IN THE COURSE of his 92 years, Éamon de Valera, the flawed giant (to borrow Robert Dallek’s epithet for LBJ) of 20th-century Irish politics, was known by — and called — many names: Edward de Valera. Eddie Coll. The Spaniard. The man with the strange name. The Long Fellow. The Long Whoor. The Chief. And, simply and most frequently, Dev. The list reflects not only his evolving identity, but also the admiration and exasperation he often provoked. Few people were neutral about Dev.
My grandmother certainly wasn’t. She grew up in East Clare, the constituency he represented in Dáil Éireann, the Irish parliament, for over 40 years. Early in his career, de Valera and his entourage got lost on the way to a parish festival known as a “pattern.” (Born in New York and raised across the county border in Limerick, de Valera must have still been getting to know his electoral territory.) Their car stopped to ask a group of local youths for directions, and my grandmother went with them as guide. She was dazzled by Dev. Throughout her own long life she always voted for Fianna Fáil, the political party he founded in 1926 and dominated until the end of the 1950s.
This story came as something of a surprise to someone of my generation (old enough to remember his funeral on television in 1975 but nothing of his active political career). We had a received idea of de Valera, summarized by historian Diarmaid Ferriter as the “caricature of him as stern, remote and technocratic.”
It’s a version of de Valera that you are familiar with if you have seen Neil Jordan’s 1996 film Michael Collins. The late great Alan Rickman turns in an utterly committed performance as Dev, but, as I heard a contributor to an Irish radio broadcast point out a few years ago, it’s a portrayal based on the older de Valera. This elder statesman (Dev was president of Ireland until he was 90) became, to use a phrase novelist John Banville applied to Newton, “a monument to himself.”
In his deeply considered new biography of de Valera, Ronan Fanning, professor emeritus of Modern History at University College Dublin, continues the project of reevaluating de Valera’s legacy begun by Ferriter in his 2007 book Judging Dev. Fanning complains that “de Valera’s Ireland is a phrase too often used only in a pejorative sense: as an umbrella term for everything that was socially, economically and culturally backward.” In Fanning’s survey, de Valera’s Ireland is a far more interesting and complex country. Without a whisper of hagiography, Fanning zeroes in on Dev’s greatest political talent: his “instinctive and remarkably perceptive [and pragmatic, we might add] understanding of the power relationship between Britain and Ireland.” And his greatest achievement: His translation of “his personal vision of sovereignty into a political reality.”
The book is relatively short for a major political biography and relies heavily on secondary sources, but neither of these features turns out to be a weakness. Instead, they help Fanning reach a distilled, almost essayistic consideration of de Valera’s long life and tense times. He is remarkably consistent in his presentation of Dev’s character, in part because he perceives the remarkable consistency of that character throughout the lion’s share of a century. Early on, Fanning identifies de Valera’s “almost impenetrable carapace of emotional self-sufficiency that became both his greatest strength and his greatest weakness.”
Without that psychological exoskeleton we would never have heard of Éamon de Valera. For a future leader of the Irish nation, his background is a stack of paradoxes. He was born in New York, as Edward de Valera, in 1882. His father, the man who bequeathed him “the strange name,” was a Cuban-raised Spaniard who died when Dev was just a toddler. (Fanning presents brisk facts about Juan Vivion de Valera, a man who has been a source of considerable mystery to earlier biographers, and to Dev himself.) His mother, Kate Coll, was an Irish immigrant from an obscure spot near Bruree, County Limerick. Widowed, she sent her son back to Ireland in the care of a young uncle to be raised by her people. She married an Englishman and saw Dev infrequently.
