De Valera Foxed RUC In Newry Town Hall Coup
(Part 2)

Meanwhile, back in 1924, the election campaign was in full swing, with rowdy public meetings in Newry and Warrenpoint. Republican and unionist supporters were engaged in whistle-blowing, cat-calling of `Up Ulster,` and `Not an Inch` or `Up the Republic` and `Up Dev`, as well as singing party songs, such a `Derry’s Walls` or `A Nation Once Again.`

There was pandemonium at a meeting in Warrenpoint Town Hall, chaired by was Cllr Pat McGivern. When Miss Donnelly, daughter of a future MP, Eamon Donnelly, stated that they “stood for a free and independent Ireland, someone in the audience enquired: “Where is Mr De Valera?” She responded: “ He is enshrined in the hearts of the Irish people.”

But the public meetings in support of the Internees were less contentious, with nationalists and republicans joining forces, and no input from unionists. At a mass meeting in Newry Town Hall, with the chairman of the Urban Council, Richard O’Hagan presiding, a motion was passed urging that “the callous state of affairs be ended, by which political prisoners have been kept for over two years in Irish and British jails.

“Their long and undetermined imprisonment is inhuman and cruel in the extreme. It violates every principle of justice and fair play. We demand their immediate and unconditional release. The policy of keeping men in confinement for long periods, without charge or trial, ought to be condemned by all fair-minded people.”

Town Solicitor, P.J. O’Hare stated: that he was “speaking in the name of humanity. This is the first time that I have been on the same platform as some of the gentlemen present. We have been on the opposite side politically for many years, and still hold different opinions on matters affecting the interests of our country.

“But on one point we are all agreed. - that the continued imprisonment of these men in Irish or British jails is one of the most cruel and inhumane things that could be imagined in any country, which claims to be civilised. Men who have been tried and sentenced could look forward to release, but these untried prisoners may be allowed to remain there until they rot.”

And the Town Solicitor added: “The crime that they are supposed to have committed was to hold certain political opinions. Maybe people will soon be held in jail for holding religious opinions. Many eminent men have been preaching the doctrine of `Not an inch,` but men like John Southwell or Paddy Hughes were flung in prison, not for saying anything, but for merely thinking.”

Dan Sheridan, chairman of the Newry Board of Guardians, who had recently been released from detention, declared that “Protestants have been interned as well as Catholics. Charlie Mawhinney, a man of high principle and character, had to submit to the grossest indignities.

“He was one of the first to be taken from the prison ship `Argenta,` and lodged in Derry Jail, where he was kept in close confinement. Everything was done to try and break his spirit, but without success. Not even the flimsiest charge was laid against him.”

Mr John Quinn, a member of Down County Council, stated that “the Stormont government should realise that the war has been over for a considerable time, and it is an accepted principle in every country that, when the conflict is over and peace is declared, that the prisoners should be set at liberty. But, instead of acting according to that policy, the Northern government is being vindictive.”

One of the speakers, Robert Kelly, a former councillor, was arrested later at Warrenpoint and interned. He had stated: “I am proud to see so many demand the release of the prisoners, and that so many cannot be intimidated or bought to stay away. Those men are in prison for no other crime than believing that their country should be as free as any on God’s earth.”

Mr James Trodden told the audience: “One of our most respected townsmen is now over two years in jail, and has never been tried. No thought has been given to the wives and families, depending on their daily bread. We must sink our differences, and demand an end to this inhuman treatment.”

Incidentally, my first encounter with Eamon De Valera had been while serving with the Irish Defence Forces, based at Renmore Barracks in Galway. A group of us from the First Western Battalion were detailed to attend a reception at UCG at which `Dev,` then Taoiseach, would be present. Attentive and courteous, he bore no resemblance to the character, portrayed in the film `Michael Collins.`

However, the last time I saw De Valera was in rather bizarre circumstances. As a photo-journalist with the Newry edition of a newspaper group, I was requested to cover the installation of Dr Conway as Archbishop of Armagh in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh. Since my usual mode of transport was a scooter, a newspaper van was despatched to convey me to the ceremony.

In those days the Newry to Armagh road was a narrow, twisting climb for the first five miles. It had been snowing, and driving conditions were hazardous. About two miles up the road, a line of cars had come to a halt. My impetuous driver pulled out and passed the stalled vehicles. We discovered that the problem had been caused by a black limousine, which had skidded into the ditch.

As we drove slowly past the vehicle, I looked in the passenger seat, which was occupied by President Eamon De Valera! About four policemen were trying to push the car back on to the road. Telling my driver to pull in, I leapt out with the camera and took some pictures. We had an exclusive front-page photograph, with the headline `RUC Rescue Dev.` The wheel had turned full circle, from that dramatic day at Newry Town Hall in 1924!

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© Fabian Boyle 2001-2008