'The Civil War was a joke, but it was an obscene and bloody joke'
Courageous and idealistic, Dev also fomented Civil War and left a legacy of unrest, writes Con Houlihan
Published 02/03/2008 | 00:00
SOMETIMES we hear this question: how will history deal with George Bush or Tony Blair or Fidel Castro or some such famous figure?
In this context there is no such thing as history; they are historians and they rarely reach consensus.
A historian can only assemble all the known material and form his judgement on that. In Diarmaid Ferriter's book Judging Dev, a very ambitious study, he refers to me as a journalist. That's fair enough -- but in my BA package I have a first-class honours in history. I have taught the subject and I have written a fair amount about it. And so I feel competent to answer Diarmaid Ferriter's question.
When Eamon de Valera went into Boland's Mills on Easter Monday 1916, he had little to gain and a great deal to lose. He was approaching 30; he had a wife and small children; he taught mathematics -- a skill with which you need never beg for bread.
A solid middle-class future beckoned. He showed courage and idealism in taking his stance: he knew that in wartime the Army are the real government and traditionally the British Army gave no mercy to those suspected of "treason". He knew that the Rising would almost certainly fail and that he would face a firing squad.
He escaped execution because, when his turn came, the British public -- informed by good journalists -- were sick of the killings.
Because de Valera was one of the few leading Volunteers to survive, he gained great prestige. He gained even more when he escaped from Lincoln Prison. And so by 1918 he was effectively the leader of Sinn Fein.
What some people deem the downturn in his career came after the Truce in 1921.
He sent Michael Collins with a little party to London to negotiate with Lloyd George, and gave them full powers. When they returned with what was called the Treaty, he seemed to argue that they hadn't full powers. This was the first example we have of de Valera twisting language to his own ends.
He became famous for saying that the people have no right to be wrong. Maybe he never said it, but it was a view held by many of his associates.
Countess Markievicz expressed this view the most clearly. She said that a people so long in slavery weren't able to speak for themselves. Thus she ignored the momentum behind O'Connell and Parnell.
The people accepted the Treaty by a clear majority in the referendum; de Valera didn't accept their verdict. Thus were sown the seeds of the Civil War.
It would be unjust to blame de Valera as the sole begetter of this conflict, but with his great prestige he could have opposed it. Instead, he fomented it.
In a speech in Killarney in March 1922, he spoke of brothers wading in brothers' blood and of walking over their dead comrades to achieve independence. One cannot help feeling that at this time he was clinically insane. These are the words of an intelligent man who had lost his reason.
He and his little army set out to destroy the infrastructure of the young State.
My father was then with a flying column in Tipperary. He told a story about de Valera coming in person to supervise the blowing up of a bridge. The women of the locality sent him about his business: the bridge led to a hillside where fraochans grew.
About a year later de Valera gave the order to dump arms. They hadn't much to dump. My father had only a shotgun, which was more of a danger to himself than to any enemy. The Civil War was a joke, but it was an obscene and bloody joke. My mother and father and other members of our family were deeply involved, and they said that the real truth would never be written because no publisher would handle it. One of my uncles said the Free Staters were worse than the Black and Tans, but of course there was badness on both sides.
De Valera formed a party called Fianna Fail. They took over government in 1931 and he became Prime Minister. One of his first acts was to dismiss General Eoin O'Duffy from his post as head of the Garda Siochana. It was a difficult act to explain: O'Duffy had wrought a miracle in keeping law and order in a turbulent decade with an unarmed police force. Perhaps because O'Duffy had been called his right-hand-man, old bitterness remained. Many people thought that de Valera's stance in 1922 was just a jealousy of Collins. But it is hard to imagine de Valera being jealous of anyone.
Piaras Beaslaoi blamed de Valera for the assassination of Michael Collins. He hadn't been far away that day, but it is far more likely that he was there to make peace.
De Valera's early years as Taoiseach were marked by an extraordinary campaign called the Economic War.
He refused to pay certain annuities due to Britain; they in turn refused to take our cattle. This extraordinary attitude pauperised many small farmers.
When it came to dealing with the IRA, which had refused to follow him into politics, he dealt with them ruthlessly. His pretext was that if the Germans landed, the IRA would support them.
This was a joke: I wouldn't have trusted Sean MacBride and his fellow fantasists to rob an orchard. Nevertheless some of them were executed, and more were allowed to die on hunger strike. They were bad, bitter years.
It may be harsh to condemn de Valera over the Civil War: like many good people he was caught up in the romantic concept of Ireland. You might call it the Dark Rosaleen concept, as expressed in James Clarence Mangan's poem:
O, the Erne shall run red
With redundance of blood
. . . ere you shall die,
My Dark Rosaleen!
There is, however, one question about de Valera that has to be asked and that is very hard to answer. I am talking about his attempt to abolish proportional representation (PR). In this context, he either told lies or didn't know what he was talking about.
He said that PR was the cause of the political instability in France. But France had no PR. They had a different system entirely. Then he referred to PR as a British invention. So it was. But the system in practice in Britain is the so-called "first past the post". This was the very system with which de Valera proposed to replace proportional representation.
England may be the mother of democracy, but the British way of electing MPs is totally undemocratic. A party can have a majority of Members of Parliament with a minority vote.
PR has served this country well. It helped to ameliorate the poison left over by the Civil War and it gave small parties a chance to express themselves. It is the best system of election yet devised and in due course it will probably be adopted in Britain.
Fianna Fail have been by far and away the most dominant force in Irish political life since 1931. We can sum up their achievements. There was no great step forward in any branch of Irish life until Lord Browne made great strides in one field of medicine, and until Donogh O'Malley gave thousands of young people access to secondary education.
Fianna Fail must be held responsible for all the lost years. They must be held responsible, too, for the "rationalisation" of our rail system. It was counted one of the best in the world, but it was reduced to a skeleton. And for this we are still paying the price. Our congested roads are an obvious example. The argument for "rationalisation" was that certain lines didn't pay -- it was as well that the same argument wasn't applied to the roads.
Eamon de Valera expressed three great wishes: he hoped to have the Gaelic language restored as our common tongue; he hoped to stem the flow of emigration; and he hoped to see Ireland unified.
It would have needed a miracle to bring back the Gaelic language: the Civil War destroyed idealism. In the years that followed the bitter 1920s, the great ideals of the early century were lost. People were too busy trying to survive.
His plans to lessen emigration were beaten from the start. Ireland was a small agricultural country in the shadow of an industrial giant -- the outward flow was inevitable.
When Pearse and his men entered the GPO on that fateful Easter Monday, the Unionists saw it as an act of treachery -- all the more so because it happened during wartime. And furthermore, they had no desire to join a State dominated by the Catholic Church. The Republican movement from 1916 to the present day has alienated our Northern brethren. Every bomb and every bullet helps to destroy any hope of unity.
How can we judge Eamon de Valera? I know many highly educated and intelligent people who will not hear a bad word about him. I know others who see him as an egoist who looked into his own heart rather than into the heart of the people.
He gained great prestige as an international statesman. He showed great courage and willpower in remaining fully active despite fading sight in his later years. I know nothing about his childhood, but I cannot help suspecting that he was a bit spoiled by his family in Limerick. I feel that he was a kind of "special one".
Sometimes I think of Eamon de Valera in the words that the Roman poet Juvenal wrote about one of the later emperors: capax imperii nisi imperasset -- he would have been deemed to have the makings of a great leader if he hadn't become one.
Diarmaid Ferriter's book is an invaluable contribution to the history of modern Ireland.