Eamon de Valera:
The Man Who Became A Country
SUNDAY TIMES — October, 1962
He is a study in single-mindedness. Now, on the threshold of his eightieth birthday – next Sunday – Eamon de Valera can look back over a life in which there has been no deviation, no compromise, all fight. It came to him early, he claims, even though political or military affairs did not capture his full energies until he was well over 30. He proudly recollects: ‘I have political experiences from five years on’; and the old President who, in his presence, one does not think of as old, because the mind is vigorous, the voice young, the personality outgiving, and though he is almost blind, nothing about him physically suggests frailty or tiredness or anything weak – the old man recalls the arrival at his grandmother’s home in Limerick, in 1887of a brass band rally support for Captain Boycott’s campaign against the English. Young Eamon had been given a little side drum and he tried to beat it like the big drummer beat his – over his stomach; but could not, and became furious. That drum was a political instrument, he has always believed.
From then on, he claims, his vision of Ireland began to posses him; he began to live for it, and soon he was ready at any time to die for it. ‘You may shoot me,’ called the exceptionally tall and spare young professor of Gaelic, dirty and exhausted, to the English captain that Spring Sunday afternoon in 1916 outside Boland’s Mills in Dublin, ‘but my men must be unmolested when surrendering.’ He handed over his revolver and field glasses. At a whistle from him, 117 Irish Volunteers emerged in their breeches and tunics of greenish tweed to give themselves up.
‘You made a gallant stand,’ his English captor said. ‘It’s a pity you’re not on our side, fighting the Germans.’
De Valera replied, ‘We have our ideals and we fight only for our ideals.’ (Years later, in 1938, when Dev was Prime Minister, that same Captain – then a biscuit manufacturer in Leamington – sent him back the field glasses. But it was still not over; it would never be over.) He was the only one of the fifteen ‘Commandants’ of Pearse’s hopelessly miscalculated rebellion whose sentence of death was not carried out. The fluke of his birth – in New York – combining with Britain’s anxiety not to arouse Americans against entering the war, saved him. By the time he was released in Lloyd George’s General Amnesty of June 1917, he was already far too famous for the British ever again to risk eliminating him completely.
He returned a hero to Dublin and was promptly elected for east Clare to the British Parliament, on the understanding that he would refuse to take his seat. The same year he became President of the two most anti-British organizations in Ireland, the Sinn Fein and the Irish Volunteers. It would be unlike him to waver: ‘Start at once and purchase shotguns and buckshot,’ he told his followers.
A transparent and deep earnestness that is still instantly discernible in him drew men to him. And yet one is still aware of a shadowed and incalculable side to this man that was always there. He is at once distant and approachable; his directness has always been edged with caution; he has been a revolutionary of the profoundest conservatism.
His qualities compounded into magnetism among the Irish which, since that year, 1919, when on his escape from a second imprisonment, they elected him ‘President of the [non-existent] Irish Republic,’ has never failed him. With that title he slipped into America in 1919 to raise $6 million for the struggle. ‘Britain,’ he told the Americans, ‘continues to overrun Ireland with Black and Tans, and to massacre the Irish people, until even the British statesmen cry out that their barbarities are worse than those of the Bashi-Bazouks… Why does Britain not do with Ireland,’ he pleaded, ‘as the US did with Cuba?’
By 1921 Lloyd George was ready to treat. In Dublin the British authorities, in the official weekly news-sheet, were writing, ‘De Valera belongs to a race of treacherous murderers and has inducted Ireland into the murderous treachery of his race.’ Dublin Castle police were still calling him ‘somebody’s child from Spain’ and ‘ that half-breed Spaniard’ (his father was Spanish). Lloyd George summoned him as ‘the chieftain of the Irish race.’ But the talks at No. 10 soon collapsed. ‘Whenever I tried to bring him to the present day,’ Lloyd George complained to his secretary, ‘ back he went to Cromwell again.’ Collins and Griffith could forget Cromwell enough to agree to the Irish Free State; and Dev, the implacable republican, found himself in opposition and, briefly, once more in gaol.
These were his hardest days. For a decade he remained in opposition until at last his new party, his Fianna Fáil, his ‘soldiers of destiny,’ were voted into power in 1932. De Valera, who was to retain the premiership save for two short spells until 1959, when he took the ceremonial office of President, was able to fulfill what he believed to be Ireland’s destiny by severing the last formal bonds with Britain. It was a mission which obliged him to keep Ireland doggedly out of the war.
He is a study in single-mindedness. There has always been something solitary about him. His great height alone – six foot three – makes him solitary amongst Irishmen: they call him ‘the long fellow’. Perhaps the Irish need that aloofness in their major leaders – Parnell had it. For decades he has been a father to them; even electioneering in his great braces and unmatched socks, he is preaching – and they accept it. Unlike them, he is hard with himself, neither drinking nor smoking. He keeps his family and his devoted wife – herself once a teacher of Gaelic – out of the public view; he prefers his own company, seeking no counsel.
‘If I wish to know what the Irish want,’ he once said, ‘Iook into my own heart,’ as De Gaulle might have said of his own people; and as the Frenchman wishes, Dev, as President, was elected by all the nation. Some still remember him in those early days between imprisonments, striding alone along the shingle of the beaches below Dublin, head down into the wintry weather, communing with himself, as he still strides out alone – followed by his detective – in Phoenix Park by the Presidential home which used to be the vice-regal headquarters. Yeats once said of him, ‘He is a living argument, rather than a living man. All propaganda, no human life, but not bitter, hysterical, or unjust…’
It is no longer quite apt, but the old veins are still running. Wherein does his force lie? He is neither a natural speaker nor a natural writer. His mind is awkward and tortuous; his sentences are laden with qualification. But his final objectives are unequivocal – his Ireland, rooted in its past, with its own language, its eternal uniqueness. Talking Irish is his deepest delight, and few among his intimates cannot speak the old tongue; he mourns its seemingly inexorable fading. No economic union or federation with Europe (which is Ireland’s prospect) will, he believes, touch her essential nationhood. ‘Political union,’ he has said, ‘may often intensify feelings of nationality because of the danger of its being lost. Such feelings are right and good.’ As he foresees no changes in the Irish character, so he sees none in the English, with its deep appetite (he feels) to dominate the Irish. Partition remains a perpetual wound.
He is so little changed – the fine nose, the stubborn upper lip, the face that seems naked without its spectacles, the intense and brooding eyes that are still alive though nearly sightless, and the big, vigorous frame in its clumsy serge suits. But now he is mellowed, gentler, softer, loving children, loving nature.
Yet he has never been sentimental, nor has he been infected with Gladstonian delusions of divine direction: ‘I have always regarded myself as having been a very concrete-minded person,’ he says. He arrived in Ireland a virtual orphan at the age of two – his father dead, his mother an ocean apart. ‘When my grandmother died, he says, ‘I was 13. I had to take myself in hand. I think I have directed myself ever since.’ He demanded to belong; he demanded nationality; and where there was no country to contain that nationality, he made one.
© Tom Stacey 1962