De Valera Volume 1: Rise 1882-1932, by David McCullagh, Gill Books, 480 pp, €24.99, ISBN: 978-0717155866
Eamon de Valera was the most significant political figure in twentieth century Ireland. One of the great strengths of this first volume in David McCullagh’s biography is to show that his pre-eminence was by no means inevitable, even after he was spared execution for his part in the 1916 Rising. Volume 1 tells the story from his birth in 1882 until 1932, when Fianna Fáil entered government.
The story of de Valera’s early life is remarkable. Americans love to trumpet the “log-cabin to White House” biography of Abraham Lincoln, but de Valera’s obscure and impoverished origins were generally cited only to denigrate him. He was the son of Kate Coll from Bruree, who followed the path of many Irish women in the decades after the Famine: emigrating to the USA in her teens to become a domestic servant. He was born in Manhattan, in a hospital that catered for “the destitute, unwed and working mothers”. As for his father, Vivion de Valera/De Valero, no trace of him has been found in US census records, and there is no record of a marriage certificate or of Vivion’s death certificate or place of burial. De Valera’s mother gave several contradictory versions about where their marriage took place. In later life de Valera went to considerable efforts to learn more about his parentage – without success. In May 1959, when he was a candidate for the office of president of Ireland, he asked the minister for justice to provide him with a certificate confirming that he was an Irish citizen, which suggests a degree of insecurity about his origins, and during the debate on the 1935 Irish Citizenship Bill, he made a revealing speech in Dáil Éireann where he suggested that where a child had parents with different nationalities, they should take their mother’s citizenship.
At some point after his birth Kate Coll returned to work as a live-in domestic servant on New York’s Fifth Avenue, and de Valera was boarded out with a Limerick woman. She sent him back to Ireland with her brother Edward in 1885. McCullagh speculates that this decision was prompted by hearing of her husband’s death (he had allegedly gone west seeking respite from tuberculosis); alternatively, she found it difficult to pay for his care from her servant’s income (an all too common dilemma for single mothers). His presence would undoubtedly have reduced her prospects of another marriage. One wonders how the Coll household in Bruree – consisting of Kate’s mother, two brothers and a younger sister – reacted to this new arrival. The family was extremely poor – they were living in a one-room cabin on a quarter-acre of land. In 1881 only ten per cent of Limerick rural households lived in one-room cabins, but shortly after de Valera’s arrival they moved into one of the first agricultural labourer’s cottages built by the local authority. Like other rural children, he helped with farm tasks – cleaning the cow shed, bringing milk to the creamery, minding cows grazing along the roadside – “the long acre”. His mother came to Ireland in 1888, shortly before her marriage to Charles Wheelwright, but she returned to America without her son. By the time he was in his teens his young aunt and uncle had emigrated and his grandmother had died. When his Uncle Pat married, the presence of a teenage nephew would have been increasingly unwelcome in the small cottage.
Escape came through education. From Bruree national school he went to the Christian Brothers in Charleville; the Coll finances only stretched to one rail fare a day so he had to walk the seven miles home. A scholarship based on his intermediate certificate results awarded him £20 a year for three years. £20 was almost equivalent to a year’s income for an agricultural labourer, so perhaps it is not surprising that his Uncle Pat made an unsuccessful claim for £5. A local priest persuaded the Holy Ghost Fathers to accept de Valera as a student at Blackrock College despite the fact that his scholarship covered only half of the annual boarding fee. This boy with a strange name from a labourer’s cottage would have been an esoteric outsider in Blackrock, and McCullagh’s version of his time there contrasts with some of the more starry-eyed accounts. The young de Valera appears to have been an insecure and extremely ambitious young man: ambition was essential if he was to transcend his doubly deprived background (emotionally and socially), and he hoped for an academic career. But his examination results were erratic, perhaps indicating mood swings and personal crises. He remained in Blackrock College studying for his Royal University Degree, which he funded by a combination of scholarships and teaching jobs, graduating with a pass degree. De Valera’s mathematical abilities have been hyped excessively and also rubbished. His mathematical books, which are held in the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, are annotated extensively, and several distinguished mathematicians have confirmed his ability, but a mediocre examination performance meant that he would find it hard to secure the academic recognition he craved. In 1906 however an appointment as professor of mathematics at Carysfort teacher training college gave him the financial security to marry and set up home.
