Dev in the details
Brimming with scholarly insight, David McCullagh’s concluding volume is the most extensively researched biography of Éamon de Valera yet written
David McCullagh’s exhaustive biography of Éamon de Valera
amon de Valera, for five decades the dominant figure in Irish politics, has long since been eclipsed in popular memory and esteem. He has been supplanted not so much by any of his successors, but by Michael Collins, who died within months of the State’s establishment and practical foundation in 1922. Political giants naturally shrink over time; what is striking about De Valera is how dramatic and rapid has been his reduction from pre-eminence to petty obscurity in public recollection.
David McCullagh’s De Valera: Rule 1932-1975, the second and concluding volume of his biographical study, is an important work. Drawing on a very wide range of sources, including Dev’s enormous personal archive, as well as on British and American records, the volumes document and critique the life of a man whose name dominated Irish political discourse for about five decades, yet who is now invoked largely in the pejorative phrase “de Valera’s Ireland”.
Dev’s extraordinary political, constitutional and diplomatic achievements after 1923 seem largely forgotten. His supposed failings of judgment and character were embodied in his portrayal by Alan Rickman – a latter-day, upmarket Boris Karloff – in the 1996 film Michael Collins, which drew a good deal on Tim Pat Coogan’s Michael Collins (1990) and his Long Fellow, Long Shadow (1993).
More recently, Diarmaid Ferriter’s Judging Dev (2008) produced a balanced analysis that so impressed the Fianna Fáil minister for education and science Mary Hanafin that she had it sent to every secondary school: we cannot assess its impact upon the comely maidens and athletic youths of 21st-century Ireland, save that it has not done much for Fianna Fáil’s electoral appeal.
The late Ronan Fanning’s elegant short study, Éamon de Valera: A Will to Power (2015), was a finely distilled analysis of Dev’s mentality and motivations. But until now there has not been a full-scale, archivally based, measured dissection and appraisal of his remarkable life.
Like Collins, who revelled in the glamour bestowed on him largely by the British press after the truce, Dev was never averse to publicity; unlike Collins, he had chances during his lifetime to ensure that his record was appropriately rendered. Dorothy Macardle’s The Irish Republic, published in 1937, was an outstanding achievement in its canonical presentation of Dev’s version of the Irish revolution.
Less commendable was the 1964 biography by TP O’Neill and Lord Longford. This po-faced, servile book never subjected Dev’s actions to critical interrogation, and steered around awkward political and personal questions. This was particularly so regarding the Irish Press, where McCullagh’s unvarnished analysis, like that of Tim Pat Coogan before him, seems unanswerable: familial enrichment was the ultimate consequence if not the intention of the manoeuvres by which Dev gained control of that enterprise.
Decades of power
McCullagh’s Rule 1932-1975 analyses Dev’s decades of power in and out of public office. His career was astonishing in its longevity – first elected in 1918, he finally quit public office as president in 1973, just in time to see Ireland join the European Economic Community, a development of which he was fearful because of its implications for sovereignty, and to hand the seals of office to a coalition government headed by the son of his long-time political foe WT Cosgrave, a denouement he accepted with grace.
This volume begins as Dev took power in March 1932, surrounded by nervous, revolver carrying colleagues. What is remarkable not simply in Irish but in European terms is not only the peaceful nature of the transfer of power from the Civil War’s victors to its losers, but the sober way in which Dev’s government assumed its responsibilities. The chief set the tone, working with rather than purging the machine and officials inherited from his bitter opponents. Leading a government that had relative radicalism thrust upon it by the need for Labour Party support, Dev also moved quickly in the constitutional sphere.
His performance was all but faultless: he oversaw a meticulous dismantling of objectionable features of the 1922 Constitution without infringing the letter of the Anglo-Irish treaty. This revisionist phase culminated in the drafting of the 1937 Constitution. The proof of its secular foundations is provided in its reception in the epicentre of the Catholic faith. As McCullagh records, the Vatican disapproved particularly of article 44 on religious freedom despite recognition of the “special position” of the Catholic Church as the faith of the majority of Irish people: the pope sent the frosty message “I do not approve; neither do I not disapprove. We shall maintain silence.”
