Judging Dev: A reassessment of the life and legacy of Éamon de Valera

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Devalera & Fianna Fail, Issue 3 (May/Jun 2008), Reviews, Volume 16

Judging Dev: A reassessment of the life and legacy of Éamon de Valera
Diarmaid Ferriter
(Royal Irish Academy, €30/£25)   ISBN: 9781904890287 De Valera was unquestionably the dominant political figure of twentieth-century Ireland. His achievements included the foundation of Fianna Fáil, wartime neutrality, constitutional innovation, and democratically remaining in power for sixteen uninterrupted years. All of these successes, however, were achieved by an unacknowledged use of the Treaty, as Michael Collins advocated, as a ‘stepping stone’. His rejection of it, the subsequent civil war, his disruptive course of conduct for more than a decade after it and his responsibility for the near-collapse of the Irish economy all form part of his record.
Ferriter’s book is a work of cunning hagiography. His ‘judging’ methodology is twofold and does not consist merely of straightforward judgements of his own. The first method involves cleverly choosing pro-de Valera comments by historians so that they counter selected critical judgements of his hero and thus create a favourable impression. The second is straightforward suppresso veri. The question of de Valera’s illegitimacy and its psychological effects, the suggestion that he had Asperger’s Syndrome, his behaviour in America during the Anglo-Irish war, his statements during the Civil War, his influence in weakening respect for democratic government and the institutions of state during the first decade of independence, the Economic War and his efforts to airbrush distasteful episodes out of history are all either  glossed over or simply ignored.
Ferriter does not mention that one of de Valera’s first initiatives on his return from America at Christmas 1920 was an unsuccessful attempt to force Collins out of Ireland to the US, nor that in July 1921 he deliberately snubbed Collins by leaving him in Dublin when he went to London to meet Lloyd George. His stated reason was that he did not want to afford the British opportunities of photographing Collins—were there no cameras in America?
Having learned from his days of discussion alone with Lloyd George exactly what was on the table for negotiation, de Valera then stayed at home and sent Collins, Griffith and the others to make what he well knew was going to be a historic compromise between imperialism and republicanism. Ferriter argues that a civil war would have occurred anyhow: ‘. . . it is fair to describe de Valera during the Civil War as being led rather than being the leader’.
From an impeccable source—the diary of de Valera’s devotee Erskine Childers—we know that within 72 hours of Collins and Griffith signing the Treaty he had made a cold, calculated decision to base his opposition to the Treaty on ‘extremist support’. Childers was greatly surprised by what he termed ‘this revelation’, saying that de Valera’s ‘nerve and confidence are amazing’. De Valera’s bid for ‘extremist support’ led him to ally himself with die-hard republicans, to the accompaniment of utterances (to rifle-carrying IRA men) such as:

‘If they accepted the Treaty . . . they would have to wade through, perhaps, the blood of some of the members of the government in order to get Irish freedom’,

or again, ‘. . . when you are in a good fighting position, then fight on’. When the Four Courts were attacked he issued a statement saying:

‘At the bidding of the English, Irishmen are today shooting down, on the streets of our capital, brother Irishmen . . . In Rory O’Connor and his comrades lies the unbought, indomitable soul of Ireland . . . Irish citizens! Give them support. Irish soldiers, bring them aid!’

Ferriter, however, argues that de Valera cannot be termed an extremist—because he said so himself in a letter to Mary MacSwiney! He pointedly fails to mention either Childers’s diary entry or the foregoing Civil War statements.
The ‘snakin’ regarder’ approach continued long after the Civil War. On 14 March 1929 de Valera indicated that the gardaí were in some way an anti-democratic outcropping of an illegal state:

‘I still hold that your right to be regarded as the legitimate government of the country is faulty, that this house itself is faulty. You have secured a de facto position . . . But as to whether you have come by that position legitimately or not, I say you have not come by that position legitimately. You brought off a coup d’état in the summer of 1922. If you are not getting the support from all sections of the community that is necessary for any executive if it is going to dispense with a large police force, it is because there is a moral handicap in your case . . . The setting up of this state put a moral handicap on everyone of us here . . . Those who continued on in that organisation which we have left can claim exactly the same continuity that we claimed up to 1925. They can do it . . .’

