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Siobhan McGuinness

Reproduced, with the Society's permission, from the 1992 Journal of The Creggan Local History Society

Developments in Irish Politics 1916-1918
Broad Issues in the Election
The Election
Consequences of the Election


The Easter Rising in 1916 brought the Home Rule issue out of cold storage. A new sense of urgency was awakened in the people, both in Ireland and in England. The task of negotiating with the parties involved fell to Lloyd George, now Minister of Munitions in Asquith's wartime Coalition. To him, the cause of Ireland was "no longer a crusade, but a nagging nuisance to be got rid of with the minimum of fuss". (1)

Although Home Rule had managed to struggle onto the statute-books in September 1914, it was with two serious qualifications: first, it was subject to a Suspensory Act, meaning it would not come into operation until the end of the war; and second, special provision for Ulster was to be included.

The Northerners were now drawn willy-nilly into new political negotiations with Lloyd George presiding over them in his familiar manner, "leaving different impressions on different people". (2) He negotiated separately with the Unionist leader Sir Edward Carson and the nationalist leader John Redmond. The reason for conducting the talks in this fashion was that Lloyd George was certain that no compromise could be reached if both men came together. 'Re different interpretations of these negotiations becane clear when both men turned to their respective followers for support.

The negotiations, which got underway in mid 1916, gave "definite form to the policy of partition, vaguely hinted at in 1914". (3) Lloyd George proposed that the Home Rule Act should come into operation immediately, but six Ulster counties with a clear Unionist majority between them should be placed outside its jurisdiction.

A meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council - "a body to link the main organs of Unionism in the North"(4) - was convened, and Carson presented his followers with the proposals. From the outset it was believed that this exclusion of the six counties was to be permanent. After much discussion, the immediate establishment of Home Rule with the exclusion of the six North-Eastern counties was agreed. Carson had successfully carried through the "difficult and very painful task"(5) of inducing the Unionists to surrender Cavan, Donegal and Monaghan. On this occasion one observer noted; " men not prone to emotion shed tears".(6)

Redmond's reading of the situation was evidently quite different. He viewed the exclusion on a strictly temporary basis. As such, he presented the proposals to the Ulster Nationalist Conference in Belfast in June 1916. All spheres of nationalist opinion were presented among the 1,077 delegates present. The ensuing debate was long and difficult for Redmond, and at one point "Redmond warned that he would resign the leadership if his policy was rejected".(7) The terms of the agreement were accepted by a majority of 210 votes. This, however, was not the success it appears, since this figure represented only 40% of the invited delegates with only 70% attending. Nonetheless, the proposals had been sanctioned by the conference. The delegates may not have been completely happy with the proposals, but were prepared to compromise.

The Irish Parliamentary Party, led by John Redmond was at this time a largely moderate party. Their principle demand was Home Rule, while they also called for land reforms and social reforms. Nationalist orators spoke of their policies as being attainable objectives, whereas, although they did not always condemn the principles of Sinn Fein, they discounted their policies as being unattainable and totally unrealistic. The party was "essentially middle class, vaguely liberal in its political attitudes, decidedly conservative in its social composition and outlook, consisting of men who hadfirst entered politics in the Parnellite high noon".(8)

The Sinn Fein party differed from previous national movements, principally in the policy which it outlined for the attainment of its ultimate end, the independence of Ireland. The party however, never concealed its opinion that force was a legitimate method of securing national rights. Sinn Fein advocated a policy of parliamentary abstention, since they considered the House of Commons an alien Parliament. They claimed the nationalist party were shy of raising all the fundamental questions and their aim was "not to educate the Irish public but to wrest from the Government, the full measure of a nation's right". (9)

It is against this background of conflict that the by-election took place in February 1918 in South Armagh, caused by the death of the Nationalist member of parliament, Dr. Charles O'Neill. ,p>South Armagh was a traditionally Nationalist seat. Since 1885 a nationalist had held the seat and in the January election of 1910 Dr. 0Neill was elected without opposition. The total number of parliamentary voters in South Armagh on the last register published was 6,347. It was divided into six polling districts, namely Ballybot, Forkhill, Crossmaglen, Cladymiltown, Newtownhamilton and Poyntzpass. The constituency consisted mainly of small farmers.

The election transpired to be one of the most dramatic and best remembered contests the area has known. The campaign was a fiercely contested and bitter affair, punctuated not only by allegations and counter allegations, but by physical disturbances. There was also many instances of heckling, speech disturbances and intimidation. These circumstances in which the election was fought, and the crucial nature of the election made it a fiercely competitive affair.

It is the purpose of this dissertation to examine the 1918 by-election, to consider its importance and to investigate why Sinn Fein did not win their first Ulster seat in the South Armagh constituency. I shall consider the parties involved, the methods employed during the election, the results and its consequences.

I have chosen to study elections because I regard them as the most appropriate, accurate and manageable way of studying the political situation in a given arm at a given time. When the voters express their views by voting for a representative of one of the political parties, we can use statistics to analyse what the political flavour of the area is. This election, I feel gives an insight into the political situation in South Armagh at this crucial period in Irish history and gives us an indication of the tactics and style the political parties used to fight elections.

(1) B. Farrell - The Irish Parliamentary Tradition - P.204.....Back
(2) Lord Lonford and Anne McHardy - Ulster - P.62.....Back
(3) B. Severn - The Two Lives of Eamon De Valera - P. 17.....Back
(4) F.S.L. Lyons - Ireland Since the Fandne - P.221.....Back
(5) Lonford and McHardy - Ulster - P.64....Back
(6) Ibid.....Back
(7) D. Gwynn - The Life of John Redmond - P.512.....Back
(8) B. Faffell - The Irish Parliamentary Tradition - P. 198.....Back
(9) R.S. Henry - The Evolution of Sinn Fein - P.83.....Back


The death of Dr. Charles O'Neill, M.P. for South Armagh, occurred at his residence in Glenravel House, Caotbridge on January 14th 1918.

