Queen’s County and the 1918 Election
The 1918 General Election was a landmark moment in Irish revolutionary history. The deciding vote would determine whether a country, just emerging from a brutal war, would elect the old reliable Irish Parliamentary Party, or place its faith in Arthur Griffith’s rejuvenated Sinn Féin party. It was also the year that a select number of women who met the right criteria were eligible to vote. The difference in opinion on the future of Irish politics could be seen clearly in the contest for election in Queen’s County. Two candidates were put forward for election: Patrick Joseph Meehan (28 March 1877 – 5 July 1929), an MP for Leix and Ossory, and an Irish Parliamentary Party politician who believed that the future of Irish politics lay in home rule with a united Ireland, which would only be possible through Irish representation at Westminster. In opposition to Meehan, the Sinn Féin candidate was Kevin Christopher O’Higgins (7 June 1892 – 10 July 1927) who was the son of the county coroner for Queen’s County, Dr. Thomas Higgins, and the grandson of T.D. Sullivan MP and mayor of Dublin; O’Higgins was only a young man of 26yrs when he was put forward as the Sinn Féin candidate for Queen’s County and had no real political experience except for his attendance at Sinn Féin rallies from 1917 and in the lead up to the general election of 1918.
Figure 1: Patrick Joseph Meehan, by unattributed - Joseph Denieffe (1906) A personal narrative of the Irish revolutionary brotherhood, New York: The Gael publishing co., Public Domain.
Figure 2: Kevin Christopher O’Higgins, by Hogan-Wilson Collection, and W. D. Hogan. [Full Length Picture, Kevin O'Higgins, Minister of Home Affairs]. 1922.
On the 7th of December 1918, both candidates announced their intentions to run for nomination. In an article in the Nationalist and Leinster Times and the Leinster Express Patrick Meehan laid out his manifesto. It was Meehan’s contention that Sinn Féin and their policy of abstention from Westminster would be ‘utter folly and a National calamity, particularly now in view of coming peace deliberations’. Meehan believed that the members Peace Conference of 1919 would be more inclined to listen to Irish politicians who had stood by the allies during the war, rather than members of Sinn Féin who had aligned themselves with the Germans and had hoped for a German victory. Meehan further argued that ‘Sinn Féin gambled the destinies of Ireland on a German victory’, he believed that ‘Germany is down and out, and with her goes the pretensious [sic] of Sinn Féin to secure representation or achieve anything effectively for Ireland at the Peace Conference’.
Prior to the 7th of December, and even before his nomination as candidate for Queen’s County, O’Higgins had made his views on the upcoming General Election known. In July of 1917, at a Sinn Féin rally at Mountmellick, O’Higgins gave an empowering speech that harked back to the times of Parnell and Davitt, and lashed out at the Irish Parliamentary Party:
… as a fitting sequel to this shameful story of degeneracy, they [IPP] would see Redmond and his Party proving that gratitude for personal favours out-weighed any resentment they might be expected to feel at the Government’s failure to redeem its Home Rule pledges by acting as agents of advanced Imperialism in the present war…
In this speech, O’Higgins’ claimed that the IPP went completely against the aims of Parnell and Davitt, whom he believed, were they alive in 1917, would ‘be in the forefront of Sinn Féin’.
Following his arrest at a Sinn Féin rally in Garryhinch in May 1918, O’Higgins was interned at Belfast Gaol alongside many other Irish revolutionaries. It was here that Austin Stack, an Irish revolutionary, and politician from Co. Kerry, had proposed that O’Higgins be put forward as the Sinn Féin’s candidate for Queen’s County. Stack had noted O’Higgins’ debating and oratorical abilities, which had been developed during his time as a student at UCD and as a member of the Literary and Debating Society at the university. O’Higgins was also a prolific writer at the time, and it was while interned at Belfast that wrote down his plans for when he was to be released in the form of a poem:
I made a speech at Garryhinch
I urged the people not to flinch
Before the threats of Viscount ‘Frinch’
So now I’m here
The Peelers swore I cursed the king
(The Tories growled I should swing)
The R.M. thought that peace ‘twould bring
Sez he ‘Five months you’ll do in jail
We’ll strike two if you give bail.’
But faith I’ll die before I quail,
So I’ll stay here
But when my five months’ spell is done,
‘Tis said we’re sure to have some fun,
We’ll put the tyrants on the run,
And I’ll be there.
The Nationalist and Leinster Times and the Leinster Express recorded more of O’Higgins’ speeches in the run-up to the general election in December, they all centered around the same issues: a change in politics for Ireland, a call for independence and recognition of Ireland as a free nation from the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, and more notably, a move away from the nationalist politics of the Irish Parliamentary Party, who were willing to swear an oath of allegiance to the king and take their seats in Westminster.
