"I tell you that you may take our men at the point of bayonet….but you will not succeed in killing the spirit of Irish nationality, and at the end you will find you have lit a flame which is not likely to die out in our generation."
D.D. Sheehan was an Irish Nationalist and founding member of the All-for-Ireland-League Party – a party that aimed to achieve Irish Home rule through reconciliation and consent of the population.
Despite this he believed it to be his duty to fight in the War and share the same hardship as other men who were leaving their families behind. Writing in the Daily Express in 1916:
“Either it was to the interest of Ireland to identify itself with Empire, or, sulking, in the memories of past wrongs, to remain aloof, or, seeking vengeance for what was done in evil times, actively to associate herself with the aims of the enemy.”
Sheehan began his career as a school teacher and moved on to journalism, writing for a variety of papers including the Cork Daily Herald and Glasgow Observer. In 1901 he was elected as an MP for mid-Cork as an Irish Land and Labour Association candidate. At 28 he was one of the youngest and certainly most vocal Irish Nationalist members in Parliament. Despite becoming an MP in 1901, D.D. Sheehan was still heavily reliant on journalism to support his family, with MPs not receiving a salary until 1911.
Sheehan’s stated aim in Parliament was to represent Irish artisans, rural tradesmen, fishermen and agricultural labourers and to improve housing conditions throughout Ireland. He had previously founded the Irish Land and Labour Association. Speaking in a debate on the State of Irish Labourers in 1901, he spoke of the so called ‘Age of Progress’ in which labourers still lived in conditions that were “breeding grounds of epidemics of the worst and malevolent kind.” By 1906 he was instrumental in the passing the Labourers (Ireland) Act leading to the construction of 40,000 workers’ cottages.
Military service with the Royal Munster Fusiliers
When war broke out in 1914, Sheehan was aged 41, married with five sons and five daughters. There was no requirement for him to sign up and he enlisted voluntary “unless I was forever to stand condemned as a coward before my own conscience”. He joined the Royal Munster Fusiliers with four other Irish Nationalist MPs. By July 1915 he was a Captain in the regiment fighting in the trenches from 1915-16 on the Western Front’s Loos salient in France.
During the fighting and conditions Sheehan suffered deafness through shellfire and ill-health, eventually requiring him to be transferred back to Ballincollig Barracks in Cork. By late 1917 he had been decommissioned from the army. Three of his sons had also enlisted in the war effort and Sheehan was to receive the devastating news that both his eldest (Daniel Joseph) and second son (Martin Joseph) had been killed late in the war. Both are commemorated on the plaque for sons of Members of the House of Commons in Westminster Hall.
Sheehan’s return to Parliament
By 1918, Sheehan was back in Parliament voicing his anger and concerns over the conscription of Irish men into the British army. Sheehan predicted it would unite all “Irish Nationalists in violent and vehement opposition to you” and reopen “the fundamental hatreds of 700 years.” Sheehan’s colleagues William O’Brien MP and Stephen Michael Healy MP joined other Irish MPs and trade unionists in forming the Irish Anti-Conscription Committee. The conscription law (Military Services Bill 1918) was passed in Parliament but no one in Ireland was ever successfully drafted into the army.
“I tell you that you may take our men at the point of bayonet – you will not get them in any other way- but you will not succeed in killing the spirit of Irish nationality, and at the end you will find you have lit a flame which is not likely to die out in our generation.”
As Sinn Fein grew in political strength and the nature of politics changed in Ireland, Sheehan saw little mileage in contesting his old seat in Cork. He moved with his family to London and was adopted as a Labour Party candidate for the Limehouse division of Stepney in the East end. His election platform of “Land for fighters”, aimed at returning ex-service men, saw him finish second to the returning Liberal candidate.
Sheehan returned to Dublin in 1926 and became the editor of the Irish Press and Publicity Services and from 1929 editor of the Dublin Chronicle. He was also pro-active in assisting former constituents having legally qualified as a barrister in 1911.
Sheehan was to have one last attempt at returning to politics in 1930, standing as a prospective candidate for the Labour Party in the county borough elections in Ireland. However, he was not successful in gaining a nomination.
Sheehan died in November 1948 whilst visiting his daughter in London. He is buried alongside his wife in Glasnevin National Cemetery, Dublin.
Image copyright: Imperial War Museum