Eamon de Valera wept when he finally stepped down as Irish Taoiseach in June 1959, at the age of 76. Hugging the official switchboard that connected his office with other ministries, he confessed to his private secretary, “Oh Padraig, it’s awfully hard to leave the levers of power.” It would, indeed, prove “awfully hard”: even if his grip on the “levers” was considerably loosened, de Valera continued to haunt the corridors of power until 1973, when he at last retired from the Irish presidency. He was 90.
Luck and power, specifically personal empowerment and willpower, are the themes of Ronan Fanning’s impressive study. De Valera continues to fascinate: by dint of ferocious determination, and some lucky breaks, “Edward” (his birth name) successfully fought his way from impoverishment in rural Limerick to the Dublin heartland of Ireland’s Catholic middle classes. His unembarrassed self-interest and careful strategising were to prove as devastating in the political and military arenas as had been the case with his social and educational ascent. In little more than a decade he had graduated from cheering Queen Victoria as a schoolboy into a man with a passion for the Irish language and thence (by 1913) to membership of the paramilitary Irish Volunteer movement: Edward de Valera, often sporting a moustache and wavy hair, and garbed in fashionable ways, was superseded by the altogether more serious and Gaelicised “Éamon”, bedecked in either military uniform or (increasingly frequently) a black suit.
By chance he emerged as the single surviving battalion commandant of the 1916 Rising – spared execution by the British largely because (Fanning argues) “he was unknown” and “not someone important”. Important or not, he ruthlessly exploited his status as the senior survivor in subsequent years; and this, combined with his own sense of entitlement, took him to the leadership of the separatist movement during its military struggle with Britain (1919-21). He rejected the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921, not primarily because it was a compromise, but rather because it was not his compromise.
Protected by his “carapace of extraordinary self-sufficiency and self-confidence”, de Valera spent the next 10 years rebuilding his political career in opposition, before finally being returned to power in 1932. Thereafter his personal focus dwelt very largely upon the consolidation of Irish national sovereignty, achieved in part by dismantling the hated Treaty of 1921 and through the new constitution of 1937, but also through sustaining Irish neutrality during the Second World War. He was evicted from office by the electorate in 1948: later periods as Taoiseach (1951-54, 1957-59) were, in Fanning’s judgement, largely a coda to the earlier years of achievement.
Like Churchill, de Valera was keen to ensure that his own version of history would emerge as triumphant; and, while he himself published little, he was eager to cultivate those who did, maintaining in later life an “open- door” policy to senior academics. There were certainly celebratory assessments, from both historians and journalists. But since his death in 1975 the case for the prosecution has gathered an astonishing momentum. In 1993 he was subjected to a withering and influential critique by the journalist and writer Tim Pat Coogan, who had earlier produced an important defence of Michael Collins, the leader of the pro-Treaty side at the start of the brief but bloody civil war which followed the disputed settlement with the British. Negative portrayals appeared on the silver screen: in Neil Jordan’s film Michael Collins, Alan Rickman plays a memorably villainous de Valera – a foreshadowing of his Severus Snape, but without the human warmth.
On the whole, Fanning steers a via media between the extremes of interpretation, and he is well placed – as one of the greatest historians of twentieth-century Ireland – to undertake this complex navigational challenge. The result is an elegant, eloquent and cogently argued study. At one level, Fanning is keen to make the case for “Dev” in terms of his successful consolidation of national sovereignty and the sustained defence of Irish national interests. He dismisses the arguments that the post-war years, characterised by mass migration and domestic economic difficulties, could have been better handled by any other available ministerial talent. He is occasionally beguiled by de Valera’s lust for personal empowerment. But he unflinchingly argues that “Dev’s” rejection of the Treaty was largely on grounds of personal pique, and that his vanity had a role in defining the extent of the subsequent civil war.
It was indeed often fatal (especially in 1916-23) to get pulled into the orbit of de Valera’s titanic ego: and, while those around him fell, he strode on (in Coogan’s memorable image), “arms swinging, lurching slightly, like a huge heron in a high wind”, untouched and undeterred. Yet, as Fanning shows, de Valera’s patriotic vision outshone his instincts for self-preservation; and, even though his other deficiencies have long been exposed, he remains the masterbuilder of the independent Irish state. Like Michael Collins, he too can claim to have secured the freedom to achieve later and fuller freedoms.
Alvin Jackson is the Richard Lodge professor of history at the University of Edinburgh.
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