The election transpired to be one of the most dramatic and memorable 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.
The election was held to fill the seat vacated by the death of the Irish Parliamentary Party MP, Charles O’Neill. Since 1885, South Armagh, traditionally a Nationalist seat; the seat in the January 1910 election of Charles O’Neill 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 Irish Party unanimously selected Patrick Donnelly as its candidate. Donnelly, a Newry-based solicitor, hoping to put a stop to the recent electoral gallop of the Sinn Féin party.
Donnelly’s chief opponent, Dr Patrick McCartan, was described by one follower at a campaign meeting in Cloughbogue as the ‘the man known all over the world, the first Ambassador of Ireland to America, who has faced every sort of danger in order to bring the condition of Ireland before the nations of the world’.
A third candidate, the Unionist Thomas W. Richardson, also set to contest the by-election, but, in a constituency like South Armagh, it is essentially a competition between the nationalist (IPP) and republican (SF) candidates.
The ferocity of the competition between the two is reflected in the intensity of the electioneering from both sides. Mr Donnelly and his supporters have been using cars to cover the constituency and campaign in all its polling districts.
The campaign for Dr McCartan relied on the support of those from outside the constituency and they targeted their efforts at Crossmaglen, where, they held a large meeting that resounded to the din of drums, pipes and the singing of the ‘Soldier’s Song’. The meeting was addressed by Mr Seán Milroy.
Elsewhere in the constituency, the Sinn Féin President Éamon de Valera travelled to Silverbridge and Countess Markievicz to Lislea, though they were not met by either large or enthusiastic crowds.
The Freeman’s Journal questioned whether the tactics deployed in previous by-elections by Sinn Féin will prove quite as effective in South Armagh. ‘The sturdy northern voter is not easily stampeded’, a special representative from the newspaper claimed.
Another challenge for Sinn Féin is the relatively low profile of Dr McCartan in the constituency. His nationalist opponents were keen to stress that he is not an Armagh man – he hails from Tyrone – and is not well acquainted with the county.
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”.
The polling day set for 1 February, was won by the Irish Parliamentary candidate Patrick Donnelly.