Opinions & Ideas

Category: Eamon de Valera


I have recently completed David McCullagh’s two volume biography of Eamon de Valera, entitled “Rise 1882-1932”, and “Rule 1932-1975”.

 Both volumes are full of anecdotal detail that gives a good sense of the sort of person de Valera was. They are also the result of a thorough study of the archives.

De Valera was a man of apparent contradictions. 

He was infinitely charming and polite, but also wilful and self centred.

He  was creative, but wanted things done his way. He procrastinated, and obsessed over detail.

He was a magnetic personality, who could give a very dull speech, but still hold his audience in rapt attention. 

His personal story is a remarkable one.

Born in America, he was sent back to Limerick to be raised by his uncle and grandmother. A studious boy, he won a scholarship to Blackrock College and was to remain loyal to that college, and its rugby playing tradition, all his life.

He was introduced to physical force nationalism through the Irish Volunteers, established initially as a counterweight to the anti Home Rule Ulster Volunteers. 

He was condemned to death for his part in the 1916 Rebellion, but his sentence was commuted on 10 May 1916, two days after strenuous objection to continuing executions had been raised in the House of Commons by John Redmond and John Dillon, something de Valera never forgot.

He emerged as a major political figure through his role as a leader among the  post 1916 prisoners and as the successful Sinn Fein candidate in the East Clare by election.

When Dail Eireann was established, following the Sinn Fein success in the December 1918 General Election, de Valera became Priomh Aire (President of the Dail government) in April 1919. In this capacity, he left for the United States in June 1919, in an endeavour to win US support for Irish independence. His 18 month tour encountered some opposition from the American Legion, who resented the alliance of the 1916 rebels with Germany in the Great War.

His primary concern, in his political career, was sovereignty and independence from Britain. His secondary one was opposing partition and achieving Irish unity. He achieved his primary objective, but made little progress at all towards his second.

McCullagh deals extensively with de Valera’s role in the Treaty negotiations and the subsequent Civil War.

He presided over a chaotic Cabinet meeting to consider the British proposals on 3 December 1921, at which the exhausted negotiators got ambiguous instructions. When the negotiators were back in London, de Valera went touring his constituency and was substantially out of contact. 

When the negotiators came back with a Treaty he could not accept, he drew up an alternative to the Treaty (Document number 2), but did not address how it might have made been acceptable to the UK at that time.

De Valera had substantial moral authority in 1922, and if he had remained neutral or supported the Treaty, a Civil War might still have taken place, but it would probably have been much shorter.

When de Valera came to power in 1932, he built on the Treaty and the work of his predecessors in the 1920’s in enhancing Irish independence.

His major successes were the enactment of the 1937 Constitution, and the 1938 Agreement with Britain, which ended the Economic War and secured the return of the Naval Ports at Cobh and elsewhere to Irish jurisdiction.

This latter success enabled him to maintain Irish neutrality from 1939 to 1945. If Britain still had naval facilities on Irish territory, neutrality would have been very hard to sustain.

When he was Leader of the Opposition in the late 1940’s and the 1950’s, de Valera devoted a lot of time to campaigning around the world against partition, but he did not come forward with any concrete proposals that would have been likely to reconcile Ulster unionists, with their British heritage and allegiance, with the nationalism of the rest of the island of Ireland.

 Overseas public opinion was never going to unite Ireland. That work had to be done in Ireland by Irish people of both allegiances. It was not done by de Valera or his contemporaries because, like many Irish Nationalists, de Valera believed it was for the British government to press unionists to come into a united Ireland.

 That was not realistic in 1914, and even less so in 1948. There is little evidence that he thought this through. 

De Valera’s economic policies have been criticised. He did not see economic growth, or the accumulation of wealth, as ends in themselves.

 He wanted to build a harmonious and self respecting society in Ireland. This is why he prioritized independence over growth.

