In David's Milch's astonishing television series Deadwood (HBO), Ian McShane plays the wily saloon keeper Al Swearengen. Discussing possible future political permutations for the gold-rich mining camp, he tells the sheriff that their most urgent need is a figurehead: "What do we need a dictatorship for, that silences the public voice, that eases the enemy's way? Noise made, overtures to outside interests and enlistment of the hooples' participation is what this situation demands. And a trustworthy mug with a vague motive out there, bugling the call."
Ireland's last Governor-General, Dómhnall ua Buachalla (1866-1963), met Swearengen's twin criteria of honesty and opacity. When de Valera asked his fellow Easter Rising veteran to take one for the team, and become the king's representative in Ireland, ua Buachalla honourably obliged.
Adhamhnán Ó Súilleabháin describes the spittle that duly descended. The Irish Times looked forlornly for regal qualifications, whereas others said his pension arrangements constituted "the greatest piece of corruption that has ever happened in this country." The book also ably evokes the nationalist cosmos of the pre-independence era, touching on ua Buachalla's ancestral preoccupation with the Famine, his devotion to Irish, the Volunteer years and his experience in British jails. The book by ua Buachalla's grandson is especially interesting though for its insights on Patrick Pearse and de Valera himself.
Pearse taught ua Buachalla's son, Joe, and he comes across here as a kindly if vaguely extra-terrestrial figure. He thumped Joe at one point for killing a duck, ("Suddenly he gave me a bang on the back of the head and said, 'You're not asleep, turn around here'"), but then proffered an orange. And when he heard rumblings that the lad harboured thoughts of joining his father in the GPO in 1916, Pearse summoned him to the master's study.
"I presume", Pearse said, "that from talking to your father you have a kind of idea that things will not be running so smoothly later on." Not unreasonably, Joe replied, "I see a lot of rifles around and it has put me thinking." A conversation for the ages that reminds us that Pearse's school was not exactly a Montessori operation.
This vivid evocation of Pearse suggests again that there was something of Czesław Miłosz's Alpha the Moralist about him, the character who dreamed of escaping his stunted life by becoming a cardinal. ("Slow movements, the flow of scarlet silk, the proffering of a ring to kiss - this for him was purity of gesture, self-expression through the medium of a better self.")
The parallel portrait of de Valera is pleasingly unexpected. For all of ua Buachalla's devotion, de Valera comes across as strikingly hesitant, even confused at important moments. It is startling to be reminded again of the way de Valera botched the abolition of the governor-generalship in 1936. With winning if not exactly reassuring candour, he told the Dáil that he really did not understand the exact effect of his Constitution (Amendment No. 27) Act, this being the statute that deleted the Governor-General's executive powers.
De Valera is often presented these days as a constitutional thinker of some imagination and insight - he was American after all - but he is a rather cautious, even cynical figure here, very much a big-picture politician who was not above exploiting gentler souls like ua Buachalla to get his way.
Domhnall ua Buachalla: Rebellious Nationalist, Reluctant Governor
Adhamhnán O Súilleabháin
Irish Academic Press, €20.25-€45.00
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