Éamon de Valera on the campaign trail in 1951.
By Tom Phelan
I was 10 years old when Éamon de Valera came to Mountmellick on a Saturday evening to stump for the Fianna Fáil candidates running for office in the Laois/Offaly constituency. Our parish priest, Father Burbage, had been influential in arranging the great man’s visit. Supposedly Burbage had spent time in prison with de Valera after the Black and Tans discovered a revolver hidden in the priest’s house.
In 1951, Dev, as most people called him, was still somewhat of a mythical figure. Even those who did not agree with his politics were worshipful of the rebel who had evaded the firing squad in Dublin after the rising of 1916 and who had later escaped from an English prison.
Weeks in advance, Mountmellick’s streets were swept. Celebratory bunting crisscrossed the welcome route. Tricolors fluttering from telephone and electric poles were yeast to the excitement.
Dev’s visit was as anticipated in some quarters as the second coming of Brian Boru. Plans were made to attend no matter what the cost. People would spill out onto the highways and byways and cycle for miles; they would come in their ass-carts and horse-carts; they would arrive packed together in the backs of lorries; they would tumble out of overfull cars, limp and hobble to the Square to see and hear and cheer their hero.
I asked Dad if I could go to see Dev, but he wouldn’t allow it. I pleaded with him, said I would be the only boy in the National School who would not be there. But Dad was unbending. During the week before the big day I tried to change Dad’s mind so many times that he finally shouted, “If you mention Dev one more time I’ll give you a good clout!
There was a back-story to Dad’s adamancy.
When Dev became prime minister in 1932, he announced that he was stopping payments on a substantial debt owed to England. Dev might as well have shot his own country in the two feet, as well as in the head and the heart. A six-year economic war with London began. Exports to the Old Mother were stopped, and many Irish farmers were caught with their farms stocked with beef that now had no buyer. Dad had to sell off cattle for 35 shillings a head—about 1/20th of the normal market price. From then on, any time Dev’s name was spoken in Dad’s presence it was met with a snort of derision, followed by “Bastard!”
And so, on the evening Dev came to town, I was driving our pony while Dad guided the turnip seeder along the top of the newly opened drills in Jer Dunne’s field. The pony did not need any directing until we reached the end of each drill; then she had to be turned around and steered into the next furrow. Any horseman as good as Dad would have been embarrassed to be seen needing assistance handling a single draught animal, but there was a high hedge between the field and the Commons Road.
In the sky there was not the tiniest cloud, and the sun was still high above the Slieve Bloom even as eight o’clock rang out in the church tower a mile away. The sound of the walkers, the bikers, the donkey-and-carters, and the horse-and-carters on the road beside the field had stopped long ago. As the pony and Dad and I trudged in silence up and down in the clay, I fought to keep myself from asking one last time to be allowed to go to the town. I was afraid Dad would shout out the shaming words he used when he believed I wasn’t pulling my weight on the farm: “How do you think the food is put on the table, the clothes on your back, the boots on your feet? You must think everything falls out of the sky.” And finally the words that always cut me to the liver: “You’re nothing but lazy!”
As the tolls of the eight o’clock bell faded into the countryside, an amplified voice sounded out like the voice of a corncrake: it was here, it was there, it was an echo, it was everywhere. Then we heard an enormous roar that went on and on. I looked at Dad but he was absorbed in steering the seed barrow. A voice in the amplifier tried to be heard over the cheering. The voice stopped and waited for silence, then tried again. The cheering faded. Then Dev’s voice filled the world.
I was overcome by the absolute necessity to be in the place where everyone else was, to be able to say in school on Monday morning that I had been there, that I had seen the great hero. There were tears in my eyes as I begged, “Please, Dad, can I go?”
“Whoa!” Dad shouted at the pony and brought her to a stop.
For a moment my heart soared.
Then Dad spoke. “Look at me, Tom. Look at me! De Valera won’t sow our turnips. Now drive on.”
This is an extract from Tom Phelan’s memoir in progress. His latest novel is “Lies the Mushroom Pickers Told” (Arcade). For more information go to www.tomphelan.net.