When Eamon de Valera emerged the winner in the battle of the airwaves

In his WWII victory address 70 years ago, Ryle Dwyer argues that Winston Churchill’s comments sparked Eamon de Valera’s finest hour.

Winston Churchill lashed out at Taoiseach Eamon de Valera in his victory address over the BBC World Service on May 13, 1945.

He referred to the taoiseach with dismissive contempt for denying Britain the use of Irish ports during the Second World War.

Churchill emphasised the different syllables of de Valera’s name in such a way as to conjure up a subliminal suggestion of the taoiseach as the personification of the devil, evil, and Éire.

He pronounced the name as D’evil Éire. “Owing to the action of Mr de Valera, so much at variance with the temper and instinct of thousands of Southern Irishmen who hastened to the battlefront to prove their ancient valour, the approaches which the Southern Irish ports and airfield could so easily have guarded were closed by the hostile aircraft and U-boats.

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“This was indeed a deadly moment in our life, and if it had not been for the loyalty and friendship of Northern Ireland, we should have been forced to come to close quarters with Mr de Valera or perish forever from the earth.”

He proceeded to name three men who won the Victoria Cross. “I do not forget Lieutenant-Commander Esmonde, VC, DSO, Lance-Corporal Kenneally, VC, Captain Fegen, VC, and other Irish heroes that I could easily recite, and all bitterness by Britain for the Irish race dies in my heart.”

Those named by Churchill were linked to Co Tipperary, but all three were actually born in England. Although born in Yorkshire, Eugene Esmonde was reared in Drominagh, Co Tipperary, while the other two were born and reared in England.

De Valera was expected to answer with his own broadside. His reply, which was generally considered to be the best and most effective speech of his long career, was broadcast live on Radio Éireann at 10.10 on the night of Sunday, May 16, 1945.

It was one of those rare moments in which the whole nation stopped. Those who heard him that night remembered for evermore where they were when the heard that speech.

De Valera began by thanking God for sparing Ireland from the conflagration, which had left much of Europe in ruins. He expressed gratitude to the various people who had contributed to the successful efforts to keep the country out of the war, and then he turned to Churchill’s speech.

He knew what many people were expecting him to say, but the occasion now demanded something else. With an exquisite touch of condescension, he said that Churchill could be excused for being carried away in the excitement of victory, but there would be no excuse for himself.

“Mr Churchill makes it clear that, in certain circumstances, he would have violated our neutrality and that he would justify his action by Britain’s necessity,” de Valera said calmly.

“It seems strange to me that Mr Churchill does not see that this, if accepted, would mean that Britain’s necessity would become a moral code and that, when this necessity was sufficiently great, other people’s rights were not to count.

“It is quite true that other great powers believe in this same code — in their own regard — and have behaved in accordance with it. That is precisely why we have the disastrous successions of wars — World War Number One and World War Number Two — and shall there be World War Number Three?”

The taoiseach praised Churchill for resisting the temptation to violate Irish neutrality. “It is, indeed, hard for the strong to be just to the weak. But acting justly always has its rewards,” he said. “By resisting his temptation in this instance, Mr Churchill, instead of adding another horrid chapter to the already bloodstained record of relations between England and this country, has advanced the cause of international morality an important step.”

The public reaction to the address in Ireland was overwhelming. “Mr de Valera’s broadcast is regarded in Ireland as a masterpiece,” Canadian ambassador John D Kearney reported.

John Maffey, the British representative, was particularly critical of Churchill’s suggestion that it would have been natural for Britain to seize Irish bases. “However, where we lost most tricks in the rubber here was in the fact that after five-and-a-half years of war, the British prime minister, in a historic speech, gave prominence to Mr de Valera, attacked him personally and thereby introduced him to the spotlight and a world radio contest.”

In the last analysis, Maffey concluded, it was not Churchill’s speech, but de Valera’s reply “which bore the stamp of the elder statesman.”

The result of this “radio contest” was quite different from the international perspective. Churchill’s address was broadcast around the world, while de Valera’s response was heard only on Radio Éireann.

“On balance,” the Dominions Office concluded, “we have certainly gained in the eyes of the world, whatever may be the effect in Éire itself.”

In Ireland, de Valera was seen as the winner. “For the Irishman in the homeland and overseas,” Maffey wrote, “it is once again a case of ‘Up Dev’.”

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