1917 - the context
After the turmoil of the 1916 Rising and the executions and jailing that followed its failure, the following year inevitably appears quiet by comparison but not far below the radar forces were gathering momentum that two years later would lead to unstoppable countrywide conflict. The most potent of those forces was the emergence of Sinn Féin as a serious challenge to the dominance of John Redmond’s Home Rule Party, up to then the sole parliamentary representatives of nationalist Ireland.
The Home Rule Party or Nationalists were facing no overt challenge as 1916 was coming to a close but a significant number of their voters and even some of their representatives on local authorities were identifying with support groups for republican prisoners and generally becoming more measured in their attitude towards the rebels. The party had strongly denounced the rebellion, Redmond himself initially describing it as a German plot, and were hence vulnerable in any softening of popular opposition to it. At the same time membership of Sinn Féin was on the increase. The Rising had been incorrectly labelled the “Sinn Féin Rebellion” even though they had no real connection with it but the party founded the previous decade and still lead by Arthur Griffith, became an umbrella group for those seeking an alternative to the Nationalists.
Accordingly the expanding party decided to take their chances in a parliamentary by-election that arose in North Roscommon in February 1917. Up to then by-elections were rarely contested, the nominee of the party whose seat was vacated usually unopposed when the outcome was a foregone conclusion. The chosen candidate was Count George Noble Plunkett, the father of the executed 1916 leader Joseph Mary Plunkett, and in a classic display of the Irish sympathy vote, the Count, who had briefly been a Parliamentary Party MP twenty years earlier, easily defeated the Nationalist candidate. A similar result in another by-election in May suggested that a trend was emerging. Joseph McGuinness, a republican prisoner who did not even want to stand, became the new MP for South Longford where the famous slogan “Put him in to get him out” was first used, continuing a tradition that had started in 1869 when the Fenian prisoner Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa was elected as MP for Tipperary. In an amazing intervention from officialdom the Cork Board of Guardians had officially supported McGuinness.
Victories for SF in a further two by-elections in Clare and Kilkenny, where the respective winners were two future national leaders Eamon DeValera and W.T. Cosgrave, indicated that they were about to completely supplant the Nationalists. None of those elected took their seats at Westminster but this abstentionist policy restricted the rise of Sinn Féin in the northern part of the country where many Nationalist voters, worried that the policy could hasten the partition of Ireland, continued to support Redmond and the Home Rule Party. The lack of Sinn Féin leaders in the north was also an inhibiting factor there as two leading members Denis McCullough and Herbert Pim shifted their focus elsewhere.