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The Making of Éamon de Valera

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.

thisarticleappears [1]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.

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13 Comments To "The Making of Éamon de Valera"

#1 Comment By Colonel Bogey On June 17, 2016 @ 11:01 am

Catholic integralists like De Valera, Dollfuss and Salazar erred when they accepted republicanism as the structure of their respective regimes. The Irish who fought at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 fought for the legitimate king, the Catholic James II, against the usurper William of Orange; in 1916 the rightful ruler was Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria. But De Valera settled for a republic that usurped the king’s rights as badly as the Coburg dynasty did, without being able to hold on to Catholic integralism in the long run.

#2 Comment By Liam On June 17, 2016 @ 12:07 pm

Valera probably understood that the Irish in the main would have no truck with Jacobite pretense – Jacobitism in Ireland in any meaningful sense was long gone by the 20th century. The problem with integrism is that it’s a modern ideology, not authentically traditional, but it’s in denial about that. It’s thus doomed to be effete.

#3 Comment By Anonymousdr On June 17, 2016 @ 1:22 pm

@Colonel Bogey

Yup. Pretty much nailed it.

#4 Comment By Optatus Cleary On June 17, 2016 @ 5:29 pm

“The most post-modern nation on Earth” seems like something of an exaggeration. I’m not exactly sure what “postmodern” is intended to mean here.

#5 Comment By SeanD On June 18, 2016 @ 1:30 am

William Hay, good article! My paternal grandfather was a teenage message-runner for DeV, and I received a glowing account of the man. I’ve since realized that his legacy was more mixed, but I still think the post-’80s revisionist smear is further off the mark than the old hero-worship.
A few corrections: by most accounts, Eamon’s father was Cuban, though at least largely of Spanish descent. The reason British authorities exempted DeV from their execution of the Easter Rising leaders is that he was an American citizen; much as they thirsted for the blood of (in their view) traitors, they more desperately craved America’s entry into WWI. As for WWII neutrality, DeV explicitly said that it was because Britain was “occupying” Northern Ireland; he implied that a united Ireland would fully join the Allied war effort, but Churchill didn’t call his bluff.
Lastly, if integralist = reactionary, then it is too simplistic to describe de Valera’s philosophy. You refreshingly point out that DeV was not he sectarian or clericalist that revisionist historians have made him out to be, but he was also the most strident figure at the League of Nations in denouncing Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia. Anti-imperialism and racial equality are generally considered liberal values, but DeV believed in them as strongly as he believed in “conservative” Catholic teachings on faith and morals.

#6 Comment By JoS. S. Laughon On June 18, 2016 @ 1:59 am

Asking the Irish to restore the dynasty which had abandoned them after their defeat at Boyne seems historically myopic.

#7 Comment By SeanD On June 18, 2016 @ 2:14 am

Col. Bogey, I’m a history nerd and a nostalgic, and even if I weren’t I would wish the Battle of the Boyne to have ended differently. Even so, Liam sees this matter more clearly than you do. Few native Irish recognized the English/British Crown’s claim to rule Ireland even when England was Catholic. The monarch who initiated England’s “plantation” policy in Ireland was Mary Tudor (though on a smaller scale, and without the genocidal onslaught of her sister Elizabeth). The Irish who flocked to James II’s side knew or suspected that he wanted an even more centralized United Kingdom, and had little regard for Irish culture; nevertheless, James promised repeal of the anti-Catholic Penal Laws, and probably Cromwell’s land confiscations as well. Irish resistance subsequently adapted itself to various ideological trends and sources of foreign patronage, from the French Revolution to Romantic Age nationalism. De Valera’s marriage of traditional Gaelic/Catholic culture and modern republican/nationalist politics was no more eternal than any other societal vision, but it suited his generation of Irish well, and a few more generations for that matter. Today’s Irish have the privilege of choosing what they wish to keep and discard of DeV’s legacy, but at least he succeeded in leaving one, unlike James II.

#8 Comment By Paul On June 18, 2016 @ 10:50 pm

According to one social historian, no people, or peasantry, ever of its own volition embraced industrialization: it is always imposed from above. And yet there seems to be an unspoken assumption that modernization itself comes by popular demand. But is that true? How do we know? And was it true of Ireland?

Doctor Hay writes that the Irish “by then [in the 1960s] wanted to escape … the choice of the humble cottage.” But how do we know?

I would love to learn more [disaggregated] details about the social history of Ireland’s relation with economic liberalism. Surely ‘public opinion’ has never been all of one piece … Or maybe it was, and it was just the spirit of the times.

In any case, please keep publishing articles like this. Learned a ton.

