Larry Ginnell was one of the most remarkable political figures of the early 20th century. Born into a humble labouring family in Westmeath,he rose through his own efforts to become a qualified barrister,a Member of two different parliaments and a leading figure in the Dail Government of 1919-21 and a diplomat representing Ireland in the Americas. Even his bitterest political enemies acknowledged him to be a man of integrity and sincerty.
Larry Ginnell was born in Delvin in April 1852. His father was a farm labourer. Ginnell grew up in the immediate aftermath of the Famine. The Tenants Rights League had been set up just a couple of years before his birth and the battle to secure legal protection and equality for the tenant farmers of Ireland was underway during Ginnell’s youth. Agricultural recession in the 1870s led to widespread poverty among small farmers and widespread evictions. Ginnell was 27 when the Land League was founded. The welfare of small farmers was to be one of the abiding concerns for Ginnell throughout his political career.
Like most men of his class and generation ,Ginnell had only a primary school education. He educated himself thereafter. Moving to London he worked as a Private Secretary to the leading Irish Home Rule MP,John Dillon from 1886 to 1891,and also worked as a Research Assistant to the leading Liberal Party politician,John Morley,working at the British Library. He studied law and was called to the English Bar in 1893. One of his great interests was the old Irish legal system-Brehon Law,and he published a book entitled;”The Brehon Laws;A Legal Guide”,in 1894. He was also working in journalism at this time and was a founding member of the Irish Literary Society in 1892.
At the start of the 20th century he was back in Ireland. Distressed by the Parnell Split and the subsequent weakness of the Irish Home Rule movement,he was a founding member of the United Irish League (U.I.L) in 1898,along with William O Brien. In 1900,John Redmond became leader of the League and of a new united Irish Party at Westminister,supporting Home Rule and the rights of tenant farmers and labourers.In 1903,the Wyndham Land Act extended the right ot buy for tenant farmers.However,there were still issues unresolved,such as estates and ranches where the landlord refused to sell,or areas where huge tracts of lands were let to graziers,while small farmers had almost no land and labourers had no land at all.
Larry Ginnell first stood for election to parliament in the 1900 General Election in North Westmeath. On that occasion he was not elected,as the Roman Catholic clergy and local Home Rulers through their support behind another Nationalist candidate. However,in January 1906,Ginnell stood again for Parliament and was elected. He would represent the people of North Westmeath in parliament,first in London and then in Dublin,for the rest of his life.
Within months of his election,Ginnell had begun the campaign which would make him a national figure and alienate him from many within the Home Rule Party. In October 1906,at a rally of small farmers at The Downs,near Mullingar,he called for cattle to be driven off the rich farmlands of the ranchers. “The land for the people.The road for the bullock.”,was the slogan he used. He told his listeners to”.They take up the hazel stick and drive” Many did indeed take up the stick and drove cattle off the ranches and onto the roads. Cattle drives took place across the Midlands and beyond. The courts were filled with men charged with cattle driving. Parts of the country were soon in the grip of what was essentially a class war between the ranchers and land hungry small farmers.
Ginnell himself was arrested in 1907 and spent some months in prison. His political colleagues were not happy with his actions.Many of the ranchers were themselves Home Rulers.Ginnell became increasingly alienated form the Home Rule Party-few of whom shared his radical agrarian and nationalist views. In 1909,he queried the use of funds within the Party and was expelled from the Party. Re-elected to Parliament in the two 1910 General Elections,he sat as an independent Nationalist for the next 6 years. The land agitation gradually died down The cattle driving campaign cannot really be said to have achieved much,but it may perhaps have had somr influence on the Birrell Land Act of 1909 which introduced compulsary purchase on estates where tenants all wished to buy.
Ginnell was a rather lonely and isolated figure at Westminister where his passion and integrity was admired but where he was seen as an austere and uncongenial personality. He was frequently in trouble with the Speaker over his lack of respect for rules of procedure,and he was suspended from the House on more than one occasion. He bombarded Ministers with questions on Irish and other issues and became known as,”The Member for Ireland.” Alone among the Irish Nationalist and Unionist MPs,he was a strong supporter of votes for women.
