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  • Masculinity and Nationhood in the East Clare By-Election, 1917
  • Aidan Beatty (bio)

Eamon de Valera won his first electoral victory in East Clare in July 1917. With the wave of executions that followed the Rising, the future taoiseach had already become, almost by default, one of the highest-ranking survivors of Easter 1916. Found guilty of treason, de Valera spent just over a year in various prisons before being released as part of an amnesty in June 1917. His release roughly coincided with the death on 7 June of Willie Redmond, an officer in the Royal Irish Regiment, the brother of John Redmond and the sitting MP for East Clare. The major’s death provided a welcome political opportunity for the reemergent Sinn Féin. With a suspiciously convenient dramatic flair, Robert Brennan, who would later help de Valera found the Irish Press, recalled that as they left Pentonville Prison together on 15 June 1917, “Dev was handed a telegram. It was an invitation to him to contest the East Clare vacancy.”1 In fact, there is some evidence that both Arthur Griffith and Eoin MacNeill had been initially considered, until it was decided that “a Clare man” would be a more suitable candidate. And even then there was some further deliberation before de Valera was agreed upon: Paddy Brennan, a local republican and member of the IRB, was considered; his brother Michael Brennan did not mention this possible candidacy in his memoirs but remembered much strife over the decision. MacNeill was favored by the clergy and by older voters in Clare, but he was distrusted by the Volunteers because of his actions before the Rising. De Valera appears to have been something of a compromise candidate.2 [End Page 141]

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Figure 1.

Vote for de Valera and the Road to Freedom. Election Poster, 1917, Librarian’s Office, P116. Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

[End Page 142]

On his release from prison de Valera arrived to a warm reception in Dublin. He then traveled to Limerick, where he courted the support of Edward O’Dwyer, the bishop of Limerick and an important regional and national voice; as Tim Pat Coogan has observed, “deValera knew which side his ecclesiastical bread was buttered on.”3 With episcopal support secured, de Valera visited family and friends in Bruree before moving on to East Clare.4 His electoral opponent there was Patrick Lynch, a king’s counsel backed by the twin forces of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) and his well-appointed Clare family. The vote took place on 11 July 1917, with de Valera winning by the strong margin of 5,010 votes to 2,035.5

Voters, Robert Brennan claimed, saw in de Valera a “leader” and “Clare and all Ireland had found a champion worthy of the race. The people of Clare gave this young man, hitherto unknown to them, five thousand votes and only two thousand for his opponent, a well-liked local man whom they had known all their lives.”6 In his biography of “The Man Who Was Ireland,” Coogan provided an almost erotically charged account of the de Valera who came to prominence in the summer of 1917: “Physically, he showed ‘a new rigidity about his mouth and a different thrust of the chin, though he still looked the teacher and scholar. He was clean shaven, his hair was prison-cut like the “croppy boys” of 1798, his skin roughened and sallow.’ He was the embodiment of the legends of 1916, the man the surging crowds wanted to see, to touch, to sing about.”7 The victory of de Valera was imagined as the victory of a resurgent and soon to be independent Ireland.

The East Clare election has long been recognized as an important moment in Irish politics: “The political initiative, almost overnight, had passed into the hands of the opponents of the Irish Parliamentary Party,” declared de Valera’s official biographers Pakenham and [End Page 143] O’Neill.8 Moreover, the imagery and tropes used on this occasion would come to dominate Sinn Féin iconography during the War of Independence. This article...


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