He was introduced to advanced nationalist circles through the Gaelic League. McCullagh notes that when the new National University of Ireland made Irish a compulsory subject for matriculation it became necessary for aspiring lecturers to learn the language. The league attracted many young men and women and it provided a cheap social life in mixed company. De Valera married his Irish teacher. He had spent the summers of 1906 to 1908 taking extra classes in maths and physics, presumably to advance his career, but in the years 1909 to 1911 he taught Irish at a summer school in Connemara that was organised by Roger Casement, which suggests a shift of emphasis. His Gaelic League involvement probably brought him to the Rotunda Rink in November 1913 when the Irish Volunteers was formed, and he was elected captain of a company based in Donnybrook. He remained loyal to Eoin MacNeill and the Irish Volunteers when a majority of volunteers supported Redmond and the British war effort.
De Valera’s role as commander of the Boland’s Mill garrison in Easter 1916 has been widely criticised. McCullagh is fair-minded. He points out that before the Rising the battalion that he commanded was recognised as short of officers and among the weakest in Dublin. During Easter week de Valera was overworked, indecisive but unwilling to delegate, and he probably came close to a breakdown. Contrary to most popular accounts – which de Valera himself refuted – his battalion was not the last to surrender. He survived execution not because of his American birth (Tom Clarke, who was executed, was an American citizen), but because the Boland’s Mill troops were among the last to arrive in Richmond Barracks and by the time that he was court-martialled the British authorities were aware of the backlash against executions.
Prison was the making of de Valera, something which is not uncommon in the biographies of revolutionary leaders, though he has not left a prison diary or reflections on his experience. His leadership of the 1916 prisoners was not automatic, because, again contrary to many popular histories, he was not the most senior surviving officer from the Rising. There were three others of equal rank, including Thomas Ashe, who led the attack on the RIC barracks in Ashbourne – which became a model for the later War of Independence. In this account Ashe (who died in September 1917 during force-feeding while on hunger strike) emerges as a possible alternative leader for the 1916 veterans. De Valera won out, McCullagh writes, ‘”by elbowing others out of the way”. When the prisoners received an amnesty in June 1917, they returned to Ireland with de Valera as their acknowledged leader.
As a leader de Valera was cautious: slow to come to a decision. In the years before the Rising he was distrustful of politics, and he was initially suspicious of the turn to political activism in the aftermath of the Rising but once elected as MP for Clare he embraced it. He was not an enthusiast for the guerrilla warfare that characterised the War of Independence, and it was his pressure for a more conventional form of warfare that led to the disastrous attack on the Custom House in 1921 and the capture of many members of the Dublin IRA. He was also a man who sought consensus: “in prison there was ‘plenty of time for discussion, which usually allowed de Valera to persuade others to follow his preferred course’”. This also sounds like a description of de Valera’s cabinet meetings in the 1930s, which could last for five to six hours or more, starting at 6 pm and ending after midnight. If de Valera did not get his way in prison, he threatened resignation. When he returned from America in 1921 he preferred to meet Dáil ministers individually, or in small groups, rather than as a cabinet. While there were probably good arguments for this – it would have been calamitous if the entire cabinet had been arrested by the British forces, it also secured his control. He appears to have viewed any criticism of his point of view as a personal attack – which suggests continued insecurity.
The search for compromise and consensus is one of the keys to the fraught subject of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The Easter Rising proclaimed a Republic, and the legacy of that proclamation dominated Irish politics for decades to come. The difficulties in securing some compromise around the Republic were evident long before December 1921. The first compromise emerged in the autumn of 1917 when the Sinn Féin Convention agreed to seek a republic and then leave it to the Irish people to decide what form of government they wanted – a fudge that was necessary to placate Arthur Griffith and his supporters in order to achieve unity. In February 1920 de Valera gave a press interview in the United States outlining possible agreements between Britain and Ireland to ensure that an independent Ireland would not threaten British security – including an arrangement similar to that between the US and Cuba. His proposals were condemned by Irish-Americans as a betrayal of the Republic. The views of Dáil Éireann deputies on Ireland’s future status ranged from those of Griffith, who would have been content with some form of dual monarchy, to those of dogmatic republicans like Brugha or Mary MacSwiney. Where did de Valera stand? Eoin MacNeill – a man whom de Valera admired, claimed that he was not a dogmatic republican but believed that campaigning for a Republic would appeal to Irish voters. The new cabinet of the Second Dáil appointed in August 1921 was smaller and less militantly republican than its predecessor, though Brugha and Stack remained members. The changes might suggest that de Valera was trying to ensure Cabinet approval for an agreement with Britain.
