Ambiguous reprieve: Dev and America

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 3 May/June2013, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 21

Above: President John F. Kennedy with President Eamon de Valera in Áras an Uachtaráin, 28 July 1963. Kennedy asked the sole surviving senior commander of 1916 what saved him from a firing squad at Kilmainham Gaol. (Irish Photo Archive)

Above: President John F. Kennedy with President Eamon de Valera in Áras an Uachtaráin, 28 July 1963. Kennedy asked the sole surviving senior commander of 1916 what saved him from a firing squad at Kilmainham Gaol. (Irish Photo Archive)

On the final night of John F. Kennedy’s trip to Ireland in 1963, the 46-year-old American president took advantage of a small dinner setting at Áras an Uachtaráin to pose a personal question to the 80-year-old president of Ireland, Eamon de Valera. The first head of state to honour the Easter Rising’s executed leaders at Arbour Hill cemetery, Kennedy asked the sole surviving senior commander of 1916 what saved him from a firing squad at Kilmainham Gaol.
According to Kennedy aides Kenneth O’Donnell and David Powers in their book ‘Johnny, we hardly knew ye’, de Valera responded that ‘he had lived in Ireland since his early childhood, but he was born in New York City, and because of his American citizenship, the British were reluctant to kill him. “But there were many times when the key in my jail cell door was turned”, he said, “and I thought that my turn had come”.’ O’Donnell and Powers report that Kennedy was ‘spellbound’ as he listened to the aging rebel’s tale, with its emphasis on de Valera’s American connection.

Changed story in 1969

British Prime Minister H.H. Asquith—according to de Valera’s 1969 statement, Asquith wanted ‘no further executions save those of the ringleaders which they interpreted as those who had signed the Proclamation . . . The fact that I was born in America would not have saved me’. (George Morrison)

British Prime Minister H.H. Asquith—according to de Valera’s 1969 statement, Asquith wanted ‘no further executions save those of the ringleaders which they interpreted as those who had signed the Proclamation . . . The fact that I was born in America would not have saved me’. (George Morrison)

In 1969, however, de Valera changed his story. Still president (he left office in 1973), de Valera drafted a handwritten statement (now among his papers in the UCD Archives) that begins: ‘I have not the slightest doubt that my reprieve in 1916 was due to the fact that my court martial and sentence came late’. After noting that the British prime minister, H.H. Asquith, wanted ‘no further executions save those of the ringleaders which they interpreted as those who had signed the Proclamation’, de Valera dismisses his US birth: ‘The fact that I was born in America would not have saved me’.
A more detailed defence for de Valera’s reprieve follows the six small pages in his script. This version, typed on President of Ireland stationery and signed 3 July 1969, elaborates on the insignificance of American involvement, bolstering the earlier draft:

‘The fact that I was born in America would not, I am convinced, have saved me. I know of nothing in international law which could be cited in my defence or made an excuse for American intervention, except, perhaps, to see that I got a fair trial.’

The entire next paragraph and the last sentence of the four-paragraph document reject any US influence. This rendering of what happened was amplified in de Valera’s authorised biography, published in 1970.
The discrepancy between what de Valera is quoted as telling Kennedy in 1963 and what he wrote six years later becomes more intriguing because near the 1969 statement about 1916 in de Valera’s papers are nearly 40 items from 1916 that highlight his connections to the US. Three articles from American newspapers repeat nearly identical phrasing: ‘As soon as General [John] Maxwell [commander of British forces] learned that de Valera was an American citizen, he postponed the execution and later commuted the sentence to penal servitude for life’.

Vigorous family campaign on both sides of the Atlantic

Above: The large photograph at Kilmainham Gaol of de Valera under arrest in 1916, with the caption: ‘Sentenced to die like the other leaders, de Valera would have been the fifteenth man executed at Kilmainham had he not been saved by his American citizenship’. (UCD Archives)

Above: The large photograph at Kilmainham Gaol of de Valera under arrest in 1916, with the caption: ‘Sentenced to die like the other leaders, de Valera would have been the fifteenth man executed at Kilmainham had he not been saved by his American citizenship’. (UCD Archives)

From evidence in the UCD Archives and elsewhere, de Valera’s family conducted a vigorous campaign on both sides of the Atlantic to use his American birth to his advantage. In Dublin, shortly after his surrender, de Valera’s wife, Sinéad, appealed to the US consul, Edward L. Adams, for help, and he later wrote to the State Department in Washington that ‘by intervention . . . a sentence of death was commuted to imprisonment for life. Mrs de Valera afterwards called at the consulate to express her gratitude.’ In his 1969 statement, however, de Valera disputes whether the US helped: ‘It is, of course, true that my wife was encouraged by friends to make, and did make, representations to the American consul here. He was sympathetic, I understand. Similarly, my mother and American friends . . . made representations to Washington. I do not know if they got any reply, but I feel certain that the administration took no official action.’
In the US, beginning in early June 1916, de Valera’s half-brother, Revd Thomas Wheelwright, a Redemptorist priest living in Rochester, New York, dispatched numerous letters to senators, members of Congress and other governmental officials on behalf of the imprisoned de Valera. Wheelwright enlisted other clergy in his cause, and they, too, tried to apply pressure. The US embassy asked the British home office about de Valera’s nationality at the urging of ‘the Department of State at Washington’, a sign that the US letters were having an impact.

