A new(er) biography of the Long Fellow, Eamon De Valera, a giant of Ireland, seemed like a good read as we enjoy the St. Patrick’s Day holiday. David McCullagh has taken a new look at De Valera in a two-volume series on a highly complex man who still stirs great emotion, and whose imprint remains solidly on the Irish nation even today.
This book deals with De Valera in the period up to his entering the Free State Dail. His governance after that entry will be the subject of the second volume.
The book makes an attempt to remain even-handed in presenting the career of De Valera as the leader of the Irish resistance to British rule in Ireland. That effort is difficult, as many of De Valera’s actions in the run-up to the Irish civil war, in my opinion, were simply dead wrong and had devastating consequences for the Irish nationalist movement and the Irish people.
If you are looking for a more detailed look at how the breakdown came over the Treaty with Britain this book comes up a bit short. McCullagh is writing a biography of De Valera and appears to me to want to stay away from concentrating on the role of Michael Collins in the Treaty, as well as Collins outsized role in the War of Independence. I understand the sentiment but it is difficult to get to the heart of the split in the Dail, and in Sinn Fein, without examining the role of Collins and the relationship of De Valera and Collins over a longer period. Like it or not the two are intertwined in this period, and a full examination of the actions of either man must take into account the details of that relationship.
McCullagh gives us a very good account of the De Valera role in the Easter uprising, and how his leadership traits began to show even then. The book gives great insight here, bringing De Valera’s commitment to the “Irish Volunteers” and the development of his political philosophy a great and detailed look. Without question De Valera was an Irish patriot, and his contributions, as “the Chief” of the Irish nationalist movement, and then the President of the Irish Dail, were enormous. It was De Valera, and his strong leadership, that put the Irish in a position to break free of the British. But when it came time to make the difficult decisions necessary to actually break free De Valera flinched, creating a rupture that broke the Irish Republican movement in two, laying the groundwork for the Irish Civil War.
The book covers, although not in great detail, the Irish uprising that led to the negotiations with the British. With all of the concentration on the negotiations that led to the Treaty not much attention has been paid to the direct negotiations that preceded the final negotiation. De Valera was the leader of the Irish delegation that went to London to negotiate with David Lloyd George, heading up an Irish delegation that omitted Michael Collins. That conference, and the following correspondence between Lloyd George and De Valera are covered here and although the conditions under which the final conference was scheduled later became a source of great controversy we only get a cursory view of the acceptance of the final conference by De Valera and the Irish Dail.
“…Lloyd George was forced to considerably tone down his draft reply. This once again insisted that a conference would be impossible if the Irish side demanded the right to set up a Republic and repudiate the Crown.”
De Valera Rise 1882-1932 David McCullagh Pg 221
McCullagh gives us a view of the back and forth on the “pre-conditions” for the final peace conference, but the above quote misses the mark slightly. De Valera, in a letter to Lloyd George seeking to establish the final peace conference, had indicated that the Irish entered the conference as the representatives of an independent State, with powers bestowed by that State. (De Valera letter to Lloyd George of September 12, 2021.) Lloyd George explicitly rejected, and refused British participation in, a conference based on de Valera’s letter. Lloyd George made it explicitly clear that the British could not, and would not, recognize the Irish Republic. Although not in the book Lloyd George’s reply left no doubt about the position of the British:
“It might be argued in future that the acceptance of the Conference on this basis had involved them in a recognition which no British government can accord. On this point they must guard themselves against any possible doubt. There is no purpose to be served by any further interchange of explanatory and argumentative communications upon this subject. The position taken by His Majesty’s Government is fundamental to the existence of the British Empire and they cannot alter it.” (Lloyd George to De Valera September 29, 1921.)
So before the Peace Conference the British had explicitly rejected the idea of an Irish Republic, but De Valera chose to accept the conference anyway. Collins would later make great political points on this very issue.
The book, of course, deals with De Valera’s decision not to attend the peace conference himself, sending Arthur Griffith, Michael Collins, and others as plenipotentiaries with full powers to conclude a treaty. Was De Valera, understanding the true British position, looking to send scapegoats? It certainly appears that way. The author gives, in my view, a fair look at De Valera’s outrage upon learning that the Treaty had been published without his approval. That outrage can be described as personal pique, but the author correctly assigns to De Valera a political desire to hold the hard liners in place, attempting to walk a tightrope that simply could not be balanced. He came down on the side of the hard-liners.
With the onset of the Irish Civil War and the creation of the Irish Free State the book does a good job of describing the tortured position of De Valera in those years. His ridiculous propagation of what became known as “Document No. 2” as a substitute for the Treaty highlighted his difficulty, as all sides, including the IRA, simply rejected his position.
De Valera, despite reaching a low point politically that would have driven most out of public life, soldiered on. McCullagh covers the De Valera split with Sinn Fein and the creation of Fianna Fail by de Valera. His decision to enter the Free State Dail and sign the hated oath is well covered, and once again shows the political gyrations De Valera needed to undertake to make the argument that his position had not changed. In fact it had, and that entry into the Free State Dail, in my view, was the final testament to how wrong he was on the Treaty. Collins had described the Treaty as a steppingstone, and de Valera entering the Free State government showed that the Collins argument, over the longer term, was the absolutely correct one. It just took Dev a bit longer to see it. De Valera not only entered the Dail but in 1932 assumed the reigns of the Free State apparatus with Fianna Fail taking control. That is where the second installment will begin. I recommend the book for anyone looking for an understanding of Eamon De Valera, who may have been flawed, but most certainly was a giant of Ireland.