In 1914 Ireland was on the path to Home Rule. But just four years later, a previously minor political party won a landslide victory and established the First Dáil. How did it happen?  

After the first meeting of Dáil Éireann on 21 January 1919, the Cork Examiner had no doubt that the Irish historian of the future would regard the date as 'a turning point in the political history of this country'.  Less than three years after the Easter Rising, the Irish political landscape had changed completely.

A poster for the 1918 election appealing to female voters. Irish and British women over 30 who owned property were entitled to vote in general elections for the first time. 

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In the December 1918 general election, the once monolithic Home Rule party (or Irish Parliamentary Party) had been crushed by Sinn Féin – a new mass movement of younger, more nationalistic activists who had been radicalised after 1916. 

According to its election manifesto, Sinn Féin stood for full independence from Britain, in the form of an Irish Republic. It promised to secure that Republic by refusing to attend the Westminster parliament, establishing a national assembly, and appealing to the post-war Peace Conference to support Ireland's claim to nation statehood.  

If, as Sinn Féin claimed, the 1918 general election was a referendum on Irish independence, the verdict outside of the north-east was clear: Home Rule was no longer enough to satisfy the majority of Ireland's voting public.

The clear appeal of Irish self-determination carried the day. The Sinn Féin party won seventy-three of the 105 seats across the island. When the twenty-seven Sinn Féin MPs not in prison took their seats in the breakaway parliament in Dublin on a January afternoon in 1919, the political phase of the Irish revolution had, in historian Michael Laffan's words, 'reached its spectacular climax'.

Image - Arthur Griffith, Sinn Féin founder

Arthur Griffith, Sinn Féin founder

The origins of the Sinn Féin party lay with nationalist journalist Arthur Griffith. Sinn Féin means We Ourselves in Irish, and in his papers United Ireland (which ran from 1899 to 1906) and Sinn Féin (which ran from 1906 to 1914), Griffith advanced his ideas of economic, cultural and political self-reliance.

His 1904 book The Resurrection of Hungary: A Parallel for Ireland argued that Irish MPs should follow the Hungarian example of the 1860s, withdraw from Westminster and establish their own Irish parliament in Dublin.

In 1907, under Griffith's leadership, the Sinn Féin party was founded through the amalgamation of a number of existing advanced nationalist groupings, but achieved only limited success. 

Although its core ideas heavily influenced advanced nationalists, the party itself fell into steady decline after 1909.  It had all but disappeared by 1914, though the term 'Sinn Féiner' remained a generic term for advanced nationalism of all stripes.

But then the Easter Rising happened, and the (inaccurate) association of the 1916 Easter Rising with 'Sinn Féin' by the press and the authorities propelled the party from the political wastelands to centre stage. By 1917, Sinn Féin was recast as the political organisation of the revived separatist nationalist  movement. 

New Recruits

Sinn Féin slowly coalesced as a formal party in early 1917, as new recruits entered its ranks. Benefiting from its association with the Easter Rising, the Volunteers and Arthur Griffith's journalism, the Sinn Féin party spread rapidly throughout the country in 1917.

New membership was particularly high in those areas distant from Dublin, with a recent tradition of agrarian unrest or political confrontation.The movement was strongest in the south-west of the island and in north-west Connacht and 'was most popular among young men, small shopkeepers, shop-boys and artisans'. 

Long before the Rising, Griffith's party had been ahead of its time in welcoming female members, and many women now joined the new movement. By the end of 1917 the extent of Sinn Féin's surge in popularity was reflected in its membership of c. 120,000. 

Image - The Irish Volunteers would produce several Sinn Féin candidates in the 1918 election

The Irish Volunteers would produce several Sinn Féin candidates in the 1918 election

How did they win over the people?

A series of different events and circumstances in 1917-18 helped secure the Sinn Féin's landslide victory in the December general election. The widely publicised executions of the 1916 leaders, and the round-up and deportation of thousands of 'Sinn Féiners' in the aftermath of the Rising, muted public outrage at the sudden and destructive violence in the capital.

The Irish Parliamentary Party did little during the crucial period after the Rising to bolster popular support for constitutional nationalism, and suffered in the court of public opinion when John Redmond failed to secure the implementation of Home Rule by the summer of 1916.

The actions of the British government in Ireland, and the perceived inaction of the Home Rule Party, paved the way for the growth of a more advanced form of Irish nationalism represented by two organisations – the revived Irish Volunteers and the new Sinn Féin. 

In February 1917, Count George Noble Plunkett, father of executed rebel leader Joseph Plunkett, successfully challenged the Home Rule party in the North Roscommon by-election. The imprisoned Joseph McGuinness beat Home Rule candidate Paddy McKenna in the Longford South by-election in May and two months later, Éamon de Valera was elected to the vacant seat in East Clare.

De Valera was one of the Irish Volunteers' senior surviving leaders, and thus represented both the political and paramilitary wings of Irish separatism.  William T Cosgrave followed this in August with yet another republican triumph in the Kilkenny City constituency. 

The by-election victories proved that politics could produce results - and that in the new circumstances created by the 1916 Rising and its aftermath, the Home Rule party could be defeated. 

Image - John Redmond, whose party's failure to bring about Home Rule helped the Sinn Féin cause

John Redmond, whose party's failure to bring about Home Rule helped the Sinn Féin cause

Whatever happened to Home Rule?

The popular appeal of the Home Rule Party was further eroded during this period by the failure of the Irish Convention. The priority of British government in the summer of 1917 was to satisfy popular opinion in America – its new ally against Germany – by resolving the Irish question.

