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The making of Éamon de Valera

It was 2.33pm on the afternoon of Wednesday, August 15, 1923, and the man everyone had come to see was finally prepared to speak to a crowd that had first embraced him as one of their own just six years previously and would remain faithful to all his causes for another 50 years.
He was the ‘Man of Clare’, even though he wasn’t from Clare. Eamon de Valera. The Chief. The East Clare by-election victor of 1917 that kickstarted the revolution once more. The Sinn Féin leader. The former President of the Dáil. The Anti-Treaty leader. The man on the run.
On this day, the Feast of the Assumption, the warrant for his arrest because of his leadership of the Anti-Treaty side in the Civil War that had only finished a few months previously, had yet to be served, but this was the day.
He was banned from public speaking, but at an election rally called by his Sinn Féin supporters 12 days ahead of polling day changed all that, with the heavy media presence in Ennis that afternoon speaking volumes and hinting that something was going to happen.
Journalists and photographers vied for vantage points, while the British Pathé newsreel team even came to town, with the 59-second clip of the event that’s still extant 100 years later telling the story of what happened in short form.
The Pathé film was simply called ‘De Valera’, with a sub-heading reading “Ireland’s stormy petrel reappears from hiding and is promptly arrested in dramatic circumstances at Ennis”.
It’s all there — the vast crowd, numbering up to 3,000, waving their hats in acclamation of de Valera on his arrival on the platform; there’s the sight of ducking spectators as shots ring out and the Free State forces move in and make their arrest; there are the pictures of an almost smiling de Valera being led away.
There were casualties, but none of them were fatal and most of them were superficial as 13 people were treated for injuries in the local hospital. The list of injured read as follows: Sean Hogan, Nenagh bruised ribs; Maggie Breen, Riverview, Ennis, contused wound on the face and arms; Patrick Woods, Toonagh, lacerated wound on the back of ear; Polly Barrett, O’Connell Street, three wounds to thigh, eyes, and leg; Patrick Flannery, Barrack Street, Ennis, bullet wound over shoulder; Michael Kelly, Tubber, contused wound to forehead; Michael Murphy, Inch, contused wound over eye; Pat Keane, Ahern’s Terrace, Ennis, wound over eyelid; Michael Flynn, Tiermaclane, two bad scalp wounds; John Keane, Ennis, flesh wound near the spine; Miss Moloney, Bar- rack Street, bruised shoulder muscle; Paddy Keane, Ballyvaughan, bullet splinter wound on hip.
And, the man at the centre of all the drama, one Eamon de Valera, was reported to have fainted amidst the tumult of an afternoon, albeit he recovered his composure quickly as he was led away to the Home Barracks.
Mission was accomplished, with The Daily Telegraph noting afterwards “the arrest will probably secure de Valera a seat in the Dáil”.
It’s exactly what the day was about. That morning there was excitement in Ennis when he word snaked around that Eamon de Valera was back in the county and en route to his old stomping ground of O’Connell Square where his supporters were gathering.
“On the stroke of 2pm de Valera appeared on the scene,” wrote Kevin J Browne in ‘De Valera and the Banner County’.
“Two days before, de Valera had come to Clare and was accommodated at Knockanira House, three miles from Ennis. He was disguised when he entered the town via the Kilrush Road to address a military patrol and two Civic Guards failed to recognise him.
“On his way down O’Connell St., the car in which he travelled, was stopped by two members of the Civic Guards who told the driver that he could not interrupt the meeting by driving through. Again the tall man in the tweed cap, black overcoat, plain dark suit, white collar and brown tie was not recognised and the car in which were two Christian Brothers, one a brother of Frank Barrett, a prominent member of the anti-Treaty forces, then in jail and de Valera’s young son, passed on.
“Unprecedented enthusiasm greeted the arrival of the car. Hats, caps and handkerchiefs waved and salvos of cheers rent the air. Some people even cried at the sight of the tall, pale-faced man as he stepped from the car and ascended the platform, where he took off the cap and placed the familiar black hat on his head.
