Éamon de Valera was one of the dominant political figures in twentieth-century Ireland. His relationship with the people of the country was often strained and his attitude and motives have frequently puzzled historians throughout this century. The fact remains however, that without his involvement in the Irish Nationalist movement the course of Irish history would have been radically different. His political career spanned over half a century, from 1917 to 1973 during which he served multiple terms as head of government and head of state.
Éamon de Valera was born in New York on October 14 in 1882 to Catherine Coll (a young Irish immigrant from County Limerick) and Juan Vivion DeValera (an immigrant of Spanish origin).
Little is known of his early childhood except that his family moved from America in 1885 to Ireland where the young Éamon studied at Blackrock College in Dublin and was largely reared by his Grandmother. He studied languages and mathematics and was, like Michael Collins, a student of English Rule in Ireland. The early 1900s was a time of the great Gaelic cultural revival in Ireland as literature, drama, sport and the language of the Gaelic nation were all revived.
The main spearhead of the revival was The Gaelic League which he joined in 1908. He was greatly influenced by the League and learned the Irish language whilst immersing himself in the Gaelic culture. The Gaelic League was an obvious recruiting ground for the various revolutionary organizations of the time and it was not long before DeValera became a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. DeValera was second in command to Thomas MacDonagh of the Dublin Brigade during the Easter Rising of 1916.
The Rising failed and the seven leaders, MacDonagh and Pearse among them, were executed, along with 9 other rebels. DeValera was also sentenced to death as an organizer of the revolt but was to escape the firing squad because of the confusion surrounding his ancestry (the English authorities did not, supposedly, want to risk the execution of an American citizen).
DeValera was elected as the leader of Sinn Fein upon his release and set about the formation of an Irish parliament (the Dáil). He was arrested in 1918 for subversion and imprisoned in England in Lincoln prison. With the help of Michael Collins he escaped to America to raise both funds for and consciousness about, the Irish plight. In his absence the War of Independence was being waged by Collins. The English Prime Minister of the time was Lloyd George who wanted to see an end to the violence.
Éamon has often been characterized as a stern, unbending, devious, and divisive Irish politician. Biographer Tim Pat Coogan sees his time in power as being characterized by economic and cultural stagnation, while others argue that the stereotype of De Valera as an austere, cold and even backward figure was largely manufactured in the 1960s and is misguided.
DeValera returned to negotiate with Lloyd George and soon realized that his ambition of a free and independent Ireland would not be granted. He returned home and sent a delegation led by Michael Collins to negotiate a settlement.
The subsequent Anglo-Irish Treaty was ratified by the Dáil in 1922 but DeValera opposed both the partition of the country and the Oath of Allegiance to the English crown that the Treaty required. A bloody Civil War followed which saw both the defeat of the Anti-Treaty side, led by DeValera, and the death of Michael Collins. DeValera was again imprisoned but released in 1926 when he formed the Fianna Fáil party. He now attempted to achieve his aims by the use of constitutional politics. By 1932 he had removed the Oath of Allegiance and sought about establishing an independent Ireland. He created an Irish Constitution in 1937, but an Irish Republic was not declared because of the partition of the country.
DeValera resisted both bribes and threats from Churchill during the war years, (‘the emergency’), and it was not until the Costello led Government declared a Republic in 1948 that the effects of the Anglo-Irish Treaty were finally removed from the Southern part of Ireland. Partition remained.
DeValera was Taoiseach of Ireland for much of the fifties and on 25 June, 1959 he was inaugurated as Uachtaráin (President) of Ireland, a position he held for 14 years. He retired in 1973 and died shortly afterwards, on 29th August 1975 at the age of 92.
Éamon’s Birth Certificate
In the years since the death of the Irish statesman Eamon de Valera, and even during his lifetime, there has been considerable mystery concerning his paternal ancestry. It is known that de Valera was born in New York on 14 October 1882, the son of Vivion de Valera or Valero and Catherine or Kate Coll.
De Valera fought in the Irish War of Independence but famously split with Michael Collins on the issue of the Treaty compromise with the British in 1921. De Valera inspired extremes of devotion and loathing, and his political opponents spread stories to the effect that he was illegitimate.
First: Starting with the basic documentation, it can be seen that there are two versions of de Valera’s birth certificate.