Dr. O'Neill was probably the last survivor of those who assembled with Issac Butt in the Bilton Hotel, Dublin in 1870 to form the Home Rule Movement. He worked zealously in the cause with which he prominently identified himself during his early career, and became a dignified and respected politican. He first appeared on the political platform in 1900 when he was selected as a possible candidate to carry the Home Rule standard in South Armagh. At the Nationalist Convention held prior to this election Dr. O'Neill received the majority of votes, but the clergy insisted in running NU Campbell who defeated him at the poll. (1) However, at the general election in 1909 Dr. O'Neil was selected as the Home Rule candidate by a majority of one vote over Mr P. Donnelly. He won the election with a majority of 1,887 votes and served the people of South Armagh in Parliament for the next nine years.

For the week following Dr. O'Neill's death speculation was rife as to the possibility of an election. Owing to the strength of the Nationalist movement in the constituency it was at first thought unlikely that a contest would occur. However, they had considerable money in the party fund, partially from America, and the Irish Party were keen to show their support over the new Sinn Fein Party.

The Sinn Fein party were keen to acquire the opportunity to assert themselves in Ulster. The party had been reorganised and they now felt equipped and confident enough to move into Ulster. Their previous election success in Clare, Kilkenny and South Longford had given them invaluable experience. They felt that now was the ideal opportunity since the Irish Party were losing contact with the people, especially the younger generation. South Armagh provided the opportunity they were waiting for.

The Sinn Fein convention to choose a candidate was held at Whitecross. Two names were put forward, Dr. McCartan and Dr. McKee, but the latter withdrew his name. McCartan was proposed by James Aiken, Camlough and seconded by John McIlhaw, Carrickcruppen with several assenters. McCartan was then selected.

McCartan was horn in Carrickmore, Co. Tyrone. He studied at Armagh Seminary, St. Macartan's Monaghan and St. Malachy's Belfast, from which he matriculated. He had spent some time in Philadelphia where he took an active part in all Irish affairs, before returning to Dublin in 1905 to study medicine. Having qualified and worked in Dublin he was then appointed Medical Officer of the Goilin dispensary, a position he held until May 1916 when he resigned. His public support for Sinn Fein led to a warrant being issued for his arrest. Although he surrendered during the general amnesty he was deported. He then travelled to America and became, in De Valera's words "the first Ambassador of the Irish Nation". In fact McCartan was in the custody of the U.S. Government for "alleged breeches of law".(2) Exactly what these breeches were remains unclear. On January 3Ist, the day before polling, McCartan's mother died in her home in Carrickmore, Co. Tyrone.

The Nationalist candidate for the election was Patrick Donnelly from Newry. He was born in 1878 and received his early education in Newry. From there he moved to Queen's University in Belfast from where he graduated with a law degree. While in Queen's he won many prizes, both for academic ability and public speaking. He took up a position with the firm of Wray and Telford in Newry, and became involved with the local branch of the United Irish League and soon became its Honorary Executive Secretary in South Armagh. Donnelly had previously attempted to be chosen as the Nationalist candidate for the General Election in 1909, but failed. On this occasion he was defeated by Dr. O'Neill by a single vote. In this election it was regarded as a foregone conclusion that Donnelly would stand unopposed, and so be selected to represent the Irish Party.

He was selected at the Party convention held in Lislea, which was arranged by the United Irish League. Donnelly was proposed by Rev. Canon Quinn, P.P., Camlough and seconded by Nfichael Keamey, with several assentors. He stood unopposed and was selected.

On January 26th a notice to the electors in South Armagh was issued in the local papers from Thomas Wakefield Richardson. It stated his intention to stand as a candidate for the election.

"Having been invited by a number of influential Unionist electors in South Armagh, I have consented to contest the seat."(3)

Richardson, from Moyallan House, Camlough was a step-brother of James Richardson who had represented the undivided county of Armagh in Parliament in the 1880's. He was a staunch supporter of the Union and a temperance advocate. His late entry into the election at this stage meant that he could not personally solicit support but;

"he trusted that all Unionists in the constituency would do their utmost to secure his return". (4)

He was not an official unionist candidate, but an Independent Unionist and temperance advocate. At Loughilly his candidature was approved but not so at other meetings in the constituency. The fight now became a triangular one, although because of their numbers, the Unionist vote would only be of consequence if transferred to one of the other candidates.

The election campaign, as it evolved, was between the two parties, the Irish Parliamentary Party and Sinn Fein. These parties stood for more than rival ideologies. They represented the forces of old and new, of stability and change and of conservatism and radicalism. The Nationalists had tradition behind them in South Armagh. Many of the people were ardent supporters of the Party and viewed their methods as being the only realistic ones. At the beginning of 1918 there was little evidence of any Sinn Fein organisation in the country, or understanding of their policy.(5) However, the speed with which the party adherents set about their task put Sinn Fein into a position to challenge the powerful bastion of the Nationalist Party.

For Sinn Fein this election represented a new challenge. It was the first time they had contested an Ulster seat following their election success in the South of the country and so the total vote cast for McCartan would be an indication of the strength of the party in the province. They wanted the establishment of an Irish Republic, completely independent of the British Empire. They also inculcated self-reliance, the education of the Irish people in questions of national economics, national finance and national policy.

The core organisation which increased rapidly in South Armagh consisted of many local men, and some others drafted into the area especially for the election, and large numbers of the Irish volunteers.

"The Volunteers did practically all the electioneering work, canvassing votes, marking the register, providing transport and taking charge at the polling booths. I would say that Sinn Fein was promoted, fostered and helped in every way by the Volunteers." (6)

The 1916 Rising, although it had no connection with Sinn Fein, soon became known as the 'Sinn Fein Rising'. This curious misconception probably derived from the fact that while plans of the rising were known to only a few, the name of Sinn Fein as an open, separatist movement had been familiar for at least a decade. More people now began to ask questions about Sinn Fein, about what it was, who it was, and what its policy was.(7) As time went on, and the execufions and martial law continued, so Ireland moved to being pro-Sinn Fein. When the internees returned in November 1916 the movement was supplied with many intelligent men. The whole movement was now co-ordinated and tightened into a comprehensive national organisation, which combined the revolutionary emotion of the aftermath of the insurrection with the clear intellectuality of Sinn Fein.

In October 1917 the movement was to be further strengthened by the tenth Convention, the Sinn Fein Ard-Fheis. A new constitution was drawn up and over 1,000 delegates met in Dublin. A crucial decision was taken to merge the diverse movements led by Griffith and De Valera, and to combine them in the demand for an independent republic. The delegates pl edged their support, and presented a united front to the country.

