The 1922 general election in Laois-Offaly. By Michael Byrne

The 16th of June 2022 marks two important anniversaries. The first is the centenary of Ulysses, but the second was the all-important vote on the Treaty held on the same day. The outcome in Ireland of the latter event was eagerly awaited. This election was the first to be held in the new Free State, the first held under the PR electoral system, and the first to be contested by the parties which, in modified forms, were to dominate subsequent Irish politics at least up to 2011. The 1918 election has already been the subject of a blog on Offalyhistoryblog and was a clear win in Offaly and the country for Sinn Féin. This blog is part of our contribution to the #decade of centenaries. We plan more over the summer to include the departure of the British army from Offaly barracks, the lead up to the civil war in Offaly, bank robberies, the burning of the county courthouse, jail and barracks, noted personalities in Offaly in 1922. If you wish to help please email us with your suggestions/contribution. info@offalyhistory.com

The 1922 election was a fight out between the pro-treatyites and the Republicans led by de Valera, but the pact between Collins and de Valera came to grief before election day. Some had looked to the Labour Party to stand aside in 1922,  as they had done in 1918, or to vote with the pro-treatyites. Nowhere was the wisdom of Labour going its own way better demonstrated that in the new Laois-Offaly four-seat constituency where William Davin came in as the big winner with more than two quotas. Given its performance in later general elections why did the anti-treatyites not field a candidate? Sean Robbins of Clara had topped the poll in the 1920 county council election and Sinn Féin’s ideologue in Offaly and organiser, T.M. Russell, had come second. Russell, to answer part of the question, had departed the local scene in October 1920 and was in favour of the Treaty. Sean McGuinness, the local IRA battalion commander, was another possible anti-treatyite candidate and he was elected in 1923, but declined to take his seat because of the oath of allegiance. He secured 5,572 votes in 1923.

Dr P. McCartan, the sitting TD in 1918-22

Dr Patrick McCartan represented Offaly, 1918-23

Dr McCartan (1867-1963) had won in 1918 in the by-election and the general election without a contest. Patrick McCartan was in the United States in 1918 serving as the Irish Republic’s ambassador and did not visit his new-found constituency that year for either the by-election or the general election. He was again elected for North Offaly in May 1921 in a clean sweep for Sinn Féin with no opposition and no election Those elected in 1921 for the four Leix-Offaly seats were McCartan (still Irish Republic ambassador in America), Kevin O’Higgins, Frank Bulfin (brother of Senor William Bulfin d. 1910) and Joseph Lynch of Mountmellick. Both Lynch and Bulfin were in custody at the time.[1] McCartan stood on the pro-treatyite ticket in the 1922 general election and, with the benefit of some of Davin’s transfers secured election to the fourth and final seat defeating Lynch. The entry in DIB needs correction here. McCartan had sent a telegram to the Tullamore-based Pro-Treaty committee in May to let them know he would stand. He now found himself in the company of, among others, T. English, John Lloyd, P.J. Egan, D. Williams, J. Shortall and James Rogers. Apart from Rogers his constituency committee must have seemed very like the old Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) of pre-war days. McCartan’s support for the Treaty and his particularly trenchant no-nonsense speech on the stepping-stone theme set him apart from his former Republican colleagues. It was no surprise that the 1922 general election was the last he fought in County Offaly. Patrick Egan, the Tullamore businessman, was the reluctant but winning pro-treatyites candidate who replaced him in 1923. Thereafter, like Bulmer Hobson (and having shared misgivings about the Rising) McCartan never secured admittance to the republican Valhalla.

