United front – An Irishman’s Diary on a 1917 byelection in Dublin that bucked the trend
John Redmond: a byelection victory for his party on July 10th, 1917, when Michael Louis Hearn was elected in the South County Dublin constituency
July 10th, 1917, was the day when Eamon de Valera was elected Sinn Féin MP for East Clare and began a political career that lasted until his retirement as president of Ireland in 1973. But there was another byelection that day in South County Dublin, where Rathmines solicitor Michael Louis Hearn was elected unopposed for the Irish Party.
It was one of the party’s misfortunes that several of its ageing MPs died in 1917. The death of John Redmond’s brother William on Messines Ridge on June 7th caused the vacancy in East Clare. The following day his colleague, Dublin businessman William Cotton, died in his bed at Roebuck, Dundrum, Co Dublin, after a long illness. The party was hopeful that the circumstances of William Redmond’s death would generate a sympathy vote for its candidate, Patrick Lynch, a popular local barrister whom, a Sinn Féin wag said, had “defended one half of the murderers in Clare and was related to the other half”. Not to be outdone, Lynch’s supporters responded with a ditty that went, “Oh Paddy dear, you need not fear the Spaniard going round. For we are Irish, and our hearts, To Redmond still are bound”.
South Dublin was very different from East Clare. Its middle-class voters had been electing unionists to Westminster as late as 1910, generally preferring socially respectable candidates, such as Sir Horace Plunkett, to the shopkeepers, lawyers and journalists who filled the nationalist ranks at Westminster. The unionist nominee in the first election of 1910, Capt Bryan Cooper, was rather too strident for such a constituency. Exercised by the prospect of Home Rule, Cooper denounced “Robespierre Redmond, Danton Dillon and Marat Devlin” as dangerous revolutionaries, and only won the seat by 65 votes. In March he resigned his commission in sympathy with his fellow officers in the Curragh, who refused to march on Ulster, should the need arise. Not surprisingly, he was defeated in the second election of the year, when Cotton, the chairman of the Gas Company, won by a margin of 133 votes. Although Cotton was a nationalist, The Irish Times described his politics as being “of the most fluid and contradictory character” and perfectly acceptable to “a good many Unionists”, who were “satisfied of Mr Cotton’s harmlessness as a politician”.
On the outbreak of the Great War, Bryan Cooper returned to the colours, while Cotton lived up to his reputation by staying out of harm’s way until he died at the very moment when his party most needed him. To avert the spectre of yet another Sinn Féin triumph, Dr James Ashe, a leading unionist in the constituency, wrote to John Redmond, proposing that all candidates withdraw in favour of Plunkett, a paragon of moderation, reconciliation and progress.
Unfortunately, Plunkett was too moderate for some unionists and one prospective candidate, Sir Frederick Falkiner, said he would rather see a nationalist elected than Plunkett, “whose views on important questions seem colourless”. The nationalists were similarly divided until a friend of the late Tom Kettle, James Creed Meredith, told colleagues bluntly that “the machinery of the Nationalist organisation in almost every respect has broken down”. The only hope of stopping Sinn Féin was a nationalist-unionist pact to run an agreed candidate. It was thus that Michael L Hearn was plucked from obscurity and his family practice to confront Sinn Féin.
Faced with a pan-unionist-nationalist front, Sinn Féin decided to focus its efforts on the election of the “Spaniard” in East Clare.
This strategy was almost undone as nominations were about to close. Kathleen Fox, an artist from an impeccable unionist background in Glenageary, arrived and proposed her brother Capt Charles Vincent Fox, DSO. She had won some notoriety in 1916 by travelling into Dublin to paint scenes of the Rising, including the surrender of Michael Mallin and Countess Markievicz in St Stephen’s Green.
She announced that her brother had escaped from Schwarmstedt prisoner of war camp in Germany and was on his way back to Dublin to contest the election. Nobody believed her, although Fox had indeed escaped, and had already reached England, but he was denied the opportunity to serve his country at Westminster.
Hearn proved as harmless at Westminster as Cotton, but it did him no good when the 1918 general election was called. He was replaced by Thomas Clarke, no relation of the 1916 leader, and Sir Thomas Robinson for the unionists. They fought a bitter turf war, polling over 8,000 votes between them, letting the eminently respectable and much better behaved Sinn Féin candidate George Gavan Duffy to slip through with 5,133 votes.
By then Creed Meredith had defected to the separatist cause and a distinguished legal career that would take him to the Irish Supreme Court, while Hearne returned to his family legal practice.