Contributed by Ciara Meehan
Polling day is now almost upon us. By this stage the leaflets of various parties will have come through our letter boxes, while the lucky (?) few will have been canvassed directly by the candidates themselves. The usual gimmickry is evident: the election has produced a proliferation of campaign songs; Maman Poulet has collected some of them on her blog. And although this has not been an internet election, twitter, Facebook and other on-line media have had a noticeable presence. Ireland, it would seem, is embracing the post-modern or digital age of campaigning. But the combination of traditional gimmicks with new techniques and technologies to reach a wider audience is nothing new.
In the late 1920s and early thirties, Cumann na nGaedheal took an innovative approach to electioneering. The Dublin North by-election of March 1929 was an arid political battle that attracted little attention; the parties simply went through the motions. One event, however, that did inject some life into the campaign occurred on polling day. A private aeroplane flown by Colonel Fitzmaurice – one of the three-man crew that piloted the first flight from Europe to North American on board the Bremen aeroplane the previous year – flew over the constituency, dropping the leaflets of the Cumann na nGaedheal candidate, Dr Thomas O’Higgins. This was the first instance of an aeroplane being used for electioneering purposes in the Free State, and it was engineered on behalf of the party by the advertising agency O’Kennedy-Brindley.
There is no guarantee that the material would have been picked up, or even read. But the event generated much discussion and ensured that a myriad of voters would have at least gone into the booths with O’Higgins’s name in mind. In an era before pictures or party affiliations were printed on ballot papers, name recognition was hugely important. The Cumann na nGaedheal candidate was victorious, but only by a slim margin of 151 votes. That he was a brother of Kevin O’Higgins – the vice-president and minister for justice who had been assassinated in 1927 – helped his campaign. But one must wonder how many of those 151 voters had been swayed by his literature that had fallen from the sky.
At the 1933 general election, Cumann na nGaedheal deployed another unusual method to reach the voters, this time on a much wider scale. A twenty-minute film of W. T. Cosgrave, party leader and president of the executive council, was recorded on film. ‘Applause please’, requested an Irish Independent journalist in recognition of the first occasion that a ‘talkie’ had been requisitioned to aid electioneering. The film was subsequently transported to different parts of the country – usually to those areas that Cosgrave was unable to personally visit during his leader’s tour – in a specially constructed van with the license plate ZZ 1916.
This technique was not unusual. The Russian Bolsheviks used cinema trains and cinema vans in the early 1920s, while closer to home the British Conservatives had by 1929 assembled a fleet of cinema vans to tour the country. The advent of sound in the 1930s made the films even more effective. Not only did they allow politicians to reach audiences on a much wider scale, but they also proved effective in providing the illiterate voter with information otherwise locked away in print media.
Political films and cinema vans were a response to a growing electorate. In 1918 men over 21 and women over 30 gained the right to vote causing the electorate to rise from its 1910 figure of 700,000 to just under 2 million in 1918. The lowering of the voting age to 21 for women in 1923 caused it to expand further. 2RN, the Irish radio station, had come into existence in 1926 but it was not a tool for electioneering and the first party political broadcasts did not air until 1954. Without the hope of getting airtime on radio, the election film was a realistic response to the existing circumstances. Given the novel nature of the idea, a showing of the film would have attracted more attention than an ordinary meeting. When the local candidate was present, he could subsequently address an already captured audience.
As innovative as these techniques were, however, they should not be overstated. There is no direct correlation between propaganda and votes, and they did not help revive Cumann na nGaedheal’s flagging fortunes. Nonetheless, they serve as an early example of a political party prepared to try new techniques to extend publicity.
Ciara Meehan is an IRCHSS Postdoctoral Fellow at the UCD School of History and Archives. Her book, The Cosgrave Party: a history of Cumann na nGaedheal, was recently published by the Royal Irish Academy.