Dev: Eamon de Valera and Ireland in the 20th Century

Last week was the 35th anniversary of the death of the most important Irishman of the 20th century, Bono and James Joyce notwithstanding. His name was Eamon de Valera, the American born son of an Irish peasant woman and a Spanish artist. He is often reviled today in the revisionism surrounding Michael Collins, yet de Valera’s life is nothing less than the story of Ireland for nearly 100 years.

(Photo of de Valera with Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies in London, 1941. Menzies Papers, MS4936. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia.)

“Dev” dominated Irish politics for 60 years. He was influential on both sides of the border, a thorn in the British side for most of that time and also had a massive impact on American affairs between 1918 and 1945. Ireland was such a pain to White House administrations, the country was eventually punished for war neutrality by being left out of the Marshall Plan that revitalised allies and enemies alike.

By the late 1950s de Valera’s economy naivete had landed the Irish economy in deep trouble. By then he was an almost totally blind caricature of the remote and exotic president of the Irish Republic he helped create and shape in his deeply religious image. Yet he clung onto power until 1959 when aged 76 he was forcibly retired upstairs as president in “the Park”. There in a supposed ceremonial role, he wielded enormous influence for two terms and 14 years. He died in 1975 aged 92.

For one day short of 65 years he was married to Sinead de Valera who predeceased him by three months. Sinead brought up a large family by herself and she held enormous power over her husband. They met through mutual love of the Irish language and Gaelic was their lingua franca. In De Valera’s surviving letters to Sinead in English sent from overseas he shows a passion he kept mostly hidden.

Eamon de Valera owed his astonishing longevity of power to a combination of luck, charm, ruthlessness and bastardry. He owed his fortune to his American birthplace. His Brooklyn mother Cate Coll sent her boy home to Ireland after his lothario father, Spanish artist Vivion de Valero, left them. Cate’s son grew up in Bruree, County Limerick, steeped in Irish culture fused with a British-style education. De Valera was Irish to his bootstraps, changing his birthname George to the Irish Eamon but he used his American birthplace to great effect.

Gifted in mathematics and strikingly tall, he won a scholarship to one of Ireland’s premier schools, Blackrock College. His leadership qualities stood out and he was a natural captain of the rugby team. He forged lifelong alliances with important Catholic prelates who would later rule the country with their croziers as he would with his political cunning.

An avid student of Machiavelli and deeply Catholic, he grappled with rapidly changing Irish political conditions. Queen Victoria was dead and although the Irish respected the monarchy there was a desire for change. As the home rule movement grew in the south, a Loyalist force in the north grew in opposition. The Loyalists had the support of the British Army top brass and the Conservative Party and grew in belligerence and strength as the first decade of the 20th century ended. “Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right,” was the battlecry.

The cries reached fever-pitch when Westminster declared home rule for Ireland in 1912. As the north armed with impunity, the South reacted to defend a Dublin Parliament. De Valera joined the Irish Volunteers in 1913. The First World War broke out a year later putting arguments on hold. The Irish on both sides signed up in large numbers to fight for the Empire in Flanders and Gallipoli.

De Valera did not put on a British Army uniform. With the Volunteers falling under the influence of the Irish Republican Brotherhood secret society, a split began and de Valera joined the side pushing for aggression. De Valera rose quickly through the ranks and though suspicious of the IRB, he approved of an uprising in Easter 1916. De Valera was not one of the seven signatories to the Proclamation of Independence but was a key military leader and one of the last to surrender when the Easter Rising failed.

Because he was among the later captives, he was held in a different jail to where the other leaders were being summarily executed. The Irish Independent newspaper was baying for blood and De Valera was sure he was next. By the time of his court martial, the revulsion at 15 executions in nine days swung public opinion against the policy. His American roots and humble “school-master” occupation saved him and he was jailed in Dublin and then in Britain. At Dartmoor he was greeted by the Irish as their “Chief” and most senior rebel to survive the Rising.

His rival Michael Collins, the organisational supremo, was determined not to repeat the open warfare tactics of 1916. De Valera wanted political status and within a year the British Government released all the Irish prisoners. They went home and organised politically as Sinn Fein. With the First World War going badly and Britain considering conscription in Ireland, Sinn Fein won most Irish seats in the 1918 Westminster election. De Valera was elected member for Clare.

The British became convinced Sinn Fein were in league with Germany and swooped against its leaders in May 1918. Collins’ spy network had advance warning but most leaders including De Valera ignored it and were arrested. De Valera was sent to Lincoln Prison while Collins began asymmetric war against Britain.

Collins’ biggest coup was springing de Valera from Lincoln Prison. He spirited De Valera back to Ireland where the pair argued about tactics. Dev’s primary value was as a propaganda weapon and he was smuggled to America where the “First Minister” spent 18 months on a fundraising campaign.

Irish Americans treated him as a hero and his title was inflated to President of Ireland. But he blundered in US politics. He supported the isolationists because President Wilson would not recognise Ireland as a participant in the Versailles Peace Conference. He split Irish-Americans by not realising they were Americans first and Irish second. Yet he raised large amounts of money and valuable publicity as the war raged in Ireland.

When de Valera came home both sides were wearied into stalemate. Protestants used the chaos of the south to form their own administration. Partition of Ireland was first mooted in 1912 by Liberal Unionist T.G.R. Agar-Robartes but its time had now come. In 1921 a new parliament in Belfast was given the blessing of George V.

In his speech the King appealed for “forbearance and conciliation” in the South. De Valera went to London to meet Prime Minister Lloyd George. They discussed a peace treaty possible only because de Valera gave defacto approval to partition. But he knew the Irish would have difficulty accepting this position. He deliberately stayed at home for the treaty discussions which Collins led with full plenipotentiary powers.

Collins knew the compromise on offer. In December 1921 he signed a Treaty with Lloyd George that confirmed the existence of Northern Ireland and a new parliament in Dublin with wide powers but an oath of allegiance to the crown. Collins called it the “freedom to achieve freedom”. At the signing ceremony British Minister Lord Birkenhead told Collins he (Birkenhead) may have signed his political death warrant. “I may have signed my actual one,” Collins replied prophetically.

With Collins and his network exposed, a return to war against Britain would have been doomed to failure. De Valera was livid with Collins for signing the Treaty to create the Irish Free State. Arguments raged over the Oath while the more substantive matter of partition was ignored. The IRA rejected the treaty while the Church, the newspapers and most of the population wanted peace. De Valera refused to see it as a stepping stone and lent his considerable weight to those against it.

When the Treaty was narrowly carried in the Dail, de Valera resigned as President and offered himself as the leader of the “true Republic”.  Within months Dublin was ablaze again in civil war. The war was hopeless with Republican idealists no match for British artillery in the hands of Collins’ new army. Collins was assassinated in County Cork by a sniper’s bullet while De Valera hid near by.

De Valera never admitted he was wrong but when he indicated the struggle was unwinnable it quickly ended. Another year in jail made him realise he could not win by revolutionary means. He renounced the IRA and Sinn Fein and set up Fianna Fail “the soldiers of destiny”.

He took the Oath in 1927 and entered parliament with his new party. Fianna Fail established itself quickly as a force. Remembering the lesson of the Irish Independent, de Valera went to the States again on another fundraising mission. On his return he created a new newspaper, the Irish Press.

With the power of his name and his new propaganda machine, he was able to form government in 1932. Bitter enemies peacefully handed over power though fascist movements like the Blue Shirts were less accommodating. De Valera ruthlessly dealt with them and later destroyed the IRA. He used Collins’ stepping stone approach he hated so much in 1921 to remove the Crown from Irish affairs.

At the peak of his powers, De Valera was Prime Minister (Taoiseach) and Foreign Minister, ably representing the “Irish Free State” at League of Nation conferences. De Valera used the constitutional crisis in England over the abdication of Edward VIII to give Ireland a new constitution in 1937. It stamped Ireland as a Catholic nation and formally claimed the North as part of Ireland. But like China over Taiwan, this was a fight Dev never wanted to win, he just wanted to keep it going.

In the 1930s he declared an Economic War with Britain refusing to pay land annuities to buy out absentee landlords. It lasted six years crippling the Irish economy. In 1938 he agreed with Chamberlain (whom he admired) to end the war and resume payments. Ireland got back three ports it had given the British Navy in the Treaty. Churchill (who sparred with Collins in 1921) condemned the deal which he knew could keep Ireland out of the war with Nazi Germany.

When war did arrive, it wasn’t just the British that were exasperated, US President Roosevelt was equally unhappy. He sent Eleanor Roosevelt’s uncle David Gray as American Minister in Ireland for the duration of the war. Gray made no bones about openly supporting Britain. De Valera hated him and wanted him replaced. Roosevelt refused.

De Valera never called it a war. It was an “Emergency” and his young state was on life support. He knew Ireland would have no chance against Nazi bombardment and watched as Belfast suffered in the Blitz. De Valera sent the Dublin fire brigade to help put out the fires but never complained to Germany about bombing “Irish soil”.

De Valera refused to bend to Churchill and Gray, and Ireland became less strategically important as the war developed. The US left Ireland to muddle economically through the post-war years. De Valera was an economic illiterate who promoted hardship as necessary to wellbeing.

By the 1960s he was yesterday’s man despite enormous status. Managerial types like Sean Lemass and T.K. Whitaker would take Ireland in a new direction that would eventually lead to the Celtic Tiger in 1990s. The success of the south eventually steered the north in the path of peace. Today conditions in the Republic of Ireland are not dissimilar to what de Valera faced as Taoiseach: rising unemployment, a stagnant economy and mass immigration. But expectations have changed drastically.

The Civil War generation are now dead. The Irish Press is gone and the Catholic Constitution is discredited. Fianna Fail is in decline but clings to power 85 years after Dev founded them. Partition is entrenched with no prospect of change. Yet though littered with pettiness, failure and missed opportunities, Eamon de Valera’s legacy is immense. Almost single-handedly he developed a positive sense of being Irish to the world that millions in Ireland and the diaspora now take for granted. For that and his sheer longevity he remains an unrivalled giant of Irish politics.


One thought on “Dev: Eamon de Valera and Ireland in the 20th Century

  1. This article gets it completely wrong — Dev was the greatest politician Ireland ever had, and Ireland today needs someone like Dev. Although I don’t agree with Eamon De Valera’s conservative Catholic social views, his pragmatic wisdom allowed Ireland to escape WWII unscathed, and gave Ireland a slow-growing but stable economy.

    If Ireland had joined the Allies during WWII, it would have been bombed and possibly invaded by Germany. For a small country like Ireland with minimal military, Dev chose the correct path — true neutrality. Why is it okay for the Swiss or Swedish to be neutral, but not the Irish?

    Ireland wouldn’t have the problems it has today if it had followed De Valera’s economic vision. The neo-liberal politician of recent years have rapidly made Ireland wealthier, but have also given it an American-style boom and bust economy. De Valera supported a non-socialist, continential European economy, similiar to what Charles de Gaulle promoted in France. .

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