Political leadership highlights paradoxes statesmen face. Éamon de Valera, who shaped 20th-century Ireland, embodied paradoxes himself. An Irish nationalist born in the United States with a Spanish father and a consequently distinctive name, de Valera came to personify his country’s identity and self-image. Like his contemporaries Mustafa Kemal and Ibn Saud, he built a distinctive state after breaking with an empire. But de Valera also fits within a notable conservative tradition: he shared Antonio Salazar and Maurice Duplessis’s commitment to integralist Catholicism. Calvin Coolidge’s flinty reserve, frugal upbringing, and Arcadian vision of the national past offer another parallel. As “the heir to generations of conservatism,” de Valera told a colleague in 1922 that he “was meant to be a dyed-in-the-wool tory or even a bishop, rather than leader of a revolution.” So how did he become a revolutionary?
Ronan Fanning argues that the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising is a ripe moment to reconsider de Valera. He aims to reconcile the obloquy de Valera incurred for dividing Ireland over the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, which won self-government, with his claim to recognition as his country’s greatest modern statesman. More politician than armed revolutionary, de Valera operated by intellect and guile rather than charisma and charm. The personal authority he enjoyed sprang from an extraordinary self-possession and force of will that Fanning highlights.
Born in New York on October 14, 1882, Edward de Valera hardly knew his father. Juan Vivion de Valera separated from Edward’s mother, Catherine Coll, when the child was two. Daughter of a farm laborer, she had come to America in 1879 from Bruree, County Limerick. The lack of documentation on de Valera’s early years brought later rumors of illegitimacy; Fanning offers this as a reason why clergy who became his mentors never encouraged a religious vocation. Mother and child separated when Catherine had to earn a living after his father’s death. Her brother Ned brought the infant back to rural Ireland and the family home at Knockmore.
Edward grew up there, turning his hand to farm work. He remembered the original pre-famine, one-room cottage with mud walls and thatched roof, though the family eventually moved to a larger, three-room cottage. Schooling offered an escape from hardship: challenging his uncle at 14, he demanded either to join his mother in America or be sent to the Christian Brothers School at Charleville. The episode showed his strength of will. So did mastering a rigorous curriculum while walking seven miles each way to school. A scholarship in 1898 opened further doors. Rejected by two nearby colleges, de Valera won a place at Dublin’s Blackrock College, which became his real home. The step provided a rigorous classical education while propelling de Valera into the bourgeois Catholic elite that dominated 20th-century Ireland.
These years formed an “almost impenetrable carapace of emotional self-sufficiency” that Fanning rightly calls de Valera’s “greatest strength and his greatest weakness.” Blackrock planted “seeds of the innately conservative respect for convention” that always characterized de Valera. It made him comfortable around the clergy by teaching respect without subservience. Forming and expressing one’s own idea, de Valera believed, had more value than “a cartload of other people’s ideas which are for the most part accepted without being boiled down, digested or assimilated.” Five years at Blackrock transformed de Valera from a raw country boy into a sophisticated and assured undergraduate on the path to a teaching career. From there, personal authority developed as a teacher made him a leader.
Only in his twenties did de Valera begin to show much interest in nationalism. The requirement that teachers learn Irish led him to take lessons. Marrying his teacher then made him a zealous proponent of the Gaelic revival. Edward became Éamon. A crisis sparked by a new Home Rule Bill in 1912 drew him into politics. Tensions escalated as both sides in Ireland, for and against home rule, took up arms and began training military units. De Valera joined the Irish Volunteers in 1913, remaining after the vast majority broke away the next year when John Redmond, the constitutional nationalist leader, urged them to serve the wherever the new World War demanded.
De Valera considered the struggle for home rule Ireland’s real war. He fought in the 1916 Easter Rising. The fact that he remained a civilian in uniform counted little against the heroic image de Valera won as both the most senior officer to survive and commander of the unit that inflicted the most casualties on the British. What he actually did, Fanning argues, mattered less than its political use. Dismissed as unimportant by British authorities—and thereby spared execution—de Valera won respect during imprisonment in England. Escape then opened a public path to leadership with a parliamentary by-election for East Clare that he carried overwhelmingly.
De Valera and other Sinn Féin nationalists refused to attend Parliament in Westminster and instead created their own assembly, the Dáil, which declared Ireland an independent republic. Britain did not recognize the country’s new status, and the Anglo-Irish War broke out. De Valera held an ascendancy in Irish politics that Fanning likens to Charles Stewart Parnell’s position in the 1880s, holding a balance between political nationalism and armed warfare. Unlike Parnell, however, de Valera had no scandal to bring him down.
