Tuesday, January 29, 2019

1918 General Election and the first Dail

Last Wednesday Kildare County Councils Decade of Commemorations Committee organised an event in Naas to mark the first meeting of Dail Eireann held in the Mansion House, Dublin on the 21st January 1919. That meeting of the “Assembly of Ireland” followed a remarkable electoral triumph by the Sinn Fein Party which was helped hugely by the changes brought about by The Representation of The People Act 1918. That Act which broke the link between property ownership and voting rights gave the parliamentary vote to men over 21 years and to certain women over 30 years of age. This increased the Irish Electorate from approximately 700,000 to just under two million. Given what happened in Ireland in 1918, it was no surprise to find that the Sinn Fein party candidates got the majority of support. The rise of the Sinn Fein Clubs and the Volunteer movement owed much to the conscription crisis of April 1918. The Sinn Fein party’s popularity was further enhanced by the “German Plot” of the following month when many of its leaders and Volunteer organisers were arrested and interned. The British Governments decision to proclaim these two organisations in addition to Cumann na mBan and the Gaelic League added further impetus to the wave of Irish Nationalism which gripped the Country in the months prior to the General Election of December 1918. 105 Members of Parliament were elected in December 1918 of which 73 were Sinn Fein and 26 Unionists with the once powerful Parliamentary Party returning only 6 members. Many of the Sinn Fein members elected were either in Prison or on the run and that first Dail sitting consisted of only 28 Sinn Fein members. Representing the County of Kildare was Domhnall Ua Buachalla and Art O’Connor. Ua Buachalla from Maynooth, a veteran of the 1916 Rising represented North Kildare while here in the South, Art O’Connor, an Engineer with Kildare County Council had defeated the sitting M.P., Denis Kilbride. O’Connor was one of the many Sinn Fein candidates interned at the time of the election and so missed the first Dail sitting. The Parliamentary success enjoyed by Sinn Fein was added to with the holding of local elections in 1920. They were the first nationwide elections held under the proportional representational system which was intended to support minority groups. The result was an overwhelming victory for Sinn Fein candidates. Irish local authorities subsequently acknowledged the authority of Dail Eireann. In the meantime, the British House of Commons had passed legislation providing for parliaments in the six counties and twenty six counties. On the 24th May 1921, elections were held to return members to the two parliaments. The two sitting TD’s for County Kildare were returned without a contest. The following day, the I.R.A. attacked and burned the Dublin’s Custom House, an action intended to destroy British government files and so reinforce the Irish claim to self government. The truce came into effect on the 11th July 1921 and on the 7th January 1922 the terms of the Treaty was agreed leading many on the anti-treaty side to claim it was an act of betrayal. Seven days later the “Parliament of Southern Ireland” was convened and was attended only by the pro-treaty members of Dail Eireann. Neither of the Kildare members attended. On the 14th April 1922, anti-treaty forces took over the Four Courts in Dublin, an action which is generally regarded at the start of the Civil War. Michael Collins and Eamon DeValera in an attempt at making peace later agreed to put forward candidates for a further general election. Collins later repudiated the agreement in the face of continuing guerilla warfare but it was clear that the pro-treaty side had the support of the majority of the Irish people. The election held on the 16th June 1922 saw Ua Buachalla and O’Connor lose their seats while another unsuccessful candidate was Athy man JJ Bergin standing for the Farmers Union. The Civil War which was marked with brutality and atrocities ended in May 1923. Regrettably the anti-treaty irregulars were not accorded an amnesty and many had to leave the country or go on the run to evade arrest. The first general election under the new Free State Constitution was held on the 27th August 1923. Ua Buachalla and O’Connor lost again. In the June 1927 General Election, O’Connor was unsuccessful but Ua Buachalla was elected and re-elected in the election call for the September of the same year. The June election saw two unsuccessful candidates from the Athy area JJ Bergin and George Henderson both representing Independent Farmers. The Irish State which emerged from the Treaty negotiations acquired a maturity and stability, the start of which was that first Dail meeting of the 21st January 1919. Kildare County Council’s celebration was a worthy event which regrettably was attended by only four of the forty County Councillors who represent this county.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Memories of Eddie Roycroft, Olive Smyth and Aidan Stafford

