Thursday 29 November 2007

De Valera- An Enigma of History

The jury is still out on Eamonn De Valera.
That is certain.

As De Valera himself said, when history made it's judgement, it would favour Michael Collins at his expense.
And that certainly seems so.
The Ireland that might have been, had Collins not perished in County Cork in the dieing days of the Irish Civil War.

An Ireland where the strong leadership of Collins kept the victors of the Civil War in power, where Fianna Fail never emerged, where the Free State triumphed permanently over Republican idealism, which may have fought side by side with Britain in World War II.

We can never know. And it suits many to imagine that history would have been happier in the Emerald Isle, had it been Dev, not the Big Fella who copped it in 1922.

For De Valera is the face of twentieth Century Ireland.
Sole surviving Republican Commander from the Easter Rising.
President of the Provisional Government.
Figurehead of the Anti-Treaty forces in the Civil War.
The author of the Constutition of the Irish Republic.

Taosaich for twenty six years.
President for fourteen.

For half a century, Ireland was mesmerised by De Valera.

This little anecdote always sums it up for me.
During the thirties, De Valera was driving through County Clare, when his tyre blew. He went to the boot to get the spare and a local farmer who was passing stopped to help.

Cars and suits being an oddity in the area, the farmer asked if Dev was 'One of those Dublin fellas up for the election.'
Of course, there was no TV in those days, cinemas were a rarity, even radios not over common in the West of Ireland.

Dev replied that the farmer could say that, he supposed.
The farmer spat into the road 'Well, you needn't have bothered. We're all for De Valera round here.'

He had that effect. He was a name, a legend, the torchbearer of Ireland's soul. He was Cuchulainn, he was Wolfe Tone, he was Moses all rolled into one, with the souls of the dead signatories of the Easter proclamation somehow imbued within him.

It's not fashionable to admit to admiring him, but if asked who I think was the greatest politician I can think of, it's De Valera I name. The man was canny.

The man LOST a civil war, then won power democratically and proceeded to overturn that loss. Fifteen years after the end of the Civil War, Ireland was indeed a republic. And to be fair, there was a lot could have gone wrong when Fianna Fail won the 1932 election. The IRA were ready to evict the Free State Garda from their police stations. But Dev refused to allow it. Dev preserved the rule of law.

And, bearing in mind that the troubles and the civil war were so recent, Ireland could have gone the way much of Europe did. Both the IRA and the Blueshirts marched the streets. Whatever is said about Dev, he did resist the urge to make himself a dictator.

Not that he needed to. Ireland was quite happy to obey.
And I guess this is what is held against him. For under him, Ireland was a very draconian place, not much better than South Africa in some ways; harshest censorship laws in the world, the Magdalen homes, protectionism, etc.
And people forget that whilst Catholics had a hard time in the six counties, Dev's Ireland was definitely a land where Irish Protestants felt the cold.

One can feel a certain sectarian pride in Dev's proclaiming 'We have a Catholic Government for a Catholic people', but it certainly didn't help cross border relations.

Of course, history will judge him hardest for his actions in the war. People forget that in reality, Dev gave a fair bit of assistance to the Allies, though arguably, he had little choice. The Germans weren't a threat to Irish neutrality, whereas Churchill always made clear if Dev became a real thorn in his side, he could expect troops to appear.

But where Dev really made a faux pas, was in visiting the German embassy in 1945, to offer condolences for the death of the German Head of State.
Diplomatically correct, I suppose, for a declared neutral country.

Except this wasn't just another Head of State...

And yet.
Would Ireland be the strong, proud, wealthy Ireland of today if Dev hadn't proved to the world, that Ireland, even with her richest counties severed from her, could go it alone?
Did not Dev make Ireland a nation once again?
Did he not get Irish men and women to define their Irishness, before deciding when he'd gone which bits they wanted to keep, and which bits not?

Ireland has finally removed itself from his shadow and tipped him off his pedestal.
But maybe, just maybe, it may erect one for him again, one day.


Anonymous said...

Interesting. I don't know enough about him to judge but you have made me want to find out more.

Anonymous said...

Very informative, CBI. I've only read histories which take the Collins-1921 Treaty viewpoint. The idea that deValera's forces lost the civil war but then Ireland becomes independent AND fiercely neutral anyway is an interesting one. The Long Fellow certainly cast a long shadow.

Anonymous said...

Another excellent post. De Valera was certainly an enigma. One could say the enigma was because he was a relativist but that's too simplistic. Always hard to know what if.

Anonymous said...

I have never heard of him... does that make me very stupid?

Anonymous said...

I too found this an interesting post. I'm glad to hear Ireland is prospering very well now since joining the EU. It is a very beautiful place although very rainy like here. I spent the wettest July ever (until that time) touring Ireland with a Australian of Irish heritage and loved it.
The other half of your heritage, is it?

Anonymous said...

Welshcakes- Tim Pat Coogan is possibly one of the best writers on Irish History, his biography is excellent, I've not read his on De Valera, but i suspect it might be slightly hostile, as many of his other works are quite critical of him.

JJ Dillon's History of Ireland 1912-1986, is one of the best works on modern Ireland to be found.

Lad Litter- The Ireland of 1937, was the Ireland that lost in 1922. The Pro Treaty forces won the civil war, but soon lost the peace.

He still casts a shadow. Sile de Valera lost her dail seat in the last election (I think), but the name still has clout.
Nevertheless, his Ireland is gone in essence. Now the Irish have proved they don't needs the Brits, they're happy to be good friends and try to pretend the north doesn't exist.

James- He was the ultimate machiavellian. He called democracy 'an accounting tool', meaning essentially, he saw it as an opinion poll. I think I alays like his motion at the 1925 Sinn Fein ard Fheis (the rejection of which led to him founding Fianna Fail).
'Providing the oath of allegiance be abolished, entry to the dail should be considered a matter of tactics, rather than principle.'

Only Dev could have come up with that.

Mutley- A lot of people haven't, which does make my roll my eyes sometimes.
He was a key figure in the war of independence and ruled Ireland for much of the mid twentieth century

jmb- I was born here, but often feel my heartstrings tugged by the emerald isle.
Ire;and's prosperity is partly down to the EU, but also being frank, having good government in the eighties, with the lowest taxation in the western world. It made Ireland the place people wanted to invest. At 10% corporation tax, why not?

Anonymous said...

Interesting post.

Yes, Coogan is recommendable, btw also his books "The I.R.A." and "The Troubles".

As for the "greatest" politician:
Macchiavellism has already been mentioned. Now let's add Dev's "Faustian pact" with the arch-reactionary Archbishop McQuaid.
Reading it you will know from the first line who "designed" the Constitution of Ireland.
But one example of many:
Article 41, 3, 3
No law shall be enacted providing for the grant of a dissolution of marriage.

- Yes, only about 60 years later this part got "modernized. :) -

Finally, according what you call a "faux-pax".
Why would de Valera let inform the German ambassador, Dr Hempel, that Ireland wished to stay neutral "in any war", on August 26th, 1937 (sic!)?
Thus Dev was as also the greatest clairvoyant of his time?

Anyway, again: An interesting post, Crushed. Thanks. :)