Eamon de Valera

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Éamon de Valera (New York, October 14, 1882 - Dublin, August 29, 1975) was an Irish politician, Prime Minister ("Taoiseach") of Ireland from 1932 until 1948 and again from 1951 to 1954 and from 1957 to 1959. He was the ceremonial President from 1959-1973. De Valera was an important figure in the Easter Rising and the Irish War for Independence from Britain. After his release from prison in 1917, de Valera was elected president of Sinn Fein and in 1919 he became president of Dail Eireann, the revolutionary assembly. His refusal to take part in the 1921 negotiations with Britain left the leadership to Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins, who obtained independence with a minor acknowledgement of ties to the British Commonswealth. Worse, the six Protestant provinces remained part of Britain. That was too much of a concession for de Valera and his antitreaty forces; they were defeated in the legislature and in elections, but waged a civil war against the new government of Ireland. The rebels were defeated in the ensuing civil war, but Collins was killed too.

A revolutionary who narrowly escaped execution by the British in 1917, he was a leading figure in the struggle for Irish independence. Although he repudiated the treaty that established the independent Irish Free State in 1922, de Valera relented in 1927. He was prime minister from 1932 until 1948 and again from 1951 to 1954 and from 1957 to 1959. He refused to allow Ireland to help in any way Britain or the United States against Germany in World War II.

In the 1930s his work in establishing Ireland as an independent state guaranteed his place in history in Irish, although one tarnished in American eyes by his blind spot toward Nazi Germany. He dominated post-independence Irish politics for forty years.

History focuses more on his failures, comparing him unfavorable to his great rival Michael Collins. Valera's duplicity and betrayal of the Treaty process, and his rejection of agreed upon democratic procedures led to civil war and nearly destroyed Ireland at birth, Liberals decry his conservative social policies and his close relationship with the Catholic bishops. He was morally certain to the point of arrogance with a keen eye for his own political self-preservation. Yet for all that, he remained a deeply committed republican, consistent in his dream of creating a truly Irish Ireland that the Gaelic revivalists of the early twentieth century would have approved. That he failed in this task remained perhaps his greatest disappointment.

In his devout Catholicism, his rejection of material ostentation, his determination to revive the Irish language, and his inability to comprehend Protestant Ulster's fears of Catholic domination, de Valera was representative of his generation in southern Ireland.

Early life

De Valera was born in New York City to an Irish mother, Catherine Coll de Valera, who had immigrated from County Limerick, and Vivion de Valera, a Spanish artist. The father died in 1885, and the young Éamon went to live in Ireland with his uncle in Bruree, Limerick. At 16, de Valera enrolled at Blackrock College in Dublin, and won several scholarships and awards. In 1903 he was hired as a mathematics teacher at Rockwell College in County Tipperary. He later returned to teach at Blackrock College after earing a mathematics degree from the Royal University of Ireland.

Initial Political Activity

As a young man, he became an Irish Language activist, joining the Gaelic League in 1908, where he met Sinéad Flanagan, whom he married in January 1910. In 1913 de Valera joined the Irish Volunteers, a body formed to ensure the enactment of the Home Rule Act. He was voted a captain in 1914 and prior to the Easter Rising was commandant of the 3rd Battalion, Dublin Brigade and a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood.

Easter Rising

When the Rising began, on April 24, 1916, de Valera's forces occupied Boland's Mill in Dublin. There have been conflicting reports as to his performance during Easter Week; supporters claim he showed excellent leadership skills and tactical ability, while detractors claim that he suffered a nervous breakdown.[1] Following the rebels' surrender, de Valera was sentenced to death by the British. His sentence was commuted to life in prison largely as a result of his American citizenship and the fact that at the time the British were trying to convince the United States to join World War I and feared that his execution would inflame Irish-American public opinion. De Valera was released along with the other prisoners in June 1917.

The Easter Rising transformed Irish politics, making independence (rather than home rule under British supervision) the goal.

War of Independence

In 1917 de Valera was elected to the British House of Commons for East Clare in a special election. In May 1918 he was imprisoned again, but was reelected in 1919 as a member of Sinn Féin, who won 73 of 105 Irish seats. In January 1919, the Sinn Féin representatives, who had refused to attend the House of Commons, formed an Irish parliament, Dáil Éireann, or Assembly of Ireland. De Valera escaped from jail in February 1919, and in April was elected Príomh Aire, or prime minister, of the Dáil. To raise money, seek official recognition of an Irish Republic, and obtain the support of the American people, de Valera visited the United States from June 1919 to December 1920. Though he raised $5.5 million, he was unable to secure official recognition from the US government.