Although Sinn Fein were increasing in popularity in the years after 1916, it would be misleading to state that they were nationally accepted. Concerning their past policy Sinn Fein had little to offer, and their opponents were quick to point out this fact. Many did not appreciate their hopes and ideals and dismissed it as dreaming. They entered the contest in South Armagh without any real base upon which to operate, while the Nationalists had won many elections in the constituency. Even though Sinn Fein faced these difficulties it could rely on the dedication of its members, their infectious enthusiasm, emotive policies and ideals.

Problems were not confined to Sinn Fein though. The Irish Parliamentary Party, although it claimed to have widespread support, was falling into decline. The party's misfortune was accelerating and many sought for representation elsewhere.

The outbreak- of the war, though superficially it put the Irish question into cold storage, operated to the decline of the Irish Party. It undermined Nationalist achievements and presented new opportunities to their radical critics.(8) This was partly Redmond's own fault. When he declared support for the allied cause, he sought similarly to identify it with a resentful and reluctant country. With the casualities of the war increasing, recruiting mishandled and conscription looming, a growing war weariness had developed in Ireland. By committing himself to this policy, Redmond was harming both his own, and his party's reputation. The 1916 Rising, as already stated, accelerated support for Sinn Fein throughout the country, harming the Irish Party immeasurably.

The Nationalist convention in Belfast in 1916 at which Redmond accepted partition harmed his party. "In going so far as to even consider partition, he was taking a grave risk, not only, of alienating his own party, but of losing credibility with the English with whom he was dealing."(9)

Many Irish Nationalists concluded that he had been fooled, or outmanoeuvered, or both, and began to question their allegiance. The disquiet that the Convention gave rise to, resulted directly in the formation of the anti-partitionist, anti-Nationalist Party, the Irish Nation League.(10) Its members were largely from within the Irish Party or had been in some way associated with it. It opposed any partition of the nation and pledged its opposition to the Nationalist Party, whose leaders they claimed had betrayed 'the trust of the Irish People".(11) The interchange in personnel between the Nationalists and Sinn Fein, which took place via the Irish Nation League was an important factor in the future decline of the Irish Party.

The Irish Convention that met in 1917 was to further damage the position of the constitutional Nationalists. A similar method of tackling political problems had worked very successfully when employed by other countries, but in Ireland it was to be called a "brilliant failure".(12) Sinn Fein refused to join the Convention and following its failure, its popularity increased while that of its rivals decreased.

The Irish Party under the leadership of the lucid and articulate Redmond, continued to be dogged by its past, while unable to adjust to the demands of the rapidly changing present. The split in the Party at the time of Parnell was fatal, since it shook the confidence of the people in its parliamentary leaders and because of the habit of internal divisions that continued and so "diverted the Party's attention from significant changes in public opinion'.(13)

Despite this increasing disillusionment, the Irish Party remained strong in South Armagh. Any break with traditional political thinking takes time to conduct, and as yet this discontent was not widespread; however, the rumblings of discontent were to be heard.

The Nationalists had tradition behind them in the constituency. Over the previous years the people had accepted their policies, and the party were content to stress their success in the past. They could rely upon the support of the local farmers, the A.O.H. and the general concensus of the Church.

The stage was set in South Armagh for what was to be a most memorable election.

(1) The Newry Reporter - 22nd January 1918.....Back
(2) The Dundalk Democrat - 23rd January 1918.....Back
(3) The Newry Reporter - 26th January 1918.....Back
(4) The Frontier Sentinel - 26th January, 1918.....Back
(5) Extract statement from a Volunteer in Mullaghbawn Company of Irish Volunteers in the possession of Kevin McMahon, Cullyhanna.....Back
(6) Ibid.....Back
(7) P.S. O'Heagarty - The Victory of Sinn Fein....Back
(8) Nfichael Laffan - The Partition of Ireland - P.50.....Back
(9) Farrell - Irish Parliamentary Tradition - P.202.....Back
(10)A.A. Magennis - "The Nationalist Party in Ulster 1916-18" in Retrospect 1973-74.....Back
(12)R.B. McDowell - The Irish Convention - P.7.....Back
(13)Farrell - Irish Parliamentary Party - P.207.....Back



The role of the Catholic Church has always been a strong one in Irish politics, and its influence throughout the 1918 by-election was vital. The clergy played an important role in the contest and in a society where the people greatly respected the leadership of the Church, this clerical involvement may have been crucial. The Church were opposed to Sinn Fein because of the bloodshed in 1916 and because its policy was not in accordance with Catholic teaching and doctrine.

Within any large organisation there will exist differences of opinion, and this was clear within the Catholic Church. At a meeting in June 1917 the hierarchy met to choose delegates to represent the Church at the forthcoming Irish Convention, and to gather together the strands of thinking to reach a concensus on the current political situation. Count Plunkett noted at this meeting: "they are evidently badly split". (1)

The hierarchy recognised that some of their priests, especially the younger ones, were showing allegiance to Sinn Fein. Indeed seventy nine priests had subscribed to a fund to defray election expenses incurred by Sinn Fein during the South Longford election (2) and many priests were to be seen presiding at meetings of the movement.

The resulting action was a letter circulated to all the priests of Ireland. It laid out several rules of conduct which priests were expected to obey. Firstly, it reiterated the long standing statutes of the national Synod which forbade political activity by priests. Secondly, it was strictly forbidden for priests to speak of political or kindred affairs in Church, and thirdly, before attending a meeting of a political kind, the priest had to obtain the permission of the parish priest. The priests were warned to seriously shun all movements that are not in accordance with the principles of Catholic teaching. Although the words Sinn Fein were never actually stated, they were heavily implied by all who read it. This episcopal instruction was a stern warning to all priests to abstain from affiliation with, or work for Sinn Fein. Bishop Cohalan of Cork gave his interpretation when he said: "The Sinn Fein Party is henceforth on its trial". (3)

This directive applied also to South Armagh, yet a number of priests openly declared their support for Sinn Fein, for example, at a nationalist meeting in Tullyvallen, Mr J.P. O'Kane, a supporter of Donnelly, was informed that the curate Fr. Smith had taken down a poster at the chapel gate announcing the meeting. O'Kane condemned this because he understood that priests were to remain out of politics.

