A highlight of this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival was the Rough Magic Theatre Company’s production of The Train, a musical by Arthur Riordan and Bill Whelan. Political theatre at its wittiest and craziest, it told the story of the fledgling Irish Women’s Liberation Movement’s publicised trip in 1971 to Belfast to buy contraceptives, ostentatiously importing these banned Satanic devices back into the Republic, where the law obeyed the writ of the Catholic church. Watching it, one was reminded of the sheer extent of theocracy in Éamon de Valera’s Ireland (he remained president till 1973, having been Taoiseach for most of the period from 1932 to 1959), and the long journey from those days to this year’s equal marriage referendum. Ronan Fanning’s crisp, economical but deeply thought-provoking biography anatomises de Valera’s influence, and reminds us just how transformed the country is since his heyday.
Fanning lays great emphasis on de Valera’s difficult early life, heavily disguised in the official biography — which was more or less dictated by the man himself to his supine and complaisant hagiographers (prominent among them Lord Longford). He was born to an Irish servant-girl and an obscure Spaniard in New York in 1882, and his parents were soon separated. His father died and his mother sent the two-year-old child back to relations in County Limerick, more or less rejecting him forthwith.
Fanning’s description of ‘engineering a separation’ is well put. The boy’s early years on a tiny and impoverished farm were miserable, but he pulled himself out of it by the traditional Irish route of education, managing to get to the elite Holy Ghost Fathers’ Blackrock College, where he was blissfully happy; he stayed there for holidays rather than returning to Limerick, and in many ways it remained the emotional centre of his life.
Marked out to be an academic or a priest, his involvement in Gaelic League activities in the early years of the new century led him into the paramilitary nationalist volunteer movement — and also into matrimony, as he fell in love with and married his Irish teacher. But he was not prominent in nationalist politics until 1916, when he commanded a garrison in the Easter Rising. He had joined the secret Irish Republican Brotherhood shortly before, but was never comfortable with taking the oath, as it conflicted with his devout Catholicism. Here as elsewhere, however, he would find devious and sophisticated routes to rationalise apparent contradictions, in a spirit closer to Jesuits than Holy Ghosts.
As practically the only unexecuted 1916 leader (he survived principally because he was unknown, as Fanning pithily judges), he emerged from jail the acknowledged leader of the rapidly radicalising Sinn Féin movement. Tall, ascetic, dignified, and with a gift for leadership as well as a charismatic force of will, his dominance was not universally welcomed. A long visit to the USA in 1919–20 sowed seeds of discontent, which may have prefigured the traumatic disagreement over the Anglo-Irish Treaty that ended the guerrilla war of independence in 1921.
De Valera led the dissidents who refused to accept the (slightly detached) Commonwealth status given to the new Irish Free State under the terms of the Treaty — even though it essentially differed very little from ideas he had floated beforehand. But his near-inexplicable refusal to join the delegates who went to London to negotiate it, and Arthur Griffith’s and Michael Collins’s disastrous decision to sign it without referring the terms back to Dublin, ushered in a savage civil war, with de Valera on the losing side. From the political wildernes s he negotiated his way back via Fianna Fáil, the political party he founded in 1926 — a manoeuvre also requiring fancy footwork about taking an oath, this time acknowledging the British monarch as head of the Commonwealth. Six years later he entered his long period of dominance, ruling Ireland hand-in-glove with the Catholic hierarchy: an Irish Salazar or Franco.
Fanning points out, fairly, that there were many achievements to de Valera’s credit in the period 1932–48, in terms of foreign policy and taking a firm line with subversive activities from his old IRA colleagues; despite Ireland’s wartime neutrality and the longstanding mutual antipathy between Churchill and himself, he also managed Anglo-Irish relations skilfully. The stability of Irish society owed something to his autocracy, though he did nothing to stem the emigration to better opportunities abroad and very rarely even acknowledged it. Instead, Fanning astutely establishes that de Valera himself remained obsessed by the disastrous aftermath of the Treaty, and the need to believe that he had behaved correctly and defensibly.
This is not his biographer’s belief, nor can it withstand the fair-minded, forensic but damning verdict here — that he rejected the Treaty not because it was a compromise, but because it was not his compromise, and must bear responsibility for the subsequent ‘wading through blood’ (his own phrase). Jealousy of Collins and dislike of Griffith may also have played a part, but de Valera never admitted to moral failings. Time and again an inability to accept the ideas or achievements of others recurs, along with an odd punctilio and pedantry — notoriously so when he paid a visit of condolence to the German Legation after Hitler’s suicide. Yet as is clearly shown here, he had been firmly if covertly on the Allied side during the war, weighting Irish neutrality very much to the British advantage, and eschewing the pro-German and Anglophobic attitudes of many of his political (and diplomatic) colleagues.
Similarly his affections lay with rugby rather than Gaelic football, and he sustained a warm relationship with Trinity College, then seen as a bastion of Anglo-Irish values. But his dream of a devoutly Catholic, rural, unmaterialist Ireland, where the hierarchy had every right to dictate social legislation, persisted — along with similarly unrealistic anti-Partition crusades, contradicting his private admissions that Northern Unionists were not going to be persuaded into the Republic, and could not be compelled by force of arms. A very different line would be taken on both of these issues —material gain, and the Northern question — by Charles Haughey, and Fanning recounts evidence that de Valera clearly saw him as a malign influence on Fianna Fáil.
That disgraced figure would reign over a very different Ireland in the late 20th century: a period when, as Trollope remarked of 1870s Britain,
dishonesty magnificent in its proportions, and climbing into high places, became at the same time so rampant and so splendid that there seemed to be reason for fearing that men and women would be taught to feel that dishonesty, if it can become splendid, will cease to become abominable.
De Valera cannot be blamed for this, though his own honesty was variable and self-serving — he could never admit the impropriety of his control and ownership of the powerful Irish Press empire, for instance.
This judicious, well-researched, elegantly written and admirably succinct biography might, in fact, have taken another Trollope reference for its title: He Knew He Was Right. We are not told what the then president thought of the radical Irishwomen storming the customs barriers with pills and condoms in 1971, but I think we can guess. And it presaged the end of his era.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £17, Tel: 08430 600033. Roy Foster’s many books on Ireland include Luck and the Irish, Modern Ireland, The Irish Story and a two-volume life of W.B. Yeats.