From Home Ruler MP to anti-Treaty TD – Brian Maye on Laurence Ginnell

Westmeath public representative made his mark

It might seem strange that Westmeath public representative Laurence Ginnell, who died 100 years ago on April 17th, was for much of his life prepared to accept for Ireland the limited measure of independence that Home Rule would have given but near the end of his life rejected the larger measure of freedom conferred by the Anglo-Irish Treaty as not enough. But he was always an individualist, a radical, and quite a maverick, particularly as a member of the House of Commons.

He was born in Delvin in April 1852, a twin among three sons of Laurence Ginnell, an agricultural labourer, and Mary Monaghan.

Not much is known of his early life (he was probably self-educated), until he became secretary to John Dillon, a senior figure in the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), during the phase of the Land War known as the Plan of Campaign (1886-91).

John Morley, who was preparing a biography of WE Gladstone, later employed him as a research assistant.


Ginnell studied law in London and was called to the English bar in 1893 but he lacked an aptitude for practising as a barrister and politics, journalism and writing occupied his time instead. He published The Brehon Laws: A Legal Guide (1894), The Doubtful Grant of Ireland by Pope Adrian IV to Henry II (1899) and Land and Liberty (1908).

In 1898, he was a founder-member and became secretary of the United Irish League (UIL), an organisation set up by William O’Brien MP to campaign for land reform; its branch structure all over the country was eventually absorbed by the IPP.

He failed to get elected to the Westmeath North seat as a UIL candidate in the 1900 parliamentary elections but his organising of cattle-driving campaigns as a means of land agitation won him widespread support and he was elected for the constituency in 1906, holding the seat until 1918. “In the House of Commons, he was the most tempestuous of the stormy petrels and was several times ejected from the house for refusing to follow procedure. Popularly known as ‘the member from Ireland’, the highly strung Ginnell was an unpopular and lonely figure in the house but few doubted his sincerity and courage,” according to Shaun Boylan and Pauric J Dempsey, who wrote the entry on him in the Dictionary of Irish Biography.

The so-called “Ranch War” (1906-09) saw Ginnell play a leading role.

The purpose of the agitation was to help the large numbers of landless and smallholders, especially in the west of Ireland, for whom previous land acts had done little or nothing.

It culminated in the Birrell Land Act 1909, which gave the Land Commission compulsory powers to purchase estates and transfer them to tenants.

He was the only Irish MP to actively support the women’s suffrage movement at Westminster and his frequent criticism of the IPP led to his expulsion from the party in 1909; thereafter, he sat as an independent nationalist. Very critical of British government policy during the war, he accused prime minister Asquith of “murder” following the 1916 Rising executions, for which he was ejected from the house, and he visited many of the men imprisoned in English jails.

Suspended from Westminster in July 1917, he joined Sinn Féin and was elected joint treasurer, along with WT Cosgrave, of the organisation at its October 1917 ard-fheis. He was active in the anti-conscription campaign of 1918, for which he was jailed, and was elected for Sinn Féin for Co Westmeath at the November general election that year. Released from prison in March 1919, he became director of the Dáil’s Department of Publicity but was imprisoned again from May to August 1919, after which he took nearly 12 months’ paid sick leave before becoming head of the Chicago-based Labour Bureau for Irish Independence.

He went to Argentina in July 1921 to seek Argentine government support for recognition of the Irish Republic and was in South America when the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed in December 1921. He opposed the agreement, returned to Ireland in April 1922 and, on de Valera’s orders, was the only anti-Treaty TD to enter the Dáil in August 1922, from which he was forcibly removed for constantly questioning the constitutional status of the assembly. De Valera then appointed him anti-Treaty representative in Washington and he died in a hotel there in April 1923 at the age of 71. He is buried in Clonarney Cemetery, Delvin.

He married Margaret Wolfe of Listowel, Co Kerry, in May 1882. She died in June 1883, following a stillbirth. In January 1902, he married Alice King, 30 years his junior, from Mullingar, Co. Westmeath. They had no children and lived at Belgrave Square, Rathmines, Dublin.