ON THIS DAY: 16th September 1917: THE FORMATION OF SINN FÉIN IN LETTERKENNY
It was on this day 99 years ago, 16th September 1917, that the first Sinn Féin club was established in Letterkenny amidst the growing groundswell in Republicanism of following the events of Easter 1916.
A predominantly Nationalist and Irish Party supporting base in the North West prior to this, a general dissatisfaction amongst many Nationalists in the town following the increased delay in the implementation of Home Rule combined with changing attitudes towards the apparently never-ending war (not to mention the sympathy towards the executed rebels of 1916) and resulted in the steady rise in support of the new republican party Sinn Féin.
Formed by Arthur Griffith in 1905, the party had only small support at first but the events of Easter week 1916 and the growth in militancy amongst disaffected Nationalists led to an ever-growing swell in their numbers.
On the 16th September 1917, James Gibbons presided over the enrollment of 130 members from the Letterkenny town and district in the new “Jim Connolly” cumann of Sinn Féin. This took place in the backyard of Willie Boyle’s premises, where the Voodoo nightclub stands today. At the meeting, Mr. Gibbons introduced Joseph O’Doherty, of Derry, who dealt with the aims and objectives of Sinn Féin while a resolution was proposed by John McMonagle, seconded by John Curran, pledging to support the Sinn Féin policy to realize the nation’s aim of independence. Prior to and after the meeting, the Derry Pipers’ band marched through the town playing national airs. Dr. J.P. McGinley became president of this local Sinn Féin body. A few days after their first meeting, the death of Thomas Ashe after being force-fed while on hunger strike, ensured the fledgling club received even more members.
On St. Stephen’s Night 1917, the club received a great boost with the arrival of the mother, niece and sister of Patrick and Willie Pearse at a ceilidh held in the Club Hall. Six weeks later, Commandant DeValera arrived and was entertained by the club.
Gradually, over the subsequent weeks and months, membership of the Sinn Féin club grew and by February 1918, the club held a membership of almost 400, holding Gaelic classes two nights each week, and a ceilidh each Sunday evening.
Seaghan McMenamin, president of the West Donegal Executive of Sinn Fein addressed a meeting in the Club Hall in 1917, stating that he never imagined that the day should come when there would be a Sinn Féin club in the town:
“Whenever during the past seven or eight years the men who called themselves the representatives of Ireland met with opposition or criticism elsewhere they invariably referred to Donegal as their great stronghold and to Letterkenny as the capital of that stronghold. What could these men say now when their Northern stronghold was studded all over with Sinn Fein clubs, and when the capital of that stronghold contained one of the largest and most promising clubs in the whole county! The people of Donegal and… the people of Letterkenny in particular, had been deeply sunk in the idolatry of Redmondism and Parliamentarianism in the past, but that state of things existed no longer.”
In 1965, Canon Tommy Doherty, on the eve of the 50th commemorations of the Rising, wrote a poem noting the significance of this club in the back of Willie Boyle’s premises in the War of Independence:
“When Ireland celebrates next year her struggle to be free
I hope that Letterkenny gets its name in history
For there are still a few around who formed the first vanguard
To fight the British Empire down in Willie Boyle’s backyard.”