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, Dr Patrick McCartan’s election agent for the North King’s County by-election, April 1918. Irish Independent, 20 April 1918.
This week we publish a day earlier to mark the 100th anniversary of the General Election of 14 December 1918 – a watershed in the history of politics in Ireland. It should be noted that apart from the by-election of 1914 in North King’s County (Banagher-Tullamore-Edenderry district) no opportunity arose for the north King’s County parliamentary voters to go to the ballot box between 1885 and 1922. Notwithstanding all the excitement in 1918 for both the by-election in April and the general election in December Dr McCartan was unopposed. Women who had fought so much for the vote in the pre-war years did not get a chance to exercise the parliamentary franchise in north Offaly until 1922.
Number of voters up from 8 to 75 of those over 21 in 33 years
The 1884 Reform Act had widened the franchise from 8 to 31 percent of the population, aged over 21, while the 1918 act saw it increase to 75 percent. The vote was extended to all men over 21 (and soldiers over 18) and to women over 30 who were householders or married to householders.
King’s County was divided into two single-seat constituencies in 1885 when the number of voters increased from about 3,000 to over 10,000 as part of Gladstone’s electoral reforms. By 1911, allowing for the declining population, the electorate was close on 9,000. The extent of the expansion in the register in December 1918 in the county can be seen in reference to a figure of over 25,500 voters from a population of nearly 57,000. In politics the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), under the leadership of Charles Stewart Parnell, was in the ascendant and had been since the early 1880s. The King’s County members of parliament from 1900 until 1914 and 1918 respectively were Haviland Burke and Michael Reddy. Haviland Burke succeeded Dr Joseph Fox as unopposed candidate in 1900. Fox held the seat from 1885 in what was the last contested North King’s County election, and in 1892 as an anti-Parnellite nationalist. Bernard Charles Molloy was the MP in South King’s County and unopposed from 1885 until 1900 when he lost the seat to Shannonbridge man Michael Reddy. Molloy was also on the anti-Parnellite ticket in 1892. The by-election in the Tullamore division of the King’s County in December 1914 was the first election to be contested in almost thirty years and one of only five by-elections in the entire county from 1801 until 1921. The first three were occasioned on appointment to office of the sitting member in 1805, 1821 and 1841. The fourth and fifth, during the First World War, came about on the death of the sitting member. In 1914 it was the death of Haviland Burke and in 1918 that of his successor, E.J. Graham. There were a further three by-elections in the Laois-Offaly constituency since 1922. These were: in 1926 on the disqualification of republican John McGuinness and, second, in 1956 on the death of William Davin. Only the third and last touched closely on Tullamore and that was the by-election of June 1984 when Brian Cowen succeeded on the death of his father Bernard Cowen.
In the period 1801 to 1921 there were thirty-one general elections and thirty-one more between 1922 and 2016. The last all-Ireland general election was that in 1918 to the Westminster parliament and this in turn provided the Sinn Féin members to the first Dáil of 1919 and of which thirty-two have met up to 2016. The 1914 by-election was exciting too for the closeness of the contest with only seventy-nine votes between the candidates. There were earlier narrow defeats in the King’s County constituency such as that of Catholic Conservative John Pope Hennessy in 1865 when he lost to Sir Patrick O’Brien by just six votes.
The growth of Sinn Féin in County Offaly in 1917–18 testified to an intense political activity that was boosted by the 1918 by-election (following the death of E.J. Graham in March) and the general election in December of the same year. Offaly was one of Sinn Féin’s most successful recruiting grounds and from the county’s performance in the War of Independence some would say that political mobilisation was not matched by military action. That view remains to be challenged in the years of research now ahead of us to cover the 1919–23 period in Offaly.
John Redmond of IPP died in early 1918 and Dr McCartan elected for Tullamore Division in April without a vote and again for the entire county on December 14 1918
The 1918 by-election in North King’s County/Offaly
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. 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 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 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. Adams did not put himself forward and John Dooly of Birr was considering it. No evidence was found to suggest that Adams was intimidated into not running a campaign, but then that would be difficult. The late Frank Meehan stated that he had been informed by Patrick Lloyd of Cormac Street, Tullamore 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.
The Sinn Féin by-election campaign began at the end of March 1918 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. 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.
There was broad acceptance of the Midland Tribune view that McCartan would succeed and confusion in the IPP as to who might stand. All parts of the constituency were said to be solid for Sinn Féin save perhaps Tullamore ‘which is pretty evenly divided’. 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. 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’.
The general election of 1918
As to the general election in December 1918 Michael Reddy withdrew his candidature in Birr in the 1918 general election knowing that he was facing certain defeat. Reddy died in 1919. In this he was one of forty-two members out of 103 Irish members who failed to stand and one of thirty-one in what was now Dillon’s Party. Dillon lost his seat to the imprisoned de Valera of Sinn Féin. The Sinn Féin Party won 73 of the 105 seats in December 1918. The ‘first past the post’ system permitted Sinn Féin to take 75 per cent of the seats with less than half of the votes cast in the ‘ordinary’ (non-university) constituencies. But in most of the twenty-five uncontested seats Sinn Féin was strong. King’s County, in common with large parts of the country, was not contested. McCartan did not have to contest any election in Offaly until 1922 when, as a reluctant pro-Treaty man, he was defeated and, disillusioned, left politics and returned to medicine in New York. A year later none other than Patrick J. Egan, a brother-in-law of P.F. Adams, was elected for Cumann na nGaedheal and held the seat until June 1927.