On this day, the 9th May 1917, the South Longford by-election was held, resulting in the defeat of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) by the Sinn Féin challenger, and signifying the overthrow of the old order in Ireland by the new.

A Choice of Green: The South Longford By-Election, May 1917

The first of such defeats earlier in the year, at North Roscommon in February, was enough to send John Redmond, as IPP Chairman, into a crisis of faith. "If the North Roscommon election may be regarded as a freak election," he wrote, "then it may be disregarded."

But, he continued, "if is an indication of a change of principle and policy on the part of a considerable mass of the Irish people...Let the Irish people replace us, by all means, by other and, I hope, better men, if they so choose."

The electorate of South Longford prepared to answer that very when their current MP, John Phillips, a former Fenian turned politician, died on the 2nd April 1917. To contest the seat, Sinn Féin put up Joe McGuinness, despite his imprisonment for his part in the Easter Rising from the year before.


(Sinn Féin election poster, depicting Joe McGuinness in prison)

For its part, the IPP could not decide on which of the three possible contenders, leading the Party Deputy to complain that "the Longford election is a most deplorable tangle." While the IPP eventually settled on local man Patrick McKenna, Sinn Féin had taken advantage of its head-start, as explained by one Longford newspaper:

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For two consecutive Sundays they had the ear of the people at all the masses in all the chapels, and no one who knows how hard it is to get an Irishman to change his view once he has made his mind up but must admit that this was a serious handicap.
With the challenger in the ascendant, the IPP hastened to make up for lost time. The constituency was turned into a cross between a battlefield and a carnival, as reported by the 'Irish Times':

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Longford was crowded with partisans, who seem to have flocked to their separate standards from all parts of Ireland…The flags of the rival parties are displayed at every turn, and incessant party cries become grating to the ear. Nothing is being left undone by either side to further its propects.
When the vote came and the results were counted inside the Longford Courthouse on the day after, the 10th May, it was initially believed that McKenna had won, albeit by the narrowest of margins. This was announced to the crowds outside, with one Sinn Féin activist, Kevin O'Shiel, remembering how:

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We were dumbfounded, our misery being aggravated by the wild roars of the triumphant Partyites and their wilder 'Separation Allowance' women who danced with joy as they waved Union Jacks and green flags.
Just as dramatically, an error was revealed: a bundle of fifty votes had been misplaced and not included in the tally. When these were finally counted, Joe McGuinness, and Sinn Féin, was shown to have triumphed by a majority of just 37 votes. As small as this difference was, it was enough to inflict a crippling blow to the once-invincible Irish Party. What that meant for Ireland as a whole, however, with its demands for independence, had yet to be seen.

"The country is a confusion of factions," reported the 'Daily Telegraph'. "A unanimous Nationalist demand, which could be faced, and which could be dealt with through an accredited leadership, no longer exists."


(Anti-Redmond cartoon from the Roscommon Herald, 21st May 1917)