The Roscommon By-election (The Election of the Snows)
by Fr. Michael O'Flanagan, 1920.
At the time the campaign started in North Roscommon, Count Plunkett was interned in Oxford. Naturally we made full use of this in pleading with the electors. When the enemy saw the capital we were making out of the interment, he was released. Then we had a still greater argument: "Behold how the long arm of North Roscommon has snatched him from the midst of the enemy. If his mere nomination was enough to do this, how much greater would be the effect of his election?"
I had never seen the Count. I knew that he was about sixty five years of age. Jasper Tully had stated repeatedly in the Boyle Herald that he was a very old and very feeble man. I was, therefore, rather doubtful about the effect of having him in the Constituency for long before polling day. We, therefore arranged to have him spend only a day and a half in the constituency before the Poll.
On the Thursday he arrived in Carrick on Shannon on the midday train from Dublin. Just over the bridge, on the Roscommon side, we gave him his first grand welcome to the West. We then motored to Boyle where we had a second grand reception in the capital of the constituency.
The following day was fair day in Ballaghderreen. This town, although it was in the constituency of East Mayo, John Dillon’s own town in fact, was the great market center for the western end of the constituency. It was also one of the few places in the county where the Irish Volunteers had been well organized both before and after Easter Week.
Our plan for Friday was to hold a big meeting at the Fair in the early portion of the day and then motor through Frenchpark and Elphin onto Strokestown for a grand final demonstration before the poll.
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A great deal of this road, especially the part between Elphin and Frenchpark was heavily blocked with snow, and we had employed a large number of men for two or three days beforehand to clear a passage through for the Count. In order to make quite sure that there would be no hitch, I was determined to travel the entire road myself on Friday, before the Count began his journey.
Hence, late on Friday night, I started motoring from Boyle to Elphin which at the time, one had to go through Carrick on Shannon and Hillstreet and Strokestown. However when we reached Hillstreet, acting upon the advice of local person who professed to know the state of the roads, we started to go straight across to Elphin. After cutting our way through several drifts and got to about two miles of the town, we finally despaired and turned back again and made our way to Strokestown.
We reached Strokestown at about 3 o'clock in the morning. We were let into a hotel by a strong supporter of the party, Paddy Mc Kenna, the man who at a later time opposed Joe Mac Guinness in Longford. In any case, after hunting around under his guidance, we succeeded in getting half a bed each for the night.
Next morning, we motored through the new cut to Ballaghderreen.
Part of the way, especially between Elphin and Mantua, was cut for hundreds of yards at a time through a solid mass of snow as high as the body of the motor-car. The energy that must have been expended in shoveling that immense mass of snow in two or three days augered well for the success of the election. Going through that long narrow passage with straight walls of snow, four or five feet high on each side, reminded me of the Roman catacombs. It would be impossible to quench a movement that had aroused such energy and enthusiasm. Just as we got into Frenchpark, the men were cutting through the last drift.
The day before, I had wired to the Bishop of Achonry who was also the Parish Priest of Ballaghderreen, asking for permission to attend the meeting. I got a reply from his administrator, Fr Gallagher, saying that the Bishop did not wish to assume any responsibility one way or the other in the matter. Although suspension would be the outcome of my attendance at the public meeting, there was nothing to prevent me from motoring into the town while the meeting was being held. When I arrived in the large open space in the center of the town, two opposition meetings were in full swing.
On the right hand side, facing west, was the Party meeting while on the left, facing north, was the Plunkett meeting. It was easy to foretell the result from the contrast between the two meetings. The Party was outnumbered by at least two to one. Fr Gallagher, the Bishop’s administrator, the very man who had wired that the Bishop did not wish to take any responsibility, was in the chair on the Party platform. He was actually making a speech when our car arrived on the scene.
The two crowds were so close together that they really formed one. We motored first between the two and then turned to the left passing through the middle of the Plunkett meeting. The cheering with which we were received was so great that the Administrator had to remain silent and look on until we had passed down to the end of the town. We then turned and came back again past the meeting in search of the residence of the Bishop.
We called to see him at his residence which was about a mile outside the town.
