C: National Library of Ireland & Dr Conor McNamara Twitter

ON THIS DAY: 3 February 1917: Count Plunkett sweeps to victory for Sinn Féin in North Roscommon by-election

On this day in 1917, Count George Noble Plunkett won a seat at the Roscommon North by-election for Sinn Féin. Across the Irish midlands, the result was perceived as a knockout blow for the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP). 

The by-election held on 4 February 1917 was called following the death of James Joseph O’Kelly in 1916, the journalist and Irish Parliamentary MP, a man who was central to the ‘New Departure’.

The by-election one year after O’Kelly’s death was called the Election of the Snows. Sinn Féin candidate Count Plunkett (1851-1948) was the father of Joseph Mary Plunkett, an Irish nationalist, republican, revolutionary and signatory of the Irish Proclamation who was executed for his role in the Easter Rising in 1916 at the age of just 28. 

Count George Noble Plunkett was of Papal Nobility; he was also a scholar and an Irish nationalist. Born on 3rd December 1851 at 1 Aungier Street in Dublin, he was the only child who survived into adulthood born to Patrick Joseph Plunkett (1817-1918) and his wife Elizabeth neé Noble. Plunkett was educated at Nice, the Oblate Fathers School at Upper Mount Street, Dublin, Clongowes Wood College, Co. Kildare, and he later attended Dublin University.

On 4th of April 1884, he was made a hereditary Count by Pope Leo XII for his charitable donations to the nursing order of the Little Company of Mary, known as the Blue Sisters.

On the 26th June 1884, and aged 34, he married Mary Josephine Cranny (1858-1944). The couple welcomed seven children: Philomena (Mimi) (b. 1886), Joseph Mary (b. 1887), Mary Josephine (Moya) (b. 1889), Geraldine (b. 1891), George Oliver (b. 1894), Fiona (b. 1896), and Eoin (Jack) (b. 1897).

Count Plunkett was appointed the director of the National Museum of Ireland in 1907. In his role as director, he was regarded as highly successful; his policies saw annual visitor numbers rise from 100 to 3,000. In April 1916, he was sworn into the Irish Republican Brotherhood by his son and one of the prominent 1916 leaders, Joseph Mary Plunkett, and he was subsequently sent to Europe to seek arms from Germany.

As Joseph Mary Plunkett had written a famous poem about Christ, his father was also sent to seek a papal blessing for the Irish rebellion. Count Plunkett did visit Pope Benedict XV prior to the Rising and some believed that he got the pope’s blessing for the plans but that has never been confirmed. 

C: Ciaran Quinn via Twitter

Following the defeat of the 1916 Rising, Count Plunkett was arrested on 28th of April and was subsequently interred at Richmond Barracks. He was detained there until 5th June. He was eventually deported with his wife to Oxford, and was also expelled from the National Museum for his part in the Rising. The following January, he was expelled by the Royal Dublin Society.

There are two letters written by Count Plunkett included in the Letters of the 1916 Collection. The letters date from his time in Richmond Barracks, and both are addressed to his daughter Geraldine (Gerry). They were sent in May 1916. In the first initial letter, Plunkett asks for food, and also touchingly mentions a visit paid by Geraldine that he said ‘lifted his heart’. He also refers to the ‘joy’ of being clean. He further asks that she makes communication with her mother, who had been arrested alongside him.

The second letter, dated just five days after the first, mentions some positive news delivered to Geraldine via a solicitor, potentially referring to the commutation of the substitution of the death sentences of his two other sons, George and Jack. He thanks Geraldine for the food she had sent to him, and requests some money.

C: Richmond Barracks via Facebook

The many sacrifices Count Plunkett made for the Easter Rising, including the execution of his beloved son, Joseph, earned him the nomination as the surviving rebels’ candidate in the Roscommon North by-election. Three other letters are included in the Letters of 1916 collection sent from Count Plunkett to republican activist Arthur Patrick O’Brien – these were sent during his time in Oxford after his deportation there.

