Having first been reluctant to stand as the Sinn Féin candidate for East Clare in the summer of 1917, Éamon de Valera threw himself into the fray with enormous energy.
To enter politics at this critical juncture in Irish history was probably the most important decision of his life. De Valera had been sentenced to death for his role in the 1916 Rising, commuted to life imprisonment, but released after serving twelve months. At 33 years of age he was the senior commandant to survive the executions following the Rising.
At first he rejected the proposal to stand as a Sinn Féin candidate. He remembered the public condemnation following the destruction of central Dublin. But when he arrived back in Dublin from prison in England, he saw that a new spirit had taken hold in Ireland. He and the other prisoners received a huge welcome from massive, enthusiastic crowds. De Valera now believed there might be public support for a political route to independence.
Although it seems an inevitable step to day, at the time it looked a daunting undertaking. The outcome was by no means certain. Dev was up against the Irish Parliamentary Party candidate Paddy Lynch, a barrister and crown prosecutor, from a well-known Clare family. Lynch was expected to slip into the seat comfortably left vacant by the popular Major Willie Redmond MP, who was killed at the Battle of Messiness Ridge on June 7 1917. Redmond had served the people of East Clare for 25 years, and the party had been a popular supporter of rural and land reform. The IPP considered Lynch a safe bet, and focused their energies on another by-election in Kilkenny. As it turned out the former crown prosecutor proved to be not as an attractive figure as the ‘crown prosecuted’.
From campaign headquarters in the Old Ground Hotel, Dan McCarthy organised the canvass with military precision. Dev turned out to be an ideal candidate, addressing up to five meetings a day. Dressed in his Volunteer’s uniform he was accompanied by Eoin MacNeill, who, as chief-of-staff of the Volunteers, endeavoured, at the last moment, to call off the Rising. Following the capture of Roger Casement’s shipment of arms from Germany, he feared it was doomed to failure. This had led to some harsh criticism, but Dev’s healing gesture to his old friend, ensured that Sinn Féin displayed a united front.
Not surprisingly Dev began his campaign, always in his Volunteer uniform, in his home town of Bruree, where he had spent his childhood. Over the following weeks he continued into Charleville and Kilfinane, Ballylanders and Bruff to meet ever increasing crowds. Many of the issues that he appealed for are familiar to us today. He called for a revival of the national language, an object close to his heart. He wanted Ireland’s bid for independence to be heard at a post war peace-conference. He made it clear that if elected he would not take his seat at Westminster. On the question of Ulster (in those pre Treaty days ) he stated that Ulster was entitled to justice and that she should have it; ‘but she should not be petted, and the interests of the majority sacrificed to please her.’
Swept the boards
At Scarrif and Killaloe, as elsewhere, he spoke of the ideal of an Irish Republic, because ‘if Ireland had her freedom it was the most likely form of government she would have’. Referring to the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, read by Pearse at the beginning of the Rising, he stated; ‘That proclamation was sealed by the life blood of all its members …to that government, when in visible shape, I offered my allegiance, and to its spirit I owe my allegiance still!’
A listener at Tulla wrote to The Irish Times: ‘I have never heard a cause pleaded with more transparent honesty and loftier patriotism. With them, be they right or wrong, it was Ireland first, last and all the time.’
Polling took place on Tuesday July 10 and de Valera swept the boards. He sent a telegram to his wife Sinéad: ‘De Valera 5,010, Lynch 2,035’.
Dev was expected to win but the margin was much bigger than anyone guessed. The pro-IPP Cork Examiner said it marked the passing of the old order. Dev said that it showed the world that ‘if Irishmen have only the ghost of a chance they will fight for the independence of Ireland. It is a victory for the independence for an Irish Republic’.
After the count he appeared on the steps of the Ennis courthouse, in his Volunteer uniform, accompanied by Countess Markievicz, Count Plunkett MP (who had won the first Sinn Féin parliamentary seat in north Roscommon earlier in the year ), and Sinn Féin leader Arthur Griffith. Later that month De Valera return to Dublin. The British Daily Mail correspondent wrote: ‘They are all in dead earnest…they are feverishly, but quietly, at work; their organisation becomes better every day, their enthusiasm keener, and their confidence firmer. The Irish Republic is to them a dream no longer.’
For De Valera this was the start of a long political career representing County Clare. He continued to hold his seat in the Dáil until 1959, after which he went on to serve two consecutive terms as President of Ireland.
Next week: England takes note of de Valera’s political progress.
NOTES: At the same time Dev helped win another by-election in Kilkenny city. The Sinn Féin candidate, nominated at de Valera’s suggestion, was WT Cosgrave, one of the 1916 men that had been sentenced to death and reprieved. He polled almost twice as many votes as his opponent. For 10 years (1922-32 ) Cosgrave was to be prime minister of the Irish Free State. Winston Churchill in his The Aftermath, got in a dig at Dev, by describing Cosgrave as a ‘chieftain of higher quality than any who had yet appeared’.
Paddy Lynch, Dev’s opponent in East Clare, did all right too. He converted to Sinn Féin, opposed the Treaty, and in the 1930s became de Valera’s Attorney General.
I am taking this week’s Diary from Éamon de Valera wins East Clare by-election by Joseph E A Connell Jr, History Ireland July/August 2017; Éamon de Valera, by TP O’Neill and The Earl of Longford, published by Gill and Macmillan, 1970, and ‘Introducing de Valera, the East Clare by-election an essay by David McCullagh , Century Ireland.