The public had voted for Sinn Féin in 1918 - but what did they think of the First Dáil?

The large public attendance and extensive coverage in the national and local press meant that the Irish people were very much aware that a new alternative parliament and government had come into existence. For supporters of Sinn Féin and its pursuit of full independence, this was both a great event and the final fruition of many years of hard work. 

Unsurprisingly, the Irish nationalist periodicals declared the meeting a 'historic assembly', which represented ‘a new epoch’.  But while most Sinn Féin voters could be satisfied with the very first meeting of the Dáil, which dealt entirely with the fundamental questions of Independence, they would have to reserve judgement based on an assessment of its progress. 

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An episode of the History Show from January 20th 2019, devoted to the First Dáil 

After the pageantry of the inaugural meeting, the relatively young and inexperienced members of Dáil Éireann would need to translate rhetoric into action. They also needed to court international recognition and establish a functioning parallel administration, or ‘counter-state’.

The antagonistic press as well as the sixty-odd ex-Home Rule MPs and their thousands of supporters were waiting for the first good opportunity to lead ‘a cavalcade of ridicule’.

A hopeless cause? 

As historian Mary Daly points out, ‘many commentators did not hold out much hope for the survival or success of Dáil Éireann’ in January 1919. The Irish Independent dismissed the prospects of securing a republic as ‘remote’; the Freeman’s Journal, unofficial organ of the Irish Parliamentary Party, warned that any attempt to implement the declarations of the Mansion House assembly ‘inevitably must lead to defeat, disaster and ruin of the nation’s hopes’. 

The Irish Times, then the voice of unionism, dismissed the First Dáil as "theatrical protest"

The Irish Times, the voice of the unionist status quo, dismissed the meeting as ‘theatrical protest’, its ceremony a procession of ‘cloudy performances’.

As 1919 progressed the Dáil’s newly-established cabinet worked against the backdrop of increasing unrest to assemble, as far as was possible, the scaffolding of government. The censorship imposed on the publication of Dáil proceedings, however, meant that the public depended on tangible results to make a judgement on the effectiveness of the government assembled in their name.

The public give their verdict on the First Dáil

The results of the municipal elections in January 1920 and rural local elections in June 1920 confirmed the popular mandate given in the 1918 general election. Sinn Féin emerged as the largest party in the municipal elections with 560 seats, and enjoyed a far greater victory in rural local elections when they won just over 80 per cent of all seats countrywide.

By mid 1920, the vast majority of local government bodies outside of the four north-eastern counties had declared allegiance to the Dáil, while the Sinn Féin courts, under the jurisdiction of Dáil Éireann, played an important role in maintaining law and order. In the words of James Ryan TD,

‘The ordinary citizen saw less and less of British institutions and more and more of the Dáil.’ 

The view across the water

In the immediate aftermath of the first meeting of Dáil, the overwhelming message in the British press was that the republican project in Ireland had reached ‘its high water mark’. In its issue of 22 January, the Manchester Guardian commented, ‘The Republican theatricalism, which had its absurd climax in the gathering of the Irish "Constituent Assembly" will not be taken seriously in this country’.

The Times was more damning in its conclusion that

’History will probably date the definite decline of the Sinn Féin movement from the day when the National Assembly was opened in Dublin … One may say, indeed, that the whole of Ireland has a new consciousness today of the utter barrenness of a policy which won nearly half a million votes at the General Election’.

In general, the British press deemed the whole exercise futile, with the Daily Mail reporting that the gathering in the Mansion House could easily be mistaken for ‘a meeting to found a new musical society or something of that kind’. 

"These 73 devils": the view from Dublin castle 

The authorities in Dublin Castle thought if they ignored the First Dáil it would fade away. They were wrong.

In London, the press reports noted that, ‘Dublin Castle has apparently decided to ignore the Dáil, as long as it is confined to talking’. At this stage, the officials in Dublin Castle were taking the view that if they simply ignored Sinn Féin’s act of defiance, it would fade into insignificance.

Shortly before the ceremony in the Mansion House, the viceroy of Ireland, Lord French, wrote with some assurance to the Cabinet in London that ‘the end of it will be that these 73 devils will very soon go bag and baggage over to Westminster’.

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