On the 40th anniversary of Éamon de Valera’s death, his biographer Ryle Dwyer examines the changing perceptions of the long fellow including why he was called a spy.
Over decades there were puerile efforts to depict nationalist leaders like Éamon de Valera and Michael Collins, as gods or demons. In de Valera’s case, the libel laws ensured that some of the more outrageous allegations were not published here in his lifetime.
My introduction to 20th century Irish history was in researching a paper on the Irish Civil War while at the university in Texas in 1965. I was surprised to learn the conflict had essentially nothing to do with the partition issue.
I wrote a master’s thesis on the Treaty, and could hardly have been more critical of de Valera. But writing a doctoral dissertation on US relations with Ireland during the WWII, I could hardly have been more impressed with the deft way in which he kept this country out of the conflict, while providing the Allies with essentially all the help they desired.
During his lifetime, de Valera was the subject of at least eight biographies in the English language. The biographies by David Dwane, Denis Gwynn, Desmond Ryan, and the two by Seán O’Faoláin, were published before the end of the 1930s, but all of those covered less than half of his public career.
The 1944 biography by MJ McManus only touched on his handling of Irish neutrality, while Mary Bromage’s 1956 book — de Valera and the March of a Nation — lacked balance. “She adores Dev and makes no attempt to write objectively,” one contemporary reviewer remarked.
The authorised biography by Thomas P O’Neill and Lord Longford was by far the best. It introduced valuable material, but essentially told the story from de Valera’s standpoint only, rather than from a broader historical perspective.
After de Valera’s death I was asked to write a biography of him in the Gill’s Irish Lives series, which consisted of 15 different short biographies. I took particular satisfaction in a review written by Professor Owen Dudley Edwards, who described my book “a little masterpiece in objectivity. He has shown an astonishing capacity to take the measure of his subject’s strengths and weaknesses, his triumphs and disasters, his achievements and failures.”
While writing the book I had a fascinating conversation with the late Dick Walsh, who covered Áras an Uactartáin in 1966 during the 1916 jubilee celebrations. He said that one of the men at Boland’s Mills told him that the Long Fellow had abandoned them and surrendered by himself at the end of the Easter Rebellion.
After receiving Pearse’s surrender order, de Valera sent the messenger to have the order verified by Thomas McDonagh. When the messenger left, de Valera realised the shooting had stopped and he decided to bring a captured British officer to Sir Patrick Dun’s hospital, where he handed the man over to the British garrison and surrendered himself.
His gesture may have been an attempt to get a little credit to prevent his own execution. With a pregnant wife and four young children, would any rational person think it was unworthy of him not to have been anxious to die for Ireland and leave his wife and children to their fate?
Prior to the Treaty negotiations de Valera warned the Dáil that this country would be making the same mistake with the unionists, that the British had made with the rest of the island, if Dáil members did not recognise that the unionists had a case for partition. Michael Collins challenged de Valera to present an alternative after the Treaty was signed.
The Long Fellow produced Document No 2, which included the partition clauses of the Treaty verbatim, thereby showing that partition had nothing to do with his opposition to the Treaty. But he exploited the partition issue for decade arfterwards.
In 1981, I wrote a series of articleson de Valera’s abuse of the partition issue. The late Paul Tansey, deputy editor of the Irish Times, accepted the series for publication. The editor Douglas Gageby then blocked the articles but paid me for them.
Mr Gageby had got his start in journalism from the de Valera, and was first editor of their Evening Press. As a result he was reluctant to publish anything critical of him. I revised those articles for a chapter in de Valera and His Times, published by Cork University Press in 1983.
In 1991 I brought out a full-length biography, de Valera: The Man and the Myths, later reissued in the Irish Independent’s great biographies series. After the book was first published I discussed it on radio with Tim Pat Coogan. In many respects I preferred the worldlier personality of Collins, because de Valera could be self-righteously arrogant.
After the programme, Mr Coogan asked me to autograph a copy of the book. “If behind the cold, impersonal countenance of the subject of this book, there seems to be no real humanity,” I wrote, “possibly it’s because there was none”. This flippant piece of speculation reflected my personal attitude.
Mr Coogan actually quoted it in the introductory chapter of his subsequent biography, de Valera: Long Fellow, Long Shadow. It seemed that he was not going to pass up any critical comment on de Valera. Although his biography contains many fascinating insights, it is not balanced.
Mr Coogan only reached 1932 on page 356 of his 459-page book. Thus, three-quarters of the book deals with the first third of de Valera’s political career, while the most productive two-thirds are covered in less than a quarter of the book.
Diarmaid Ferriter’s 2007 study, Judging Dev, on the other hand, provides a balanced perspective on his career. With its magnificent photographs and facsimile copies of original documents, it is in a category all of its own.
In 2009 the American John Turi wrote England’s Greatest Spy: Eamon de Valera. In over 400 pages this book produces no credible evidence to show that de Valera was an English spy, much less their “greatest spy.” Turi actually lent credence to the patently distorted views of the American minister David Gray.
