50 Years Ago


On October 29, 1947 the new Clann na Poblachta party won two by-elections and everything changed after that.

Seán Mac Bride won in Dublin with a 9,432 vote majority over Thomas L Mullins, the General Secretary of Fianna Fáil. In Tipperary Paddy Kinnane, an IRA veteran took the seat.

In Waterford, however, on the same day the Clann candidate came last in a field of four.

People throughout the 26 Counties were electrified by the Clann victories. The public sat up and took notice. The “new party” as it was called was now a serious contender in the field that the ruling Fianna Fáil party could not ignore.

Popular discontent had grown that autumn of 1947, fed by economic causes. The de Valera administration was blamed for the rising cost of living which grew more rapidly than in England and the unions blamed profiteering shopkeepers for the surge in prices.

Seán Lemass’s Wages Standstill Order of 1941 had frozen pay but not prices. The following year it was revised to permit wage increases to compensate for the rising cost of living. It was repealed in 1946.


A major strike that year by the national teachers had lasted more than seven months and had resulted in total defeat for them. It cost the union, the Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO), £200,000.

In the outcome the dispute helped to build Clann na Poblachta which noted that teachers received higher salaries in the Six Counties. Further one of the INTO demands had been equal pay for women teachers, a fact which did not go unnoticed by the general public.

Seán Cronin quotes the US Legation in Dublin on its assessment of a so-called “Communist” threat alleged by a bitterly resisting Fianna Fáil: “. . . in our opinion it is doubtful if there is much Russian-style Communism in Ireland. Socialism of the English model would be more popular.”

This report of January 13, 1947 to Washington was made after a meeting with Jim Larkin, Junior, who had succeeded his father as General Secretary of the Workers’ Union of Ireland. Of course, a Labour Government had been in power in Britain since July 1946 and the Welfare State was a very real part of life there by 1947.

The report continues: “The possibility that the economic pressure of a low-wage, high-profit level of industry might force the Irish workers into some form of Socialism or Communism is not too remote. The strength of the Catholic Church is still great, but certain members of the hierarchy have put themselves in the position of backing the vested interests.

“The two major strikes of 1946, the teachers’ strike and the sugar strike, were settled in favour of management at the intervention of the clergy. This could well result in an anti-clerical attitude on the part of labour if labour feels that the Church is lined up on the side of the opposition.”

The Clann na Poblachta party was considered Socialist by the US Legation which forwarded to Washington an Irish Times account of February 6, 1947 of a speech by Seán Mac Bride at the Mansion House, Dublin: “If there is any reality to any attempt to end partition we must throw open the door here (of Leinster House) to the elected representatives of Northern Ireland (sic).”

Mac Bride warned: “We must face realities and we must realise that if we get a Republic in name it would mean nothing unless it ensured economic and social freedom for all the people of the country. We have to ensure that no section of the people will be exploited by another section.”

Cronin states that “the initial appeal of Clann na Poblachta was to those Republicans who had not followed de Valera into Fianna Fáil, or elements of the latter disillusioned by the lack of progress on ending Partition.


“Founded in July 1946 after the death on hunger and thirst strike of Seán McCaughey in Portlaoise Prison, Clann quickly became a public forum for all manner of social and political interests. Even members of Fianna Fáil thought it would have been an act of simple justice to free McCaughey . . .”

He concluded: “The US Legation might dismiss Clann na Poblachta as unimportant, but de Valera understood its potential . . .”

The Legation analysed Clann as follows: “In the overall picture of Irish politics the Republican Party (sic) does not loom large: however there is the possibility that it might become part of a bloc of malcontents made up of the Labour Party and several of the Farmers’ groups.

“This could be of importance, inasmuch as there is no upper middle class in Éire which could be relied upon to support the government if such a movement became widespread.” This report was dated February 11, 1947.

Bell accurately describes the attitudes of Clann na Poblachta people: “The Clann had no time to spare for a few narrow-minded purists crying in the wilderness. During 1946 and 1947 the party was booming in the parishes. The crowds grew at the meetings.

“The most optimistic began to wonder if Seán Mac Bride might not take them all the way, if not by the next general election then the one after.

“In the autumn of 1947, the Clann won two by-elections and its momentum accelerated — Mac Bride was already in Leinster House, soon he might be Taoiseach.

“Snatched up as if by a magnet were a great many of the dedicated and determined Republicans of past years [eg Seán McCool of Donegal — Ed] and with them a whole new generation, avid for instant change.


In the face of this enthusiasm and excitement the orthodox Republican organisations — Sinn Féin, Na Fianna Éireann and Cumann na mBan — found the going hard.

“Reduced by the passage of time and the failure of slogans years out of date, their leaders could arouse none but the long committed. Without funds or members they held on to the faith.

“Plans for another paper (following on the banning of Resurgence in late November 1946) began at once, but Sinn Féin’s fortunes had showed no noticeable improvement.

“A handful of old-timers, imbued with the Second Dáil mentality [Frank Driver of Kildare was typical — Ed], and a few of the Curragh men drifting in, had kept things going, but the attractions of the Clann and later of the Anti-Partition Movement left Sinn Féin a lonely isolated movement cut off from the political Clann on one side and the militant IRA on the other.”

Bell concludes: “Thus, in 1947, the orthodox channels of Republican action were hopelessly clogged. The old organisations were flotsam left on the barren shore when the tides of history moved out, empty shells, of interest only to antiquarians, not politicians or policemen.

“The IRA at least was seeking desperately to fight off futility, but the country seemed weary of conspiracy. Even the young had heard of Stephen Hayes. Even the militant activist could not see the end of the tunnel.

“In Dublin Cathal Goulding had run training camps . . . but no-one knew for what they were training. Tobin [John Tobin of Dungarvan, national organiser] kept to his long, weary rounds of organisation. Here and there a few more local units held parades . . .”

Yes, indeed, the going would be rough for the Republican Movement until the constitutional political party which appeared to promise all things had run its course and the moment of truth arrived.

(More next month. Refs. Washington’s Irish Policy 1916-1986 by Seán Cronin and The Secret Army by J Bowyer Bell.)