A farm laborer’s life seemed to be the lot of the teenage de Valera. But his tenacity got him first to a Christian Brothers school (every day he faced a seven-mile slog home) and then, with some clerical goodwill, up to Dublin to attend the prestigious Catholic prep school Blackrock. My father and uncles also attended Blackrock and, I sense, took their enrollment for granted, as would most of the middle-class pupils. For de Valera it was like arriving at Hogwarts. Fanning’s biography contains a frontispiece map demonstrating how over the next three-quarters of a century de Valera spent much of his life living or working in the environs of Blackrock College. It brought home to me the veracity of the title of a book by Sean P. Farragher I saw excerpted in The Irish Times in the mid-1980s: Dev and His Alma Mater. Blackrock was indeed his second, nurturing mother.
One thing that Blackrock and its “Anglocentricity” did not nurture was an attachment to Gaelic Ireland. Perhaps the most illuminating chapter in the biography is on “the construction of [de Valera’s] new nationalist identity,” the process by which Edward became Éamon. It began only in his mid-20s and as career-oriented move; the cultural revival was gaining momentum and knowing Irish was now an asset in academia, especially for someone like Dev, who was stuck teaching math at the equivalent of a community college level.
The Gaelic League provided him with a committed instructor and future wife: Sinéad Ní Fhlannagáin. They would be married for just shy of 65 years. In school, I knew Sinéad Bean (Mrs.) de Valera as the author of folk tales; from Fanning’s biography, I now know her as a stoic who kept their large family together during the frequent spells Dev was in jail, on the run, or consumed with matters of state.
In the spring of 1916 it looked like she would never see him again. Having joined the Irish Volunteers upon their formation in 1913, de Valera, a conscientious officer with little interest in plotting or politics, took part in the doomed Easter Rising (much in the news again during this centenary season). Fanning does a good job dismantling the commonly held belief that de Valera escaped execution because of his American birth (it was for circumstantial and political reasons), though he’s not quite correct that Dev was the “only surviving commandant” of the rebellion; Thomas Ashe also had his death sentence commuted, though he died the next year after being force fed while on hunger strike.
In British jails, de Valera’s military and physical stature turned him into the Long Fellow. Dev may have campaigned in the 1917 East Clare by-election (he won by a landslide) in his Volunteer uniform, but he was now putting on his political mantle, one that he would be loath to remove. Much later in the book Fanning includes an extraordinary moment witnessed in 1959 by de Valera’s private secretary on Dev’s last day in office as taoiseach (prime minister), a position he had by then held “for the best part of a quarter of a century.” De Valera bewails, “It’s awfully hard to leave the levers of power,” and he means it literally, because at that moment he has “his arms wrapped around the [executive] switchboard.”
Dev had perfected his statesman role during “his American cavalcade” of 1919-’20, where he pleaded the cause of the Irish Republic while Michael Collins ramped up the War of Independence at home. Returning to Dublin from the land of his birth with a new sobriquet, the Chief, de Valera entered into a submerged power struggle with Collins. And it was an exasperated Collins who called him, at a time when they were still fundamentally allies, the Long Whoor.
De Valera would cause further exasperation as a result of “the most controversial decision of his political career”: his “refusal to lead the delegation that signed the treaty of 6 December 1921 establishing the Irish Free State as a self-governing dominion with the British Empire.” Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith were the leading signatories of that treaty; neither of them would survive the civil war that quickly followed in its wake.
Fanning is excellent and even handed on the complexities of the treaty negotiations, showing how both the plenipotentiaries in London and de Valera back in Dublin made mistakes. Dev had developed a nuanced (potential) solution to the Anglo-Irish conflict — based in part of contemporary US-Cuban relations — called “external association,” but he wasn’t in the room to advocate for it.
If de Valera’s performance in 1921 was bad, his actions in 1922, during the slide into civil war were worse, much worse. Getting on board the train of the diehard republicans and helping to stoke the engine of resentment over the treaty, he was unable to get off the hurtling vehicle. De Valera, Fanning contends, “was largely responsible for the dimensions, if not for the fact, of the civil war.” As I said, no hagiography. Indeed, mention in any present-day Irish pub Fanning’s assertion that the “charge” of Dev’s “culpability for the civil war” is “incontrovertible” and you are likely, still, to get a spirited debate.
