Thursday 14 November 2019

Review: David Gray: A Yankee in De Valera's Ireland Edited by Paul Bew

RIA, €20


David Gray was the most controversial, and, until Jean Kennedy Smith, the most interventionist representative of the United States in Ireland.

Academic assessment of his performance as ambassador is almost universally critical, from Eunan O Halpin's "a meddler by nature" to Keith Jeffery's "ineffably ill-informed Hibernophobe".

Popular memory, too, is of one who shared the prejudices that his niece-in-law, Eleanor Roosevelt, often found hard to suppress, an intriguer and conspiracy-theorist who lived off scraps of malicious gossip and entirely missed the big picture.

At least this memoir absolves him of bigotry, but not of bitchiness, blundering, blindness to views other than his own and total belief in his own rightness (and righteousness).

Even the most severe Irish critics of Eamon de Valera will be put off by the incessant, obsessive vilification of the Taoiseach who had the unenviable task of navigating a passage through the stormy waters of a world at war.

Which is a pity, because although the memoir covers only six months of his seven-year stint, it covers a most dramatic phase in modern Irish and European history, from the invasion of Norway to the fall of France, when Britain was left to fight alone, and an apparently invincible Hitler poised for the invasion of England (or Ireland).

True, it is the view from the Big House, seen through a distorted lens by a man with more bees in his bonnet than the average apiary, but it is a fascinating insider's view of social and diplomatic life in Dublin at a particularly nervous period.

It is hard to know whether Roosevelt appointed Gray as an act of casual nepotism or whether he wanted somebody he could trust in what might become a vital strategic area. In any case, Gray had an access that was quite unusual for an envoy to a small country, and his personal letters to the President, along with a contemporaneous diary, form the basis for this memoir.

Paul Bew, who edited the memoir and does his best to present Gray in a charitable light in the face of the academic consensus, points to his failure to make allowances for a weak country desperately dodging and weaving to preserve its neutrality.

Gray's main charge is that de Valera, having reneged on what Gray assumed was a gentleman's agreement with Chamberlain to make the treaty ports available to Britain in time of war, having decided that Germany would win, agreed with the Germans to deny the ports by asserting neutrality, in return for getting Northern Ireland on his own terms post-war, when he could repatriate 800,000 northern Protestants to Britain.

Gray came to his new post as a friend of Ireland and with affection and respect for Irish writers. A friend of Edith Somerville, he had written an obituary in the Irish Press for her brother, murdered in 1936 by the IRA in Cork, and spent some time in Ireland, hunting, shooting and fishing. Initially he conceived a liking for de Valera, and a respect that quickly dissipated into mutual dislike, suspicion and hostility.

He also came to Ireland with a personal mission, far outside his diplomatic brief, and a solution to both the Irish problem, which had eluded British statesmen, and the problems caused for Britain by Irish neutrality. He believed that de Valera could be persuaded to make the ports available if he were guaranteed an end to partition, that the main obstacle was Craigavon, and that the British government should force his agreement.

Of course, it did not work out like that. De Valera would not commit himself to an offer he considered the British could not deliver, and Craigavon, like de Valera, did not know the meaning of compromise.

Having failed to convince de Valera to renounce neutrality, Gray behaves like a spurned lover. No stick is too small to beat de Valera with, no charge too outlandish to sustain, no rumour too incredible to report to Washington. An armed guard on the British representative is taken as a proof of hatred, a justification for assassination. De Valera, who is engaged in locking up the IRA, trying them in military courts and hanging them, is charged with conspiring with them. The IRA, he reports, has been promised control of the 32 counties by Germany, plus two English counties as well. The Irish public is said to be consumed by an atavistic hatred of England and at the same time lacking only strong leadership to bring them into the war.

In general, the Irish people, fearful of invasion by both sides, only wanted to be kept out of the war. Even his strongest opponents in Fine Gael supported neutrality, and regarded James Dillon (Gray's main political confidant) as a loose cannon who would drag them into war.

Gray was not entirely wrong. As Paul Bew points out in a perceptive introduction, the benign neutrality in favour of Britain, now perhaps accepted too readily by academics, came later in the war. Contemporary attitudes were perhaps best summed up by the inimitable JJ Horgan -- many Irish people would like to see England "nearly bate".

A Dublin Opinion cartoon later in the war showed two Irish airmen in an RAF bomber over Germany, arguing about politics but agreeing on one thing: "You have to give it to de Valera. He kept us out of the war."

A serious and moral man, Mr Gray would not have got the joke.

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