News and Views

Op-Ed: Defining de Valera - The Legacy of the Long Fellow

Dr Finola Doyle O’Neill, Broadcast Historian at the School of History, UCC. Photo: Emmet Curtin.

Dr Finola Doyle O’Neill, Broadcast Historian at the School of History, UCC. Photo: Emmet Curtin.

  • 20 Mar 2017

On this date, March 20, in 1957, 75-year-old Éamon de Valera took office as Taoiseach for the final time. 

Hailed by many historians as the dominant political figure of 20th century Ireland, Dev became Taoiseach with a nine vote majority. However, after two years, he would hand over the office of Taoiseach to Sean Lemass, while he himself began an eight-year reign as President of Ireland. Firstly however, de Valera would lay the groundwork for a 16-year domination by Fianna Fáil of Irish politics, a party which would steer Ireland through unprecedented economic growth and stem the tide of emigration for almost two decades.

De Valera is a complex personality to assess. Unlike Terence MacSwiney, former Lord Mayor of Cork, who died while on hunger strike for Ireland’s revolutionary cause, de Valera, in contrast, did not define himself as a revolutionary. He explains his vision of his own persona in a letter to Mary MacSwiney, sister of Terence — herself a fine rebel, and founder of the Cork branch of Cumann na Mban  in 1914. "Nature never fashioned me to be a partisan leader… every instinct of mine would indicate that I was meant to be a dyed–in-the-wool Tory, or even a Bishop, rather than the leader of a Revolution." (11 September 1922).

Yet, for many, de Valera is fashioned as the man who led Ireland to sever its connections with Britain and become a fully autonomous republic. He is remembered as a man who resisted political pressure from Britain regarding WW11 neutrality and for many historians his finest hour was in his response to a blistering radio attack by Winston Churchill on Ireland’s neutral stance. Churchill, in the flush of victory on V-day, May 16 1945, admonished de Valera for abandoning Britain in its time of need and intimated that England could have invaded Ireland but didn’t. In response, de Valera gave a master class in diplomacy. For many who were unsure of de Valera’s policy of neutrality, his radio response to Churchill made broadcast history for its quiet restraint and dignity and garnered de Valera much praise, even from his critics. In perfectly modulated tones, de Valera demanded of Churchill to find "in his heart the generosity to acknowledge that there is small nation that stood alone not for one year or two, bur for several hundred years against aggression…a small nation that could never be got to accept defeat and has never surrendered her soul."   

De Valera’s oratorical prowess, along with his astute awareness of the importance of media control, led him to set up the Irish Press in 1931. This newspaper was the perfect outlet to articulate his vision of Ireland’s future and its gloriously heroic past. Yet, Dev was an intriguing and often contradictory personality, with conflicting opinions. This was never more evident than in his role as public advocate of cultural nationalism, embodied in his vision of Ireland as a unique Catholic nation, with its citizens living close to the land. Part of this nationalism would have included GAA as its primary sport yet de Valera had a sneaking regard for rugby. In a speech he made over 60 years ago, in 1957,  de Valera extolled the virtues of rugby, insisting that: "For Irishmen there is no football game to match rugby and if all our young men played rugby not only would we beat England and Wales, but France and the whole lot of them put together."   

This would have surely punctured his image as a man who appeared to have little interest in anything of British origin. Another contradictory statement occurs in 1963, on the final night of John F. Kennedy’s trip to Ireland. The 46-year-old American president, a lover of Ireland and its revolutionary history, took advantage of a small dinner setting at Áras an Uachtaráin to pose a personal question to the 80-year-old president of Ireland. Kennedy asked Dev, the sole surviving senior commander of 1916, what saved him from a firing squad at Kilmainham Gaol. According to Kennedy aides Kenneth O’Donnell and David Powers in their book Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye: Memories of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, de Valera responded that he had lived in Ireland since his early childhood, but he was born in New York City, and because of his American citizenship, the British were reluctant to kill him. The aides reported that Kennedy was ‘spellbound’ by de Valera and his US connection.

In 1969, de Valera changed his story. In a hand-written statement, now amongst his papers in the UCD archive, he writes: "I have not the slightest doubt that my reprieve in 1916 was due to the fact that my court martial and sentence came late" and noted that the British Prime Minister, H.H. Asquith, wanted "no further executions, save those of the ringleaders which they interpreted as those who had singed the Proclamation." In this letter, signed and dated 3 July 1969, de Valera dismisses his American birth: "The fact that I was born in America would not have saved me."

Was the wily de Valera forever aware that he must be the arbiter and custodian of his own place in Ireland’s history? Ironically, the issues of his survival as a revolutionary, continued to be attributed to his providential American ancestry, despite de Valera’s attempts to record otherwise!

It can be argued that, despite accusations of cold conservatism and at times, an insular mind-set, de Valera was the force behind many changes in this island nation and has shaped Ireland’s history. He resisted enormous pressure from his former Principal at Blackrock College, Archbishop McQuaid, to enshrine Catholicism as the primary and sole religion of Ireland when drafting the 1937 Constitution. Equally he defended himself eloquently against Churchill’s verbal tirade regarding Ireland’s war-time neutrality. Yet,  his legacy continues to be disputed , most notably  the relatively recent spat between  former editor of the Irish Press and de Valera biographer , Tim Pat Coogan and UCD Professor of History, Diarmuid Ferriter, based on the content of the latter’s book Judging Dev. It could be surmised that de Valera himself never felt fully valued by Ireland. He was also aware that Michael Collins’ untimely, but heroic, death would lead to unfavourable comparisons between the two revolutionaries. After a recent re-viewing of Neil Jordan’s film, Michael Collins , in which de Valera is depicted as an effete, ineffectual leader, there is a certain amount of truth in de Valera’s own rueful assertion that "in the fullness of time, history will record the greatness of Michael Collins and it will be recorded at my expense."

Dr Finola Doyle O’Neill is Broadcast Historian at the School of History, UCC. 

For more on this story contact:

Dr Finola Doyle O’Neill: 021 490 3476 or f.doyle-oneill@ucc.ie

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