He wanted comfort to be distributed widely, hence his wish that all should live in “frugal comfort”, a phrase he used repeatedly and which has been unfairly mocked. His priorities were spiritual and moral, as much as economic, and drew on his religious convictions.

I met de Valera once, in 1973, as his guest at a dinner he gave in Aras an Uachtaran for Liam Cosgrave and the members of the incoming Fine Gael/Labour government. He was exceptionally courteous and aware of the significance and role of each guest.

These two volumes tell an engaging human story and deserve to be widely read. 


I have just finished reading the late Ronan Fanning’s “Eamon de Valera, a Will to Power”, aided in part by an enforced day  long sojourn in Dublin airport, when my flight to Brussels  was grounded by Storm Doris.

De Valera has been the subject of many biographies, but this is the only one I have read. I met him once, shortly after I became a Parliamentary Secretary in Liam Cosgrave’s government, in 1973. He was totally blind at the time, but he knew who I was, and was encouraging to me in my commitment to political life, even though we were not of the same party.

Ronan Fanning’s book is very well written. It seems to me that it captures the essence of de Valera , without getting into excessive details about any of the transactions of his career.

As is well known he was born in America to a Limerick girl,Kate Coll, who became separated from her Spanish husband, Vivion de Valera, early in their marriage.

She had to work to live and this was not compatible with caring for her small two and a half year old son, who was sent to Ireland to be looked after by his grandmother and uncles. They were a farm labouring family and life was hard.

But Eamon was a bright student, and made a huge effort, and had to to overcome his uncle’s objections, to get to school in the Christian Brothers in Charleville, with the aim of winning a scholarship to a boarding secondary school.  He won one, to Blackrock College in Dublin, at the age of 14.

Blackrock College seems to have become a second home to him, and the priests in the college took the place of his absent parents. Thanks to Blackrock, he retained a love of rugby to the end of his life, preferring it to Gaelic football, a fact he did not advertise in nationalist circles.

Ronan Fanning believes de Valera first became the leader of Irish republicans when a prisoner in 1917 after the 1916 Rebellion.

His leadership style was not collegial. He listened but made the big decisions alone. This was a big problem with the Treaty negotiations of 1921. Because de Valera did not go to London himself, the Treaty was not HIS decision, and he was unhappy with any decisions that he himself had not taken.

His failure to lead properly on this matter contributed to  the Civil War and to his own temporary political demise.

When he came to power in 1932, building on the work of his predecessors, he set about removing the remaining limitations in the Treaty. These were mostly symbolic, apart from the return of the Treaty ports in 1938. If the Royal Navy still had those ports in 1939, Ireland would probably not have had the luxury of neutrality in the Second World War.

He was politically clever in setting the objectives for his party….the ending of partition and the restoration of the Irish language.

Both objectives stirred nationalistic emotions, and this were helpful in mobilising support at election time. But both were also practically unachievable, and thus could be re used, election after election.

De Valera had no interest in economics.  This explains why he started a ruinous trade war with Britain over annuities,  that were properly owing to Britain, for land purchase. De Valera was prepared to sacrifice the livelihoods of those engaged in Ireland’s largest industry for a point of nationalistic principle. Something similar is happening today, only now it is the British who trying to harness the nationalist horse for party political gain, without regard for the economic consequences for trade between our two neighbouring islands.

The opening up of the Irish economy in the 1950’s began while de Valera still led his party. Fanning credits this to his then Finance Minister Dr Jim Ryan, as much as to Sean Lemass. The contribution of Ryan’s predecessor, Gerard Sweetman is not mentioned.



I am delighted that this seminar is being held to remember the contributions of two politicians who served this country very well. Both men died young, leaving grieving families, one by assassination and the other through a road accident .


For both families the loss was, of course, equally grave. The lives of both men should inspire us to protect the integrity of the institutions they did so much the build, and the values that drove them to make such sacrifices for their country.

