Street where the ‘preparations for the opening caused great excitement and bustle’. Organizing had been further complicated on 11 January, when the police raided the premises and seized literature prepared for the Dáil’s first meeting.

Formal invitations were sent to every elected representative, including the Sinn Féin deputies imprisoned since May 1918 and the elected members of the Unionist and Home Rule parties.

'A small army of snap-shotters..'

Spectators began to assemble from 12 noon, and by 2.15pm a large crowd filled the square in front of the canopied door of the Mansion House. Some thirty Irish Volunteer stewards regulated the queue of ticket-holders that ranged as far as Molesworth Street.

The front entrance, reserved for the arriving members of parliament, was occupied by ‘a small army of snap-shotters … and the ubiquitous moving pictures operators’. 

‘Good humour and good order prevailed’ in Dawson Street according to the Freeman’s Journal, ‘and though police in some number were present, there was no necessity for their intervention’.

Crowds wait outside the Mansion House in 1919

A Kerry journalist noted that ‘early visitors who proceeded through Grafton Street to the Mansion House were surprised to find that popular thoroughfare decorated with Union Jacks.’ 

The flags lined the route between the Theatre Royal and the Mansion House, which at noon on the same day hosted a reception for approximately 500 repatriated Royal Dublin Fusiliers prisoners of war.

'Mingled portents'

The soldiers vacated the building at 2pm, allowing just enough time to reorganise the venue for the republican assembly. For the Freeman’s Journal, the unofficial organ of the Home Rule Party, the Union Jacks and Sinn Féin colours were ‘mingled portents’.

According to the Evening Herald, the dominant note amongst the crowd outside the Mansion House ‘was an air of anxious expectancy’. The atmosphere of anticipation influenced by the prospect of intervention by the authorities and an acute awareness of the significance of the event.

Representatives of the Dublin Metropolitan Police watched the arrivals, but did not intervene. 

Maud Gonne's arrival caused quite a stir

Maude Gonne McBride apparently caused quite a stir when she arrived, and in an early example of ‘fake news’, a Tipperary journalist falsely reported that the popular figure of Harry Boland ‘came in for a great ovation’. 

As the elected member the Roscommon South constituency, the crowd might have expected to see Boland, but he and Michael Collins were absent from Ireland as they busy planning the escape of Sinn Féin president, Éamon de Valera from Lincoln Jail in England.

Filled to capacity 

At three o’clock the doors of Dublin’s Mansion Mouse ‘were thrown open and in surged the populace’. They were ushered by Volunteer stewards into the splendour of the Round Room, an extravagant addition to the Mansion House erected in 1821 to receive King George IV during his visit to Dublin.

‘The first signs of a rush were quickly suppressed by the stewards,' wrote an Evening Herald journalist, 'and from that on the visitors took their seats and places with commendable precision.’ The immense circular chamber was filled to capacity and many commentators pointed out the predominance of ‘ladies of all ages’.

Inside the Mansion House at the First Dáil meeting

Among them was young republican Máire Comerford, for whom ‘the future [was] so full of hope’. The Nenagh Guardian noted that ‘young men from the nearby University’ were also numerous, and there was ‘a very large sprinkling of priests’. 

Arthur Griffith’s weekly paper Nationality provided an unsurprisingly optimistic description of the gathering as ‘young and fresh, seasoned by a well-balanced patriotism, which promises great things for the youngest democracy of the oldest of nations’. 

‘Through the subdued buzz of conversation’, wrote another journalist, ‘there was a sober anxious note; one was intensely conscious, both for oneself and the entire concourse that the scene that the scene was one which would go down in history’.

Miniature Flags

Prolonged cheers welcomed the republican members as they entered the Round Room shortly after 3.30, the women ‘particularly demonstrative in waving miniature flags and handkerchiefs." 

Dressed ‘in immaculate frock coat and looking the very epitome of a spruce man of business’, Count George Noble Plunkett led the procession of twenty-seven Sinn Féin TDs.

The cheers from the audience were ‘renewed again and again as other members came into view’. 

Having requested silence from the audience, Count Plunkett began proceedings by proposing Cathal Brugha as Ceann Comhairle, the Dáil's equivalent of the House of Commons's speaker. ‘We weren’t long in doubt’ wrote the Evening Herald, ‘as to how the proceedings would progress.'

The prayer read during the opening of the First Dáil in January 1919

Cathal Brugha opened in Irish, prayers for blessings on the Parliament were recited in Irish by Father O’Flanagan and the roll was called in Irish. Sixty-nine Sinn Féin candidates had been elected in 1918 (four of whom were elected for two constituencies).

Secret mission

Twenty-nine names were recorded as present, but the attendance of Boland and Collins was incorrectly recorded to conceal their mission to rescue de Valera from jail. David Kenny, Deputy for Cork East and James O'Meara, Deputy for Kilkenny South were absent through illness.

Diarmuid Lynch, Cork South East had been deported, Patrick McCartan, Deputy for Offaly, and Liam Mellows, Deputy for Galway East were in America. The remaining thirty-five Sinn Féin MPs were 'under lock and key in England’.

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Notable names amongst this number were Éamon de Valera, Arthur Griffith, Liam de Róiste, Countess Markievicz, Austin Stack, W.T. Cosgrave and Ernest Blythe. There was a moment of levity in the solemn proceedings when the reading of the name of Ulster Unionist leader Edward Carson (elected but most definitely not in attendance) was received with laughter.

Declaration of Independence

The first session lasted slightly less than two hours and when the meeting adjourned, the deputies had approved a short, provisional constitution for Dáil Éireann; appointed three delegates to the Paris conference; and read and adopted the three foundational texts.

The Declaration of Independence, a Message to the Free Nations of the World were given in Irish, French and English and the Democratic Programme only in Irish and English.

Cathal Brugha, the first acting President of the declared republic

The assembly reconvened in private session in the Oak Room of the Mansion House the following day with twenty-four TDs in attendance. Letters and telegrams of congratulations on the Declaration of Independence of the Irish Republic were read.

In the absence of Éamon de Valera, Cathal Brugha was chosen as acting President and Minister for Home Affairs, and Seán T. O’Kelly took over as speaker of the House.

Eoin Mac Neill was appointed as Minister for Finance, Plunkett for Foreign Affairs and Richard Mulcahy for Defence. Ireland had established its own independent government, whether Britain liked it or not. 

'We had burnt our boats now', wrote Máire Comerford, ‘There was no going back’. 

This article is based on The Atlas of the Irish Revolution edited by John Crowley, Donal Ó Drisceoil, Mike Murphy and John Borgonovo, and its contents do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