Clare Champion, Friday, September 26, 2003
With the death of Willie Redmond on the battlefields of Belgium, a political vacuum occurred in Clare. Eamon de Valera emerged to fill it.
By Fidelma Mc Donnell
On June 7, 1917, Major Willie Redmond MP for East Clare was killed in action while leading the Royal Irish Brigade to victory at the Battle of Messines Ridge, at Ypres, Belgium during the First World War. A member of the Irish Party, he had represented East Clare for 25 years at Westminster. At 53 years old, Redmond was too old to be a soldier but he was convinced that an Ireland loyal to the Crown would succeed in achieving Home Rule, and so joined the Irish troops in Flanders.
A by-election was called to fill the vacant seat left by the death of Willie Redmond. The election was hotly contested between Eamon De Valera, the Sinn Fein candidate and Patrick Lynch of the Irish Party. This election had come at a time when there was a growing wave of support for Sinn Fein, a political movement founded in 1905 by Arthur Griffith, that believed Irelands future lay in complete Independence from Britain.
The Easter Rising of the previous year had passed off without much note in Clare and was even condemned as being misguided by church leaders. For example, Dr Fogarty, Bishop of Killaloe, said ‘ I bewail and lament their mad adventure…they died bravely and unselfishly for what they believed foolishly was the cause of Ireland’. With the execution of the leaders of the Rising, the tide of public opinion turned dramatically and overnight the executed leaders were perceived as heroes, although, de Valera, the commander of a unit of Volunteers at Boland’s Mills during the Rising, was spared execution due to his American birth.
At a Sinn Fein meeting at the Clare Hotel, possible candidates were discussed. The majority of the party initially voted in favour of Peadar Clancy from Cranny, who had taken part in the Easter Rising and had his sentence of death commuted to ten years penal servitude. It was decided then to hold a convention at the Old Ground Hotel on Thursday, 14th July. At the convention over 200 delegates focussed on the emerging candidate Eamon de Valera, who had recently been released from prison. Fr. William O’ Kennedy of St. Flannan’s College was one of his first enthusiastic supporters. At the convention Peadar Clancy and three other candidates withdrew leaving the way clear for de Valera. On 23 June, de Valera arrived at Ennis with Professor Eoin Mac Neill who was to canvass with him throughout the campaign. His election posters were proposing a vote for de Valera was ‘a vote for Ireland a Nation, a vote against Conscription, a vote against partition, a vote for Ireland’s language, and for Ireland’s ideals and civilisation’.
In opposition to de Valera and Sinn Fein was the Irish Party candidate Patrick Lynch, a Crown Prosecutor by profession. When he arrived in Ennis he was met with enthusiastic support and a band from the Labourer’s Association welcomed him. As the Irish Party was at the forefront of driving forward the Land Purchase Acts in Parliament, he was guaranteed support in Clare, a predominantly agricultural county at that time. Lynch’s election posters were headed up in bold print ‘CONSCRIPTION’. ‘Nothing but the strenuous opposition of the Irish Party has stopped conscription in Ireland’, he claimed. His party maintained that the 1916 Rising only strengthened the hand of those who deemed conscription necessary. Another key point he noted to the electorate was that Sinn Fein’s intended policy of abstention from Parliament would only allow conscription to be passed by default.
At this time a by-election in Kilkenny was pre-occupying the Irish Party and it was there that they focussed their energies. The party had considered Patrick Lynch a safe bet in Clare, after all, his predecessor had been very popular but they had misread the huge swell of support for de Valera. None of the party leaders canvassed for Lynch. Indeed, their leader John Redmond, brother of the late Willie, was in poor health after the shock of his brother’s death and he passed away himself the following year.
Both opposing parties, by now, were claiming to be responsible for the postponement of conscription, so in the absence of other major issues, de Valera, the soldier-statesman, had a much greater vote pulling power than Lynch, due to his Rising involvement. Polling took place on Tuesday, 10th July and de Valera was elected by a majority of 2,975 votes. De Valera informed his wife of his victory by simply sending her a telegram with votes for each candidate written upon it. Afterwards, de Valera appeared on the steps of the Courthouse in Ennis wearing his Volunteers uniform accompanied by Countess Markievicz, Count Plunkett MP, and Sinn Fein Leader Arthur Griffith. For De Valera, it was the start of a long political career representing County Clare which continued until 1959 when he went on to serve two consecutive terms as President of Ireland.
From this point in 1917, Clare would be caught up in a decade of political upheaval where former friends became bitter enemies during Ireland’s Civil War which followed the signing of the Treaty of 1921. The politically astute de Valera eventually eased his intransigent stance on the Oath to the King in order to enter the Dáil. This was not acceptable to his Sinn Fein colleagues and so he formed the Fianna Fáil Party in 1926 and entered the Dáil in 1927 heading up his new party, ten years after his first election victory in Clare.
The telegram used by de Valera to inform his wife of his victory is on display in the Power section of Clare Museum or can be viewed below.