100 YEARS AGO: George Noble Plunkett wins Roscommon by-election

Published in Issue 1 (January/February 2017), Reviews, Volume 25

By Joseph E.A. Connell Jr

Born in Dublin and educated in Nice, Clongowes Wood and Trinity College Dublin, George Noble Plunkett was founder and editor of the magazine Hibernia. In addition, he served as director of the National Museum, vice-president of the Royal Irish Academy and president of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland. Plunkett was also a politician and the father of Joseph Plunkett, one of the signatories to the 1916 Proclamation. Descended from a prominent Old English family, which included St Oliver Plunkett, George’s relatives included the earls of Fingall and the barons of Dunsany. His title of ‘Count’ did not come from his ancestry, however, but from the Vatican. In 1884 Pope Leo XIII created him a papal count for donating money and property to the Sisters of the Little Company of Mary, a Catholic nursing order.

Above: Count George Noble Plunkett. (South Dublin County Libraries)

Plunkett’s interest in politics most likely came about through his sons, Joseph, George and John. Although it was after Joseph’s execution that he became radicalised, it is likely that Joseph swore him into the IRB some little time before his death. Count Plunkett was expelled from the Royal Dublin Society for his son’s role in the Rising.

At the end of 1916, most of the prisoners who had been taken to English prisons were released, and they came home to a tumultuous welcome at Christmas. The political climate had changed dramatically, and Sinn Féin prepared to put its policies to the Irish electorate.

During the early months of 1917 the recently released prisoners set about reorganising Sinn Féin. Their views on future policy varied considerably. They included exponents of Arthur Griffith’s dual monarchy and advocates of an Irish republic. An opportunity to put these new and radical policies to the electorate soon presented itself when a by-election was called in Roscommon North in February 1917, following the death of the sitting Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) MP. Plunkett ran as the Sinn Féin candidate.

The new politics was indebted to its youth wing’s vocal support: they gathered in numbers at Carrick railway station to cheer on Plunkett’s campaign. Amongst the crowds were the women of Cumann na mBan, ‘a big percentage of youth … large numbers of young men … [and] more curious still for those days, young women’. On 3 February Plunkett won Sinn Féin’s first by-election; intending to take his seat in Westminster, he was persuaded to adopt an ‘abstentionist’ policy. In the early part of 1917, however, Sinn Féin was torn between those who accepted Griffith’s ideas and those of a more republican bent, like Rory O’Connor, who believed in political methods only when these were backed by physical force. After much debate, O’Connor persuaded the national council of Sinn Féin to pursue the more republican policy.

Even though Plunkett had won the seat in North Roscommon, many people believed that his victory was a fluke. In May another by-election in South Longford was thought to be the real test for Sinn Féin. The candidate was Joseph McGuinness, a prisoner in Lewes Jail, England, for his part in the 1916 Rising, who ran under the slogan: ‘Put him in to get him out’. The IPP threw all its resources into the battle. Despite the fact that the election was fought on an incomplete register and the franchise had still not been extended to women, Sinn Féin received 1,498 votes compared to 1,459 for the IPP. Narrow though the Sinn Féin victory was, the Manchester Guardian declared it to be ‘the equivalent to a serious defeat of the British Army in the field’.

Joseph E.A. Connell Jr is the author of Michael Collins’s Dublin (Wordwell Books).

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