Tuesday 27 September 2016

Books: The enigmatic founding father - Eamon de Valera

Biography: Eamon de Valera: A Will to Power, Ronan Fanning, Faber, hbk, 320 pages, €29.50

Published 11/10/2015 | 02:30

President Eamonn de Valera on a visi to Kilmainham Jail in the 1960s
President Eamonn de Valera on a visi to Kilmainham Jail in the 1960s
Eamon de Valera: A Will To Power

Our reviewer on a new book that attempts to explain the mysteries of de Valera.

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Two years ago, Professor Ronan Fanning published Fatal Path, his masterly account of the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations. Now, after a remarkably short interval, he has given us the sequel. It would be wrong to say that his analysis of the life and work of Eamon de Valera copper-fastens his reputation as a historian. Fatal Path had already done that. But when he decided to write what he evidently intends as the definitive de Valera biography, he undertook an even more Herculean task.

Dev, as befits one of our greatest statesmen, has been the subject of many books - some good, some less good, some bordering on hagiography, some seething with enmity. Fanning is not one for hasty judgments. His literary skills and his unerring grasp of the realities of politics make this one a convincing narrative and a joy to read.

Some of the mysteries remain. Why did de Valera refuse to lead the Irish delegation at the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations in London? Why did a worn-out Arthur Griffith declare his intention to vote for the treaty although the delegates had a duty to refer the decision back to Dublin before endorsing it?

And why did de Valera lose his head (his enemies could, and did, say lose his wits) when he opposed the treaty and provoked the Civil War?

Fanning calls his behaviour on that occasion "petulant, inflammatory, ill-judged and profoundly undemocratic". Nobody with a capacity for rational judgment can contradict that assessment. Yet the author goes on to describe his subtlety of thought and his political successes with understanding and admiration.

He seeks and finds clues to de Valera's enigmatic side in his early childhood, marked by poverty and uncertainty. De Valera overcame his disadvantages by strenuous study and the ability to grasp opportunities. But two more outstanding characteristics were self-belief and an uncanny ability to attract loyalty and even devotion from men who were often his intellectual equals.

Among the main figures of the revolutionary period, he had the least aptitude for military affairs. He wanted pitched battles and fixed positions. One has to smile at his elaborate plans, as a commandant in 1916, to hold an eight-mile railway line with a handful of men.

He expected, and usually got, enthusiastic obedience from subordinates to whom he did not disclose the ultimate purpose of his decisions. His never-ending lectures drove Michael Collins into grumpy silence.

Along with his conviction that he was always right went a grim determination to attain his ends. Less than five years after the Civil War ended, he was again the leading political figure in Ireland. He settled the controversy over the oath of fidelity to the British monarch with what we might now call chutzpah, and got away with it. Another five years, and he was Taoiseach.

His greatest achievement - his almost flawless handling of the neutrality issue in World War II - has been widely misunderstood. Critics have failed to grasp his attitude to Britain and the British establishment. Fanning is exceptionally interesting on this point.

During the war, many realities were obscured by the censorship. Since then, we have had ample time and opportunity to consider them calmly.

As is well known, Dev viewed neutrality as a necessary affirmation of independence. Secondly, he knew that a declaration of war on Germany would bring swift and devastating retaliation. Fanning digs deeper. He concludes, convincingly, that de Valera was pro-British and very far from pro-German. Indeed, he says that during the war, Ireland and Britain became not merely friends but allies. Over some decisions, Dev agonised at length, and with good reason. When he sent fire engines to Belfast, where fires raged after a bombing raid, he could not be certain that the Germans would not react by bombing Dublin. He made the right decision.

This tells us more about him than his amazing decision, at the end of the war, to visit the German legation in Dublin and express his condolences on the death of Adolf Hitler.

That was a gross mistake, prompted no doubt by excessive fondness for protocol and opposed by senior civil servants. He must have known that it would provoke a furious reaction.

Privately, he praised the German envoy's courtesy and compared it with the vehemently anti-Irish attitude of his American counterpart David Gray - understandable but irrelevant. About the same time, he delighted his own people with his dignified reply to a wild (and possibly drunken, as he suggested) tirade from Winston Churchill.

His post-war record is much less admirable. He stayed too long and did too little.

He appears to have had no understanding of the need for modernisation. One has to wonder whether he really believed in the rustic idyll ("comely maidens" and all that) which he painted in a St Patrick's Day broadcast. The maidens were not dancing, but fleeing a country which could not offer them decent lives.

He devised a Constitution which Fanning deplores for its outdated aspects and its tinge of sectarianism. He infuriated feminists by the provision popularly expressed in the phrase "a woman's place is in the home".

However, one has also to remember that he resisted intense pressure from the Catholic Church, which wanted a document declaring Catholicism the State religion. He compromised, and ever since we have been plagued by controversies, revisions - not always well-judged - and reluctance to produce a new Constitution appropriate for the 21st century.

On the whole, nevertheless, Fanning's assessment of an extraordinary man and an extraordinary career leans heavily to the credit side.

This book makes an important contribution to our understanding of modern Ireland. It should be read, in particular, by young people who have learned too little history at school (and, sadly, seem likely to learn even less in future). They may be surprised by how much pleasure it will give them.

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