He married in 1882 but his wife died following a stillbirth in June 1883.In January 1902,he remarried. His second wife was,Alice King,daughter of a Mullingar doctor. Larry and Alice had no children. In 1918,Alice Ginnell,who shared Larry’s radical nationalist views,would make history by becoming the first female Election Agent in British or Irish history.
As well as his political work,Ginnell also continued with his legal and writing careers. He was called to the Irish Bar in 1906 and he wrote a book about the so-called “Grant” of Ireland to King Henry 11 of England in 1156 by the English born Pope Adrian,which formed the legal justification for the subsequent invasion of Ireland. Ginnell believed that the Papal document was a fake . He presented Pope Pius X with a copy of his book.
When the First World War began,Ginnell was bitterly opposed to John Redmond’s call for Irishmen to join the British Army and fight alongside Britain. He regarded the war as an imperialist conflict which had nothing to do with Ireland. He was accused of being pro-German and his speeches were censored and he was watched by Special Branch . He denied being pro-German and was probably closer to the “Neither King nor Kaiser” viewpoint than to genuine pro-Germans such as Casement. He defended people imprisoned in Britain as conscientious objectors and helped mothers rescue their underage sons from the military.
Following the Easter Rising,Ginnell fiercely attacked the British Government in parliament over the executions of the Leaders and the murder of civilians during the Rising. He called the Prime Minister,Herbert Asquith,a “murderer”,and was suspended once more from Parliament. He visited prisoners in British jails and relentlessly questioned ministers about the treatment of Irish prisoners. By the end of 1916 he had become the first MP to join Sinn Fein.
He canvassed for the Sinn Fein candidates in the landmark Roscommon and Longford by-elections in 1917 and withdrew from the House of Commons for good in July that year.,changing hid title to MIP (Member of the Irish Parliament.). He was arrested ,imprisoned,released and then re-arrested by the authorities in 1917 and 1918 and was in prison in England when the 1918 General Election was called. Constituency changes meant that his constituency now covered all of Westmeath. He was easily elected i as part of the Sinn Fein landslide. He was unable to attend the historic first meeting of Dail Eireann in January 1919,but was able to attend the April 10th meeting,which he found a moving occasion.He was one of only two TD’s too have served in parliament before.
Ginnell was appointed as Director of Propaganda for the new Dail Government.However he was soon in jail again and his job was passed on to Demond Fitzgerald. His health was now poor and,in June 1920 he took a year’s paid leave. He moved to America to act as a representative of the Dail Government there. In the elections to the Second Dail in May 1921,he was returned unopposed by the Westmeath voters. He went to Argentina in July 1921 to try and get the Argentinian Government to recognise the Irish Republic. He was now the Dail emissary to South America and he also visited Peru for the celebrations marking the centenary of Peruvian independence.
Ginnell opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty and tried to register his vote by telegram from America,against the Treaty when the vote was taken in the Dail. He was not,however,permitted to register his No vote. When the Treaty was ratified and the Provisional Government was set up he refused to recognise it and remained loyal to De Valera and the other Republicans. He was made a member of a Council of State set up by De Valera . In the General Election of 1922 he contested his Westmeath seat for the seventh time and ws once more elected-taking the third seat in the 4 seat constituency. He was the only Anti-Treaty TD to attend the first session of the Third Dail in September 1922.
However he was soon evicted after he repeatedly disrupted proceedings to demand to know whether the new Dail was an All-Ireland body and whether TD’s from the Six Counties could take their seats in it. He would never return to the Dail. Returning to America he was involved,along with Robert Briscoe in an attempt to take over the Irish Free State Diplomatic Mission in New York and in efforts to win American support for the Irish Republic to which he still gave allegiance.
Larry Ginnell died in Washington on April 17th 1923,at the age of 71. His remains were returned to Ireland ,where thousands turned out to pay their respects in Dublin and Westmeath.
Westmeath County Council,Mullingar Rural District Council and other Local Bodies adjourned their meetings as a mark of respect. He was buried in his native Delvin.
Larry Ginnell was a man of integrity and sincerity,inflexible at times and a man who probably would never have been comfortable serving in a government. His life of service to the people of Ireland gives the lie to the lazy cliche that politicians are only in power to enrich themselves and get power. Larry Ginnell showed that politics can be a noble profession practised by honourable people.