As Kevin O Higgins lay dying, he explicitly expressed forgiveness to his assassins. This example deserves to be reflected upon. Forgiveness is a key to a good life, and a moral obligation, no matter how severe the hurt. 

Paddy Hogan died in road accident on 14 July 1936. Although he had become somewhat removed from the front line of politics at the time of his death (His Dail contributions were few from 1934 on),  the shock felt by his family, was shared by his fellow politicians.

Eamon de Valera said “There was no member who did not admire his courage and frankness in stating his views, his energy as an administrator, and his effectiveness in debate”.

Frank Aiken, who was introducing a Land Bill the day after Paddy Hogan’s death said
“I was looking forward to his criticism of this Bill, whether we agreed or not, His keen and abiding interest in Land Laws was known to all. It was only yesterday that I received from him some suggestions for the Bill”
This shows that, only 13 years after the end of the Civil War, Paddy Hogan was prepared to help his opponents improve legislation in the interests of the country. Like his opposition to campaigns for non payment of rates to which I will return later, this patriotic spirit exemplified by Paddy Hogan is one from which present generations can learn. 

Frank Aiken went on to describe Paddy Hogan, as Minister for Agriculture and Lands as

“one of the pioneers of land legislation. His name will always be honoured for the completion of land purchase (in legislation Hogan introduced in 1923) and the provision of land for congests”.


This indeed is central to the huge achievement of Paddy Hogan and Kevin O Higgins, and indeed of their Fianna Fail successors, the consolidation of democracy. That the Irish Free State would survive to become one of the oldest continuing democracies in Europe, was not inevitable, and was a huge achievement, an achievement of Kevin O Higgins and Patrick Hogan among others. 

If there had been no prior land reform, democracy might have not survived in an independent Ireland. The tensions that would have been generated by a continuing landlord system could have destroyed it, as happened in many of the other new democracies in Europe. Instead the landlord system had previously been dismantled peacefully, and with fairness, by non violent parliamentary means.

Many new states came into being all over Europe at this time.  In the aftermath of the First World War, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Austria, and the Irish Free State all came into being as separate, initially democratic, states.

All nine started out, like the Irish Free State, as democracies.  But, by the 1930’s, most of them, except Czechoslovakia, had become authoritarian states of one kind or another.

How is this?  Why did Ireland remain democratic while the other became authoritarian or worse.
There are many reasons, but Paddy Hogan’s role in completing Land Reform in 1923 was crucial.

In doing so he was completing the work of members of the Irish Parliamentary Party, John Dillon, Michael Davitt, John Redmond, and Charles Stewart Parnell. 

Their work, in doing most of the heavy lifting on land reform made Ireland a property owning democracy, a democracy in which the majority of people had a stake in the democratic order, a democracy robust enough to endure in spite of war and division, when other European democracies, built of narrower bases, foundered and fell within a few years. 

As I said, many new states came into being all over Europe at the same time as our state. By 1940, none of those other states was still a democracy, or had the luxury, which the Irish Free state enjoyed, of being able to decide for itself whether it wished to remain neutral or not.

If the State had not remained a democracy, and had become instead, as might have happened if events turned out otherwise in 1922 or in 1931, an authoritarian nationalistic government, I doubt if Britain and America would have respected Irish neutrality, as they reluctantly did in the Second World War. 

That the Irish Free State would survive to become one of the oldest continuing democracies in Europe, was not inevitable, and was a huge achievement, an achievement of Kevin O Higgins and Patrick Hogan among others. 


It is to those other challenges to democracy, that O Higgins and Hogan faced, that I now turn.

The first of these challenges was a Civil War.

The issue over which the Civil War was fought, was the Treaty of 1921 and in particular provision in that Treaty about an oath which TDs had to take.  This oath pledged “allegiance to the constitution” and of being faithful to the King “in virtue of the common citizenship of Ireland with Great Britain”. 
Naturally people were prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to avoid Civil War over a matter like this, even to lengths that might be considered undemocratic.