The outcome of the vote in Laois-Offaly in 1922

Kevin O’Higgins, represented Offaly 1921-23, died 1927. Courtesy of NLI

In the Offaly-Leix (Laois) election the total votes recorded numbered 33,450; the spoiled votes numbered 858, and the quota was 6,519. The result was – Davin 1st, O’Higgins 2nd, Bulfin 3rd, and McCartan 4th. The first count was as followed:- William Davin (Labour) 15,167. Kevin O’Higgins (Pro-Treatyite) 6,792. Francis Bulfin (Pro-Treatyite.) 6,446. Patk. J. Lynch (Pro.T.) 1,391. Dr. M’Cartan (Pro.Treatyite.) 2,796. This left Mr. Davin with a surplus of 8,648, which was divided as follows: 2,499 went to Mr. Bulfin, bringing his figure to 8,945, which elected, and left him with a surplus of 2,426, and 3,331 to Mr Lynch, which brought his figures to 4,722, and 2,818 to Dr M’Cartan  bringing his figure to 5,614.[2] Mr Bulfin’s surplus of 2,426 was then distributed as fallows: 1,057 went to Lynch, raising his figure to 5,779, and 837 to M’Cartan bringing his figure to 6,541. Mr Lynch being eliminated. Dr M’Cartan was elected to the fourth sent.[3] The 33,450 votes cast were out of a register of 50,000 odd. 160 boxes were counted in Portlaoise, Offaly .

1922 general election summary for Leix-Offaly

1922 general election: Leix–Offaly[10]
PartyCandidate1st Pref %SeatCount
Labour PartyWilliam Davin15,16746.511
Sinn Féin (Pro-Treaty)Kevin O’Higgins6,79220.821
Sinn Féin (Pro-Treaty)Francis Bulfin6,44619.832
Sinn Féin (Pro-Treaty)Patrick McCartan2,7968.643
Sinn Féin (Pro-Treaty)Joseph Lynch1,3914.3
Electorate: 46,031   Valid: 32,592   Quota: 6,519   Turnout: 70.8%
   

Early attempts to have unity in Sinn Féin were voiced by Fr Gaynor, CC, Birr in February 1922. His ideas were so not too far off the ill-fated pact between De Valera and Collins of six weeks before the election in June.

Personally he did not care twopence about any party, but he did for the army, which was Ireland’s sole hope. There was no use in talking about the Treaty because it was an accomplished fact in Ireland, and the right thing to do was to avoid a split, because the suggestion of one was breaking the hearts of the people. His suggestion was that Mr de Valera and Mr Griffith and their friends agree that they could carry on for the present without an election and co-operate with each other. If they had an election let them agree that they would elect a National Assembly for the whole of Ireland in which they would all sit.[4]

The Offaly Independent took a strong line on support the Treaty as did the Midland Tribune and the Offaly Chronicle . The latter hi having been a strident unionist newspaper at least up to the death of its editor John Wright in 1915 was thereafter a good deal more muted. The Independent only reappeared in February 1922 having been destroyed by the British military for its fulsome support on behalf of Sinn Féin from Easter 1916. Based in Athlone it was in the home ground of General Sean McKeon. Its great editor in the 1916-20 period was the subject of an extensive obituary in the same issue in April 1922 as the visit of de Valera and Boland to Tullamore. The Independent noted in March that the Free State party had done nothing about forming a committee and that Dr McCartan was expected to visit his constituency in the coming weeks. Meanwhile a Republican election committee had been formed in Tullamore with Mr James O’Connor, M.C.C., being elected president, and Mr John Killeavy Vice President. Messrs Liam Johnson and Sean Barry were elected treasurer and secretary respectively. With Mr. F. Killeavy as assistant secretary.[5] In Birr the Republican movement was already making house to house collections and handbills supporting the Free State were also posted up in the town.[6] A black flag hoisted in Tullamore by the anti-treatyites near the Charleville Square was removed by persons unknown. It took longer to remove trees felled on all entrance roads to prevent a large attendance at the first big pro-treaty rally held in that April 1922. De Valera attended a similar event a few weeks later and the organisers planned that he would throw in the ball at the GAA grounds in Ballyduff.[7]

The Independent was critical of the anti-treatyites for their attempt to block access to the pro-treatyite meeting in Tullamore:

Unfortunately, both at Tullamore and at Wexford, where Pro-Treaty meeting were held on last Sunday, the opponent of the Treaty ignored the resolution to which the signatures of Mr. E. de Valera and Mr. Cathal Brugha were appended. All roads leading to Tullamore were blocked with felled trees, and it was with considerable difficulty that the people succeeded in reaching the place of the meeting.  Mr. Gavan Duffy, T.D., one of the Irish Plenipotentiaries to London, was subjected to considerable interruption while he was addressing the meeting. This small, but noisy section of people, who attended the Tullamore meeting, were evidently afraid that the people should learn the real, solid facts about the Treaty from one who was well able to enlighten the electorate of Offaly on that subject.[8]