McCullagh also notes the positive responses of Protestant spokesmen to article 44, although curiously he does not comment on its explicit recognition of Judaism, a remarkable affirmation in the circumstances of 1937 that must be borne in mind when considering Ireland’s dismal record in succouring Jewish refugees.
McCullagh argues that Dev was fortunate in 1938 when the damaging though politically successful Anglo-Irish “economic war” was ended by negotiation. Dev did not achieve his stated and unattainable aim of securing progress on partition, but the practical concessions obtained in return for anodyne words of goodwill made neutrality in the coming war possible. One sign of a great negotiator is to avail of luck.
Dev deserves the lion’s share of praise for ensuring that, the efforts of his former republican comrades notwithstanding, Ireland managed to stay out of the war. Yet at its end he gratuitously stained Ireland’s international reputation through offering his sympathies upon the death of Hitler to the German minister Eduard Hempel. This act of diplomatic pedantry, done in a fit of pique following a heated row with the overbearing American minister, put Ireland in the dock of world opinion as a neutral that mourned Hitler, and it did enduring damage to its post-war reputation. Dev’s lame excuse that Hempel had behaved impeccably was simply not true. Furthermore, and unlike the Irish public at large, shielded by strict censorship, Dev knew plenty about Hitler’s monstrosities across Europe.
Partition was never far from Dev’s lips, yet as Séan MacEntee and others complained, he showed no appreciation of the concerns and sense of identity of the northern majority. His anti-partition world tour in 1948-49 allowed him to reprise the role of international statesman in which he had revelled at the League of Nations, but it was a dismal failure: why should Australia and New Zealand, which like Northern Ireland had fought in the second World War when Ireland had stayed out, be remotely interested in the partition question? Why should a new state such as India, the scars still bleeding from calamitous, unplanned and arbitrary partition on crude communal lines of 1947, waste a second on the question of a united Ireland?
From McCullagh’s narrative, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Dev should have quit years earlier than he did. He was helpless in opposition in September 1948 when taoiseach John A Costello announced that Ireland was to leave the Commonwealth and to become a republic, decisions taken without any serious analysis of the implications for Anglo-Irish relations and for the Irish in Britain, or for Northern Ireland.
Back in office from 1951 to 1954, Dev remained peerless in some areas, particularly, as McCullagh shows, in his outmanoeuvring of the unholy alliance of the grasping Irish Medical Association and the Catholic hierarchy. The resulting 1953 Health Act achieved in substance what Noel Browne had envisaged in his ill-fated Mother and Child Scheme. Otherwise, however, it is clear that Dev, his eyesight failing, was running out of steam. He had entrusted external affairs, a realm where he had generally excelled, to Frank Aiken, perhaps not realising the galvanic impact United Nations membership would have on that stolid figure from 1957 onwards. Also, as McCullagh neatly puts it, “his governments moved at the pace of their slowest member”, and by the early 1950s some were very slow indeed.
McCullagh notes that one of Dev’s most marked characteristics was his overwhelming desire to restore good relations with everybody with whom he had ever split, particularly militant republicans. To the very end he sought reconciliation, though always on his terms rather than theirs.
I heard of one surprising exception to Dev’s reluctance to acknowledge error. It happened shortly after he lost power in 1948. Cleveland Cram, then a Harvard PhD student researching Ireland and the Commonwealth (he later joined the CIA), secured an interview. Perhaps because Cram had been dealing mainly with Fine Gael politicians, the meeting was stilted and rather brief. When asked to put a final question, Cram plucked up his courage and asked Dev what he considered had been his biggest mistake. To his amazement he received a terse valedictory reply along the lines: “Not accepting the Treaty and working it.”
David McCullagh has produced a biography of de Valera far more extensively researched than any which has preceded it.
If Dev remains an enigma at the end of this lengthy exercise, it is probably because that is what he was.
‘‘ One of Dev’s most marked characteristics was his overwhelming desire to restore good relations with everybody with whom he had ever split, particularly militant republicans. To the very end he sought reconciliation, though always on his terms rather than theirs
A portrait of Éamon de Valera taken during a visit to Washington DC in 1964.