I explained to him that it would be impossible for him to avoid responsibility one way or another, that there was responsibility in refusing as well as in giving his consent. He requested me not to press him for an answer, but I did not wish to let him be in this pretended easy fashion and I finally got the refusal which I expected.
Amongst other things, he told me that he did not wish to see any split in Ballaghderreen, that there was only about a hundred young men in the town, of no influence, on Count Plunkett’s side, and he wanted to keep the town united as it had been in the past, and this notwithstanding the fact, that if he had only open his windows he could hear the cheers of fifty times a hundred men greeting Count Plunkett at that very moment.
When we got back to town, both meetings were over, but Mr O'Sheil, stood up in the motor-car and told the people who gathered around him the result of our interview with his Lordship.
Later in the day we motored on to Strokestown. However, a great crowd had assembled in Elphin and we were compelled to hold a meeting there in spite of the fact that we were several hours behind our timetable.
We expected to be in Strokestown at four o'clock but it was eight o'clock when we got there. An immense crowd met us half a mile outside the town. They pulled Count Plunkett out of the motor-car and carried him on their shoulders. A brake was brought up in the middle of the street, and when after a great struggle we got as far as it, I found my little friend who had made the grave in the snow a few days before.
That night after the meeting I went back with Count Plunkett to Ballaghderreen. Our technical knowledge of electioneering was very scant. We had no central organization and no central office. Our legal representative, Mr Goff, was a young lawyer, who had just qualified. When he was appointed I don't think he knew what a personating agent was. He wrote to Dublin for some books to find out. The Sheriff lived in Roscommon town.
The snow had cut off the postal service from Elphin for several days. I was afraid that we would not have the papers signed for the personating agents in Frenchpark. The evening before the election I had sent two men to walk from Frenchpark to Boyle to see the sub sheriff there and to try to have the matter arranged at the last moment.
Frenchpark was the largest polling district in the constituency. It was also the most neglected as the snow had prevented us from holding any first class meeting in the district.
Hence, on Saturday morning I motored to Frenchpark with the Count intending to leave him there to look after his own interests and in case our efforts to get other representatives into the booths had failed.
When we arrived in Frenchpark we found that there were two booths and that our side was well represented on both booths. We also found that on the road outside the Polling Booths a number of men, clean cut, active and intelligent, with large cardboard shamrocks in their caps, inscribed with the Great War Cry of the election "Up Plunkett".
I motored around from one polling station to another during the day and I noticed that a great change had come over the people. Up to the Polling day the people were full of enthusiasm, and cheered and shouted "Up Plunkett" everywhere we passed. But on the Polling Day they all seemed bent upon their business, and trudged silently along with neither a cheer or a cry of recognition.
The only thing that we were afraid of was, now that we had won the election, that it would be stolen from us. We were determined to make it as difficult as possible. We had young men set aside from each polling district to watch their respective boxes safely in the Courthouse in Boyle. There was also men to watch the Courthouse. We regarded it as a suspicious sign that they had fixed the Polling day on a Saturday, so that they might have all of Sunday to carry out the theft.
A number of young men, armed with revolvers elbowed their way into the Courthouse along with their ballot boxes. They sat on one side of the boxes and a number of armed peelers sat on the other side. At five o'clock in the morning, a compromise was made between the two parties. The boxes were locked and sealed in a small closet and they all left the Courthouse together.
On Sunday and Sunday night, the watch proceeded on the outside of the Courthouse.
On Monday morning I returned from Crossna and I sat in the motorcar outside the Courthouse while the votes were being counted. I had never at any time any serious doubt about the result of the election.
Two weeks before the poll, I was asked in a hotel in Carrick what I thought would be the result. I said that unless we beat the combined vote of the other two candidates by five hundred, I would not be satisfied. The actual was:
Yet in spite of this well found optimism I was in a very anxious mood for a portion of the time while waiting outside the Courthouse.
That night I went to Dublin by motor car. The road from Boyle to Carrick had been well cleared of snow and the fall in the country east of the Shannon was not great. However, the night was intensely cold. I sat in the front seat of the car until we reached Mullingar.
