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The seeds of De Valera's respect for convention were sown in schooldays

The seeds of the innately conservative respect for convention that always characterised de Valera were sown in his first years at Blackrock: "He retained all his life a special liking for the prayers of that school manual, as well as for the rosary . . . These were the family prayers on which his own family were reared; and it was these prayers which were recited for him at his request up to the end of his life at Linden Convalascent Home."

The deeply religious ethos of Blackrock marked the youthful Edward de Valera in other ways, most notably in creating a fertile climate for thinking he might have a vocation for the priesthood. When, in his first term, he asked if he might join the Scholasticate, the college president had demurred and counselled taking time to think it over, although he was allowed stay on with the scholastics at Christmas.

In 1900, after witnessing the first ordination ceremony ever conducted in Blackrock, he wrote to his 10-year-old half-brother, Thomas Wheelwright, and later to his mother, that he was "thinking seriously of going on, this time to Clonliffe, to study for the diocesan priesthood".

It came to nothing and does not seem to have surfaced again until 1904-5 at the end of his time in Rockwell College, when several of his contemporaries went to England to join a new novitiate for the Holy Ghost Fathers in Prior Park, Bath, and when de Valera was still undecided about his own future.

"At last, whether off his own bat, or the advice of someone else", he went on a weekend retreat with the Jesuit Fathers in Rathfarnham Castle.

His confessor advised that he had "what is known as an incipient vocation". There matters rested until January 1906 when de Valera consulted the president of the seminary at Clonliffe College, where he was doing some part-time teaching, about entering the secular priesthood. Again, he was fobbed off and "advised . . . not to come in now".

How can one explain what Tim Pat Coogan has described as the "curious fact that, though many sources attest to his piety and deep religiosity, no director of vocations whom de Valera consulted encouraged him to become a priest"?

His inability to provide a copy of his mother's marriage certificate, then an essential prerequisite under canon law for every candidate for the priesthood, offers one explanation. Kindness and sympathy of priests who admired and liked him might have prompted their sparing Edward de Valera from confronting that brutal reality.

What one can say with certainty is that enduring affinity forever marked his attitude to the priests in Blackrock and elsewhere, and there is no evidence that he ever resented the discouragement of his vocational aspirations.

De Valera's involvement in the Literary and Debating Society during his time at Blackrock's University College (1903-8) is also of interest in the light of his subsequent career. He supported a motion that "constitutional monarchy as a form of government is preferable to republicanism", on the grounds that "constant elections disturbed the nation, and are not conducive of the prosperity of the people". He also argued that "there is no rule so tyrannical as that of them all" - an argument foreshadowing his assertion in 1921-2, the great watershed of his political career, that the majority had no right to do wrong.

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But his most significant contribution to the society's proceedings was the paper of 20 foolscap pages he delivered in February 1903 on the Irish university question, then a subject of extensive political debate largely focused on the demand for a university or universities acceptable to the Catholic bishops.

Two aspects of the paper merit particular attention: an originality reflecting an appetite for independent thought and an absence of any sectarian animosity towards Trinity College Dublin, long a bastion of Protestant ascendancy in Ireland.

De Valera began by insisting that he was proposing his own solution, saying that "he was a great believer in the 'man in the street solution'"; he added that his research had corroborated his own personal hunch in a passage that Seán Farragher has suggested "is the first documentary evidence we have of the process to which he was to refer later in life as 'consulting his own heart' when he wanted to know what was best for the Irish people".

Citing Cicero's saying that "to cease to think is to cease to philosophise", de Valera argued that "the conception and expression of a single idea of one's own is of more educational value than a cartload of other people's ideas which are for the most part accepted without being boiled down, digested or assimilated".

After pointing out that Dublin University had been established in the 16th century with the intention that Trinity College should be but one of several colleges, he argued that no new legislation was needed for the foundation of another college of that university for Catholics with comparable funding and facilities; although the colleges would be independent in their internal organisation, they would remain integrated in a single university.

He argued; "It is very prudent to have all the minds of the country shaped in one university - which does not necessarily mean shaped in one mould. If there was but one national university, it would tend to develop a strong national spirit among all students at it, whatever might be their other opinions and differences.

"You would have those men going out into public life with that intense common sympathy, with a common interest for which they would be ready to sacrifice their individual prejudices and inclinations.

"Such a spirit it is that makes patriots and constitutes the stability of a nation . . . they would have certain aims and certain affections in common, a thing which would do much to put an end to the present racial and religious strife in the country, while at the same time the religious training of all parties would not be neglected nor their consciences violated."

÷ Eamon de Valera: A Will to Power, by Ronan Fanning, is published on Thursday by Faber & Faber, priced at £20

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