The first meeting of Dáil Éireann took place in the Mansion House, the residence of the Lord Mayor of Dublin. The session lasted a mere two hours. They were two of the most momentous hours in Ireland’s history. During this brief period the Dáil adopted a Constitution and approved the Declaration of Independence. By doing so the Dáil asserted a continuity of objectives with the leaders of the 1916 Rising in setting up a separate parliament, government and republic.
As part of this meeting, the adoption and the ritual of ‘the Turning of the Seal’ establishing the Sovereignty of the Irish Republic is begun. Only 27 MPs were in attendance with a further 35 reported as ‘imprisoned by the foreign enemy.’ Significantly also, given the formative influence of the Gaelic League on that generation, Irish was the dominant medium of the proceedings. This meant that three-quarters of those present were ‘completely at sea’. The roll call of all 105 members (including unionists and the handful of surviving Redmondites) provoked some laughter when Sir Edward Carson, among others, was solemnly recorded as being as lathair (absent) suggesting somehow that he had a cold or missed the bus.
The Dáil asserted the exclusive right of the elected representatives of the Irish people to legislate for the country. The Members present adopted a Provisional Constitution and approved a Declaration of Independence. The Dáil also approved a Democratic Programme, based on the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic, and read and adopted a Message to the Free Nations of the World. On the following day, 22 January 1919, a private sitting was held which elected Seán T. O’Kelly as Ceann Comhairle (Speaker) and Cathal Brugha as President of the Ministry. The Dáil also approved the President’s nominations to the Ministry. Cathal Brugha resigned and Éamon de Valera was elected President of the Dáil on 1 April 1919. They were obviously highly conscious of the historic significance of the event as they set about, in Cathal Brugha’s words, ‘the most important task since the Gaels came to Ireland’.
Following the outbreak of the War of Independence in January 1919, the British Government decided to suppress the Dáil, and on 10 September 1919 Dáil Éireann was declared a dangerous association and was prohibited. The Dáil continued to meet in secret, and Ministers carried out their duties as best they could. In all, the Dáil held fourteen sittings in 1919. Of these, four were public and ten private. Three private sittings were held in 1920 and four in 1921.
The First Dáil and the general election of 1918 have come to occupy a central place in Irish republicanism. The 1918 general election was the last occasion on which the entire island of Ireland voted in a single election. The landslide victory for Sinn Féin was seen as an overwhelming endorsement of the principle of a united independent Ireland.
Seán MacEntee, who died on 10 January 1984 at the age of 94, was the last surviving member of the First Dáil.
And so it is appropriate that on 21 January, and despite the current disenchantment with politics in this country, the Oireachtas should honour the idealism of our native parliamentary founding fathers, 97 years on.
Photo: A scene from the first Dáil as well as pictures of each of the members.