The centenary of the first Dáil Éireann and preceding December 1918 election that swept Sinn Féin to power were marked at the Embassy of Ireland, USA. Irish Ambassador Dan Mulhall said the two events are often “overshadowed” by the 1916 Easter Rising and Irish War of Independence.
Sinn Féin‘s use of the phrase Declaration of Independence “was not by accident,” Mulhall said, but deliberately meant to evoke the American political statement of July 4, 1776. The Irish declaration, however, was very much inspired by the Irish Proclamation of 1916.
The Declaration is best seen perhaps as a reiteration of the 1916 Proclamation. The difference between the two documents is the context in which they were issued. When it occurred, the Easter Rising expressed the will of a relatively small minority of Irish nationalists, whereas in January 1919 the members of the First Dáil had the wind in their sails in the wake of that decisive election result a month before. The quest for some form of independence now had the undoubted support of a majority of the Irish electorate.
Mulhall noted the Irish electorate in December 1918 was three times larger than in the 1910 general election, last before the Great War. Dr. Shirley Graham, a gender equality and international affairs associate professor at George Washington University, emphasized that women were a major factor in the 1918 outcome.
Before the British Parliament granted limited suffrage earlier in 1918, “Irish women were invisible, unknown, and without voice,” Graham said. Their decades-long fight for the vote, radicalized during the war years, was finally realized at the polls, if only to be set back in the new Irish state.
Dr. Jennifer Wells, assistant professor of History at George Washington University, noted Irish newspapers had mixed reactions to the first Dáil; from the “dismay” of The Irish Times; to the “bold and novel move” described by the Independent; and Cork Examiner‘s exclamation that 21 January 1919, was “a date that marked a turning point in the history of Ireland.”
[See my ongoing series about U.S. and Irish-American press reporting on these events.]
None of the papers were fully right, or completely wrong, said Wells, who warned not to “fetishize the assembly” a century later. The Dáil‘s “chaos created the inevitability of partition,” she said; but its members also “appealed quite brilliantly” to President Woodrow Wilson’s highest aspirations for the rights of small nations, and they “laid bare the gross tyranny” of the British Empire.
Ireland was the first and only country to secure independence from one of the prevailing powers of the war, rather than one of the defeated empires, Mulhall said. The first Dáil became the foundation for a century of parliamentary democracy.
“Who could have imagined that group could set the stage for the last 100 years,” he said, adding that London’s initial view was, “This thing isn’t serious; it’s just a bit of play acting.”
“From then on,” Mulhall said, “the clock would not be turned back.”