Éamon de Valera

Contributors: TOR.

Éamon de Valera (1882-1975), taoiseach and president of Ireland; was born in Manhattan, New York, on 14 October 1882, to an Irish mother. His father died when he was two years old and he was sent to Ireland to be reared by his maternal grandmother, Elizabeth Coll in Co. Limerick. He attended the local primary school at Bruree and was later educated by the Christian Brothers at Charleville. At the age of sixteen he won a scholarship worth £20 per annum to Blackrock College, Co. Dublin. In 1903 he was appointed professor of mathematics at the Rockwell College, Co. Tipperary. He graduated in 1904 with a pass degree in mathematics from the Royal University of Ireland (University College Dublin) and went to teach at Belvedere College. In 1906 he secured a post as professor of mathematics at Careysfort Teachers' Training College for women in Blackrock, Co. Dublin. His applications for professorship in the colleges of the National University were unsuccessful, but he obtained a part time appointment at Maynooth and also lectured in mathematics in various Dublin colleges. At school and later he was a keen rugby footballer.

Throughout his life, de Valera was devoted to Irish language and culture. Baptised Edward, he named himself Eamon when he became a member of the Gaelic League in 1908. On the 8 January 1910 he married Sinead Flanagan (who had taught him Irish). The first of their seven children (five boys and two girls) was born in 1911.

In 1913 he joined the Irish Volunteers and was quickly promoted to captain of the Donnybrook company. Plans were being prepared for armed revolution and in 1915 he was sworn into the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), a secret republican society which aimed to end British rule in Ireland. De Valera was involved in the landing of arms at Howth harbour from the Asgard in July 1914. On 24 April 1916, the Easter Rising began in Dublin and de Valera took on the role of commandant.

After a week of fighting, the rebels surrendered. De Valera was the only commandant to be spared execution, but this was not, as is sometimes claimed, because of his American citizenship; the army merely felt that it had shot enough prisoners to set an example. After imprisonment in Dartmoor, Maidstone and Lewes, he was released in a general amnesty declared in June 1917. Soon after he was elected MP for East Clare and in October 1917 he became president of both Sinn Féin and the Irish Volunteers. In May 1918, de Valera was rearrested for leading the public outcry against Britain's decision to introduce conscription in Ireland. He escaped from Lincoln Jail in 1919 and was unanimously elected as President of the first Dáil Éireann.

In June 1919, de Valera embarked on his tour of the USA. He had three aims: to ask for official recognition of the Irish Republic, to obtain a loan to finance the work of the new government and to secure the support of the American people for the republic. The visit lasted until December 1920 and he raised $6 million. De Valera returned to find Ireland engaged in a bitter War of Independence. The Republican forces were forced to rely on guerrilla tactics against the larger and better-equipped British Army. After months of ambushes, reprisals, destruction of property and killings, a truce was declared on 11 July 1921. Subsequent negotiations with the English Prime Minister, Lloyd George, and his government, culminated in the Anglo-Irish Treaty of the 6 December 1921. This provided not for an Irish republic but for a divided Ireland, with an oath of allegiance to the king. Partition had been a reality since the Government of Ireland Act 1920. De Valera was not a member of the negotiating team and on hearing its terms refused to recommend acceptance of it to either the Dáil or the people. Following debates in the Dáil, the Treaty was endorsed in January 1922, with 64 delegates in favour and 57 opposed. Arthur Griffith replaced de Valera as President and a Provisional Government of the Irish Free State was elected. Michael Collins one of the key signatories was killed in an ambush at Béal na mBláth in west Co. Cork on 22 August that year.

In 1926 De Valera became increasingly dissatisfied with Sinn Fein's political abstention from the Dáil and decided to form a new party, Fianna Fáil (often translated as 'Soldiers of Destiny' but the literal translation is 'Soldiers of Fál', a pre-Christian personification of Ireland). In 1927 he reluctantly took the oath of allegiance and entered the Free State Dáil. He spent much of the next five years building up the party organisation and establishing, the Irish Press newspaper. Fianna Fáil's election victory in 1932 marked the beginning of sixteen years in power during which de Valera was both prime minister and minister for external affairs. One of his first decisions was to abolish the oath of allegiance and ordering the withholding of the land annuities. Policies of promoting small-scale tillage farming and industrial development behind high tariff walls, reinforced by the Economic War, reflected the traditional nationalist goal of economic self-sufficiency.

On the political front, de Valera saw off the threat from both the Blueshirts and the IRA and in 1937 his new constitution was enacted. The State was renamed Eire, with de Valera as Taoiseach. In 1938, the economic war with Britain ended with the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. In his capacity as Minister for External Affairs, De Valera won admiration for his work at the League of Nations. He was president of both the council and the assembly of the league. The Second World War tested his powers of patient diplomacy to the utmost, as he resisted pressures and sometimes threats, open or veiled from Germany, Britain, and the United States against Ireland policy of neutrality. In 1941 he successfully protested against a proposal to extend British conscription to Northern Ireland.

