MONDAY marks the centenary of the hugely-significant first public session of Dáil Éireann in the Round Room of Dublin’s Mansion House on January 21st, 1919 when the members asserted the independence of the Irish Republic and the idealism of the 1916 Proclamation. There were 105 seats filled across the entire island of Ireland with the majority – 73 of them – by Sinn Féin, 26 Unionists and just six members of the Irish Parliamentary Party, which had been the dominant force in politics here before the 1916 rising.
Cork West was represented by Sinn Féin’s Sean Hayes, from Glandore, who was instrumental in keeping The Southern Star going after various suppressions by the British authorities, acting as editor on a number of occasions. The Cork South representative was the high-profile Michael Collins, from Clonakilty, who was also involved with this newspaper as a shareholder, while fellow Sinn Féiner Diarmuid Lynch from Tracton represented the Cork South East constituency.
They were elected in December 1918 for the British Parliament, but Sinn Féin had declared in advance that they would not be taking their seats in Westminster – a stance the party maintains to this day. Instead, they set up the first Dáil this month 100 years ago.
Sinn Féin’s 73 seats were held by 69 members, as four of them were elected in two constituencies each, many of them in absentia and unopposed. Countess Markievicz was the only female member.
The first Dáil public session was attended by only 27 of the elected representatives as 34 were in prison and others were either on the run or on undercover missions. Sean Hayes was the only one of the West Cork representatives to attend this first meeting, as Collins was working on trying to help Eamon De Valera escape from Lincoln Jail at the time.
To provide cover for this, Collins and Cathal Brugha were marked present at the first Dáil meeting, even though they were not there, but the Dáil record was later amended to accurately record their absence.
It is generally acknowledged that the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, read out by Pádraig Pearse on the steps of the GPO on Easter Sunday 1916, was a well thought-out, modern and progressive document for its time and was equally inclusive of all the nation’s men, women and children, as well as its diaspora. The Proclamation was the basis for the first Dáil’s claim of the right of Ireland to self-government and, idealistically, sought ‘religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens … happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally.’
The members of that first Dáil would not be happy with the current state of affairs in this country a century later, especially with over 3,700 homeless children living in emergency accommodation with their families. Back in 1919, thousands of children lived in awful conditions in tenements in cities, but one would have expected the current housing situation to be far better given the resurgence in our economic fortunes of recent years.
Achieving sovereignty as an independent nation was one of the big aims of the members of the first Dáil and they must have been turning in their graves at the thought of the way this was undermined by the EU-IMF-ECB economic bail-out during the calamitous downturn that followed the collapse of the Celtic Tiger boom. The public representatives of the 21st century still have an awful lot to do to measure up to the idealism of the men and woman who were elected to the first Dáil, especially in the area spreading the prosperity across all of society, but much more importantly, tackling the public health and housing crises we currently have with meaningful intent and more tangible and effective outcomes.
That would be the best tribute they could pay to the founding fathers of our nation.