De Valera, the great survivor, came out of the civil war on the losing side but alive. The price he paid was a lost decade. Excluded from power, he founded and built up Fianna Fáil (best translated as the Warriors of Ireland), “the most efficient and dynamic party organization in Irish politics.”
The rivalry between anti-treaty Fianna Fáil and pro-treaty Fine Gael has meant that ever since the fault line in the Irish political landscape has been the split in the old Sinn Féin party, and not along the typical “left-right divide” (although it’s true that Fianna Fáil traditionally had more of a populist appeal). This political dynamic has baffled foreigners for decades, and a wry explanation of the subtle difference between the two camps, “Fianna Fáil is the party that eats its dinner in the middle of the day,” has not helped matters much. As I write this article, the two parties continue weeks-long negotiations on the formation of a government, necessitated by the recent inconclusive general election — almost a century after the civil war.
When Fianna Fáil, with the support of the Labour Party, gained power for the first time, in 1932, de Valera began to compensate magnificently for the mistakes of the 1920s. Building on the diplomatic endeavors of the first Free State government, before the outbreak of World War II he had secured the degree of economic, military, and constitutional sovereignty he had hoped for in 1921 — this time by leading the negotiations with the British. (There was no movement on Northern Ireland, but then again, partition was essentially a fait accompli even before the cessation of hostilities in the War of Independence.) The new Constitution of 1937 fulfilled de Valera’s stated aim of creating “a republic in fact,” allowing a subsequent government to make it a republic in name without difficulty in 1949.
Despite its deference to the Catholic Church, de Valera’s Constitution, as Diarmaid Ferriter has pointed out, is a resolutely democratic document, drafted at a time when democracy was on the ropes in much of the rest of Europe, especially in overwhelmingly Catholic countries. Paradoxically, it saw de Valera safeguarding Ireland against sentiments not unlike those he had himself expressed during the treaty debates: “whenever I wanted to know what the Irish people wanted I had only to examine my own heart and it told me straight off what the Irish people wanted.” Éamon de Valera may have been a late bloomer as a democrat, but bloom he did.
One thing I had not appreciated before reading Fanning’s biography is that if de Valera had not completed his recalibration of Anglo-Irish relations in 1938, just in the nick of time, Ireland might have had a much harder time staying out of World War II. De Valera’s policy of neutrality was popular in Ireland, where it also helped him keep a lid on the IRA as he had not in 1922, and unpopular with the British and Americans.
In fact, Dev, with his “immunity to Anglophobia” and American connections, was happy to give the allies covert support, while publically protesting too much about Irish neutrality. Fanning rightly characterizes de Valera’s visit to the German legation “to sign the book of condolences opened on the news of Hitler’s death” as “notorious” and “grotesquely ill judged.” In that lamentable episode, the emotional carapace gave rise to utter insularity.
De Valera stayed in power too long, becoming a kind of political Wordsworth. By refusing to leave the civic stage, or at least move on to the figurehead presidency much earlier that he did, he played an unwitting part in fashioning that received idea of Dev’s frozen Ireland. While the country was hemorrhaging young people to emigration and experiencing a fraught relationship with modernity, de Valera held on to the vision of a “rural idyll,” most famously articulated in his frequently “lampooned and satirised” radio broadcast on St. Patrick’s Day, 1943. Dev dreamed of
a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contests of athletic youths and the laughter of comely maidens, whose firesides would be forums for the wisdom of serene old age.
In the 40 years since de Valera’s death, the real Ireland is even less like that Ireland than it was in 1943. But it has the freedom (largely) to choose what kind of society it wants to be, as last year’s referendum on same-sex marriage indicated. In this the centenary year of when the Irish Republic was first declared, Ronan Fanning’s book is a well-timed reminder of his great contribution to national self-determination. Sovereignty was always Dev’s watchword.