A Cork-made documentary recalls Éamon de Valera’s eventful trip to the US to drum up support for Irish independence, writes Richard Fitzpatrick.
Éamon de Valera dominated the Irish political landscape for almost 60 years. We forget that he was once only a boy in political terms. It was arguably the 18 months he spent on tour in America fundraising and trying to publicise the cause of an Irish republic during the War of Independence that forged the political character he became.
Tomorrow on TG4 the first part of an impressive two-part documentary entitled De Valera i Meiriceá tells what is largely an untold story.
“It’s really not known on this side of the Atlantic,” says Cork director Ciara Hyland.
"He went over as a novice politician and came back battle-hardened. He had no political experience prior to 1916. He was a maths teacher.
“Between 1916 and June 1919 when he goes to America he spent half that time in jail or on the run so he had very little political experience before he went to America. It was the making of him. It was a hard school of knocks.
"He fought for his political survival in the States, and the lessons he learned there he took back to Ireland and made him into the great political survivor of Irish politics. It is a story that deserves and needs to be told.”
The detail in the documentary is marvellous. De Valera had just escaped from Lincoln prison so he was a wanted man. He travelled from Liverpool to New York as a stowaway on the SS Lapland, subsisting for the nine-days journey in the ship’s boiler room with rats for company and Bovril and brandy for sustenance.
A bizarre cash-for-diamonds exchange with Soviet rebels surfaces midway through the documentary.
In America, Dev made a key ally in the Co Tyrone-born Clan na Gael leader Joseph McGarrity, a man who understood the importance of perception. McGarrity had de Valera fitted out with a new wardrobe. He made sure that Dev stayed in the Waldorf Astoria in New York, the world’s most expensive hotel, a billeting that befitted his status as a would-be head of state.
There was a memorable exchange in McGarrity’s house. It was shortly before de Valera’s unveiling to the American public. De Valera was about to leave when he reached down to pick up his suitcase. McGarrity stopped him in his tracks. “You never do that,” he said. “The president does not carry his own valise.”
De Valera made a big splash with the Irish-American community. He was feted. They came in their droves to see him. He spoke at the end of a long rally at Boston’s famous baseball stadium, Fenway Park. He stood on the podium after several local politicians had been droning on.
When he went to make his address, the stadium erupted. It reportedly took 15 minutes before the cheering abated and he could begin speaking.
“That scene at Boston’s Fenway Park was replicated right across the States,” says Hyland. “He has this hugely successful tour right across America that took in Chicago, San Francisco, Butte in Montana, the Deep South. Everywhere he went he got receptions on that scale, including Freedoms of the City awards and civic receptions.”
De Valera wasn’t roundly welcomed. It had been less than a year since the US fought alongside the British in the Great War so many Americans,especially ex-servicemen, opposed his campaigning to break from the British Empire.
The Los Angeles Times newspaper labelled him “President of Nothing”. Even within his own ranks, De Valera endured a bitter struggle for power with Irish-American leaders John Devoy and Judge Daniel F Colahan, a nasty split that prefigured the more profound division and fallout from the Treaty negotiations on his return to Ireland, which, of course, ultimately led to civil war.
Marcus Lamb plays De Valera in the documentary. He looks a ringer for a young Dev in appearance and strained mannerisms. Along with Lamb, one of the stars of the documentary is Fota House. The 19th century mansion, which is located in east Cork, is the setting for many of the re-creation scenes.
It was an ideal location for the Cork-based production company ForeFront. Most of the actors were also sourced locally.
“It was so much fun shooting in Fota House,” says Hyland.
“We couldn’t hang lights off the ceilings or the walls for example. Instead we had to hang lights off huge big stands weighted with sandbags and big boom poles that hung the lights way from a much bigger distance than you’d normally do it.
“We had a few dinner scenes — and you’re not allowed have food normally in a museum — so we had to be careful in cooking the food [offsite] and making sure nobody ate any of it! Nobody was allowed pick any food up on a fork because we didn’t want anything to drop and cause a stain.”
All that effort was worth it to revisit a fascinating chapter in Irish history.
Part one of De Valera i Meiriceá broadcasts Wednesday at 9.30pm on TG4
One of the most arresting sections of the De Valera i Meiriceá documentary covers an interesting pitstop at a native Indian reservation in Spooner, northwest Wisconsin. De Valera was received by the Chippewa tribe and made a chief.
He was given the official title ‘Chief Dressing Feather’. He received several gifts and took part in various rituals, although he stopped short of taking part in a blood brothers ritual because he didn’t want to cut his finger and bleed.
A photograph of him taken in Indian headdress is probably the most enduring image of his American tour. It illustrates both his solidarity with another oppressed people and also speaks of the personal pride he felt at being embraced by the tribe. It’s often said that the source of his nickname ‘The Chief’, which he carried with him through his formidable political career, stemmed from the tribal meeting.
“De Valera loved being made a chief of the Chippewas,” says his biographer and RTÉ broadcaster David McCullough, one of several prominent historians interviewed in the documentary, along with UCC’s Gabriel Doherty and professors Joe Lee and Diarmaid Ferriter.
“He loved it. he spoke about it and was very anxious to stress that he was not made an honorary chieftain. He was a real chief. He was delighted with himself.”