One of the most successful Irish movies of the year has been the adaptation of Colm Toibín’s novel Brooklyn. But that borough of the city of New York has a much more compelling Irish association. It was the chosen destination of an Irish immigrant Catherine Coll, from Co. Limerick, and it was from there that she met a young Spanish sculptor, got married and had a son in 1882. That son, their only child, went on to become the dominant Irish political personality of the 20th century, Eamon de Valera.
Not that the young de Valera, named Edward by his parents, knew much about his mother Catherine and his father Vivion. The latter was dead by the time he was three and his mother was forced by economic circumstances to have her son sent to Ireland in 1885 to be brought up by relatives in Bruree, Co. Limerick. There he was known as Eddie Coll. He later became a scholarship boy in Blackrock College where he was to become a teacher. In the 1911 census he was still Edward de Valera but his involvement in the Gaelic League sparked an increased interest in Irish. Until the formation of the Irish Volunteers in 1913 his politics were those of Home Rule, but the transformation of his philosophy was ultimately to lead to his command of the 3rd Battalion of the Volunteers in the Easter Rising of 1916.
Despite the execution of men far more junior than he de Valera survived the violent aftermath of the Rising. There is a myth that his death sentence was commuted because of his American citizenship. In fact it was more to do with timing and happenstance. In the wake of the controversial execution of James Connolly when General Sir John Maxwell, British military governor in Ireland, asked the young Irish prosecutor William Wylie whether de Valera should be shot on the basis that he might cause trouble in the future, Wylie made the memorable but hardly clairvoyant observation ‘I wouldn’t think so, sir, I don’t think he is important enough. From all I can hear he is not one of the leaders.’
After 1916 his star was in the ascendant. He won the East Clare by-election in 1917, led Sinn Fein to a sweeping victory in the 1918 General Election and escaped from Lincoln Jail in 1919. But his personality often let him down. In Lincoln Prison he made few friends among his fellow Republican inmates. Famously, in the exercise yard, he played handball alone. When he went to the USA after his escape, to raise funds and awareness, he succeeded in falling out with the political leaders of Irish America, John Devoy and Daniel Cohalan.
Never too far from controversy his decision in late 1921 not to accompany the Irish delegation to the London peace talks has been condemned, justifiably or otherwise, as a convenient cop out designed to ensure he remained untarnished by the inevitable fudge of the Treaty. His subsequent rejection of the agreement signed by Collins and Griffith, and the counter proposals of his ‘Document Number 2’, have been criticized as Jesuitical and self-serving.
He was largely sidelined during the Civil War – notwithstanding the contrary evidence advanced by the plot of Neil Jordan’s film Michael Collins – and seemed to depart from the principles he had enunciated in January 1922 when, in 1926, he and his followers took their seats in the Dail. This was essentially the governing parliament of a state that fell far short of the Republic for which he had argued in the divisive debate over the Treaty.
1932 saw the perennial poacher turn long-term gamekeeper when Fianna Fail won the General Election that year. Bar two brief periods of multi-party coalition he led the country for the next twenty-seven years, wrote the constitution that still, more or less, governs us today, and can be accused of presiding over an economy only rescued from stagnation by his successor Sean Lemass.
But he also, arguably, had the nous and the courage to lead Ireland through an economic war with our nearest neighbor in the 1930s, and to keep the country neutral during World War Two, as well as a number of other significant achievements.
Like or loathe him you cannot ignore Eamon de Valera – a much more impressive name for a political leader, it has to be said, than Eddie Coll.
Eamon de Valera, was born in New York one hundred and thirty four years ago, on this day.