Intellectual purity instead proved to be his weakness, as he delegated negotiations to end the Anglo-Irish War. Although sensitive to British security concerns, he tolerated no compromise on symbolism. An oath to the crown acknowledged unacceptable subordination even when it came with self-government under dominion status within the British Empire. De Valera had crafted a formula of external association he believed both sides could accept—and which involved substantive compromises on Ulster—but he refused to lead talks. When the delegation compromised and signed an agreement without referring it back for his approval, he rejected it. His colleagues then largely rejected him.
The split over the treaty excluded him from power for nearly a decade. It sparked an Irish civil war that claimed the lives of many former colleagues, including Michael Collins. De Valera risked imprisonment or assassination himself. Recriminations created a lasting schism in Irish politics. Pragmatism, not principle, eventually led de Valera to abandon physical force for constitutional politics: the reality of participation mattered more than reservations about an oath, so he returned to the Dáil in 1927 after nominally complying with it, at the head of a new party, Fianna Fáil.
The treaty’s place as the dividing line in party politics set Ireland apart by avoiding a left-right division of the sort seen elsewhere, and de Valera’s innate conservatism shone through as he worked to take class difference, and the ideological tensions it fueled, out of politics. Economics mattered little to him. Since he shared the Catholic Church’s position on matters of faith and morals, deference to it came easily. Yet clerical involvement with politics writ small—the everyday ins and outs—was a different matter. De Valera stood his ground on other points too: while noting the special position of Catholicism as guardian of the faith most Irishmen professed, his constitution for an independent Ireland also recognized Protestant churches and Jewish congregations. Accepting Catholic teaching as a guide for social and educational policy defined integralist Catholicism and made the church a unifying force after a bitter split over the treaty. But it never meant handing prelates the keys to Ireland’s government.
Independence was a principle to de Valera. He likened Ireland to a servant in a great house who gave up its comforts and luxuries to have his freedom in a humble cottage with frugal fare. Since being free meant having no master, to acknowledge one even formally was servile. De Valera’s ground for resisting to the treaty persistently shaped his policy. Ending even the appearance of dependence became a central goal. With that secured after the Civil War, compromises could be had.
British Prime Minister David Lloyd George likened negotiating with de Valera to picking up mercury with a fork. De Valera deftly severed even symbolic ties with Britain during the 1930s while avoiding confrontation. Economic pressure from Britain thereafter enabled him to blame austerity—the frugal fare of the cottage—on the former imperial master. Since Irish voters always wanted someone to stand against, de Valera shrewdly directed their animus toward the British. Unlike so many other Irish nationalists, however, he never succumbed to Anglophobia or the cultural cringe behind it. Besides asserting independence, de Valera used neutrality to keep Ireland out of other people’s quarrels.
Controversy persists over de Valera’s foreign policy, with its dogged refusal to take sides openly against Nazi Germany. His notorious decision to offer condolences at the German embassy on Hitler’s death in 1945 sparked outrage. De Valera’s belief that “I acted correctly, and I feel certain wisely” captures the self-righteousness Fanning notes throughout his career. The incident also hid a more complex reality. While de Valera sought to convince all sides he would oppose by force any power interfering with Irish neutrality, he also secretly worked to ensure Britain would not be defeated. Cracking down on the IRA curtailed a threat to both countries. Lord Cranborne, a member of Churchill’s cabinet, acknowledged in 1945 the extensive measures that tilted neutrality toward the Allies. Public departure from neutrality would have outraged de Valera’s principles while opening Ireland to attack. Private cooperation was a different matter.
With the Emergency, as the Irish called World War II, and its aftermath over, politics turned to questions of how independence would be used. De Valera’s ascendancy lasted into the 1960s, but his vision of an “Irish-speaking pastoral idyll” failed to resonate. Never comfortable with “bread and butter” issues of wages, prices, and inflation, he urged crisis austerity and “the choice of the humble cottage” that Irishmen by then wanted to escape. Stability increasingly seemed like stagnation. Fanning notes a cruel symbolism in the fact that de Valera’s eyesight deteriorated, leaving him only his peripheral vision.
Ireland’s turn after de Valera from self-absorbed backwater to Celtic tiger raises paradoxes of its own. A premodern society rooted in Catholic faith and small communities became perhaps the most postmodern nation on earth. Revelations of sexual abuse tore the veil off the old Ireland. The recent banking and real estate crash hit hard, denting public confidence in the new Ireland. Besides making difficult a fair assessment of “the Long Fellow,” as Irishmen know de Valera, these changes raise wider questions for the country he created. And William Butler Yeats’s line from 1916, “all changed, changed utterly,” echoes even more resoundingly a century later.
William Anthony Hay is associate professor of history and director of the Institute for the Humanities at Mississippi State University.