1. The first document states his name as George and his father’s surname as de Valero;
2. The second corrected version issued in 1910 (not 1916 as has been claimed) at the request of his mother, with the forename recorded as Edward (of which Eamon is the Gaelic form) and the family surname spelt de Valera.
Second: Both certificates indicate that Vivion was born in Spain about 1854, and that Catherine was born in Ireland about 1858. While Catherine’s place of origin, near Bruree, County Limerick, is well documented, persistent efforts have so far failed to confirm Vivion’s country of birth.
De Valera’s official biography states that his father Vivion Juan (an added second name) was born in Spain, that the latter’s father Juan ‘was engaged in the sugar trade between Cuba and Spain and the United States’, and that his mother Amelia Acosta ‘had died when he was young’. Vivion Juan and Catherine Coll are said to have been married in Greenville, New Jersey, on 19 September 1881. The official biography further states that Vivion Juan worked as a music teacher, but as a result of illness left New York for the healthier air of Denver, Colorado, dying there or on the way in 1885.
Intensive efforts, particularly by de Valera’s biographer Tim Pat Coogan and the genealogist Joseph M Silinonte, have failed to locate any marriage record, nor has a death record or indeed any further significant documentation relating to Vivion Juan been forthcoming.
Disappointingly, a major reassessment of de Valera published under the auspices of the Royal Irish Academy failed to deal with the problematic issue of its subject’s paternity, indeed apparently ignoring Vivion de Valera altogether.
A memoir by the late Terry de Valera, Eamon de Valera’s son, contains what is claimed to be a definitive account of the Hispanic origins of the family.
It is furthered claimed that a connection has been established with the Valera family of Spain, and cousinship proven with the Marqués de Auñon. In this account it is stated that de Valera’s father Vivion Juan was a grandson of Antonio Valera of Seville in Spain, brother of the author and diplomat Juan Valera. It is claimed that the family had interests in Cuba, and it was from there that Vivion Juan moved to the United States, marrying Kate Coll. Unfortunately, no documentation is cited to verify the connection with the Spanish Valeras, and the tale appears to be a largely imaginative development of de Valera’s own unsuccessful attempt to establish a link. At one point Terry de Valera concedes that the name Vivion ‘does not appear to have been used’ by the Spanish Valeras.
The author angrily rejects the charge that Éamon de Valera’s parents may not have married, clearly responding to an implication in Coogan’s biography but without naming the author.
Unfortunately, it remains a fact that no trace can be found of a marriage record of Vivion de Valera and Kate Coll, and in our hopefully more understanding times, there need be no problem considering the probability that their son Edward or Éamon was born out of wedlock.
Early Political Activity
While he was already involved in the Gaelic Revival, de Valera’s involvement in the political revolution began on November 25 in 1913 when he joined the Irish Volunteers, which were formed to oppose the Ulster Volunteers and ensure the enactment of the Irish Parliamentary Party’s Third Home Rule Act won by its leader John Redmond. After the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, de Valera rose through the ranks and it was not long before he was elected captain of the Donnybrook company. Preparations were pushed ahead for an armed revolt, and he was made commandant of the Third Battalion and adjutant of the Dublin Brigade. He also took part in the Howth gun-running, which took place in Ireland on July 26 in 1914 and was a key step in providing arms to the Irish Volunteers and played a role in the run-up to the Easter Rising of 1916.
Éamon was sworn by Thomas MacDonagh into the oath-bound Irish Republican Brotherhood, which secretly controlled the central executive of the Volunteers. He opposed secret societies but this was the only way he could be guaranteed full information on plans for the Rising.
On Easter Monday, April 24 in 1916 the Easter Rising began. De Valera’s forces occupied Boland’s Mill, Grand Canal Street in Dublin, his chief task being to cover the southeastern approaches to the city.
After a week of fighting the order came from Patrick Pearse to surrender. De Valera was courtmartialed, convicted, and sentenced to death, but the sentence was immediately commuted to penal servitude for life. It has been argued that he was saved by four facts.
- Éamon was one of the last to surrender and he was held in a different prison from other leaders, thus his execution was delayed by practicalities.