In the early 1970s when I began my doctoral research on relations between the US and Ireland, I wrote to some former members of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the wartime forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). J. Russell Forgan, the deputy director for Europe, assured me that, “The Irish worked with us on intelligence and security matters almost as if they were our allies. They have never received the credit due them.”
Forgan’s boss David K Bruce, replied damning David Gray with irrelevant praise. “Mr Gray, a fine man, and a great authority on fox hunting and sport, about which he had written delightfully and authoritatively, had no previous familiarity with secret intelligence activities, and was somewhat suspicious of them.” In short, he was a lovely man who knew little or nothing about espionage or security.
“If you can locate ‘Spike’ Marlin,” Bruce added, “you would find him especially knowledgeable about the affairs in which you are interested.” Ervin “Spike” Marlin had been sent to Ireland by the OSS in 1942 as an undercover agent. The Irish quickly uncovered him and Joe Walshe, secretary of the department of External Affairs, offered direct Irish co-operation.
Gray objected, but he was overruled, and the offer was accepted. This led to the use Irish of diplomats in Berlin, Rome and Vichy to gather information for the OSS.
Gray, who later accused de Valera of secretly trying to assist the Germans, claimed that he had better sources than American intelligence. He actually passed on information to President Roosevelt from supposed ghosts.
Although Walshe was the conduit for most of the co-operation with British and American intelligence, Gray reported on November 8, 1941 that the ghost of the former British prime minister Arthur J Balfour had informed him that Walshe was “hand in glove with the German minister.”
Balfour’s ghost reportedly went on to accuse Walshe of being “a leading quisling” behind a fifth column that would set up a puppet government here the following spring, if the Germans implemented their plan drawn up to invade Ireland.
Little over three weeks later the ghost of the late president Theodore Roosevelt supposedly assured Gray that the Japanese were under control, and there was no danger of immediate attack. This was just days before they attacked Pearl Harbour.
“If these communications come through pretty much as given,” Gray wrote to President Franklin Roosevelt, “our friends on the other side don’t know very much more than they did on this side.” Gray never doubted that he was in touch with the ghosts; he just thought that “the Japs” had fooled the ghosts.
After the war Gray wrote a distorted memoir attacking de Valera. “Never did an Irish leader score so high a percentage of errors, misjudge the forces of social evolution so utterly or achieve such complete failure,” he contended.
“Never did an Irish leader commit so many stupidities. The crowning one was his so-called ‘Neutrality’ in the Second World War.”
Of course, Ireland was not really neutral; it was secretly pro-Allied. This record was grossly distorted by the dishonest machinations of Gray and Churchill. “Never had the interest of so many Irish people be so mismanaged and betrayed by so few,” Gray wrote. He was right about that, but it was he and Churchill who deliberately skewed the historical record.
In 1943, Gray persuaded Roosevelt and Churchill to ask for the Irish ports in order to discredit de Valera. Gray assured them that de Valera would reject the request, but the British and American service chiefs blocked the request, fearing that de Valera might comply. They were convinced that Irish ports would not only be useless but would actually be a liability, because the Allies would have to defend them.
Unlike during the first world war, when Irish ports helped to protect British shipping to and from south of England, that route was to vulnerable to attack from German aircraft based in France during the second world war. Even with Irish bases that vulnerability would still persist.
Gray did manage to persuade his government to request the expulsion of Axis diplomats from Dublin on the grounds that they posed an espionage threat. MI5, the British intelligence service, opposed this on the grounds that it would endanger the Allied cause. The British had broken the German code and they were reading all messages before they reached Berlin. The Americans were not actually looking for the expulsion of the diplomats, but for de Valera’s refusal.
Gray knew it was a blatant lie when he told the future president John F Kennedy in July 1945 that de Valera had made no gesture of sympathy following the death of president Franklin Roosevelt a couple of weeks before the Irish leader’s controversial condolence visit to the German minister on the death of Hitler. Gray had already reported that de Valera had made a very moving tribute to Roosevelt, and followed up with surprising gestures —adjourning the Dáil and having all Irish flags lowered to half-mast.
“I thought I knew this country and its people but this was something new,” Gray wrote to the late president’s widow at the time. “There was a great deal of genuine feeling.”
The American intelligence community had no faith in Gray’s judgment, so John Turi’s reliance on Gray’s distorted assessment was evidence of his own lousy judgment. De Valera was in no way supportive of the fascists.
In fact, under his leadership Ireland was probably the only Catholic country in Europe that did not succumb to fascism during the 1930s, or 1940s. He deserves enormous credit for this. Of course, he made serious mistakes during his career.
That he was able to overcome those mistakes and enjoy such a long career was a reflection of the magnitude of his accomplishments. Helping the Allies while keeping this country out of the war was possibly his greatest achievement.
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