'Manufacturing Sinn Féiners: Ireland, 1917 and the new nationalism' in Sunday Independent (16 July 2017)

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'Manufacturing Sinn Féiners: Ireland, 1917 and the new nationalism' in Sunday Independent (16 July 2017)

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   D. Gannon Sunday Independent 16 July 2017 Manufacturing Sinn Féiners: Ireland, 1917 and the ‘new’ nationalism   On 11 July 1917, Éamon de Valera, the senior surviving commandant of the 1916 Rising, was declared victor in the East Clare by-election, defeating his opponent by 5,010 votes to 2,035. De Valera emerged from the Ennis courthouse to a ‘ tornado of cheers ’  from the crowd. Enthusiastic supporters waved autograph books, uniformed Volunteers chanted the ‘Soldier’s Song’  while   election campaigners marketed republican badges.   Tricolour flags coloured the scene. East Clare marked the third successive, and most significant, victory of Sinn Féin over the Irish Parliamentary Party since the Rising. How had Irish politics changed between ‘Sinn Fein re  bellion’ and Sinn Féin election? Artefacts and objects present exciting new sources for understanding the emergence and expansion of this ‘new’ nationalist movement  in 1917. The executed leaders of the Rising were given a political afterlife in the summer of 1916.   The Catholic tradition of a month ’s mind mass for the dead brought mem bers of the public to churches across the capital in late May. Ritual attendance at these ceremonies involved the purchase of mass cards, recital of prayers and displays of reverence towards the deceased. ‘Public sympathy’ the RIC Inspector General noted frustratingly ‘has been stimulated by the sale of pho tographs of the rebel leaders’. Images  of the widows and children left behind by the Rising’s dead, published in the Catholic Bulletin , evoked further sympathy. Roger Casement’s conversion to Catholicism on the day of his execution  at Pentonville Prison in London (3 August), meanwhile, enshrined him as nationalist martyr. Shrines to the Rising also came in the form of accessories and materials. Members of the public were increasingly seen to wear tricolour buttons, pins and badges; employees were noted to dress in republican colours; while GAA teams sported green, white and orange  jerseys . ‘ Sinn Féin ’   was ‘in’ during the summer of 1916.  Both participants and observers of this emerging trend referred to it as a popular political movement . Ernie O’Malley wrote of the ‘strange rebirth’ of politics in late 1916: ‘it was manifest in flags, badges, songs, speech, all seemingly superficial signs’. C.S. Andrews commen ted similarly of a nascent movement: ‘these little badges…evoked mutual recognition and sympathy among a large section of     public opinion’.  Writing of public opinion on 14 August, meanwhile, the RIC Inspector General estimated that over 36,000 people were broadly sympathetic to the rebels, but reported c oncernedly ‘about 7,000 persons… [who] have been noticed wearing Irish republican and mourning badges’. The purchase and display of ‘Sinn Féin’ materials, he considered, was sufficiently widespread to be consi dered ‘organised disloyalty’.  This was particularly significant in the context of the First World War. The rigours of the Defence of the Realm Act prohibited the holding of political meetings, the carrying of arms or the publication of seditious literature. Material culture indeed provided a means to circulate political dissent across the Irish World. Between 14 and 22 October, the American-based Irish Relief Fund opened a bazaar at Madison Square Garden in which Irish-American patrons were encouraged to purchase Rising artefacts. ‘Buying into’ the Sinn Féin movement provided the cultural resources to develop a collective form of political protest in late 1916. The North Roscommon by-election of February 1917 was cumulative and confirmative of the change in popular politics which had materialised since the Rising. The death of the IPP’s James Joseph Kell y created an opening for an alternative nationalist candidate to run against the Irish Parliamentary Party. Count George Plunkett, significantly, was nominate d by local activists. Plunkett’s candidacy a nd campaign were symbolic of this ‘new nationalism’. Although widely cited as the ‘Sinn Féin’ contestant, Plunkett ran as an