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Joe Kennedy: 'Spirited words stopped first Dáil being lost in translation'

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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

Getty Images

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

There is a certain contemporary familiarity in a British newspaper report of proceedings at the first Dáil. All business was conducted through Irish, which very few present could understand. English was most definitely off the agenda.

The 'Manchester Guardian' reported: "The Irish patriot suffers one galling disadvantage - that is ignorance of his own native tongue."

The paper's correspondent wrote of a "very quiet and stilted National Assembly. Probably nine-tenths of those there did not know what was (being said) and when the instructed raised a cheer, the Speaker broke into English to tell them that the rules of Parliament did not allow it."

Having proclaimed independence and appointed ambassadors to the post-war Peace Conference (where they had not yet been bidden), the Dáil passed an address to the free nations of the world and framed orders for procedure, all in an hour and a half before adjourning.

The session was "not thrilling", said the paper, and in a further comment on Irish it said that "off the shores of the Atlantic not one in 100 can do more than pass the time of day in Gaelic" and however convenient, proceedings in English would have "gravely offended the national spirit to carry on debates in the language of the Sassenach. The result was a self-denying ordinance which kept some members quite silent and even reduced them to mere French."

There were 28 Sinn Féin MPs in the Mansion House, the remainder of the 73 being in prison. But there were at least 2,000 others in the Round Room while "many thousands" waited outside, where "a strong body of Sinn Féin Volunteers kept an effective guard".

Among these 'Republican police', I noticed my father in the at-ease ranks while some time back flicking through a sales catalogue of War of Independence memorabilia.

I don't think he ever knew of being captured for posterity, no more than a later close-up in a book on the Black and Tans which showed him being arrested outside the Ministry of Labour offices at the Rotunda just after Bloody Sunday in November of the following year.

Many, but not all, of the Dáil precinct police went on to join the new Civic Guard established after the Treaty.

Joe Kennedy was founding editor of the 'Sunday World' newspaper

Irish Independent