However, one of those who was most involved was the energetic and enthusiastic supporter of the Nationalist cause, Canon Quinn P.P., Camlough. He was a consistent opponent of Sinn Fein, and often appeared on the Nationalist platform giving voice to his frank opinions. On one occasion he actually physically assaulted Laurence Ginnell, who had thrown in his lot with Sinn Fein. This occurred following a Mass at which the Canon had advised his congregation not to wait about for any political meeting in the vicinity of the church. Shortly'afterwards Mr Ginnell and his party arrived to hold a meeting. Despite his repeated attempts to speak, Mr Ginnell was prevented from doing so by Canon Quinn.(4) The Canon also frequently cited Cardinal Logues opposition to Sinn Fein.

The Cardinal had previously written a letter to his people stating his opposition to Sinn Fein. He spoke of the "suffering, disorganisation and danger that is sure to end in future disaster, defeat and collapse. All this, he said, was in pursuit of a dream that no man can hope to see realised, the establishment of an Irish Republic".(5) Cardinal Logue received Donnelly when he visited Armagh, one of the few occasions on which the Cardinal gave public countenance to the party. He did, however, refuse an audience with De Valera.

Although the weight of clerical influence was behind the Nationalist Party, a number of priests did favour Sinn Fein, either privately or, which occurred less frequently, in public. These priests were restrained from engaging in much open campaigning by the Cardinal's attitude. As T. M. Healey wrote in early 1918:

"His eminence is against Republics and Revolutions, but some of his priests are against the Irish Party, and he is in a dilemma."(6)

In some cases, however, Sinn Fein did receive support, with priests attending and sometimes presiding over their meetings. The party had previously gained support from Churchmen in their four previous elections success in North Roscommon, South Longford, East Clare and Kilkenny City. In East Clare, for example, when De Valera stood for election over twenty clergymen, mainly curates but including at least five parish priests took the Sinn Fein side.

In order to gain support in South Armagh, Sinn Fein quoted several statements from clerics in their favour. The Bishop of Limerick, Rev. Dr. O'Dwyer said on 14th September 1916: "Sinn Fein is the true principle; Redmondite leaders are leading the National cause to disaster".(7)

Dr. Walsh, the Archbishop of Dublin said also: "The country is practically sold by the Redmondites".

The Party also cited instances where the Irish Party disregarded the views of the Church in June 1916 at the Ulster Nationalist conference in Belfast where all spheres of Nationalist opinion was represented. Donnelly, against the expressed wishes of Cardinal Logue, voted for partition.

Some priests were attracted to the radical and assertive ideals of Sinn Fein. This was often voiced in private, although on some occasions the clerics came public with their support. At a Sinn Fein meeting in Cloughogue "a number of clergy attended".(8)

Despite this, the traditional alliance between the Irish Party and the Church remained. Most priests were more attracted to the steadily evolving policies of the Irish Party. The image of the events of Easter Week taking place all over the country was one which the Church constantly held before the people in their attempt to sustain support for the Irish Party.

The Irish Convention met for the first time in July 1917 in Trinity College, Dublin. Based upon the idea of Redmond, it was to be a conference where all strands of influence would be represented to try and work out their own salvation. It had only a very limited chance of success from the beginning, and "that Redmond should have thought that his Conference would produce anything other than stalemate, is a measure of his desperation".(9) Under the direction of Sir Horace Plunkett, its enthusiastic though loquacious chairman, it achieved nothing. Those attending included Nationalists, Ulster and Southern Unionists, along with Protestant and Catholic episcopal delegates. Sinn Fein refused to attend and so "gained immeasurably from the discomfort of its rivals".(10) The Ulster Unionists remained just as inflexibly opposed to any form of Home Rule as they had always been. The gaps within the delegations were too wide to reach any compromise, for example, the main groups clung too tightly to their prepared positions. In addition, the majority of the Conservative members were constitutional nationalists who were rapidly losing the confidence of the very sections they were supposed to represent.

The Convention finally disposed of the myth that any settlement was possible on the basis of an Ireland that would be united and self-governing. Redmond's party by pledging itself to the Irish Convention, was delivered another blow. When the convention collapsed, much of the credibility of the Party collapsed also.

The issue of conscription also arose at the election. Britain needed more men to supplement the war effort and there was a possibility that conscription would be introduced to Ireland. Both parties claimed credit in having this bill halted. At Killeen, Donnelly claimed that: "it was the Irish Party who saved Ireland from conscription".(11)

When the idea of a Conscription Bill applying to Ireland was first introduced, it was the Irish Party who defeated the application. Sinn Fein could claim no part in it, he said, since this occurred in Westminster where they had no seats. If, by any remote chance, he continued, a Republic were established, then every young man would be conscripted for the defence of his country. How then could Sinn Fein claim to be opposing conscription?

Sinn Fein, however, claimed success in having gained effective resistance. "The action of the Government itself in proposing to apply military service to Ireland, had finally confirmed the popular influence of Sinn Fein."(12) It was Sinn Fein who had fought against the policy at home and had organised effective resistance to the policy. They now looked to the voters in South Armagh for affirmation of their policy. "We appeal to the fathers and mothers to show their gratitude to the men who saved their sons from conscription, although Mr John Redmond declared himself in favour of it." (13)

Another issue which was to be important was taxation and the farmer. Since the principal occupation in South Armagh was farming, it was important to canvas for the farmer's vote. The Irish Party claimed they had "enabled the farmers to purchase their own holdings, secured decent cottages for the labourers to live in, and had brought education into the homes of the people".(14) They had kept taxes at a reasonable rate and had worked hard to improve the conditions of the farmer. The can for "Ireland for the Irish and the landfor the people" was often heard at their meetings.

Similarly, Sinn Fein claimed to be keeping taxes at a minimum. "Every vote given for Donnelly is a vote of confidence in England, a vote for the taxation of the Irish farmer by England." Unless Ireland, through Sinn Fein, receives complete independence at the Peace Conference, they said, the Irish farmer will experience a considerable increase in tax.

These were the main issues that arose during the election campaign.

