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Eamon De Valera on the steps of No. 10 Downing Street, London. (PA Archive/Press Association Images)

Extract ‘Mr de Valera’s conviction that Hitler would win the war was stupid’

David Gray, the US Amabassador to Ireland in 1940, reveals just what he thought of Dev, the 1916 leaders and why he thought Ireland was in collusion with the Nazis.

David Gray became US Minister (Ambassador) to Ireland in 1940. His memoir, written at the age of 89, is published for the first time by the Royal Irish Academy and is a patchwork of top-secret documents, letters to Roosevelt and extracts from his diary.

Gray was born in New York in 1870 and was a journalist and playwright before joining the military and entering politics. He was not well disposed to Irish republicanism. He came to hold Irish society in contempt and despised de Valera, believing that certain Irish officials were collaborating with the Nazis to achieve a British defeat and a 32-county republic. This extract is from 1940. He writes:

The Taoiseach’s office (pronounced popularly ‘tee shack’) and surroundings were all as they had been so often described by interviewers. He himself was the tall, gaunt figure with the suggestion of Lincoln, and ironically in the corner stood the O’Connor bronze statue of Lincoln which John McCormack, the singer, had given to the Irish government. The office was bare, the flat-topped desk was bare and Mr de Valera was dressed in his invariable black clerical-looking suit with black string tie.

He was always neat and his linen was always fresh. His grave eye trouble excited sympathy. It was said that he suffered from glaucoma. From time to time he removed his spectacles and put his hands over his eyes, and from time to time he showed the appealing smile that I had heard about and the suggestion of his peculiar charm. Why Mr de Valera replied to my English speech in Irish was a question not difficult to answer. Both languages are sanctioned by the new Constitution, but Mr de Valera and his Separatist group were anxious to impress on the outside world that English is only an unfortunate and temporary makeshift and that Irish is the true and natural tongue of the nation, though today only one person in six speaks it. Very few Irish politicians speak Irish except as American High School students learn to ‘speak’ French, but they usually begin their speeches with a paragraph in Irish, which they have memorised, and then continue in English. It is the badge of being ‘Irish’ Irish, like the Gaelicisation of proper names.

1916 leaders turned out in tails and white ties

The official dinner in the state apartments of the Castle that evening was as elaborate and well done as the ceremony in the morning. Food, wines, service, cigars, all were unexceptionable. The de Valera revolution had been to a large extent a ‘social movement’. It appealed to the ‘common man’ and repudiated the symbols of privilege. Mr de Valera banned the ‘topper’ and wore the black ‘cowboy’ hat. He and his Cabinet constituted the surviving nucleus of ‘The Sixteen’ and the left-wing IRA faction that had staged the Civil War. Almost every man present had been condemned to death or jail either by the British government or by the Free State government, yet only eight years after coming to power this new aristocracy had all turned out in tails and white ties in the best London tradition, I had never sat down to dine with so many people who had been ‘martyred’ and thrown into prison, nor with so many politicians, who after having been down and out had ‘come back in’ and stayed ‘in’. It had its embarrassing side. It was like dining in a house in which there has been a highly publicised domestic difficulty.

Just as I would have wanted to ask my host whether he really beat his wife as alleged, I wanted to ask the questions to which every historian of the period was trying to find the answers. I wanted to ask why Mr de Valera had not abided by the majority action of his own parliament; why he appealed to the gun and started a Civil War. How he escaped being shot for rebellion, first by the British and then by the first Irish government ever to be recognised by the comity of nations. I wanted to ask him whether Michael Collins had been the chance victim of an ambush or the designed victim of an assassination; and if he knew who murdered Kevin O’Higgins. Of course I asked none of these questions.

The German Ambassador

Herr Hempel – the German minister to Ireland – had a charming house and garden at Blackrock, a suburb on Dublin harbour. His chancery was an ugly, modern red brick house in Northumberland Road. It was here that I called upon him. Herr Dr Hempel received us with great courtesy. He was somewhat over-civil and did not ring true. He spoke fluent English with little accent. I was conscious of being ill at ease. Hempel might be doing his duty as he saw it but he was serving a Führer whose hands were red with the blood of Jews, Poles and Norwegians, on whose conscience was the annihilation of Austria and Czechoslovakia. I was naive enough at seventy to be shocked by these things.

We exchanged pleasant commonplaces. I was not to re-enter the German legation at 58 Northumberland Road till I took possession of it in the name of the United Nations at the end of the war and found the wires of a radio sending set and other interesting items. The Irish government had seen to it that we did not gain admittance until the files had been destroyed.

Collaboration with the Germans

Mr de Valera’s conviction that Hitler would win the war was stupid in view of the opportunities he enjoyed for obtaining authoritative information as to what was going on in the United States. It was doubtless due to the fact that he knew few if any Americans, only ‘Irish in America’. As a matter of fact he himself never told me that Hitler would win, though he scoffed at the suggestion that the United States would become involved. But his deputy Joe Walshe told me. Further, Mr Walshe was confident that at the worst, Hitler would not lose. Cardinal MacRory told me that Hitler would win. Count Plunkett, the patriarch of the IRA, expressed the same opinion. We know from the German papers that one of Mr de Valera’s generals was collaborating with Hempel. Belief in German victory was in the Dublin air. At the end of the war a former Lord Mayor of Dublin, ‘Paddy’ Doyle, a very ‘decent’ man, said to me ‘You know, at the beginning we were all sure Germany was going to win’.

A Yankee in De Valera’s Ireland: The Memoir of David Gray is edited by Paul Bew. Paul Bew is a member of the RIA and Professor of Irish Politics at Queen’s University Belfast. A historical advisor to the Bloody Sunday inquiry, he was appointed an independent cross-bench peer in 2007 and is a member of the British–Irish Parliamentary Assembly.

Extract: How Eamon de Valera & the Irish rebels lived in English prisons>

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