'As I was saying'

Image: Independent Newspapers (Firm), ‘Éamon De Valera arrested at Ennis: Crowd Scene’, 1923 (National Library of Ireland, The Independent Newspapers (Ireland) Collection, IND H 0550) (http://catalogue.nli.ie/Record/vtls000601761/Home)


by Michael Moran

Michael is a mature student, well over the age of consent, living in County Clare. He is studying for a degree in English and History at the University of Limerick - and leads a deliberately boring life!

Media bias surrounding the arrest of Éamon de Valera,1923

On 15 August 1923, Éamon de Valera appeared at a Sinn Féin election rally at the O’ Connell monument in Ennis, County Clare. The event, advertised in the local press, saw thousands attend. After the preliminary speeches and introductions, de Valera rose to speak, and Irish Free State forces rushed the Square. With shots fired over the heads of the crowd, De Valera surrendered and was taken into custody before a second volley could be discharged. The bare facts of this simple narrative, written and re-written, found themselves digested by newspaper readers locally, nationally and internationally. The portrayal of this event in the media offers insight into the challenges faced by publishers at the time. The purpose of this essay is to examine the arrest of Éamon de Valera as portrayed by contemporary media, to determine whether there was bias in newspaper representations of Éamon de Valera after his arrest in August 1923. The essay will consider why de Valera chose to appear in Ennis, the position of publishers regarding censorship, the narrative established by the press, and that narrative’s crossing of the Atlantic Ocean in the United States of America.

Ronan Fanning’s Éamon de Valera: will to power succinctly lays out the difficulty of any study of Éamon de Valera. De Valera’s rejection of the Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921, and the enmity of the subsequent civil war, has been seen by many as his ‘enduring legacy’.[1] Fanning’s biography attempts to take a less partisan stance on de Valera than many of his previous biographers have done, and as such provided this essay with an excellent base from which to consider some Irish newspapers antagonistic relationship with de Valera. Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc’s Blood on the Banner: the Republican struggle in Clare 1913-1923 proved a substantial guide to the revolutionary period in County Clare.[2] Ó Ruairc gives an unashamedly one-sided account of the decade in question, covering a county underserved by historians surveying the revolutionary period. Peace after the final battle: The story of the Irish Revolution 1912-1924 by John Dorney provided a viewpoint less wedded to the traditional narrative, simply by extending his survey to 1924.[3] Finally, Peter Martin’s Censorship in the two Irelands 1922-39 gave some background to the issues facing newspaper publishers in the 1920s with chapter one ‘Chaos 1922-24’ showing the disjointed nature of the Irish Free State's policies towards the media, and it is this media and its stance towards Republicans in 1923 that lies at the heart of this essay.[4] While all are well-written excellent contributions to historiography, none cover the matter of how de Valera was portrayed in the press, after his arrest, in any detail.

De Valera’s selection as a Sinn Féin candidate for the 1917 Clare by-election occurred while he was imprisoned in the aftermath of the 1916 Easter Rising. This period of imprisonment marked out de Valera as a leader among the Volunteer prisoners, and that obvious leadership position, as they returned to Dublin on 16 June 1917, marked him out to the Irish population in general.[5] De Valera had been selected to fight the by-election in East Clare while still in prison - and against his principles - but, after his release, he campaigned enthusiastically, winning the seat with 'a two-to-one majority that began forty years of uninterrupted election victories in Clare and signalled de Valera's emergence as a popular hero’.[6] John Dorney, in Peace after the final battle, states that this victory, along with others in Roscommon and Longford, was not indicative of ‘the protest of an emerging social group’, but rather a protest against the pro-British, pro-War policies of the Irish Parliamentary Party.[7] For de Valera, election in Clare had raised his profile, enabling his election on 25 October 1917 as president of Sinn Féin, and on 27 October as president of the Irish Volunteers.[8] Given the importance of this first election in County Clare to de Valera’s personal narrative, it is understandable why he would choose to risk provoking the Free State government by appearing at an election rally in Ennis in 1923.

