History has not been kind to Éamon de Valera.
By the 1990s, the roar of Ireland’s Celtic Tiger had put a merciful end to the recession of the 1980s. Those dreary years had sent yet another generation of youngsters abroad, desperate (as the Irish-American rock band Black ’47 put it) “to get out of the land of de Valera.”
In 1993, Tim Pat Coogan published a long biography that cast a harsh light on de Valera’s vision of an Ireland “whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children...and the laughter of comely maidens.”
Then there was Neil Jordan’s 1996 film “Michael Collins,” which depicted de Valera as equal parts intransigent and priggish. And on the enduring question of whether or not Dev was responsible for Collins’s assassination, Jordan offered a rather unambiguous answer.
Is the time ripe for a backlash to the backlash against de Valera?
If so, Ronan Fanning’s insightful new biography is too even-handed (and brief) to be that book.
Fanning cannot forgive de Valera’s most glaring sins, among them paving the way for the bloody Irish Civil War of 1922-23. De Valera’s behavior, at this crucial time, was “petulant, inflammatory, ill judged and profoundly undemocratic,” writes Fanning, professor emeritus of modern history at University College Dublin.
However, Fanning adds that whatever de Valera’s shortcomings, they must “be reconciled with his subsequent greatness.”
Amazingly, this man who “was Ireland” (Coogan’s phrase) was actually born in New York City, to a Spanish father and Irish immigrant mother in 1882.
After Dev was sent back to Ireland (his mother remained in the United States), he was on the path to a rather grim life in rural Limerick. He was fortunate enough, however, to have a grandmother who impressed upon him that education might be a possible escape route.
Committing himself to schooling, Fanning argues, illustrates de Valera’s “most remarkable character trait: his strength of will.”
De Valera later saw acceptance into Blackrock College—and life away from the farm—as an “entry into heaven.” A number of college teaching positions followed in the first decade of the 20th century. So how, by 1916, did this bespectacled math teacher find himself leading a company of rebels bent on conquering the most powerful empire on earth?
De Valera was thinking about his career—not politics—when he began taking Irish language lessons in 1908. He fell in love with his teacher, Jane Flanagan (later Sinéad Ní Fhlannagáin), and married her a year later.
“However opportunistic his embrace of the Irish language might have been in its origins,” writes Fanning, “he brought the zeal of the convert to his involvement in the Gaelic League.”
During these crucial years, cultural nationalism in Ireland was giving way to something more political and militaristic. De Valera joined the Irish Volunteers and, because of his (relatively) advanced age and income, gravitated to a leadership role. Soon enough, there was talk of an insurrection against the British on or around Easter 1916.
Fanning notes that de Valera’s “military failings” were extensive during the Rising. But that meant little when the British executed key Irish rebels, only to spare de Valera. Why? Probably not because he was American-born, as some historians have said (and as de Valera himself told John F. Kennedy). More likely, Fanning says, it was “because [de Valera] was unknown.” Either way, with Nationalist ranks depleted, de Valera was well positioned as a leader for post-Rising Ireland.
The subsequent debacle in 1919, of Michael Collins leading the Irish contingent in treaty negotiations with the British—while de Valera inexplicably remained in Ireland—has been well documented. For Fanning, this is probably de Valera’s low point. The Irish got peace but had to accept partition in the North as well as an oath of allegiance to the crown.
In Fanning’s eyes, de Valera “opposed the treaty not because it was a compromise, but because it was not his compromise.” In the fierce debate over the treaty that followed, de Valera revealed a “contempt for democracy” (Irish political representatives as well as the voting public supported the treaty), while his rhetoric became apocalyptic.
Fanning takes no position on the Collins assassination, though he chides de Valera for doing “nothing to arrest the descent into militarism” and civil war, which mercifully concluded in 1923.
Inevitably, the drama of A Will to Power downshifts after the Rising and the Civil War. It is in the 1930s, Fanning argues, that de Valera did his best work. He founded the political party Fianna Fáil, led it to power in 1932 and “within six tumultuous years...had torn up those elements of the Treaty of 1921 he had opposed and had rewritten, almost single-handedly, the constitutional relationship between Ireland and Britain.”
Some Irish American readers may bristle at Fanning’s dismissal of Dev and others who “set about milking anti-partitionist sentiment among nationalists.”
More important, though, Fanning’s narrative loses steam in de Valera’s later years. He deals only briefly with de Valera’s notorious 1945 visit to the German minister to offer condolences upon the death of Adolf Hitler. We also learn little about what this longtime warrior and advocate for a united Ireland thought when the Troubles broke out in the North in the late 1960s. (De Valera lived until 1975.) Fanning also could have explored more deeply the forces that sent “hundreds of thousands” of Irish immigrants abroad in the 1950s. Finally, what were the long-term effects (possibly right up to the sex abuse scandals of the 2000s) of de Valera and his supporters’ granting the Catholic Church “special status” in Ireland’s 1937 constitution (a move actually viewed as insufficient by some conservatives, who wanted Catholicism to be the state religion)?
These, however, are minor quibbles. Fanning’s book is an excellent, insightful analysis of Ireland’s arguably most consequential public figure.
This article also appeared in print, under the headline “Leadership Blinkered,” in the June 6-13, 2016, issue.