Last week’s article in which I suggested a century commemoration of the founding of Athy’s Sinn Fein club evoked a number of responses. A few readers were concerned lest my reference to the Sinn Fein group of 1917 might be seen in someway a support for the current Sinn Fein party. The links between the party of 1917 and today’s party are not at all clear and historians generally accept that the use of the same name does not necessarily indicate a direct link between the two groups.
Sinn Fein was a political movement founded in 1905 by Arthur Griffith to pursue the policy enunciated by Griffith “to make England take one hand from Ireland’s throat and the other hand out of Ireland’s pocket”. It was a radical organisation formed in the aftermath of the Boer war and as a non-militaristic organisation sought to achieve economic and cultural independence from England. In fact, Sinn Fein initially sought to become an equal party in a dual monarchy under the English crown.
Arthur Griffith edited the party’s newspaper for eight years from 1906 and in April 1907 Sinn Fein absorbed the National Council which had been formed four years previously to protest against the proposed visit of the English King to Ireland. The National Council had originally been formed in 1900 by Arthur Griffith as Cumann na nGaedheal to co-ordinate smaller societies opposed to England’s occupation of Ireland. Another nationalist group which also merged with Sinn Fein was the Dungannon Club founded by Bulmer Hobson and Denis McCullagh in March 1905.
The enlarged Sinn Fein party was not very successful in the early years and played second fiddle to the Irish Parliamentary Party. It contested the North Leitrim parliamentary bye-election in February 1905 and suffered an overwhelming defeat at the hands of the Parliamentary Party. It was the Easter Rising and its aftermath which propelled Sinn Fein to the forefront of Irish political life. John Redmond had warned in the House of Commons that the execution of the leaders of the Rising would alienat many who had not supported the rebels. Sinn Fein as an organisation had not taken part in the Rising but the British government wrongly apportioned responsibility to Sinn Fein. This association with the 1916 Rising gave the Sinn Fein organisation the mass support it had not previously enjoyed. Here in Athy in early 1917 a Sinn Fein club was formed and last week I gave the names of those local men who formed that first republican club.
At the 10th Sinn Fein convention held in Dublin in October 1917 Eamon de Valera was elected President after Griffith stood down in favour of the only surviving commandant of the 1916 Rising. At that convention the original Sinn Fein members regarded as moderate nationalists were joined by radical nationalists who had participated in the 1916 Rising. The convention voted to secure international recognition for an independent Irish Republic and the withdrawal of Irish members from the British parliament.
In March 1917 the British government considered imposing conscription on young Irish men as a quid pro quo for home rule. It was opposed by the Catholic hierarchy and gave Sinn Fein a platform which saw the new emerging political group leading anti-conscription demonstrations throughout Ireland.
In May 1918 the British government ordered the arrest of Sinn Fein leaders on the grounds of an alleged German plot. This added to the parties further popularity amongst Irish people. In the general election of December 1918 Sinn Fein was able to seize political power from the Irish parliamentary party winning 73 seats while the other party could only retain 6 seats.
The elected Sinn Fein members formed the First Dail. The subsequent War of Independence led to the Treaty and a split in Sinn Fein. Those in favour of the Treaty then formed Cumann na nGaedheal while the anti treaty side retained the name Sinn Fein. As an organisation Sinn Fein became dormant in 1922 but was subsequently revived only for a second split to occur in 1926 with the departure of de Valera and the setting up of Fianna Fail. In the June 1927 general election Sinn Fein only secured five seats and lost them in another election in September.
As to the continuity of the link between Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Fein of 1917 and the party of the same name today there are arguments and counter-arguments on both sides. In this centenary year of the founding of Athy’s Sinn Fein club the suggestion I made last week is that we commemorate those courageous local men who came together 100 years ago to help reshape the political life of Ireland and by doing so influenced the political thinking of their local community.