And so the Irish Convention was convened in July 1917 in an attempt to introduce Home Rule on the basis of negotiated solution between nationalists and unionists.

Boycotted by Sinn Féin and the Irish labour movement, the convention ended in failure in April 1918. This further weakened the prestige of the Home Rule Party, while strengthening the appeal of Sinn Fein, which benefited from not being associated with the failed conference.

In September 1917, the unionist Irish Times published 'a very encouraging report on the progress of the Irish Convention' on the same day as the announcement of the death of Thomas Ashe. The veteran commander of the Volunteers at Ashbourne in 1916, Ashe enjoyed a reputation as a successful military leader of the 1916 Rising. He campaigned for de Valera in East Clare in July 1917 and was rearrested in August for making seditious speeches.

Charged under the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA),  Ashe was imprisoned in Mountjoy jail where he  joined a hunger strike by republican prisoners seeking 'political status'. His death as a result of forcible feeding on 25 September 1917 caused national uproar and sparked protests and demonstrations across the country.

His highly-publicised funeral on 30 September led to an increase in recruitment to the Volunteers and became the emblem of a new public solidarity between the various strands of Irish nationalism, already coming together under the Sinn Féin banner. 

Éamon De Valera pictured in 1917. That year he became party leader and Sinn Féin made an Irish republic its official goal.

Image - Éamon De Valera in 1917. That year he became Sinn Féin party leader.

Éamon De Valera in 1917. That year he became Sinn Féin party leader.

Campaigning for an Irish Republic

Questions remained over Sinn Fein's commitment to an Irish Republic (prior to the First World War it endorsed a 'dual monarchy' solution rather than sovereign independence) and whether it would be led by Arthur Griffith, who had opposed the Easter Rising on tactical grounds.

However, the first Sinn Féin Convention in Dublin held on 26 October 1917, selected Eamon de Valera as party leader, with Griffith at Vice-President; notably, the aim of an Irish republic was now the official goal of the party.

Reflecting the strong overlap between Sinn Féin and the Irish Volunteers, many of the same delegates attended a secret Irish Volunteer Convention in Dublin on the following evening. Éamon de Valera was elected President of a new Volunteer Executive with a 'resident executive' in Dublin including two previously minor figures, Michael Collins and Richard Mulcahy.

This group became the nucleus of Volunteer General Headquarters (GHQ) staff formed in March 1918, which managed the Irish Volunteers during the War of Independence. Over two days in October, the military and political wings of the Irish republican movement had consolidated under the leadership of Éamon de Valera.

Image - De Valera addresses an anti-conscription meeting in Ballaghaderreen, County Roscommon, May 5 1918.

De Valera addresses an anti-conscription meeting in Ballaghaderreen, County Roscommon, May 5 1918.

How conscription fears boosted Sinn Féin's popularity

The collapse of the Irish Convention in April 1918 coincided with the last great German offensive of World War I on the Western Front. Faced with alarming reports from France, the British War cabinet proposed extending conscription to Ireland.

As predicted by Dublin Castle officials, the threat of conscription united all shades of nationalist opinion in outraged opposition, and in April 1918 Sinn Féin spearheaded a vigorous all-Ireland anti-conscription campaign.

In the same month, Lloyd George's government uncovered a so-called 'German Plot'. On the night of 17–18 May 1918, seventy-three leading Sinn Féin activists were arrested (later deported) on the spurious charge of conspiring with Germany.

Among them was De Valera, whose British intelligence file included extracts from 'treasonable' speeches calling for the complete separation of Ireland from England and the renewal and arming of the Volunteers organisation.

The failure of the German offensive in France in November relieved the pressing need for new recruits, but the Sinn Féin party had emerged from the 'Conscription Crisis' as the voice of a resurgent nationalist Ireland. It had galvanised its support base and together with the Volunteers and Cumann na mBan, enjoyed a new influx of recruits. Sinn Féin was now the dominant force in Irish politics. 

The Election

After the announcement of the end of World War I on 11 November 1918, the stage was set for a UK general election in December – the first since 1910. As a result of the Representation of the People Act of the same year, the Irish electorate had almost tripled from 701,475 in 1910 to 1,936,673 in 1918, with women representing 36 per cent of the enlarged electorate.  Sinn Féin won 73 of Ireland's 105 parliamentary seats.

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Its vote was weakest in Ulster where the Home Rule party had faced serious unionist opposition for decades and was therefore much better organized than in the rest of the country. Overall, the Unionists increased their representation from 19 to 26 seats.

Labour stood aside to avoid splitting the 'radical' non-Home Rule vote, and the Irish Party's representation collapsed from 68 seats to 6. Notably, its leader, John Dillon who had replaced the deceased John Redmond in March 1918, was defeated by de Valera in East Mayo.

Image - Commemorative postcard showing members of the First Dáil. Courtesy of National Library of Ireland

Commemorative postcard showing members of the First Dáil. Courtesy of National Library of Ireland

Constance Markievicz of Sinn Féin, one of only two female candidates, was the first ever woman elected to the UK parliament. Sinn Féin's victory was so decisive that its MPs could now claim the right to fulfil the promises of its 1918 election manifesto and boycott the Westminster parliament and establish a constituent assembly. Even before the results were announced, the Executive Committee of Sinn Féin met on 19th December and decided to convoke Dáil Éireann.

After that, nothing would ever be the same. 

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