Triumph and tragedy the legacy of controversial oath of allegiance

The Oath is Dead and Gone

Jim Maher



Review: Ryle Dwyer

This book’s strong point is that the research is so original. At times this becomes a drawback, but in some instances the author does not seem aware of information unearthed by other historians. As a result the coverage at the very beginning and the very end of the book is distinctly superficial.

When the oath — the oath of allegiance to the British Crown expected of all members of early Dáils — figures so largely in the story, there should have been a deeper analysis about how the oath came about. The author notes that when the cabinet considered the draft treaty less than three days before the signing, Michael Collins was opposed to the oath. He said it should be rejected. He had already proposed an alternative oath in the negotiations.

Where did the oath come from? Later in the book the author quotes Lord Birkenhead as stating that he personally drafted it, which seems likely, even though he privately characterised it as a piece of obfuscation.

In dealing with the split within Sinn Féin, for instance, he mentions that: “Stack remained with Sinn Féin unflinchingly faithful to the Fenian beliefs he had inherited.”

Indeed, Stack was not above alluding to his father who was imprisoned over his Fenian activities, but Stack’s biographer Fr J Anthony Gaughan unearthed conclusive documentary evidence that seriously questioned the Fenian credentials of Stack’s father. Austin was not guilty of the sins of his father, but the reference to his Fenian inheritance was absurd in this instance.

Jim Maher is particularly good in tracing the split within Sinn Féin that led to the establishment of Fianna Fáil in 1926. “This is not a question of Republican principle but of policy merely,” de Valera argued in November 1925.

After de Valera led Fianna Fáil into the Dáil in 1927, there were those who argued that he could have done the same thing in 1922 and avoided the Civil War, but this book clearly shows that he could not have done so. He exhibited almost inexhaustible patience in trying to bring all of Sinn Féin along with him between 1923 and 1926, but he was dealing with a galaxy of cranks, who were not for turning.

Fr Michael O’Flanagan and Mary MacSwiney could not get on with de Valera, and after he left the party, they could not get on with each other. MacSwiney was elected to replace him as party president but the voluble priest accused her of being a Fianna Fáil spy at the Sinn Féin árd fheish in 1927. He went on to announce that he was quitting the party and stormed out.

If de Valera had been there he could have said that Sinn Féin was welcome to the lot of them. The book is particularly good on the way that de Valera led Fianna Fáil to become a much more inclusive party.

“If Fianna Fáil were ever to become the government of the country it would have to entice into its ranks more and more people who had not hitherto supported them,” de Valera argued. Even though he was Jewish, Robert Briscoe was selected to run for Fianna Fáil in the 1927 by-election to fill the seat vacated following the death of Countess Markievicz.

Dan Breen, who joined Fianna Fáil in 1926, did not wait for his colleagues to enter the Dáil. He took his seat in January 1927. He explained that he did so for the sake of his wife and son, as he had no income. But it seems that the Republicans of that day thought he should have let them starve for Ireland.

By entering the Dáil, Breen excluded himself from Fianna Fáil. He then lost his seat in the general election the following June and found it necessary to emigrate for a period.

When he came back, however, he was elected to the Fianna Fáil National Executive, along with Pádraig Ó Máille and Colonel Maurice Moore, who were former members of both Cumann na nGaedheal and the still-born splinter party Clann Éireann, which disappeared almost as fast than it appeared on the scene. It was one of the splinters groups that felt that Cumann na nGaedheal was not doing enough to realise the promises of Michael Collins.

In April 1930 the Fianna Fáil deputy James Killane of Kidare died. He had first been elected for Sinn Féin in 1923 and joined FF at its inception, but he lost his seat to his party colleague James Victory in the June 1927 election. He retook the seat from Victory in the next general election three months later.

Victory may have seemed the logical candidate to run for Killane’s seat in 1930, but the party selected James Geoghegan, a former member of Cumann na nGaedheal. He went on to win the seat in June 1930 with an overall majority on the first count.

Fianna Fáil had lost all four previous by-elections since 1927, but the manner of Geoghegan’s victory was a portent of the 1930s. “I believe this election will prove to be the turning point,” Seán Lemass declared.

Cumann na nGaedheal obviously hoped its role in securing the Statue of Westminster — which officially recognised the independence of the dominions — would help in the general election of 1932. The author notes to WT Cosgrave played a significant role in blocking Winston Churchill’s attempt to have the 1921 Treaty specifically exempted from the Statue.

It was a significant achievement on Cosgrave’s part, but it was not enough to stop Fianna Fáil winning 72 seats in the 1932 general election. That was the most seats won by any party since the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922.

Fianna Fáil fared best in Kerry, where the party won five of the seven seats with 59.3% of the vote, which could be contrasted with the pathetic performance in the last election in which the party won none of the six seats. The book is an intriguing reminder of how times have changed!


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