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
This article appears in the 06 Jan 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The God issue