What are we to make of Eamon de Valera? Incomparably he was the dominant figure of twentieth century Irish politics. Indeed he was the maker of modern Ireland, nation builder par excellence, a figure comparable with Gandhi or Nehru in India or with Washington in the United States.
In a newly created state like Ireland, which had been desperate for freedom, for so long, one might think that alone would make him a revered figure.
In addition, following his wilderness years during and after the civil war, with his return to power in 1932, de Valera’s mastery of statecraft is generally acknowledged, as he gradually renegotiated and re-shaped Ireland’s entire relationship with Britain, without provoking a war, or even (so-called Trade war apart) without unduly disturbing relations with Ireland’s most important neighbour.
In terms of statecraft and state building, his 1937 constitution in particular, is recognized as an extraordinary document, of great subtlety, and far sighted balance.
So, is de Valera generally and universally revered in Ireland ? No he is not. Instead his legacy has been disputed and his reputation proved bitterly controversial. Is it just the civil war, or the perceived conservative Catholicism?
Why is de Valera, father of the nation, so endlessly underrated, by so many?
About the man himself and his remarkable life, many facts speak for themselves. Luck, as the author of this book writes, defined a large part of de Valera’s life. A scholarship to Blackrock College, an elite private school in Dublin, transformed his life, making everything that followed possible. Later, as the most senior of the Easter Rebels (and sole Battalion commander) to survive the 1916 Rising, he was ideally placed to take over leadership of nationalist Ireland, when Maxwell’s hasty court martials and ill advised executions killed off the former leadership of Pearse, Clark, McDonough et al.
de Valera immediately after surrender by Boland’s bakery, Easter week 1916
Incredible as it may seem now, De Valera, who only escaped execution himself by a hair’s breath, up to that point had never been overtly political, or at least not in the sense of seeking political leadership. He considered himself a mere soldier in the Irish volunteers, ready to fight and ready to obey orders.
de Valera in his Irish volunteers uniform.
But when executions after the Rising left a yawning leadership vacuum, it was de Valera who recognized it. He not only had the self-belief to fill his vacuum, but also the force of will and massive personal authority to command loyalty.
This transformation itself, and the sheer speed of it were both striking, with de Valera seeking leadership of the imprisoned rebels in English jails and, once he had gained it, then insisting on absolutely loyalty to himself from other rebel prisoners, while quietly squeezing out other potential contenders (Eoin McNeil, for example)
Yet de Valera was a man who remarkably had never previously sought political leadership. He had even for example, previously resisted invitations in the run up to Easter 1916 for to join the all-important IRB (the real planners and directors of the Rising,) Therefore as Ronan Fanning notes, Dev’s prison journey marks an extraordinary and unexpected metamorphosis, from a rather unknown figure in Irish nationalist circles before and during the Rising, to the undisputed leader of Nationalist Ireland immediately after it. By the time De Valera was released from prison 1918, Arthur Griffith meekly stepped aside to let “the Long fellow” assume control of Sine Fein, the party Griffith himself had founded. It was simply an acknowledgement of the unassailable authority and standing “Dev” had now attained. Similarly Michael Collins was another of many other strong personalities who recognized de Valera’s leadership. Collins’ occasional frustrations aside, he regarded de valera as his boss and gave him his unquestioning loyalty, following all orders right up to the Treaty and ensuing cabinet split of December 1921.
Ronan Fanning is professor emeritus in Modern Irish History UCD. His biography is founded in detailed knowledge of all the key primary sources. Yet despite this great, encyclopedic knowledge of reference materials which might, in other hands have had a potentially deadening effect, this book presents something of a master class in brevity, in clarity and precision. It has certainly given me much pause for thought.
Here are some of the charges routinely leveled against de Valera, some of which I had lazily shared: that de Valera betrayed Collins and Griffith by making them plenipotentiaries in the Anglo-Irish peace talks of 19131 but then refusing to ratify or accept the Treaty they had negotiated and signed on his behalf.
