De Valera’s last secretary steals the show at UCD conference

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2005), News, News, Volume 13

The Humanities Building, UCD, was the venue in September 2005 for a three-day conference—‘Eamon de Valera 30 Years On’—co-sponsored by the Humanities Institute of Ireland, the Fianna Fáil party and the Mícheál O’Cléirigh Institute for the Study of Irish History and Civilisation. Apart from the many fine speakers, former taoiseach Garrett Fitzgerald made many significant contributions from the floor, and other distinguished members of the audience included Pat Wallace, director of the National Museum, and Risteard Mulcahy, son of Richard Mulcahy.
Peter Hart, who needs no introduction to History Ireland readers, kicked off proceedings with a paper examining the relationship between de Valera and Michael Collins and concluded that a good working relationship existed between the two until the signing of the Treaty. He also suggested that Collins was a bad cabinet colleague, memorably describing him as an ‘equal opportunity abuser’ who ‘needed to be softened and cajoled into better behaviour’, and remarked that de Valera ‘had to work pretty hard to manage Collins’. Hart also suggested, however, that de Valera’s biggest political mistake was his not going to London in December 1921 prior to the final meeting between the British and Irish delegations that led to the signing of the much-contested document. The next speaker, John Regan, totally disagreed with Hart’s thesis and instead argued that the two men were not compatible.
John Horgan’s paper dealt with de Valera’s relationship with the Fianna Fáil party. Although he claimed that we could only guess at de Valera’s involvement in party organisation, Horgan was quick to point out that the party deliberately used de Valera’s strong personality and charismatic qualities in their promotional literature to win elections. Michael Kennedy explored de Valera’s conduct of Irish foreign policy in the 1930s, claiming that he revived Irish diplomacy during this period, and found that there was ‘much that was beneficial in what de Valera achieved’ in Irish foreign policy.
Undoubtedly, the greatest coup of the conference was to get such people as Patrick Hillery, former president of Ireland, Seán Cromien, former secretary-general of the Department of Finance, and Michael B. Yeats, son of the poet, to address the audience with their personal memories of de Valera. Patrick Hillery was de Valera’s running mate in the 1951 general election, and remembered being told: ‘by the time you have the campaign done with him, you’ll know all that you need to know about politics’.
However, Máire Ní Cheallaigh, de Valera’s last private secretary, who succeeded her aunt, Kathleen O’Connell, in this role in 1956, stole the show with her personal portrait of de Valera in old age. Terry de Valera, in his invaluable memoir, writes that she ‘provided an indispensable service to my father and showed the same loyalty and trust as had her aunt’. Máire recalled that de Valera was a ‘marvellously good-humoured man’ who also ‘enjoyed a practical joke against himself’. Thus the impression that de Valera didn’t laugh and was very serious in his demeanour at all times is not well founded. Indeed, de Valera was said to have laughed so heartily on one occasion in Cruise’s Hotel that he fell back on his chair and broke it. He also loved his books, regarding them as friends and hating to hear them fall. On one occasion Thomas Ryan, a prominent Limerick portrait artist, showed de Valera his partially finished version of a specially commissioned painting that featured an opened book on the floor. De Valera’s disapproving sigh ensured that the painting was modified to show a floor devoid of upturned books. Máire also recalled that de Valera had a great love of nature, being especially fond of the singing of birds. Finally, during de Valera’s last illness, he asked her whether he would pull through. Máire, to her credit, answered in the negative and de Valera touched her hand, saying that she was ‘a great girl’ for giving him an honest answer when everyone else refused to do so.

Frank Bouchier-Hayes is a local historian and freelance writer/researcher.

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