After the war, the position of Fianna Fáil began to weaken and in 1948, the first Coalition Government, led by John A. Costello, removed Fianna Fáil from power. Nevertheless, de Valera returned to power in 1951, but without an overall majority. By this time, he had limited eyesight and was unable to read. In 1954 Fianna Fáil was again defeated in a general election, and the second coalition government took office. At the general election 1957 de Valera, then seventy-five years of age won an absolute majority of nine seats. In June 1959, on the same day the people rejected his proposal that proportional representation be replaced by the direct vote, de Valera was elected President of Ireland. He was re-elected in 1966 for a second term of eight years at the age of eighty-three. He retired from office in 1973 and died in Dublin two years later on 29 August 1975, at the age of ninety-two. He was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery after a large state funeral.

Writings, biography & studies. Eamon de Valera, The way to peace (Dublin 1934); Mr. de Valera’s reply to Mr. Churchill: why Ireland was neutral (Dublin 1945); Ireland’s stand: being a selection of the speeches of de Valera during the war (Dublin 1946) Thomas Patrick O’Neill and Pádraig Ó Fiannachta, De Valera (Dublin 1968). Thomas Patrick O’Neill and Francis Aungier Pakenham, Earl of Longford, Eamon de Valera. (London 1970). D. W. Harkness, ‘Mr. de Valera’s Dominion: Irish Relations with Britain and the Commonwealth, 1932-1938’, in Journal of Commonwealth Political Studies 8:3 (1970) 206-228. Maurice Moynihan (ed), Speeches and statements by Eamon de Valera, 1917-1973 (Dublin 1980). T Ryle Dwyer, Michael Collins and the treaty: his differences with de Valera (Dublin 1981). T. Ryle Dwyer, De Valera’s darkest hour: in search of national independence, 1919-1932 (Dublin 1982); De Valera’s finest hour: in search of national independence, 1932-59 (Dublin 1982). J. P. O’Carroll and John A. Murphy (ed), De Valera and his Times (Cork 1983). Eamon De Valera and Proinsias Mac Aonghusa (ed), Quotations from Eamon de Valera (Dublin and Cork 1983). Jack Lynch, ‘Collins and de Valera: friends or foes?’, in Études Irlandaises 9 (1984) 249-257. Brian Farrell, ‘The unlikely marriage: de Valera, Lemass and the shaping of modern Ireland’, in Études Irlandaises 10 (1985) 215-222. Owen Dudley Edwards, Eamon de Valera (Cardiff 1987). Brian Farrell, De Valera’s constitution and ours (Dublin 1988). Seán Faughnan, ‘The Jesuits and the drafting of the Irish constitution of 1937’, in Irish Historical Studies 26 (1988). 79-102. John Bowman, De Valera and the Ulster question, 1917-73 (Oxford 1989). Dermot Keogh, ‘Eamon de Valera and Hitler: an analysis of international reaction to the visit to the German minister, May 1945’, in Irish Studies in International Affairs 3:1 (1989) 69-92. Francis J. Costello, ‘The Irish representatives to the London Anglo-Irish conference in 1921: violators of their authority or victims of contradictory instructions?’, in Éire-Ireland 24:2 (1989) 52-78. T. Ryle Dwyer, De Valera: the man and the myths (Dublin 1991). Tim Pat Coogan, De Valera: long fellow, long shadow (London 1993). Dermot Keogh and Aengus Dolan, ‘Anglo-Irish diplomatic relations and World War II’, in Irish Sword 19 (1993-4) 106-30. Pauric Travers, Eamon de Valera (Dundalk 1994). Richard Dunphy, The making of Fianna Fáil power in Ireland, 1923-1948 (Oxford 1995). Tom Garvin, 1922: the birth of Irish democracy (Dublin 1996). Philip Hannon and Jackie Gallagher (ed), Taking the long view: 70 years of Fianna Fáil (Dublin 1996). Tony Gray, The lost years: the emergency in Ireland, 1939-45 (London 1997). Patrick Murray, ‘Obsessive historian: Eamon de Valera and the policing of his reputation’, in Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, section C, 101:2 (2001) 37-65. Mark O’ Brien, De Valera, Fianna Fáil and the “Irish Press”: The Truth in the News? (Dublin 2001). Bill Kissane, Explaining Irish democracy (Dublin 2002). H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (ed) Oxford dictionary of national biography 60 vols. (Oxford 2004) vol. 15. Dermot Keogh and Gabriel Doherty, De Valera’s Irelands (Cork and Dublin 2003). Tim Pat Coogan, Eamon de Valera: a life (London 2006).

Tomás O’Riordan