Secondly, by rejecting the Treaty, and by walking out of the Dail to side with the die hard Republicans he caused the civil war and all the bitterness and rancor that would scare Ireland for generations. Third, that he may somehow have later been responsible- directly or indirectly- for the death of Michael Collins. Here are some others allegations quite commonly held: that later on, back in power from 1932 de Valera was a sort of dictator or at least autocrat; that he was utterly indifferent to the aspirations of women and also of Irish religious minorities (like southern Irish protestants); that instead he was a conservative arch Catholic, who granted the Catholic Church massive standing in Ireland and lay supine before the power of the bishops and hierarchy; that he provoked an unnecessary trade war with Britain that deeply damaged Ireland’s economy, hiding instead behind ludicrous rosy rhetoric about a rural idyll, full of sturdy youths and comely maidens. And so on.
De Valera kissing the bishop’s ring of Charles McQuaid, (Archbishop of Dublin) At a turf cutting foundation ceremony, UCD.
From a viewpoint years later, looking back at my own upbringing, these were views common among in the milieu where I grew up. They inevitably became part of my mental furniture. There is some truth in some of them. De Valera did make Collins and Griffith plenipotentiaries, with the power to sign Treaties, but there was always a clear understanding they would refer to, and communicate back to Dublin before signing. That they did not do so, at the critical moment, probably reflects to their understandable anxiety to avoid a resumption of war, being worn down by infinitely more experienced empire-ruling figures and dynast politicians like Chamberlain, Birkenhead, Churchill, Lloyd George; of being successfully bamboozled and threatened by David Lloyd George, of sheer fatigue and perhaps even Collins’ disgust, impatience and unwillingness to spend more time in London (he’d never wanted to go in the first place) It even perhaps reflected a genuine conviction by the Irish team that this was perhaps, simply the best deal they were ever going to get.
They may even have ben right on that score. The British cabinet in 1931 was never going to grant Ireland, then part of the United Kingdom, full total independence and a republic in one fell swoop, without even a symbolic nod to the English king or any link to the commonwealth. Bit it was still a catastrophic mistake that the Irish team did not refer back to Dublin for final authority or least agreement from de Valera before agreeing or refusing to sign the treaty. Yet there is no doubt that once it was signed, that De Valera behaved badly. Fanning posits that when the team did return to Dublin, it was, at least partially, personal pique on de Valera’s part that led him to reject the Treaty. He had accepted the idea of compromise, but this was not his preferred compromise. His vanity was wounded. The proof of this is that he seemed to have rejected the Treaty before he’d even read it. That is damming. So too is his unwillingness to accept the narrow majority of his cabinet that were in favour (however reluctantly) of accepting the Treaty. Or to accept the somewhat bigger majority in the Dail that also reluctantly voted for compromise and for peace. In rejecting the Treaty de Valera was undoubtedly was part of the dynamic that led to the Civil War.
Without doubt, and with or without de Valera, there always would have been at least some diehard republicans who would never have accepted the Treaty, regardless of de Valera’s position on it. In that sense some kind of conflict was perhaps inevitable. But de Valera undoubtedly made a bad situation worse. His opposition, his total intransigence, and his great sway with nationalist Ireland, as well as his inflammatory, nakedly provocative speeches, where he openly talked of Irishmen killing each other and even of “wading through blood” – all certainly swelled the ranks of anti-Treaty “irregulars” and thus made the conflict larger, more bitter and intense than it might otherwise have been. That is the most damming part of his legacy.
It is a serious black mark on his reputation. But even great statesmen make terrible mistakes. When such people make serious mistakes they lead to serious damage and even on occasion, to the deaths of many. Some, a very few, later go on to redeem themselves, by achieving extraordinary things for their country. This, Fanning effectively argues, is exactly what de Valera did, through his later, and hugely significant achievements. Fanning never use the term or concept of redemption per se, but this is my own sense of it all.
In many way the civil war guilt of de Valera is also the only major criticism that holds any water, when subjected to real historical analysis. He was not for example, in any manner or means whatsoever, responsible to the death of Michael Collins. I was informed of this, most forcibly, when I dared broach that question to the author at a talk he gave (at Saint Mary’s Church Haddington Road in March 2016) That urban myth is largely the product of Neil Jordan’s film biopic Michael Collins, which dares not state yet strongly implies some capability on de Valera’s part for the killing (Collns of course died in the ambush at Beal n Bla, west Cork in 1922). In reality de Valera, although still a political figurehead for the anti treaty side in Munster and around Ireland, was nonetheless entirely sidelined in all military matters and played no part in decisions about attacks or strategy or targets, at any time during the civil war.