De Valera returned in January 1921 to an Ireland in the midst of war with Britain. However, a truce was declared in July, and de Valera met with David Lloyd George, the British prime minister, on July 14, but a peace agreement could not be reached. Further negotiations took place from October through December 5, but de Valera did not participate, making the ridiculous argument that he was Irish head of state and should not participate unless the British head of state, King George V, was also present (the king was a figurehead and de valera was not). The Irish delegates Michael Collins, Arthur Griffith, and Robert Barton ultimately negotiated a treaty that gained independence with trivial links to the British Commonwealth. More important, the treaty recognized the partition of Ireland into a Catholic South and a Protestant North. De Valera rejected the terms; he claimed that he had not participated in negotiations in order to better maintain control of extremists in Ireland, while others claimed that he knew the likely outcome and avoided participation in order to avoid responsibility. His complained about two problems with the treaty: (1) it required members of the Dáil to swear loyalty to the King; (2) it allowed Britain to retain control over several naval ports, potentially preventing Ireland from having an independent foreign policy. The treaty passed the Dáil 64-57, at which point de Valera and many like-minded TDs resigned and rejected the democratic process. The real reason was the fact that Ulster had broken away to form Northern Ireland as part of Britain, and the radicals wanted it back, and were willing to rip the new nation apart.

Civil War

The disagreement over the treaty ultimately escalated into the Irish Civil War in 1922-3. Although the new government attempted to avoid bloodshed, Winston Churchill threatened to reoccupy Ireland if they did not take action against anti-treaty forces who were headquartered in the Four Courts building in Dublin. De Valera backed the anti-treaty forces; he held no official position and had little influence, however. The pro-treaty forces of the new government, the Irish Free State, had the support of most of the population, and were unable to fight effectively. Collins won, but was killed in an ambush in 1922. On May 30, 1923, the rebels conceded defeat and were ordered to "dump arms". De Valera and many other anti-treaty leaders were arrested and interned; de Valera was released in 1924.

Fianna Fáil

After the Civil War ended, de Valera returned to politics. He resigned from Sinn Féin in 1926 and formed a new party, Fianna Fáil (Soldiers of Destiny). The party did well electorally but initially refused to take the oath to the King, beginning a case to challenge the legality of the oath. However, following the assassination of deputy prime minister Kevin O'Higgins in 1927, the case was dropped, and de Valera and his party took the oath and entered the Dáil.

Fianna Fáil became the dominant party in the Dáil after the 1932 general election, and de Valera was appointed prime minister. He quickly initiated an economic war against the UK that lasted until 1938, substantially damaging the Irish economy. Fianna Fáil won general elections in 1933, 1937, 1938, and 1943. His government generally worked toward dismantling the treaty with Britain. In 1937, de Valera enacted a new Irish constitution, Bunreacht na hÉireann, which resulted in a number of changes, including: (1) the name of the state was changed from the Irish Free State to Éire; (2) it was claimed that the national territory included Northern Ireland; (3) an elected President of Ireland replaced the British governor-general; (4) the "special position" of the Roman Catholic Church was recognized; (5) divorce was outlawed; (6) Irish was declared the first official language.

Catholic social policy

He led his party Fianna Fáil to adopt conservative social policies, since he belived devoutly that the Catholic church and the family were central to Irish identity. He added clauses to the constitution of 1937 to "guard with special care the institution of marriage" and outlaw divorce. His constitution also recognised "the special position" of the Catholic Church, whilst guaranteeing the religious freedom of all citizens. His policies were welcomed by a largely devout, conservative and rural electorate. The articles in the constitution which reinforced the traditional view that a woman's place was in the home further illustrate the direction in which Ireland was moving. An act of 1935 prohibited the importation or sale of contraceptives. The most rigorous censorship laws in western Europe complete the picture.

World War II

When World War II erupted in September 1939, many expected de Valera, with his support for the League of Nations, his moral certainties and devout Christian beliefs, would support Britain's all-out resistance to the Nazi juggernaut. For Britain, in particular, the value of Irish ports in the defence of trans-Atlantic convoys was incalculable. To pander to the Irish who still hated Britain he refused to allow any help for Britain, or for America when it entered the war in 1941. He even paid tribute at the Germany embassy in Dublin when Hitler died.

Fianna Fáil was replaced in 1948 by a coalition government, but regained control in 1957.

Last years

De Valera remained as Taoiseach (prime minister) until 1959, when he was elected President, a ceremonial office without power fromm which he retired in 1973 at age 90.

See also

External links

Further reading

  • Carroll, J. T. Ireland in the War Years 1939-1945 (1975).
  • Chapple, Phil. "'Dev': The Career of Eamon De Valera Phil Chapple Examines a Titanic and Controversial Figure in Modern Irish History," History Review Issue: 53. 2005. pp 28+ in Questia
  • Coogan, Tim Pat. De Valera: Long Fellow, Long Shadow (1995)
  • Dunphy, Richard. The Making of Fianna Fail Power in Ireland, 1923-1948 (1995) 346 pp. online edition
  • Dwyer, T. Ryle Big Fellow, Long Fellow: A Joint Biography of Collins and De Valera (2006) excerpt and text search
  • Lee J. J. Ireland, 1912-1985: Politics and Society (1989).
  • O'Carroll, J.P. and John A. Murphy, eds. De Valera and His Times (1993) excerpt and text search


  1. Coogan, De Valera: Long Fellow, Long Shadow. (1993)