The Chronicle in reporting the Republican meeting in Tullamore  stated that:

No untoward incident marked the proceedings at the Anti-Treaty meeting held in Tullamore on Sunday, when, despite inclement weather, a very large crowd assembled to hear the speeches of Mr. de Valera and Mr. Harry Boland. Mr. Thos. Dunne, Co. C.. Presided. Mr. Harry Boland said that what they asked the people of Ireland to do was to insist on their right to self-determination, and to insist that England would withdraw the threat of immediate and terrible war, so that they could freely express under what Government they wished to live. Mr. de Valera said, according to their votes at the last election, they owed no allegiance to any authority outside Ireland. … If they went on with the Treaty, and completed it by their votes, then Ireland was lost as she had not been lost for 750 years. But Ireland was there for the Irish people themselves to rule, forgetting about England and the Treaty, and the rest of it. Mr. de Valera addressed a largely attended meeting in Enniscorthy on Monday, and spoke against the Treaty. The only way to regain their former strong position was by rejecting the British Government’s proposals. Mr. de Valera has issued an Easter message to the Republic, in which he asks the young men and women of Ireland to hold steadily on, and says that the goal is in sight at last.[9]

Eamon de Valera, first spoke in Offaly in 1917.

The local organisers who met De Valera and Boland included

Rev. J. H. Burbage, C.C. Geashill, and Rev. P. Smyth, C.C., Rahan. Messrs James O’Connor, M.C.C., Chairman Local Elections Committee; P. Molloy, Sec. ; Mrs Wyer, Treas. ; Miss Hoyne, Organiser ; Thomas Dunne, M.C.C. ; Peadar Bracken, Wm Keegan, Sean O’Kelly (Gorteen), Eamonn Burke and Sean Lennon, Sub-director.

Fr Burbage of Geashill. This picture in 1948. Offaly’s most republican priest.

De Valera, in the midst of a great thunderstorm told his audience in O’Connor Square:

If there was to be an Easter like the Easter of 1916, it would not be Maxwell and others they would be fighting against. If they accepted this agreement it would not be foreign soldiers but Irish soldiers they would be fighting against. What they were actually trying to get Irishmen to do, if they accepted the Treaty was to stand definitely in the way of every Irishman who wanted the complete Independence of Ireland, and therefore he said that those who pretended that they could accept this agreement now and that it would be very easy to win complete freedom afterwards, were simply trying to fool them.

Kevin Boland drove home the point:


I am against this Treaty because it is wrong. I am not here to abuse any colleague of mine, but I am here to assert that the Republic was not let down until the men signed that Treaty, with a pistol at their heads, in London (hear, hear). We are here to ask the people of Leix and Offaly to be not afraid and to demonstrate again when the Elections come that they are a few people to re-affirm the established Republic, and to give ” No ” to this Treaty which for all time commits this nation to a position as a dismembered dominion of the British Empire. If the Irish people in the coming elections have the opportunity of seeing the right path and reject this Treaty in the ballot box, it would be the most magnificent vote this magnificent nation has ever given, and I firmly believe if by doing so they refuse to surrender their nationhood and refuse to commit this nation for all time as a dismembered dominion of Britain, and if they deny the right of the British King and the British Parliament to legislate for them, and if they again assert that the Irish people are a free people I believe a Treaty will be made which will be acceptable to Ireland, and one that Ireland can accept in honour. I am sorry for the people of Leix and Offaly who have deserved better than to have four representatives who have no respect for the public pledges they gave to them (hear, hear). We are here standing exactly as we stood in 1918, the legitimate ancestors of the men of ’48, ’67, and we are to assert that we will not permit England under the threat of immediate and terrible war, to force this Treaty down the throats of our people (cheers.)[10]

About a month after the address from the pro-treaty side the activists for the Treaty gathered as a committee in North Offaly. Members and supporters included:

Mr Thomas English (chairman) presiding, and the following members were also present – Messrs John Wrafter, John Lloyd, M J Gill], P J Egan, C U C; D Williams, U D C; John Marron. M. Killeavey, James Lloyd, T. Kelly. Jas Hanlon, T O’Brien, E J Delahunty, James Doody, James Rogers, solr. – Apologies for non-attendance were received from a number of people, including Mr M J Kelly and Mr Ryan (organiser).

