Éamon de Valera: A Will to Power
By Ronan Fanning
Faber & Faber
Many years ago, I used to meet a veteran IRA man in a Blarney Star on 6th Avenue, who swore that it would take a silver bullet to kill "Dev." Republicans had good reason to consider de Valera the devil incarnate.
After all, Éamon de Valera had been one of them. He was famously the last commander to surrender in 1916. He took the republican side in the Irish Civil War.
But he also engineered the Fianna Fāil split that consigned Sinn Fein to the political wilderness. He let IRA men die on hunger strike. He ordered the execution of IRA volunteers, including Charlie Kerrins, then the last remaining IRA Chief of Staff.
My old IRA friend and author Ronan Fanning, who has written Éamon de Valera: A Will to Power, have something in common. For both, it’s all about de Valera, the individual – neither is concerned with the broader movements that shaped him and that he helped to shape.
De Valera joined the Gaelic League, perhaps the most important cultural organization in Irish history. But for Fanning, its only importance was that de Valera changed his name from Edward to Ėamon, and married his Irish teacher.
Like tens of thousands of others, de Valera joined the Irish Volunteers, which swept through nationalist Ireland. But for Fanning, it only counts because it led to his role in the Easter Rising.
De Valera founded and led the Fianna Fail party, which ruled the Irish Free State from 1932 to 1948. Aside from de Valera, we learn very little about the party itself. Who joined and why? Above all, what accounted for its unprecedented popularity?
Fanning blames de Valera’s personal stubbornness in rejecting the proposed treaty with Britain for the Irish Civil War. There’s very little hint that others may also have rejected it out of republican principles.
Similarly, he credits de Valera with almost singlehandedly stabilizing the Irish Free State, expanding its power, and preserving its neutrality in World War II.
Fanning regards the rejection of the treaty as indefensible and the stabilization of the Free State as an historic achievement. Both, of course, are value judgments. Your reaction to the book is likely to depend on your reaction to these judgments. Ultimately, they may tell us more about the current liberal revisionist consensus in Irish historiography than about de Valera and his party.
Still, Éamon de Valera: A Will to Power is full of valuable insights into de Valera and the Ireland he helped to shape.
Above all, de Valera’s goal was always to secure as much sovereignty as possible for the Irish Free State. He succeeded in abolishing the position of British governor general and replacing it with an elected Irish president. More substantively, he engineered the return of the “treaty ports” – the Irish ports left under British control by the treaty that ended the War of Independence.
But de Valera was never an ideological republican and was always ready to make significant concessions to British interests. As early as 1920, he promised that a future Irish government would guarantee that the country could never be used to threaten British security interests.
Fanning shows that Irish neutrality in World War II actively aided Britain:
--- Ireland regularly shared information with British intelligence;
--- British planes were allowed to fly over Ireland to attack Germany;
--- German airmen who crashed over Ireland were interned. British airmen were helped to escape to Northern Ireland; and
--- A British radar station was established in Ireland.
Fanning’s description of the well-known clause in the Irish constitution establishing the “special position” of the Catholic Church is especially valuable. He shows that it was actually a compromise with the Irish bishops, who wanted a constitution that formally acknowledged “the Roman Catholic Church as the church founded by Christ.” They reluctantly agreed to accept the constitution’s parallel recognition of the Church of Ireland, the Presbyterian Church, the Methodist Church, the Society of Friends, Jewish congregations and other religious denominations.
Still, the Catholic bishops enjoyed a special position, in reality, if not in the constitution. The Church hierarchy was regularly consulted in advance about proposed legislation on health care and other issues that were seen as affecting Catholic values.
Fanning rightly says that de Valera “bestrode Irish politics like a colossus for over fifty years.” Unfortunately, he never tells us why de Valera and Fianna Fail enjoyed such unprecedented popularity.
That’s obviously beyond the scope of this review. No one without a tenured academic position is likely to have the resources and time to do the research it would take to fully answer this question.
Still, we can at least make some good preliminary guesses.
Fianna Fail offered the people of the 26 counties many of the satisfactions of Irish nationalism without the danger of war with Britain.
De Valera possessed a genius for the symbolic gestures that seemed to defy the British government. Soon after taking office he cancelled the fees Irish farmers were paying the British government in compensation for buying out the landlords. Left-wing republicans led by Peadar O’Donnell had organized a growing campaign against these land annuities. Not for the first or last time, de Valera successfully outflanked the republicans. From now on, the farmers would pay the annuities to the Irish, not the British, government.
Irish people must have taken a certain satisfaction in watching their government isolate, humiliate and finally eliminate the British-designated Governor General. It may have been all a symbol, but symbols could count for a lot.
The return of the treaty ports was a more than symbolic accomplishment. Few knew that, as Fanning describes, the British government had already decided that the ports were “not vital and cannot be set against the grave danger of curtailing the status of Ireland and making her people feel unsettled.”
Fianna Fail also provided some small, but real, economic gains for small farmers and working people. They established a Land Commission to buy land and redistribute it to small farmers. They built houses and improved the old age pensions.
All this was a stark contrast to the previous Cummann na nGaedheal (later Fine Gael) government which faithfully stuck with a strict laissez faire policy in the face of the depression, even cutting old-age pensions. No wonder so many people came to think of Fianna Fail as their party.
Obviously all this is, at best, a preliminary analysis. It’s still more than this book provides.
We badly need an account of de Valera, the Ireland he made, and the Ireland that made him. Despite its many accomplishments Éamon de Valera: A Will to Power is not that.