Monday 21 January 2019

De Valera's private pain

His austere public image left little room for considering de Valera's background. But the question mark over his father's identity - coupled with his mother's abandonment of him - played a huge role in the formation of his character

Both sides now: While in later years de Valera tried to see both sides of the argument, during a power struggle in prison, he admitted to 'enforcing his will' on his fellow inmates
Both sides now: While in later years de Valera tried to see both sides of the argument, during a power struggle in prison, he admitted to 'enforcing his will' on his fellow inmates
David McCullough's De Valera Volume 1: Rise 1882-1932

David McCullagh

Éamon de Valera was such a dominant figure in Irish political life for so long - from 1916 to his retirement from the Presidency in 1973 - that we think we know him.

We have an image of him: austere, aloof - and ancient. Our mental picture tends to be of an old man, which is hardly surprising, as he was 76 when he stood down as Taoiseach, and 90 when he retired as President. And it tends to be of a man conscious of his status, shrouded in dignity, who rarely smiled in public.

But while this was the mask de Valera himself chose to wear, it sells him short.

His stern public image didn't take account of other aspects of his character - his very great personal charm, which gave him an extraordinary hold over people who came under its sway, or his sense of humour, which was rarely given a public outing, or his kindness and concern for the personal lives of his staff.

Nor did his public image leave much space for considering his background, which made him the man he was - and which made him anxious to wear a mask in the first place.

The first important factor in the development of his character was the question mark over the identity of his father. His mother claimed she married Vivion de Valera in 1881 in New Jersey, and that he died three years later, after the birth of their son.

But there is no proof that his parents were ever married, or that Vivion de Valera ever existed - no marriage certificate, no census entry, no record of his death. There is, however, plenty of evidence in de Valera's voluminous papers (now kept in UCD Archives) that he was bothered about this issue, bothered enough to make repeated efforts over many years to locate that proof, in different parts of the United States as well as in Spain.

If his failure to find the proof he sought affected his character, so did his mother's decision to send him back to Ireland to be raised by her own mother, and not to bring him back to America when she subsequently remarried and had two more children.

When he was 20, he wrote to his half-brother Tom, contrasting their positions: "You have been always near a loving mother, others who may have almost as much love as yours have to live separated by the ocean from her they love. You can see mother on your vacations, I must be content with the hope to see her one day."

Three years later, he made similar comments to his mother in another letter: "...every time I hear others talking of their mothers, I feel more or less an orphan. Fate has been rather hard on us. I know how much better I would be had I been under your softening influence..."

The question marks over his father, the separation from his mother, his upbringing in rural poverty in Bruree, all had their effect on the young de Valera.

If he couldn't be sure of who he was, he could compensate by identifying closely with Irish nationalism; if he had been deprived of his mother, he could compensate by relying on himself and his own judgment; if he had come from humble circumstances, he could compensate by a steely determination to win and retain leadership.

His self-reliance was hugely important to his political career, but it could be a disadvantage at times, too. This was never more apparent than during the Easter Rising. Overall, de Valera had a very good Rising. He was one of the more successful commandants, winning a formidable reputation as a military commander that was vital to his political career.

But while his pedantic attention to detail before the Rising began allowed him to give precise and invaluable instructions to his subordinates, during the fighting his refusal to delegate brought him to the brink of exhaustion - and possibly over it.

In later years, he was accused of having a nervous breakdown by pro-Treaty members of the garrison in Boland's Bakery (he was not based in Boland's Mills during the Rising). This was not due to cowardice or shell shock, as some have claimed - de Valera did not lack physical courage - it was due to overwork and lack of rest, which left him overtired, issuing orders which at times seem to have been irrational.

His refusal to trust his subordinate officers was due in part to his characteristic belief that nobody else could be trusted to do the job properly; in part to the loss of several senior officers who followed Eoin MacNeill's countermanding order; and in part due to a damning inspection report, just before the Rising, which found that in the Dublin Brigade, his 3rd Battalion was "much the weakest in the matter of command". De Valera himself wasn't blamed in the report for this problem, but it bolstered his belief that he couldn't rely on his subordinates.

Of course, the most important thing de Valera did in 1916 was to survive, which was due to luck rather than his American birth. After the surrender, the 3rd Battalion was held in the RDS for two days before being transferred to Richmond Barracks where the courts-martial were being held. When de Valera arrived there was a queue ahead of him for court-martial, and by the time he was sentenced to death, public opinion had swung against the executions, and his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

In jail - first in Dartmoor, then in Lewes - de Valera's determination was evident again. He didn't 'naturally' gravitate to the leadership of the prisoners because of his seniority, as his supporters liked to claim. There were several others who could claim to be at least as senior, particularly Thomas Ashe, and Ashe was one of several opponents of de Valera's assumption of leadership. In fact, de Valera became the recognised leader because he pursued the position, deftly elbowing rivals out of the way, and giving his fellow inmates a stark choice - back him, or sack him.

He recalled many years later that he usually tried to see all sides of a question (which led to his infamously lengthy cabinet meetings). But in prison he had "enforced my own will on people without listening to opposition".

And the rest, as they say, is history: as the recognised leader of the prisoners who were released in June 1917, he was the obvious choice as the candidate for the East Clare by-election; as the victor of East Clare, he was the inevitable choice as president of the relaunched Sinn Féin party in October 1917 - a century ago this month.

And into this leadership role, and throughout his time in politics, he relied on the character traits which his background had given him: an extremely close identification with the cause of Irish nationalism, self-reliance and belief in his own judgment, and unwavering ambition. It was a potent mix, and one that would dominate Irish politics for over half a century.

David McCullagh's De Valera Volume 1: Rise 1882-1932 published by Gill Books is out now (€24.99). De Valera Volume 2: Rule, 1932 -1975 will be published in 2018

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