James Rogers, solr and director of elections in 1922 for the pro-treatyites

Mr Rogers stated that the present sitting Teachai, namely, Messrs O’Higgins, Lynch, and Bulfin, T D’s, had consented to seek re-election to the Free State Parliament, and while Dr. MacCartan’s consent had not yet been obtained, it was certain he would not resist the unanimous volume of the voice of the whole constituency. – A definite answer as to whether Dr MacCartan would consent to stand, was expected during the coming week, it was stated. His consent was forthcoming within the week.[11]

It was during May that Labour announced it would not stand down its candidate William Davin. The pro-treaty side had been looking for a meeting purportedly on a letter from James Rogers. There were doubts about this and, in any case, no one came. Patrick Drum of the Tullamore ITGWU told the meeting that

These parties who were advocating Labour to stand down did not come forward last December to settle the strike in Tullamore when the workers were looking for a living wage. They did not come forward and say “pay the men the full wages until after Xmas.” The Chairman said they had nothing to do with standing down : he was not in favour of such an idea ; but, as a matter of courtesy he agreed to meet the deputation from the Free State Party, to hear what they wanted to say. Labour was going to stand on its own legs, and there was no such thing as standing down at all, and if the deputation were there he would tell them that.[12]

Given the active role of Labour from 1917 and its not having candidates in 1918 in support of the national cause now was the chance to make its voice heard. Michael Gallagher in his article on the pact election of 1922 (published in 1981) summarised the position as Sinn Féin taking 94 of the 124 seats it contested, 94 out of 128 in all, with the pro-treatyites coming off better. Labour was very successful with 17 of its 18 candidates elected. Had Labour been more confident in Laois Offaly it might have secured two seats as Davin headed the poll with 46% of the vote, equal to two quotas. The pro-treatyites in Laois-Offaly with three candidates took 17,425 votes of 32,592 cast. Labour’s single candidate took 15,167 votes.[13] Gallagher makes the point in his 1999 article on the Laois-Offaly constituency that Davin was only second to Oliver Flanagan as the most successful. (That record was maintained into the Cowen era ending for Brian Cowen in 2011.) Davin, from Rathdowney, combined his political role with that of pier master in Dun Laoghaire and later North Wall. Davin died in 1956.[14] He deserves better memory and appears to have played an important role in securing the Salts factory for Tullamore in 1936-7.

From the Offaly Chronicle, 22 May 1922

The 1922 election was the last in Laois-Offaly for Patrick McCartan. It was the first in which he was elected as he had secured his seat in 1918 (twice) without a contest and again in 1921. Frank Bulfin was elected in 1922 and again in 1923. William Davin was elected thirteen times up to 1954 and died in 1956. Joseph Lynch had held the seat in 1921 and was now defeated. Kevin O’ Higgins was elected without a contest for Laois-Offaly in 1921 and elected in 1922. He was the first of three of the O’Higgins dynasty to represent the Laois-Offaly voters. The others were Dr T.F. O’Higgins from 1932 and his son Tom O’Higgins from 1948-69 and later Chief Justice.

The voice of the clergy in the 1922 general election was strongest with Fr Burbage of Geashill who was strident in support of Sinn Féin and of de Valera from 1916 to 1922 and beyond. His parish priest, Fr Phelan, while admiring some of the soldiers in the IRA held more to the line of his bishop. A number of clergy wrote to James Rogers, the organising secretary for the pro-treatyites in 1922 and director of elections in the context of the big Tullamore meeting. Not all of the local men were strident in favour or against and many kept their own counsel. More analysis would be needed to convey the full story but the enclosed comments have proved interesting. Fr Callary (died 1925) of Tullamore and parish priest did not write on this occasion, but he was very much in favour of government and the old IPP.

Fr Callary, PP of Tullamore, died 1925

PRO-TREATY MEETING IN TULLAMORE VIEWS OF CLERGYMEN

The following letters received by Mr. J. Rogers, solicitor, Director of Elections, in Offaly for the Free State Party, in connection with the Pro-Treaty meeting, held in Tullamore on Sunday week were un-avoidably held over.

