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Monday 23 July 2018

1918: when women went to the polls and peace came to Europe

It was a year when the old order was turned upside down, writes kim bielenberg. The franchise was extended to women and Sinn Féin was victorious

Countess Markievicz and Kathleen Lynn, who was born in Co Mayo and was the daughter of a Church of Ireland clergyman. Lynn completed her medical training and by 1913 was Chief Medical Officer of the Citizen Army
Countess Markievicz and Kathleen Lynn, who was born in Co Mayo and was the daughter of a Church of Ireland clergyman. Lynn completed her medical training and by 1913 was Chief Medical Officer of the Citizen Army
The arrest of a Suffragette in 1914
Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst in a Polling Booth circa 1910. She was one of the leaders of the movement to secure votes for women.

It was one of the most eventful years of the 20th century, both in Ireland and across the world.

In 1918, peace came to Europe at the end of World War I after a conflict that killed 16 million people. In Ireland, the victory of Sinn Féin in a general election towards the end of the year signalled the start of a period of political turmoil and violence that ultimately led to independence in the years that followed.

On February 6, the passing of the Representation of the People Act had extended voting rights in general elections to women. The Irish Independent was not exaggerating when it described the move as "one of the most revolutionary acts ever passed by Parliament". It doubled the size of the electorate in Britain and Ireland.

The year was dominated by the fall-out of the 1916 Rising, and the profound impact of the European war on Ireland.

The arrest of a Suffragette in 1914
The arrest of a Suffragette in 1914

By 1918, political figures who had been condemned by many of their compatriots at the end of the Rising were now transformed into heroes in the country's most popular political party, Sinn Féin, led by Éamon De Valera.

By the end of 1918, the words of WB Yeats, written after the Rising, seemed relevant: "All changed, changed utterly."

The Spring Offensive

In Europe in the first half of the year, the Germans fought back against the Allies with the Spring Offensive, or Kaiserschlacht. They hoped to score a knockout blow by punching holes in the Allied lines before newly engaged American forces had time to establish themselves on the continent.

It was against the backdrop of this military threat and a shortage of manpower that David Lloyd George's British government raised the prospect in March of introducing conscription in Ireland to raise more men for the war effort.

Tens of thousands of Irish men of military age were expected to join the war effort against this reinvigorated German campaign, but opposition to the Military Service Bill was swift.

Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst in a Polling Booth circa 1910. She was one of the leaders of the movement to secure votes for women.
Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst in a Polling Booth circa 1910. She was one of the leaders of the movement to secure votes for women.

It was a prospect that repulsed nationalist Ireland, and it helped to rally different shades of opinion behind one cause.

The conscription plan boosted the cause of those who wanted independence for the country, and was described by the English writer GK Chesterton as a "piece of rank raving madness", guaranteed to alienate the country.

The union backlash

Backed by trade unions, popular newspapers such as The Irish Independent and politicians across the spectrum, there was overwhelming resistance which ultimately resulted in a national strike on April 23.

Hundreds of thousands of workers withdrew their labour.

According to historian Professor Diarmaid Ferriter, it was the biggest strike in Irish history.

The intervention of the Catholic Church in opposition to conscription was regarded as particularly significant. Before 1918, Bishop MacRory of Down and Connor said a nation had to have a right to say when and why it should shed blood.

He added: "No nation has any moral right to coerce young Irishmen to fight in the alleged interests of freedom until they have been allowed to enjoy freedom for themselves."

Sinn Féin thrived in this febrile atmosphere. The British authorities responded by rounding up prominent members, ostensibly because of a "German plot" to start an armed insurrection in Ireland.

The grounds for these arrests were regarded as spurious, and helped to enhance the influence of the more militant activist Michael Collins, who managed to evade capture.

Conscription was postponed and had not been implemented by the end of the war. While the Germans enjoyed some initial success in its Spring offensive, the threat posed by Allied forces proved to be insurmountable.

But before the guns fell silent, the Irish Sea was hit by the worst disaster in its history.

On October 10, off Kish Bank Lighthouse, the RMS Leinster mailboat was hit by torpedoes from a German U-boat.

Over 500 people perished, with more Irish people losing their lives on the Leinster than on the Titanic or the Lusitania. It is a disaster that fails to attract significant attention now, but there are moving memorials to the victims on the seafront at Dún Laoghaire.

On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of the year, gunfire on the battlefields ceased over territories that had changed radically since the outbreak of war.

Kaiser Wilhelm II was toppled as a republic was declared in Germany, and the Czar of Russia, Nicholas II, was executed with his family in July in the aftermath of the Russian revolution. The Bolsheviks consolidated their grip on power.

In Britain and Ireland, the Armistice signed in General Foch's railway carriage in France was followed within weeks by the landmark general election.

To accommodate soldiers who had returned from the front, the vote had been extended to all men over the age of 21. There was a huge number of new young voters, who were prepared to turn the old world upside down.

Having extended the vote to young men, the government knew that if they barred women from the polling booth they would face protests.

So, they were allowed to vote, provided they were over 30 and fulfilled certain property requirement. There was a feeling that older woman would have greater mental capacity to deal with the responsibility of exercising the franchise, while younger women would be too flighty.

A rebel parliament

Countess Constance Markievicz, the veteran of the Rising who was in prison for the election, became the first woman ever to win a seat in a Westminster election.

Although she later paid a visit to the House of Commons, and spotted her name above a peg allotted to her in the cloakroom, she never took her seat in line with her party's abstentionist policy.

The mid-December poll resulted in an overwhelming victory for Sinn Féin as they won 73 of Ireland's 105 seats, and 47.5pc of the vote.

The victory of Sinn Féin led directly to the foundation of a rebel parliament in Dublin. The executive committee of Sinn Féin met on December 19 and convoked Dáil Éireann, which was convened in the Mansion House a month later.

The election marked a bitter defeat for the Irish Parliamentary Party, the grouping that had dominated elections for decades.

The party leader at the start of 1918, John Redmond, had supported the British war effort at the outbreak of the conflict and had encouraged Irishmen to enlist, believing that this might help to secure Home Rule later on. He died in March of 1918, and so never lived to see his party hammered at the polls.

The battlefields of Europe may have been littered with the bodies of young men by the end of World War I, but the conflict was not the biggest killer of that period. The death toll in the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1919 has been estimated at up to 50 million.

It was known as the 'mysterious malady' because at the time nobody knew where it came from or what it was.

Over 20,000 people in Ireland died as a result of influenza - its symptoms were so brutal that doctors often mistook it for cholera, typhoid and even the plague.

The plight of Ireland's thousands of flu victims was almost forgotten in a year of seismic shifts that changed the face of Ireland, Europe and the World.

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