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Saturday 23 February 2019

Wicklow and the historic election of December 1918

A century ago, Ireland went to the polls to elect its representatives in westminister. With women voting for the first time and Sinn Féin on the up, it was a historic occasion, writes James Scannell

The votes were counted at Wicklow courthouse on December 28, 1918
The votes were counted at Wicklow courthouse on December 28, 1918

One hundred years ago, Ireland went to the polls to vote in an election that would mark a turning point in the island's history.

At the time, Ireland was still part of the United Kingdom and ruled from Westminster. King George V was on throne; Lloyd George was Prime Minister of a coalition government composed of the Liberal and Conservative parties and the key British administrative figure in Ireland was the Lord Lieutenant, Field Marshall John French.

The enactment of the Representation of the People Act earlier in the year - giving the vote to all men aged over 21 and to women aged over 30 - saw the Irish electorate immediately increase from around 700,000 to two million.

The previous general election had taken place back in December 1910 because the political parties in Westminster deferred a subsequent general election until World War One was over.

In August 1918, Prime Minister Lloyd George announced that a general election would be held in December that year 'to enable him to end the war' but the end came sooner than anticipated. Within hours of the November 11 Armistice coming into force, the long-awaited general election was called for December 14 and Parliament was dissolved on November 25.

Going into the election, the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) held 68 seats, Unionists held 18 seats, Sinn Fein had seven and Independents accounted for ten.

The Nationalist vote was split between the IPP and Sinn Féin, with the Irish Labour abstaining 'as a positive step towards unity.'

The IPP campaigned on the basis of the Third Home Rule Bill with a few concessions to meet the demands of Ulster Unionists', and membership within the Empire.

The key issues of the Sinn Fein campaign were: Abstention from Westminster; Complete separation from Britain and freedom from British rule; Full autonomy for Ireland, including an independent Irish parliament; and international recognition of Ireland's independent status by the Peace Conference of Allied Sovereign Powers.

Ulster Unionists campaigned on maintaining their status within the Empire while recognising that in the south they would be only successful in a limited number of areas.

The mood of the country in 1918 was largely anti-British. Lord French's solution to his instructions of 're-establishing the authority of British law and order in Ireland' was to impose martial law on areas where there was nationalist activity - an action which further alienated public opinion against Britain and drove people towards Sinn Féin, which had become the dominant nationalist party.

As early as August 15, Sinn Féin held a national day of action in which party representatives read its manifesto at public meetings held simultaneously throughout the country. In Bray, this resulted in several party activists involved in a meeting outside Bray Town Hall being arrested on a later date. They were then prosecuted and imprisoned when they refused to provided sureties (bonds) to be of good behaviour for 12 months.

For the general election, the county was divided onto the two single-seat constituencies of East Wicklow and West Wicklow. The candidates standing in East Wicklow were Mr DJ Cogan (IPP), Mr JR Etchingham (Sinn Féin) and Mr A Parker Keene (Unionist); and in West Wicklow were Mr RC Barton (Sinn Féin) and The O'Mahony (IPP).

Excellent weather on Saturday, December 14, meant that there was a very large turnout of the electorate with very little animosity being displayed against each other by supporters of these respective candidates. In the east Wicklow constituency, it was reported that 2,300 people out of an electorate of 3,268 in Bray cast their votes; in Delgany 1,100 out of 1,535 voted; and in Wicklow, slightly over 2,000 out of 2,788 turned out to vote. The highest turnout was recorded in Arklow, although it could have been higher had Kynoch's munitions factory not closed earlier in the year.

In the west Wicklow constituency, where it was straight contest between Sinn Féin and the Irish Parliamentary Party, 680 out of an electorate of 961 voted, with large numbers turning out in Baltinglass, Aughrim and Annamoe.

During the afternoon in Aughrim, there was friction between supporters of the IPP and Sinn Féin with threats being directed towards the latter party to the extent that Mr PH O'Reilly, agent for Mr Barton, summoned help in the form of Irish Volunteers from neighbouring villages. Between 6.30 p.m. and 7 p.m. a force of about 120 arrived and were greeted by jeering and bottle-throwing by a small group standing on the bridge. Some of the Volunteers fired revolver shots, charged, scattered the crowd and restored peace and order. Around 10 p.m. the Volunteers left the town, with those from Wicklow and Rathdrum marching home on foot and those from Arklow using motor transport.

A feature of the general election was the large number of women who turned out to cast their votes in a parliamentary election for the first time.

