Ryle Dwyer.

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New book provides fresh insights into Éamon de Valera’s remarkable rise to power

The darkest part of Éamon de Valera’s political life is chronicled in a new book that whets the appetite for the second volume, writes Ryle Dwyer.

New book provides fresh insights into Éamon de Valera’s remarkable rise to power

THIS first volume of this two-volume biography of Éamon de Valera by RTÉ journalist David McCullagh is thoroughly researched and carefully documented, with over 2,750 notes on sources.

Consequently, it should be of great interest to anyone studying the man, or the struggle for independence from 1916 to 1932.

The author does shy away from delicate matters. He questions whether de Valera’s mother and father were ever married. His mother named the priest and the church where this marriage supposedly took place, but nobody has been able to locate a record of the ceremony.

That, of course, is no reflection on de Valera himself. There were rumours his mother was pregnant before she immigrated to the US in 1879, but if so, he was obviously not the issue, because he was not born in New York until October 1882.

His father reportedly died shortly afterwards of tuberculosis, but there was no record of his death.

The boy was sent to be reared by his grandmother in Bruree, but he ended up with an uncle, who apparently considered him an imposition. de Valera was a good student who managed to win a scholarship and gained entry to Blackrock College. He clearly loved the place, and it became his real home.

He came to national attention in 1916 as one of only two commandants to survive the executions following the Easter Rebellion. The author presents the story in a balanced way, allowing readers come to their own conclusions.

Although sentenced to life in prison, de Valera was released with all the other remaining prisoners shortly after the election to parliament of fellow-prisoner Joe McGuinness in the Longford by-election of May 1917. Ironically de Valera had tried to block McGuinness standing in the election, fearing his defeat would set back the movement.

By the time of his release, de Valera had already been nominated to stand in a forthcoming by-election in East Clare. When he went to Ennis for an election rally on June 19, 1917, he “deliberately surrounded himself with as many priests as possible”, according to the author. He was duly elected in a landslide.

During the ensuing period, de Valera played a leading part in uniting republicans under the Sinn Féin banner, and he was elected party president. The nationalists under John Redmond began reasserting themselves, by winning by-elections, before the British made the mistake of trying to introduce conscription in Ireland in April 1918.

de Valera enlisted the support of the Catholic hierarchy in opposing conscription, and the British compounded their mistake by rounding up de Valera and other Sinn Féin leaders on trumped up charges of supposed involvement in a German plot.

While they were in jail in Britain, Michael Collins came to the fore in Ireland and was largely responsible for Sinn Féin’s success in the 1918 general election. The party, which pledged that those elected would set up their own government in Ireland, won 73 seats. They duly proclaimed independence and established Dáil Éireann.

Collins personally supervised de Valera’s escape from Lincoln jail in February 1919. He was hoping de Valera would lead a war of independence against the British.

But the Long Fellow decided to go to the US in the hope of drumming up American support for Irish independence, as President Woodrow Wilson had proclaimed that United States was fighting for the rights of small nations in the First World War.

Irish-American elements were seriously split, and de Valera later stated that he thought he could help to unite them, but he only made matters worse. According to the author, de Valera went “to somewhat irrational lengths” in opposing Daniel Cohalan, the recognised Irish-American leader.

American people traditionally resented foreign interference in their politics, so Cohalan insisted he was campaigning in the interest of the US. When de Valera insisted on being consulted about the political tactics being used, Cohalan balked.

At de Valera’s request, the Dáil to authorise him to spend $1m on the campaign for American recognition of the Irish Republic, and a further $500,000 on a disastrous effort to influence the US presidential election of 1920.

When Michael Collins took over as acting president following the arrest of Arthur Griffith in late November 1920, de Valera promptly decided to return to Ireland. He exhibited a distinct lack of tact following his return by immediately criticising the IRA’s military campaign.

“This odd shooting of a policeman here and there is having a very bad effect on us from the propaganda point of view in America,” he complained to IRA chief of staff Richard Mulcahy.

“What we want is one good battle about once a month with about 500 five hundred men on each side.” Next, he tried to send Collins to the United States, but the Big Fellow balked.

“That long whoor won’t get rid of me as easy as that,” Collins snapped. de Valera then pointedly appointed Austin Stack as deputy president, in place of Collins.

After being invited to London for talks by Lloyd George in July 1921, de Valera refused to take Collins with him, but he later insisted on the inclusion of Collins in the delegation to negotiate a settlement.

The president saddled that delegation with the responsibility of negotiating and signing a treaty, but balked when they signed it without giving him the last say.

He later lied about opposing the Treaty because of partition. McCullagh notes that when de Valera proposed Document No 2 as his alternative to the treaty, it included the treaty’s partition clauses. His differences with the treaty were so small, he said the British would not fight over it, but the delegation had obviously felt otherwise.

de Valera confronted anyone who disagreed with him.

He once complained to Mary MacSwiney that they would never agree.

“I have no doubt,” he added, “that an omniscient being would rate my error as but a very small fraction of yours …” The author cut the quote at that point, even though the sentence comprised of just one other word and a question mark “vanity?” de Valera assumed the insight of an omniscient being to accuse her of vanity.

“It is extraordinary the change that occurs once people are in office,” de Valera later wrote to Dorothy Macardle.

“Once you are satisfied that the welfare of the country is served by your retaining power you get impatient of all opposition — inclined to think it is all factions.”

“As a result,” the author writes, de Valera “convinced himself that he needed to fashion a new party in which his decisions would be unchallenged, to establish a newspaper in which his views would be uncontested, and to build a new relationship with the Irish people in which his ideas would be accepted.”

de Valera’s astonishing recovery “from apparent political oblivion” in the wake of the Civil War is covered in depth. He overcame “seemingly insurmountable odds” to regain power in 1932, the author concludes.

“The question now was how he would use it.”

Having just covered what was arguably the darkest part of de Valera’s career, McCullagh is clearly issuing an appetising teaser for the second volume of the biography, due out in 2018.

de Valera: Rise 1882-1932, by David McCullagh, published by Gill Books, €24.99

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