100-year-old autographs capture republican activity

Previously unseen poems, slogans, and autographs of Michael Collins, Arthur Griffith, and Countess Markievicz capture the swarm of republican activity in Clare to kickstart Éamon de Valera’s political career 100 years ago.

Eamon de Valera speaks from O'Connell's monument in Ennis after being elected an MP and national president of Sinn Féin in July 1917.
Eamon de Valera speaks from O'Connell's monument in Ennis after being elected an MP and national president of Sinn Féin in July 1917.

The valuable autograph book containing them has found its way back to the owners’ native Ennis. It will be on display ahead of the centenary of de Valera’s famous East Clare by-election victory of July 1917, weeks after his release from an English jail.

Among the contributions collected by then 18-year-old Kathleen Griffin, a local member of the women’s military organisation Cumann na mBan, was a slogan by Michael Collins.

“Here’s to the pike, and the sword and the like,” he wrote, absent-mindedly dating his short verse July 1916 instead of July 1917.

A message from Michael Collins.

The 100-year-old typo was presumably an inadvertent error, given that the future intelligence, finance, and military leader was locked up in the Welsh prison camp at Frongoch in the summer of 1916, along with hundreds more sentenced or interned after the Easter Rising.

John Rattigan, curator of Clare Museum, said Kathleen took part in de Valera’s election campaign against Irish Parliamentary Party candidate Patrick Lynch.

A message from Arthur Griffith.

Some who signed her autograph book were already prominent figures, like Sinn Féin founder Arthur Griffith and Kerry Irish Volunteers leader Austin Stack, both among the separatists released from British custody in the previous months, some just weeks before.

A message from Austin Stack.

Among the many key women from the period who signed Kathleen’s book was Countess Markievicz, who became the first woman elected to the British parliament the following year. Alice Milligan, already an important figure in the cultural nationalism of the previous two decades, wrote a message about a walk she had enjoyed with Kathleen.

The young republican also gathered signatures of local activists, such as brothers Michael and Patrick Brennan, key figures in Clare’s prominent role in the re-organisation of the Irish Volunteers in 1917.

“A lot of people don’t realise how much activity there was in Clare, not just in the War of Independence, but even as early as this when the Brennans and others were involved in land agitation, drilling and hunger strikes,” said Mr Rattigan.

Kathleen Rawlings (nee Griffin), who collected the autographs as an 18-year-old member of Cumann na mBan, with a great granddaughter. The autograph on the right is by Michael Brennan, Meelick.

Kathleen emigrated to Liverpool soon after the 1917 East Clare vote, but returned to marry and live in Ennis, where she helped save a teenage boy from being shot by drunk Black & Tans during the War of Independence. She raised her family locally but they emigrated to the UK in the 1960s, and the autograph book was passed on after her death in the 1990s.

Her granddaughter Marion Trevillion’s chance meeting with someone connected to the Kilmainham Gaol museum in Dublin led to it being brought there last summer. But the family’s wish for it to go to Kathleen’s birthplace has now seen it deposited with Clare Museum.

De Valera himself, still a largely unknown figure in most of the country even after a leading role in the 1916 Rising, also signed the book but Kathleen’s family believe the page was later removed by a priest as a souvenir.

However, Clare Museum does have a notable memento of the 1917 election directly connected to Dev himself. The telegraph to his wife Sinéad, received in Dublin at 2.40pm on the day of the count, reads: “de Valera 5,010. Lynch 2,035. Dev.”

It marks the first success in a political career that would last almost 60 more years, and was quickly followed with the leadership of Sinn Féin and the Irish Volunteers in October 1917. His East Clare victory was crucial to the post-1916 republican revival and the high stakes in the ballot are forever evident from the big names in Kathleen’s autograph book.

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