Story repeated by deadline-driven journalists

Above: Eamon de Valera—what nationality was he in 1916? (Military Archives)

Above: Eamon de Valera—what nationality was he in 1916? (Military Archives)

Despite the distance he tried to create from his birthplace, de Valera’s US past as a possible factor in his survival started to appear with regularity after the summer of 1916. Early biographies (by David T. Dwane, Dennis Gwynn and Desmond Ryan) bring up de Valera’s US association as a providential factor. As de Valera’s career unfolded, he couldn’t escape his American background. Mention of it became a recurring element, especially in journalistic profiles. In a feature about him after his election as president of the Irish Free State that referred to him in the headline as ‘The Irish Enigma’, The Washington Post in 1932 reported: ‘The fact that his American birth made him technically still a citizen of the United States had saved him from the firing squad’. When he won another term as taoiseach in 1957, The New York Times devoted a ‘Man in the News’ column to this ‘Legendary Irishman’, noting that he ‘was saved from execution only by questions over his then United States citizenship’. When he died in 1975, the Associated Press dispatch from Dublin included this line: ‘He was condemned to death along with 15 others for his part in the rebellion but because of his American birth his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment’. A New York Times editorial tribute, ‘A Maker of Ireland’, compared de Valera to Charles de Gaulle, concluding: ‘The British spared his life in 1916 in deference to American public opinion—and not only Ireland was the beneficiary’.
Deadline-driven journalists relying on facts from earlier cuttings were not alone in repeating the significance of de Valera’s heritage to his survival. In America and the fight for Irish freedom 1866–1922 (1957), Charles Callan Tansill states that ‘De Valera was reprieved only because there was a possibility that he was an American citizen’. In the Oxford University Press introduction to Modern Ireland (2003), Senia Paseta writes: ‘The highest ranking survivor of the Easter Rising, de Valera’s American citizenship had saved him from execution and placed him at the front of the queue of potential successors to the nationalist throne’. In Story of Ireland (2011), the companion book to the recent BBC television series, Fergal Keene recalls in the autobiographical introduction a presidential visit to his school from ‘Eamon de Valera, a veteran of 1916, who only escaped execution because he had been born in America’.

Public history

British commander General John Maxwell (holding paper, while reviewing troops in Trinity College, Dublin, 1916) inquired whether de Valera might cause future trouble. ‘I wouldn’t think so, sir, I don’t think he is important enough’, W.E. Wylie, chief prosecuting officer, is quoted as replying. (RTÉ Stills Library)

British commander General John Maxwell (holding paper, while reviewing troops in Trinity College, Dublin, 1916) inquired whether de Valera might cause future trouble. ‘I wouldn’t think so, sir, I don’t think he is important enough’, W.E. Wylie, chief prosecuting officer, is quoted as replying. (RTÉ Stills Library)

Moreover, in the realm of public history the US angle plays a featured role. The plaque under the bust of de Valera in the National Gallery of Ireland’s collection reads: ‘For his part in the Easter Rising of 1916 he was sentenced to death but escaped the death penalty because he was an American citizen’. At Kilmainham Gaol there is a large photograph of de Valera under arrest with this caption: ‘Sentenced to die like the other leaders, de Valera would have been the fifteenth man executed at Kilmainham had he not been saved by his American citizenship’.
De Valera waited until he was 86 years old to compose his formal statement about his reprieve. According to documentation in his papers, he told his side of the story just six months before he completed his will. It was a time for looking back, summing up and setting the record straight from his vantage point. By then, however, de Valera’s American connection had been repeated so often that it was conventional wisdom. Even the UCD website, describing his papers, says in its opening paragraph: ‘Sentenced to death, de Valera was reprieved partly because of his American birth’.
What really happened? As Ronan Fanning puts it in his entry about de Valera in the Dictionary of Irish Biography, de Valera’s ‘escape owed more to luck’ than any other factor. The last commandant to surrender, de Valera didn’t face court martial until late in the process. By then, pressure was building from parliament in Westminster to bring the executions to an end, and public opinion, notably in the US, was crystallising against Britain for overreacting to the rising. De Valera became the beneficiary of the historical moment.
In W.E. Wylie and the Irish Revolution 1916–1921 (1989), Leon Ó Broin recounts a meeting between Wylie, the chief prosecuting officer for the British at the trials, and Maxwell about de Valera’s fate. Knowing Asquith’s concern over additional executions, Maxwell inquires whether de Valera might cause future trouble. ‘I wouldn’t think so, sir, I don’t think he is important enough’, Wylie is quoted as saying. ‘From all I can hear he is not one of the leaders.’ Ó Broin concludes this exchange by commenting: ‘De Valera’s American connections were not mentioned as was often said later’.
Throughout his career de Valera took more than a casual interest in how he was portrayed and what others said about him. Yet in this life-or-death matter he waited over half a century to set down his version, which the historical record supports and strengthens. What motivated the long delay, especially with the persistence of the American angle in so many venues? This prime question leads to more specific ones that at this remove become the province of speculation.
Did the mystery of his salvation contribute to the larger riddle and mystique surrounding de Valera from 1916 onward?
Did the familial association with the US help to define him in America, which he knew bankrolled the rising and would be important to Ireland’s future?
Did the aging president of Ireland want to ingratiate himself with the youthful American president to create a stronger bond between them?
Did de Valera want the last word at the end of his life, so circumstances of his court martial rather than any foreign power’s influence received credit for his survival?
In Ireland: 1912–1985 (1989) J.J. Lee observes: ‘It may safely be predicted that the paradoxes of de Valera will intrigue historians for generations to come. Exploration of the recesses of that cavernous mind reveals ever more complex, ever more fascinating, formations.’ De Valera’s reprieve, complete with its ambiguities and contradictions, shows those ‘formations’ in bold relief, and recounting it serves as a cautionary tale in coming to terms with an enigmatic figure as puzzling now as he was in life. HI

Robert Schmuhl is Walter H. Annenberg–Edmund P. Joyce Chair in American Studies and Journalism at the University of Notre Dame (USA). He is currently completing a book, ‘The Exiled Children’ and Easter 1916: America and Irish Independence.

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