The Price of Ireland's Independence

Last year saw the centenary of the Easter Rising, a quixotic rebellion led by poets and playwrights which sparked a revolutionary struggle against British rule in Ireland leading, eventually, to independence.

The most striking feature of the centenary was its pluralism, with the commemoration of previously overlooked participants such as women rebels, and even members of the Crown Forces who suppressed the rebellion. The largest section of fatalities in 1916—the Dublin civilians unwittingly sacrificed in the cause of Irish freedom—were also prominently remembered, demonstrating a new  willingness to embrace the complexities of a much-mythologized event.

The dissimilarity with the Rising’s 50th commemoration in 1966, a week-long spectacle emphasizing Catholic, Gaelic, and nationalist values, was widely noted. The centenary, in contrast, saw much talk of maturity and reconciliation, with many embracing the opportunity to move beyond simplistic narratives of victimhood and grievance.

Few countries’ sense of national identity is so closely bound up with history. But underlying the Irish public’s embrace of new foundational narratives lay broader social changes. The re-imagining of 1916 in 2016 was driven less by historical revisionism than economic prosperity, the end of the Northern “Troubles,” (1969 to 1998), and the rise of a liberal, secular ethos exemplified by a successful 2015 referendum in favor of gay marriage.

But pluralism produces losers as well as winners, as is clear from the fate of Éamon de Valera (1882-1975), the subject of the late Ronan Fanning’s elegant biography. In 1966 de Valera—whose rise to prominence owed much to his status as the Rising’s only surviving commandant—remained Ireland’s most significant political figure. Re-elected as the country’s president later that year, he became, at age 84, the world’s oldest elected head of state.

In 2016, though, there was noticeably more public appetite to laud the female rebels refused entry by de Valera to his garrison than the architect of independent Ireland. Rebellion, a lavish historical drama series commissioned last year by the national television broadcaster RTÉ, also focused on rebel women, depicting de Valera as inept, self-serving, and cowardly. Nor was this a new development. In Neil Jordan’s influential 1996 biopic Michael Collins, the casting of Alan Rickman—known for such roles as Robin Hood’s Sheriff of Nottingham, Hans Gruber in Die Hard, and Harry Potter’s Professor Snape—helpfully positioned de Valera’s character for international audiences. The reasons why “incomparably the most eminent of Irish statesmen,” in Fanning’s words, should end up one of the most loathed figures in contemporary Ireland provide one of this incisive study’s subplots.

Not the least of the strengths of Éamon de Valera: A Will to Power is its brevity. Eschewing the detail in which historical biographers usually luxuriate, Fanning’s economical prose style and pithy judgements distill de Valera’s long career in fewer than 300 pages. The result is a compelling “meditation on power”—less a reinterpretation than a stylish, acute, and impressively balanced summation of a complex political life. Fanning homes in on de Valera’s acquisition of power in 1917; his traumatic loss of control following the negotiation of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty; his long path back to government after defeat in the Irish Civil War that came on the heels of the treaty; and his creation of a sovereign state in the decade-and-a-half following his return to power in 1932.

Centering on the evolution of de Valera’s public persona, the early years make for compelling reading. As Roy Foster suggested in his recent study of the revolutionary generation (2014’s Vivid Faces), it was the desire to fashion a new sense of identity, more than social or economic grievances, which drove this generation to revolt. Born on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan to an Irish immigrant mother, Edward de Valera knew little of his father, a Spanish immigrant to the United States who died young. “Eddie Coll,” as he was known to neighbors, was separated from his mother at age two and reared by an uncle in a laborer’s cottage in the impoverished west of Ireland.

This upbringing engendered an unusual degree of “emotional self-sufficiency,” Fanning suggests, and would become de Valera’s greatest strength and weakness. His determination to pursue secondary education, an early indication of his “will to power,” earned him a scholarship to an elite Catholic boarding school, “a giant leap up the ladder of social mobility.” An outsider, lacking the advantages of his peers, de Valera excelled at Blackrock College near Dublin, becoming student of the year and “official reader of prayers in church.”  Catholic respectability and clerical connections would prove important assets in later life, as would the American connection.

Despite setbacks—uncertainty about his legitimacy seems to have closed the route to priesthood, while a mediocre performance in his final exams limited the possibilities for a career in academia—de Valera achieved middle-class respectability. Joining the Gaelic League when knowledge of Irish became essential for career advancement, he came to embrace the ideology of linguistic revival.

Edward, now known as Éamonn, joined the Irish Volunteers in 1913. The paramilitary movement had emerged to counter the Ulster Volunteer Force, which sought to prevent Britain from granting “home rule” (limited self-government) to Ireland. Although politically moderate, de Valera sided with the radical minority of the Irish Volunteers when the group split following the decision of the mainstream nationalist leader, John Redmond, to support the British war effort against the Kaiser in 1914.

Well-educated, determined, and convinced of the necessity to fight for Irish freedom, de Valera emerged as a natural leader. Although his rise to power was bound up with the Rising’s legacy, he remained aloof from the Irish Republican Brotherhood’s efforts to organize the rebellion. He only reluctantly, and briefly, joined the secret society, and he did not sympathize with the egalitarian aspirations proclaimed by Patrick Pearse outside the General Post Office in 1916. His appointment as the Irish Volunteers’ 3rd (Dublin) Battalion commandant, however, ensured a prominent if unaccomplished military role during Easter Week.

Following the execution of the Rising’s leaders, de Valera—whose survival was due to good luck rather than American birth—skillfully maneuvered to place himself at the center of the leadership vacuum within the republican movement, as initial public hostility to the rebellion shifted decisively to sympathy for its separatist aims. Although de Valera campaigned in Volunteer uniform in 1917, politics, not militarism, would provide his path to power.

