Éamon de Valera wins East Clare by-election

Published in Issue 4 (July/August 2017), Volume 25

By Joseph E.A. Connell

Éamon de Valera commanded the Boland’s Mills garrison during the 1916 Rising. After the surrender he was court-martialled and sentenced to death, later commuted to life imprisonment. In prison, de Valera began to show his leadership qualities.

On 7 June 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. A member of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), he had represented East Clare for 25 years at Westminster. The resulting by-election was hotly contested between de Valera, the Sinn Féin candidate, and Patrick Lynch of the IPP.

At a Sinn Féin meeting in the Clare Hotel, possible candidates had been discussed. A majority initially favoured Peadar Clancy, who had also taken part in the Rising. It was decided then to hold a convention in the Old Ground Hotel on Thursday 14 July. At the convention 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 solicited a vote for de Valera as ‘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’.
Opposing de Valera and Sinn Féin was the IPP candidate, Patrick Lynch, a crown prosecutor by profession. When he arrived in Ennis he was met with enthusiastic support and was welcomed by a band from the Labourers’ Association. As the IPP 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.’ His party maintained that the 1916 Rising only strengthened the hand of those who deemed conscription necessary and that Sinn Féin’s intended policy of abstention from parliament would allow conscription to be passed by default.
The IPP had considered Lynch a safe bet in Clare and they focused their energies instead on another by-election in Kilkenny. After all, his predecessor had been very popular, but they had misread the huge swell of support for de Valera. None of the IPP leaders canvassed for Lynch. Both opposing parties were by now claiming to be responsible for the postponement of conscription, and so, in the absence of other major issues, de Valera, the soldier, had a much greater vote-pulling power than Lynch.

Polling took place on Tuesday 10 July and de Valera was elected by a majority of 2,975 votes. Afterwards, he appeared on the steps of the Courthouse in Ennis wearing his Volunteer uniform and 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. For de Valera, it was the start of a long political career representing County Clare. He continued to hold this seat in the Dáil until 1959, after which he went on to serve two consecutive terms as president of Ireland.

Joseph E.A. Connell Jr is the author of Michael Collins: Dublin 1916–22 (Wordwell Books).

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