Tuesday 25 June 2019

David Robbins: Dev was short for 'Devil' to Da - even when the Long Fellow became our neighbour

The last of the de Valera line died and was buried this week. Like her father, Emer Í Cuív was blessed with long life. She lived to 93; he died just short of his 93rd birthday.

Strangely enough, I had been thinking about Dev this week, ever since I came across an old photograph in my uncle's effects.

It was one of those sepia-tinted prints that over time take on the look of a faded painting. It was inscribed at the bottom: Gap of Dunloe, Killarney, 1933.

It showed my aunt and uncle and some friends crossing the gap on horseback. They were very formally dressed compared to modern tourists. My uncle, for instance, wore a tweed sports coat, collar and tie.

The date got me thinking. An auspicious time in de Valera's life and a turbulent one for the country. He had come to power the previous year and governed with a precarious majority.

In 1933, he called a surprise general election. With his new newspaper, the Irish Press, at his back, he was returned with an increased majority.

They were times chillingly similar to our own. The Great Depression was at its height, Britain had abandoned the Gold Standard, and the League of Nations was castigated from all sides for its failure to rescue the financial system.

In Ireland, suspicion of foreign banks and high finance was great. Dev's fanfare for the common man found a ready audience. In the 1933 election, he won almost 50pc of the popular vote.

So, as my uncle and aunt (and their posse of chaperones) crossed the Gap of Dunloe, they were riding into an unknown future. The Economic War was near, as was the battle over land annuities.

It's possible that, down in the Fianna Fáil heartland of Co Kerry, they had already taken up de Valera's cry: "Burn everything British but their coal!"

My uncle's family were Cumann na nGaedhael (later called Fine Gael) supporters. My father's family were the same. It was their burden, I suppose, to be born into a period dominated by a party -- and a man -- they did not respect.

Both families -- the O'Hares (my uncle's and mother's lot) and the Robbinses (my dad's) -- disliked Dev for different reasons.

The O'Hares, I suspect, harboured aspirations to be properly middle class, and did not want to be associated with the small farmers and hard-working poor that made up Fianna Fáil's early support.

The Robbinses simply did not relate to de Valera's dream of an Irish-speaking Gaelic Ireland. I mean, would there be cricket?

The prosperous, Catholic middle classes were wary of de Valera's new government. They reacted much the way their descendants would now if Sinn Féin were to be returned to power at the next election.

Although de Valera's austere image softened with time, my father's antipathy never did. At dinner-table conversations, my dad referred to him as "the anti-Christ".

We lived in Blackrock. Towards the end of his life, Dev lived up the road in Linden nursing home. Let's just say there was a distinct lack of neighbourly goodwill.

Fortunately, my father did not live to see me undertake a research project into de Valera's "great enterprise" -- the setting up of the Irish Press newspaper.

It was never allowed across the threshold at home. My father worked for the Irish Times and took the Telegraph at weekends.

My studies took me deep into the enemy camp. I studied their methods closely, and even, horror of horrors, spent a day or two in their very headquarters looking over committee archives.

Although I was steeped in my family's anti-de Valera bias, I found myself gradually coming to, well, perhaps admire is too strong a word, but to respect the man.

Those early Fianna Fáil leaders had an intensity and integrity about them. They seemed like the student heroes of a Russian play.

As I looked at the photos of the present Fianna Fáil leadership at Bean Í Cúiv's funeral, I wondered at the fall of what was once the greatest popular movement in the country.

Is Dev's party gone forever, like the last of his children? My uncle and my dad would be pleased if it were, but strangely enough I'm not so sure.

drobbins@independent.ie

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