The 1918 by-election in North King’s County/Offaly: victory for Sinn Féin and the abandonment of Westminster Michael Byrne

Congratulations to the people of Offaly in having secured as their member Ireland’s Ambassador to America. Their unanimous endorsement of his mission is particularly opportune. Dr McCartan will voice a united Ireland’s demand that the Irish people be given the right of self-determination and will tell the world that Irishmen will not fight as England’s slaves. De Valera telegram to Dan MacCarthy, McCartan’s election agent for North King’s County by-election, April 1918. Irish Independent, 20 April 1918.

‘Up Offaly’ the Tullamore and King’s County Independent told its readers that ‘Offaly men can proclaim through their votes that they are no sons of a miserable English province’ but descendants of a royal race. They were not to be deceived by the ‘hireling band’ of paid politicians who would descend on the county for the by-election. ‘Poor Ned Graham’, it said, drove them out in 1914 aided only by a few priests and local nationalists. Tullamore and King’s County Independent, 30 Mar. 1918.

22 McCartan TD

The by-elections in King’s County/Offaly in 1914 and again in 1918 provide a useful backdrop as to how the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) found itself before and after the Easter Rising of 1916. The December 1914 by-election in North King’s County was the first in thirty years and was fought between two Tullamore men, P.F. Adams, the official IPP candidate and E.J. Graham the unofficial nationalist candidate. Graham won this exciting election by 79 votes and was returned to Westminster. He was the last North King’s County MP to sit in the British parliament. His early death in March 1918 (in the same month as Redmond) led to a second by-election. After rumour and counter rumour the Sinn Féin candidate, Dr Patrick McCartan was elected without a contest on 19 April 1918. Given the Conscription Crisis of April 1918 he was unbeatable. He won again without a contest in the December 1918 general election. He was again elected in 1921 but without having to fight a contest. In fact there was only one electoral contest for a parliamentary seat in Tullamore (North King’s County/Offaly) in the thirty-seven years from 1885 to 1922 and that was in December 1914.

The North King’s County by-election of 1914 was the first to be fought since the war began and the Home Rule Act was signed. It saw two nationalist supporters of the Irish leader John Redmond fight each other for the Westminster seat in the aftermath of an electoral convention in Tullamore, the outcome of which was unacceptable to one of the candidates and his supporters.  By April 1918 the IPP was in disarray: Redmond was dead, the war had dragged on, 1916 and the executions and jailings had taken place and conscription was threatened.  No Irish Party member was eager to fight the second by-election occurring in the county. The North King’s County seat was handed to the Tyrone-born Sinn Féin candidate, Dr Patrick McCartan (1878-1963), who was then in the United States and would not, in any case, be attending at Westminster to represent the people of Offaly. The outburst against parliamentary party centralism manifest in Tullamore in December 1914 (after almost thirty years of accepting the dictates of head office) was soon forgotten in the enthusiasm for the youthful, time for change, Sinn Féin movement. Equally, it can be said that the North King’s County 1914 revolt was a temporary aberration and that the weakness of the parliamentary party’s local structure was all too evident in March-April 1918. The period from June 1916 to April and December 1918 in County Offaly saw no diminution in political activity in the county notwithstanding an increasing disenchantment with the United Irish League and the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP). On the contrary the support for the new Sinn Féin political party grew in intensity from March 1917 to its peak at the county council elections in June 1920.  Some would say that it was a case of the old wine of the United Irish League in the new Sinn Féin bottles. Some vines were certainly transplanted to new ground. Apart from some of the local IPP personalities, such as White and Bermingham, switching to Sinn Féin, the same centralism was to the fore when McCartan was imposed on the county in March 1918 and accepted without question.

Death of the sitting unofficial IPP E.J. Graham on 26 March 1918

11 Tullamore 1910 Board of Guardian Local Government.. - Copy
E. J. Graham (right) with his friend William Adams left (died 1914).

