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Éamon de Valera (centre) in 1917: Sublimely self-righteous (National Library of Ireland)


De Valera is one of the most important, mysterious and sinister figures in Irish history. Born in New York in 1882, and christened Edward, his father was Spanish, and died when he was two. His mother was Irish, the daughter of a farm labourer. She took him to Ireland when he was three but then went back to America, and he was brought up by her brother, Patrick, on a small farm. His childhood was hard, walking seven miles to the local school. But he developed an interest in mathematics, which became the one great intellectual passion of his life, and eventually achieved a pass degree in the subject, and taught it. Is this the sign of a chilly temperament? Éamon, as he called himself, was indeed frigid. It also inculcated in him a sense of logic which was highly personal, and overwhelmingly powerful, bolstered by sublime self-righteousness.

Born in effect without a country, and orphaned, he constructed an imaginative republic for himself, and his marriage in 1910 to a strong-minded teacher of Irish, Sinead Flanagan, gave it a language (and many children). Just as Welsh Gaelic has no word for “truth”, so Irish Gaelic lacks explicit words for “yes” and “no”, and de Valera abided by its shortcomings.

The arming of Ulster and the formation of its provisional government in 1913 induced him to join the Volunteers of the South, and thereafter his commitment to Irish Republicanism was absolute. His Catholicism was granitic — for much of his life he was a daily communicant and, if possible, visited a chapel five times a day. But it never seems to have inhibited him, in pursuit of his republic, from committing what most people would call murder, or from defying the bishops when he judged it necessary.

De Valera was, naturally, involved in the Easter Rising of 1916. He was captured, condemned to death, had his sentence commuted to life imprisonment, then amnestied in 1917. Elected President of Sinn Féin, he was re-arrested, escaped from Lincoln prison, and went to America to raise money. He did not return until December 1920 and then had several meetings with the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, and approved of the opening of negotiations for a treaty. But he refused to be part of the Irish delegation which went to Downing Street (“holding myself in reserve,” as he put it).

Instead, according to his version, he extracted a promise from the two leading figures, Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins, that they would submit the terms to him before signing. In the event they did not do so, under threat of “immediate and terrible war”. The Treaty was signed on December 6, 1921, and eventually approved by the Irish Dail by 64 votes to 57. De Valera, however, repudiated the Treaty and did everything in his power to reject it by force, on the grounds that “the people had no right to do wrong”. The result was civil war.

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