The National Library of Ireland launched its ‘From Ballots to Bullets: Ireland 1918-1919’ exhibition at the National Photographic Archive in Dublin this week. There were both ballots and bullets in the famous East Clare election of 1917 – shots were fired, Countess Markievicz was attacked in Ennis ahead of polling day and members of the Irish Volunteers were armed with sticks and hurleys to try and keep order, writes Joe Ó Muircheartaigh.
“I was through most of the by-elections in 1917. East Clare was the most bitter election in which I took part.”
William McNamara, Quin
IT was touted as a battle of two Irelands – constitutional as espoused by Patrick Lynch and the Republican doctrine of physical force championed by Eamon de Valera.
It was a battle that always had the potential to get out of hand.
Indeed, it started on the first full day of campaigning – Sunday, 24 June 1917 – with the ‘Broadford Outrage’ as it was called, which occurred when de Valera supporters were on their way to an election rally in Tuamgraney.
“Large stones were places as a barricade across the road and while engaged in removing the obstruction a rifle shot was fired from an adjacent grove,” revealed The Saturday Record. “The occupants of the car took shelter under a ditch and car. In all about 15 shots were fired,” the report added.
So began a fractious campaign, with mudslinging on both sides. That first day the fact that de Valera wasn’t a Clareman was aired for the first time, while it wasn’t long before Lynch, albeit he was recognized as being “from a stock that among Claremen was the hallmark of decent people who were sound in the days of the Land League” had his previous life as a Crown Prosecutor cross-examined. It was always close to the surface.
“Never in Cork, or out of Cork did I stand in a Criminal Court against a man of the county of Clare,” Lynch said when heckled about his legal career during a speech in Ballyvaughan. “I have never prosecuted a Clareman – I have consistently refused to do so. There is no living man in my profession who has defended successfully a quarter of the number of County Claremen as I have,” he added.
Then, apart from the verbals, there was the violence that always threatened to come to the surface, with the finger of blame pointed in many instances to the relatives of British Army soldiers.
“A good percentage of this element were from the rowdy class,” claimed Newmarket-on-Fergus Volunteer Sean Murnane, “and encouraged by the exhortations of the anti-Sinn Féin elements, they attacked speakers on the de Valera platform and also his supporters, with bottles, stones and whatever missiles which were available,” he added.
“They attacked anywhere they saw a Sinn Féin supporter, especially if he was wearing Sinn Féin colours and if he happened to be alone,” revealed William McNamara from Quin.
“They were supplied with free drink by many of the publicans, the majority of whom were hostile to Sinn Féin. At times they were like lunatics attacking with knives and heavy sticks.
“The Volunteers of Ennis were on duty night and day during the whole election and worked in squads of eight men under a squad commander. On a few occasions violent clashes occurred, the Volunteers being equipped with short batons of hard timber with a strap on to secure to the wrist,” he added.
The county capital became the main battleground, because it was the largest centre of population, but also because it’s where both candidates’ campaigns were co-ordinated from – de Valera in the Old Ground Hotel, Lynch in Carmody’s Hotel.
“One was struck again by the perfect organisation on behalf of the Sinn Féin candidate,” reported The Irish Times. “Everything appeared to be planned in advance and carried out with military precision. Though in the supply of motor cars they had not an advantage over their opponents, the Sinn Féiners seemed to the casual observer to use them to better advantage,” the report added.
On the day Sinn Féin and the Volunteers anticipating trouble around Ennis, so much so that contingency planes were put in place under the command of Patrick Brennan from Meelick.
In terms of importance this was Brennan’s Easter Week — he had been itching for a fight during the rebellion and had been billeted in Carrigaholt from where he would cross the Shannon Estuary and coordinate the dispersal of the German arms being brought in by Roger Casement.
That never happened, but he was prepared for action this time around. On July 9, the eve of polling, Brennan issued a ‘Report of Measures for Protection’ in the Ennis area.
“Orders were issued to each officer in charge of a polling station with full instructions as to duties,” revealed Brennan in his dispatch. “The measures taken in Ennis are not yet completed owing to the fact that the number of the men available is not yet ascertained,” he added.
Brennan had 50 men at the Town Hall, 30 each at the Courthouse, New Bridge, Steele’s Rock, the garden of the Old Ground Hotel and Lifford Road, while there would be a reserve of 50 more men at the Old Ground headquarters.
“It was decided to have a sub-headquarters at the Courthouse,” continued Brennan, “and communications will be maintained directly between the Courthouse, the Town Hall and headquarters. The men will be armed as far as possible with sticks and hurleys,” he added.
The most serious incident took place two days before polling when Lynch supporters held a rally at O’Connell Square. “About 400 persons from Ennis, Quin, Doora, Clarecastle and Corofin turned up,” reported The Clare Champion.
“Messrs Roynane and Lawlor appeared to address them, the former speaker advising them to ‘hold the Square each night until the election’ and reminding them they ‘were the men with the fists and the punch’. Motor cars with Sinn Fein colours were not allowed pass through the Square. When the first car approached there was a shout, ‘rush it’.
“More than half the meeting turned into Church Street and intercepted the car, the occupant of which, a lady and a gentleman received some handling while their flag was torn down. Countess Markievicz was identified in the outskirts of the crowd.
“She was immediately assailed in a cowardly fashion by a number of women, and received some rough handling. Police interfered and she was got into the Convent Lane with a few friends. A cordon of police was drawn across the outside and had to resist four determined rushes of women and men. The mob attempted to assault respectable young fellows who arrived on the scene to enquire as to the safety of the Countess. There was tremendous excitement.
“A strong party of friends arrived and escorted the Countess to her hotel. The mob then proceeded into Jail Street and with stones broke windows in the Clare Hotel and Old Ground Hotel, the Sinn Féin headquarters. An attempt was made by a mob to rush the Old Ground gate. There was a shot fired outside the gate,” the report added.
Patrick Lynch himself had nothing to do with this attack, but it didn’t stop The Clare Champion from posing the question, “Is this constitutionalism?”
It wasn’t, it was a war, as one tradition railed against the tide of a coming force. And that tradition was losing.
The election of Eamon de Valera as MP for East Clare in July 1917 sent out that message.
And it went around the world.
Above: Countess Markievicz pictured marching behind a group of pipers on College Road in Ennis during the East Clare by-election of 1917.