Eamon de Valera’s granddaughter Síle and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin will be among the leading dignitaries attending the 100th anniversary of the historic East Clare by election of 1917.
De Valera swept to victory taking 71.1% of the vote. His opponent was Patrick Lynch, a barrister representing the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP). The by-election was called following the death of Major Willie Redmond, MP for East Clare since 1892 who had been returned unopposed from 1900.
Redmond’s brother John had controversially split the Irish Volunteer movement in 1914 when he called on members to join the British army. The Volunteers formed in 1913 in response to the threat from UVF, the armed unionist militia led by Dubliner Edward Carson. Consequently a statement issued by Professor Eoin MacNeill, the founder of the Volunteers, condemning Redmond and removing all his nominees from the organisation’s leading committee.
MacNeill called a special convention “to declare that Ireland cannot, with honour or safety, take part in foreign quarrels otherwise than through the free action of a National Government of her own; and to repudiate the claim of any man to offer up the blood and lives of the sons of Irishmen and Irishwomen to the service of the British Empire”. Others who signed the statement included Padraig Pearse, Sean MacDiarmada, Eamonn Ceannt, Thomas MacDonagh, Liam Mellows and Bulmer Hobson.
Redmond’s followers went off to fight for the British while those Volunteers who remained set about arming and training to fight for Irish self-determination and a nation free from British interference. The split in the movement subsequently led to the events of 1916.
James Connolly was scathing of Redmond’s action, accusing him of packing the Volunteers’ committee “with men who were prepared to sell Ireland to the Empire, then all the forces at their command were employed in order to corrupt the public mind and to stampede into the pro-British ranks as many as possible.” Describing Redmond’s call to recruit for the British army as “well planned”, Connolly said it was, “the most gigantic, deep-laid and loathsome attempt in history to betray the soul of a people.”
A revised view of the history of that time, particularly since the Good Friday Agreement began a process of reconciliation between these islands, has deemed the Redmond brothers being described by some as patriots.
While MP for East Clare, Willie Redmond signed up for World War I at the age of 53 in 1914. By the time of the Easter Rising, he was a captain in command of a British army battalion in France and was promoted to major on 15th July 2016.
While on leave in March 1917, Redmond made his last desperate speech to the Westminster parliament: “In the name of God, we here who are about to die, perhaps, ask you to do that which largely induced us to leave our homes; to do that which our mothers and fathers taught us to long for; to do that which is all we desire; make our country happy and contented, and enable us, when we meet the Canadians and the Australians and the New Zealanders side by side in the common cause and the common field, to say to them: ‘our country, just as yours, has self-government within the Empire”.
On returning to the war-front, Willie Redmond sustained gunshot wounds to his wrist and leg in the attack at Messines Ridge. He died on 7th June, one of 174,000 British soldiers killed on Flanders fields. The Redmonds were convinced that the British would honour their commitment to grant Home Rule after the war and felt obliged to support the enterprise. By the time of Willie’s death, in the aftermath of the Rising, the country had embraced a revolutionary spirit.
Eamon de Valera was released from prison on 16th June, the same day he was informed that he had been selected as a candidate to take Redmond’s seat in East Clare. As a Volunteer he was opposed to engaging in elections but showed early signs of pragmatism when he realised that the public mood had changed dramatically. De Valera accepted the nomination to contest the single-seat constituency at a time when republican sentiment was high and he often wore his Volunteer’s uniform during the campaign, a reminder of his role in the Rising.
Politically, the Sinn Féin party formed by Arthur Griffith, were about to decimate the IPP and had already won by-elections in Roscommon and Longford. Shortly before Redmond’s death Ennis Rural District Council called for the Irish Parliamentary Party MPS “to resign their seats in parliament as they no longer represent the views and wishes of the Irish people either at home or abroad”. The IPP didn’t give up without a fight and on 17th June tried to rally support by holding a mock funeral for Redmond in Ennis despite the fact that he was already buried in Belgium.
For the election campaign, de Valera’s followers mobilised with military precision with Dan McCarthy organising the canvas from the Old Ground Hotel. On July 10th he was duly elected and represented the constituency until 1959. By October 1917, Arthur Griffith had resigned as leader of Sinn Féin following disagreement over his dual monarchy idea and the republic that others aspired to. Eamon de Valera assumed the leadership.
Following the War of Independence and the Civil War, de Valera split from Sinn Féin over its abstentionist policy to form Fianna Fáil. Under his leadership the party dominated politics south of the border throughout the 20th century. Without question it was the people of East Clare who launched de Valera on the national stage.
On Saturday 22nd July, the 100th anniversary of the de Valera’s election will be commemorated by Fianna Fáil leader, Micheál Martin, the Fianna Fáil organisation in the county, and his family. Events will take place at the Old Ground Hotel in Ennis at 2.00pm and will include lectures from noted historians, music by Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éíreann, and an exhibition of photographs and election memorabilia.
Party leader Micheál Martin will address the audience. Following this, a brass band will lead a full dress-parade headed by Micheál Martin and former Clare TD, Síle de Valera, from the hotel to the O’Connell Monument, the site of some of Éamon de Valera’s most famous speeches. At the monument there will be a re-enactment of the announcement of the election of de Valera and key moments in his political life will be featured. Síle de Valera will then deliver a keynote address outlining the impact of her grandfather’s election 100 years ago for the republican cause as it sought to gather itself together and regroup following the Easter Rising.
Commenting on the occasion Fianna Fáil TD Timmy Dooley said, “This is an event that is not to be missed. If you have an interest in politics, history or just our own county of Clare, make sure your come along and join us in remembering one of the most pivotal events in Irish history.”
(Footnote: At the time of going to press, it has come to our attention that the event clashes with the scheduling of Clare’s All Ireland senior hurling game against Tipperary on Saturday 22nd July and this may lead to a deferment).