He came back to Ireland, returning illegally, on 31st January 1917, triumphing at the Roscommon North by-election a mere three days later. His victory was an unmistakable indication that the people of Ireland had come to identify with the events of the Rising.

Count Plunkett’s victory made history in early twentieth century Ireland, and it helped to make electoral success possible for Sinn Féin in the General elections the following year. Count Plunkett and Harry Boland made history for the people of Roscommon as their first Sinn Féin TDs; Both men took part in the first Dáil and were strong opponents of the Treaty.

The death sentence passed on his sons for their role in the Rising, carried out by shooting, hardened his opposition to British rule. His election, in a retrospective sense, would herald in the ruin of the IPP and its subsequent replacement by Sinn Féin.

Although he was nominated by Sinn Féin, Count Plunkett did not actually identify with the party during the election itself. Rather, he was supported by a number of other Nationalist activists and organisations, such as the Irish Nation League, the Irish Volunteers, and the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB).

The by-election in North Roscommon, which came about because of the passing of its long-term MP, provided the League, as well as others, with a fresh battlefield on which to fight on. The IRB also played a part; the acting head of its Supreme Council, Seamus O’Doherty, helped with the nomination of Count Plunkett. O’Doherty also took up the role of his Director of Elections. However, he couldn’t manage to persuade the rest of the Council to support the election.

However, the man who played the most prominent role in Count Plunkett’s election was Father Michael O’Flanagan. Fr O’Flanagan was capable of uniting and holding together such a diverse collection of renegades, revolutionaries and radicals. Father O’Flanagan was a relentless worker and charismatic, passionate speaker who played a huge role in Count Plunkett’s success.

A charismatic speaker and tireless worker, the curate of Crossna inspired even the Irish Times – which was far from sympathetic to the Plunkett cause in general – to describe him in terms which sounded almost biblical.

“For twelve days and nights he was up and down the constituency, going like a whirlwind and talking in impassioned language to the people at every village and street corner and cross-roads where he could get people to listen to him.”

Having delivered the burial service at the ‘iconic’ public funeral for Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa in 1915, Fr O’Flanagan based his message in North Roscommon on the then-overriding concern for all: the fear that the Irish would be conscripted into the British Army for its was in Europe. Fr O’Flanagan himself believed that conscription would have been implemented already had it not been for the Easter Rising. Because Joseph Mary Plunkett had been executed and another two of his sons were imprisoned for their roles in that rebellion, a vote for the count was a blow against conscription. 

Father O’Flanagan, in his campaign to have Count Plunkett elected, favoured themes including the potential of youth to make a difference, and the bridging of generations for a worthy cause. The Catholic priest O’Flanagan appealed to every man, woman and child in the parish to assist Count Plunkett, a cultured Irish Catholic, and thus honour the memory of the dead who died for Ireland – an unmistakable reference to those of Easter Week. 

The Plunkett campaign found a connection to the Rising that was a huge political advantage which its rivals could not hope to duplicate.

An election badge for Count Plunkett. Image: www.rishelectionliterature.wordpress.com

Police reports from Dublin Castle records state that: “Count Plunkett’s supporters appeared to work much harder than those of the other candidates, but one of the principal features of the election is that many persons, including a number of priests, who had not hitherto shown Sinn Fein sympathies, identified themselves on this occasion with the Sinn Feiners.”

The Irish Times identified the victor’s success as being down to a combination of conscription fears, which Fr O’Flanagan had persistently played on, and the appeal to people’s sentiments concerning the Rising, which Plunkett undoubtedly had a claim to by his family’s involvement alone. 

In the end, the diverse collection of revolutionaries, radicals and renegades who all rallied behind the Plunkett banner had a hunger to win more than their opponents. Additionally, they had been able to convert the ordinary mass voters to their brand of nationalism, one that appeared to be fresher and far more appealing than the Home-rule flavoured, stagnant type of nationalism promoted by the Irish Party for so long.

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