Within the last two weeks old treasured connections with Offaly Street were severed with the deaths of Eddie Roycroft, Olive Smyth and Aidan Stafford. Eddie was the eldest son of the Roycroft family who lived behind Offaly Street in Janeville Lane next to the Doody family. It was a time when the Urban District Council had not completed the housing programme first commenced in the mid-1930s to rid the town of its unfit housing stock. The small houses accessed by the lane which ran between No. 3 and No. 4 Offaly Street and which backed on to the Abbey, then Dr. O’Neill’s residence, were small two roomed dwellings built in the 1870s. The builder was local man, Thomas Cross, who had also constructed similar sized houses in Connolly’s Lane off Meeting House Lane. The latter houses were demolished by the time I was able to take cognisance of my surroundings and indeed they may well have been demolished during the construction of the Councils first housing scheme in 1913 which saw new council houses erected in Meeting House Lane, St. Michael’s Terrace and St. Martin’s Terrace. Eddie Roycroft was the eldest son of the late Jimmy and Teresa Roycroft. Jimmy was from Sligo and while serving in the army and stationed in the Curragh he met and married Teresa Cummins of Athy. They lived for some years in Sligo where Eddie was born before coming to Athy in 1954. Living firstly in Shrewleen Lane the Roycroft family later moved to Janeville Lane where they and their neighbours, the Doody family, brought a welcome musicality to the neighbourhood with the wonderful ballad singing of Teresa Roycroft and the musicianship of Paddy Doody and his siblings. Olive Smyth was the youngest of six brothers and sisters who lived in No. 2 Offaly Street which in earlier times was called Preston’s Gate. The medieval gate was removed in 1860 following the accidental death of the local rector, Rev. Frederick Trench, but the name Preston’s Gate lingered on for a time until replaced with yet another Leinster family name. The Smyth family were part of a close-knit Offaly Street community at a time when the street was alive with youngsters. It was a street where those of us who lived there enjoyed companionship and friendships which endured even after we left the area. Memories of Pattie Websters, Miss Sylvesters, Dowlings, later Kehoe’s pub and Moores nearby, recall a street full of activity where young families shared experiences and life in good times and difficult times. One of those difficult times was when the scourge of TB ravished the country. Families in Offaly Street lost loved ones, as did many other families in this part of south Kildare. Olive Smyth and Eddie Roycroft were part of that local community who in their time helped create the memories which have carried forward over the decades. Aidan Stafford was part of the wider Athy community but back a generation there was an Offaly Street connection. His father John once lived in Offaly Street and it was from there that four of John’s older brothers, Edward, Thomas, Frank and Peter joined the Dublin Fusiliers during World War I. Edward and Thomas died in that war and their nephew Aidan was one of those who attended the annual Remembrance Day ceremonies in St. Michael’s cemetery from the time they were started almost 20 years ago. Aidan’s father John was an officer in the LDF during the Second World War continuing, but in a different uniform, the military tradition of the Stafford family established by the Stafford Brothers in 1914-18. Another Offaly Street connection with the Staffords was provided by John Stafford’s sister Judy who married Tipperary born Andy Cleary, both of whom lived in Janeville opposite St. Michael’s Church for many years. The Roycroft, Smyth and Stafford families were part of the rich tapestry of life in Athy stretching back several generations. The passing of these family members reawakens treasured memories of times past. The Decade of Centenaries Commemoration continues with a commemoration of the first Dail meeting in 1919 which will be held in the Osprey Hotel in Naas on Wednesday, 23rd January at 8.00 p.m. Castledermot Historical Society will host a talk given by yours truly on ‘Castledermot and the Spanish Flu 1918’ on Tuesday, 29th January. Athy’s Historical Society lecture series for 2019 recommences with a talk by James Durney at 8.00 p.m. on Tuesday 12th February on ‘County Kildare and the First Dail’.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Soloheadbeg and later incidents in the War of Independence

