There are few men who participated in the Anglo-Irish War and the Irish Civil War who have as complicated a legacy as Eamon de Valera. He was a mathematics professor, last man to surrender during Easter Rising, leader of the Dáil and the IRA, instigator of the anti-treaty movement, political outcast, and Taoiseach, and, finally, president of Ireland. He did more to shape the Irish constitution and its relations with both North Ireland and England than any other single person. His decisions didn’t always make sense and he hurt his own legacy as much as it was twisted over the trauma of the civil war and his lengthy presidency. However, it is his legacy and the mythos that surrounded him that makes him an interesting historical figure to study. I will discuss his life and legacy in two different posts. This first post will discuss de Valera’s leadership during the Anglo-Irish and Civil War and the second post will de Valera’s presidency and later period of his life.
In many ways, de Valera reminds me of men like Churchill and De Gaulle-diverse figures who weren’t always rational, but who managed to lead their nations during times of extreme difficulty and left behind a legacy that both defined and crippled their nations
According to Fanning, his most recent of biographers, De Valera’s early life was a struggle from the start. His mother was an Irish maid who dated a Spanish man while in America, but there are doubts about their marriage and De Valera’s legitimacy. These doubts seemed to have mentally plagued him most of his life and he grasped for a home and solid identity most of his life. When he was young, his mother sent him to her family in Ireland he struggled to go to school, eventually becoming a mathematics professor at Castleknock College. He wasn’t involved with the Gaelic and language revivals until he met his future wife, Sinead Flanagan and became a proponent for the Gaelic language. De Valera was also deeply religious and considered joining the cloth, but it seems hints of his illegitimacy prevented him.
De Valera was a captain of a company during Easter Rising and member of the Irish Volunteers. He was distrustful of the IRB (which would later turn into the IRA) although he became a member right before the Rising. De Valera occupied Boland’s Mill on Grand Canal Street and his performance didn’t suggest that he was a military man. However, because he was the last to surrender to the British and he was one of the few republican leaders not executed, de Valera became a well-known figure within post-rising Ireland. His command of the troops sentenced to prison with him and his fight for prison rights only helped his reputation.
He was released in 1917 and became the president of the Sinn Féin in 1918, reshaping it into a party that fought for the republican aspirations of the Rising survivors. In 1919, the Dáil (a separate Irish parliament that was declared illegal by the British) was created and de Valera was named president. This also, effectively, made him the leader of the rising movement for independence. De Valera was rearrested in 1918 and Collins and Boland helped him escape in 1919. While this was happening, Sean T. O’Kelly was sent to Paris to present the Irish case to the Peace Conference following the Great War but was ignored. This may have prompted de Valera to make one of his most baffling decisions. After escaping prison, he traveled to America.
I have always found this decision confusing, especially since events in Ireland were rushing towards an obvious coalition between Irish rebel forces and British forces. Additionally, the Volunteers/IRB were shaping themselves into the IRA with men like Richard Mulcahy and Michael Collins taking a far more militant approach then de Valera seemed comfortable with. Yet, de Valera also gave a speech warning of reprisals against policemen, which seemed like tacit approval. It seems that de Valera trusted his subordinates to keep things under control while he traveled to America. Why he decided to go personally instead of trusting Harry Boland or another IRA member only further confuses me. De Valera argued that the Irish immigrants and Irish-Americans who lived in the U.S. needed to be organized so they could properly support the liberation movement in Ireland, so he would travel to America and give a series of rousing speeches. Why HE had to do this as oppose to any other member of the IRA was never convincingly explained. It seems that de Valera had gotten caught up in his sudden popularity and his ego got the best of him.
He traveled all over the U.S. from 1919 to 1920 and his success was mixed. He received a great welcome and drummed up a sizeable donation to the cause, but also succeeded in splitting the Irish-American organizations into those who supported him and those who resented his interference in America affairs. Additionally, while he was away, control over the IRA and the war effort fell to Michael Collins. Collins was a practical man who realized that the war could only be won if they used guerilla tactics and utilized the countryside.
When de Valera returned, he disagreed with these tactics and wanted to fight a traditional war. He also seemed to resent the control exerted by Collins and the fact that many members of the IRA were looking to him for leadership. Cathal Brugha, another IRA member who seemed to resent the power exerted by chief of staff, Richard Mulcahy, and Collins, pushed to have Mulcahy resign and Collins to answer for small discrepancies in funds. De Valera supported Brugha up to the point of accepting Mulcahy’s resignation. De Valera did try to have Collins sent to America to pick up where he left off but stopped when he met resistance. While it is hard to decipher how much of De Valera’s actions were influenced by his resentment/jealous of Collins and how much it has been colored by his actions during the civil war and beyond, it is clear that the IRA de Valera returned to, wasn’t the same organization he left, and it bothered him.