“Shake hands my darling, that I suffered so much for’, cried a woman on the platform and de Valera complied with her request. He then stood erect on the platform and smilingly acknowledged the cheers before taking a seat. Several men and women climbed onto the platform and took their stand by the leader of Sinn Fein, while the cheering continued,” he added.
TV Honan chaired the gathering and was described as a man who had “withstood the snares and bribes of England and her auxiliaries” and “like Eamon de Valera despised the 30 pieces of silver”.
“Here we are again,” said Honan in his introduction. “I see before me the great enthusiasm with which Mr de Valera’s name is greeted everywhere. He is now a greater man than ever. He has signally stood the most severe acid test of patriotism, where more spineless and selfish men have signally failed. Vote solid for de Valera and show the world that we mean to break the last link in the chain that binds us to England,” he added.
“I can remember standing near the corner of the Old Ground seeing Dev in the car and the crowds following,” recalled Charlie Nono, who lived on 41 O’Connell Street, nearly 70 years later.
“I was just 11 years of age at the time and I can see them now coming around the corner into the main O’Connell Street and I raced down the street after them with a few of my friends,” he added.
“Thousands of Claremen and women, young and old, rallied to the banner of Sinn Féin, and under the shadow of O’Connell eagerly awaited the arrival of their leader. Speculation was rife as to whether or not he would be able to elude the vigilance of the Free State forces, who, it was expected, would endeavour to arrest him,” reported The Clare Champion.
Speaker after speaker extolled the virtues of de Valera. “In every crisis in Irish history the voice of Clare rang true and it would do so on this occasion,” said Sean McNamara.
“It’s not necessary for me to bring you back to the Parnell Split when Ennis stood true to Parnell. The people of Ennis, assisted by the people of Clare always stood in the gap and they stand there today. Today history is repeating itself and our enemies, helped by men of Irish blood are out for the blood of Eamon de Valera.
“But by heaven, Clare again stands in the gap and today Clare says that never will our enemies hound to death another Irish patriot,” added Mr McNamara to prolonged cheers.
All the while, Dev was on the podium waiting his turn to address the crowd. His time was coming but before he got to his feet, there was time for one more speech. A Miss Chambers from Cooraclare got the crowd going again.
“We have seen English guns and English money used to destroy the Republic proclaimed by Pearse and his immortal comrades in 1916, and set up by the will of the people in 1918.
“We have heard their catch cry: ‘Destroy the Republic to win the Republic’. But we people of Clare are not blind; we, people of Clare are not knaves. You have stood like a rock in the tempest; the wild wrath of the forces of disruption has left you unshaken, and the spirit of our glorious nation safe in the protection.
“We welcome you today; tomorrow we give you another mandate in the name of the Irish nation. We always give it to a statesman – just as our forefathers did to Daniel O’Connell and to Charles Stewart Parnell.”
“Eamon de Valera then rose, and taking off his overcoat prepared to address the meeting. He was unable to speak for some time, so great was the outburst of cheers and he was visibly touched by the extraordinary demonstration of enthusiasm,” reported The Clare Champion.
“At that time there were some buildings on the other side of the Square which later became Gerry McMahon’s auctioneers,” remembered Charlie Nono. “Running from O’Connell Street and coming out the back of those buildings at the top of Parnell Street, there was a narrow lane. There was a hoarding around the buildings being demolished, we climbed up and got a great view across the Square. I can still see Dev. He spoke in Irish first, then in English. It was very clear.”
“Men and women of Clare, when we could not come to you and tell you the truth, they spoke to you and said you were anarchists and that we were out for destruction,” said de Valera.
“I come here as one of you, to tell you that I have never stood for destruction. I have never stood for brother’s hand being raised against brother’s. I have never stood for playing the enemy’s game, and the enemy’s game is to have one part of the nation fighting the other part.
“I have always preached only one gospel and that is the gospel I preach to you here today. That gospel is that if the people of this country kept together and were united we could achieve independence.”
