The Ulsterman who pipped him to the post in 1913 later joined the British Army and was killed in action in France in July 1916. In the same year, de Valera avoided execution for his role as an Irish Volunteers commandant in the Easter Rising, owing to a mixture of the timing of his hearing, his US birth, and other factors.
Des McHale, emeritus professor of maths at UCC, said while it is well known that de Valera was mathematical in his thinking, few people realise he almost won the post as professor of mathematical physics at the university in 1913.
Just one vote apparently decided the National University of Ireland appointment in favour of Edgar Harper, from Dungannon, Co Tyrone, a decision which Prof McHale said would have been full of political considerations a century ago.
He supervised a 2009 PhD thesis by Kathleen O’Sullivan on the influence of maths in the life of the ex-taoiseach and two-time President of Ireland.
“This mathematical aspect of his life is the one big blank in the life of de Valera that had not previously been filled in,” Prof McHale said.
“When the post came up again, things had changed and Dev didn’t reapply, but who knows what might have happened if he succeeded on either occasion.”
While he had previously taught and lectured at numerous schools and colleges, de Valera’s post-1916 career included key roles in the first Dáil, the War of Independence, and in the anti-Treaty politics of the Civil War.
Prof McHale, who will receive an honorary doctoral degree of literature from UCC next week, is biographer of the college’s first maths professor, George Boole.
He said that mathematical influences are evident throughout de Valera’s life, including his stint in Kilmainham Gaol after his 1916 court-martial. Although his sentence of execution was commuted, another twist that changed the course of Irish history, Dev passed the time scratching the fundamental equation for quaternion multiplication into the wall of his cell.
“The 1937 Constitution is just the type of document a mathematician might draw up. It’s entirely black-and-white, there are no shades of grey to it,” said Prof McHale.
“Even in his very later years, when his sight was fading, he would still take mathematical books out of the library.”
Edgar Harper was succeeded as professor of mathematical physics at UCC by Alfred O’Rahilly, who supported Sinn Féin after the 1916 Rising and was interned on Spike Island in Cork Harbour for political writings in 1921.
He was a constitutional adviser to the team sent by de Valera to negotiate the Treaty that he himself would later oppose.