By Phil Chapple | Published in History Review 2005
EMPIREPOLITICALSOCIALBRITAINIRELAND Phil Chapple examines a titanic and controversial figure in modern Irish history.
Eamon de Valera was born in 1882 at a time when the conflicting interests of nationalism and unionism were sowing the seeds of conflict in Ireland. Nationalism itself was divided between those seeking Home Rule through constitutional change and a minority of radical, physical-force nationalists whose ultimate aim was a republic. In Easter week 1916, an attempted coup in Dublin by the latter, in the form of the Irish Volunteers and the socialist Citizen’s army, was crushed by forces of the British crown. Over 500 people were killed in the week’s fighting and 15 rebel leaders were executed. Amongst the Irish Volunteers was Eamon de Valera.
Although born in New York to an Irish mother and Spanish father, de Valera had been sent to live with his mother’s family in rural Limerick. His subsequent upbringing in rural western Ireland had a lasting influence, so that throughout his life he was to espouse the virtues of the simple rural lifestyle. Following his education as a scholarship student at Blackrock College, Dublin, he studied mathematics, graduating in 1904. Four years later he joined the Gaelic League, an essentially cultural rather than political organisation whose purpose was to promote the Irish language and develop Gaelic culture and literature. Through his connections in the Gaelic League, not least his future wife, Sinead Flanagan, he developed a lifelong affinity with the Gaelic language. He also came into contact with individuals who introduced him to the idea of physical force as an agent of political change. For de Valera, this meant joining the Irish Volunteers in 1913. By 1916, he was given command of a battalion which was to play a significant role in the Easter rebellion. The removal of British authority in Ireland and the creation of a Gaelic, Irish republic had become his life’s work.
The emergence of de Valera as a republican hero is inextricably linked to the aftermath of the Easter Rising, and in particular the draconian policy of courts-martial and executions implemented by the British military authorities in Dublin between 3 and 12 May 1916. The upper tier of the republican movement had been wiped out, so that de Valera became, by default, the senior surviving figure of the revolutionary wing of Irish republicanism. He had narrowly escaped execution when his death penalty, along with those of dozens of other ‘rebels’, was commuted to life imprisonment. His record as commandant of the Volunteers battalion that probably inflicted more casualties that any other on the British during Easter Week, and that was the last to surrender, conferred upon him the respect of his peers. Thus he was able to take on the role as unofficial leader of the remnants of the Volunteers from prison cells in a succession of English gaols.
Following a general amnesty that saw the release of the Easter ‘rebels’ in late 1916 and 1917, de Valera returned to Ireland where he was to take up the mantle of political leader. He spearheaded the remarkable progress of the republican cause in 1917-21. Within a very short time he had imposed his own authority, marginalising the role of republican women who had held the movement together whilst up to 2,000 men had been held at Frongoch prison camp in Wales. Perhaps, though, his most important achievement in this period was to unite the many strands of republicanism under the banner of Sinn Fein. By adopting this as the name of the new political party and becoming its President in October 1917, he set a course which saw republicanism become the dominant influence in Irish politics. Thus moderate republicans opposed to the use of violence found themselves united in the cause of an independent republic with physical-force republicans. A succession of by-election victories, including de Valera’s own at East Clare in July 1917, created the momentum which enabled Sinn Fein to destroy the Irish Parliamentary Party at the General Election of December 1918. De Valera very effectively exploited the threat of conscription being extended to Ireland in the spring of 1918. His imprisonment in May, together with most of the Sinn Fein leadership (as a result of unfounded allegations by the British government of collaboration with German agents – the so-called ‘German Plot’) further enhanced his credentials. From a prison cell in Lincoln gaol, de Valera presided over a campaign in which Sinn Fein won 73 seats compared to just six for the IPP. Sinn Fein had become the undisputed voice of nationalist opinion and de Valera its undisputed leader.
Refusing to sit at Westminster, Sinn Fein set up an Irish parliament, the Dail Eireann – without de Valera and at least half of its elected members who remained in British gaols – on January 21 1919. In April de Valera was formally elected President of the Dail and thus, in the eyes of its supporters, the leader of the Irish republic proclaimed by Patrick Pearse on the first day of the Easter Rising. Following an audacious escape from Lincoln gaol, which boosted his status as military hero, political mastermind and now daring fugitive, de Valera committed what was perhaps his first serious error of judgement. In choosing to leave for a tour of the United States, where he remained from June 1919 until December 1920 raising money for the cause, he remained absent from Ireland at a crucial time. To critics, he failed to provide the leadership required in Ireland as the Volunteers, now the Irish Republican Army, once again took up arms against crown forces.