(1) D.W. Miller - Church, State and Nation - P.361. ....Back
(2) Ibid.....Back
(3) Ibid, P.392.....Back
(4) Newry Reporter 29th January 1918.....Back
(5) The Irish News 28th January 1918.....Back
(6) op. cit. P.392. ....Back
(7) Frontier Sentinel - 9th February 1918.....Back
(8) Frontier Sentinel - 26th January 1918. ....Back
(9) Lyons - Ireland Since the Faniine - P.385.....Back
(10) Ibid. ....Back
(11) The Irish News - 28th January 1918. ....Back
(12) J.C. Beckett - The Making of Modern Ireland - P.445.....Back
(13) Frontier Sentinel - 29th January 1918. ....Back
(14) Dundalk Democrat - 26th January 1918. ....Back



The election in February proved to be one in which no effort was spared by either of the two parties involved to secure the election of their candidate. The crucial nature of the contest made it a fiercely competitive, if vindictive affair. Numerous allegations and accusations occurred in the week previous to polling day and widespread election fever was evident throughout the constituency. Indeed some regarded it as "a landmark in Irish history".(1)

Both parties began by setting up their respective headquarters from where the candidates were to operate. The Irish Party established themselves at Hill Street, Newry, while the Sinn Fein party chose a vacant property in Monaghan Street, Newry. The actual campaign opened on Sunday 20th January when, despite the showery weather, meetings were held in parts of the constituency. From this day onwards both candidates, supported by large numbers of supporters, moved around soliciting support for their cause.

The entire election campaign proved to be fraught with allegations and counter allegations. One which was frequently repeated at nationalist rallies was the use of Dr. McCartan's car to transport guns. They claimed that when the Unionists brought German rifles into Larne, McCartan lent them his car to distribute them, and that he boasted this fact in the press.(2) They also endeavoured to make political capital out of the fact that McCartan had been arrested in the United States. While Sinn Fein hailed him as the 'First Ambassador of the Irish Republic', the Irish Party taunted them for putting forward a candidate who was thousands of miles away. Indeed John Dillon, at a meeting in Adavoyle said McCartan "was a prisoner in a United States jail because he had transgressed the laws of that country".(3)

The Irish Party also criticized Sinn Fein on their import of workers from all over Hundreds of supporters and workers came into the constituency by train, car, and on foot. They wore a uniform under their greatcoats and were armed with burleys and ashplants. They escorted their leaders, formed guards of honour for them and were always at the forefront of Sinn Fein demonstrations. There was estimated to be about one thousand of them in the constituency altogether. The Irish Party claimed- their effect was intimidatory, but they claimed they were only there to protect the meetings and the speakers. On one particular day it was reported "Crossmaglen had such a feast of electioneering oratory, literature and demonstrating as it has never encountered before. From every corner of Ireland came men, some of whom could only put three words of English together". (4)

At a meeting in Adavoyle, a Dundalk Hibernian, Owen Slevin, attacked Sinn Fein. He first pointed out that the party regarded Germany as their gallant allies. He went on to remind the people that he was a stoker on the Lusitania which was sunk by a German submarine. He then asked the people to remember their own neighbours who were killed by the very people whom Sinn Fein regarded as their 'gallant allies'.

Another charge which was frequently made against Sinn Fein concerned their policy of parliamentary abstention. The Irish Party supporters claimed that by not attending the House of Commons any Sinn Fein member of Parliament would be making himself politically impotent and would therefore be defranchising his constituents. They said that Sinn Fein had little support in the constituency apart from the Unionists (who were using them as a tool to destroy the Irish Party and thereby the cause of Home Rule) women and servant boys.(5) Also on the eve of polling a letter appeared in a local newspaper from an Omagh man who claimed that McCartan was elected a dispensary doctor in Tyrone by the votes of Orangemen. When this allegation was linked to the one concerning the use of his car at the Larne gun-running, it was suggested he would make a very unsuitable M.P.

Indeed both sides accused the other of forming an alliance with the Unionists. Sinn Fein claimed that Donnelly could depend on the Unionist voters, whose support he was soliciting. "He found it necessary to appeal to the prejudices of the one thousand three hundred Unionists in order that the defeat of Sinn Fein may be accomplished."(6)

The charge of the Nationalist Party that this election was a contest between 'sane and insane Nationalism' was one that was taken up by various Sinn Fein spokesmen. They insisted that the only insanity Sinn Fein was guilty of, was that they meant what they said and they were prepared to make sacrifices to achieve the freedom of Ireland. Indeed Countess Markievicz in a stirring speech at Bessbrook said "they would go on till they had cut with knife, sword and gun the entire connection with England".(7)

At that meeting in Bessbrook De Valera read out a letter which indicated that Devlin had written asking Donnelly to go to Belfast to vote for partition and that he would never forget him. However, Donnelly denied having received such a letter, saying it was a "scandalous fabrication". "Indeed if these were the methods by which Sinn Fein hoped to achieve its ends, Donnelly said, then the people would not long be deceived, and certainly not the electors of South Armagh. "(8)

That same speech on 26th January at Bessbrook became known as De Valera's 'Rock in the road' speech. He claimed that: "Redmond would sell the rest of Ireland if it were favourable for him to do so. Unionists of the North must make up their minds whether they were going to be a British garrison of Irishmen. If so, they were a rock in the road and they must if necessary blast it out of their path".(9) One tradition in Ireland must prevail he said, any halfway position is bound to be unstable.(10)

Another claim often made at Sinn Fein rallies was one of collaboration between the Irish Party and the British Government as to an early election. "The Redmondite Party arranged with the government to rush the election in order to prevent Sinn Fein putting its programme before the electors."(11)

Towards the end of the campaign, Countess Markievicz made a speech which seemed to embarrass the other Sinn Fein leaders. In it, she claimed that "the liberty won by the Bolsheviks in Russia is the kind of liberty the Irish people are determined to fight for".(12) The Irish Party grasped this opportunity to ask an embarrassed De Valera for his response, and her speech was gratefully reported by them.

The numerous allegations which occurred during the campaign were also very much in evidence on polling day, 1st February. On the morning of the election every Unionist voter received a circular claiming to come from Unionist headquarters.

"In order that the truce entered into.... between the Ulster Unionists and the Irish Parliamentary party be strictly observed, we feel compelled to advise Charles Richardson to withdraw. Donnelly will be bound to support his leader Redmond in his honest endeavour to have conscription applied to Ireland. We advise you, however, to record your vote for Richardson."(13)

The authors of the document made the great mistake of referring to the Unionist candidate as Charles, instead of Thomas Wakefield Richardson. Upon the discovery of the circular a contradictory poster, signed by Richardson, Harris and Fisher was immediately issued and posted in the area.

