De Valera in America: The Rebel President and the Making of Irish Independence
US: Jan 2010
Post-9/11, Americans distrust foreign leaders coming to their shores to lobby for their ideologies, let alone to raise funds that may be funneled for radical gunrunners bent on anti-imperialist revolution. The Irish, after the defeat of their Easter Rising in 1916, may have been the first people to lobby for recognition and to sell bonds to Americans eager to support their fledgling Republic, proclaimed but lacking international recognition.
In a bold move capitalizing on the renewed rebellion by Irish against the Crown, and the right for national self-determination that the Treaty of Versailles, the post-WWI League of Nations, and Woodrow Wilson all demanded, the president of this new Irish Republic entered New York City to begin an eighteen-month mission. In June 1919, Éamon de Valera returned—as a stowaway without a passport on the lam from the British and as an escaped political prisoner—to the city where he was born.
As an Irish journalist who teaches history on Long Island, Dave Hannigan tells the story of “the rebel president and the making of Irish independence.” His bi-national position places him neatly. He incorporates primary sources from his journalistic predecessors who covered de Valera’s nationwide lobbying for the Irish Republic.
On his journeys across the continent, Eamon de Valera was feted and feared. Irish Catholic immigrants and their descendants, naturally, rallied to the cause. 300,000 bonds totaling over $5 million (multiply this over tenfold for today’s purchasing power) were raised for an fledgling foreign entity. Ireland’s sovereignty defied precedent—a Republic proclaimed in 1916, defeated by the British, rebelling again against America’s ally. Rumors of Reds and radicals, guns smuggled and fifth columnists: these outraged both the American Legion and Confederate veterans. The Union’s veterans were angered that de Valera did not enlist to fight the Great War under the Stars and Stripes; the Southern rebels resented a Catholic, and a half-Spaniard, spreading sedition.
He left as an infant, sent with his uncle by his Irish emigrant, newly single mother to relatives back home; he returned 34 years later, imprisoned after the Rising. A fugitive, four months before landing in Manhattan he escaped an English jail disguised in women’s clothing. He tended towards aloofness and taciturnity, except when speaking for Irish freedom. His eloquence inspired comparisons in the press as the “next Lincoln”, another angular “Long Fellow”, for his determination to “take the shackles of tyranny from the limbs of the sons of Ireland.”
Likewise, his advisor Harry Boland at Boston’s Fenway Park compared de Valera to Washington, “an anarchist”, and “a successful rebel”. Crowds loved this rhetoric; controversy dogged de Valera, seen by the establishment as undermining American allegiance to England. De Valera baited John Bull. “There is no question of Ireland’s succession. If a young lady was carried into the harem of a Turkish chief and she tried to get a release, would you call it a trial for divorce?”
Over a year and a half, de Valera doubtless repeated such sure-fire lines over and over. Hannigan sorts out the logistics. He pays less attention to the inner man, the tensions that arose when the leader of the Republic was, during its War of Independence, removed for much of the struggle across the Atlantic while his comrades fought and died. Aspersion and rumor have been cast against underlying motives for displacing de Valera at this crucial juncture.
Hannigan minimizes doubts as to his subject’s sincerity. He tends towards a simpler explanation that as an American-born Irishman, de Valera best represented the face of Irish freedom that those in the diaspora could accept, despite his chillier mien and distant attitude under considerable pressures.
W. B. Yeats met de Valera during a New York City bond drive. “I was rather disappointed—A living argument rather than a living man, all propaganda, no human life, but not bitter hysterical or unjust,” Yeats observed. “I judged him persistent, being both patient and energetic but that he will fail through not having enough human life to judge the human life in others. He will ask too much of everyone & will ask it without charm. He will be pushed aside by others.”
On his return to his adopted homeland, de Valera refused to accept the Anglo-Irish treaty brokering a partitioned island and partial independence for the Irish Republic. Civil war ensued. Alan Rickman in the film Michael Collins memorably portrayed a gaunt, shaken, detached de Valera again on the run, this time from his fellow Irish and former comrades. Holed up on a farm, he spoke as if still the Republic’s commander. He insisted that he and his republican diehards spoke for the majority who now opposed his cause. An Irish Free State defending a divided nation hunted down Irish Republican Army irregulars; de Valera finally surrendered.
After ten years out of power, the former leader of the dead Republic spent some of the bond money to start a newspaper—and Ireland’s most successful political party, Fianna Fáil. At its helm, de Valera would gain the role of prime minister, faced with eliminating the republicans in the remnants of an I.R.A. sworn to fight on for his 1916 Republic. Between 1932 and 1959, he ran the Irish nation for 21 years; he then served two terms as president before his death, at 90, in 1975.
Originally a mathematics teacher (a fact Hannigan does not mention—he offers little on de Valera outside of these 18 months), his many admirers and foes acknowledged his persistent, if charm-challenged at times, ability to calculate, to outwit, to persevere against great odds. For much more on de Valera see Tim Pat Coogan’s Eamon de Valera: The Man Who Was Ireland.
Hannigan’s narrative was originally published by a Dublin-based press, so Americans not immersed in diplomatic affairs or Irish republican bickering may find certain sections sluggish or obscure. For instance, on page two, Hannigan summarizes de Valera’s post-Rising rap sheet. The author mentions how “it was for decades incorrectly assumed that it was his American birth that saved his life.
In actual fact, his survival had more to do with the logistics of court-martial and fortunate timing.” Yet, he fails to elaborate on this crucial point, for de Valera’s wily survival elevated his legendary status among both American fundraisers and Irish constituents.
Hannigan’s steady pace presents a solid study. However, accounts of convoluted faction fighting between older Fenians and de Valera’s team of advisors may appeal only to historians. The recording of protracted debates between stalwarts John Devoy and Judge Daniel F. Cohalan and upstart de Valera and his aides may weary less obsessed readers. Still, the inclusion of this information, collated from press coverage on both sides of the Atlantic, provides value as such data have until now not been gathered, to my knowledge, so efficiently and compactly.