SUNDAY will be an emotional afternoon for Síle de Valera, as the woman who represented Clare in the Dáil for 20 years returns for the commemoration of her grandfather’s East Clare by-election win of 1917. Fianna Fáil has organised a range of events to mark the centenary in Ennis.
One of the central figures in 20th century Ireland, Eamon de Valera played a major part in his granddaughter’s decision to enter politics, while she has warm memories of him as a caring grandfather.
Indeed, she feels Dev might have lavished more affection on his grandchildren because the circumstances of his life meant he had often been separated from his own children when they were young.
“At a personal level, I was 20 when he died, so I had the opportunity to know him very well as a grandfather. I have lovely memories of that and it’s interesting to juxtaposition the personal from the political. Very often, people saw him as someone who was very strong, but very stern and serious. They didn’t see the other side of him, which was great fun. With a great sense of humour, he loved to play and be with his grandchildren particularly. The reason for that probably was that he didn’t have an opportunity to spend as much time as he otherwise would have with his children, if he didn’t have the political views that he had.
“It was a very unusual existence, in that he was either in jail or on the run. My father told a great story – when he was a young boy he wasn’t used to his father being at home. He had a cold and my grandmother couldn’t get him to take his medicine. So anyway, Dev held his nose and poured the medicine down his throat. My father’s reaction was ‘the dirty fella, I wish he’d go back to jail again’. Because he thought that was where the normal place was for his father. Certainly with his grandchildren, he had far more time to give to them and we were the lucky recipients of that love and affection.”
While he didn’t speak very much to her about his revolutionary activity or his time in politics, he could be drawn out a bit, she recalls.
“I think, like so many of his generation, they didn’t talk about historical events. The only way to get information was to keep asking the questions and certainly he would answer then. He wasn’t somebody who talked about his life unless you very deliberately asked him. One of the great stories that interested a young child was his escape from Lincoln jail. Those sort of things would have been remembered and his very strong political views, we would have been very well aware of, of course.”
Síle will be addressing the crowd on Sunday at the commemoration. Part of what she will speak on will be the context of the 1917 by-election and its significance.
“Of course it was just after the Rising and, as we know, those who took part in the Rising were a minority of a minority really. There were three by-elections around that time – Roscommon, Longford and Clare. In Clare, there was a tremendous resurgence of support for Ireland as a free republic and the whole question of separatism. You saw in that in the growth of what we now understand to be a political party in the old Sinn Féin. They were basing it on the 1916 Proclamation; they wanted a Republic that would be unfettered by any other nation, they wanted equal status for every citizen and to be accepted as an equal nation among all other nations.”
She will also speak about the dangers for people who openly supported Sinn Féin in Clare at the time and the fact that, while there were risks, people still distributed republican literature and displayed its symbols.
“To be part of those crowds meant raids and the potential of physical harm from British authorities. Yet there were leaflets and Dev asked people to wear the Volunteers uniform to make an important point,” she noted.
“Even though they wore the uniform they couldn’t use a rifle, so they used the hurley. That atmosphere grew and grew and the leadership shown by Clare in the by-election gave the old phrase ‘where Clare will lead Ireland will follow’.”
Unsurprisingly, her grandfather was a major factor in her decision to go into politics.
“He was indeed. I remember in the playground in school at the time of the 1966 Presidential Election being taunted by, I suppose, the opposition of the time. I took a great political interest myself and when I was 18, I joined the local cumann. Then I was elected at the age of 22 to the Dáil. I was elected to the European Parliament at the age of 24. I’ve been in politics all of my life and it has had a very great influence on my life. I had tremendous support from County Clare from 1987 to 2007. It’ll be really quite emotional for me to come back to Clare and be part of this commemoration on Sunday.”
After opting to retire from the Dáil at the time of the 2007 election, she initially took up a position in Harvard but has returned to Ireland and is studying for a PhD in Gender and History. Even now, the connection with her grandfather is something she is very often reminded of.
“People say ‘oh are you related’ when they hear the name. Then they ask questions and they give you their memories or their parents’ memories or some link. It’s very interesting to hear different people’s views and opinions.
“It will be quite emotional for me on Sunday because not only is there the political, but there’s the personal side too.”
By Owen Ryan