Another incident that annoyed the Irish Party was a claim by Darrell Figgis that he had received information from a reliable source that if Donnelly was elected, then partition in the form of county option was to he agreed upon. They accused Sinn Fein of broadcasting this on the morning of polling so that it could not be contradicted. Despite each party's confident predictions of a clear-cut victory for their candidate, there was clearly uncertainty about the result - not surprisingly so, in such a volatile political situation.

These allegations were made at the many rallies which were held throughout South Armagh. Often opposing meetings were held at the same place and often at the same time. This occurred in Mullaghbawn where the Irish Party arrived to address a gathering while Lawrence Ginnell was already speaking on behalf of Sinn Fein. Similarly in Forkhill, while a fair was being held. Here it was claimed that nine out of ten people at the fair supported the Irish Party candidate.(14) Here the Party met with a fine reception while a party of Sinn Fein advocates hung about the village for some time before departing without even attempting to hold a meeting. The meeting was told that South Armagh would have nothing to do with Sinn Fein.(15)

The campaign continued with meetings being addressed by speakers from around Ireland. For the Irish Party Joe Devlin, John Dillon and Richard McGee M.P. often spoke, while Eamon De Valera, Darrell Figgis and Countess Markievicz spoke on behalf of Sinn Fein.

The first hint of physical violence occurred when Canon Quinn struck Lawrence G'innell in Bessbrook. This was followed by an incident in Newry where Countess Markievicz, while addressing a meeting, came under fire from a selection of eggs. Many of the grenades fell foul of their target, although one did strike the Countess on the face. This was followed by an attack near Creggan on the outskirts of Crossmaglen. On his way to a meeting in the town the car carrying De Valera, accompanied by Austin Stack, Sean Milroy and Sean MeEntee met a procession of three hundred Hibernians. During the encounter which followed, mud was flung at the occupants of the car as it tried to pass. One man excitedly waved a long tumpike over De Valera's head, and eventually drove it through the windscreen of the car.(16) Reports claimed that only McEntee was injured, but it is widely believed that De Valera was also injured and that he required hospital treatment.

The dispute of the allegiance of Unionist voters was to increase as the campaign continued, especially following the withdrawal of the Unionist candidate Richardson. His withdrawal came as a direct result of some Unionists in the area opposing his candidature. His name appeared on the ballot paper since his withdrawal came too late for it to be removed. Sinn Fein claimed that the Irish Party gained immeasurably from his withdrawal. "It would be miraculous if Sinn Fein should win especially since there are over one thousand Unionists who will vote for Redmondism. That Party, however, cannot be saved from the grave which has been dug for it."(17) "However, the direction given to the Unionists in the local press on the day of polling was that they should not vote, leaving the Nationalists to decide their own quarrel, as by taking part in it the Unionist identify themselves with the policies of either party." (18)

There were over one thousand three hundred Unionist voters on the register and a total of six thousand three hundred and forty seven names. It must be remembered that the register was extremely stale since it had not been revised recently(19) and the actual number of available electors must have been considerably less than indicated.

It was against this background that voting took place on Friday lst February 1918. Voting itself went off largely without incident at all polling booths. However, the Irish Party claimed that the presence of the large number of Sinn Fein Volunteers at polling booths, as well as rumours of possible violence had the effect of keeping many of their supporters away from the polls. They cited as evidence for this the votes cast at Newry. They claimed that although McCartan got a majority of the poll, Donnelly clearly had more support than him in Newry.

The Irish Party need not have feared, however, for Donnelly won the election with a large majority. He received two thousand three hundred and twenty four votes, while McCartan received one thousand three hundred and five votes, a clear majority of one thousand and nineteen votes. Following the results being announced, Canon Quinn addressed the voters in South Armagh: "You have done a splendid day's work for Ireland. Ireland will be free and Donnelly will play his part in making it free."(20)

The Irish Party were left to celebrate their victory, though their celebrating was not to continue for long, while Sinn Fein looked to future elections.

(1) Daily Express - 30th January 1918.....Back
(2) Dundalk Democrat - 26th January 1918. ....Back
(3) Dundalk Democrat - 2nd February 1918. ....Back
(4) Ibid. ....Back
(5) Newry Reporter - 2nd February 1918. ....Back
(6) Ulster Herald - 26th January 1918.....Back
(7) Newry Reporter - 29th January 1918.....Back
(8) Armagh Guardian - 25th January 1918.....Back
(9) Newry Reporter - 29th January 1918.....Back
(10) Bowman - De Valera and the Ulster Question - P.36. ....Back
(11) Belfast Newsletter 27th January 1918. ....Back
(12) Frontier Sentinel 26th January 1918. ....Back
(13) Newry Reporter 2nd February 1918. ....Back
(14) Dundalk Denwcrat - 2nd February 1918.....Back
(15) Ibid. ....Back
(16) Newry Reporter - 29th January 1918. ....Back
(17) Strabane Chronicle 30th January 1918. ....Back
(18) Armagh Guardian Ist February 1918.....Back
(19) Newry Reporter - 26th January 1918.....Back
(20) Newry Reporter - 2nd February 1918.....Back



It is claimed that Donnelly's victory was expected although the size of his majority was a surprise to the people. The support that he received proved an even greater eye opener to the Sinn Feiners than the most sanguine supporters of the Irish Party had expected.(1) It was claimed that "they were prepared for a defeat, but not a debacle". (2)

The results were announced at Newry Workhouse, following the counting of the votes there. After hearing of their victory, Donnelly and his supporters left the Workhouse and headed for the Imperial Hotel outside which a public meeting was held. Here he received a vociferous greeting from his supporters who cheered and waved green flags.