Explaining de Valera’s ascendancy, Fanning emphasizes his “carapace of extraordinary self-sufficiency and self-confidence.” This was demonstrated by his willingness to allow himself to be arrested in 1918 (resulting in his imprisonment during the pivotal 1918 general election and establishment of the revolutionary Dáil Éireann assembly), as well as his decision to spend most of the 1919 to 1921 War of Independence in the United States. But de Valera’s assumption of the title “President of the Irish Republic” (he was, in reality, merely president of the Dáil assembly) reflected more than self-confidence. The adulation he received in the United States, along with a certain remoteness from colleagues in Ireland, reinforced an authoritarian leadership style. Increasingly aloof, “the Chief” alienated powerful Irish-American allies. “De V talks all night, no one else,” noted the long-suffering Harry Boland after one meeting.

His tendency to formulate policy without consulting colleagues also provoked tensions. His controversial suggestion, in a famous press interview, that Britain announce a Monroe Doctrine-like stipulation that an Irish government could never enter into a treaty with any foreign power dismayed militant American supporters. So did his support for the League of Nations. But, as with other aspects of his pursuit of sovereignty, de Valera demonstrated a sophistication appreciated by few republicans in the United States or at home. As Fanning puts it,

No one realised earlier than he that realpolitik dictated that Ireland could never enter into an alliance against Britain if it were to achieve in practice the independence to which it laid claim in theory.

Similar tensions shaped the most disastrous episode of de Valera’s career: his failure to maintain control of the treaty negotiations after the War of Independence. His decision not to travel to London dismayed senior colleagues such as Michael Collins. His strategy—to hold himself in reserve as both a symbol of the “untainted republic” and a last line of defense should the delegates fail to negotiate sufficient independence—spectacularly imploded when his alienated colleagues closed the deal without his approval.

In retrospect, the obvious flaw in this strategy was the delegates’ plenipotentiary status, which gave them the authority to sign an agreement without approval from Dublin. Fanning, like many historians, suggests that de Valera rejected the treaty not because it compromised the Republic (this was an inevitable outcome of the decision to negotiate), but because it was not his compromise. Support for the treaty on the part of the Cabinet and Dáil assembly further isolated de Valera, triggering a calamitous fall from power and the Irish people’s descent into civil war. There is little new in Fanning’s even-handed account of these events but, given his efforts to present de Valera’s case as sympathetically as possible, his assessment of his subject’s “petulant, inflammatory, ill judged, and profoundly undemocratic” behavior is all the more damning.

The biographer is at the same time at pains to emphasize de Valera’s achievements upon his return to power in 1932. Within seven years de Valera had comprehensively dismantled the treaty settlement, fashioning an Irish state that was independent in all but name—as was potently demonstrated by the maintenance of Irish neutrality in the face of intense British and American pressure during the Second World War. Central to this feat of realpolitik was de Valera’s masterly conduct of diplomacy, which allowed him to systematically sever the ties that bound Ireland to Britain and its Empire. There was a remarkable consistency to much of this, as de Valera achieved in the 1930s what he had insisted (wrongly) was possible in 1921. His enemies never forgave him for proving, as Michael Collins had previously insisted, that the treaty could provide a stepping stone to full independence.

The characteristics of political leadership which served de Valera so poorly in 1921 made him an effective operator in office: although an advocate of populist policies, when he believed it necessary he took little heed of public opinion (such as in his backing of the entry into the League of Nations of Josef Stalin’s Russia, in 1934). He combined uncompromising public positions with private pragmatism. For example, his notorious decision to express condolences to the German minister to Ireland on the death of Hitler obscured his secret cooperation with British military and intelligence services.

De Valera’s tendency to keep even senior cabinet colleagues in the dark on sensitive political matters also widened his room for maneuver. Lengthy cabinet discussions were permitted, even encouraged, but only so long as they resulted in unanimous support for his position. Equally impressive was his grasp of the importance of communications, evidenced by the founding (with public funds) of a successful newspaper company, which was placed securely under the private ownership of his own family.

This study, while fair-minded and nuanced, articulates the case for the defense. Fanning persuasively attributes de Valera’s electoral success and political longevity to his cultivation of a sense of dignity, and the appeal of his solemnity to a subjugated people. Like Winston Churchill or Charles de Gaulle, he came to personify “his country’s image of itself and of its character and history.”

Although Fanning identifies the civil war as the darkest stain on de Valera’s political career, the reasons for his contemporary unpopularity lie elsewhere. The craving for “psychological independence” which de Valera largely satiated through his achievement of national sovereignty, now evokes little understanding, whereas the authoritarian means by which he successfully constructed a national identity within a divided country—in especial, compulsory Gaelic, the imposition of Catholic morality, and an ineffectual (or cynical) anti-partition-ism—now repel many. A less sympathetic account would dwell more on the hollowness at the center of this pursuit of power, as well as its more unpalatable consequences such as the state’s indifference to mass emigration and its treatment of women as second-class citizens.

Revealingly, economic and class issues are not discussed until the final third of the book. This is not an oversight but rather a reflection of the fact that de Valera did not see economic factors “as an essential element in his bid to power.” In one of his few speeches to touch on such matters, de Valera presented declining living standards as a worthwhile price to pay for independence and the rejection of Anglo-Saxon materialism. Fanning doesn’t contest the charge of social and economic negligence, or the criticism that the long-serving de Valera left the structures of Irish society largely as he found them when he took office, but he does criticize historians for focusing “less on his achievements than on what he did not try to achieve.” Not all will be convinced by this line of argument, but few would dispute Fanning’s judgement that, without de Valera, Ireland would not have achieved independence so rapidly.