Polling in the General Election of 1918 took place on 14th December and the count and the declaration of the result occurred two weeks later. Twenty-five of the seventy-three successful Sinn Fein candidates were returned unopposed. Arrangements were made for the first meeting of Dáil Éireann to be held on 21st January 1919. That meeting would adopt a provisional constitution for the Dáil and make a formal Declaration of Independence for the Irish Republic. On the same day eight men, members of the south Tipperary Volunteers, waited at Soloheadbeg to ambush a convoy consisting of two workmen conveying gelignite in a horse and cart, accompanied by two local RIC men. The ambushers were led by Seamus Robinson, but subsequent accounts relegated Robinson to a minor role, while promoting both Dan Breen and Sean Treacy to more prominent positions. The first written account of the ambush was published in 1924 under Dan Breen’s name where he claimed: ‘again and again we called on them to put up their hands ….. their fingers were on the triggers ….. another appeal on our side would be useless ….. quick and sure our volleys rang out ….. the two policemen were dead.’ The two R.I.C. men, the first killed since the 1916 Rising, were county Mayo born James McDonnell, a 57-year-old widower with five children and 36-year-old Patrick O’Connell, a single man from Cork. They were Irish men, whose killing marked what is generally claimed to be the start of the Irish War of Independence. It is a claim which is difficult to sustain, given that it did not result in the start of any sustained military activity over the following months. Indeed, the Kerry volunteers could well claim that their attack on the R.I.C. barracks at Gortatlea, Co. Kerry on 13th April 1918 when two of the volunteers, John Browne and Richard Laide, died could well claim to be the start of the War of Independence. Whatever the merits of the often-repeated claim that the Soloheadbeg ambush marked the start of the War of Independence, the action of the Tipperary men certainly upstaged the first Dáil sitting of 21st January. It was according to Todd Andrews ‘an operation that went wrong’ while the Volunteers Chief of Staff Richard Mulcahy would claim ‘this episode has on the one hand being outrageously propagandised as a leading episode in waking up the country ….. it had many regrettable and unwarranted features ….. bloodshed should have been unnecessary in the light of the type of episode it was.’ The maverick nature of the Soloheadbeg action was not to the liking of the Volunteer’s headquarters staff and indeed was condemned by church dignatories of the time. The War of Independence would eventually end with the truce of 11th July 1921 by which time 432 R.I.C. men, for the most part Irishmen, had died at the hands of the Volunteers. By the time the R.I.C. was disbanded a further 65 constables would be killed. As students of Irish history, we have grown up on stories of the Black and Tans. Less well known are the actions of the Volunteers, many of whom fought the good fight, while others sadly tarnished the good name of freedom fighters by actions which even after the elapse of almost 100 years cannot be justified or condoned. The assassinations of unarmed constables as they attended church services were appalling actions. The killing of two R.I.C. sergeants in Galway on 15th March 1922, long after the truce was in place, was particularly repugnant. The two men were patients in St. Bridget’s Hospital, Galway, Tobius Gibbons, a 44-year-old single man from County Mayo having been admitted three weeks previously, while John Gilmartin, a 50-year-old married man from County Leitrim had been admitted on 9th March. Four masked men entered the hospital and shot the two bedridden R.I.C. men. This coming week the community of Soloheadbeg will commemorate the centenary of the ambush and in doing so will honour not only the ambush party but also the two Irish R.I.C. men who lost their lives on that fateful day. The commemoration will be in keeping with the views of the expert advisory group set up by the Government to advise on commemorating the decade of centenaries. The expert group stated: ‘the State’s task is to encourage an effective and conciliatory tone that recognises that neither side has the monopoly of either atrocity or virtue.’ Many of the events of the Irish War of Independence require detailed critical reflection if we are to have a better understanding of how our country achieved its long-sought independence.