Tuesday 15 October 2019

'It's the women left behind who will suffer most'

The fate of his family troubled the leader ahead of the Rising, writes Kim Bielenberg

Children front row: Ruairi de Valera, Eoin O'Cuiv, Jane de Valera, Ruairi O'Cuiv, Sile De Valera Sitting front row: From left: Son Vivion de Valera, wife Sinead, EDV, Mairin de Valera Standing 1st row: Eithne de Valera, Sally de Valera, Eithne de Val
Children front row: Ruairi de Valera, Eoin O'Cuiv, Jane de Valera, Ruairi O'Cuiv, Sile De Valera Sitting front row: From left: Son Vivion de Valera, wife Sinead, EDV, Mairin de Valera Standing 1st row: Eithne de Valera, Sally de Valera, Eithne de Val
President Eamon de Valera with his wife Sinead Ni Flannagain at a state function in Dublin in the 1960s.

He was called Edward, and she had been born Jane. They formed a bond that was to endure through revolution, imprisonment, long separation and civil war.

Edward de Valera, who soon became Éamon, met Jane Flanagan at Gaelic League Irish language classes, where she was his teacher. Steeped in the language, she had changed her name to Sinéad Ní Fhlannagáin.

At Christmas in 1908, he sent her a "nice plant", on which was inscribed 'O Chára' (from a friend). Sinéad was not sure who had sent the present, but she suspected it might have been the tall, earnest man with the long nose and spectacles.

Dev did not delay before proposing to her, and according to her account, they hardly knew each other before they were engaged.

In a family memoir, Sinéad observed one of her husband's character traits: "In small things, Dev is very much given to weighing up things; he sees all the difficulties. On the other hand, when a big matter is at stake, he will go boldly forward."

The couple married on January 8, 1910, and by the time of the Rising, they already had four children - Vivion, Máirín, Éamon, and Brian.

De Valera had initially been drawn to the Irish language to further his teaching career, but gradually, he became more immersed in the language movement and nationalist politics, before eventually joining the Irish Volunteers.

His historical reputation is one of an austere, puritanical figure, but his letters to Sinéad early in his marriage were passionate. He quotes erotic Irish poetry about the "perfectly rounded breast", and writes longingly of "nectar-lipped" and "wild" kisses.

De Valera was already heavily involved in the Volunteers by the summer of 1914 and helped to pick up guns when they were landed in Howth. He travelled around the city on a motorcycle with a side car. The couple lived on Morehampton Terrace, in Donnybrook.

In the run-up to the Rising, he was told he would have to command the area around Beggars' Bush Barracks to the south of the city. He reconnoitred the area by taking walks through the streets holding the hand of his five-year-old son Vivion.

Before the rebellion, the fate of his family weighed heavily on De Valera, who had risen up the ranks of the Volunteers to become a Commandant.

On Easter Saturday, he told a fellow Volunteer Joseph O'Connor: "We'll be all right. It's the women who will suffer. The worst they can do is kill us but the women will have to remain behind to rear the children."

De Valera told his wife little or nothing about the impending Rising, but by Easter weekend she began to suspect that something serious was up.

Sinéad recalled: "On Holy Thursday, 20 April 1916, Dev did not undress that night but lay down with a revolver by his side. On Good Friday, we knelt down in the little kitchen at three o'clock and prayed that we would all be left together."

On Easter Sunday, the eve of the Rising, De Valera came home to say goodbye to his family, aware that it could be a final farewell.

He had taken an insurance policy out on his life and had made his will.

It was only on the following day when Bridget, the maid, returned from town and reported that Volunteers were digging trenches in St Stephen's Green that Sinéad realised what was happening.

Most of Dev's battalion joined him in occupying Boland's Mill, which was not a scene of heavy fighting during Easter Week, but a much smaller group nearby at Mount Street Bridge inflicted heavy casualties on British troops.

His battalion was the last to surrender on Sunday April 30, as the Rising came to an end, and as a Commandant it seemed likely that he would be executed.

The following days were anxious ones for Sinéad as she waited to find out about her husband.

Every morning brought news of more death sentences and executions.

The military raided her home searching for documents, and they were followed by the "G-men" from police special branch; a kindly English neighbour looked after the children as the authorities searched her home from top to bottom.

Sinéad's sister Bee berated the G-men for their poorer manners: "You didn't remove your hat when you came in."

Sinéad was keen to underline to the authorities that Éamon was a US citizen, and went to the American Consulate.

She was greeted warmly by one of the officials: "You are as welcome as the flowers in May."

In these fraught days, the couple's toddler son Éamon dispelled the gloom when he remarked prophetically: "Tá Daidí imithe, ach tiocfaidh sé ar ais arís" (Daddy is gone but he will return).

De Valera was sentenced to death, but this was commuted to penal servitude.  Afterwards, Sinéad visited him in Kilmainham Jail with Vivion and Máirín. She recalled: "We were brought in and poor Dev appeared at the grating wearing prison dress... I promised to be a mother and father to the children until his return."

She fulfilled that promise for most of the time during the following decade, as he was frequently in jail, on the run or trying to drum up support for the cause in America.

The couple went on to have three more children and died in the same year, 1975, after his long career in office as Taoiseach and President.

Irish Independent

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