Nor, once back in power from 1932, was he as cravenly supine to the Catholic Church as one might assume. It’s entirely true de Valera himself was devotedly catholic and socially conservative as well. (His wife and family incidentally, consistently came second to his political activities) But so were the great majority of Irish people of the time both catholic and socially conservative. Thus his own attitudes were no different to the millions of Irish Catholics he represented as Taoseach (then later president). He was not as a point of fact however any sort of lackey for the church. Although he deferred to them of in maters of faith, when it came to politics and (most vitally) to constitutional issues, he steered an admirably pragmatic and independent, middle course. While the 1937 Constitution acknowledges the special place of the catholic faith as the religion of the majority, it also acknowledges other religions including Ireland’s Protestants, Methodists, Quakers, Jews and others, specifically and by name, as faiths practiced in Ireland, all acknowledged, recognized and protected by the Irish state. De Valera had to resist pressure to exclude all recognition except Catholicism in his constitution. That presure was in fact considerable. He refused to buckle. He was not a bigot either. Nor even an Anglophobe. As Fanning points out nor did de Valera ever express the remotest animosity against any culture or institutions normally identified with Protestant Ireland (agaimst say, for example, Trinity College).
Professor Fanning makes an amusing but perceptive digression into rugby. As befitted a product of Blackrock and Rockwell schools, de Valera discreetly confessed preference for rugby to Gaelic football. (I think I’m right in saying he even had a trial for the Munster rugby team at one point, so he was clearly a useful player in his day, almost representative class) More publicly, de Valera wished out loud the GAA would not insist on its ban on foreign sports, making the simple but excellent point that Gaelic games could not be played internationally, and it was only natural that Ireland would want to play international spots against other countries such as England, Wales, Scotland or France. De Valera in fact mentioned both rugby and soccer in that speech. But from that list of nations he mentioned, (all 5 nation rugby countries) one can discern he had rugby uppermost in mind!
What though of the other, serious charges laid at his door? The trade war or “economic war” with Britain. Fanning states its very name is misleading since in de Valera’s eyes this conflict was in fact always political rather than economic. The cause was his refusal from the 1930s to continue the repayments, due from Ireland to Britain, under the Land Act and allowed for in the Anglo-Irish Treaty signed by Griffith and Collins 1921. This refusal struck a deep chord with most Irish people, imbued as they were with the strong sense that, since the land had been taken from them in the first instance, they should not have to pay to buy it back. But more crucially for de Valera himself, this dispute was also a means for Ireland, a small, infant state, to assert its independence and sovereignty. This was a consistant theme of all his policy, carried out to its ultimate logical conclusion, as will be seen below.
Because the same principals – independence and sovereignty – drove another of de Valera’s most contentious decisions, to maintain Ireland as a neutral state during the Second World War. Fanning is particularly acute on this sensitive issue. To overseas observers, especially to combatant nations on the allied, side, and even more to those who suffered greatly under Nazi occupation and tyranny, it must have seemed, indeed must still seem, that Ireland behaved selfishly during the war. It was the great moral “test”. But which other countries I wonder, willingly entered the war, voluntarily, as a moral defender of other peoples rights? None did so, none whatsoever. Yet at the wars end, Winston Churchill was sneering about Ireland’s neutrality. In his book on the history of the war (which won the Nobel prize for literature) Churchill largely exonerated the other neutral states like Switzerland and Sweden, while coruscating Ireland’s conduct. Yet Ireland had given and kept a solemn undertaking to the British Government that our ports would never be used by the Germans or axis powers to threaten Britain. I don’t want to have a go at Sweden, for example but I think they gave the Nazis permission to cross their territory (and even use their trains) on the way to invade Norway? One suspects Churchill, son of Randolf, and an arch old fashioned imperialist himself, simply resented Ireland’s independence full stop. Reality as regards Ireland independence, was also different to the perception that was fostered during war time, a perception carefully fostered by de Valera himself. While in public scrupulously maintaining Ireland’s neutrality, away for the public gaze Ireland in reality was “neutral on the side of the allies” – providing intelligence and weather reports, signaling facilities, assistance for Allied crashed airmen and recovery for crashed aircraft, (equivalent Axis airmen who crashed in or bailed out over Ireland received no such help, they were interned for the duration) It is still true that Ireland was officially neutral, that it did not fight, but it would have been highly difficult politically, within the internal politics of Ireland, with its republicans and diehards, (always a vulnerable flank for de Valera) for Ireland to side with Britain in 1939 when we had been fighting against the very same country 1916-1922. In addition Ireland, a country with a tiny army and almost no industrial capacity, was still licking its wounds from the trauma of our civil war. This, it will be recalled, was among Irish men who had fought mostly about whether they could stomach retaining token forms or even purely symbolic of allegiance to Britain, after Independence had, already, been largely achieved. In these circumstances, in the Ireland of 1939, what were the odds of “selling” another war, on the side of Britain, to the Irish population?
