The first ever by-election held in Kerry was brought about by a judicial vacancy. Fionán Lynch, a former senior government minister and a prominent member of Cumann na nGaedheal (and later Fine Gael) was one of the three TDs elected for Kerry South at the general election of 1944. Lynch, of Kilmakerin, Waterville – who had been Minister for Education in the provisional government of 1922 and later served in cabinet under WT Cosgrave – had been in the Dáil since its establishment; he had represented Kerry and Kerry South since 1919 without a break. The snap general election of 1944 had been called by Taoiseach Éamon de Valera just a year after the previous one which had seen Fianna Fáil retain power and secure an overall majority with over 48% of the vote. At the poll held on 30 May 1944, Lynch, who was also a high-profile barrister, was again returned for Kerry South alongside Fred Crowley and John B Healy of Fianna Fáil.
Just a few months later however, in October 1944, a vacancy arose in the Circuit Court on the Sligo and Donegal circuit. The Fianna Fáil government looked to the opposition benches in the Dáil to fill the judicial slot and Lynch was appointed to the bench. Notwithstanding their political differences, the Fianna Fáil leader, Éamon de Valera held Lynch of the opposing Fine Gael party in high regard – they had been comrades during the Easter Rising in 1916 and remained friends. Lynch, who had been in relatively poor health since the late 1930s – he had been unable to campaign actively during the 1938 general election and had stood down as Leas Ceann Comhairle after just year in the role, in 1939, due to poor health – accepted the appointment. He was to remain a judge until 1959.
A by-election to replace Fionán Lynch in Kerry South was set for 10 November 1944 and it immediately presented Fine Gael with a serious headache. The party was in poor shape in Kerry generally in the 1940s – Lynch was the only Fine Gael TD in the entire county at the time. Fine Gael and its predecessor Cumann na nGaedheal had never elected a TD other than Lynch in Kerry South. The party hadn’t formally contested county council elections in Kerry in either the 1930s or most of 1940s and it wasn’t until 1948 they put forward local authority candidates on the official party ticket. The party was thus denied the valuable foundations that council seats provide for Dáil candidates. Lynch’s departure to the judiciary, therefore, created a huge void for his party.
The weakness of the party organisation in Kerry South was reflected in the shambles that was their candidate selection. A convention held on 22 October and presided over by party leader, Richard Mulcahy, chose Donal F Collins from Killarney to be their standard bearer. Collins, former a member of Killarney Urban District Council – as his father, Con, had been – was an auctioneer based on High Street. Just days into the campaign however, Collins was unceremoniously deselected as the candidate by the Fine Gael national executive and replaced with 28-year-old farmer and general merchant, Eoin O’Connell from Cahersiveen whom Collins had defeated by just one vote at the convention.
In a dramatic letter published on the front page of the Kerry Champion, Collins described how just a day after the convention four or five delegates who were at the convention told headquarters that he, Collins, was ‘the wrong man.’[i] The Fine Gael general secretary, Liam Burke arrived in Killarney the following day and met party members and later told Collins he had made enquiries and had deduced that the candidate was ‘so unpopular’ that he would have to stand aside and allow O’Connell to contest the by-election. Collins was further warned that it would ‘detrimental to my business if I did not stand behind the chosen candidate.’ Collins’ signed off his letter with a stinging rebuke of the party leadership:
I would like in view of all facts if [Fine Gael leader] Mr Mulcahy and the Fine Gael Organisation would put their “cards” on the table and state publicly from what source my general unpopularity arose in two or three days or better still to state publicly the true reason for overthrowing the decision of the Convention. Why was my unpopularity not discussed at the Convention? That was the place to do so prior to having my name published as a candidate. Apparently these people have not the courage of their convictions. As my livelihood covers all Kerry it would only be fair and just if Mr Mulcahy came out publicly with anything he has to say against me. Perhaps not so much Mr Mulcahy as his influential friends in Killarney. If this is Mr Mulcahy’s “Democracy” I wonder what Dictatorship is?[ii]
Meanwhile, a Glenflesk native and national school teacher, Donal ‘Danny Jim’ O’Donoghue, was nominated by Fianna Fáil to contest the by-election. During the War of Independence, O’Donoghue had been Commandant of the 2nd Battalion of the 1st Brigade of the IRA. He taught for many years in Cork before becoming principal of Barraduff national school in east Kerry in 1933. The only other nominee for the by-election was Senator Edmund Horan. A native of Firies, Horan had contested the 1943 and 1944 elections in Kerry South on behalf of the farmers’ party, Clann na Talmhan. He won a seat on the Agricultural Panel in the Seanad following the 1944 election. In 1942, ten farmers’ candidates had won seats on Kerry County Council and Horan was drawing on a strong electoral base. He told voters that the government of the day ‘was unable to undo in twenty years what Cromwell did in a month, that was, to restore the land to the people to whom the land belonged.’[iii]
Though Fianna Fáil might have been somewhat better organised than their opponents on the ground, organising resources and money – at the height of the Second World War – presented its own challenge. John B Healy TD was forced to write to Fianna Fáil headquarters saying ‘I find it impossible to get petrol here. I would be obliged if you could get some extra allowance for me.’ The response from party general secretary, Seamus Davin, was that petrol coupons – which were rationed during the war – could only be had from the director of elections, Senator Fred Hawkins, who was based in the party office in Killarney.[iv] After the by-election, the secretary of the Comhairle Dáil Cheantair, Richard Godsil from Rathmore, said the party locally had been left with a debt of £50 and he sought the support of head office in dealing with creditors who were itemised by category such as transport: ‘M. O’Neill, Killorglin, 4 Traps P.D. £4.’[v] The party however mobilised senior figures to address the all-essential after-Mass meetings with the party’s archives holding a list of where ministers would be dispatched, including, for example, ‘Frank Aiken – Killorglin after last Mass.’[vi]
The result– after what The Kerryman called a ‘very clean and strenuous campaign’[vii] – was a comfortable win for Fianna Fáil and Donal O’Donoghue. He polled close to half the entire vote and picked up 10,986 first preferences ahead of Horan on 6,795 and O’Connell on 4,822. The result created an extraordinary and unprecedented situation in Kerry South – if not in all of Ireland – in which Fianna Fáil were in possession of all three seats in the constituency through O’Donoghue, Fred Crowley and JB Healy.[viii] It was a historic and unique feat which the party would never repeat.
Copyright: An extract from ‘A Century of Politics in the Kingdom: A County Kerry Compendium‘ by Owen O’Shea and Gordon Revington, Merrion Press, 2018