De Valera’s deepest flaw is that he expects the world to work like a mathematical equation. The organization he left should have stayed the same while he was gone because, in his head, nothing would have changed the equation. Everything would stay the same until his return and then he’d be able to pick the equation where he left it and continue his work. However, life didn’t work that way and when he returned to Ireland, he was confronted with an equation that had changed while he was gone. It was like leaving his work on the board only for some upstart intern (Collins) to mess everything up. I do think de Valera was jealous because Collins took ‘his’ organization and made it something he never wanted and when de Valera tried to reassert control, he experienced unexpected resistance. Combine this natural feeling of jealousy with the pressure that comes from leading a rebellion and it’s understandable that de Valera’s relationship with Collins became strained.
Peace negotiations began in 1921. De Valera was the first to meet with English Prime Minister, Lloyd-George, before retiring to discuss their agreement with the members of his cabinet. De Valera then made his second most confounding decision: he decided that he would not participate in future negotiations. Instead, he would send plenipotentiaries who would be given a strict list of what they could and could not discuss or offer and they needed to return to Dublin to receive approval before signing any treaty. However, the instructions provided were contradictory in nature and they found that needing to constantly rely on Dublin for approval only tied their hands.
Additionally, the men de Valera selected seemed designed to handicap negotiation efforts. He selected Collins, Arthur Griffith, Robert Barton, Eamonn Duggan, George Duffy, and Erskine Childers. Childers and Duggan were anti-Collins, Duffy was mostly
ignored, and, eventually, the British only met with Collins and Griffith. This was an unintentionally consequence of de Valera’s plan and Griffith and Collins made their only plan on how to handle the negotiations. They agreed to a settlement that granted Ireland ‘Dominion’ status except for the territory that would make up Northern Ireland. However, it would not possess full fiscal autonomy, independent foreign policy, and its defenses would be in the hands of Britain. Additionally, there was an oath of fealty to England.
Fanning offers the most logical explanation as to why de Valera refused to take an active part in negotiations. He suggests the de Valera wanted to be the leverage the plenipotentiaries could use to pressure the British or to buy time during the negotiations. He was, essentially, the bad cop the others could use to try and manipulate negotiations to their favor. However, he underestimated men like Collins and Griffith who seemed to believe that they would rather achieve things while they had the British in the room and ask for forgiveness later. In some ways, de Valera’s logic makes sense, but, in hindsight, it is clear the de Valera would have had more control over the negotiations if he had gone himself. There is also the sinking suspicion that after meeting with Lloyd George, de Valera realized that the negotiations would not go as planned and that the negotiators would have a hard time justifying what they achieved, so it was better to send someone else and he could either approve the results or reject them.
Naturally, the treaty caused an uproar in the Dáil. De Valera had envisioned Ireland having an ‘external association’ with England. He was never fully clear on what this entailed, but it seems that he acknowledged Ireland could never be truly free of Britain’s influence because of Britain’s power and close proximity, however Ireland could retain control of its own border and defenses and that its best policy was to remain neutral in any conflict Britain had. He also envisioned some sort of economic relationship with Britain. However, in his eyes, the treaty achieved none of these things and, worse, it had been signed without his approval. Even his biographer, Ronan Fanning, admits that de Valera hated the treaty because it wasn’t his treaty.
De Valera led the resistance against the treaty, claiming that it was a forced treaty, a treaty signed under duress, and it went against everything the IRA had been fighting for. There were bitter debates in the Dáil and the treaty was ratified. De Valera led a walk out of anti-treaty members. Griffith was made President of the Dáil and Collins chaired the new Provisional Government of the Irish Free State, a new Dáil was convened, aconstitution created, and the British acknowledged the new government. This led to a civil war that ended in the deaths of Collins, Brugha, Childers, Griffith, Barton, Liam Lynch, and many others.
It is hard to understand his ultimate decision to resist the treaty. It makes sense that he would be upset about the outcome of the negotiations, however, it seems irresponsible to lead his anti-treatyites to civil war. If he was upset that the treaty wasn’t his, it only makes his actions more childish and immature and the consequences even more tragic. One cannot help but feel that the civil war was as much a protest against the treaty as it was against men like Collins, Mulcahy, and Griffith. De Valera, Stacks, Brugha, Barton, and Childers were all anti-treatyites and all had issues with the three men.
De Valera was active in the beginning of the civil war but was sidelined by hardliners like Liam Lynch. He met with Mulcahy in 1922 to try and discuss a ceasefire, but the meeting proved fruitless. De Valera created a new government for the anti-Treatyites, but it was powerless. It seems that he was in a political wilderness through most of the civil war. In 1923, he supported a ceasefire saying that the republic could no longer be won through civil war. They must use other means to achieve complete independence. De Valera was arrested in August and remained in jail until 1924.
I discuss the de Valera’s life after the treaty here
Tim Pat Coogan The I.R.A.
Tim Pat Coogan Eamon De Valera: the Man Who Made Ireland
Ronan Fanning Eamon De Valera A Will to Power
Charles Townshend The Republic
R. F. Foster Modern Ireland 1600-1972