Éamon de Valera is a man that has enjoyed iconic status in the Irish history books for more reasons than being one of the Leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising. He was born in New York in 1882 to a Irish mother and a Spanish father. His mother originated from Bruree, Limerick, and his father was Juan Vivion De Valera. His mother later re-married and had another son.
Reports over the years have suggested that Catherine and Juan were married on the 18th of September 1881 at St Patrick's Roman Catholic Church in New Jersey. Archivists, however, have not been able to locate any such marriage certificate at St. Patrick's Church. Nor have they found any birth, baptismal or death certificate information for anyone called Juan Vivion De Valera. They have even tried looking for an alternative spelling of the name, to no avail. De Valera's original birth certificate has his name recorded as "George de Valero" and his father is listed as Vivion De Valero. In 1910 however, Eamon De Valera's first name was change to Edward, and "de Valero" was corrected to De Valera. His father died in very poor circumstances in 1885, leaving Eamon and his mother destitute. As a consequence of their abject poverty, his Uncle Ned took him back to Ireland at the age of 2 years. There, he was raised by his grandmother, Elizabeth Coll, who was ably assisted by his Uncle Patrick and his Aunt Hannie.
He attended the local National School in Limerick, and then moved on to Christian Brothers School, Charleville, Co. Cork. At the age of 16 years, he won a scholarship to attend further education. He tried to gain entry to two colleges back in Limerick but was unsuccessful in these applications. He did, however, gain entry to Blackrock College with the assistance of his local priest. He excelled in academic life, and rugby was his chosen sport. At Rockwell College, he played fullback on the first team. This team reach the final of the Munster Senior Club. Subsequently, he went on to play rugby for the Munster Rugby Team. He retained a lifelong interest in rugby, even toward the end of his life when he was nearly blind.
He won "Student of the Year" at Blackrock College, and then went on to win further scholarships. He gained many certificates in education, and then went on to be appointed as a teacher of mathematics at Rockwell College, Co. Tipperary. It was here that he gained the now familiar nick name of ‘Dev,' as well as 'the long fellow,’ an affectionate name given by his colleague, Tom ‘O Donnell .
From there, he attended the Royal University of Ireland, graduating in 1904 with a degree in mathematics. He studied for one year at Trinity College, Dublin. Not having a scholarship to continue his education further, he had to leave to earn a living. He then returned to teaching. In 1906 he was appointed as a Mathematics Teacher at Belvedere College where he would later teach Kevin Barry (a rebel who was executed at the age of 18 years for his role in the War of Independence.) From there, he worked in various colleges: Carysforth Teachers Training College, part time at Maynooth, Castlenock College (teaching under the name "Edward De Valera" there.) He then applied, unsuccessfully, for a professorship at the National University of Ireland.
Always being a very religious man, he seriously contemplated the religious life, as his half-brother Father Thomas Wheelright had done. At one point, he even approached the President of Clonliffe Seminary in Dublin asking for advice on his vocation to the religious life.
He then joined the Gaelic League, where he would meet many fellow activists, including Sinéad Flanagan, a teacher and a fluent Irish language speaker who was four years his senior. They were married in St. Paul's Church, Arran Quay, Dublin on January 8, 1910.
Always interested in the culture and language of Ireland, De Valera became an avid speaker for the cause of Irish Independence. He joined the Irish Volunteers in November, 1913. The Irish Volunteers were formed for a number of reasons, not least to try and curtail the brutality of the British Military and the Metropolitan Police on the strikers of the 1913 lock out. The Irish Volunteers also wanted to ensure the enactment of the Irish Parliamentary Party’s Third Home Rule Act, which was being opposed by the Ulster Volunteers .
De Valera took part in the Howth gun running. After the outbreak of World War 1 in August 1914, he was sworn into the Oath Bound Irish Military Brotherhood by Thomas MacDonagh, and rose through the ranks rapidly. The IRB secretly controlled the central executive of the Volunteers. It was not long before he was elected captain of Donnybrook Company, and by this time the IRB were pushing ahead for an armed revolt. He was subsequently made commandant of the Third Battalion and adjutant of the Dublin Brigade. He opposed secret societies, but he joined this one as it was the only way he could be guaranteed full information on the plans for the Easter Rising.
So it was, that when these plans were put into place for the 24th April 1916, De Valera led his troops through the streets of Dublin to occupy Boland’s Mill on Grand Canal Street. His task was to cover all of the approaches to the southeastern side of the city. After a week of fighting, the surrender command from Patrick Pearse and James Connolly was brought to him by one of the Capuchin Friars. He was the last to surrender.
De Valera's troops occupied Boland's Mill during the Easter Rising.
He was immediately arrested and taken to a different prison than that of the other leaders. He was then court-martialed and sentenced to death by firing squad. However, his death sentence was commuted to penal servitude almost immediately after his court martial.
Differing historical accounts vary as to why his sentence was commuted to penal servitude and some of these are listed below; one, or all of these reasons saved the life of the future President of Ireland.
De Valera was the only commandant not to be executed for his role in the Easter Rising. He and his comrades were interred in Dartmoor, Maidstone, and Lewes Prisons in England. They were released under an amnesty in June, 1917. By July, 1917 he had been elected a member of the House of Commons for East Clare.
As the world now knows only too well, De Valera was one of the most dominant political figures of the twentieth century in Ireland, with his political career spanning over half a century.
He had five sons and two daughters. His son Brian predeceased his parents. Throughout his life, he was known for being a religious man, so it was no surprise that he asked to be buried in a religious habit on his death. According to tradition in Ireland in this era, the deceased should be dressed appropriately, with all areas of the body covered. This practice of being buried in a religious habit in Ireland still holds value in some rural communities.
More from this series:
More on the Irish War of Independence
The Forgotten Ten:
Mary Thorpe is the author of "That's Just How it Was," available on Amazon, Kindle, Gardner's Wholesale Books UK, Bertems, and Inghams.
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