New Bio on Éamon de Valera Doesn't Explain His Huge Popularity

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.

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Tags: Authors, Books, Irish Freedom Struggle, Reviews

Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on December 9, 2015 at 10:43am

I have not read Ronan Fanning Book , but it sound readable.... However the history books that I have read on De Valera and W.T Cosgrove 1922-1940 would suggest to me that, that history had credited W.T Cosgrove with being the stabilizing influence, to whether the storms of a newly found Free State, and the Great  Depression of 1929, while others historians have claimed that he lacked vision.  He was ruthless as well , having all those who opposed the treaty shot . 

What made De Velera so  electable ; he appealed to the ordinary of Ireland in their native tongue; building more house's than Cosgroves Government, infrastructure  to create jobs, some people had money in the pockets and a roof over their heads for the first time in their lives after centuries of British rule  Yes I woudl agree that it was a sop to the working classes it was however pure genius in its delivery .

In my opinion the  Church had too much of power in Political matters -- they even helped him write the constitution. That he was a popular Taosieach -there is not doubt , when  he rode around Dublin City on a white hose , dressed all in black, the people flocked around him wherever he was.  An Aura of Authority oozed from him .    

To gain a real understanding of our history , we woudl have to read all of teh history books evr written 

Comment by W Considine on December 17, 2015 at 1:33pm
The fact is that the Treaty was hated by the vast majority of Irish people. Partition, the oath of allegiance, the Governor General and retention of the treaty ports stuck in the craws of a proud people that had come through 4 years of terrible war. Acceptance of the treaty was guarded and begrudged and foisted on the signers under threat and on the electorate in a fait accompli . The treaty had no real mandate so when Dev and Fianna Fáil gave them a way to raise their heads again, they embraced it. Dev read the public mood correctly then and later and that is why he managed to remain a relevant figure for so long. No mystery really.

Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on December 18, 2015 at 6:49am

W Considine ....... I woudl agree with you. That partition remains today is the stumbling block . However, having said that ,As naive as I am about how Northern Ireland's peoples  lives and their opinions, what Northern Ireland have now ' a Peace' somewhat , is more conjunctive  to peace of mind ; an life to be lived ; to go about their daily lives

Comment by michael dunne on December 20, 2015 at 11:21am

Currently I am reading the Fanning book.

Three books relating to Eamon de Valera should be on an approved Irish History reading list...Eamon de Valera by  Frank Pakenham (Lord longford) and 'Peace By Ordeal" by the same author. and 'The Irish Republic' by Dorothy McArdle.

In the bi centenary of 1966 our school class of 14year olds was selected as de Valera's Guard of Honour at the Public Ceremony in Arbour Hill Prison. It was an honour to be standing so close to history and to a great Irishman. He was trying to move away from bombs and bullets focusing more on youth and education. Much maligned as being a lackey of the catholic Church and Arch Bishop McQuaid it should be remembered they had their falling outs as Dev did with different clergymen over the years.

As an Anti Treatite he was wrongly blamed for the terrible civil war which was inevitable. He was not reprieved from the death penalty because of his American citizenship as there were another 98 prisoners awaiting the sentence but all reprieved and gaoled in Frongoch and other prisons. The free State's first minister of Education was Eoin McNeill in 1922/3 who gave the Catholic church carte blanche to run the schools and the hospitals. We were a poor country and needed assistance which the Church provided and despite the horrible scandals we need to acknowledge our predicament. When de Valera got into power in 1932/3 he could not attempt to decouple the Catholic Church from this role even if he wanted to. It would have been political suicide as the church had invaded and controlled to many aspects of Irish life by then.

The nepotism of the Irish Land Commission often referred to as "the bloodless revolution" doled out lands of 100 acres and bigger to their cronies who were well off and so when de Valera got into power he refused to pay the land annuities, triggering a trade war with Britain, causing bankruptcy to many 'snug' farmers. This was advantageous to Dev who redistributed these 100 into 25 acre farms, and consolidated his position with the small farmer. One criticism I might have of him was his over indulgence of the athletic young men and comely maidens of the farming community at the expense of perhaps being less Connolly like and urban focused.


Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on January 1, 2016 at 8:14am

My criticism of Dev is that he desperately tried to keep women tied to the kitchen sink, their role was in the home taking care of the children --overlooking the fact that women of the day kelp body and soul together for the family-- farmer wives were the mainstay of the farming community . He kept women teachers out of schools once they were married. That they may have been the best teachers did not matter.

I have no doubt that Eoin MacNeill  gave the Church carte blance-- it was however under Dev's leadership , and he had got a majority of the electric behind him at this point.  Despite his many flaws however , he remained a popular leader, and this can not be said for some of this lot that are governing Ireland at the present time.


Comment by michael dunne on September 27, 2016 at 2:15pm


Given the harsh childhood de Valera experienced, being abandoned to relatives in Ireland, it is partly understandable why he might have taken the view that a womans place was ii the home. There are many critics of one of our great Presidents...Mary Robinson who said  ..."the hand that rocks the cradle will now rock the world" or words to that effect. Many people still feel a woman's domestic role as head of the family is a very noble and important one.

Mc Neill as first minister of Education in the Free State government was in power for ten years, and it was this party that fashioned educational policy and gave the Catholic church the authority and blessing to do what ever they could to deal with education hospitalization orphanages and a lot more of the social problems then and still afflicting Irish society. The 'majority' you refer to who would have been supporters would not have included many fervent supporters of the Cumann na Gaedheal and the Catholic Church. Would it be fair to suggest that the Irish being opposed to Protestant and colonial Britain were easily brainwashed by some elements of the Catholic ethos? We were a fledgling state and needed help from whatever source it came from. Despite the suggestion that de Valera was in the hands of archbishop McQuaid, he refused to demote the Protestant faith by giving priority to the Catholic one in the 1937 constitution.

It has taken the Irish public until now to come to terms with their history, part of which was the subjugation of its people through religion. The clash of the Gallician version of Catholicism was at variance with the 'Ultramontaine' dictats of the Vatican. So in the climate of the first decades of Irish history, it would have been political suicide to attempt setting up a secular state where Ireland is now headed. 


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