A date with destiny: first Dáil and start of the War of Independence

How would course of Irish history been different without Soloheadbeg ambush?

On the 21st of January 1919 27 newly elected Sinn Féin MPs met in the Mansion House in Dublin, in doing so they set up what became the first Dáil. Video: Ronan McGreevy/ Enda O'Dowd

 

On January 21st, Ireland will mark the centenaries of two momentous events in its history: the inauguration of the first Dáil (Dáil Éireann – Assembly of Ireland), which took place in Dublin’s Mansion House, and the Soloheadbeg ambush, which happened on the same day in Co Tipperary. Two policemen were shot dead during the ambush. These shootings are considered by many to be the opening shots of Ireland’s War of Independence.

Both events occurred 100 years ago, 160 kilometres apart, and ostensibly, independently of each other. They were connected, however, in so far as members of the Irish Volunteers – later the Irish Republican Army – were engaged throughout both events.

The Dáil was to be seen by the world – weary from the first World War – as the representation of the pursuit of Irish independence from Britain by constitutional political means. It was founded upon Sinn Féin’s recent general election victory; itself underpinned by the party’s resolve to create a legislative parliament for Ireland functioning independently from Westminster.

The ambush, on the other hand, was an explicit assault under arms carried out by purely military-minded men. They saw armed conflict with the Crown as an inevitable prerequisite to independence from Britain.

These are established facts. However, when we explore the proposals of some influential political protagonists of the day, an interesting question emerges: just how significantly did the Soloheadbeg ambush influence the Dáil’s subsequent trajectory, or for that matter, the fate of Ireland itself?

This then leads us to another tantalising hypothesis: could the key outcome of the later Anglo Irish Treaty negotiations – dominion status – have been achieved without necessitating the War of Independence, whose prosecution ultimately led to those same negotiations?

Under dominion status, attained with the signing of the treaty in December 1921, Ireland would become a self-governing dominion of the British empire. It would have its own central state powers. This represented a marked step-up from Home Rule, which would have seen these same powers remain under the curb of Westminster.

However, casting our minds back to almost three years earlier, to January 1919, we consider the position of the Crown’s viceroy in Ireland – 65-year-old Viscount John French. He had been grappling with the “Irish problem” since May 1918, and was feeling more than a little exasperated. His initial entry into Irish politics had been less than subtle. French’s indiscriminate use of internment vis-a-vis the “German plot” against prominent Sinn Féin members, based upon implausible evidence, had backfired dramatically and contributed significantly to the growth of militancy. This was layered on top of massive public indignation in the wake of the conscription crisis of spring and summer 1918.

Then, in December 1918, the recently bolstered Irish electorate presented Sinn Féin with a sweeping general election victory. French was perplexed; Ireland, it seemed, would not be subjugated.

It was in these bleak circumstances that French summoned his old friend and adviser, 62-year-old former Lord Chancellor Viscount Richard Haldane. The redoubtable viscount was no stranger to Ireland, and was more adept with the subtleties of diplomacy and negotiation that often elude straightforward military thinkers such as French.

Haldane arrived in Dublin on January 16th, 1919. He realised immediately that the Dublin Castle administration – a conduit for Westminster – appeared unable to fathom that Sinn Féin was run mainly by idealists, rather than typical politicians. Consequently, its members were not amenable to normal political leverage. Alarmingly, the party’s tentacles were penetrating every strand of Irish public administration – something needed to be done.

Haldane’s rapidly constructed proposal in response represented a momentous overture: Ireland would be offered “self-government on the status of a dominion under the Crown”. To facilitate this, the British government would ensure generous financial provisions would be forthcoming.

Critical to the proposal would be Sinn Féin’s assurance that violence did not erupt before meaningful negotiations took place.

However, Haldane warned French of two formidable hurdles.

First, the glaring inevitability that Ulster’s more forceful unionists, bolstered by Conservative and Unionist Party die-hards such as Colonial Secretary Walter Long, would reject any such proposal outright.

Second, it would not be easy convincing Sinn Féin that such an offer was genuine, particularly given their awareness of such entrenched unionist stances. To circumvent this, Haldane proposed that perseverance via a three-man committee – a unionist, a Sinn Féin member and a prominent neutral – could still, with incentives, bear fruit.

Additionally, to demonstrate goodwill, he advocated releasing the German plot internees.

When French reacted positively to these initial proposals, Haldane was further buttressed by a declaration on January 17th that Sinn Féin would not “pull the house down on his head”. French also succeeded in persuading Walter Long to – at least – hear Haldane out.

However, early on January 21st, everything in Ireland changed: at Soloheadbeg, nine Volunteers from the 3rd Tipperary Brigade, ambushed constables James McDonnell and Patrick O’Connell in order to capture a quantity of explosive gelignite they were escorting to a nearby quarry. Both policemen died in a hail of bullets.

The subsequent backlash threatened to overshadow the Dáil’s much publicised inauguration in the Mansion House’s splendid Round Room, which was expected to draw in the eyes on the entire civilised world at the opportune commencement of the Paris Peace Conference, during which the self-determination rights of small nations would be a pivotal theme. Scores of domestic and foreign journalists were in attendance at the Mansion House, and were to be wined and dined afterwards in its Oak Room.

