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.