The early versions of the Collins /de Valera pact of mid 1922, negotiated just before the Civil War finally broke out, would have excluded all but Sinn Fein candidates from standing in the election to the Third Dail.  This would have been hugely undemocratic because this Dail was to draft the Free State constitution in accordance with the Treaty. 
Thankfully that version of the pact did not go ahead. 

Labour and Farmers Party candidates stood, and did unexpectedly well, notwithstanding some intimidation.

It is interesting to speculate as to why de Valera or Collins could have even contemplated such an undemocratic proposal, but both were possibly anxious to try almost anything, however desperate, to avoid a Civil War.


Then consider the issue at stake in the Civil War itself, the authority of the Provisional Government and of the majority vote of the electorate.
Liam Mellowes, Rory O Connor and others who occupied the Four Courts in April 1922, were defying a clear Dail vote in favour of the Treaty. 

 They felt justified in so doing because in Easter 1916, and again in 1919, a Republic had been declared “in the name of God and of the dead generations”. Once it was thus proclaimed,  they considered that Republic existed, as of right. As they saw it, those who agreed to the Treaty, which provided for less than a 32 county Republic, were going back on their oath.

They convinced themselves that that oath took precedence over Dail majorities or Treaties. 
I believe this problem was created by, and the Civil War had its origin in, the particular way the 1916  Proclamation was framed. 


The Proclamation did not say that the Volunteers were going to war in Easter Week to fight to WIN a Republic by force of arms, or to force their opponents to the negotiating table, but rather to DEFEND a Republic that, in their minds already formally existed, since it had been proclaimed the steps of the GPO on Easter Monday 1916, and reiterated by the First Dail on 1919. 

The decision of the 1916 leaders to proclaim, rather than simply to seek, a Republic, may have seemed like a rhetorical flourish at the time, but arguably it sowed the seeds of Civil War.

Furthermore the oath of allegiance to the proclaimed Republic, which IRB members took, was seen by many of them as an individual undertaking given in God’s name, that was not capable of compromise.  This illustrates the risk of having members of any oath bound secret organisation in Government. What if their oath clashes with their civic duty?

That view did not prevail in 1922 and 1923. Had it done so, the country might have been governed by an Army Executive, rather than by Dail Eireann.
As Paddy Hogan put it in the Dail on 28 September 1933
“We proved we were fit for democracy because we established it here….. We established majority rule in this country”.

In the same speech, he forcefully states his conviction that laws passed by Dail Eireann should be respected by all. He said why and warned of the dangers of populism.

“If you have a wide franchise…you must have a strong administrative structure” and he added 
“I agree with President de Valera that it is bad that that any section should advocate the non payment of rates” 


Undemocratic urges were not confined to the Anti Treaty side. In 1931, disgruntled Army officers, led by Eoin O Duffy and Hugo McNeill, wanted to stage a coup to prevent de Valera taking office, if he won the election. This was squashed by General Mulcahy and by the Chief of Staff, Michael Brennan. 

This approach had the strong support of Paddy Hogan. In a pre election speech to his constituents in Galway on 3 February 1932, reported in the Irish Press, Paddy Hogan said
“If we are beaten in this election, we will accept the decision of the majority of the people. The Army and the Garda will go over to the new Government”
That was crucial.

The brave decision of Kevin O Higgins to create an unarmed police force, the Garda Siochana, in place of the armed RIC, was crucial to building consensus around respect for the law by people of all political persuasions.


Even more important was O Higgins role in overcoming the army Mutiny in 1924. In so doing he established beyond doubt the supremacy of the civil, democratic, power over the armed forces of the state. Many countries ceased to be democracies, because they did not have a leader of the clear sighted courage Kevin O Higgins, who was prepared to stand up to his friends, and ensure that the armed forces of the state were in all things subordinate to the civil power.


Maintaining a democracy in a deeply divided, impoverished, and disappointed, society was the signal achievement of the Free State Governments.
Disappointment was, in a sense, inevitable.

