The first T.D.s were faced with a massive challenge when organising the first Dáil, from finding the perfect location to choosing the best way to declare Ireland's independence to the world. Here's how they did it.

The first formal meeting of Dáil Éireann was carefully planned by all the members of the Sinn Féin Executive who weren't actually in prison at the time. There was an urgency to their task - they wanted to ensure that that the newly elected Sinn Féin MPs met as a constituent national assembly prior to the opening of the new British Parliament at Westminster on 4 February.

Additionally, they wanted the Dublin meeting to coincide with the assembly of the Allied powers in Paris. As the Sinn Féin deputy for Wexford South James Ryan put it, 'our main business at the first session was to declare our independence to the world.’ 

The perfect location

Sean T O’Kelly, who would become Ireland's second President in 1945, was appointed chairman of the 'Committee of Arrangements’ responsible for arranging a location for meeting. ‘We had no difficulty’, he recalled, ‘in getting the use of the Mansion House for our Parliamentary assembly, as the then Lord Mayor, Laurence O'Neill was most friendly and sympathetic.’

The Mansion House had a long association with nationalist events

The centre of local politics in Dublin and the oldest mayoral residence in Ireland, the Mansion House was a venue with distinct symbolic significance. The Queen-Anne-style building was the oldest freestanding house in the capital and home to Daniel O’Connell during his time as Lord Mayor in 1841. It had also been the venue for numerous nationalist conventions and fundraisers, as well as the all-party anti-conscription conference on 18 April 1918.

The three key documents

The Sinn Féin Executive established sub-committees to draft the three key documents to be brought before the Dáil at its first meeting. These were the ‘Declaration of Independence’, a ‘Message to the Free Nations of the World’, and a ‘Democratic Programme’.

Each was carefully written with an international audience in mind. The ‘Message to the Free Nations of the World’ called for international recognition of Ireland’s independent nation-statehood, informed by Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points.

Intended to win favour with those deciding the fate of the post-war world in Paris, it was drafted first in French by George Gavan Duffy before being translated into Irish. The document spoke the language of democracy and political self-determination at an optimistic historical moment.

And this message placed Ireland ‘at the dawn of the promised era of self-determination and liberty’, and called for permanent peace in Europe based on ‘control of government in every land upon the basis of the free will of a free people’  

Ireland's own Declaration of Independence

It was no accident that the Declaration of Independence shared its name with the foundational document of the United States. It set out Ireland’s claim that as an ancient nation, it deserved its independence. Less poetic than the 1916 proclamation, the Declaration is written in the context of a post-war world in which the principle of self-determination was to the fore of political discussion.

The Declaration of Independence was high on the agenda of the first meeting. Image courtesy of the National Library of Ireland 

It stated that through its vote in the 1918 general election, the Irish electorate had ‘seized the first occasion to declare by an overwhelming majority its firm allegiance to the Irish Republic’ which had been proclaimed on Easter Monday 1916. Dáil Éireann was the parliament of that republic.

A radical new social vision that was too radical for some

The Democratic Programme also reflected contemporary world events and the growing force of labour internationally. In adopting a relatively radical programme, the Dáil would not only satisfy the growing Irish labour movement, but also fulfil the prevailing expectation that a post-war state should take responsibility for its social and economic wellbeing. It also demonstrated that Irish Republican movement had social dimensions beyond the pursuit of national independence.

Additionally, the Irish labour movement planned to send delegates to the socialist international conference taking place in Switzerland in February at which, Sinn Féin hoped, they would present the case for an independent Ireland.

Labour leader Thomas Johnson, assisted by Irish trade unionists Cathal O’Shannon and William O’Brien, drafted the Democratic Programme. The sub-committee considered Johnson’s draft too radical and it was modified by Sean T. O’Kelly on the night before the Mansion House meeting.

He took the document home and recalled having difficulty finding a quiet place to work as ‘the house that was crowded with TDs and others who were in high spirits that night.’

Even in its second draft, the Democratic Programme was a much more radical document than the Proclamation of three years earlier. It insisted that ‘the right to private property must be subordinated to the public right and welfare,’ and contained a strong commitment to developing Ireland’s natural resources, promoting Irish industries and securing ‘a lasting improvement’ in the living and working conditions of the working class.

Setting the scene

The choreography of the first session of the Dáil was also devised to capture the attention of the foreign press. Tickets were judiciously issued to the approximately seventy local, national and international journalists in attendance.

As a member of the organising committee, Sinn Féin TD Piaras Beaslaí drew on his long experience in amateur theatrics. He was keenly aware, he wrote, that ‘everything to be done and the order in which it was to done must be clearly laid down beforehand."

Admission to the First Dáil required tickets for those who wanted to observe proceedings. This Dáil ticket (for April 1919) was given to Margaret Pearse, future T.D. and mother of the 1916 leaders Padraig and Willie. Image courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

On 22 January, a Daily Mail correspondent wrote that the meeting of the First Dáil was ‘a very interesting and notable function, but one can hardly say it was impressive.’ In the same vein, the Manchester Guardian noted that ‘despite its importance, the session was not thrilling’.

But it wasn't intended to be thrilling. The public unveiling of the Assembly of Ireland was planned to be orderly and dignified. The Round Room in the Mansion House was ‘without decoration, save for one single tricolour above the lectern’.

"No robes, no mace, no velvet"

There were, it was reported, ‘no robes, no mace, no velveted sergeant-at-arms, not even wigged Clerks of the House...The speaker’s chair was  placed beneath the Lord Mayor’s arms on the dais – the same chair occupied on previous occasions by the late John Redmond.

In front of the dais were the cushioned chairs for the new TDs, flanked by the press gallery. Behind the TDs’, and only separated by a few feet, were the seats for the members of the general public.

 There was to be no cheering and most of the proceedings would be conducted through Irish. The name, Dáil Éireann, which means ‘a council or gathering of the elders’, was chosen to reinforce the claim of ancient nationhood.

Vice-president of Sinn Féin Father Michael O’Flanagan publicly blessed the assembly.  The Catholic priest was an appropriate choice, as he had said the funeral mass for veteran Fenian Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa three-and-a half years earlier. 

Father Flanagan at the funeral of O'Donovan Rossa

The 1916 connection

The opening words were spoken by Count George Noble Plunkett, nominating Cathal Brugha as speaker. Both men were closely associated in the national consciousness with the 1916 Rising. Cathal Brugha was seriously wounded in intense fighting at the South Dublin Union, and Plunkett’s son Joseph had been executed as a signatory of the Proclamation.

The allusion to 1916 was made explicit in the opening words of the Declaration of Independence. The TDs who would read the three statements of fundamental policy were chosen in advance, for their fluency in Irish or, in Gavan Duffy’s case, French.

Many journalists would later comment on the solemnity of the occasion. The Cork Examiner declared that ‘the proceedings were conducted with a decorum and a sense of responsibility that even the Mother of Parliaments could not hope to excel’. For the Nenagh Guardian, ‘it was like being present at some religious ceremony’. It was the beginning of a whole new Ireland.  

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.