#9 Comment By El Alcázar On June 19, 2016 @ 8:00 pm

@Colonel Bogey:

Oh, please. The current King of Spain, Felipe VI, actively promotes homosexualism and transgenderism. There is no correlation between monarchism and traditional Catholic values. Republics likewise can be either liberal or traditionalist in their orientation. Yes, Ireland, Austria, and Portugal have all fallen away from traditional values, but Spain with its monarchy restored by Franco has fared no better. In short, I doubt the decline of traditional values in the West has anything to do with whether a country is a monarchy or a republic.

Personally, I can’t stomach the idea of monarchy. As far as I am concerned, the only true King is Jesus Christ. All of the others are usurpers and don’t even exist in my eyes. I think restoring the monarchy was Franco’s worst mistake.

#10 Comment By Michael Sheridan On June 20, 2016 @ 12:16 pm

I will attempt to get this book. My own 2x great grandfather, James Hoare, was a North Tipperary man involved in Irish politics and was, according to family lore, well acquainted with de Valera. James’ wife was Anastatia Fanning and some of her Fanning relations were also politically active. I do wonder whether the author, Ronan Fanning, has any family history in common that might have impelled him to make this a subject of study. Not that this would make any difference to the merit of the work in question. Mr. Fanning apparently has a long and distinguished history of scholarship behind him. Familial connections, when known, do lend interest to history, though.

#11 Comment By Colm J On June 20, 2016 @ 12:25 pm

Interesting debate re monarchy and republicanism. The leader of the 1916 rising, Padraig Pearse, was open to the idea of a German Prince becoming monarch of Ireland, so republicanism has no necessary connection with Irish nationalism. Eoghan Roe O’Neill, the 17th century Irish Catholic patriot and military leader, desired that Ireland become a protectorate of the Spanish Empire – in order to ward off English Protestant aggression.

I don’t think Dev was a Catholic integrist: anti-Catholic liberals have long dominated discourse about Ireland and it suits their purpose to paint Dev’s Ireland as an ultra-conservative Catholic “theocracy”. In truth many Catholics viewed his constitution as far too liberal, and his desire to unify the two parts of Ireland made him very reluctant to do anything to offend the powerful Protestant minority in southern Ireland. Contrary to popular myth, 1950s Ireland was a place where rabid hostility to the Catholic Church was rife in the media and among the self-appointed intelligentsia.

Although I’m not anti-monarchy, I tend to agree with El Alcazar: the monarchies of Europe – the U.K., Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, and the Scandinavian countries, aren’t noted for their traditionalism. In my view Catholic traditionalists overdo the monarchy thing: it’s not a silver bullet that cures the underlying ills of a nation anymore than a written constitution does.

#12 Comment By Colonel Bogey On June 20, 2016 @ 5:11 pm

“I think restoring the monarchy was Franco’s worst mistake.” –El Alcazar

Franco’s conscience and sense of honour gave him no other choice. He had sworn an oath of allegiance to Alfonso XIII when he joined the army, and Alfonso had never released him from it; therefore, as an honourable man, he had to restore the Bourbons (even though I have read that he had once toyed with the idea of restoring the Habsburgs instead, until the late Archduke Otto convinced him it was an absurd idea.)

#13 Comment By anonymousdr On June 23, 2016 @ 1:00 pm

“Although I’m not anti-monarchy, I tend to agree with El Alcazar: the monarchies of Europe – the U.K., Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, and the Scandinavian countries, aren’t noted for their traditionalism. In my view Catholic traditionalists overdo the monarchy thing: it’s not a silver bullet that cures the underlying ills of a nation anymore than a written constitution does.”

I think that a lot of this is a case of selection bias. The only monarchies that have survived are relatively liberal ones. If they weren’t relatively liberal they would have been overthrown long ago, because there is essentially no appetite for a conservative Catholic monarchy, particularly among industrial leaders/intelligencia. The right-wing/authoritarian regimes of late 20th century Europe and Latin America were tolerated because they were seen as the only thing that could stop Communism (I think people often forget that Communists wanted to despoil big business and the Church and so there was a good reason for their alliance).
As for monarchy, I’m curious about Carlism (not the left-wing kind) which seemed to recognize the problems with traditional succession and sought to pick the most Traditionalist heir, but there doesn’t seem to be much good written on it in English (although I’d love suggestions).
I’m also curious how Asian countries seem to have maintained relatively conservative values in the light of industrialization. Is it because of the tensions in Christianity (e.g. it keeps a fairly conservative law, but with a lot of Christ’s sayings are quite subversive_? I’m curious what y’all think.