Monday 11 December 2017

All changed utterly after South Longford by-election - 100 years ago today

Vote win masterminded by Collins had profound effect on Irish history, writes T Ryle Dwyer

Michael Collins
Michael Collins

T Ryle Dwyer

The South Longford by-election, held 100 years ago today, had a profound impact on Irish history. It demonstrated not only the brilliant initiative of young Michael Collins, but also showed that Irish public opinion had undergone a massive transformation in the year since the Easter Rising.

In the aftermath of the Rising, some of the rebels had expressed the hope they would not be promptly released, as they feared the public repercussions. They might be lynched, if people could get their hands on them.

Of course, the British proceeded to overreact by summarily executing the leaders, as well as rounding up and interning hundreds of people from throughout the country, even though the rebellion had been largely confined to Dublin. Attitudes in Ireland began to change.

All of those interned at Frongoch in Wales were released before the end of 1916.

One of those, Michael Collins, became a driving force in the reorganisation of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB).

Collins set about setting up a formidable intelligence network. He began by establishing direct communications with various prisoners, especially those in Lewes jail.

Arthur Griffith. Photo: GETTY
Arthur Griffith. Photo: GETTY

When a by-election was called for North Roscommon in February 1917, Count George N Plunkett contested the seat on behalf of Sinn Féin. As one of signatories of the Proclamation of the Republic, his son Joseph Mary Plunkett had been executed by the British. Two other sons were jailed for their involvement in the rebellion. As a result, their father, who was a papal count, had a particularly high profile going into the by-election.

Collins had served as an aide to the sickly Joseph Mary Plunkett during the rebellion, so he took an active part in the father's successful election campaign.

Shortly afterwards, Collins saw a chance to deliver an even more effective blow against the British when a by-election was called for the nearby South Longford constituency.

Collins moved to have Joe McGuinness nominated as a candidate. The 42-year-old McGuinness had been one of the older Volunteers in the rebellion and was, therefore, probably Longford's most prominent Republican prisoner.

Kitty Kiernan, who Collins met at her family hotel in Longford
Kitty Kiernan, who Collins met at her family hotel in Longford

McGuinness had been second in command at the Four Courts during the Rising. As a result, he was sentenced to 10 years in jail, and he was transferred to Lewes prison in England, with the other surviving leaders.

It was with some difficulty that Collins persuaded Arthur Griffith to run McGuinness as a Sinn Féin candidate. Griffith had taken no part in the Easter Rising, but his Sinn Féin party was widely identified with the rebellion in the public mind, because the party had been at the vanguard of the separatist movement for more than a decade.

While Griffith wanted full independence for Ireland, he believed this could be best achieved by non-violent means, through the establishment of a dual monarchy on Austro-Hungarian lines.

Collins, on the other hand, was rapidly becoming "the very incarnation of out-and-out physical force Republicanism".

"This Sinn Féin stunt is a bloody balderdash!" Collins told Griffith. "We want a Republic!"

As Griffith stared at him, Collins became uneasy. "Of course," he added, "I don't know much about Sinn Féin."

"Evidently not, Mr Collins, or you wouldn't talk like you do."

As a teenager, Collins had been an enthusiastic Sinn Féin supporter, and was an active party member during his early immigrant years in London. Griffith was a fanatic in his own right, but he was unselfish in his dedication to the separatist ideal. He therefore agreed to support McGuinness, in order that the release of all the rebel prisoners could be made an election issue.

The Irish Parliamentary Party looked likely to win in Longford, so Collins ran into strong opposition from the prisoners in Lewes. Con Collins and Seán McGarry of the IRB were particularly critical.

Tomás Ashe liked the idea, but Eamon de Valera, the recognised leader of the Irish prisoners, objected. He feared the movement's morale would be irreparably damaged by an election defeat.

McGuinness, therefore, declined to stand in the election.

But the headstrong Collins was not about to tolerate such timidity.

"You can tell Con Collins, Seán McGarry and any other highbrows that I have been getting all their scathing messages, and am not a little annoyed, or at least was," Collins wrote Ashe on April 24, 1917. "One gets so used to being called bad names and being misunderstood."

"If you only knew of the long fights I've had with A. G[riffith] and some of his pals before I could gain the present point," Collins added.

He not only had the confidence in his own judgment but also the courage to ignore his instructions from Lewes. He had McGuinness nominated anyway.

Collins, and as many as 300 young men from Dublin, descended on Longford to take an active part in the campaign. He was advised to stay at Greville Arms, a small family-run hotel, in Granard.

Young Larry Kiernan had been running it since the death of both his parents eight years earlier while he was still a teenager.

While staying there, Collins first met the woman who would become the love of his life, Kitty Kiernan. She was one of Larry's younger sisters and was helping out in running the hotel.

Posters for McGuinness were put up throughout the constituency, with the slogan: "Put him in to get him out."

It was a simple message, suggesting that voters elect McGuinness to Westminster in order to get him out of jail.

The Irish Parliamentary Party waged an active campaign on behalf of its candidate Paddy McKenna. John Dillon, Joe Devlin and JD Nugent ran the campaign, assisted by many members of Parliament.

On the eve of voting, Nugent telegraphed London that he was certain McKenna would win by hundreds of votes. But the vote on the very restrictive franchise turned out to be particularly close.

When the vote was first announced, McKenna was deemed the winner by 13 votes, but Joe McGrath of Sinn Féin noticed that the combined total of votes for the two candidates and the 22 spoiled-votes was 50 votes short of the total votes cast, so there was a recount.

The votes had initially been stacked in bundles of 50, and then doubled, but instead of 100 votes, one of the McGuinness bundles contained 150 votes, so, rather than losing by 13 votes, he actually won by 37 votes - 1,498 to 1,461.

The result was seen as an electoral endorsement of the campaign to free the prisoners. This increased the pressure on the Lloyd George government.

All of the remaining prisoners held since the rebellion were duly freed on June 17, 1917. It was little over a year since they had been deported in disgrace, despised and dispirited, but they returned to a hero's welcome in Dublin on the day after their release.

Things had, indeed, changed utterly, to paraphrase WB Yeats.

Irish Independent

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