The upsurge in violence between January 1919 and June 1921 saw the gunmen determine the political agenda. In particular Michael Collins, the dominant figure in the IRA and Minister of Finance in the Sinn Fein cabinet, was to emerge as the new hero of the struggle. De Valera was to become aware, on his return, that his American sojourn had had a personal political cost.
The transformation of de Valera from the revolutionary gunman of 1916 to statesman was confirmed by his invitation to Downing Street to discuss a solution to the impasse that had existed since Easter 1916. A truce had been agreed between the warring factions in Ireland in July 1921. On 14 July Lloyd George and de Valera met for the first time. For de Valera, as Head of State and leader of an Irish republic that did not exist in reality, the meeting presented immense political difficulties. To supporters in Ireland he was there to negotiate the terms by which the republic would be recognised. Yet he was acutely aware that Lloyd George could not grant such a demand. The cost of failure would be a resumption of a war that Collins had made clear to his chief was unwinnable. De Valera’s strategy was to try to reconcile British insistence that Ireland should remain ‘loyal to the crown’ with Irish republican aspirations. His complex proposition that Ireland be granted special status through ‘external association’ was rejected out of hand by the British, who could not accept, nor even understand, how Ireland could enjoy links to the Empire without being part of it. Colleagues in Dublin also struggled – as have historians for over 80 years – to understand the precise meaning and implications of ‘external association’. (Lloyd George famously likened his attempt to negotiate with the Irishman to ‘trying to pick up mercury with a fork’.) This formulaic approach to resolving political issues was to become a hallmark of the man for the rest of his political career, often to the dismay and exasperation of friend and foe alike.
The failure of the Downing Street negotiations presented a dilemma. De Valera could not achieve recognition of the republic but also could not afford a negotiation breakdown that would re-ignite war. His answer was to agree to a formal conference between representatives of the Dail and the British Government. This took place between 11 October and 6 December 1921 in London. Controversially, de Valera sent a deputation of plenipotentiaries led by Arthur Griffith, the founder of Sinn Fein, and Michael Collins. To his critics, this was a Machiavellian attempt to transfer responsibility for failure to obtain the republic onto others. Certainly his rival, Michael Collins, was to be held to account, and the outcome of the negotiations, while largely satisfying the British agenda, destroyed the unity of Sinn Fein.
The Anglo-Irish Treaty, granting dominion status, conferred a similar degree of autonomy on the future ‘Irish Free State’ to that enjoyed by Australia and Canada. British troops were to be withdrawn and hostilities cease; Ireland would have its own parliament, the Dail, and in effect control its own domestic affairs, though six counties in Ulster were to remain part of the United Kingdom. Collins argued that the Treaty was a first significant step towards greater freedom later; but de Valera was unmoved. The agreement fell short of republican ideals and was strongly opposed by a substantial minority of deputies in the Dail, being narrowly ratified on January 71922 by 64 votes to 57. De Valera rounded on his erstwhile allies, Collins in particular:
I am against this Treaty, not because I am a man of war but because I am a man of peace … it will not end the centuries of conflict between the two nations of Great Britain and Ireland … [It] is absolutely inconsistent with our position: it gives away Irish independence: it brings us into the British Empire: it acknowledges the head of the British Empire, not merely as the head of an association but as the direct monarch of Ireland, as the source of executive authority in Ireland.
Civil war soon followed.
De Valera was not to play a major role in the violence that raged in Ireland between June 1922 and April 1923. Nevertheless his outspoken rhetoric in support of the anti-treaty elements of the IRA did fan the flames of opposition to the new provisional government led by Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins. The death of Griffith of natural causes in August 1922 and the assassination of Collins by anti-treaty forces ten days later may have removed two bitter rivals but it was to be another five years before de Valera became a significant force once again in Irish politics.
From Wilderness to Government
By the late spring of 1923 the anti-treaty IRA had been defeated and its leaders killed in action or executed by the Free State government, now led by William Cosgrave. Had de Valera not remained so popular with the one third of the electorate who had voted for anti-treaty candidates in the General election in June 1922, he might well have met the same fate as Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellowes and Erskine Childers, all senior anti-treaty republicans executed by firing squad in 1922. The decision simply to incarcerate de Valera in Kilmainham gaol indicates that pro-treaty politicians recognised the unique place he occupied in the minds of all republicans. To execute de Valera would be to alienate further a substantial proportion of the population at a time when peace and reconciliation were essential if the Free State was to survive. His immediate return to politics after the civil war, however, had little impact. His re-formed Sinn Fein Party, despite winning 44 seats in 1923, abstained from entering the Dail. De Valera was released from Kilmainham in the summer of 1924, but Sinn Fein’s influence was in serious decline.