We stopped for a while in Carrick, Longford and Mullingar and with this advantage added to the protection of the windscreen, I had a tolerable time of it up to there. But in Mullingar, I took pity on Arthur Griffith. He was one of those in the back seat. He still wore the beard which he had grown during his time in prison.
The valleys through which we passed were filled with a bitterly cold frozen fog and Arthur was covered with ice like a picture of some man on an Arctic expedition. As soon as we passed Maynooth we all got out and ran through the snow for over a mile in order to get our blood in circulation. When we reached Dublin it was five o'clock in the morning.
I went with Stephen O'Mara to the Shelbourne Hotel and got a few hours sleep there.
Next evening at about seven o'clock, I was sitting in a front room upstairs in the Gresham Hotel when I heard cheers in the street. When I looked out through the window, I saw O'Connell Street filled with an immense mass of people, escorting Count Plunkett from the Broadstone to his home. I followed the crowd up to Upper Fitzwilliam Street where the Count lived.
The drilling which the young men of Dublin had engaged in for some years had made them experts in handling a crowd. A number of them had joined hands and surrounded the Count’s carriage and thus kept the people several yards away from it. I succeeded in persuading two of these young men that I was Fr. O'Flanagan and they made an opening for me so that I got into the house with the victor of North Roscommon.
A film clip titled: Bye-election at Roscommon North in 1917. There seems to be a clip of the release of Countess Markievitz
The Count made a speech from the window. The crowd called for me. How I longed to speak to such an audience on such an occasion. But then there was ecclesiastical law, and the Bishop had written enforcing it, I was going to say at the point of a bayonet, but I mean at the point of Suspension. I did not speak. That was the second occasion which I did not yield to a great temptation or did not respond to a great inspiration. The other similar occasion was that other day in Ballaghderreen.
I often wonder what I would have done if I had to play my part in the same circumstances over again. "Vain was the man and false as vain who said he ordained to run his long career of life again, he would do all that he had done."
On certain occasions I took a bold course of action. At the O'Donovan Rossa funeral in 1915, at the T.W. Russell meeting in Sligo in 1915, at the Strokestown meeting which opened the campaign in North Roscommon, at the Plunkett Convention.
On certain other occasions I listened to the promptings of prudence such as at the Ballaghderreen fair, the reception for Count Plunkett in Dublin and the Longford Election. These were occasions where motives of prudence held me back. I have not the same easy conscience about these occasions.
Even to this day on March 21st 1920, I often wonder whether it would not have been better to have adopted a much bolder approach.
We set to work immediately to take full advantage of the great victory won in North Roscommon. Would we be able sweep the whole Party aside so that Ireland would have elected representatives who would stand up before the world and demand the full right of a Nation before the conclusion of the World War and the establishment of the peace that was to follow it?
The first step was to summon a Convention. We had at last a man to sound the Bugle call of genuine Irish Nationality and who had been put in a position to sound it loud enough to be heard all over Ireland. The Count proceeded to draw up a circular summoning the Convention.
Meantime the Corporation of Kilkenny voted the Freedom of the City to Count Plunkett. They invited me to be present. I wrote back and told them to get the permission of their Parish Priest. I knew that the Bishop was Parish Priest and that he was far from being friendly to our new departure but I wanted the people of Kilkenny to find out for themselves.
When they got as far as the Bishop and asked permission for me to be present, he said, "He is a Catholic priest, and as long as he acts as one, I have no objection to him coming here." On the strength of that not very cordial permission I went to Kilkenny and I took part in the very full and satisfactory reception given to our new founded leader.
Next came an invitation to the Count to receive the Freedom of Sligo. As my own Bishop was Parish Priest of Sligo I wrote to him for permission to be present at the public meeting to be held there. I got the following reply:
Dear Fr. O'Flanagan,
I have received your letter of the 10th inst. I regret to find that since my letter of the 14th January 1916, which I felt it my duty to send you "in the interests of religion, ecclesiastical discipline and good order" you have, on more occasions than one, altogether ignored or formally flouted some of the most important injunctions set forth therein. Complaints have also reached me that you have since then grossly violated the Maynooth Statute (379).
