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The triumphs and errors of Éamon de Valera

Ronan Fanning's Éamon de Valera: a Will to Power reveals a titan of Irish politics.

Neil Jordan’s first collection of short stories, Night in Tunisia, published in 1976, includes an account by a young man in his twenties (called Neil) of his return to Dublin from London, and his encounter with an older woman, with whom he had an affair as a teenager, on the day of Éamon de Valera’s funeral, 2 September 1975. The streets were empty of traffic and crowds massed on the pavements to wait for the cortège of the man who had dominated politics in Ireland since independence. Neil could only remember de Valera as an image from school history books, “his fist raised in a gesture of defiance”, but his former lover, a generation older, had seen him speak at rallies when she was a child, holding her father’s hand as the people shouted, “Up Dev!”

Ronan Fanning’s father died on the same day as de Valera and was buried in Dublin at Glasnevin Cemetery an hour before the former president’s coffin arrived at a plot less than a hundred yards away. In the prologue to his elegant, succinct and shrewd account of de Valera’s long life, Fanning recalls a family friend joking with him at the graveside as the undertaker hurried them along. “What’s the first thing your father will say to St Peter when he sees him?” the friend asked. “‘There’s another Irishman, a long fellow, coming up after me and he’ll cause havoc if you let him in!’”

Besides being a divisive public figure, de Valera wrote himself into the private lives of Irish people over six decades. Abroad, people referred to de Valera’s Ireland in the same way they spoke of Franco’s Spain or Salazar’s Portugal. Although Ireland was an exemplary western democracy and de Valera won, lost and regained power and public trust through the ballot box, the association with Iberian autocracy derived not just from his predominance and his Spanish father, but the sense that Ireland was an archaic Catholic polity isolated from modern life. De Valera appeared to be the epitome of a narrow, zealous nationalist, rigid and pure.

Yet far from portraying his subject as a fanatic, Fanning excels at highlighting how de Valera’s ascent was accidental and circumstantial. He escaped rural poverty by securing a lucky scholarship to the prestigious Blackrock College in Dublin, and his formation was identical to that of the moderate nationalist elite whom the separatists later displaced: boarding school, diligent study in pursuit of a respectable career as a teacher, rugby and the company of priests.

His decisions to learn Irish and to join the militant Irish Volunteers who unleashed the 1916 rising were, Fanning argues, more like career moves than the product of an impulsive ideological commitment. He emerged as the most senior commander to survive the failed rising because he was considered unimportant; instead of facing a firing squad he was interned in England.

His status, that he was older than his fellow prisoners, and his self-assurance won him respect and deference, which he came to regard as his birthright. Leadership of the Sinn Fein movement sweeping the country was “surrendered” to him. In the most modern way, he cultivated his image. The tall, dignified figure with the strange name became, in the American idiom of the day, a “magnetic man”, alluring and elusive. Like his contemporary Tomáš Masaryk, the Czech leader, de Valera propagated the myth of the scholar-president, father of the nation. Touring America made him the living “symbol” of the republic proclaimed by the Irish revolutionaries and defended in a brutal guerrilla war.

His attachment to this view of himself was responsible for the single most catastrophic decision of his career, the rejection of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, which gave Ireland independence in all but name. He repudiated the delegation he had sent to London, Fanning shows, not because of the partition of the island or because the delegates conceded the republic but because they had acted independently. His opposition to the treaty may not have caused the 1922-23 civil war but it made the divisions among the revolutionaries deeper and more bitter. Yet de Valera’s nose for power, his self-belief and his charisma enabled him to survive this huge miscalculation and the ensuing defeat. Within a decade he was elected leader of the Irish Free State he had sought to destroy. Between 1932 and 1945 he dismantled the remaining trappings of British influence, introducing a new constitution and maintaining Irish neutrality in the Second World War, much to Winston Churchill’s disgust.

For de Valera, neutrality was the ultimate expression of Ireland’s independence. But he reassured the British ambassador that did not intend “Irish freedom to become a source of British insecurity”, and sanctioned extensive co-operation under cover of publicly scrupulous impartiality (though, when news broke of Hitler’s death, visiting the German legation to sign a book of condolence was a step too far).

De Valera’s politics were rooted in 1918 and the Wilsonian age of self-determination. Sovereignty was his lodestar and he developed a small nation’s version of realpolitik. Although he did private deals with the Catholic Church on social policy, he defied Catholic opinion by supporting the Soviet Union’s entry to the League of Nations and refused to break off relations with Republican Spain. He publicly denounced a notorious small-town sectarian boycott of Protestant shopkeepers in 1957, but significantly described it as “ill-conceived, ill-considered and futile” before proclaiming it “unjust and cruel”. Calculating about diplomacy, he was sentimental about material life, believing frugality a price worth paying for freedom. Economic self-sufficiency, modish in the 1930s, almost brought Ireland to its knees in the 1950s.