In a special issue published on 30 March 1963, the Clare Champion celebrated sixty years of almost continuous publication. The concise history of the newspaper included in the special edition recalled that it had closed for six months in 1918, by order of the British military, due to its publication of subversive articles. The paper had been from its inception resolutely nationalist and in its jubilee edition took considerable pride in its support for Sinn Féin and Éamon de Valera in the elections of 1917. This brief history, published in 1963, fails to mention the Clare Champion’s standpoint towards the opposing sides of the Civil War, but then neither did an Irish Times article celebrating the Clare Champion’s centenary, and neither does the Clare Champion’s website today.[9] The absence of any historical reference to the newspaper’s political stance during the period is likely due to the precarious position that Irish newspapers had found themselves throughout the civil war. The Free State authorities had begun newspaper censorship in July 1922 and, as Peter Martin points out in Censorship in the two Irelands, it was ‘a ramshackle operation . . . constantly short of personnel, money and time . . . with a confused chain of command’ leaving publishers unsure as to what could be legally published.[10] Furthermore, newspaper publishers were faced with actions from the Republican side including damage to offices and machinery.[11] For any newspaper to survive this turbulent period, a nuanced approach to publication was a necessity and, even decades later, was a subject left unmentioned.

Seen in this light, the reporting of the arrest of de Valera in the Clare Champion on 18 August 1923 was strangely balanced. Coverage of the rally leading up to the arrest included recounting the speech of Joseph Connolly, former consul-general to the United States, attacking, amongst others, the Free State government, the Governor General and the British Empire, and appears to have been published almost in full. During the subsequent address to de Valera, the speaker, a Miss Chambers from Cooraclare, referred to him as ‘President of the Irish Republic’.[12] This might show bias, but at no point did the newspaper refer to de Valera in this fashion, and it balanced its front page with a substantial in memoriam for ‘General Michael Collins’.[13] It would have been impossible for any local newspaper to ignore a gathering of this size within its locale, and equally difficult to supress news of the events that followed. Combined with the arrest of de Valera and a fully reported list of casualties, any striving for balance was laudable, in light of the following week's general election results. The county had returned two Sinn Féin members to Dáil Éireann alongside one each from Cumann na nGaedheal, the Labour Party, and the Farmers Party.[14] Clare was politically divided, and it would be an imprudent local newspaper publisher who ignored that fact.

The Irish Times appeared unconcerned with any thought of balance, though its attitude towards the arrest of de Valera was consistent with its position as a pro-Treaty, and pro-Free State publication. Publishing earlier than the Clare Champion, on 16 August 1923, the Irish Times had devoted a generous portion of its front page, with further reporting inside, to the arrest. Covering the same events as the Clare Champion, the Irish Times placed its emphasis on the uncontrollable nature of the crowd. ‘The sullen, defiant cheer from the crowd’ as the soldiers moved in to take de Valera into custody, women ‘working themselves into a frenzy’ as an ‘ugly situation, fraught with dangerous possibilities’ developed, the ‘panic-stricken’ crowd ‘trampled underfoot’, create a narrative placing responsibility for the casualties on the crowd rather than the Free State troops.[15] To that end, the official report from National Army Headquarters that the troops reacted to shots fired from the platform, effectively absolved the state of all responsibility for injured civilians.[16]

Readers of the Irish Independent on 16 August would have gained a different perspective of the previous day’s events. Free of the hyperbole of the Irish Times, the correspondent of the Irish Independent painted a picture of a normal political rally, larger than most, but far from the uncontrollable mob depicted in the Irish Times. However, even though the correspondent makes no reference to where the first shots came from, the Irish Independent also carried in full government statements regarding the issue.[17] The Freeman’s Journal of the same date took a similar tone to the Irish Times, with allegations that the violence of the crowd had provoked the soldiers into action. The paper also ran an editorial unequivocally condemnatory of de Valera, declaring that his actions were a ‘challenge, if left unanswered, would destroy the whole fabric of the state as it existed’.[18] Sorting through the accusations and counter-accusations, a picture emerges of an army unit panicked by a large and hostile crowd. The narrative depicted by three of the country’s leading national newspapers skews away from truth, and towards an account that fit the needs of the state; however, while pressure may have been brought to bear, newspaper censorship by the government had effectively ended by late 1922.[19] The national newspapers had, by choice, presented a narrative: a volatile mob obstructing the arrest of a dangerous radical.

