Wednesday 24 July 2019

New epoch, or false step? How newspapers of the day reacted to the first Dáil

The Irish Independent report on the opening of Dáil Éireann in 1919.
The Irish Independent report on the opening of Dáil Éireann in 1919.
Gareth Morgan

Gareth Morgan

Newspapers reacted with a mixture of hope, trepidation and criticism as Dáil Éireann sat for the first time 100 years ago today.

The first meeting in the Mansion House included candidates who had been elected in the Westminster elections of 1918 but refused to sit there.

Instead they had assembled a revolutionary parliament which sat just as the War of Independence was breaking out.

Those days in January 1919 marked a seismic week for European politics, coming just two months after the end of the First World War.

It was the same week that the German electorate voted for the first representatives of the new Weimar Republic, which also receives column inches in the newspapers of the day.

The Irish Independent has ‘Dail Eireann has declared independence’ at the top centre of its front page. It adds: “The people of Ireland must be prepared to stand by that decision.”

The first Dail meets in January 1919, as reported in ‘ The London Illustrated News’. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The first Dail meets in January 1919, as reported in ‘ The London Illustrated News’. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

But in the style of the day, where front pages were crammed with advertisements and personal announcements, the piece is actually a front page advert for life assurance.

The real substance is inside, where the newspaper called the event "a new epoch in Irish history". Poignantly the article is carried next to the report of "Policemen shot in Tipperary... killed by masked men."

This was the Soloheadbeg ambush, the opening shots of the War of Independence, all happening within the space of 24 hours.

Elsewhere the newspaper acknowledged the schisms and tensions in contemporary society. It noted that “the Dáil will be viewed from widely divergent standpoints by different sections of Irishmen.

The advert on the front page of the Irish Independent, January 22, 2019
The advert on the front page of the Irish Independent, January 22, 2019

“Irish Republicans will applaud it constitution and its declared objects. Irish Unionists and large number of Nationalists will regard its proceedings which it is not necessary to analyse.

“Suffice to say, that the country is adopting towards Sinn Féin a watchful attitude… and it behoves the Republican Party to beware of pits into which it may stumble.”

But the Irish Independent concluded: “The highest interests of our country may be imperilled by a false step taken at this critical time in the history of the world.

“Now more than ever is there necessity for the nation to keep a hold upon itself, to think well and carefully before it commits itself irrevocably to a course which it cannot see clearly to the end.”

First Dáil: Eamonn Duggan, Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins in 1919
First Dáil: Eamonn Duggan, Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins in 1919

Meanwhile the Irish Independent even offered an early 20th-century version of ‘what it says in the papers’ from the other side of the Irish Sea. A correspondent based in London reported on the Tuesday morning that “Dail Eireann… has had on the whole a good press on this side.

"The newspapers, as the historic event drew nearer, have been less and less inclined to scoff at the daring venture of the party which now dominates Irish politics.”

Whatever the mood in England, the Irish Times was critical in a piece which said: “The Irish Government’s wisdom in permitting the Republican Party to holds its ‘National Assembly’ was justified by the event.

“The thing in one sense was futile and unreal, but in another it conveyed a very grave warning to the Irish people.

“The Press Gallery… witnessed a solemn act of defiance of the British Empire by a body of young men who have not the slightest notion of that Empire’s power and resources and not a particle of experience in the conduct of public affairs.

“The more quickly Ireland becomes convinced of the folly which elected these men the sooner her sanity will return.”

The Belfast Newsletter reported: “There was a brief outburst of applause when the members rose from their seats. In Dawson Street, a large crowd gave the principals a moderately enthusiastic send-off.

“The only Sinn Féin flag displayed in the course of the day made its appearance at this stage – it was held over the heads of the people as they passed out of the Mansion House.”

The paper added and interesting footnote below its article: “We received instructions from the Irish Press Censor at 1.30 this morning to withhold publication of the Declaration of Independence – although it was permitted to appear in the evening newspapers.”

Meanwhile the Cork Examiner said: “It may be that Ireland has reached a turning point in her sad history and that yesterday’s National Assembly points a new road that will lead to the freedom which, so far, constitutional effort has failed to secure…

"Whatever the future may have in store, Irish ideals will remain unchanged, and the demand for freedom will continue to be made until a reluctant Government is forced to grant Ireland the liberty that is still denied to her, but which is her unquestionable right.”

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