Sinister March Of The Tall Fellow

A new biography of Eamon de Valera, one of the most important and mysterious figures in Irish history

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√Čamon 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.

Mr Fanning, whose book is a useful and, on the whole, fair-minded summary of de Valera’s career in less than 300 pages, is in no doubt that de Valera was responsible for the war, in some ways the most bitter episode in the whole of Irish history. He writes: “He opposed the Treaty not because it was a compromise but because it was not his compromise.” By allowing those who took up arms against the Treaty to draw on his authority “he conferred a respectability on their cause it could never have otherwise attained”. Fanning describes his behaviour as “petulant, inflammatory, ill-judged and profoundly undemocratic”.

The civil war was a personal tragedy in that it led directly to the killing of Collins in an ambush. Whereas de Valera, who was six foot one inch, and appeared higher because he held himself so erect, was known as “the tall fellah”, Collins, a burly man, was called “the big fellah”. He was everything de Valera was not — warm, funny, friendly and above all quintessentially Irish. If Collins had survived, the border problem would probably have been solved by force — he was planning to use it to subjugate the North — but he would have dominated Irish politics in the way his death enabled de Valera to do instead, and Ireland would have been a much more lovable and receptive place in consequence.

As it was, the Irish Civil War left scars that have still not healed. It was never formally ended. It used to be calculated it cost over 4,000 lives, making it the bloodiest episode since the days of Cromwell in the 17th century. Recent research shows this to be wrong, and the dead to have totaled 927. On the other hand, it included 77 executed by the Irish Free State government, the largest number of judicial killings by any British or Irish government in modern times. For all this, de Valera was ultimately responsible.

He was also personally responsible for the decision to acknowledge the death of Hitler by flying government flags at half-mast, and by going, on May 2, 1945, as prime minister to pay a visit to the German envoy to Dublin, Dr Eduard Hempel, to offer his condolences. Nothing in his entire career aroused such resentment. The American President, Harry Truman, almost broke off diplomatic relations. The news of the “Final Solution”, and of the death camps, was coming through in horrifying detail at the time, and the idea that de Valera, as head of government, should publicly express his sorrow at the death of such a man was abhorrent. But the act was quite deliberate and considered, and de Valera was unrepentant. Indeed it was one of the most carefully thought-out acts of his entire life. As he said in a letter to his former fellow prisoner, Bob Brennan, “I acted very deliberately in this matter . . . not to call on the German representative would have been an act of unpardonable discourtesy to the German nation. I acted correctly and I feel certainly wisely.” What made matters even worse for de Valera, as a Catholic, was that Hitler’s death was suicide, and de Valera appeared to sanction it. Yet there was a certain mad logic in it: carrying the principle of neutrality to its logical conclusions, however irrational. In a way, it was the most characteristic thing de Valera did in the whole of his life.

Oddly enough, the politician de Valera most resembled in his obstinacy, irrational logicality and obstructiveness, was General de Gaulle. De Gaulle acknowledged it when, having resigned finally in 1969, he chose to take a lonely holiday in Ireland. He and de Valera immediately struck up a friendship. They were both “tall fellahs”. They shared a common hostility and suspicion of England. But there was one difficulty. The only language in which they could converse with any fluency was — English.