Eamon de Valera in America: He was treated like a proto-rock star - women even fainted
Stern, severe, dry, grim, humourless, antiquated. These are the impressions generations of us carry in our mind’s eye of Eamon de Valera.
If it was charm, wit, dash, charisma and, yes, sex appeal you were looking for, Michael Collins was your man. Definitely not Dev, though. Never Dev.
But as the first half of Ciara Hyland’s excellent two-part documentary De Valera in America/De Valera i Meiriceá makes clear, that’s not how Irish-Americans saw it when de Valera made his famous trip there in 1919.
His whirlwind tour of venues big and small drew huge, adoring crowds. Twenty-three thousand people squeezed into Fenway Park stadium, home of the Boston Red Sox baseball team, for his appearance. Ten thousand more thronged outside.
All had come to listen, but many had also come to worship, to touch the hem of the great man. One woman, gripped by excitement, ran up and threw her arms around him. Some even fainted.
“He got the rock star treatment,” says Dave Hannigan, one among a string of fine contributors that includes David McCullagh, Joe Lee and Diarmaid Ferriter.
Dev, looking dapper in the finest of clothes, including a dandy straw boater, and trailed by the most expensive of luxury luggage, lapped it up. You can see him beaming in photographs and newsreel footage.
It was all an illusion, a masterpiece of propaganda organised by the Friends of Irish Freedom (FOIF), designed to raise money and recognition for the still non-existent Republic of Ireland and its supposed (for the purposes of the trip) “President”, a maths teacher and political novice who’d only become involved in politics three years before.
Dev’s nine-day voyage to America had been far less glamorous. Hidden in the hold to avoid detection, he suffered violent sea sickness and survived on brandy and Bovril.
The new clothes and luggage were bought by the FOIF, which stage-managed the tour. Joe
McGarrity and Danel Coholan handled the showbusiness side, so to speak, while seasoned old Fenian John Devoy undertook the serious business of whipping up support and dollars for the cause.
Beneath the surface, though, a rift between Devoy and de Valera was cracking open. At stake was the right to speak for Ireland, which the experienced Devoy felt was rightly his.
One meeting between the two was Beckettian in its weirdness. Neither man would display weakness by speaking first, so they sat opposite each other in silence, to the dismay of Harry Boland, who’d been sent over in advance to lay the groundwork.
There are signs that the adulation went to de Valera’s head and inflated his ego to gigantic proportions, leading to the overpowering sense of self that remained with him for the rest of his life — and ultimately had a deleterious effect on this country.
Contemporary accounts reveal many people found him insufferable during the trip. Devoy wrote: “No man can get along with Dev since his head was turned by the big receptions he got here.”
Financially, the tour was a success, raising millions of dollars through a dubious (and illegal) bond sale. But the trip was almost derailed when de Valera made some unwise comments to an English journalist which seemed to suggest he was happy to settle for less than full independence from Britain.
Had the cabinet back in Dublin not continued to back him, his career would have been over there and then.
De Valera’s own self-serving account of the trip, written in his later years and designed to burnish his reputation and belittle his Irish-American hosts and backers, has become the accepted version of history.
But there’s another, less flattering version of the story, recently unearthed form the archives of the American Irish Historical Society (AIHS). This takes up next week’s second part of this outstanding documentary.
De Valera in America (TG4)