Saturday 21 September 2019

Rebel de Valera and his rocky rise to power

History: De Valera Volume 1, David McCullagh, Gill Books, €24.99

JP O'Malley

Appraising Tim Pat Coogan's De Valera, Long Fellow, Long Shadow back in 1993, Roy Foster claimed the Irish reaction to de Valera is oedipal in its intensity. "He treated us like children, so we blame him for the imperfections of our maturity," the historian concluded.

Coogan's book was consistent with the consensus of that time: de Valera's impact on Irish society did more harm than good.

The pendulum of historical analysis has now swung in de Valera's favour, though.

The late Ronan Fanning and Diarmaid Ferriter recently published books praising de Valera's leadership skills. Both historians claim that de Valera's achieving of Irish national sovereignty was remarkable given how most other European nations were descending into communist and fascist dictatorships at the time.

RTE Prime Time presenter, David McCullagh, reminds us of these arguments - as well as other lasting Civil-War-esque divisions - in the opening pages of De Valera Volume 1 Rise 1882-1932.

To his loyal disciples,"the chief" sowed the foundational seeds for the stable, independent, and democratic Irish Republic.

To his enemies, de Valera was a self-centred two-faced cute hoor: obsessed with personal ambition, power, and control. The man who drove Ireland backwards once Fianna Fail took power in 1932, bringing it to political and economic suicide on occasion: while encouraging a narrow-minded Irish nationalism that celebrated pious priests, rural poverty, emigration, and cliched paddywhackery.

McCullagh's book is that rare thing when the name de Valera is mentioned: neutral, objective, with no real allegiances or partisan axe to grind. The author is in awe of this extraordinary life story, and appears to want to give a detailed, balanced and fair-minded account of it.

Arguably, such a book hasn't been penned before, despite the plethora of material published on de Valera's life hitherto. There is a slight problem with maintaining such an objective tone however: the author's voice lacks convincing authority at times.

Moreover, McCullagh doesn't really offer his own vision of de Valera's legacy as such. He's just intent on presenting the facts.

Still, that doesn't take away too much from the book itself: which is a riveting and engaging read, and thoroughly well researched throughout.

As McCullagh skilfully demonstrates many times here, an ambivalent romantic mythology is the central component to the narrative trope of de Valera's epic, spartan-like life story. To borrow a useful phrase the late British broadcaster Robert Kee used - many decades ago - in his History of Ireland documentary: "This imaginative and [mythical] way expresses a deeper truth than the plain appearance of events. Certainly Irish history shows the power of myth to change reality."

What makes de Valera's life story all the more intriguing is that it evolves from a world of exotic estrangement: where myths can be forged out of half truths that have no definitive conclusions.

Born in October 1882 in a maternity hospital in Lexington Avenue, New York, de Valera would use his outsider status later in life to his advantage.

At just two years old, Eddie de Valera - as he was then known - was sent back to Bruree, Co Limerick, to live in rural poverty with his uncle. His mother, Kate Coll, stayed on in America to work, and then eventually started a new family. In 1884, his Spanish father, Vivion de Valera, apparently got sick, and died in Denver or Minneapolis. The details surrounding this are sketchy and full of contradictory narratives, McCullagh explains.

Allegations would later arise that de Valera was an illegitimate child. Rumours even surfaced that he was Jewish too.

McCullagh contends that de Valera's childhood isolation, and his somewhat confused sense of identity, instilled in him two distinctive and noticeable personality traits: sheer determination and an infallibility complex.

The great turning point in de Valera's life was getting a scholarship to Blackrock college in Dublin.

This meant two things: moving up the social ladder, and then securing a steady job later on as a maths teacher.

De Valera's political radicalisation came almost by accident, relatively late - aged 31 - in 1913, when he joined the Irish Volunteers.

But he never had the fervent revolutionary fundamentalism in those early years that many of his republican comrades possessed.

Did he have a nervous breakdown during his role as a leading volunteer in Easter Week?

McCullagh says there is enough evidence to suggest he did. Either way, lady luck turned in de Valera's favour: his life was spared when other leaders of the Rising were shot.

But this was because the British were under pressure to stop the executions as Irish public opinion began to shift towards the 1916 rebels. And not because- as is often assumed - de Valera was an American citizen.

Much of this material has already been covered elsewhere in detail. These key events, after all, are the foundational moments in the evolution of the Irish state: Sinn Fein's electoral landslide in 1918, which de Valera led brilliantly as President; the War of Independence, which de Valera missed much of, having spent most of it in the United States raising funds for an illegal national loan, which again, he managed to execute with reasonable success; the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, where he stayed back in Dublin, obsessively fretting over semantics, while ignoring partition completely; his controversial years during the Civil War, where he did little fighting, but gave Republican extremists a legitimacy and respectability to fight on for much longer than they should have; and then finally, the evolution of the most successful political party in Irish history, Fianna Fail, and its accompanying propaganda newspaper, The Irish Press.

These were the years of Dev the man on the run, the fighter, the near rebel martyr, the self-appointed international Irish statesman.

We do get glimpses of Dev the propagandist, and the pedantic, pious politician that de Valera would dominate Ireland from 1932 onwards.

More of that will come in McCullagh's second volumeBut for now the author simply seeks to ask: what exactly made Eamon de Valera become Ireland's most successful politician of all time?

In this sense the book achieves its main objective.

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