As Dev talked away the multitudes cheered. Then the cheering stopped as it became apparent that something was up – the meeting was in session for about 30 minutes and finally, the military were moving in.
“The soldiers are coming, here are the soldiers,” came a cry from the crowd.
“The crowd cheered,” reported The Irish Independent, “and just then two files of soldiers on foot turned round the corner of O’Connell Street and were followed by an armoured car. They made their way through the crowd, which gave way at their approach. There was more cheering.
“Armed with rifles and bayonets fixed, the soldiers surrounded the platform. They were accompanied by an armoured car on which a Lewis gun was mounted,” said The Champion.
“The next thing we saw two or three Free State soldiers coming through and people were running away,” recalled Charles Nono.
“Unofficial reports state that following the shooting a stampede took place and many were subsequently treated for injuries,” reported The Irish Independent.
“The crowd shouted ‘Up de Valera’,” reported the Reuters correspondent. “De Valera made a gesture towards the military, afterwards collapsing on the platform, which was crowded.
“The troops fired in the air. Panic ensued, the crowd believing that de Valera had been shot, but de Valera rose and walked down the steps and surrendered. It appears that de Valera’s collapse on the platform was due to him fainting, as a result of a kick during the stampede.”
“When approaching the place of the meeting fire was opened on the troops from the platform,” an official report from the Irish Army claimed. “The rifle was shot out of the hands of one of the soldiers. The troops fired in the air, following which the crowd dispersed and the arrest was effect,” the statement added.
The officer who moved in was Capt Frank Power of the 2nd Battalion, who had been sent to arrest de Valera on the orders of General Austin Brennan from Meelick – a brother of General Michael Brennan, who had been the head of the East Clare Brigade during the War of Independence and future Chief of Staff of the Irish Army, while another brother Patrick was then a constituency colleague of Eamon de Valera in Dáil Éireann.
“Do you want me,” said de Valera
“I do,” said Capt Power. “I want to take you prisoner,” he added. “Very well. I am ready but have consideration for the people,” said Dev. “They are coming for me,” de Valera then told the crowd. “It will be alright. I am going with them but I am glad it was in Clare that I was taken.”
“At the Home Barracks gate, Dev was permitted to shake hands with his supporters and bid them farewell. His last words are said to be: ‘Goodbye now boys, whatever about me, maintain the Republic,” reported The Champion.
“Along the street to the barracks in the Jail Road, men, women and children ran out from the houses to shake hands with Mr De Valera, and many succeeded in doing so,” said the Irish Independent. “Some women endeavoured to cling to his arms, but were kept back by the soldiers. There was intense excitement in the town. Hundreds of people who had sought safety in the surrounding houses emerged covered in dust, and many of them with bandaged heads,” it added.
The following day a spokesperson for the Government said that any suggestions that it “did not wish to capture Mr de Valera before now are utterly unfounded”, before adding “instructions to the military and police were to seize him and when and where he was found and lodge him with his dupes and agents.
Another statement said that Mr de Valera “now tries to shelter himself behind the political campaign, but he must take his place with his associates and dupes until such time as he and the others can be released without injury to the public safety”.
However, his capture ensured one thing — his election was now a formality, with TV Honan revealing the day after the arrest that a local man who was an ex-Captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC), who was a Protestant and Unionist, was now “determined to cast his vote for Mr de Valera” though normally he would be against the Republican movement.
He duly topped the poll with 17,762 votes, which translated into 45 per cent of first preferences, with Eoin McNeill coming in second with 8,196 votes.
He was released under the amnesty in 1924 and, a year to the day of his arrest, he returned to Ennis and to O’Connell Square, and on a platform underneath the monument he rose to speak. To deafening cheers, he famously started his speech by saying: “I’m afraid, I should disappoint a number here were I not to start by saying: ‘Well as I was saying to you when we were interrupted’.
Everyone laughed.
And then they cheered.
“A year has passed since then,” he continued, “and in that year Ireland has once again recovered her soul”.
Home was the hero.

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