Ninetieth Anniversary of The First Dáil Éireann

The Bugle is a bit tardy in reporting the 90th anniversary of the first independent parliament of Ireland. The celebrations in Dublin were understated and mostly for the political elite, but the pivotal moment, ninety years ago, is too important to let pass.

The idea of forming a government apart from the British Parliament was promoted for 15 years by Arthur Griffith, the founder of Sinn Féin. According to Michael Laffan of the Irish Times, many Irish voters at the time saw their representatives at British Parliament as lobbyists who could occasionally bring home pork projects (to put it in American terms). Why give up those lobbyists for the sake of an improbable ideal?

The equation changed when the three years after the Easter Rising added new factors. Ready for the list?

  • the threat of conscription
  • the Ulster unionists’ paramilitary mobilisation
  • the British Parliament’s signals that it would renege on its promise to re-establish an Irish Parliament
  • the Irish Members of Parliament (MPs) loss of status as swing voters on many bills, and
  • the harsh treatment of the heroes of the Easter Rising.

In the election of the British Parliament in 1918, the Irish people chose Sinn Féin overwhelmingly over those moderate lobbyists.

Sinn Féin led the anti-conscription campaign and ran for election on an explicit policy of “absentionism” — they would refuse to take their seats in Westminster’s Parliament. Soon after the election, the number of absentionist MPs, and their popular support, made it feasible to convene the first independent Irish legislature. The Sinn Féin leaders reserved space at the Mansion House, the residence of the Lord Mayor of Dublin, and they sent invitations to all the Irish MPs (who were supposed to be sitting in Westminster, serving the British Empire). The First Dáil Éireann met on Tuesday, 21 January 1919.

Americans may want to think of the first meeting of the Dáil as something closer to the second meeting of the British colonies of America’s Continental Congress in the 1770s. It was held in defiance of the internationally-recognised sovereign at the time, and its very existence constituted a threat to the legitimacy of that government. Like the Continental Congress, the First Dáil set the program for the establishment of an independent state, while hoping for the military and diplomatic success that would make that possible. (A small dissimilarity is that the First Dáil did it all at once.) To put it simply: each of these two meetings moved a people from widespread revolts to a coordinated revolution.

It would be wrong to push the analogy any further, of course. Imagine that the Continental Congress had no control of General Washington or any other member of the American military. Imagine that Washington and other generals raised their own funds from all over the world, making promises about the future policies of the United States, and never reported to the Congress at all. In fact, the Continental Congress exercised tight control over the Continental Army.

In addition, the delegates at the Congress were beholden to the states and they were mostly held in check by political entities in each of the former colonies. The members of the First Dáil did not act as representatives of geographical or ideological constituents. From my perspective, they seem more like a 1960s convention of the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) — big personalities vying for charismatic leadership over a group of idealistic intellectuals.

The story of the First Dáil is all the more interesting for those personalities and ideals. And, unlike the stuffed shirts of the Continental Congress (Ben Franklin excepted), the members of the First Dáil aspired to modern democratic ideals. You can expect to read more about the Irish men and women of 1919 in the next few days.

If you can’t wait, take a look at the collection of articles on First Dáil published online by the Irish Times.

And just one more thing: it’s pronounced a lot like the common American last name “Doyle”. But, as with most words in Gaelic, that pronunciation is not quite right.