This incisive and compelling biography from Ronan Fanning, who is Professor Emeritus of Modern History at UCD has been on the shelves since late last year (with no paperback in sight as yet.) However, as Easter 2016 approaches, the interest in this iconic figure who was born in 1882 will not wane, as de Valera’s role during Easter Week 1916 is looked at anew and his often controversial career is reviewed in various fora and conferences.
An action movie is hardly a starting point when it comes to discussion of the actual facts, but curiously there is no reference in the index to Neil Jordan’s fine film, Michael Collins. That dramatic work helped elevate the status in the popular consciousness of its eponymous subject somewhat to the detriment of the reputation of his one-time comrade in arms.
Historian Diarmaid Ferriter did refer to Michael Collins in his book, A Nation and Not a Rabble. “The film did much to promote the myth of Collins at the expense of others, most notably Éamon de Valera, and the film was almost cartoonish in its depiction of heroes and villains,” writes Ferriter. Whatever about the influence of a popular film, de Valera was certainly a divisive figure in a divisive era, the post-Civil War years, which last essentially throughout his 50 years in Irish public life, as Taoiseach and as President. But then movers and shakers are rarely not divisive.
The founder of Fianna Fáil had his fanatical supporters the length and breadth of the state and indeed in his native USA, but his rejection of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921 and the blame attached to him for the Civil War alienated a large swathe of the body politic.
Over three decades after the Civil War ended in 1922, the matter of shares in the Irish Press group led to further controversy, when TD Noel Browne laid charges of nepotism and corruption before him as Taoiseach. In 1958, the National Progressive Democrats founder moved a private member’s motion in the Dáil declaring that de Valera occupied "a position which could be reasonably regarded as interfering or being incompatible with the full and proper discharge by him of the duties of his office." The controversy had its beginnings 30 years earlier in 1927, when several million dollars worth of bonds were signed over to de Valera to set up The Irish Press.
In any case, the 1958 debate was adjourned and what Fanning calls a "squalid story" moved off the agenda when de Valera announced on January 14, 1959 that he was stepping down as Taoiseach. He was subsequently Uachtarán or President of Ireland for a period of 14 years until his death at 92 years of age in 1975.
Fanning casts a sober eye on the legacy, referring to a powerful but blinkered vision, while noting on the plus side how he did in effect persuade the majority of republican acitivists to accept democracy after the Civil War. De Valera’s Ireland, he rightly argues, is a phrase too often used perjoratively as a handy catch-phrase for social, economic and cultural backwardness. "Many historians and political scientists, preoccupied with social and economic history rather than with political history, focus less on his achievements than what he did not try to achieve," the historian perceptively observes.
The expert consensus - and one shared by the author himself - is that de Valera’s greatest years were between 1932 and 1948, years he was himself not much interested in exploring in hindsight. Ultimately, despite the flaws, Fanning considers the Long Fellow to have been a brilliant, clever diplomat , and "architect of the Irish state."