As Ireland marks the 90th anniversary of the first Dail sitting, BRID O'DOHERTY recalls her father from Creggan Street who represented Donegal North on that historic occasion in the Mansion House in Dublin.
This week we commemorate the establishment of the First Dil Eireann on 21st January 1919. The proclamation of the Irish Republic by the 1916 leaders was solemnly re-affirmed and ratified. For a small island to establish its own parliament, as its right to self government, thus defying a mighty power that had held it in thrall for centuries, shocked England, amazed the world and filled the Irish with great pride and hope.
We can hardly realise today the impact of that momentous event. In 1919 Britain still governed a huge Empire, still ruled the waves and still had powerful armies. Yet courageous men in the name of achieving freedom, justice and equality for their people proclaimed their sovereignty in the teeth of that Empire.
Among those men seated in the Mansion House on that day in January 1919, as a member for Donegal North, was my father, Joseph O' Doherty. He was a Derryman, born on Christmas Eve 1891 into a nationalist family, very proud of their O' Doherty name and crest with its motto r nDchas ( Our heritage).
He was the third youngest of a family of nine, all committed to the revival and expansion of Irish language and culture and to the Home Rule movement. They would have discussed with dismay the failed attempts to get Home Rule passed and the establishment of the Ulster Volunteers to counter its possible granting. Yet his home at 23 Creggan Street was a very happy one, with constant holidays in Inishowen, visits from cousins and friends; much gaiety, great love and hospitality prevailed.
The Derry Joe grew up in was expanding rapidly with many opportunities for the enterprising. His mother and father had come in from Inishowen with very little, yet his father had become a successful businessman, able to provide the best education for all his children.
From their earliest days they availed of the many amenities that the city offered. Derry had, as it still has, a great musical tradition, training many singers, choirs and instrumentalists. Joseph O' Brien, brother of the famous Vincent, founder of the Palestrina Choir in Dublin, was organist of the new St Eugene's Cathedral. He was a family friend and their music teacher. All the O' Doherty children were musical, particularly Vincent, a tenor, and Sheila, a soprano, often engaged as concert soloists. All took part in the annual productions of classical Opera in the city, either in minor parts or in the chorus. Many a sing-song and ballad session took place in their house also.
Joe was educated in Primary School by the Wee Nuns (Mercy), at St Columb's College, and at St Patrick's Training College, Drumcondra (and later at Trinity College and Kings Inns). As a trainee teacher in Dublin 1910 – 1912, he loved this other metropolis which he found even more enthusiastic about the Celtic revival and buzzing with nationalist activity. He frequently visited his brother Seamus, already working in Dublin and married to Kathleen Gibbons, a member of Cumann na mBan. To their house in Connaught St in Phibsboro came all those engaged in the national movement and also those seeking solutions to the social injustices prevalent in Dublin at that time.
When the Irish Volunteers were formed in November 1913, Joe joined and, already a great admirer of Patrick Pearse through his interest in education, he got to know Pearse's political views and so joined him in a gun-running expedition at Kilcoole, County Wicklow. He attended O'Donovan Rossa's funeral in 1915 and heard Pearse's famous oration at the graveside.
In 1916 he was given command of the insurrection in Derry by Sean Mc Dermott himself, who told him under oath that the Rising was to take place in Dublin. To his great chagrin, through lack of communication, the Insurrection was over in Dublin before they got any word of it in Derry. Nevertheless, like his brother Seamus, he was arrested in Derry and brought to Richmond Barracks in Dublin, then to England, first to Wakefield Gaol where he met many rebels from all over the country, including Terence Mc Sweeney. The revolutionary spirit was intensified there, and later in Frongach Camp in North Wales, the "University of Revolution", to which he had been transferred.
He was released a couple of months later. Still the struggle for independence continued. In 1917 he was elected a member of the Volunteer Executive. In 1918 he was selected to contest the seat in North Donegal as a Sinn Fein candidate, thus winning a seat in the British Parliament, but with fellow Sinn Fein members he declined to go to Westminster and so was a member of the First Dail in January 1919.
On Pentecost Sunday he had married in Phibsboro Church, Dublin, Dr. Margaret Irvine, who had just been appointed Medical Officer of Derry City. They set up home in Clarendon Street where they resided through the turbulent years of the War of Independence.
Partition a profound shock
He took the anti-Treaty side in the Dail Debates and spoke strongly against it, underscoring that he had got a mandate for sovereignty from the people of North Donegal. Naturally, as an Ulsterman, the Treaty was anathema to him. His youth and early manhood was totally given over to achieve sovereignty for the whole of Ireland and not for part of it. The mental unity of the island, common to people on all sides, was now decisively broken. No matter how the republican campaign went in the South, the island of Ireland was formally divided for the first time in its history. Partition was a profound psychological shock for my father and his contemporaries.
During the ensuing Civil War in 1922 he was authorised by the Republican Executive to solicit financial and moral support for the Republic of Ireland in U.S.A. He toured the U.S. with Fr Michael O'Flanagan, Ireland's famous orator and chaplain to Dil Eireann, and J.J. O'Kelly, famous historian, known as Sceilg.
He returned to Ireland in 1924 and was again selected to go to the U.S. with another republican delegation, comprising Sean T. O' Kelly, afterwards President of Ireland, and Frank Aiken, later Minister of Foreign Affairs in a Fianna Fil Government. On his return to Ireland in late 1927, the new Fianna Fil party had been formed in his absence.
In 1928 he was elected to the Irish Senate. In 1932 he decided to contest his old constituency in North Donegal. He was selected and elected the following year, and he served in the Dil until 1937. At that time he retired from politics to practice at the Bar. In 1945 he was appointed County Manager of Kildare and Carlow, a post which answered his desire to ensure, at least for part of the country, the social justice and equality that he had hoped to gain, as a Dil deputy, for the Irish people as a whole.
When he retired from Local Government administration he concentrated on the Bar. He died in August 1979 still preoccupied with the alienation of the North and agonising over the terrible "Troubles". He loved Derry and often talked with affection and nostalgia about his childhood there. I remember tales of toboganning from the Creggan to the Guildhall, of playing along the busy dockland, of boat trips to Moville and frequent visits to Inishowen. I have a photo of him as an acolyte, aged about nine, standing proudly beside the Bishop outside the Cathedral.
Why did he leave Derry then? In 1922 his wife Margaret was suspended from her post as M. O. of Derry because she would not take the oath of allegiance. It was just at the time he was asked to go to America. They decided, therefore, to leave the North, so that she could find work in the South. But Derry never left his mind and heart.
I'm sure that today he would be happy that peace has come and that the future is so much brighter.