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Introducing de Valera – The East Clare by-election and the rise of an Irish political leader
Portrait of Éamon de Valera taken in Waterford in March 1918 Photo: National Library of Ireland, P_WP_2753

Introducing de Valera – The East Clare by-election and the rise of an Irish political leader

By David McCullagh

The East Clare by-election is remembered, a century later, because it announced Éamon de Valera’s arrival on the national stage. Looking back at it with the knowledge that he dominated Irish life for the next half century, we tend to see that arrival as inevitable. But there was nothing inevitable about de Valera’s election in Clare – because there were plenty of other potential candidates, and because he was reluctant at first to run.

Lots of people in Clare – including a lot of priests – wanted Eoin MacNeill to be the by-election candidate; so did Arthur Griffith. Many Volunteers in the constituency were completely opposed to MacNeill, because of his countermanding order in 1916, and thought local Rising veteran Peadar Clancy was the man. And many of the prisoners just released from English jails preferred Thomas Ashe. As it happened, Ashe declined to put his name forward, and the national election committee was wary of choosing Clancy, a local but relatively unknown candidate, after the very narrow victory of Joe McGuinness, a similarly low profile local man, in South Longford. De Valera, as the recognised leader of the released prisoners, was acceptable to the Volunteers and had at least some national profile.

On the day of his release from jail, along with the rest of the convicted prisoners, de Valera was handed a telegram informing him he had been selected as the candidate for East Clare. But he had opposed the Volunteers getting involved in elections when McGuinness was nominated for Longford; and now he insisted that he wasn’t interested in politics and wanted to stick with his work for the Volunteers. But on the boat bringing him back to Ireland, Patrick McCartan advised him wait a week before deciding, to give him a chance to see “the new spirit in the land”.

And when the prisoners arrived back in Dublin they discovered that new spirit for themselves, receiving a huge welcome from massive, enthusiastic crowds – which clearly showed that there might be the public support to offer a political route to independence.

Impressed by the evident change in the popular mood, de Valera overcame his doubts and accepted the nomination. But he made one interesting precondition – he insisted on taking Eoin MacNeill with him. Again, a lot of advanced nationalists were horrified at this, because they regarded MacNeill as a traitor; but it was smart politics, because MacNeill was very close to the clergy, and was a reassuring presence on the election platform for moderates. In order to overcome the suspicion of the rest of the released prisoners, MacNeill committed himself to seeking a Republic – and that was the demand put forward by de Valera in Clare, a demand which hadn’t been made explicitly in Longford or Roscommon. De Valera, who wore his Volunteer uniform, also made it crystal clear that he stood by the events of Easter Week.

De Valera sitting next to Eoin MacNeill, who has his arm around him, outside the Mansion House in Dublin after they were both released from prison in England in June 1917 (Image: National Library of Ireland, NPA DEV67)

But he was careful in what he said – while he repeatedly said the Rising was justified, he also made it clear that it wasn’t going to be repeated. In his first speech of the campaign, in Ennis, he said he subscribed to every word of the Proclamation, 'and to assert it in arms, were there a fair chance of military success, I would consider a sacred duty… At the moment a military assertion of it is not feasible – but you men of Clare can assert it by your votes…'

So, radical appeal – but not too much radical appeal.

The Parliamentary Party were on the run, having lost by-elections in Roscommon and Longford; the organisation in Clare was completely run down, as there hadn’t been a contested election in 22 years; their candidate was Patrick Lynch, a barrister and Crown Prosecuter. He was a popular local man – one Sinn Féiner said: 'he has defended one half of the murderers in Clare and is related to the other half'. But he was successfully portrayed by de Valera as a representative of the old order and as a job hunter, with suggestions that he was only running because he wanted to be appointed Attorney General for Ireland.

There was a lot of violence during the campaign, much of it apparently coming from Lynch’s supporters, and the constituency was flooded with Volunteers from around the country – the list of participants is like a Who’s Who of the War of Independence. The Volunteers were a highly visible and well-disciplined presence, parading in uniform, drilling with hurleys (they were unarmed), canvassing votes, collecting money, and bringing people to vote on polling day. The local commander, Paddy Brennan, had enough men to control Ennis on election day, with fifty in the town hall, 30 each at the court house and four other locations, and another 50 as a reserve.

Pamphlet for de Valera's campaign in East Clare in 1917 (Image: National Library of Ireland, EPH A319)

From campaign headquarters in the Old Ground Hotel, Dan McCarthy organised the canvass with military precision. Despite McCarthy’s initial doubts, it turned out that de Valera was an enthusiastic candidate, happily addressing five public meetings a day, and demonstrating a curious facility for holding his audience, despite his lengthy speeches – a skill that would stand to him in future years. He also demonstrated a puritanical streak, ordering the bar in the Old Ground Hotel to close on polling night, an order that didn’t go down too well with thirsty election workers.

He was expected to win, but the margin was much bigger than expected – 5,010 votes to just 2,035 for Lynch. The pro-Party Cork Examiner said it marked the passing of the old order; de Valera himself said it would show 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 of Ireland, and for an Irish Republic.'

The Rising made de Valera a leader in prison; prison leadership made him a candidate in Clare; and Clare made him a national figure. In October he was unanimously elected the President of the new Sinn Fein party, and went on to the career we all know about. And Paddy Lynch, the alleged place-hunter, became a convert to Sinn Fein, opposed the Treaty - and in the 1930s became de Valera’s Attorney General.

David McCullagh's new book, De Valera: Volume 1, Rise (1882-1932) will be published by Gill Books in October.

RTÉ

Century Ireland

The Century Ireland project is an online historical newspaper that tells the story of the events of Irish life a century ago.