Addressing the crowd, Donnelly thanked all who had rallied around and supported him. He said the electors had "struck the greatest blow for Irish freedom that had been struck for the last fifty years. It had been a fateful contest for the cause of some politics and some politics, he said, had emerged triumphant".(3) Speakers at the meeting included T. Lundon, M.P. for Limerick who claimed that "Sinn Fein hadflung down the gauntlet to Ulster and had been crushingly defeated".(4) Rev. O'Hare from Newry said that:

"Sinn Fein had striven to use against Ulster the methods of importing volunteers which succeeded in Longford and Clare, but their weapons have broken in their hands". (5)

Donnelly himself described the result as a victory for the forces of good order and sanity over the forces of disorder and insanity. He saw it as a message of conciliation to the British people and to the convention that they might proceed in their work, safe in the knowledge that Unionists and Nationalists were ready to stand hand in hand. This rather optimistic claim was later seized on by Sinn Fein as proof of their allegation of a UnionistNationalist alliance in the election. However, this does not make adequate allowance for the euphoric circumstances in which the remark was made.

Joe Devlin commenting on the election success said: "the electors had struck a blow for well ordered Government, for union, for toleration and conciliation amongst all good men. He claimed that despite all forms of intimidation the people would not be bullied by Sinn Fein".

De Valera, speaking to his supporters in Newry immediately after the election said that: "the result was only to be expected in such a constituency, up against a heavy Unionist vote, that those for the cause of Irish nationality could not have won.(6) The people of South Armagh did not seem to realise the powerful blow for freedom they could have struck if they had put McCartan in. The Unionists, were largely responsible for the defeat of Sinn Fein. Their official oath was to face death rather than Home Rule, and so they would do anything rather than see Sinn Fein enter Ulster, because they knew the only power to beat them in Ulster was Sinn Fein. His party had succeeded, however, in planting their flag in the division and at the next opportunity they would carry the division. The return of Donnelly was merely an opportunity missed by Sinn Fein, butfor the Irish Party it was the last flickering of the Redmondite candle before it was extinguished forever".(7)

Also speaking here Countess Markievicz said: "the result was only a battle lost, not a defeat". (8)

Arthur Griffith said later that they had been beaten on a register five years old, by a combination of English ascendancy and rotten place hunters, but he forecast victory for Sinn Fein in South Armagh in six months time. Analysing the election results, Mr Griffith claimed that 1,103 out of a possible 1,520 Unionists voted: of these 40 voted for Mr Richardson and 1,063 by instruction for Mr Donnelly.(9) Indeed, Sinn Fein spokesmen had been asserting that the Unionists supported Donnelly throughout the election campaign, but they were particularly vociferous in this claim when the votes were counted.

However, the Nationalists challenged Griffith on these figures. They pointed out, with obvious justification, that it would be impossible for Griffith to be so accurate in his analysis and that the premise to his calculations - that he could identify the Unionist voters on the register - was ridiculous. Indeed they claimed that Sinn Fein exhausted every argument to get the Unionists, even the Protestant clergymen, to vote for McCartan and that the Sinn Fein declaration that they did not even get one Unionist vote was hard to believe. John Dillon described the Sinn Fein claim that Donnelly was elected by Unionist voters as: "the sleeping mixture the Sinn Fein leaders prescribed for the Followers after the figures of the poll became known".(10)

It is difficult to say exactly where the Unionist votes went. The Armagh Guardian in an address to the Unionist voters, said that "one opponent was almost as bad as the other. Both had threatened to deal with Unionists with a strong hand". On voting for Sinn Fein the newspaper said that it may help the Unionists since McCartan would not go to Westminster, and so strengthen the Unionist position there. Also by voting Sinn Fein the power of the priesthood over the Irish Party and so on politics would be reduced. However, despite this, they regarded the Irish Party as the lesser of the two evils, since they were not prepared to deal with the Unionist by force. Despite this the Unionists were advised by the Press not to vote.

It is, therefore, extremely difficult to ascertain if unionists voted, and if so which candidate received their votes. The Irish Party, one newspaper claimed, had won a victory that marks the turning point of the mad revolt against unity and insanity in Irish politics - a victory against the spirit of insubordination and fanaticism that swept the less stable electors of Roscommon, Clare and Kilkenny off their feet.(11) Sinn Fein claimed that the clergy in the area supported McCartan. "With the exception of about half a dozen, McCartan had the support of all the priests in the constituency."(12) However, this claim was repudiated by Canon Quinn when he answered it. On the previous day a placard had been issued stating that he was the only priest in South Armagh that had supported Donnelly. "That" said the Canon, "is a lie".(13)

The Northern Whig, the organ of the ultra orange party in Ulster took a different view of the election. In an editorial entitled "The Bitter Truth" it claims that Unionists were not concerned with the election. It said that both parties claimed to be Nationalists and were not concerned with the election. It said that both parties were ready to fight each other in true celtic fashion. There still existed the same bitterness, dissension and internal conflict in Irish national politics as existed one hundred years ago, it reported.(14)

Following their election success, the Nationalist Party outlined its policy on the Peace Conference. First of all they quoted Mr De Valera as saying that the Sinn Fdn leaders cannot go to the Peace Conference unless as the "representatives of the United Nationalists of Ireland", and pointed out that, in the wake of the election result, they obviously did not represent the United Nationalists of the country. The Nationalists also observed that the Peace Conference would certainly not consider any claim by a section of the Irish people to set up Ireland as an Irish Republic. However, they did not discount the possibility of an appeal to the Peace Conference. They said that if Home Rule in some form acceptable to the judgement of the Irish people could not be arranged through the Convention, then it might be desirable to raise the matter at the Peace Conference.

What made the election much more important to the parties involved than the return of their candidate, was the fluid political situation that existed. Sinn Fein wanted to win their first Ulster seat to maintain the impact gained by their other by-election successes, and as a step towards a Republican Nationalist Ireland at the Peace Conference. Equally, the Irish Party desired to stop the tide of Sinn Fein success, to emphasise its long established role as the dominant Irish political party and to go to the Irish Convention as such to press the demand for Home Rule.

