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David McCullagh on Eamon de Valera: 'People tended either to love him or to loath him'

It’s difficult to be even-handed about someone who arouses such strong emotions, four decades after his death, writes David McCullagh.

David McCullagh Host of RTÉ's Primetime

TWO THINGS CAN be said of Éamon de Valera without fear of contradiction: firstly, that he was the dominant figure in Irish politics for the first half of the twentieth century and secondly, that he remains a highly controversial and divisive figure.

From 1917, when he was elected President of Sinn Féin, to 1959, when he retired from the Taoiseach’s office, he was either the leader of government, or the leader of the opposition. He followed that 42 year period of dominance with another 14 as President of Ireland, a ceremonial but still highly visible position.

But while he was dominant, he was also divisive. For instance, he was the only two-term President who had to face a contest for his second term. Political opponents were prepared to see Seán T O’Kelly, Patrick Hillery and Mary McAleese re-elected unopposed; but there was no way the same courtesy would be extended to de Valera.

Provoked strongly divergent views

Throughout his life and his long political career, de Valera provoked strongly divergent views. People tended either to love him or to loathe him – and as I’ve been finding out since my book was published, those divisions remain today. Some people feel that any criticism of de Valera’s activities is outrageous; others aren’t satisfied unless he is personally blamed for all of Ireland’s ills, from the Civil War on.

Clearly, it’s difficult to be even-handed about someone who arouses such strong emotions, four decades after his death. But it’s still important to try, because without understanding his motivations, without understanding what drove him, we can’t really understand the history of 20th Century Ireland.

Rise tells the story of de Valera’s first 50 years, from his birth in New York in 1882 to the eve of his resumption of power in March 1932. The word ‘rise’ is significant, because de Valera rose to the top against seemingly insurmountable odds, not once, but twice.

Significant obstacles to overcome

His first rise to power took him from the rural obscurity of Bruree in County Limerick to the leadership of nationalist Ireland. He had significant obstacles to overcome. There were question marks over his paternity, and over whether his parents were really married, question marks which bothered him greatly.

He had a lonely and relatively impoverished boyhood in Bruree, but managed to succeed brilliantly at examinations, winning the scholarship that took him to Blackrock College. But his mixed academic fortunes after that made it extremely difficult to find a suitable career.

Relatively apolitical in his youth, he found a new devotion to nationalism after taking up the Irish language, which led in turn to his joining the Irish Volunteers. He worked extremely hard, studying military manuals and the techniques of soldiering, and his application was rewarded by rapid promotion, so that by Easter 1916 he was a Battalion commandant.

He had a relatively good Rising, and an even better aftermath: he was saved by luck (not by his American birth) from the firing squad, and went on to become a leader of the convicted prisoners, a successful by-election candidate in East Clare, and then leader of Sinn Féin.

He was personally acceptable to all factions

His pre-eminence was due to his personality: he was personally acceptable to all the factions which made up Sinn Féin – the moderates led by Griffith, the militants led by Brugha, and the IRB faction led by Collins – and he was also ambitious enough to fight for the leadership.

His leadership skills helped him to steer Irish nationalism through the War of Independence, and to get the British to agree to a Truce to allow for negotiations. But he came unstuck over the Treaty, and the Civil War which followed, when he found himself the political leader of the anti-Treaty forces, which had no time for politicians.

Deprived of control, he still took much of the blame from his opponents, who held him personally responsible for the conflict. When he was jailed after the war, most people assumed his political career was over.

And yet, he rose once more, patiently rebuilding his political support, founding a new political party, Fianna Fáil, as well as the Irish Press newspaper which supported it. The qualities of determination, self-reliance and self-belief, magnified by his difficult childhood and strengthened in his challenging career, saw him win back the power which had been so abruptly taken from him in 1922.

No other figure dominants the history of the period like de Valera; and if we want to understand what he did, and how he affected the course of events, we need to understand the background which formed him and which drove his rise. This in turn helps to explain how he used power to shape the Ireland we live in – and that is a question to be dealt with in Volume 2.

David Mc Cullagh is shortlisted for a Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Award in TheJournal.ie Best Published Book of the Year category for his book, De Valera Volume 1: Rise (1882 – 1932). You can vote for David’s book at www.irishbookawards/irish/vote and voting is open until midday on  23 November 2017.

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David McCullagh  / Host of RTÉ's Primetime

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