Rev. J. Morris, P.P., Rhode, wrote: – “Sorry I cannot be with you on Sunday at least in person but will be in spirit. I am head and soul in favour of the Treaty and will support it in every way. We are a disgraced nation all over the world.

Rev. James Flynn, P.P., Rahan, wrote : “I regret I cannot be at your meeting on Sunday. My parochial duties here are sufficient to occupy all my time. I have never appeared on any political platform in the past and I don’t intend to so appear in the future. I earnestly hope that the people of Offaly will have the opportunity of FREE CHOICE in the voting either for or against the Treaty, that they will not allow themselves to be “bullied” by anyone no matter what position he occupies and that they will now be accorded a little of the freedom for which so many have fought and died.”

Rev. M. J. Kennedy, Shannonbridge, wrote :- “I thank you for the invitation to the Co. Meeting on Sunday and regret I cannot attend. I strongly approve of the Treaty. There is wisdom in the story of the boy and the nuts. The methods of hooliganism and barbarism which have characterised recent meetings are greatly to be regretted, and condemned. The rights of free speech, MAJORITY RULE, and the due subordination of the military to the civil power must be upheld at all costs.”

Very Rev. Michael Bracken, P.P., V.P., Clara, wrote :- “I am sorry I cannot be present at your meeting on Sunday. You have my best wishes for its success. “It is a pity that a country so united a short time ago should be divided now on points of apparently little practical importance.”

Rev. J. O’Ryan, P.P., Birr, wrote expressing thanks for invitation and regretting he could not attend.

Rev. James Lynam, C.C., Tullamore, wrote :- “I regret I cannot see my way to accept your kind invitation to address your county meeting on next Sunday. During more than 20 years of my life as a priest I have never spoken from a political platform and cannot now make a new departure. But I have no hesitation in declaring I am in favour of accepting the Treaty. To my mind acceptance of the Treaty is the only PRACTICAL SOLUTION of the present political triangle. The arguments for and against the Treaty have been repeated so often that every person should be capable of forming his own judgment by the visible benefits of accepting it, and the disastrous consequences of risking the renewal of the Black-and-Tan ruffianism in a more aggravated form.”

Rev. E. Daly, C.C., Tullamore, wrote :- I regret I cannot accept your kind invitation to be present to address the Free State meeting tomorrow. I have made up my mind definitely not to take any PUBLIC PART in the present political contest that has so sadly divided our people.”

Rev. Thomas O’Keeffe, C.C., Tullamore, wrote :- Whilst feeling ever so grateful for your letter of invitation to take an active part in your meeting, next Sunday, I wish to inform you that it has always been a principle of mine never to take a prominent or public part in politics. “In circumstances of the kind especially when Catholics are pitted against one another in bitter controversy, I am a firm believer where we priests are concerned, in the policy of St. Paul i.e. “To be all things to all men in order to save all and to do all things for the Gospel’s sake.” This is my principle and my policy too in the present crisis.”[15]


[1] Midland Tribune, 21 May 1921.The nominators for McCartan were Fr Magee and Sean O’Kelly. The assenting electors included Mrs Teresa Wyer and Mrs Rose K. Adams.

[2] Michael Byrne, on the 1914 by-election in Offaly Heritage 9.

[3] Offaly Independent, 24 June 1922. The votes cast were about two-thirds of those eligible to vote or c. 50,000. The count was in Portlaoise and involved checking 160 boxes or 15,953 and for Leix 17,497.

[4] Offaly Chronicle, 23 Feb. 1922

[5] Offaly Independent, 11 Mar. 1922.

[6] Offaly Chronicle, 23 Mar. 1922.

[7] Offaly Independent, 15 April 1922.

[8] Offaly Independent, 15 Apr. 1922.

[9] Offaly Chronicle, 20 Apr. 1922.

[10] Offaly Independent, 22 Apr. 1922.

[11] Offaly Independent, 6 May and 13 May 1922.

[12] Ibid., 20 May 1922.

[13] Michael Gallagher, ‘The pact election of 1922’, Irish Historical Studies, 21:84 (1981), pp 402-21. See pp  414-18.

[14] Michael Gallagher, ‘Politics in Laois-Offaly, 1922–92’ in Padraig G. Lane and William Nolan (eds), Laois History & Society (Dublin, 1999), pp 656–

[15] Offaly Independent, 22 Apr. 1922

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