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David McCullagh: Was de Valera's mother telling the truth about his parentage?

In the first part of a major two-volume reassessment, historian and broadcaster David McCullagh considers the man behind the mask.

David McCullagh Host of RTÉ's Primetime

A MISSING PIECE of paper troubled Éamon de Valera throughout his long life: his parents’ marriage certificate.

He was bothered enough by its absence to seek it – or any other evidence of their wedding – over many years, using many different agents: his half-brother, his cousin, ecclesiastical authorities in America and Spain, even the Irish minister in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War.

Proof of the marriage would silence persistent whispers about his legitimacy, as well as proving to the world – and to himself – that his mother had been telling the truth about his parentage.

No proof would be found

But no proof would be found, despite the efforts of de Valera and his legion of helpers, and of future biographers and genealogists. Neither would any proof be found of the supposed death of his father, Vivion de Valera, in Denver, or perhaps New Mexico, unless it was in Minnesota. Indeed, there is little evidence that Vivion ever existed.

Of course, an individual’s paternity should not affect our opinion of them. But the point is that the questions about his father and about his parents’ marriage affected Éamon de Valera. Did his own doubts about his ancestry lead him to take a more extreme approach in politics, to try to become, in effect, ‘more Irish than the Irish themselves’?

And what was the effect of the repeated slurs de Valera had to suffer as he climbed to
prominence? He was sometimes referred to as ‘that Spanish-American bastard’ or as an ‘illegitimate Dago’. In fact, there is very little evidence of any Spanish connection.

The official story

The official story is easily told. Catherine (Kate) Coll emigrated to the United States in 1879. There she met a young Spanish man, Vivion de Valera, a former sculptor who had become a music teacher after his eye was damaged by a chip of marble. They were married in 1881, and the following year their son, Edward, was born.

Vivion, because of ill-health, travelled west, where he died, in Denver, Colorado. Kate, forced to work full time, then arranged for her son to return to her home place to be
cared for by his grandmother.

To believe Kate Coll’s story is to believe that no record survives of her marriage; that all written evidence of her husband’s existence was lost; and that no credible Spanish connection would emerge after her son became world famous. Any one of these things is believable; to believe all of them requires a leap of faith.

On the other hand, there is a birth certificate and baptismal certificate which bear his father’s (misspelled) name. And when Catherine Coll de Valera remarried, the officiating priest accepted both that she had been married before and that her first husband was dead.

Less than convincing

The only evidence for the first marriage is Kate Coll’s word, and she was a notably unreliable witness. She appeared to be confused – or evasive – about many details: where she met her husband, where they were married, where he died.

As she put it herself in a letter to her son, in relation to her accounts of his father, “Please excuse me if… I contradict anything I have told you. It is because I forget or was not really sure of it.”

Even a dutiful son with a pressing need to believe her story must have found this less than convincing.

David McCullagh is the author of The Reluctant Taoiseach, a biography of John A Costello, and A Makeshift Majority, a history of the first inter-party government. He began working as a journalist with the Evening Press before joining RTÉ, where he currently presents the broadcaster’s flagship current affairs programme, Primetime. Rise 1882-1932 is the first volume of a major two-part biography of Eamon DeValera. 

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About the author:

David McCullagh  / Host of RTÉ's Primetime

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