I’m writing this a little later than I wanted, but I am finally discussing the second half of de Valera’s life. My post discussing his contribution to the Anglo-Irish war and Irish Civil War can be found here.

When the civil war ended, de Valera was in the political wilderness. He realized that he could not achieve his ‘external association’ plan through war or political absenteeism. So, in 1926, he created a new political party, Fianna Fáil. While Sinn Fein continued to abstain from politics, de Valera’s party was able to win 44 of their seats in the 1927 election. However, the Cosgrave government made it a requirement for anyone sitting in parliament to take the Oath of fealty to the Irish Republic and to the king. This was the oath that split the IRA and was an oath de Valera had speak vehemently against during the civil war. With his back up against the wall, de Valera took the oath in 1927, claiming it was an empty promise-the very argument Collins used when he tried to have the treaty ratified in 1923.  

De Valera became President of the Executive Council (Prime Minister) in 1932 and went about dismantling the treaty. He revoked the oath and instigated the Anglo-Irish Trade War which lasted from 1932 to 1938. Under de Valera’s leadership, Fianna Fáil won the general elections in 1937, 1938, 1943, and 1944 although his opponents would unite and create the opposition party Fine Gael. Because of troubles in England, de Valera was able to destroy remaining colonial ties between Ireland and England and was able to pass a new constitution. This constitution replaced the English appointed governor-general with the President of Ireland, claimed that national territory was the entirety of Ireland (including North Ireland), recognized the special position of the Catholic Church, recognize the Catholic concept of marriage, excluding civil divorce, and declared that Gaelic was the national language.

The biggest criticism of this constitution is that by recognizing the Catholic Church and the church’s family and marriage values, it left Irish women at a disadvantage compared to other European women and needlessly antagonized the Protestants that remained in Ireland as well as angering North Ireland. In 1935 an amendment would be added banning the sale of contraceptives and de Valera installed a strict law of censorship.

The constitution was enacted in 1937 and de Valera’s position changed to that of Taoiseach.

When war broke out in 1939, de Valera argued that Ireland’s best policy was neutrality. The trade war between England and Ireland was ended, but this wasn’t enough to win the Irish to the Allies’ cause. Even the promise of a united Ireland after the war ended wasn’t enough to sway de Valera. According to Fanning, Irish men and women were allowed to volunteer with the Allies’ armies and de Valera provided covert assistance to the war effort, but the Irish government’s official policy remained that of neutrality.

Ireland’s neutrality during World War II had a strong uniting force. It was the first time Ireland had exercised its independence on the international stage in centuries and many Irish were proud that they could remain neutral. It was a powerful symbol of Ireland freedom while also providing Ireland with the added benefit of not appearing a conqueror or betrayer of democracy, liberty, and equality.

De Valera lost the 1948 election to a coalition of opposition parties. This created the first Inter-Party

Winston Churchill and Eamon de Valera meeting in 1953-they had a difficult relationship during WWII, Churchill believing Ireland’s neutrality was cowardice

Government in Ireland with John A. Costello as Taoiseach. This put de Valera on the opposition, but instead of taking an active part in politics, he traveled the world to speak about partition. He argued that Ireland could not join NATO while North Ireland was in British hands. His opinion held sway in Ireland and the state refused to sign the treaty.

The 1950s was a period of political uncertainty for de Valera, where he won one election only to lose during the next election cycle. He also struggled with failing eye sight and it was becoming clear he was becoming out of touch. Although his reign during the late 1950s saw a tougher stance on the border disturbance and the IRA as well as an expansion of unemployment insurance, he was economically disconnected. Fianna Fáil convinced de Valera to resign from Taoiseach and become the nonpolitical president of Ireland. He was 75 years old.

He was reelected president in 1966 at the age of 84 and finally retired in 1973 at the age of 90. His wife, Sinead died in 1974 and he followed her on 29 August 1975. He was 93 years old.

Given the length of his life, it makes sense that Eamon de Valera is such a complex figure to understand. He lived through and helped shaped one of the many pivotal moments in Ireland’s history and provided it with an identity that is still influential to this day. While not all his decisions can be justified, it cannot be argued that de Valera didn’t always do what he thought was best. It didn’t always work out the way he expected, but de Valera always acted based on his conscience. While his actions leading to the civil war cannot be justified, his tenure as Taoiseach should not be ignored. It is true that de Valera’s tenure wasn’t perfect and that many of his decisions have left a difficult legacy for the non-Catholics and women in Ireland. However, to expect progressive reform from de Valera would be expecting de Valera to turn against his own nature.

De Valera was a socially conservative Irishman and his main concern after the civil war was dismantling the treaty, destroying what little associates remained between Ireland and Britain, and establishing an independent foreign policy that wouldn’t risk Britain’s anger and-potentially-invasion. To expect de Valera to accomplish all of that and then enact progressive reform may be asking too much from the man. It also ignores the climate of Ireland during the 1930s-1950s. Many of the members of the Volunteers, IRA, IRB, and Sinn Fein who had pushed for progressive revolution were either dead, disillusioned, or politically destroyed. Ireland as a whole was trying to recover from a guerilla campaign, a civil war, and an economic nightmare. One can question whether de Valera should have retired from politics sooner or maybe he should have accepted a more representative role instead of an actively political role. This is probably true, but, again, would go against de Valera’s character.

From left to right: Harry Boland, Michael Collins, and Eamon de Valera

There has been a tendency to compare de Valera to Collins and claim that Collins was a better leader, Irishman, and human being. This kind of thinking is self-defeating and illogical. While I will admit I have a Collins bias (I was introduced to Irish history via the movie Michael Collins and Tim Pat Coogan’s books), I have learned to appreciate de Valera’s contributions. I have also realized that both men are representative of their times and country and that Collins gets off easy because he died fighting for unity and missed the terrible years of the civil war. He didn’t have to deal with the executions and assassinations, the army mutiny, or exhaustion the Irish people felt towards militant politics.

Additionally, Collins’ death was a tragedy, but it also made him a martyr, allowing for a difference legend and mythos to be built around him. De Valera lived and had to deal with the trauma of being partially responsible for the civil war, being powerless during the war, enduring the difficulties of returning to politics, stitching Ireland back together while dismantling Britain’s hold on her, and weathering WWII as a neutral nation.  By comparing the two’s legacies, we’re comparing plums and pluots. Finally, to compare the two and pick one over the other is to ignore a large swath of Ireland and Irish people. Both men had their tragedies, flaws, and victories, and the only way to understand Ireland is to understand both men and evaluate them as individuals and as partners, not just as enemies.

Eamon de Valera will always be a controversial figure with detractors and supporters battling over his legacy. No matter how one feels about him, no one can deny his influence over Ireland’s identity and history.

Further Reading:

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

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