He was increasingly out of touch after 1945 but his election as president in 1959 consecrated him as a symbol of the republic. A new generation came to know de Valera through photographs of him together with John F Kennedy, Princess Grace of Monaco and Charles de Gaulle, the only person his son could recall as being taller than his father. They got on very well. “He was France to
me,” de Valera said in admiration; he could have been speaking about how his own image of dignified defiance had embedded itself in the imagination of a nation.

Maurice Walsh is the author of The News from Ireland: Foreign Correspondents and the Irish Revolution (I B Tauris) and “Bitter Freedom: Ireland in a Revolutionary World (1918-1923)” (Faber & Faber)

Éamon de Valera: a Will to Power by Ronan Fanning is published by Faber & Faber (308pp, £20)

Ronan Fanning and David Reynolds discuss the Easter Rising with the New Statesman assistant editor Michael Prodger at Cambridge Literary Festival on Saturday 9 April 2016 at 7:30pm

Sebastian Barry returns to his Man Booker shortlisted novel A Long Long Way, set during the 1916 Rising, in a conversation with New Statesman culture editor Tom Gatti at Cambridge Literary Festival on Sunday 10 April 2016 at 5:30pm

Easter 1916: From the New Statesman Archive, an anthology of archive pieces about the events of Easter 1916, is out now. Get your copy now, priced only £0.99.


This article first appeared in the 07 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The God issue

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Herman Melville's mystery: was Billy Budd black?

A newly unearthed photograph identifies the African-American Trafalgar survivor who appears in Melville’s final novel. Could the book’s hero have been black, too?

The photograph below tells a remarkable tale. I discovered it in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle while researching my new book. The image, taken by John Havers, was acquired by Prince Albert in the 1850s and it portrays veterans of Trafalgar at the Royal Navy hospital in Greenwich in 1854. Sitting on a bench overlooking the Thames, these aged faces and bodies were a familiar sight in south London in their 18th-century-style frock coats and cocked hats, earning them the nickname “Greenwich geese”.

One figure in particular stands out. Using the hospital records, I identified the third man from the left as Richard Baker, an African American, born in Baltimore in 1770, who served at Trafalgar on HMS Leviathan; he entered the hospital in 1839. Seventeen men born in Africa fought for the British during the battle; 123 from the West Indies. There is a black man portrayed on the Westminster-facing bronze plaque on Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square. But the records show only one Trafalgar veteran from Baltimore: Baker, who is likely to have been a freed or even escaped slave.
Richard Baker (third from the left, with a cane) with fellow veterans of the Battle of Trafalgar in Greenwich in 1854. Photo: Royal Collection Trust

This is a powerful story. But this man also has a special literary significance. On his visit to London in 1849, Herman Melville visited Greenwich and met “an old pensioner in a cocked hat” on the river terrace. It was a vivid encounter that he recalled more than 40 years later in his last and most evocative book, Billy Budd, Sailor. This “Baltimore Negro, a Trafalgar man” was almost certainly Richard Baker. He told Melville how many men had been taken from jail to serve in the navy.

Billy Budd is impressed from a merchant ship that is symbolically named the Rights-of-Man. Melville had written with empathy of people of colour in Moby-Dick, including a scene in which the tattooed Pacific Islander Queequeg and his white bed-mate, Ishmael, declare themselves man and wife. In the opening of Billy Budd, Melville introduces the idea of the “Handsome Sailor”, who, flanked by his fellow mariners, is a “superior figure of their own class, moving along with them like Aldebaran among the lesser lights of his constellation”. One “remarkable instance” of this higher breed occurs to him – a black sailor he had seen in the Liverpool docks ten years earlier:

The two ends of a gay silk handkerchief thrown loose about the neck danced upon the displayed ebony of his chest; in his ears were big hoops of gold, and a Scotch Highland bonnet with a tartan band set off his shapely head. It was a hot noon in July; and his face, lustrous with perspiration, beamed with barbaric good humour. In jovial sallies right and left, his white teeth flashing into view, he rollicked along, the centre of a company of his shipmates.

Was Billy Budd, the Handsome Sailor at the heart of the book, black? Scholars such as John Bryant believe that there is internal evidence in the manuscript of the book – found in a bread tin after Melville’s death in 1891 and not published until 1924 – that the author had played with the idea of making his hero a man of African heritage. Billy is loved by all the crew and is described as blond and blue-eyed later in the story. Yet the sensuous descriptions of the Liverpool sailor and the Greenwich veteran elide to create a counterfactual version in which Billy becomes a black star at the centre of his constellation of shipmates.

Indeed, some critics – most notably, Cassandra Pybus at the University of Sydney – have suggested that another 19th-century anti-hero was a person of colour. In Wuthering Heights, published in 1847, two years before Melville’s visit, Heathcliff is described as a “regular black”, an orphan found in the Liverpool docks – an intriguing notion explored in Andrea Arnold’s brilliant 2011 film adaptation.