It is universally agreed that at the wars end, de Valera made an appalling error of judgment, and good taste, when he visited the German legation on the death of Hitler and signed a book of condolence. It seems indefensible, at the very historical period the horrors of Dachau and Auschwitz-Birnkenau were being exposed (by US and Soviet liberation, respectively).
Although the Liberation of Auschwitz-Birnkenau occurred in late January 1945 and Hitler died early May, it is still not clear to me whether de Valera himself was aware of these horrors. In initial months press coverage was very limited. News may not have penetrated. To be clear, de Valera was obviously well aware that Hitler was a brutal dictator, a maniac aggressor and a vicious anti Semite. But he may have well been unaware of the death camps, as international press coverage in the initial months immediately following the camps’ liberation was surprisingly limited and patchy (at first)
None of these point seems relevant. Worse, they may seem to be attempting to defend the indefensible. Until one realizes Fanning’s argument, that the whole point of de Valera’s persistent, utterly unapologetic pursuit of Ireland strict public neutrality, as presented in public fora including, most especially, diplomatic protocols, had absolutely nothing to do with moral positions. It rather, was a way, very specifically, to express Ireland neutrality. For neutrality was in turn, the greatest possible expression of our new found, much cherished, still fragile, sovereignty. Set against the titanic battles, and great moral crusades of the Second World War, Irish sovereignty may seem a worthless thing. Perhaps people who have always enjoyed living in strongly independent countries can not quite fathom the desire of others for the same freedom. But it did, and does, matter to Irish people very much indeed.
In any case, from some time before 1913 when he joined the Irish Volunteers, to his death in 1973, Irish sovereignty was Emmons de Valera’s’ greatest and only mission, his entire life’s work. And judged on that basis, he is a giant.
de Valera at the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising. Dublin, 1966.
de Valera with with John F Kennedy, on President Kennedy’s state visit to Ireland, June 1963.
I’m very glad I read this book. It is immensely readable, clear and unfussy. It provides exceptional clarity and insight into a very complex and still controversial character, the defining personality of Irish politics in the twentieth century. De Valera outlived all his colleagues and comrades, many of who fell in 1916, then again to 1919-21 to 1921-22. In surviving, and then returning anew to power, he converted to entirely constitutional politics, and then in that guise and through entirely peaceful means, then shaped the entire foundation , constitution and character of the modern Irish state. De Valeras greatest achievements are in the 1930s. This was a time- it’s easy to forget from here and a purely Irish context- when other European counties fell into political division, then violence and extremism, and ended up run by dictators and tyrants. De Valera did not have to contend with running street battles between communists and fascists, as prevailed in Germany, Italy and elsewhere, but he did have to contend with doctrinaire republicans, and with the shadow of his former comrades in the IRA. Yet he faced them down, using extraordinary war time powers, while avoiding excessively oppressive behavior. In the 1910 and early 30s, that itself was a triumph.
Notwithstanding the extraordinary war time powers, the former revolutionary became a model democrat. He may have had somewhat autocratic style at times, but de Valera was no dictator, nor tyrant.
More specifically, in his reshaping and casting of modern Ireland, given particularly the economic and political constraints of the time and the conditions that prevailed in Ireland and Europe, did he really do such a bad job after all?
Fanning’s book is marked throughout by pithy yet deft analysis, by sound and deeply considered judgments.
It invites us to consider the record more carefully. It wears its erudition very lightly, and forms an elegant counter balance to some lazy received ideas. This is an essential read, for any serious student of modern Irish history.
Eamon de Valera, a Will to Power, Ronan Fanning. Published by Faber & Faber.
De Valera with Harry Bolland (left) and Michael Collins (centre), Mansion House gardens, 1919.