All the effort of the years prior to independence had been devoted to ending the connection with Britain, which was represented as being the source of all ills.  There had been no deep national debate on the implications of independence within Sinn Fein prior to 1918. They had few ideas on public administration, other than to replace Dublin Castle. 
Sinn Fein had fought the December 1918 Election on a platform of separation from Britain. They defeated the Irish Parliamentary Party, led by John Dillon, who had campaigned for Dominion Status (as then enjoyed by Canada, Australia, Newfoundland, and New Zealand).


Yet, following the trauma of the war of 1919 to 1921 and the Treaty, this was exactly what the new state found itself with, the Irish Parliamentary Party platform of 1918, Dominion Status.
 After all the bloodshed, they now had to prove that the policy of their defeated Parliamentary Party opponents could be made to work after all. On the face of it, not a very easy task, but one in which they succeeded so very well.

Few realised, at the time, probably not even John Dillon and the IPP which advocated it, how much potential for peaceful evolution Dominion status actually involved, and successive Free State governments were to exploit that potential skilfully, and to the full, in conjunction with the other Dominions. Indeed nobody was more skilful in building on Dominion status, and vindicating the policy of John Dillon, than the man who defeated him in East Mayo in 1918, Eamon de Valera


Another source of disappointment was of course the fact that six north eastern counties remained outside the State and within the United Kingdom.

The debacle of the Boundary Commission, set up under the Treaty to see if changes might be made to the border, must be seen against the background of the unwillingness of Irish Nationalism to think seriously or realistically about the simple reality of Ulster Unionism, concentrated geographically and unwilling to be absorbed or integrated politically with the rest of the island.  As a result of this lack of serious intellectual effort to comprehend reality and accept it, the Boundary Commission was surrounded by many unreal expectations.

Prior to independence, Sinn Fein had, according an historian of the period Donal P Corcoran, “made little effort to understand Unionists, believing them to be puppets of the British”.

That is the besetting problem of Irish nationalism to this day, as we see with the continuing flags disputes in Belfast and elsewhere, where flags are used to mark out territory rather than to bring people together.


The economic conditions with which the new Government had to cope were far from ideal.

The extra cost of the Civil War was two full years normal Government spending. 

At one point, 55,000 soldiers were on the state payroll, 12,000 anti Treaty forces were being maintained in prison, and 485 police stations, numerous bridges and other infrastructure had been destroyed. All had to be paid for.

Old Age Pensions, introduced by the British in 1908, also had to be paid, and Ireland had a per capita tax base that was only half that of Britain, and had proportionately more pensioners because of emigration. 
43% of the people, who had been born in Ireland, were living and paying taxes abroad, as emigrants, as against- for example- only 14% of Scots who were doing so.

Without emigrant’s remittances, the situation would have been much worse. 
So maintaining the pension rates they had inherited from the British was never going to be easy.


Education was poor. 49% of students failed to pass a single subject in the recently introduced Leaving Certificate, when the exam took place in 1919. Illiteracy was around 10%, as against 2% in Britain, and half of the schools had only one teacher.

Agricultural output had fallen in value from £108 million in 1918/9, to only £69 million in 1924/5. Ireland had only one market for its produce, Britain, and, with the end of the war and the opening up of sea routes, that market became much more competitive. Irish Free State manufacturing industry was confined to brewing, distilling, bacon curing, and the Ford Motor plant in Cork.

Apart from the physical and financial damage caused by the choice to use of violence from 1916 to 1923, the new government also had to cope with the damage to the country’s human and psychological resources.


 A recent Civil War is not attractive to potential overseas investors.

The insecurity generated by the wars from 1916 to 1923 encouraged domestic savers to put their money safely overseas. By the mid 1920’s, residents of the Irish Free State had  almost three times as much invested abroad, as people from abroad had invested in the State.

Many former Southern Unionists, some of whose homes had been burned during the so called “truce”, left, and took their money with them.