This was the narrative that was to travel around the world. On the other side of the Atlantic, the arrest had attracted the attention of major newspapers, though both the Washington Post and the New York Times carried stories similar in tone and content to the Irish national newspapers. The Washington Post did note however that ‘the Free State cabinet was equally divided over the wisdom of arresting de Valera given that it would guarantee his re-election, this was a short interlude of calm in the tempest.[20] The New York Times chose to feature the statement of the Government Publicity Department, which laid sole blame for the violence and destruction of the ongoing civil war at the feet of de Valera - his status as an elected representative of the people of Clare was never mentioned.[21]

De Valera was to return to Ennis after his release from prison almost a year later, as an elected member of the Dáil. The election of 1923 had been successful both for de Valera, who topped the poll in Clare, and Sinn Féin, who secured 44 seats, ‘more than double the 20 seats de Valera had targeted’.[22]  Ó Ruairc, toward the end of his Blood on the Banner, states that 53 Clare Republicans had died during the revolutionary period and asks the question ‘in the end what had it all been for?’[23] The release of prisoners signified that the Free State had won, but the bitterness that came with victory would taint Irish politics for generations to come. De Valera’s return to the public stage in Ennis was amply covered, his humorous introductory statement

Well, as I was saying to you when we were interrupted 

appreciated by the crowd. His speech however showed how little the political landscape had changed after his year of solitary confinement.[24]

We can conclude that while the actions of Éamon de Valera in attending the election rally in 1923 were intended to provoke a reaction from the Irish Free State authorities, the reaction of the state’s armed forces exacerbated an already volatile situation. Regardless of the confused position of Irish publishers regarding censorship, the narrative that Irish Free State forces were attacked while arresting a dangerous radical was deliberately established by the Irish national press. It was this biased narrative that rapidly crossed the Atlantic to re-appear unquestioned in America’s largest newspapers, demonstrating that there was significant bias in newspaper representations of Éamon de Valera’s arrest in August 1923.

[1] Ronan Fanning, Éamon de Valera: a will to power (London, 2015).

[2] Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc, Blood on the banner: the Republican struggle in Clare 1913-1923 (Blackrock, Co. Dublin, 2009).

[3] John Dorney, Peace after the final battle: the story of the Irish revolution 1912-1924 (Dublin, 2014).

[4] Peter Martin, Censorship in the two Irelands, 1922-39 (Dublin, 2006).

[5] Fanning, Éamon de Valera, p. 51.

[6] Ronan Fanning, 'De Valera, Éamon (‘Dev’)', in James McGuire and James Quinn (ed), Dictionary of Irish Biography (Cambridge, 2009), Dictionary of Irish Biography Online (http://dib.cambridge.org/viewReadPage.do?articleId=a2472) (27 Mar. 2017)

[7] Dorney, Peace after the final battle.

[8] Fanning, 'De Valera, Éamon (‘Dev’)'

[9] Clare Champion, 30 Mar. 1963; Frank McNally, ‘Still championing Clare after all these years’ in The Irish Times, 28 Mar. 2003; ‘History’ in The Clare Champion, 2013 (http://www.clarechampion.ie/brief-history-the-clare-champion/) (27 Mar. 2017).

[10] Martin, Censorship in the two Irelands, 1922-39, p. 16.

[11] Ibid., p. 19.

[12] Clare Champion, 18 Aug. 1923.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Clare Champion, 1 Sept. 1923.

[15] Irish Times, 16 Aug. 1923.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Irish Independent, 16 Aug. 1923.

[18] Freeman’s Journal, 16 Aug. 1923.

[19] Martin, Censorship in the two Irelands, 1922-39, p. 19.

[20] Washington Post, 16 Aug. 1923.

[21] New York Times, 16 Aug. 1923.

[22] Fanning, Éamon de Valera, p. 145.

[23] Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc, Blood on the banner: the Republican struggle in Clare 1913-1923 (Blackrock, Co. Dublin, 2009), p. 323.

[24] Clare Champion, 23 Aug. 1924.