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The First Dáil (Irish: An Chéad Dáil) was Dáil Éireann as it convened from 1919–1921. It was the first meeting of the unicameral parliament of the revolutionary Irish Republic. In 1919 candidates who had been elected in the Westminster elections of 1918 refused to recognise the Parliament of the United Kingdom and instead established an independent legislature in Dublin called "Dáil Éireann" (English: Assembly of Ireland). The establishment of the First Dáil occurred on the same day as the outbreak of the Irish War of Independence. After elections in 1921 the First Dáil was succeeded by the Second Dáil of 1921–1922.
In 1918 Ireland was a part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and was represented in the British House of Commons by 105 MPs. From 1882–1918 most Irish MPs were members of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) who strove in several Home Rule Bills to achieve self-government for Ireland within the United Kingdom through the constitutional movement for reform. This approach put the Third Home Rule Act 1914 on the statute book but the implementation of this legislation was temporarily postponed with the outbreak of World War I. In the meantime the more radical Sinn Féin party grew in strength.
Sinn Féin's founder, Arthur Griffith, believed that nationalists should emulate the means by which Hungarian nationalists had achieved partial independence from Austria. In 1867, led by Ferenc Deák, Hungarian representatives had boycotted the Imperial parliament in Vienna and unilaterally established their own legislature in Budapest. The Austrian government had eventually become reconciled to this new state of affairs which became the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867. Members of Sinn Féin also, however, supported achieving separation from Britain by means of an armed uprising if necessary.
Between the Easter Rising of 1916 and the 1918 general election, Sinn Féin's popularity was increased dramatically by the execution of most of the leaders of the 1916 rebels, the party's reorganisation in 1917 and by its opposition to military conscription in Ireland (see Conscription Crisis of 1918). The party was also aided by the 1918 Representation of the People Act which increased the Irish electorate from around 700,000 to about two million.
Sinn Féin won 73 out of the 105 Irish seats in the House of Commons, their votes 476,087 (or 46.9%) for 48 seats, plus 25 uncontested without a ballot. Unionists (including Ulster Unionist Labour Association) previously 19, won 26 seats on 305,206 (30.2%) votes, all but three of which were in the six counties that today form Northern Ireland, and the IPP won only six (down from 84 in 1910), all but one in Ulster, on 220,837 (21.7%) votes cast. The Labour Party had decided not to participate in the election, allowing the electorate to decide on the issue of Home rule versus a Republic by having a clear two way choice between the two nationalist parties. The Irish Party won a smaller share of seats than votes, as the election was run under the British first-past-the-post voting system, and not by the proportional representation method that is used in Ireland today. Because of the large number of Sinn Féin candidates elected unopposed, and despite their opponents polling nearly 52% of the votes, the elections were seen as a landslide victory for the party.
Once elected the Sinn Féin MPs chose to follow through with their Manifesto's plan of abstention from the British parliament and instead assembled as a revolutionary parliament they called "Dáil Éireann": the Irish for "Assembly of Ireland". Unionists and members of the IPP refused to recognise the Dáil, and four Sinn Féin candidates had been elected in two different constituencies, so the First Dáil consisted of a total of sixty-nine Deputies or "TDs". Forty-two of these were absent from the inaugural meeting as they were imprisoned or on the run from the British. Three Sinn Féin MPs were elected in the counties that are now Northern Ireland. Of these two also held seats in other parts of the country.
The first meeting of Dáil Éireann occurred on 21 January 1919 in the Round Room of the Mansion House: the residence of the Lord Mayor of Dublin. Being the first and highly symbolic meeting, the proceedings of the Dáil were conducted for the only time entirely in the Irish language, except for previously drafted declarations that were repeated in other languages as well. The Dáil elected Cathal Brugha as its Ceann Comhairle (chairman). A number of short documents were then adopted. These were the:
The Declaration of Independence asserted that the Dáil was the parliament of a sovereign state called the "Irish Republic", and so the Dáil established a cabinet called the Ministry or "Aireacht", and an elected prime minister known both as the "Príomh Aire" and the "President of Dáil Éireann". The first, temporary president was Cathal Brugha. He was succeeded, in April, by Éamon de Valera.
The membership of the Dáil was drawn from the Irish MPs elected to sit at the Westminster parliament, 105 in total, of which 27 (one of whom represented two constituencies) were listed as being present (i láthair) for the first meeting. Of the remainder 34 (two of whom represented two constituencies) were described as being "imprisoned by the foreign enemy" (fé ghlas ag Gallaibh) and three (one of whom represented two constituencies) as being "deported by the foreign enemy" (ar díbirt ag Gallaibh). Five Sinn Féin members were described as being 'as láthair' (absent). The remaining 32 members who were invited but not present were six members of the Irish Parliamentary Party and 26 unionists, mainly from the northern six counties that would later form Northern Ireland. These included all MPs elected to sit for Belfast city, Counties Down, Antrim, Armagh, and Londonderry (as opposed to Londonderry City), two out of three MPs for County Tyrone and one out of two MPs for County Fermanagh. For the portion of the country that would later become the Irish Free State, MPs did not sit for Waterford city or the Dublin University constituency (although members did attend for the National University of Ireland constituency). In other places, attendance was not universal:
On precisely the same day as the Dáil's first meeting two members of the Royal Irish Constabulary were ambushed and killed at Soloheadbeg, near Tipperary town, by members of the Irish Volunteers. This incident had not been ordered by the Dáil but the course of events soon drove the Dáil to recognise the Volunteers as the army of the Irish Republic and the ambush as an act of war against Great Britain. The Volunteers therefore changed their name, in August, to the Irish Republican Army, and swore allegiance in August 1920 to both the Republic and the Dáil. The dual nature of this oath did not become apparent until much later. The Soloheadbeg incident is thus regarded as the opening act of the Irish War of Independence, though the Dáil did not formally declare war on Britain until 1921. From its first meeting the Dáil also set about attempting to secure de facto authority for the Irish Republic throughout the country. This included the establishment of a parallel judicial system known as the Dáil Courts.
In September 1919 the Dáil was declared illegal by the British authorities and thereafter met only intermittently and at various locations. The First Dáil held its last meeting on 10 May 1921. After elections on 24 May the Dáil was succeeded by the Second Dáil which sat for the first time on 16 August 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 held on a single day until elections to the European Parliament over sixty years later. The landslide victory for Sinn Féin was seen as an overwhelming endorsement of the principle of a united independent Ireland. Until recently republican paramilitary groups, such the Provisional IRA, often claimed that their campaigns derived legitimacy from this 1918 mandate, and some still do.
Today the name Dáil Éireann is used for the lower house of the modern Oireachtas (parliament) of the Republic of Ireland. Successive Dála (plural for Dáil) continue to be numbered from the "First Dáil" convened in 1919. The current Dáil, elected in 2011, is accordingly the "31st Dáil".
Seán MacEntee, who died on 10 January 1984 at the age of 94, was the last surviving member of the First Dáil.