Following a rejection of his suggestion that the party should abandon its policy of abstentionism, de Valera resigned from Sinn Fein and in May 1926 launched Fianna Fail (Soldiers of Destiny), a new political party with a republican agenda but, crucially, determined to enter fully into the constitutional process. De Valera and Fianna Fail took their places in the Dail in 1927, accepting the oath of allegiance on tactical grounds. In 1932 de Valera became Taoiseach (Prime Minister) and the opportunity arose to dismantle the Treaty which had so divided republicans. Ironically Michael Collins’ view, that accepting the Treaty would enable Irishmen to remove its terms piece by piece, was now being implemented by his adversary, Eamon de Valera. Eroding the political links with Britain began in earnest.
In June 1932, annuities paid to Britain under the Treaty were withheld, provoking economic sanctions by Westminster. In May 1933 the Oath of Allegiance was removed from the constitution, and in the same year the Governor General, the crown’s representative in Ireland, had his powers severely curtailed. De Valera ensured throughout that, although controversial, he always acted within the law, exploiting the Statute of Westminster of 1931 that had devolved broader powers of autonomy from London to the Dominions. In 1937 de Valera devised a new constitution that changed the name of the country to Eire and, in articles one and two, laid a constitutional claim to the whole island of Ireland, including the north. The constitution also contained no reference to the British crown or Empire and replaced the post of Governor General with that of an elected President. Finally, in 1938, in return for a final annuity payment, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain agreed to hand back to the Irish the so-called ‘Treaty ports’, where Britain had maintained a naval presence since 1921. An agreement to restore normal trading relations ended the ‘economic war’ that had existed since 1932.
The relationship with Britain had changed irrevocably, and since 1916 de Valera had been a key figure in this evolving Irish autonomy. Although he was reluctant to declare a republic, his government had in effect dismantled the terms of the 1921 Treaty to the extent that Eire was a republic in all but name, albeit in only 26 of the 32 counties.
De Valera was determined that the state, and only the state, would be the guardian of Irish political aspirations. Hence Fianna Fail defeated the threat to political stability posed by extremist organisations. The republic was achievable via political action and therefore violence was unjustified. He declared the IRA illegal in 1936.
In the international sphere, de Valera used Ireland’s involvement in the League of Nations to reinforce the nation’s image as an autonomous state, standing independent of Britain. The Free State had entered the League in 1923 but de Valera was to play a more pro-active role than his predecessors, recognising the unique role it played in representing and protecting the needs of small nations. Thus de Valera increasingly took on the mantle of international statesman.
Yet if the political record of Fianna Fail might be seen as progressive and radical, their social policies have been viewed as conservative. De Valera’s view was that the church and the family were central to Irish social life. Enshrined in the constitution of 1937 were clauses to ‘guard with special care the institution of marriage’ and outlaw divorce. Controversially, the constitution also recognised ‘the special position of the Holy Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church’ whilst guaranteeing the religious freedom of all the country’s citizens. Such policies may appear reactionary today, but they were generally welcomed by a largely devout, conservative and rural electorate. The articles in the constitution which reinforced the traditional view that a woman’s place was in the home further illustrate the direction in which Ireland was moving. An act of 1935 prohibited the importation or sale of contraceptives. Perhaps the most rigorous censorship laws in western Europe complete the picture.
In September 1939 war broke out between Britain and Germany. It would seem logical that de Valera, with his support for the League of Nations, his moral certainties and devout Christian beliefs, would support moves to resist Nazi expansionism and ally with Britain and the French. For Britain, in particular, the value of Irish ports in the defence of trans-Atlantic convoys was incalculable. However, the prospect of involvement in the conflict presented de Valera with a range of dilemmas which prompted him to declare Irish neutrality.
Eire’s neutral stance inevitably caused huge anger in Britain, especially with northern unionists who well remembered the immense sacrifice they had made in 1914-18. With the accession of Churchill (perhaps de Valera’s fiercest critic since the Easter Rising) to the post of Prime Minister in 1940, relations became more strained. British propaganda pilloried the Irish, implying a connivance with the forces of Nazism. Nevertheless, a sober assessment of de Valera’s motives indicates his ability to apply rationality and mathematician’s logic to the complex question. Officially, he claimed that Ireland had no quarrel with the people of Germany. In reality, there were many pragmatic reasons for Ireland to remain neutral.