When one considers that these departing Southern Unionists were people with   resources, and networks, which could have been used to set up new businesses in Ireland, their going was a real loss.

It is noteworthy that one of the few civil servants of the new state who promoted the idea of attracting foreign direct investment, was a 37 year old Southern Unionist, Gordon Campbell, the son of Lord Glenavy, who served the Free State as Secretary of the Department of Industry and Commerce.
The Civil War divide created a legacy of distrust that also inhibited native entrepreneurialism, and cross party support for good ideas.

Even the pioneering work of promoting the generation of renewable electricity by harnessing the Shannon at Ardnacrusha attracted criticism from the opposition. 


Cosgrave, O Higgins and Hogan were determined that the Government would balance its budget.
They did not want to give the British an excuse to come back in on the basis that the new Government was not paying its debts. This was no fanciful or remote possibility.

It was exactly what happened to another dominion, Newfoundland, the year after Cosgrave left office, in 1933. Indeed that is why Newfoundland is not an independent state today.


Even as the Civil war raged, the Government introduced the Civil Service Commission to ensure that appointments to the service were made on merit, and it is noteworthy that de Valera had no difficulty working with most of the appointees of his predecessor’s administration.

The top appointees in the new civil service were recruited from the old Dublin Castle administration and from Irish people with administrative experience abroad. Newer recruits came straight from secondary school, which meant that few of them were people with outside professional or business experience.  Government policy was determined mostly by a small circle of senior civil servants and Ministers. The former were administrators, and the latter were mostly lawyers. This may explain why there was no real development focus, of the kind observed in other small countries, like Denmark, at the time.

The Government relied on agriculture to lift the economy. 

This was understandable, when one considers that, for the previous fifty years, so much of the political energies had been devoted to the simple goal of transferring the ownership of the agricultural land of Ireland from landlords to the people who were actually working it. 

But, to reach its potential, Irish land needed investment in farm buildings, drainage and fertilisers. Money was not there for that. Farmers needed education in scientific methods, and the academically dominated schools system did not provide that either. In any event, many holdings were too small to be efficient, and the trend towards mechanisation was already reducing the number of jobs a given amount of land could support, on the farm or in downstream food processing.


The Government, under the inspiration of Paddy Hogan, as Minister for Agriculture, did much to improve the quality of farm produce and to merge creameries. He was considered by many, including my own family, as the best Minister for Agriculture ever.

But to understand what a political party, and its leaders really believe in, it is good to look at the policies they would insist upon, as a condition for supporting their opponents in office while giving up office themselves. Such a situation actually arose for the party of Paddy Hogan, Kevin O Higgins and WT Cosgrave in 1927 and it was clarifying moment.

After the first Election of 1927,  in the 5th Dail, no party had a majority, and various options of minority governments were being canvassed.

One possibility was a minority Labour/ National League (Redmondite) government, the other was a minority Fianna Fail government.

WT Cosgrave outlined his conditions for possibly supporting a minority, Fianna Fail led, government. 
Four of his five conditions were

+ a balanced budget
+ a single army
+ an independent judiciary
+ an impartial administration

These conditions all concerned maintaining the authority of the state. 
That was the cause to which Kevin O Higgins and Paddy Hogan devoted their lives…..a cause in which they succeeded magnificently.

Paper by John Bruton, former Taoiseach, at a Seminar on the political lives of Paddy Hogan, Minister for Agriculture, and Kevin O Higgins, Minister for Justice in the Cumann na nGaedhael  Government. In Wynns Hotel , Dublin at 1pm in 12 September 2015
Other speakers at this well attended seminar included former Minister Martin Mansergh, and historians Ciara Meehan and John P McCarthy. The seminar was opened by Pat Rabitte TD.

The seminar was attended by many members of the O Higgins and Hogan families, notably former Deputy for Galway East, an daughter of Patrick Hogan, Bridger Hogan O Higgins.

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