Ferriter does not mention this statement. He gives the impression that Cumann na nGaedheal’s unfounded fears of de Valera were rooted in the Civil War and fanned merely by alarm at his constitutional adventures. The truth was that throughout the ’20s gardaí were murdered, banks and post offices robbed, and jurors and police witnesses shot and intimidated to a point where normal court proceedings became so impossible that military tribunals were set up. Fianna Fáil and IRA supporters campaigned together vigorously in the 1932 and 1933 general elections, not merely over issues such as the land annuities and IRA prisoner release but in a sustained, violent attempt to deny Cumann na nGaedheal ‘traitors’ like W. T. Cosgrave a hearing at election meetings.
In power after 1932, de Valera immediately released IRA leaders, suspended the military tribunals and sacked Garda Commissioner Eoin O’Duffy. But he did nothing to halt his followers’ fascistic behaviour at election meetings, thus paving the way for the emergence of the Blueshirt movement, led by O’Duffy. Ferriter tells us that it was Garda batons that halted the march of Blueshirtism and made Ireland safe for democracy. Blueshirtism disappeared because O’Duffy’s leadership was inspired more by John Jameson than by Hitler or Mussolini. The gardaí were of course prepared to confront any threat to the state, blue or green. But after de Valera came to power, word went down through the ranks to go easy on the IRA. In country towns IRA supporters jostled and threatened uniformed gardaí on the street.
The Broy Harriers, the armed Special Branch set up by O’Duffy’s successor Eamonn Broy as part of the government’s crack-down on the Blueshirts, were composed not of gardaí but of ex-IRA men whom existing members of the gardaí had seen breaking up Cumann na nGaedheal meetings. Farmers’ anger at the destruction of the cattle trade because of the Economic War was another source of Blueshirt recruitment. This exercise in Mugabe-esque agricultural policy meant that unsaleable cattle were slaughtered and their meat distributed for free. Ferriter, however, dismisses the Economic War’s effects by saying that those most affected were ‘Irish cattle traders’.
Only when he was safely in power and no longer in need of ‘extremist support’ did de Valera confront the IRA. The IRA assisted him, as did the Blueshirts, by splitting into factions. No longer describing the IRA as entitled to claim the same continuity as himself, de Valera would use the military tribunals to carry out executions and to allow men to die on hunger strike in conditions in which the Portlaoise Prison doctor admitted at the inquest on Seán McCaughey that he would not have kept a dog.
De Valera was haunted by the thought of how history would judge these matters. When T. P. O’Neill was chosen to write his official biography, he negotiated a contract whereby he got paid in instalments, which he thought would compensate him for giving up his job and going to Áras an Uachtaráin in 1963 to work under de Valera’s tutelage. But, as O’Neill told me himself, he soon found that before he got the necessary documents and interviews for, say, chapter two, chapter one had to be given the nihil obstat. There were long delays. Under these pressures O’Neill finished the book in 1965. Harold Harris of Hutchinson (my publishers also), who edited it, told me that it was unpublishable hagiography. Lord Longford was brought in as co-author under a new contract, signed on 26 April 1965. But the book did not appear until 1970, and then only because Harris had substantially rewritten it.
Ferriter claims merit because he has relied heavily on de Valera’s own papers. After the publication of the ‘authorised biography’, the papers were transferred to the Franciscans in Killiney in 1970. Prior to the transfer, the papers were examined by de Valera’s granddaughter, Anne (daughter of Dev’s eldest son Vivion), who had been trained as an archivist. In my 1990 biography of Michael Collins the Acknowledgements stated:

‘. . . thanks to the good offices of Fr Benignus Miller OFM, Mr Liam O’Lonergain and Mr Brendan MacGiolla Choile and his wife Eilis, I was given access to the MacEoin collection. Mr MacGiolla Choille, a former Keeper of the Public Records, also gave me the benefit of his unrivalled personal insights into matters concerning de Valera.’

That coded last sentence was in fact written by Brendan MacGiolla Choile, with whom I had become friendly through Liam O’Lonergain. Throughout the ’80s the papers remained closed to scholars as Brendan and his wife, sometimes aided by a daughter, painstakingly catalogued them, first in English and then in Irish. Accordingly, MacGiolla Choile devised a formula whereby I wrote out questions and he consulted the papers for answers. There were no answers. My queries covered many areas: de Valera’s origins; his activities in America; why most of the American loan was left there when he returned to Ireland (monies later used to found the Irish Press); his relationship with Collins; any indications as to why he formed such a close relationship with Collins’s enemies, Brugha and Stack; what transpired between him and Lloyd George in London, prior to the Treaty; whether there was any personal contact between him and the London delegates during the negotiations (and if not, why not?); what his ‘Plan B’ was if the British resumed the war following breakdown of negotiations; and what his private thoughts were on the fact that partition and a northern parliament were already in existence before he even met Lloyd George.
After the Collins book appeared, I was one of the first journalists to be invited to inspect the archive on its official opening. I also consulted it while writing my 1993 de Valera biography. I can say with certainty that, though they are of interest, those well-winnowed papers do not contain any great insights into de Valera’s mind and motivations. Ferriter says that criticism of de Valera overlooks the fact that people consistently voted for him. The same could be said of Ian Paisley. But I wonder what would happen if one of his admirers produced a book that erased the unpalatable facts of his career and a DUP minister had it placed in all Six County secondary schools?
Tim Pat Coogan’s memoirs will be published by Orion in 2008.

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