Éamon De Valera was born 14 October 1882 in New York to a Cuban father and an Irish mother, but returned to live with relatives in Bruree, County Limerick, as a small child. He studied mathematics and worked as a mathematics teacher. He became involved in republican politics around the time of the third Home Rule Bill. He joined the Irish Volunteers and participated in the Easter Rising. Imprisoned, he was sentenced to death but was reprieved. Many accounts say this was due to his American birth; the man himself disputed this, arguing that he was simply lucky with the timing: the British authorities decided they had already executed enough men and commuted the remaining death sentences.
After his release, Eamon De Valera was elected as a Sinn Féin MP in 1917. He became President of Sinn Féin the same year. He was rearrested in 1918 for allegedly plotting with the Germans (a baseless accusation) and held in Lincoln jail, from which he escaped dramatically with two other inmates, using a copy of the Catholic chaplain’s key. While on the run de Valera was elected leader of the first Dáil. He went to America in June 1919, where he campaigned and raised funds (around $6 million) for the Irish republic. He returned to Ireland in 1920 but took little part in the negotiations with the British government after the truce of July 1921 that ended the Irish war of independence.
The refusal of Éamon de Valera to lead the Irish delegation is impossible to explain satisfactorily. He was generally acknowledged to be a cool and skilled politician and negotiator (his enemies might have preferred ‘devious and calculating’) and given that he was president of the Dáil it was natural that he should have led the talks. De Valera variously explained his decision to remain in Dublin by arguing that he was needed at home to rally support there, or that he was head of state and as Britain’s head of state (George V) was not participating in the talks, neither should he; secondly, he suggested that he was staying in reserve in case the Irish delegation could not achieve an agreement, and only then would he enter talks; and finally, he maintained that it would be harder for the British to pressure the Irish into a deal if his colleagues had to return to Dublin to consult with him on any proposals.
None of these explanation are completely convincing and it is hard to disagree with the assessment that the Irish team went out without its strongest player. The cynical explanation for de Valera’s actions is that he knew the negotiations could only end in an unsatisfying compromise and he wanted to disassociate himself from it in advance. De Valera’s ambiguous position contributed to the debacle of the debates over the Anglo-Irish Treaty, with de Valera insisting it should not have been signed without his agreement and then producing an alternative draft of his own that differed only slightly from the real one. Even after the Dáil narrowly approved the Treaty, de Valera refused to accept it, like many Sinn Féin and IRA members. The resulting divisions began the slide towards the Civil War, in which de Valera, always a politician rather than a soldier, was sidelined by the hardline leadership of the IRA. He managed to reassert some control towards the end and it was he who issued the order to IRA units to ‘dump arms’ on 24 May 1923.
After what was effectively the surrender of the Anti-Treaty forces, de Valera was arrested and imprisoned for a year. He became increasingly unhappy with Sinn Féin’s rejection of political participation, leaving the party when a party conference rejected his proposal to drop this policy. He took many like-minded comrades with him. They founded Fianna Fáil and returned to constitutional politics, contesting the 1927 general election. It is perhaps typical of de Valera’s moralistic character that, having always declared he would not swear the oath of allegiance (required of all Irish TDs by the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty), he performed a number of face-saving gestures when he actually did so.
Fianna Fáil won the 1932 election and de Valera took over as leader of the country. He was to rule the country with only short interruptions for the next 27 years and it is to his credit that he stuck to the democratic course he had committed himself to. He tolerated no rival political or military authority outside the democratic process, even cracking down on his ex-comrades in the rump IRA.
Throughout the thirties he skilfully dismantled the Anglo-Irish Treaty: he removed the Oath of Allegiance, demoted and then abolished the office of Governor-General, and stopped the repayments on money loaned in the pre-war period by the British government to Irish farmers to buy their land. The culmination of this process was the 1937 Constitution, in which de Valera’s was the guiding hand. The constitution established an Irish Republic in all but name. With minor modifications it remains in force today.
A final foreign policy coup for de Valera was the return of the Treaty Ports to Irish control in 1938, control of which played a significant role in allowing Ireland to remain neutral during the Second World War. De Valera’s guidance left the country relatively unscathed through this period despite pressure from the United Kingdom and later the USA to enter the war on the Allied side.
The post-war period has generally been seen as de Valera’s less successful period in office. While he could still win elections, managing to get an absolute majority for Fianna Fáil in 1957, his adherence to the policies of protectionism and self-sufficiency did nothing to help the country out of its poor economic situation. At times he appeared almost wilfully ignorant of the real conditions in the country, as when for example he criticized Irish emigrants, suggesting that there was plenty of work for them in Ireland if they would only look for it. He is also often accused of having blocked the way of younger, more energetic men, such as his eventual successor, Seán Lemass, who took over when de Valera finally resigned as taoiseach in 1959, aged 77.
He was by this stage almost blind (his eyesight had been poor for decades) but nevertheless went on to serve two full terms (fourteen years) as President of the Irish Republic, finally retiring in 1973 at the age of 90. His wife, Sinéad, whom he had met when he began learning Irish in 1908, died in January 1975; de Valera himself died seven months later, on 29 August 1975.
While Eamon de Valera’s longevity was remarkable and unrivalled, it may have had an adverse effect on his posthumous reputation: by 1973 he appeared to many younger Irish men and women an ancient and irrelevant relic of a past era. He was in many ways a contradictory figure who still divides opinions today: an uninspiring public speaker who could nonetheless command the attention of huge crowds; a deeply pious man who would nevertheless do what he considered right in the face of opposition from the Catholic Church; the most successful Irish politician of the twentieth century, perhaps of all time, who failed to achieve the two things closest to his heart: an end to partition and the return of the Irish language to widespread use. It is by his failures that de Valera has often been judged. His achievements are perhaps so much part of Irish life that they are easily overlooked.
See Bruce’s Irish History Compressed.