The Leinster Express recorded Meehan’s speech given at a meeting of Parliamentary Party supporters in Maryborough in mid-December 1918. At the meeting Meehan was greeted with great cheers, his opening address noted that ‘it was stated that he was afraid to hold a meeting in Maryboro’ but at any time he wanted to hold a meeting in Maryboro’ he could have it.’ He further contended that it would be a meeting of Maryboro’ men too, not imported crowds from every part of the country.’ There were a number of pro-Sinn Féin people in attendance at the meeting, however, it was noted in the newspaper that some shouting ‘up the rebels’ could be heard from the crowd. Meehan’s retort to this alluded to Kevin O’Higgins’ lack of attendance at the rebellion of 1916, as he stated: ‘the people who shouted ‘up the rebels’ were hiding under the bed in Easter Week. In the address to the people of Maryboro’ Meehan also put forward his argument that he believed that the ‘British Empire would go down to the bottom of the sea before it would allow Ireland become a republic.’ Meehan’s final remarks called for the people to vote for him on Saturday, a vote for him would ‘give the people an opportunity of deciding which was the best policy- the policy of Parnell and Davitt, or the policy of his opponent.’ Meehan believed that there was no doubt when the poll was declared, he would be the elected MP for Leix and Ossory. The meeting closed with the singing of the following in the air of “A Nation Once Again”:
Vote for P.J. Meehan
Vote for P.J. Meehan
Home Rule it is got,
And Higgins will be shot,
The vote for P.J. Meehan
When the votes were cast on Saturday 21st of December 1918, the people of Queen’s County showed their desire for a change in Irish politics. The population of Queen’s County in 1918 totaled 55,628. Of these numbers 17,194 men and 8,869 women were eligible to vote. On election day 19, 932 or 76.48% of the population turned out to vote, a considerably high number in comparison to other general elections. The results were as follows:
Kevin Christopher O’Higgins: 13,452 or 67.49% of the vote
Patrick Joseph Meehan: 6,480 or 32.51% of the vote
The 1918 election was a defining moment for Sinn Féin in Irish politics. Furthermore, victory in the election was a defining moment in Kevin O’Higgins’ political career which saw him becoming one of the most enigmatic politicians in the foundation of the Irish Free State. As Queen’s County candidate for Sinn Féin, Kevin O’Higgins defeated the IPP candidate Robert Meehan with a majority of 6972 votes. What the election results showed was the IPP was no longer at the forefront of Irish politics. The success of Sinn Féin in the election was the result of the falling public confidence in the Irish Party to promote an independent Ireland and the interests of the Irish people.
The next step for the Sinn Féin party was to establish Dáil Éireann and have the right of the Irish people to choose their own form of government recognised by the international political world at the meeting of the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. As an elected representative for Queen’s County, O’Higgins was assigned the task of collecting loans from supporters of Sinn Féin in his local constituency, a task at which he excelled and earned him a place as assistant minister to Cosgrave in the department of Local Government. Notwithstanding his admiration for the 1916 martyrs, O’Higgins later attributed the General Election of 1918 as the genesis for the Irish revolution and not 1916 like so many of the other revolutionaries.
Figure 3: Members of the First Dáil, 10 April 1919 First row, left to right: Laurence Ginnell, Michael Collins, Cathal Brugha, Arthur Griffith, Éamon de Valera, Count Plunkett, Eoin MacNeill, W. T. Cosgrave and Ernest Blythe. Kevin O'Higgins is in the third row.Further Reading
Bureau of Military History Witness Statements
Nationalist and Leinster Times
Kevin O’Higgins and Eoin MacNeill, Three Years Hard Labour: An Address to the Irish Society of Oxford University (Oxford: 31 Oct. 1924)
De Vere White Terence, Kevin O’Higgins, 1948
Fitzpatrick David, Politics and Irish Life 1913-1921 (Cork: Cork University Press, 1998)
Hopkinson Michael, The Irish War of Independence (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 2004)
Hughes Brian, Defying the IRA? Intimidation, Coercion, and Communities During the Irish Revolution (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2016)
Jackson Alvin, Ireland 1798-1998 (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000)
J.J. Lee, Ireland 1912-1985: Politics and Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989)McCarthy John P., Kevin O’Higgins Builder of the Irish Free State (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2006)
Meehan Ciara, The Cosgrave Party (Dublin: The Royal Irish Academy, 2010)
Regan John M., ‘Kevin O’Higgins, Irish Republicanism and the Conservative Counter- Revolution’, in Laois History and Society, ed. by P. G Lane and W. Nolan (Dublin: Geography Publications, 1999), pp. 627-656
Regan John, The Irish Counter-Revolution 1921-1936 (Dublin: Gill &Macmillan, 1999)
Townshend Charles, The Republic, The Fight for Irish Independence (London: Penguin, 2013)