I find it my painful duty now — in your own best interests as well as for the grave reasons mentioned above — to forbid you "sub poena suspensionis ipso facto incurrendae et deprivationis faculatum dioceseos" to attend, take part in or be present at, any public meeting or demonstration outside the parish of Cootehall, without my permission in writing. This and the former restrictions of the 14th of January 1916, and of the 25th January 1917 are to continue in force until you receive from me, in writing, formal notification to the contrary.
I frequently appealed to you to apply yourself to the practical work of the mission in your own sphere of duties. I regret to find that you have been reported as being away from your parish in other deaneries and other parishes to regulate and discuss secular affairs at a time when the priests of the locality were engaged in the Confessional and when you could be more profitably engaged at the same work in your own parish.
Lastly I grieve to state that you have caused your present parish priest so much trouble and worry, going so far, on one occasion at least, as to assault and maul him grievously, and when he remonstrated in his helplessness, to descend so low as to threaten "to do for him". A cleric that would treat a gentle, delicate unresisting fellow-priest in that way must be almost insane. It is the most charitable interpretation that can be put upon this and many of your actions. (Vide Tuam Statutes Appendix 11. No. 8).
(Signed) Bernard Coyne,
Bishop of Elphin.
Nothwithstanding this letter I went to Sligo. Owing to an extraordinary series of disappointments for motor-cars, I did not reach the town until the public meeting was over. I attended the Banquet but Arthur Griffith and some others succeed in inducing me not to make a speech. Arthur Griffith, however read the speech I had made a year earlier at the T.W. Russell meeting and made some telling comments upon it which were published a few days afterwards in "Nationality".
A few days before the Sligo meeting, Count Plunkett gave me a draft copy of the Circular letter which he intended to send to the County and District Councils, other representative bodies and to prominent individuals throughout Ireland.
As a statement of the general principles of Irish Nationality the circular was sound. It was not, however, the type of document that I would send to the Irish Councils at that time.
Catholic theologians speak of the development of Church doctrine. By that they mean, that although from the beginning all doctrines that we have in the Church were there, yet, there were some that were not taught as clearly and explicitly as they are now. I was in favor of adopting similar tactics in the propagation of the doctrine of Ireland as a Nation.
We had already an example of what I mean in Count Plunkett's refusal to attend the Parliament in Westminster. After the Roscommon election we were often accused of not making known his intention of not going to Parliament. It is quite true that we did not emphasize the Abstention policy. It would have been bad tactics to do so at the start. To abstain from going to Parliament is a logical result of first principles, it is not a first principle itself. We emphasized the first principle, and we took the logical result for granted.
I never asked Count Plunkett for a promise not to go Parliament before putting him forward as a candidate for North Roscommon. In our letter of invitation we made a general statement of our ideas of Irish Nationhood. We took it for granted anyone who subscribed to these ideas would not, and could not attend to Parliament in Westminster. In the very first speech that Count Plunkett made in Carrick, on the day he entered North Roscommon, he said that he did not think that he would go further than Dublin to represent the people.
All through the election the supporters of Count Plunkett carried the tricolour, and it was perfectly clear that the fight was between the full uncompromising ideal of Ireland an Independent Nation and the old compromising theory of reconciling Ireland to some subordinate place within the British Empire. I was in favor of adopting similar tactics with the County and District Councils. My idea was to send them a circular stating the principles of Irish Nationality in a way that would not hurt their sensibility, but that, at the same time be sufficiently straight to lead to the right conclusion as soon as the Convention assembled, just as the principle on which Count Plunkett was elected, lead to his refusal to go to Westminster.
I also intended that the Circular would first be sent to bodies such as the County Councils of Clare and Kerry and the Corporations of Kilkenny and Sligo, so that the first pronouncements would be favorable and thereby start the county moving in the right direction. What was my disappointment when the Count told me in Sligo that the draft circular he had given me was already in the hands of the printers. They were sent out haphazardly all over the country. The result was that the majority of the Councils marked them read, put them in the waste paper basket, burned them or treated them with them with some other picturesque form of contempt.
In spite of this, however, one of the finest Conventions ever held in Dublin, assembled under the Chairmanship of Count Plunkett on the 19th April, 1917.