Thursday 24 October 2019

The Long Fellow, short memories

Why - 40 years after his death - Dev has been frozen out of our affections

Man of destiny: Eamon de Valera (second left) with Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins
Man of destiny: Eamon de Valera (second left) with Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins

Eamon Delaney

Today is the 40th anniversary of the death of Éamon de Valera, surely the most controversial and divisive figure of Irish history, and a man who personified Ireland and its struggle for international recognition. Forget Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen, this is the man (and another former Fianna Fáil leader!) who really gets the pulses racing.

Dev's death in 1975 was a major national event. At the age of 92, it seemed that the Long Fellow had been around for forever, and his passing finally saw Ireland move on from the grip of the 'old men in the black coats' who had presided over the struggling State for so long. Having cheated the British hangman after the 1916 Rising, due to his American citizenship, Dev was incredibly still President in the early 1970s. He left the Aras in 1973, and retired to a Blackrock nursing home where he died.

Dev got a major send off, with the Fine Gael-led coalition government determined to show flair and fairness in burying the old enemy. With an oil crisis, unemployment and violence growing in the North, the government otherwise had its hands full. Dev had become almost a surreal figure, from his notorious signing of a German book of condolences for Adolf Hitler in 1945 - what was he thinking? - to appearing as a ghostly character in James Joyce's experimental novel Finnegans Wake. My father, a sculptor, was almost called to do a death mask of the aged de Valera, but disappointingly, nothing came of it. Like many, I was also apparently named after him.

De Valera's name still provokes strong reaction. I was recently going along the red-brick Munster Street in Phibsboro, when I passed the house where de Valera lived briefly after the 1916 Rising. I asked an elderly man nearby how come they didn't have a plaque up. The man's reply was unprintable. But basically, it was along the lines of 'why we should we honour such a scandalous, destructive chancer who dragged us into Civil War and ruined the country'.

This is a common view. It was once said of de Valera, that there was 'no road named after him in Dublin, because they couldn't find a road that was long enough nor narrow enough to name after the b**tard' (though this is probably an old Blueshirt joke).

By contrast, Dev's nemesis, Michael Collins, has grown in heroic stature. There is a road named after him, and a bronze bust of him in Merrion Square and a stone one off Parnell Square, in the Dublin City gallery. The Corkman's grave in Glasnevin is constantly bedecked with flowers, while Dev's is somewhat barren.

But there is a rather simplistic comparison between the two. Collins died young, was good looking, ruthless and full of roguish charm. Would he have been treated to such reverential status had he lived? Hardly.

And Collins was problematic, such as secretly keeping the violence going in the North. He was also equally pious, as were the other State-creating Republicans. The reality is that they were all men of their time.

For example, critics condemn Dev for his social conservatism and economic protectionism which they say led to economic underdevelopment and mass emigration. They also accuse him of handing the new State over to the Catholic Church and abandoning the true principles of a secular Republic.

But this is retrospective logic. The majority of people supported such conservatism and supported and revered the Catholic Church. If Dev was wrong, then so were they. And besides, Dev did much to curb the influence of the Church, and ignored their strictures on many issues.

Indeed, for many, de Valera was a total hero. They see him as a clever and dogged man who stood up to the British, refused to pay land annuities to the vanished colonial landlords and who used legal and constitutional means to further Ireland's independence, and thus avoided further conflict. He was also the man who kept us out of World War II, and who developed the League of Nations and international peacekeeping which grew into the United Nations of today.

De Valera also continued to win general elections and was later elected President. But, of course, as many people distrusted and disliked him as revered him. He only got re-elected President in 1966 by a margin of less than 1pc. Many people understandably never forgave him for the Civil War, and for the closed, overly nationalist State he created.

Either way, de Valera was a powerful, influential and highly divisive figure and his legacy remains, from the abortion laws to our neutrality (but also our pro-Americanism) as well our industrial underdevelopment and thus over reliance on foreign multinational investment. And as for the North, another very questionable legacy, we have been left with a lot of destructive baggage.

However, the Long Fellow deserves a better hearing and in time he surely will get it, as people wake up to the realities of how things were during his long life and how history should be judged in context. Otherwise, we are treating our historical figures as mere movie characters, and ignoring the way in which we ourselves have shaped our story and our leaders.

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