Eamon de Valera (1882-1975)
There are different opinions about the impact of Eamon de Valera on Ireland, some quite negative. For example, author Frank McCourt characterized him as a “drag” on Ireland’s progress in the twentieth century. However, one thing about de Valera is indisputable: He dedicated his life to freedom for and betterment of his countrymen, which included his risking his life and spending time in prison. Though there might have been individual acts of other Irish that were greater than anything de Valera ever did, his impact on the country was massive, and he richly deserves the sobriquet “Father of Modern Ireland.”
De Valera came, as it were, a long way from Brooklyn, New York, where he was born on October 14, 1882. His given name was Edward, but he changed to the Irish equivalent, Eamon. If he had stresses throughout his adult life, he had stresses when he was young too.
Eamon’s Irish born mother, Catherine, was not yet married when she emigrated-or fled- from Ireland in the 1870s. At the time, Ireland was experiencing a partial failure of the potato crop, and anyone who had heard about or experienced the Great Famine was not about to endure the same thing again. Arriving in New York, she became a domestic servant, or “Brigid,” as such servants were called, to a French family named Giraud. The well-off Girauds employed for their children a music instructor name Vivion de Valera, who was Spanish, and it wasn’t long before he and Catherine were involved, then married.
The marriage was haunted by Vivion’s illness. He was advised by his doctors to go to Denver, which he did, but the change didn’t help. In 1885 he died.
This story has not been confirmed; in fact, Vivion de Valera may have deserted Catherine and Edward. One writer who checked for the marital records of Catherine and Vivion could find none. All his life, Eamon heard the charge that he was illegitimate.
Following his father’s death, Catherine treated him more like a problem than a loved one. She deposited him in the home of a friend, Catherine Doyle. From that time on, all he remembered of his mother were the occasional visits of a woman dressed in black.
When he was two years old, his mother sent him to live in Ireland with his grandmother, and it was there that he was later influenced by a Land League priest named Eugene Sheehy, from whom, he said, he learned patriotism.
Ultimately, Catherine was remarried, to an Englishman named Charles Wheelwright, and settled in Rochester, New York. Her relationship with Eamon was not unfriendly, but he lived in Ireland and she in the United States.
De Valera excelled in school, being particularly skilled in mathematics, and after a while he won a variety of scholarships and awards. In 1903 he was made a professor of mathematics at Rockwell College, County Tipperary.
In 1908, he joined the Ard-Charaobh of the Gaelic League, the beginning of what biographer Henry Boylan said was “a lifelong devotion to the Irish.” It was there that he met an instructor four years his senior, Sinead Flanagan, whom he would ultimately marry.
In the early 1900s, a strong feeling of nationalism had developed in Ireland, and when de Valera attended a public meeting in Dublin in 1913, he was fired up by it. He became a captain in a volunteer force, and plans were made for a rising.
When the rising-the famous Easter Rising- began on April 24, 1916,
de Valera commanded one of the forces covering the southeastern approaches to the city. When the rising was put down he was arrested, court martialed and sentenced to death. (It has been said that he was saved from execution because of hi American birth, but there is no proof of this. His mother also came back and appealed for his life.) Perhaps the reason he was not executed was that a general revulsion of killings by both British and Irish citizens had developed.
Following his release in 1917, de Valera began a lifelong career in Irish politics. For his first position, he was appointed president of Sinn Fein, Arthur Griffith having stepped aside.
For the next fifty years, until his retirement in June 1973, de Valera was intimately involved in Irish politics, his career going from the heights as leader of the country to the depths, when he took part in the civil war triggered by the Treaty of 1921, “the war of the brothers,” and was forced to witness and take part in the deaths of men whom he had fought beside against the British.
De Valera was a master politician, and one of his greatest feats was keeping Ireland neutral during World War II, when both the Allies and the Axis were pressuring Ireland to join them.
One action that has been roundly criticized is the economic war he precipitated between Ireland and England, which involved each county’s barring the importation of the other’s products. It caused great hardship. But he was also a man who was three times premier and founder of Fianna Fail (the political party whose name means “armed men of Ireland”) and president of Ireland from 1959 to 1973.
The list of honors bestowed on de Valera is long, and when he was buried at Glasnevin Cemetery after a state funeral, the greatness of the man could still not diminish a sad and central fact: The ending of partition-for which he had fought so hard for so any years, the central goal of his life- had eluded him.
The future is not set,
there is no fate but
what we make for ourselves