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

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - PATRICK FREYNE - EU­NAN O’HALPIN

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.

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