E.J. Graham died in a Dublin hospital on 26 March 1918, aged only 51, thereby creating the possibility of another contested war-time by-election in North King’s County/Offaly in April 1918. He had not long enjoyed the fruits of his victory over the IPP and died in the same month as his ‘friend’ John Redmond. Notices of Graham’s obituary in the local press were glowing because he had defied the IPP, but it is highly unlikely that he would have been nominated by Sinn Féin to contest the seat in November 1918 had he survived. Land and Labour had in fact been calling on him to resign in 1917. His death brought about the election of Dr Patrick McCartan, the Sinn Féin candidate, without a contest. McCartan had been defeated in the Armagh South by-election of February 1918, but was returned in North King’s County after the hint of a contested election.  He was again returned unopposed for the entire county in December 1918 at the general election. He too was an imposed candidate continuing a tradition broken only in December 1914. The background to the April by-election debacle was that John Dillon, the party leader after Redmond’s death, in a gentlemanly pact with Sinn Féin, did not agree to either Adams or John Dooly of Birr contesting the Tullamore seat and so it went to McCartan. His non-contested by-election came in the wake of the big demonstrations against conscription in Tullamore and everywhere else. What looked like compromise on the part of Dillon was recognition that the win for the IPP in Armagh South would not be repeated. The Tribune had stated in its editorial of 6 April 1918 that Dr McCartan was a certainty and that the greatest enthusiasm existed for Sinn Féin. ‘The electors state that they are only anxious to give the party a better reverse than it got in 1914.’ The Tribune was consistent in its anti-IPP view under its editor James Pike from the beginning of the war.

21 Redmond John cg 1914 p 49
John Redmond, died in March 1918.

Would the Separation women and children attack Sinn Féin

The IPP was not wholly dead in the Tullamore area as witness a small celebratory demonstration in Tullamore with a bonfire in O’Connor Square following on the Waterford victory for the IPP. Both P.F. Adams (who had resigned from the county council in November 1916) and a Captain Odlum spoke to what the Midland Tribune reported as largely women and children, described as separationists. The County Inspector of police thought it a large crowd. The Sinn Féin group, remembering the trouble in March 1916 formed a cordon at the junction of Columcille/William Street and Harbour Street so as to protect their clubrooms. However, the procession went over the Kilbeggan Bridge and along the canal to Clara Bridge and back to Charleville/O’Connor Square without incident. The Tribune returned to the attack in suggesting that both Adams and Mr Power, the town foreman, who was also on the platform, were of military age and should don the khaki – i.e. practise what they preached. Michael Reddy, the King’s County MP for the Birr division it excused as being over military age. Included in the list of subscribers to the Doctor McCartan election fund in that same issue of the Tribune was John Graham of Pallas.

‘Up Offaly’

9 P. F. Adams
P.F Adams, defeated by Graham in 1914, he did not run in April 1918.

The attitude of the King’s County Independent in 1918 was very different to its IPP line in October-December 1914. Now in an editorial headed ‘Up Offaly’ the Tullamore and King’s County Independent told its readers that ‘Offaly men can proclaim through their votes that they are no sons of a miserable English province’ but descendants of a royal race. They were not to be deceived by the ‘hireling band’ of paid politicians who would descend on the county for the by-election. ‘Poor Ned Graham’, it said, drove them out in 1914 aided only by a few priests and local nationalists. The Independent in the same editorial asked did Dillon stand by full dominion self-government for Ireland. For the Midland Tribune and the election it was simply a matter of the size of the majority for McCartan and that was only if the ‘factionist Parliamentary Party’ could find a candidate to go forward and that a vote for the IPP was a vote for conscription. P.F. Adams did not put himself forward and  John Dooly of Birr and chairman of the county council (until June 1918) was considering it. No evidence was found to suggest that Adams was intimidated into not running a campaign, but then that would be difficult. Frank Meehan stated that he had been informed by the late Patrick Lloyd of Cormac Street that such intimidation of P.F. Adams’ family did take place in regard to the general election of 1918. Meehan’s grandfather was an IPP MP and visited the constituency and ought to have known. On the other hand Meehan was partial to the old IPP and the threat, if there was one, may have been exaggerated. Lloyd, it has to be said, was a near neighbour of Adams and had subscribed £2 to the McCartan election fund and was a staunch nationalist.