The results were viewed quite differently by the parties involved. Sinn Fein claimed that the Irish Party, despite its success had gone beyond repair and could not possibly be patched up. Their party had been beaten by an unholy alliance of Carsonites and tame Nationalists but Sinn Fein was preparing for further election success.(15) The election had proved not onl y a moral but also a material victory for the Party, for where there was not five adherents of the cause in South Armagh three weeks ago, there were now fifty.(16) Griffith claimed that in six months time Sinn Fein would be the most popular party in the division, and that they would beat the Irish Party in the general election. De Valera, in looking to the future claimed, "The Sinn Fein invasion of Ulster was only beginning".(17)

(1) Dundalk Democrat - 9th February 1918.....Back
(2) Newry Reporter - 5th February 1918. ....Back
(3) Frontier Sentinel - 5th February 1918.....Back
(4) Newry Reporter - 5th February 1918.....Back
(5) Ibid.....Back
(6) Ibid. ....Back
(7) Frontier Sentinel - 5th February 1918.....Back
(8) Ibid. ....Back
(9) Frontier Sentinel - 5th February 1918. ....Back
(10) Dundalk Democrat - 16th February 1918. ....Back
(11) Dundalk Democrat - 9th February 1918. ....Back
(12) Frontier Sentinel - 5th February 1918. ....Back
(13) Newry Reporter - 5th February 1918.....Back
(14) Northern Whig 7th February 1918.....Back
(15) Leader - 9th February 1918.....Back
(16) Frontier Sentinel - 9th February 1918.....Back
(17) Armagh Guardian - 8th February 1918.....Back


The Irish Party, although it is claimed they were confident of success, did not expect to win by such a large majority. They were delighted to see that South Armagh had once again supported them. However, their support was now under constant attack by the new and radical ideas of Sinn Fein, but on this occasion it was strong enough to fight off these new ideas. The older voters were prepared to give continued support to the Irish Party, while many of the. younger voters were Sinn Fein supporters.

Indeed many of those who had not yet received the vote were Sinn Fein supporters, a factor that would boost the Party in later elections. The public support the Catholic Church and especially Canon Quinn gave to the Irish Party was very important. Clerical influence was very strong in South Armagh, and many viewed the opinion of the Church as absolute. The influence of the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the United Irish League continued to be evident within the party, and so this, too, contributed to their election success. Throughout 1917 the Party had been reorganised at local levels and resolutions were passed in favour of the Party's leadership. Redmond, the man who commanded great personal respect, continued to lead the Party. Indeed, many said that when Redmond died in March 1918 so too did much of the Party's support. Although the Irish Party could rejoice at their success, the tide of political support was already turning. This election proved to be the last that the Party won on "its own merit". Although they secured victories in later elections, this was mainly because of election pacts that occurred.

Following this election the Sinn Fein Party continued to grow in Ulster. Although they did not poll very highly in this election, the seeds of the new party were sown. Their policies were relatively new to the area and it would take time to have them accepted. Many older voters were not prepared to vote for Sinn Fein since they were still asking questions about their policies. Some younger voters, although they did support Sinn Fein, were not yet confident enough in expressing it, mainly because of parental disapproval. Before this election Sinn Fein were practically unknown in the constituency, now both the name and the policy were becoming popular.

Indeed, the popularity of Sinn Fein continued to grow throughout Ireland. Their election victories in early 1917 proved that a new unity existed between the Republican and non Republican demands of the Party. They had also provided invaluable election experience. This trend was accelerated by the unification and reorganisation of the Party from October 1917. This provided a Party which was practically a military machine it was so efficient, especially when compared with the demoralised Irish Party. This was the first election the party had contested in Ulster, and they were quite happy with the result. Their policies were new and therefore had to be both understood and accepted before they could gain support. This had been a good opportunity for the Party, and now they intended to move further into the other counties. Indeed, within a fortnight of Sinn Fein's defeat De Valera was in Donegal promoting the Party. What made them unstoppable was the conscription crisis, "the great rallying point of national emotion in 1918." (1) The new act of Spring 1918 enabled the government to extend conscription to Ireland, but it was met with a great wave of opposition. "With Sinn Fein at the helm all nationalists at once united in opposition." (2) The Catholic hierarchy spoke out against conscription, and by doing so linked themselves to Sinn Fein. This gave the party great credibility. The crisis also caused the withdrawal of the Home Rule Party from Westminster, thus marking the end of their parliamentary tradition. By doing so the Irish Party virtually admitted their own impotence and accepted the Sinn Fein argument against constitutional co-operation with the British.

The Government's so called "German Plot" proved to be a success for those it intended to harm, Sinn Fein. Almost the entire leadership of the Party was arrested for alleged conspiracy with Germany. The people saw this injustice towards Sinn Fein, and so it served to help the Party. In July 1918 the volunteers and Sinn Fein were proclaimed as a grave menace, their meetings were declared illegal and none of their gatherings could be held without police authorisation. These actions only served to increase support for Sinn Fein.

With increasing support it is not surprising that Sinn Fein won a landslide victory in the 1918 General Election. Overall, they won seventy-three out of a total of one hundred and five seats, leaving only six members of the Irish Party to return to Westminster. Of the two thirds of the increased electorate who voted, only 47.7% voted for Sinn Fein. This meant their landslide victory was not as impressive as it seems, but the Party were delighted at their success.

In Ulster the Irish Party gained five seats, while Sinn Fein gained three. This distribution of seats was a result of an electoral pact entered into by Sinn Fein and Cardinal Logue. Rather than having opposing candidates contest each constituency both parties agreed to divide the constituency. If an Irish Party candidate was contesting an area, then no Sinn Fein candidate would go forward and vice versa. For the Irish Party this was a damaging pact since it gave the revolutionary party a firm hold in the three constituencies in which its candidates were returned.

De Valera's prophecy on the future of the Irish Party following the South Armagh election proved true. He described the Redmondite hold on the country as "a candle that is being burnt out to its roots, giving one last flicker before finally being extinguished forever.". (3) This, however, lay in the future, for now the Irish Party were delighted with their success.

What made the South Armagh by-election in February 1918 so important was the political situation that existed at this time. The Irish Party-were struggling to retain their power, while Sinn Fein fought its first election in Ulster. Although the Irish Party were to emerge victorious, Sinn Fein were left to fight another day.

(1) J.A. Murphy Ireland in the Twentieth Century - P.6.
(2) J.C. Beckett The Making of Modern Ireland - P.444.
(3) Frontier Sentinel - 9th February 1918.


Extract Statement from A Volunteer in Mullaghbawn Company of Irish Volunteers in the possession of Kevin McMahon, Cullyhanna.


Armagh Guardian Leader
Belfast Newsletter
Newry Reporter
Daily Express
Northern Whig
Dundalk Democrat
Strabane Chronicle
Frontier Sentinel
Ulster Herald
Irish News


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