Sunday 17 December 2017

Despite the bluster, Dev cut a frail figure

For all the Fenian hype, Dev's public potency sat uneasily next to his physical inadequacy, writes John-Paul McCarthy

TV3's lively programme Taoiseach continued last week as it analysed Eamon de Valera's cunning statecraft during the Second World War.

As Tim Pat Coogan's insightful anecdotes showed, and as UCD's Niamh Puirseil would also have shown if the producers had given her more than a token airing, de Valera's performance continues to vex.

Ireland's Emergency fascinates scholars because of the profound ironies at the heart of the experience, ironies which still flay right down to the national bone.

De Valera was the only American citizen to hold the office of Taoiseach, as he was born in Manhattan when it was still a separate mini-city of its own in the reign of President Arthur in 1882.

The beau ideal in De Valera's thought was always Woodrow Wilson, the priestly scholar-cum-president who descended on a ravaged Europe in 1918 like a latterday Moses bearing his tablets from Pisgah.

While America was an enormous and under-explored aspect of Dev's psychology, his neutrality policy infused the Irish-American relationship with a rancour that would not be seen again until Charles Haughey's capitulation to Noraid and Mario Baggio in 1980.

(Gore Vidal's moving memoir, Palimpsest, has a sharp profile of Dev's nemesis David Gray, uncle of Mrs Roosevelt and arch enemy of the Kennedy clan.)

De Valera's insistence on conveying diplomatic condolences to Herr Hempel on the death of Hitler in 1945 was in many ways the high point of the entire Fenian enterprise.

Being polite to my-enemy's-enemy was an old Fenian ruse, and one that De Valera used gleefully in 1945 as he spat in John Bull's eye while he asserted the very real sovereignty of his so-called dictionary republic. And yet this lurid promulgation of Irish sovereignty -- much emphasised and underscored during Sean MacBride's later anti-Nato games -- took place at a time when the very notion of an austere state sovereignty lay in ruins all over Europe.

The metaphysical tragedy that Wilson had seen in his own theory of national-self determination had contributed to the chaos in Thirties Europe, and the post-war world was to set its face against the Fenian ideal.

The Atlantic Charter pointed the way towards trans-national institutions as early as 1942, and even Churchill himself -- a sort of British Fenian in his own grumpy way -- had cast aside the old theories about sovereignty as he proposed merging British sovereignty with France in 1941.

For a man who had been humiliated by David Lloyd George in 1921, Dev's victory in 1945 may well have been a sweet one.

But by then, he was already an anachronism, a stranded Wilsonian in the era of Truman, Monet and Schuman.

The TV3 programme gave a good sense of De Valera's political dominance up to 1948. And yet for all his political potency in the Forties, he struggled in a personal sense.

For all the Fenian rodomontade, De Valera cut a somewhat frail and dependent figure in Government Buildings. His eyesight deteriorated badly during the war, and he became almost completely dependent on the ever-present Maurice Moynihan, secretary of all his governments and department after 1936.

Those who slog through the files of the Department of the Taoiseach after 1940 will find them all annotated in Moynihan's schoolmasterly Irish script, and some of the most sensitive security papers bear Moynihan's poignant summary, 'Leite don Thaoiseach ar maidin', 'Read to the Taoiseach this morning'.

De Valera had been concerned about his eyesight as early as 1937, as shown by the draft articles for the new constitution which contained provision for an executive presidency, a sort of Gaullist office which would allow its holder to take over the executive during a national emergency.

Dev had obviously considered swapping the premiership in the Thirties for the more languorous duties of the Aras, with an opportunity for opting back in to front-line politics should the Munich settlement disintegrate.

Public potency thus sat uneasily next to physical inadequacy, as the chief felt something of Milton's terror when he realised that 'Nor to their idle orbs doth sight appear, Of sun or moon or star throughout the year'.

His contradictions echo those in the cultural currents explored by Claire Wills in her moving book, That Neutral Island.

Although the Emergency experience isolated the Irish from the terrors and the hopes of continental Europe, the experience actually provoked some of the most extraordinarily modern literature since the days when Oscar Wilde entertained an awkward young Yeats in his Chelsea flat in the 1890s.

Mairtin O Cadhain analysed Irish provincialism and European disarray in his astonishing book Cre na cille (a fine adaptation of which was shown on TG4 over Christmas), a book that would hold its own against anything written on the neuroses of war by Orwell or Kurt Vonnegut.

Patrick Kavanagh's poem The Great Hunger offered a searing indictment of Irish sexual and psychological repression, and which shockingly perverted the Catholic incarnation doctrine to make its voice heard amid the din. (Clay is the word, and clay is the flesh . . .)

Kavanagh's favourite Taoiseach was actually John Aloysius Costello, the compromise choice for the office in 1948 also profiled last week, a sort of Irish version of the US President John Tyler who was ridiculed by his foes in 1841 with the wonderful nickname His Accidency.

Costello was a rather sour lawyer who had actually shattered Kavanagh in a libel trial, but he later helped get him a UCD post. He was very proud to be the recipient of the best Christmas present ever bestowed on a sitting Taoiseach in 1951.

Kavanagh sent him his poem Prelude, his luminous tribute to William Blake, a line of which still serves as a motto for that generation who saw little to cheer in Dev's diplomacy or MacBride's later sterile anti-partitionism.

'You must go inland and be

Lost in compassion's ecstasy

Where suffering soars in summer air

The mill-stone has become a star.'

John-Paul McCarthy is a history tutor at Exeter College, Oxford

'Taoiseach', TV3, Thursdays

Sunday Independent

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