‘The Ireland that I would have’ De Valera & the creation of an Irish national image

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Devalera & Fianna Fail, Features, Features, Issue 2 (Summer 1997), Volume 5

De Valera’s Ireland has been held up to criticism and even ridicule, depicted as an unrealistic over-romanticised vision of comely maidens and dancing at the cross roads. Yet de Valera was an astute politician with a specific political, cultural and national agenda. If his head appeared in the clouds, his feet were firmly on the ground. Images of a bucolic haven were rooted in an opposition to industrial Britain and the identity associated with it. It was part of de Valera’s nation-building programme in which Ireland would be independent—politically, economically and culturally. Ireland as a rural haven, free from the corrupting influences of industrialism, was not a new idea. Indeed, de Valera’s nationalism had a firm basis in earlier, nineteenth-century, nationalist philosophies. Moreover, these provided legitimation for subsequent nationalist programmes, and de Valera was adept in referring to the heroes of Irish nationalism to strengthen his own position. In general there are a number of recurring themes throughout de Valera’s popular speeches:

* Ireland is an ancient nation with a pedigree as good, if not better, than that of England. Antiquity provides numerous examples of a spiritual nation with an influence on the world stage that belied its size. Antique Ireland civilised Europe, modern Ireland can replicate this achievement. Catholicism is associated with the idea of spirituality. Catholicism is a crucial point of differentiation between Ireland and England, not only in terms of doctrine, but also in the fact that through Catholicism Ireland was tied to a broader global network from which England was excluded.

* Ireland is a Gaelic nation. From the mid nineteenth–century writings of Thomas Davis Irish nationalists considered the Irish language to be the surest defence against the nation’s absorption into an English world. The language was also a bridge to past generations of Irish men and women.

* The past is used in a variety of contexts. It is the line of continuity that binds modern Ireland to the glorious past of the land of Saints and Scholars. It also presents an Ireland that was a united nation. Moreover, the past, presented as a story of oppression and persecution that persisted over seven and a half centuries, is a tangible difference between Ireland and England. This is a story of unparalleled brutality and of deliberate cultural destruction but also of heroic and unceasing struggle in the pursuit of justice and right. This leads onto the sub-theme of liberty, used particularly in speeches to American audiences where the tradition of American liberty is juxtaposed with the Irish struggle to strengthen Irish claims for support from American sources.
The ‘dream speech’,
St Patrick’s Day 1943

My examination begins with de Valera’s clearest expression of his rustic ideal, the so called ‘dream speech’ broadcast to the Irish nation at home and abroad on St Patrick’s Day 1943. It is usually remembered by critics for its reference to ‘comely maidens’ and the romantic vision of Ireland which it presents. However, this is to miss the point. To begin with critics confine their comments to the opening paragraphs. The speech was in fact written to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the foundation of the Gaelic League and the latter half is dedicated to the need to restore the Irish language as the spoken vernacular. This aside, accusations of foolish romanticism miss the point of the opening section of this speech. De Valera never claims that this is the Ireland that exists. Rather it is the Ireland that ‘we would have’. It is an aspiration. Moreover it is an aspiration that is perfectly sensible, albeit dressed in rather poetic terms. Stripped of its linguistic finery de Valera’s vision is of a country where the people are gainfully employed, where disease and poverty are under control, where citizens of all ages, from children to grandparents may enjoy a life of dignity, free from the degradations of want, it is a country in which spiritual concerns are more important than the materialism and greed regarded as typical of industrial nations: ‘It would, in a word, be the home of a people living the life that God desires that man should live’.
This vision of Ireland stood in stark contrast to the Ireland that many of its citizens were accustomed to. High levels of poverty and under employment contributed to a continuous stream of emigration from the Irish country side. Inter-generational strife was not unknown as adult children waited to inherit the family farm. Disease too was rampant: Ireland continued to have some of the highest rates of TB in Europe. These rates only began to fall in the 1950s. However, the picture that de Valera painted, that Ireland which could be attained should the people of the island work together, was not intended to reflect the reality of Ireland in 1943. It aimed to provide a morale boost for the nation and to inspire the Irish people to work towards an ideal Ireland.
The rest of the speech continues to rally the Irish people in the pursuit of a brighter future. The memory of a glorious past is the next source of inspiration used to motivate the audience. De Valera recalls the Ireland of ‘saints and scholars’, the poets who are indicative of Ireland’s cultural greatness and the patriots who died so that Ireland might one day be free. He cites the founders of Young Ireland and of the Gaelic League who ‘inspired and moved the people of their day’. So too will this generation be moved and inspired to attain the future described in the opening paragraphs.

The Irish language and national identity

De Valera then moves to the central point of the speech: the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Gaelic League. Not surprisingly the language and its central importance to Irish national identity is the key point. He describes the language as the first of those ‘things of the mind’ which ‘mark us out as a distinct nation’. The language is ‘more than just a symbol, it is an essential part of our nationhood’, moulded by the history of the nation and providing a direct link to those ‘far off days’ where, even before the coming of Christianity and modern civilisation the Irish were a cultured and civilised people.
The final part of the speech provides us with the reason why it is so vital to preserve the language. It is because ‘the more we preserve and develop our individuality and our characteristics as a distinct nation, the more secure will our freedom and the more valuable our contribution to humanity when this war is over’. As in other speeches, both implicitly and explicitly the language is presented as that part of Irish identity without which a truly distinct identity cannot be guaranteed. Unless Ireland is truly independent, truly a sovereign nation, she will not be in a position to take her place among the nations of the world. This independence is more than political: it must also be cultural.
Other speeches delivered both before and after 1943 hold examples of de Valera’s notion of Ireland and its corresponding national identity. An early example comes from a St Patrick’s Day address delivered in the United States in 1920. It was constructed against the background of a tour with a dual purpose in mind: to raise funds for the independence cause in Ireland and to attain American recognition for the Irish republic. De Valera drew on antiquity to define Ireland’s mission in the world:

Once before our people gave their soul to a barbaric continent and led brute materialism to an understanding of higher things. It is still our mission ‘to show the might of moral beauty’, to teach mankind peace and happiness in keeping the law of love, doing to our neighbour what we would have our neighbour do to us. We are the spear-points of the hosts in political slavery—we can be the shafts of dawn for the despairing and the wretched everywhere.

Ireland’s gifts to humanity

Ireland’s gifts to humanity are the central theme of his speech at the opening of the Athlone Broadcasting Station in February 1933. It was Ireland’s first high powered broadcasting station which ‘will enable the world to hear the voice of one of the oldest and, in many respects, one of the greatest of the nations’. Ireland has much to offer the world: ‘Her gifts are the fruit of qualities of mind and heart, developed by centuries of eventful history’. This is the tone of the entire speech. These special qualities are allied to the national mission:

The Irish genius has always stressed spiritual and intellectual rather than material values. That is the characteristic that fits the Irish people in a special manner for the task, now a vital one, of helping to save western civilisation. The great material progress of recent time, coming in a world where false philosophies already reigned, has distorted men’s sense of proportion, the material has usurped the sovereignty that is the right of the spiritual.

The Irish language recurs as a theme throughout de Valera’s long career. He was sincere in his love for the language and his desire for it to be restored as the vernacular of Ireland. Perhaps his own feelings for the language blinded him to the reasons native speakers continued to abandon Irish in favour of English while government policy took, what were at times, draconian measures to promote Irish through the schools, for example. In his speeches de Valera continually exhorts the Irish people to use their Irish if they are able, and to encourage their children to use it so that the next generation will be the one to realise the goal of an Irish-speaking Ireland. For example, at the 1937 Fianna Fáil Árd Fheis he says:

We must get the people to recognise what the restoration of the language means for our nationality. The only way to hold our nation, and the only way the position I spoke of at Geneva will be effective before the world, is by securing our language as the language of the Irish people.

And again:

Davis said the language was a more secure protection than fortress or river. The best way to preserve the philosophy of life, to preserve the distinctive and spiritual and cultural life of the people is through the language. It is the best way to keep pure Irish tradition, and it is the best safeguard against what is happening today. Every Irish book is steeped in the faith and philosophy of our people, and if you want to preserve these things, there is no better way than by using such instruments as embody all those ideals. It is a task and it means sacrifice.

Ideas on language not new

Here it is clear that de Valera regards the Irish language as the most definite badge of identity of the Irish nation, not only differentiating the Irish from other nations, but also embodying the entire mind-set of the nation. This is not a new idea; it can be found in the eighteenth-century writings of Herder and Schleiermacher, for example. Here de Valera posits the view that ‘every language is a particular mode of thought, and what is cogitated in one language can never be repeated in the same way in another’. This was put into practice with compulsory tuition through Irish for certain classes and subjects in the schools.
Perhaps most strikingly is the no-punches-pulled remark further on: ‘There is no use of talking of Irish nationality if you talk of it in terms of the English language’. This leaves no doubt that explicit linguistic differentiation is required for a separate Irish identity. In 1939 the sentiments of this last remark are repeated when he says: ‘I would not tomorrow, for the sake of a united Ireland, give up the policy of trying to make this a really Irish Ireland’.
This is in the context of what are described as the two remaining national tasks: the unity of the island and the restoration of the Irish language. When seen in terms of the 1937 speech above, this statement is consistent—even if unity were to be achieved it would be meaningless with regard to Irish nationality should the language ideal be abandoned. The language as boundary is clearly enunciated in the following: ‘I believe that as long as the language remains you have a distinguishing characteristic of nationality which will enable the nation to persist. If you lose the language, the danger is that there would be absorption’, and again: ‘I believe that the restoration of the national language is the surest guarantee that this nation will continue to exist’.
In February 1949 de Valera made a speech to the William Butler Yeats Cumann of Fianna Fáil which was effectively a stock-take of achievements since 1916. He sums up the aims of the 1916 leaders, which were taken up by Fianna Fáil thus: ‘To make our nation once more a free nation and an Irish-speaking nation and thus to lay the foundations from which could be built a Gaelic national state within which the traditional distinctive qualities of our people might find adequate and just expression’. He then recalls the words of Davis, i.e. a nation without a language is but half a nation and goes on to say that ‘the restoration of the language ought to be regarded as the chief duty of the generation that has now arrived’.

The narcissism of trivial difference

The emphasis on the language was a combination of ‘standard’ nationalist thinking on the primacy of a distinctive national language, and the realisation of the inroads made by English culture in Ireland. Geographical proximity as well as economic and political power made Irish disentanglement from England extremely difficult. For this reason alone it is not surprising that visible elements of difference are considered of vital importance by nationalist leaders and the directors of the nation-building enterprise.
The past is the third major theme employed in de Valera’s speeches. It is intrinsically tied in to the language question as the language is seen as the direct link between the Irish nation of the twentieth century and that which preceded conquest. The past also provides an example of an Ireland which enjoyed a level of superiority over England. This is intricately linked to the Christian/ Catholic theme of Irish identity. Ireland was the land of saints and scholars at a time before the English emerged as a distinct people. ‘Because she was Christian, she was able to take the lead in Christianising and civilising the barbarian hoards that had overrun Britain and the west of Europe’. De Valera used this example of past glory to inspire the Irish people towards a future where the greatness of the past would be recreated. The theme of liberty also combines the use of the past to inspire with the theme of a historical experience that differentiates Ireland from England.
The identity proposed by de Valera consciously promoted those aspects that distanced Ireland from England. This is not unusual in neighbouring communities where there are many similarities. Freud terms the phenomenon ‘the narcissism of trivial difference’. In practice it means that minor differences are exaggerated to overshadow more obvious similarities that by their existence, undermine claims to separate status. In the Irish case the nation was described as rural, Catholic and Gaelic, in direct opposition to the urban, Protestant, English nation that once dominated it. In reality England’s dominance, or at least her influence, was not ‘cast out’ like the demon it was seen as with independence. At a structural and administrative level, the continuities are striking: the civil service, and educational structures, for example were left as found in 1922. The only significant change was the introduction of the Irish language as a requirement for the Civil Service and the introduction of compulsory Irish in schools.

Poverty as a national asset

At another level, this image of Ireland was accurate. Ireland was predominantly rural and Catholic, if not actually Irish-speaking. But the image projected was quite different from the reality experienced by most Irish people. Rural life was far from the spiritual idyll conjured up by de Valera in 1943. Indeed, he implies as much with the qualification that it is the Ireland that they would have, rather than the Ireland that was. In the Ireland that was, emigration, poor housing, both urban and rural, disease and poverty were not unknown. Similarly with the aspect of spirituality and the spiritual mission of the Irish in a world of rampant materialism. Obviously this theme takes up Irish Catholicism. This was probably the most distinguishing factor of Irish nationality, more important in practice than the Irish language, as it was practised by over 90 per cent of the population, whereas perhaps only 15 per cent could be regarded as fluent Irish speakers. It is true that Ireland was not as wealthy in terms of GNP, natural resources or manufacturing industry as Britain. This is not put down to failure on the government’s part, however. Rather, it is redefined as a national asset, indeed it is the basis for the national mission. Ireland has no need of such materialistic trappings as her resources are stronger and more enduring than these. Her resources are so enduring that they have survived over seven hundred years of persecution; they are found in the Ireland of the seventh, eighth and ninth centuries, and just as Irish missionaries saved European civilisation from the ravages of barbarism then, so too will modern Irish men and women rescue western civilisation from false philosophies. This type of moral superiority is recognised by Clifford Geertz as typical of nations that have emerged from the yoke of colonialism. They cannot compete with the former metropolitan powers at the level of production or living standards, so they redefine the standards of ‘greatness’.
Ireland’s self-image, chosen to show difference rather than suggest similarity with Britain, is influenced directly by the relationship with that island. Proximity and a history of cultural and political subordination to Britain ensured that Ireland would not emerge into independence without bearing the marks of this relationship. The love-hate nature of this relationship, recognised by Hyde in the 1890s, was crucial to ensuring a polemical approach to Irish identity creation and promotion. Admiration, assimilation, similarity—these were things that could not be admitted, more so precisely because they were facts of life. Thus an exaggerated sense of Irish distinctiveness, building on and extending extant features, was promoted and maintained, despite the discrepancies between the image and the reality as experienced by the very nation that it represented.
De Valera’s role in the creation of this image was crucial. This is partially due to his own longevity—he presided over the birth and growth of modern Ireland from 1916 to the new world of the 1970s. By the time of his death Ireland was moving away from the image he had worked hard to establish, but his legacy endured nonetheless. His vision is enshrined in the still extant constitution of 1937. We continue to promote his rural haven in an attempt to encourage tourists from the industrial heartlands of Europe and North America. It isn’t merely that de Valera’s Ireland has had its day and has passed away. Rather de Valera’s Ireland never really existed in the first place. A national image does not need to be real to be effective. It merely needs to offer a fixed image of self, a picture of what we like to imagine that self to be rather than what that self is. This is what de Valera offered the Irish people: an image of themselves that differentiated them from the English and allowed them to take pride in themselves as a people.

Michele Dowling is Leverhulme Research Fellow at the Centre for Social History, University of Warwick.

Further reading:

T. Brown, Ireland, a Social and Cultural History 1922-1985 (London 1985).

D.G. Boyce, Nationalism in Ireland (London 1991).

J. Hutchinson, The Dynamics of Cultural Nationalism (London 1987).

M. Moynihan, Speeches and Statements of Éamon de Valera (Dublin 1980).


Copyright © 2024 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568