During the golden jubilee celebrations of the Easter Rebellion in 1966, there was a story circulating in Dublin that Éamon de Valera had essentially abandoned his men at Boland’s Mills and surrendered separately in 1916.
Dick Walsh, who was covering Áras an Uachtaráin for The Irish Times, was told the story, but the newspaper did not publish it. Indeed, Ronan Fanning also overlooked it in his recent biography of de Valera.
Realising that the situation was hopeless on the fifth day of the Rebellion, Pádraig Pearse sent nurse Elizabeth O’Farrell of Cumann na mBan to seek terms from the British commander, Brigadier General William Lowe, who demanded an immediate unconditional surrender. Pearse duly agreed after consulting with his available colleagues.
O’Farrell was then asked to deliver the surrender order to the other commandants in the city. There was still some sporadic shooting the next day, around midday, when she delivered the order to de Valera in the Grand Canal St dispensary near Boland’s Mills.
“I think he considered the thing a ruse,” she noted, “but by the time some of my volunteer friends came in, he realised I was to be trusted.”
“I will not take any orders except from my immediate superior officer, Commandant MacDonagh,” de Valera told her. She was therefore asked to get Thomas MacDonagh to countersign the surrender document.
MacDonagh insisted on talking to both General Lowe and Éamonn Ceannt before endorsing the document. By then, O’Farrell learned that de Valera had already surrendered.
After she had left, he realised the shelling had stopped and the shooting had almost died out. He and vice-commandant Joseph O’Connor therefore concluded the surrender message was genuine.
Having heard stories of surrendering soldiers being shot at the battlefront in France, de Valera decided to approach the British personally. While O’Connor was getting the men ready to march to the surrender point, de Valera decided to tell the British that he “had been ordered to surrender”.
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He asked Seán Byrne, a first-aid worker in the dispensary, to organise a stick with a white flag. George F Mackay, an 18-year-old British Army cadet from Mitchelstown, Co Cork, was given the choice of staying in the dispensary or accompanying de Valera and Byrne.
MacKay — who had been taken prisoner in uniform on Tuesday when the train on which he was travelling was stopped on the nearby tracks — feared he might be considered a traitor by the British if he remained in the dispensary. He therefore agreed to accompany them. De Valera handed over his Browning automatic pistol and asked MacKay to give it to his eldest son, Vivion.
With Byrne waving the white flag, they left the dispensary and crossed the road to Sir Patrick Dun’s Hospital. Captain Edo Hitzen of the Lincolnshire Regiment was notified at 96 Mount St.
“I went over and, seeing the man, covered him with my revolver,” Hitzen noted. “I asked him if his men were prepared to surrender, and he said he’d come for that purpose.”
De Valera was “gaunt, unshaven, curt but courteous”, recalled Hitzen 50 years later. “His first words to me were: ‘Do what you will with me but treat my men as prisoners of war.’ ”
Byrne was sent back to have the men in Boland’s Mills march out into Grattan St. The men were already assembled in the bakery.
“We all marched out into Grattan St where we halted,” Byrne said. “I was still carrying the white flag. At a signal the men were ordered to ground arms.”
At that point, de Valera rejoined his men.
In his book, De Valera: England’s Greatest Spy, John Turi contended that there was no evidence de Valera was ever actually tried. But Hitzen was quite definite that he gave evidence at de Valera’s trial on May 8, 1916.
The Long Fellow was one of 90 people sentenced to death, but he was also one of the 75 whose sentence was commuted. Did his gesture in handing over Cadet Mackay actually influence the commutation?
David T Dwane’s related the story in The Early Life of Éamon de Valera, published in Dublin by the Talbot Press in 1922. The Irish Press actually published the story in 1966 in a purported extract from the official biography being prepared by Lord Longford and Thomas O’Neill, but when that book was published four years later in 1970, all mention of his surrender at the hospital had been excised. Why?
Was de Valera afraid that some people might think he did not wish to die for Ireland, leaving his pregnant wife and three young children behind?
If he actually thought that, surely it would have said more about his estimation of Irish people than anything else.