Monday 21 October 2019

Detailing Eamon de Valera's patient pursuit of freedom

History: De Valera Vol 2 Rule 1932-1975, David McCullagh, Gill Books, €24.99

Eamon de Valera on the steps of Downing Street, London, in 1932 after successfully negotiating Ireland's neutrality
Eamon de Valera on the steps of Downing Street, London, in 1932 after successfully negotiating Ireland's neutrality

JP O'Malley

David McCullagh begins part two of this biography with a truism: Eamon de Valera remains the most significant figure in the political history of modern Ireland. That is not a value judgment, the RTE presenter reminds us, but an undeniable fact. Part one of this biography explained how the rise of de Valera can be seen in parallel to an independent Ireland. It covered the Easter 1916 Rising; Sinn Fein's electoral landslide in 1918; the emergence of the first Dail in 1919; and the belligerent arguments from the Anti Treaty side that led to the Civil War of 1922-23.

By 1926 de Valera realised that isolating himself with hardline militant republicans would not guide him to power. So he set up the most successful political party in Irish history, Fianna Fail. It won the hearts and minds of its voters through its accompanying propaganda mouthpiece: The Irish Press. De Valera controlled editorial policy, and eventually his family would make a fortune from the paper; something he would always deny.

This is where part two of this biography picks up. In March 1932, with enough seats to form a minority government, de Valera, then aged 50, focused on three goals: crushing any enemies within; dismantling the 1921 Treaty, which meant the legality of the Irish Free State; and lastly, maintaining Irish sovereignty, and, in time, a republic. The final step would be harder than he envisioned.

De Valera's domestic enemies in these early years came from both the left (the IRA) and the right (the quasi-fascist Blueshirts). The latter would disappear fairly rapidly, while the former went underground and on the run. Once neither posed a threat, de Valera got to work on establishing a legal framework to secure Irish sovereignty.

McCullagh's close dissection of the 1937 Constitution of Ireland is the book's greatest strength - mainly because he treats the subject objectively; pointing out how it discriminated against women and embraced fundamentalist Catholic doctrine too. Catholic clerics checked the Constitution's legal clauses: these were then sent to the Vatican for approval. Its preamble, for example, referenced "Our Divine Lord Jesus Christ, Who sustained our fathers through centuries of trial."

Today, the Constitution is easy to criticise. However, McCullagh stresses - correctly - that it must be looked at in historical context. In the late 1930s many other states in Europe - particularly Catholic ones - were seduced by fascism and ruled by decree. And so by comparison, and in terms of democratic accountability, it has stood the test of time.

Once the Constitution of Ireland was in place, most elements of the Treaty were successfully removed, including: the oath of allegiance; the appeal to the Privy Council. and the British-imposed Constitution of 1922. This left the defence clauses of the Treaty as the remaining obstacle to Irish sovereignty. Specifically, article 7 which stated that Ireland was to provide Britain in time of war "whatever harbour and other facilities [it] might require".

The return of the Treaty ports was de Valera's greatest diplomatic achievement: it firmly secured Ireland's neutral status, which de facto granted the 26 counties full sovereignty, by making Britain and other nations treat it with respect and equality. Internationally, though, de Valera's Ireland found itself isolated.

Maintaining that neutrality was a "God given right" was fair game. Especially since Churchill and his ilk were still trying to treat "Eire" as a naughty school child. But some of de Valera's actions during the war were questionable: did he really need to call to the German embassy in Dublin and offer his condolences following the death of Hitler in May 1945? De Valera claimed it was standard diplomatic protocol. The international press didn't agree though. Britain's New Statesman, for instance, called his appeasing of evil just the kind of indifferent diplomacy that made "Hitler and the Nazi regime possible".

The last section of this book covers from the end of World War II to the mid-1970s. Much of this was a politically bleak time for de Valera - especially the 1950s. Emigration soared, and the country was adrift from the rest of Western Europe's post-war-boom. The figure we read of in these latter years is an elder statesman clinging on to power in a country constantly on the verge of economic collapse.

It was only when de Valera retired into the ceremonial role of Irish president, in 1959, that Ireland had a chance to really thrive as a modern nation state. Sean Lemass's First Programme for Economic Expansion that same year saw the country enthusiastically embrace free markets and foreign investment. In a way this was the real birth of modern Ireland. Unsurprisingly, de Valera remained sceptical and critical.

Outside of economic war and protectionism - which were both disastrous - de Valera never offered any convincing ideas about how economic prosperity might be achieved. He consistently returned to identity: Irish culture and particularly the language. McCullagh suggests, but doesn't state overtly, that economic prosperity couldn't have been achieved without full sovereignty. If the price of freedom meant economic hardship for a number of decades, well, in the long term, it was probably worth it. It's a seductive argument. But would a more cosmopolitan leader have been able to play an internationalist role for Ireland sooner, while also establishing sovereignty too? One can only speculate. And the task indeed was monumental.

McCullagh touches briefly on de Valera's private life, but avoids gossip. Tim Pat Coogan's 1993 biography, for example, reproduced a private conversation from the 1950s, in Leinster House, with a then young TD, Donogh O'Malley, who accused "the Chief" of having a lengthy affair with his private secretary, Kathleen O'Connell. If you're looking for such solicitous scandal here too, forget it.

As he concluded his second term as Irish President in 1973, de Valera was 90 years old; making him the eldest statesman in the world. His vision for what Ireland could become, then, was pretty much what it had been when he joined the Irish Volunteers in 1913 at the age of 31: a self-sufficient Gaelic speaking nation, sitting uniquely on the edge of western Europe, uncorrupted by capitalist materialism. These utopian ideals went with de Valera to the grave when he died in Dublin in 1975. It didn't matter though: his place in history was firmly secured.

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