Ireland was simply unprepared both militarily and financially for war. Her army of 7,000 existed purely for internal security, and with no navy to speak of Ireland’s input would in any case be minimal. Should Irish forces become involved, they would inevitably have been subsumed within the British military machine, a prospect unacceptable to nationalists. Furthermore, by remaining neutral, de Valera hoped to spare the nation from the horror of the Blitz, which so devastated British cities, including Belfast. At a time when most independent commentators expected the invasion and defeat of Britain, there seemed little point joining a lost cause.
On a person level, de Valera could not ally himself to a British Prime Minister so widely reviled in Ireland over his involvement in sending in crown forces during the Anglo-Irish War and his role in the Treaty negotiations and subsequent support for the Free State Army against the IRA in 1922. Thus in promoting neutrality, de Valera was able to avoid re-opening old political wounds in Eire. But then Churchill tantalisingly offered to end partition in return for Irish involvement in the war. Since 1920 de Valera had promoted himself as the fiercest opponent of the unnatural division of Ireland into north and south; but now he shrewdly calculated the potential political cost to Fianna Fail and his own position if suddenly 750,000 unionist voters were incorporated into a state to which they did not wish to belong. The opportunity for Irish unity was refused. Neutrality prevailed.
De Valera’s miscalculation in expressing condolences to the German ambassador in Dublin on the death of Hitler in 1945 sparked outrage in Britain. However, rather than a calculated insult to the British, it should be seen as the act of a leader determined to do things by the diplomatic book. Churchill’s public tirade against him was met by a measured and moral response in which the case for neutrality was made. The fact that neutrality had been widely supported by all political parties in Eire was justification in itself for de Valera.
In 1948 Fianna Fail lost overall control of the Dail and de Valera was replaced as Taoiseach by J.A. Costello. By that time de Valera had been at the centre of Irish politics for over 30 years. It is common for historians to argue that he should now have retired. Certainly by 1945 his major achievements were over. However, his absolute belief that he above all others knew what was best for the Irish people drove him to remain in politics, even though his great personal ambition, to declare the republic, had been pre-empted by Costello’s Republic of Ireland Act in December 1948.
Despite further election victories in 1951 and 1957, de Valera’s latter years as Taoiseach were less successful. The economic stagnation of the 1950s resulted in increasing migration as Ireland was slow to adjust to the new opportunities of the postwar world. Plagued by failing eyesight and tested by increasing demands for economic modernisation from a new generation of Fianna Fail politicians, he stepped down as Taoiseach and stood for the largely ceremonial post of President, holding the office from 1959 to 1973. He died in 1975. He had been a senior figure in Irish politics for over half a century.
De Valera was one of the great political survivors, his longevity rivalling that of another political giant, his great adversary Winston Churchill. For a rebel-turned-politician he displayed remarkable political acumen in leading the remnants of the Easter Rebellion to the brink of political power. In the 1930s his work in establishing Ireland as an independent state, free of the shackles of the Treaty with Britain, guaranteed his place in history. To resist the pressure of war and remain neutral further enhanced his reputation. De Valera has become a legendary figure in the colourful and often tragic history of Ireland.
History continues to focus more on his less positive characteristics and failures. The recent elevation of his great rival, Michael Collins, has much to do with this. De Valera’s perceived duplicity and betrayal of the Treaty plenipotentiaries, his role in inflaming the political climate during and after the Treaty debate, his conservative social policies and, for some, his uncomfortably close relationship with the catholic hierarchy – these have detracted from his achievements. Yet his personality contributed to this. At times frustratingly formulaic, morally certain to the point of arrogance and with a keen eye for political self-preservation, de Valera undoubtedly contributed to the controversial image we have of him today. Yet for all that, he remained a deeply committed republican, consistent in his dream of creating a truly Irish Ireland that the Gaelic revivalists of the early twentieth century would have approved. That he failed in this task remained perhaps his greatest disappointment.
Pauric Travers, Eamon de Valera (Historical Association of Ireland, 1994)
Tim Pat Coogan, De Valera: Long Fellow, Long Shadow (Hutchinson, 1993)
T. Ryle Dwyer, Big Fellow, Long Fellow (Gill and Macmillan, 1999)
J.J. Lee, Ireland 1912-85, Politics and Society (Cambridge UP, 1989)
Issues to Debate
What were de Valera’s most important contributions to the cause of Irish independence?
How far did his capacity for being machiavellian detract from his reputation as a statesman?
Why did JJ Lee judge that, while de Valera would have been a leader 'beyond compare' in the pre-industrial world, he was 'largely baffled' by the causes and consequences of 'accelerated economic change'?
Phil Chapple was formerly Senior Lecturer in History at St Martin's College, Lancaster.