But did the killings inadvertently upstage something no less impressive – the prospect of dominion status?

When word that members of the Irish Volunteers had carried out the attack reached Viscount French in the Viceregal Lodge that night, Haldane’s initial peace feelers were unequivocally swiped off the table. Conscious that the press, as well as his peers, would be utterly scathing of the killings, French declared that if Sinn Féin could not control their own physical force men, such efforts were futile.

Meanwhile, Irish Volunteers chief of staff Richard Mulcahy – acutely aware of such adverse public relations ramifications for Sinn Féin – was aghast at the Tipperary men’s unsanctioned actions. Volunteer raids and ambushes for arms were nothing new. However, Mulcahy felt that the Irish people still needed convincing of the justification for war and the inevitable deaths of Crown forces; this would take time, and persuasion. The killings risked alienating the public on the very day of the Dáil’s inauguration.

On the other hand, brigade commandant Séamus Robinson – in command at Soloheadbeg – had feared that precious time awaiting authorisation to attack from Volunteer general headquarters in Dublin would see a valuable opportunity pass. Moreover, a standing order existed from Volunteer headquarters to attack opportunistic targets if and when necessary. Incidentally, a surrender was demanded, but resisted, before the policemen were shot.

So, given French’s sweeping response, the question remains: did Soloheadbeg shoot the prospect of dominion status off the table?

Perhaps; but in delving into the hurdles facing French and Haldane, things cloud over. Westminster’s coalition cabinet may have contained Liberals, but its majority formed a bulwark of implacable Conservative unionists, among them Long himself, who, prior to agreeing begrudgingly afterwards with French to meet with Haldane, had blatantly dismissed his suggestions upon first hearing of them. Additionally, Haldane’s marginalisation during the war years, when he had been wrongly tarnished as a German sympathiser would have further undermined his standing in this quarter. Moreover, it is always possible that French, in the face of such government intransigence, may have simply been using his old friend to smoke out Sinn Féin.

The site of the Soloheadbeg ambush: The ambush site is approximately 300 metres from Soloheadbeg quarry. Photograph: Ronan McGreevy
The site of the Soloheadbeg ambush: The ambush site is approximately 300 metres from Soloheadbeg quarry. Photograph: Ronan McGreevy

Nonetheless, the fact remains that dominion status was considered a potentially satisfactory political settlement by leading figures on both sides of the looming conflict in January 1919, at least until the night after the Soloheadbeg killings.

One hundred years on, therefore, it is worth considering, first, that in early 1919, prominent Sinn Féin members were provisionally prepared to accept what was rejected by some unionist Westminster cabinet ministers at the time. This proposal of dominion status, was accepted by many of the same government ministers two years later, albeit without Ulster.

Second, and perhaps more noteworthy, is the possibility of what might have been had events at Soloheadbeg played out differently. Might French, Haldane and Sinn Féin, then – unencumbered by such a vociferous public and political backlash – have been able to shepherd their tentative steps towards dominion status against such a formidable phalanx of die-hard unionist Conservatives, and, ultimately, avert the war?

The lure of “what ifs” is seductive. Obviously such conjecture demands caution and circumspection. Notwithstanding this, Haldane’s endeavours in early 1919 paint a compelling picture of fledgling peace proposals that might have gained traction and led onto success, had they been given a chance by either side. Accordingly, at this time, marking these centenaries, it is fitting, and more than a little poignant, to reflect on this.

Derek Molyneux and Darren Kelly are authors of the books When The Clock Struck in 1916 – Close Quarter Combat in the Easter Rising, and Those of us Who Must Die – Execution, Exile and Revival after the Easter Rising. Their current work is centred on War of Independence in Dublin.

Coming up in The Irish Times:

Next Monday, January 21st, is the 100th anniversary of two defining events. That day in 1919, the first shots were fired in the War of Independence when two policemen were killed in an ambush at Soloheadbeg in Co Tipperary. In Dublin, meanwhile, Dáil Éireann met for the first time. Gathered in the Mansion House for a meeting that drew worldwide attention, members made a declaration of independence and adopted the Democratic Programme, a radical agenda for the republic.

On Monday, The Irish Times will publish “1919 – War and Peace”, a 48-page supplement covering the events of that year at home and abroad. From political manoeuvrings in Dublin and London to the aftermath of the first World War, and from the Amritsar massacre in India to the Paris Peace Conference, it covers all the major themes of the period, with special study guides for junior and senior cycle students.

To mark the anniversaries, The Irish Times has produced films on Soloheadbeg and the first Dáil. Produced by Ronan McGreevy and Enda O’Dowd, both films can be viewed at irishtimes.com

Among the pledges contained in the Democratic Programme adopted by the first Dáil was that the Irish republic would be judged by its ability to offer dignity and security for its children. On Saturday, The Irish Times will launch “No Child 2020”, a nine-month project that looks at how that ambition can be fulfilled 100 years on.