The only surviving leader of Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising, Éamon de Valera at first led the fight against the British. Then, after partial independence, “Dev” opposed his former comrades who chose to sign a peace treaty with the Crown. The civil war ended, he went into exile with the Irish Republican Army’s remnant as Sinn Féin.
Entering the Irish Free State government he disdained, he started a rival party, Fianna Fáil. By the ’30s, he gained power over the entity he in 1949 constituted as an Irish Republic. His enduring presence among those who dominated Ireland during its emergence as a nation ended only two years before his death in 1975, a testament to his tenacity.
This summation of the career of de Valera prefaces an evaluation of Ronan Fanning’s measured and balanced biography. Its early pages cite much from the massive predecessor by journalist Tim Pat Coogan. His garrulous and chatty style in The Man Who Was Ireland (1995) meshed with Coogan’s sharp take on the elusive, wily, and calculating career of a conniving one known as “The Long Fella”. While as an historian Fanning prefers a detached stance, this compact study of a man many worshiped and as many despised for most of the past Irish century will serve readers wanting more facts if less wit. Fanning dispenses political and diplomatic detail in efficient, chronological chapters.
I like the British title of Coogan’s book, Long Fellow, Long Shadow. This captures the near-divine aura the man loved or hated as “Dev” emanated over my parents’ and grandparents’ native Ireland. He was spoken about, I was told, as if God, and about as feared or adored, depending on one’s allegiance. For this year’s coalition of Fianna Fáil and its bitter Civil War enemies from Fine Gael to shakily rule the current Irish polity has, a century after the Rising, only now overcome deep political divisions. This divide continued for generations in families. Memories of who fought for whom, who supported the Treaty with the British and who rejected it, remain vivid yet in many parlor or pub discussions.
de Valera was born in 1882 in less Gaelicized fashion. The son of an Irish servant who immigrated to Manhattan, he claimed American citizenship. Fanning follows the evidence, or lack, that his mother had married the Spanish artist who had passed through Cuba before arriving in the US. His exotic surname followed young Eddie back as his mother, unable to support him after she claimed his father had died, sent him to be raised by relatives near the village of Bruree in County Limerick. His boyhood stint there laboring on a half-acre farm disabused him of any agricultural life.
Skilled at mathematics, on a scholarship Eddie thrived under the priests who taught him at a prestigious Dublin boarding school. Soon he joined the staff as a teacher and a rugby player. He sought to advance. Learning Irish might help. Drawn into both the Irish cultural revival and its republican activism under the spell of his Irish-language teacher, Sinéad Ní Fhlannagáin, he married her in 1910. Soon the rechristened Éamon’s fluency progressed alongside his rise in the armed Irish Volunteers and an oath-bound Republican Brotherhood. Their plans resulted in the Easter Rising.
His military expertise was less renowned, as during the Rising, he commanded the far-off post at Boland’s Mill less than adroitly, according to the witnesses Fanning quotes. Contrary to legend, he claims that de Valera survived the executions of the other Rising leaders not due to his American birth, but to the isolation of his command. By the time his fellow commanders had been shot by the British, Fanning posits that de Valera, delayed in a prison transfer, lived because “he was unknown”.
Headstrong, within a “carapace” of hardened sufficiency, his biographer demonstrates how de Valera’s fear of bishops, his ignorance of political realities, his self-righteousness, and his pedantry proved his mettle. Caring not for placating his many enemies, he sustained his spirits by his refusal to give in. His marked cleverness at maneuvering at first outside the Irish government and then within it, seeming to not quite approve of the defined status of the partitioned nation he found himself ruling, attests to his sly nature. His purportedly republican party Fianna Fáil entered the parliament, Dáil Éireann, in a subterfuge of not affirming the Treaty legalities that tied the Free State still to Britain.
By 1937, in power at last, Dev engineered a preferential status for the Irish language and Catholic Church in the new constitution. While many Irish now resent the imposition for decades of compulsory study of Gaeilge and have en masse risen up in disgust at the scandals of that Church, Fanning calmly shows how these hallowed markers of Irish identity bonded “together a deeply divided people” after the Civil War of the early ’20s. Furthermore, the Irish Republic sought a counterpart to the “deeply ingrained anti-Catholicism” of their former British overlords. With 93.5 percent of the Irish back then professing Catholicism, a badge of separate pride for the emerging nation was needed. “The state was no longer the Free State but de Valera’s Ireland” by 1939, as he declared his former revolutionary friends in the I.R.A. treasonous. As Fanning proves, Dev gripped his power.
So much that, when he finally stood down as Taoiseach (Prime Minister) in 1959 to transfer to a more ceremonial role as An Uachtarán (President), at the age 75, an aide watched as Dev wrapped his arms around his office switchboard. These touches soften a portrait of a man caricatured as in thrall to the Church, bucolic Gaelic fables, and starched Irish piety.
Fanning reveals how Dev tried to negotiate constitutional rights for the minority faiths in his nation while acknowledging the inescapable role of the traditional Church. Fanning credits Dev for creating a climate of peace and recovery, breathing room after so much bloodshed and bitterness. His nine decades of life represent a bullheaded leader who this biography acknowledges as “blinkered” and headstrong, as in opposition to the vexed Treaty with the British not so much from principle but because it was not “his” version of that compromise.
Fanning concludes by asserting that whomever the Irish elected, the situation after independence from Britain would have left the island nation struggling. Ireland’s dire economy, the high levels of emigration that drew my own family off from farms to Dublin and then to London and America, and the wartime predicaments that forced Ireland into another subterfuge of Allied-friendly neutrality all could have occurred if Fine Gael or who knows, Sinn Féin, ran the Dáil Éireann instead. Fanning admits that de Valera enabled rapid Irish separation from the Crown, and before WWII, to boot. This legacy, argued then as now in history books and around Irish tables, is critiqued and guardedly commemorated in this year of contended memories and testimonies about Dev and his 1916 rebels.