- The US Consulate in Dublin made representations before his trial while the full legal situation (i.e., was he actually a United States citizen and if so, how would the United States react to the execution of one of its citizens?) was clarified. The fact that the UK was trying to bring the USA into the war in Europe at the time made the situation even more delicate, though this did not prevent the execution of Tom Clarke who had been a US citizen since 1905.
- When Lt. General Sir John Maxwell reviewed his case he said, “Who is he? I haven’t heard of him before. I wonder would he be likely to make trouble in the future?” On being told that de Valera was unimportant he commuted the court-martial’s death sentence to life imprisonment. De Valera had no Fenian family or personal background and his MI5 file in 1916 was very slim, only detailing his open membership of the Irish Volunteers.
- By the time de Valera was courtmartialed on May 8th, political pressure was being brought to bear on Maxwell to halt the executions. Maxwell had already told the Prime Minister Herbert Asquith that only two more were to be executed, Seán Mac Diarmada and James Connolly, although they were courtmartialed the day after de Valera.
His late trial, representations made by the American Consulate, his lack of Fenian background and political pressure all combined to save Éamon’s life. Had he been tried a week earlier he would probably have been shot.
De Valera’s supporters and detractors argue about de Valera’s bravery during the Easter Rising.
- His supporters claim he showed leadership skills and a meticulous ability for planning.
- His detractors claim he suffered a nervous breakdown during the Rising.
According to accounts from 1916 de Valera was seen running about, giving conflicting orders, refusing to sleep and on one occasion, having forgotten the password, almost getting himself shot in the dark by his own men. According to one account, de Valera, on being forced to sleep by one subordinate who promised to sit beside him and wake him if he was needed, suddenly woke up, his eyes “wild”, screaming, “Set fire to the railway! Set fire to the railway!”
Later in the Ballykinlar internment Camp, one de Valera loyalist approached another internee, a medical doctor, recounted the story, and asked for a medical opinion as to de Valera’s condition. He also threatened to sue the doctor, future Fine Gael Teachta Dála (TD) [pronounced tlaxtə dɑwːlə] and minister, Dr. Tom O’Higgins, if he ever repeated the story.
De Valera’s latest biographer, Anthony J. Jordan, writes of this controversy, “Whatever happened in Boland’s Mills, or any other garrison, does not negate or undermine in any way the extraordinary heroism of Dev and his comrades”.
After imprisonment in Dartmoor, Maidstone and Lewes prisons, de Valera and his comrades were released under an amnesty in June 1917. On 10 July 1917 he was elected member of the House of Commons for East Clare (the constituency which he represented until 1959) in a by-election caused by the death of the previous incumbent Willie Redmond, brother of the Irish Party Leader John Redmond who had died fighting in World War I. In the 1918 general election he was elected both for that seat and Mayo East.
In 1917 he was elected president of Sinn Féin, the party which had been blamed incorrectly for provoking the Easter Rising. This party became the political vehicle through which the survivors of the Easter Rising channelled their republican ethos and objectives. The previous president of Sinn Féin, Arthur Griffith, had championed an Anglo-Irish dual-monarchy based on the Austro-Hungarian model, with independent legislatures for both Ireland and Britain. This solution would, emulate the situation following the Constitution of 1782 under Henry Grattan, until Ireland was legislatively subsumed into the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in 1801.
Príomh Aire — President of Dáil Éireann
Sinn Féin won a huge majority in the 1918 general election, largely thanks to the British executions of the 1916 leaders, the threat of conscription with the Conscription Crisis of 1918 and the first past the post ballot. They won 73 out of 105 Irish seats, with about 47% of votes cast. On January 21 in 1919, 27 Sinn Féin MPs (the rest were imprisoned or impaired), calling themselves Teachtaí Dála (TDs), assembled in the Mansion House in Dublin and formed an Irish parliament, known as Dáil Éireann (translatable into English as the Assembly of Ireland). A ministry or Aireacht [Ar əxt] was formed, under the leadership of the Príomh Aire [plri:v arlə] Cathal Brugha [kahəl bYrYu:] (President of Dáil Éireann Charles William St. John Burgess). De Valera had been re-arrested in May 1918 and imprisoned and so could not attend the January session of the Dáil. He escaped from Lincoln Gaol, England in February 1919. As a result he replaced Brugha as Príomh Aire in the April session of Dáil Éireann.