Some extremist priests

The Sinn Féin by-election campaign began at the end of March with meetings in every parish in the constituency after Sunday mass and speeches from visitors Dan McCarthy, Austin Stack, Stephen Mara, Joseph McGuinness and in Tullamore from Tribune editor, Seamus/James Pike, the draper Michael Berrill and P.J Bermingham. The latter remarking that on the last occasion they had supported Graham for the principle of independent voting (at the convention in November 1914 for the December by-election), but now it was for an independent Ireland.  The County Inspector noted the attendance of Mr Plunkett but thought the attendance was miserable and that a larger assembly was expected for the de Valera meeting. The inspector mentioned the names of Parkinson and Lorcan Sherlock as possible candidates and thought it would be a bitter contest. There were, he said, a good many nationalists in the constituency as witness the dimension of the crowd in Tullamore that celebrated the Waterford victory for Captain Redmond. This seems to have been wishful thinking on the part of the inspector given the support for Sinn Féin that his own reports had not failed to notice. In the lead-up to the by-election Fr Phelan of Killeigh told his parishioners that the question was how much independence could be got for Ireland and whether it would be the IPP’s colonial home rule or Sinn Féin’s complete independence. The bishop (Dr Foley) of the Kildare and Leighlin diocese in which most of east Offaly was situated was not opposed to Sinn Féin but when it was a question of difference between Catholics he did not wish the priests to take a prominent part. He cannot have been too strong on that given that Fr Burbage of Geashill was very active for Sinn Féin.  The County Inspector in August 1918 considered Burbage, Fr Smith of Rahan. Fr Fanning and Fr Kavanagh as the most extreme in the county.

The conscription crisis could not have come at a worse time for the IPP

19180419 by election poster
The poster for the by-election, Offaly History Archives and Tommy Dolan.

There was broad acceptance of the Midland Tribune view that McCartan would succeed and confusion in the IPP as to who might stand. A suggestion that Lorcan Sherlock would do so was quickly denied by him. All parts of the constituency were said to be solid for Sinn Féin save perhaps Tullamore ‘which is pretty evenly divided’. At one stage the redoubtable Captain Daly, the Tullamore distiller was suggested but nothing came of this.  Support from clergy in Daingean, Tober and Rahan was strong while, as noted, more neutral in Killeigh and Tullamore.  Later in that first week of canvassing M.H. White (chairman of the Tullamore Guardians and vice-president of Clara’s A.O.H.) spoke in Clara with Count Plunkett while John (Eoin) MacNeill was told at a canvas in Tullamore that prominent supporters of the late Mr Graham would not vote for the Sinn Féin candidate.  On Sunday 8 April De Valera spoke in Tullamore (the meeting was chaired by Bermingham.) on Ireland’s ‘fateful hour’ and the right of Ireland to self-determination. De Valera had first spoken in the town in the aftermath of his East Clare victory in July 1917. Meanwhile the vacancy in the IPP candidature was not and would not be filled. When deputations from both Nationalists camps in Tullamore (the IPP and Graham supporters) met John Dillon, the IPP leader who succeeded Redmond in March, it was to tell him that they would agree on one candidate. But the conscription crisis was about to overtake the matter of an IPP candidate and Dillon told the deputation that now was not the time for a local contest. Notwithstanding this prohibition it appears that John Dooly of Birr, the chairman of the county council, was selected. Dillon persisted and Dooly withdrew his candidature. McCartan was duly elected on 19 April 1918 with sixty nominations and no opposition. Like Graham he was unable to attend the declaration but not because of a cold. De Valera had sent him to Washington as ‘Ireland’s ambassador’ to the United States where he received a congratulatory telegram – ‘Offaly unanimously accredits you for Ireland . . .’ Among his principal nominators were M/s White and Bermingham, Frs Magee of Tober and Bergin of Philipstown. White and Bermingham were the king-makers again in 1918 as they had been in 1914. But Lloyd George was a king-maker too. F.S.L. Lyons pointed out that the conscription crisis could not have come at a worse time. In the three by-elections fought since the beginning of 1918 – South Armagh, Waterford City and East Tyrone – the IPP had beaten off the challenge of Sinn Féin. As so often before the government had stepped in to revive Sinn Féin fortunes. That said the lack of a suitable candidate for North King’s County and a local press united against the IPP made the chance of winning the seat highly remote. And besides the tentative agreement with Sinn Féin not to enter into electoral competition in light of the conscription threat was less important in North King’s County as the seat had been held by an independent. The agreement, would in any case, fall with the East Cavan by-election and a Sinn Féin victory helped on by the so-called ‘German plot’.