De Valera’s failure to join the delegation negotiating the Anglo-Irish Treaty has been the subject of endless debate, and no consensus is possible on this topic. One can argue that he should have been in London to confront the immensely experienced British team, though it remains questionable whether any Treaty – short of the unattainable Republic – would have prevented a split in the cabinet and the Dáil. McCullagh’s account is most valuable in its focus on the final days of the negotiations, especially the “chaotic” cabinet meeting held in Dublin on December 3rd, when the delegates outlined the British proposals. No accurate record exists of decisions taken at that meeting, which opened the way for the bitter disagreements that followed. Did the delegates agree to refer the final version to Dublin for approval? McCullagh suggests that Griffith may have been prepared to sign a document and then leave it to the Dáil and cabinet to reject it. He also notes that Collins, quite irregularly, gave the IRB sight of a proposed oath of allegiance, without informing the cabinet, and the version agreed during the Treaty negotiations was one that met their approval. McCullagh also emphasises that the treaty signed on December 6th was a significant improvement on the version discussed on December 3rd.
As a child I believed that Ulster was the cause of both the Treaty split and the Civil War, but the historical record shows that this was not so. The clauses on Ulster in De Valera’s alternative to the Treaty, Document No. 2, were almost identical to those in the Treaty. McCullagh points out that the establishment of Northern Ireland made it possible for Britain to begin negotiating a settlement with Dáil Éireann. De Valera, Collins and Griffith all rather naively expected that the proposed boundary commission would solve the Ulster question, and in 1921, and throughout his later career, de Valera really only invoked Ulster when it proved politically expedient to do so. It always ranked well below Irish sovereignty in his priorities. McCullagh notes that in 1921-22 de Valera regarded the Irish Free State as a permanent arrangement, and the Ulster settlement as temporary – the reverse proved the case.
This account of the aftermath of the Treaty and the Civil War does nothing to improve de Valera’s reputation. McCullagh describes him as “attempting to walk a thin line – co-opting extremist support to bolster his arguments for a delay, and talking about rights that could be defended in arms”; giving the Civil War militants political respectability, and endorsing the republican threat to kill TDs who supported the provisional government’s emergency legislation. He also criticises the failure to summon the Third Dáil after the general election in the summer of 1922. Its absence gave the provisional government complete authority, and it left the anti-Treaty side without a political forum. Ending the Civil War was a protracted business. The negotiations over surrendering arms were eerily reminiscent of “decommissioning” in the aftermath of the Northern Ireland conflict. De Valera was imprisoned at the end of the Civil War, and the government considered prosecuting him, but found that they had little evidence against him.
De Valera’s slow recovery from the defeats over the Treaty and the Civil War and his extrication from the straitjacket imposed by Sinn Féin through establishing the Fianna Fáil party is another saga of cautious and deliberate action or inaction. He was slow to take his seat in Dáil Éireann – Austin Stack suggested that the anti-Treaty side should do so when the debacle of the Boundary Commission became known, and Dan Breen broke ranks in January 1927 by taking his seat, having signed the oath. De Valera and the remaining Fianna Fáil deputies only did so in August 1927 because emergency legislation passed after the assassination of Kevin O’Higgins meant that otherwise their seats would be forfeit. This decision led to Hanna Sheehy Skeffington (a vice-president of Fianna Fáil) and Dorothy Macardle resigning from the party.
This book has much to offer to both general readers and to those already familiar with the story. McCullagh has an eye for detail, and he gives us nuggets of information that have generally been overlooked – the fact that the 1921 Treaty was the first time that the term British Commonwealth of Nations was used in an official document; or that the Dáil vote on the Treaty, which passed by a comfortable margin, was nearly reversed some days later when a vote to establish an Executive headed by de Valera was only defeated by two votes; or that de Valera travelled to the US in 1927 (before he took his seat in Dáil Éireann) on a passport issued by the Irish Free State. He also shows that taking the oath in 1927 was very different from 1922 when TDs were called individually to repeat the oath before signing the roll; by 1927 it only involved signing a document. But such details do not overwhelm the bigger story.
The de Valera who emerges in this volume is a complex figure, deliberative, cautious and conservative. The book captures some of the bitterness that the Civil War brought to Irish political life, and the sundering of close friendships, as, for example, between Cosgrave and de Valera. The Fianna Fáil party took a formal decision not to enter into any personal contact with government ministers – not even greeting them in the Dáil corridors. Throughout the book McCullagh makes repeated references to de Valera’s personal charm, even magnetism, and his capacity to attract friends and admirers. These images are important if we are to understand his political success, and escape the dominant images of the elderly and aloof president of Ireland.
This is the first of two volumes in what promises to become the definitive biography of the pre-eminent political figure of twentieth century Ireland. The luxury of two volumes provides the necessary space to examine both the personal and political biography in detail. Such space is necessary given the length of de Valera’s career and the remarkable range of archival evidence and historical studies that exist about the man and the wider political context. McCullagh has mined de Valera’s extensive papers in UCD and the other sources assiduously; the end notes and bibliography take up over a hundred pages. Insofar as a balanced and comprehensive account can be given of this major figure, who continues to divide Irish opinion, this is it.