Melville witnessed great changes in the fortunes of black Americans. Moby-Dick is an allegory of the struggle against slavery in the run-up to the American Civil War; the Melville scholar Robert K Wallace believes that the writer heard the fugitive slave-turned-emancipationist Frederick Douglass speak in the 1840s and that they may have even met. Nor is it a coincidence that Captain Ahab goes in pursuit of a white whale. It is both the elusive other and the pallor that might appal: Melville suggests that whiteness does not necessarily represent the pure and the good. It’s also a fable that has since found resonance in George W Bush’s pursuit of Osama Bin Laden and the illusory weapons of mass destruction, and in Donald Trump’s crazed crusades.

Terence Stamp as Billy Budd in Peter Ustinov’s 1962 film. Photo: Alamy

Melville wrote vituperatively about the use of flogging in both the American and the British navies. Billy Budd’s back­story is the 1797 naval mutiny in the Thames Estuary, during which mutineers attempted to blockade London and set up a “Floating Republic”. All of these themes are played out in Melville’s parable. Billy, the Handsome Sailor, is beloved of all the ship’s crew, including the captain. But Claggart, the jealous master of arms, frames him as a potential mutineer. Faced with the charge, Billy instinctively hits out and accidentally kills the officer. The captain has no choice: the state demands the death of the “fated boy”. “Struck dead by an angel of God!” he says. “Yet the Angel must hang!”

Having served on whaling and navy ships, Melville knew intimately the hierarchies at sea and the way they echoed the abuse of imperial power. Many men were stolen twice over: as African slaves, then as impressed sailors. Living in Manhattan, he saw other casualties of a period of revolution and international disruption, the 1840s. In Redburn (1849) written as the Irish famine was creating a new trade in people, he records the impact of mass migration to the US. To those who ask whether “multitudes of foreign poor should be landed on our American shores”, he replies, “If they can get here, they have God’s right to come; though they bring all Ireland and her miseries with them. For the whole world is the patrimony of the whole world.”

Melville’s humanity shines across time and space. In 1953, when detained on Ellis Island in Upper New York Bay, the Trinidadian-born writer C L R James saw Ahab’s tyranny as a precursor of the modern cult of personality and an indictment of McCarthyite accusations. As Melville’s last, elegiac word on the subject – having exiled himself as a customs inspector in the same harbour – Billy Budd spoke out against injustice. In the image of Richard Baker, with his grey hair, cane and Trafalgar medal, we see that sensibility brought back to life. Isolated in the unfeeling city, Melville looked back to his lost past in his poem “John Marr”:

Ye float around me, form and feature;
Tattooings, ear-rings, love-locks curled;
Barbarians of man’s simpler nature,
Unworldly servers of the world.

He knew who the true barbarians were. And as his white whale resurfaced as an allegory for a nuclear age, so his Handsome Sailor became the embodiment of the alien, the beautiful and the wronged. His innocent body was hymned by E M Forster and Eric Crozier in their libretto for Britten’s Cold War opera in 1951. He was bleached blond for Peter Ustinov’s 1962 film starring Terence Stamp – a clip of which appears on the banks of TV screens watched by Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Budd’s sacrifice mirroring that of the character played by the flame-haired David Bowie. Newton, a refugee in time and space, falls to Earth like a comet to warn us of nuclear and environmental destruction – and is imprisoned for his sins. “This is modern America,” the authorities say, “and we’re going to keep it that way.”

If Moby-Dick acquired elements of science fiction (Andrew Delbanco, the author of Melville’s most recent major biography, describes Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: a Space Odyssey as a “very Melvillean film”), then Billy Budd’s ritual continually reinvents itself. In 1999, the French director Claire Denis reset the story in northern Africa in her film Beau Travail – a kind of eroticised ballet of bare male bodies set to Britten’s music (and played out on the same shores from which new refugees now set off for western Europe). Through all these incarnations, the Handsome Sailor persists: from black star and hanged man to alien and avatar.

And at the centre of it all is Richard Baker. His ship, HMS Leviathan, had long since been consigned to the mud of Portsmouth Harbour as a prison hulk for convicts about to be transported to Van Diemen’s Land, as Tasmania was then known. Baker, also stranded on a foreign shore, looks over the reflecting Thames as it reaches out to the sea – that same mutinous waterway that at the century’s end would lead to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. With his medal pinned proudly to his chest, he looks out of his past into our future, quietly aware of his power.

“RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR” by Philip Hoare is published by Fourth Estate

Philip Hoare’s books include Wilde’s Last Stand, England’s Lost Eden, and Spike IslandLeviathan or, The Whale won the Samuel Johnson Prize for 2009, and The Sea Inside was published in 2013. He is professor of creative writing at the University of Southampton, and co-curator of the Moby-Dick Big Read. His website is, and he is on Twitter @philipwhale.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder