In December 1918 Éamon de Valera was one of the most prominent men in Ireland – and one of the most unknown. He had been in the public eye for just two and a half years, and yet he was about to lead his party to a sweeping electoral victory.

De Valera was born in October 1882 in New York, the son of an Irish mother and a Spanish father. In 1885, aged just two and a half, he was sent to Ireland by his mother after the reported death of his father. He grew up in Bruree, County Limerick, in the labourer’s cottage of his grandmother, Elizabeth Coll; after her death, he was raised by his Uncle Pat.

Despite the family’s modest means, de Valera convinced his uncle to send him to secondary school at Charleville CBS, which was unusual for someone of his background. Through determination and natural ability, de Valera managed to win a scholarship to the prestigious Blackrock College in Dublin.

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From the Archives: Eamon Devalera on his 80th Birthday

With continued success at exams, and by teaching, de Valera managed to put himself through school and college to BA level, though he was disappointed to receive only a pass degree. This made it more difficult to find a job, though he was eventually taken on to teach maths to student teachers at Carysfort College in Blackrock.

At around the same time, he developed an interest in Irish, joining the Gaelic League, changing his name from Edward to Éamon, and meeting his future wife, Sinéad Flanagan, who taught him Irish. They married in 1910, and for the next 65 years Sinéad would look after the domestic side of their lives while de Valera increasingly devoted himself to politics.

By the time he turned 30, in 1912, he was a respectable member of the middle class – quite a distance from Bruree, or from New York; but he remained an obscure figure, with no indication that he would ever become known outside a fairly small circle.

All that changed with the Home Rule crisis, and the formation of the Irish Volunteers. De Valera joined the new movement on the night it was formed, in the Rotunda in November 1913. Due to hard work, diligence, and a willingness to take on tasks scorned by others, he rose quickly through the ranks, eventually becoming Adjutant of the Dublin Brigade, and Commandant of the 3rd Battalion.

He commanded the garrison at Boland’s Bakery during Easter Week, a role which first brought him to public attention. Good luck saved him from the firing squad: by the time he was court-martialled and sentenced to death, public opinion had swung against the executions, and his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

In prison, he became the acknowledged leader of the Irish convicts, and when they were released in the middle of 1917, he was a natural choice as candidate in the East Clare by-election. His victory there convinced him of the potential of politics, and he went on to secure the leadership of Sinn Féin at an Ard Fheis in October 1917.

He was acceptable to all sides, thanks to his 1916 record and his pragmatic approach to politics, and he further cemented his position with his leadership of the campaign against conscription.

However, he was to play little direct role in his party’s stunning victory in the 1918 general election, as he was arrested, along with most of the Sinn Fein leadership, on trumped up charges of colluding with the Germans.

De Valera believed that the propaganda effect of the arrests would far outweigh any practical contribution he could make to the campaign. The results suggest he was correct.

David McCullagh is the author of a two-part biography of Eamon de Valera. De Valera Vol. II Rule: 1932-1975 was published Gill Books this year.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