independent, acquiring support from a spectrum of alternative nationalists including recently   D. Gannon Sunday Independent 16 July 2017 returned Frongoch internees such as Michael Collins. His platform was built around criticisms of the Irish Parliamentary Party and the British State. Voting for Plunkett, it was argued, was a vote of solidarity with his family’s 1916 sacrif  ice. Constituents were identified, and self- identified, with Plunkett’s candidacy, through displays of material culture. Kevin O’Shiel, one of his campaigners, noted the proliferation of tricolour buttons and badges at Plunkett’s meetings; his platforms we re draped by tricolour flags in contrast to the IPP c andidate’s green Home Rule flag;  while tricolours were flown from the cars of celebrating supporters travelling back to Dublin. These scenes followed Plunkett’s successful polling of 3,022 votes, to the nearest candi date’s 1,708. Only after his by -election victory did Plunkett announce a policy of abstention from Westminster. John Dillon’s speech in the House of Commons, on the part of the Irish Party, neatly bespoke politics in Ireland since the Rising: ‘the British government have been manufacturing Sinn Feiners by tens of thousands’.   The popularity of the ‘Sinn Féin’ brand, however, was not sold on all advanced nationalists. The mercurial Count Plunkett had designs on leading an alternative, republican organisation: the Liberty League. Among the remaining 1916 prisoners at Lewes jail, meanwhile, Éamon de Valera expressed concern for any ‘reversion to the old Sinn Féin  political movement’. However, the emerging Sinn Féin party, nominally under Arthur Griffith’s leadership, was becoming a skilled electioneering machine . This would be in evidence during the South Longford by-election in May. The death of the IPP MP John Phillips on 2 April prompted an almost immediate response from a group of advanced nationalists, including Plunkett, Collins and Griffith, to select Joseph McGuinness, the Longford-born Lewes prisoner, as the Sinn Féin candidate. The party also evidenced an increasingly sophisticated approach to electioneering: pamphlets, posters, postcards, journals. Perhaps the most influential example of the party’s propaganda arrived on polling day itself when organisers reprinted the Archbishop of Dublin ’s denunciation of   the IPP on partition, in the form of Sinn Féin handbills. In a remarkably tight election, McGuinness polled just thirty-seven more votes than the Irish Party candidate. His victory, however, was significant for its solidification of Sinn Féin as the party of opposition to the Irish Parliamentary Party. McGuinness and the remaining 1916 prisoners were returned to Dublin on 17 June. A year after the Rising, they were now fêted as heroes by crowds of 10,000 across the capital. Among the arrivals was Éamon de Valera, the new Sinn Fein nomination for the East Clare by-election. The vacancy had arisen following the tragic death of William Redmond, John Redmond’s brother, at the Battle of Messin es Ridge ten days earlier. Assessing de Valera during this period, his biographers Lord Longfo rd and T.P. O’Neill commented : ‘politics and soldiering were not yet fully sorted out in his mind’. De Valera would creatively blur the lines between militant and constitutional politics during the East Clare by-election campaign. Speaking from platforms he declared ‘you have no enemy but England’ but later advised that ‘every vote you give now is as good as the crack of a rifle in proclaiming your desire for freedom’.  The iconography of military leader, further, was carefully cultivated. Insignia bearing the imprint of de Valera in Irish Volunteer uniform were distributed to voters as part of election material while he himself frequently addressed crowds in full military regalia. Armed Irish Volunteers would parade past de Valera on the announcement of his victory on 11 July. By the close of the month, 336 Sinn Féin clubs had been established across Ireland. ‘Sinn Féin’, Michael Laffan has written,   ‘ was the fad or the craze of 1917 ’ . Misapplied to the Easter rebels, the ‘Sinn Fein’ label gradually evolved from a fashionable form of political protest to an influential form of party politics. In the emergence and expansion of the ‘new’ nationalist movement , objects mattered.
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