Once the polls closed at 10 p.m. the ballot boxes were sealed and transported by in official motor vehicles to Wicklow Courthouse, where they were placed in a sealed room under 24-hour police guard until the official count took place on Saturday, December 28 - the delay in the count allowing time for the arrival of postal/absentee votes. Fearful that the ballot boxes might be tampered with en-route to Wicklow, the official motor vehicles were followed by Sinn Féin supporters until the sealed ballot boxes were lodged safety in the courthouse.

With the votes cast and the count yet to take place, people settled down and enjoyed Christmas as best they could. Food was plentiful but many people were annoyed that an extreme scarcity of dried fruit made it impossible for them to make their own Christmas cakes or puddings, though tinned Christmas pudding was available. As Christmas Day fell on a Wednesday, in this pre-refrigeration age, most people had to wait until near Christmas Eve to buy their Christmas poultry and pay the prevailing market rate for it. Although food prices had risen due to the war, many people were being paid above average wage rates or were receiving war work bonuses. However, these increased prices did impact on low income families and those living in poverty. The most serious issue facing many low income families that Christmas was an extreme shortage of coal, which placed pressure on the various church and charitable organisations which traditionally provided supplies to the 'deserving poor'.

Once Christmas was over, attention turned back to the election count, which began at 9 a.m. on Saturday, December 28. The sealed ballot boxes for both the east and west Wicklow constituencies were taken out of the sealed storage room at Wicklow Courthouse in the presence of Mr OH Braddell, High Sheriff and Returning Officer, and his deputy, Mr William Toomey, BL.

The votes for East Wicklow were examined, sorted and counted in the Grand Jury Room while those for West Wicklow were handled in the Crown Solicitor's room. The counting of the West Wicklow votes was completed by 4.15 p.m. and those for East Wicklow by 5.20 p.m. The result was then declared after about 50 spoiled votes for the East Wicklow constituency were examined, checked, and adjudicated upon.

The result for East Wicklow was:

Mr JR Etchingham (Sinn Féin) - 5,916 votes

Mr A Parker Keene (Unionist) - 2,600 votes

Mr DJ Cogan (IPP) - 2,456 votes

Mr CM Byrne, election agent for Mr Etchingham, made an acceptance speech on his behalf as he was in Lincoln Prison at that time.

The results for West Wicklow was:

Mr RC Barton (Sinn Féin) - 6,239 votes

The O'Mahony (IPP) - 1,370 votes

Mr PH O'Reilly, agent for Mr Barton, made his acceptance speech, as he was engaged on urgent party business.

The headline news in that evening's newspapers papers was the re-election of the outgoing Conservatives and Liberals coalition government led by Lloyd George with 474 seats (338 Conservative and 136 Liberal) and the victory in Ireland by Sinn Fein.

The final outcome for the 105 Irish seats was:

Irish Parliamentary Party - 6 seats (down 62)

Unionists - 26 seats (up eight)

Sinn Fein - 73 seats (up 66)

Independents - 0 seats (down ten)

In some instances, Sinn Féin candidates stood in more than one constituency so that the party's 73 seats were held by 69 representatives.

For Sinn Féin nationally, the 1918 General Election was an outstanding success. It decimated the Irish Parliamentary Party, which had traditionally been the voice Irish nationalism but by 1918 had failed to secure Home Rule and had lost its charismatic leader John Redmond, who had died on March 6 that year.

Furthermore, Sinn Féin made it clear that those elected would not take their seats in Westminster.

About 47 of the Sinn Féin candidates were elected from prison with one of these, Countess Markievicz, the first woman to be elected to the Houses of Parliament.

On that Saturday, James Hoey, Garrett Waldron, and Peter Leggett, three members of the Bray Sinn Féin organisation who had been arrested, tried and imprisoned following the meeting outside Bray Town Hall on August 15, were released from Belfast's Crumlin Road Goal and returned home.

When they reached Shankill that evening, where bonfires were burning to mark the victory of Sinn Féin's Mr Gavan Duffy in the South Dublin Constituency, they were greeted by a crowd of over 1,000 people from Bray, including the Bray Brass Band and Bray Pipers Band. They were brought by torchlight procession in triumph back to Bray and, in the Committee Rooms on Main Street, hospitably entertained.

When the First Dáil met in Dublin's Mansion House on January 21 1919, less than 30 of the successful candidates were present as most were still held in British prisons.

Mr Barton did attend the inaugural session and during that day Mr Etchingham was released from Lincoln Prison and allowed to return home, as were some of the other successful candidates who were then able to attend later sessions of the Dáil.

Wicklow People

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