Saturday 16 February 2019

Diarmuid Francis Bolger: 'Housing protest and bitter divide saw Dáil's 50th birthday fall flat'

Changing times: Fifty years ago, Éamon de Valera’s speech on the 50th anniversary of the first Dáil was ‘often inaudible’
Changing times: Fifty years ago, Éamon de Valera’s speech on the 50th anniversary of the first Dáil was ‘often inaudible’

Diarmuid Francis Bolger

On January 21, 1969, chaos reigned on the streets outside Dublin's Mansion House as a young generation demanded radical social change. Inside the Mansion House that day, inertia reigned as a selected audience sat through a dull oration in Irish by Ireland's elderly President.

Éamon de Valera's speech was often inaudible and primarily geared towards Fianna Fáil attendees in the Round Room where, 50 years previously, the first Dáil held its inaugural session. RTÉ cameras showed some TDs looking bored as the government's commemoration meandered on, labelled by one newspaper as "historic, yet thoroughly uninspiring".

With the centenary of the first Dáil occurring this month, much attention will be paid to what that momentous event told us about Ireland in 1919. Less attention will be paid to the lacklustre 50th anniversary celebrations in 1969, but they are also fascinating in revealing the generational conflicts in Ireland a half-century ago.

The Civil War bitterness lingering among the elderly Mansion House attendees in 1969 is summed up in how, after the speeches, the surviving veterans of the first Dáil diverged into two dinner groups. Six dined in the Mansion House itself, where Fine Gael leader Liam Cosgrave made a speech to praise them. Two other survivors, Sean McEntee and James Ryan, attended a separate dinner in Leinster House, organised by Fianna Fáil, with Jack Lynch making a similar speech.

Meanwhile, well away from these hermetically sealed diners, groups protested on the streets against the Government, claiming that the first Dáil's ideals had not been upheld; especially its 'Democratic Programme' - an outline of social reforms adopted in 1919, largely as a sop to the Irish Labour Party for not running candidates in the 1918 election to give Sinn Féin a free run.

Eight people were arrested when the Dublin Housing Action Committee protested outside the Custom House, one protester being pushed down the steps by a garda. A group named Students for Democratic Action held a mock trial outside the GPO and, unsurprisingly, found the Mansion House attendees guilty and likely to be swept away by "the eventual anger and vengeance of the people against whom they have committed their crimes". Sinn Féin held its own commemoration at the Mansion House after the official event and invited the protesters outside to enter and discuss Dublin's housing crisis, although only a small number fitted into the allotted room, and calls to occupy the building were ignored.

Compared to the triumphalist Easter Rising 1966 commemorations, the 50th anniversary of the Dáil slipped under the radar. But the Government's reasons for commemorating it offer an interesting insight into the politics of commemoration. Commemorations of the first Dáil were rare before 1969 - partially because the War of Independence coincidentally began on the same day. They were generally partisan. In 1929, Sinn Féin commemorated the 10th anniversary to present itself as the true heir to the first Dáil. Fianna Fáil responded with minor commemorations in 1936, 1944 and 1959.

By 1968, Jack Lynch's Fianna Fáil Government realised it needed to commemorate the 50th anniversary or else Fine Gael might commemorate the third Dáil, formed in December 1922, after the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which led to the Irish Free State. Fianna Fáil felt any public commemoration of the third Dáil would undermine the authority of the previous two, with military activity undertaken by party members during the War of Independence perceived as having been done to defend a non-existent government. As one civil servant wrote, the first Dáil's anniversary could not pass without the party "establishing the historical position". By honouring the first Dáil, the Government hoped to also avoid commemorating the Anglo-Irish Treaty.

Charles Haughey was tasked with organising this commemoration. Then finance minister, he showed little interest and decided on no input from historians because commemoration was not "the metier of historians". The event would be downplayed, unlike 1966, because he argued that the commemoration was "political, rather than cultural or historical". He rejected ideas of the Abbey Theatre re-enacting the first meeting, and initially tried to prevent his event - a succession of Mansion House speeches to invited guests - being televised.

He was successful in ensuring that the commemoration roused little public interest, even if the Mansion House event had small dramas like when the veteran Joseph Clarke shouted in Irish that it was "a mockery", before being ejected. But its drabness can be gauged by how the British ambassador Andrew Gilchrist remarked to De Valera that "this time the British are with you". It served its purpose for Fianna Fáil in avoiding having to commemorate more contentious anniversaries like the Treaty. In 1994, the government appeared to forget the 75th anniversary.

Hopefully in this month's centenary commemorations, historians won't be shunned and the focus will be more on events 100 years ago rather than contemporary political point scoring.

Irish Independent

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