Academic journal article History Review

'Dev': The Career of Eamon De Valera: Phil Chapple Examines a Titanic and Controversial Figure in Modern Irish History

Academic journal article History Review

'Dev': The Career of Eamon De Valera: Phil Chapple Examines a Titanic and Controversial Figure in Modern Irish History

Article excerpt

Eamon de Valera was born in 1882 at a time when the conflicting interests of nationalism and unionism were sowing the seeds of conflict in Ireland. Nationalism itself was divided between those seeking Home Rule through constitutional change and a minority of radical, physical-force nationalists whose ultimate aim was a republic. In Easter week 1916, an attempted coup in Dublin by the latter, in the form of the Irish Volunteers and the socialist Citizen's army, was crushed by forces of the British crown. Over 500 people were killed in the week's fighting and 15 rebel leaders were executed. Amongst the Irish Volunteers was Eamon de Valera.

Although born in New York to an Irish mother and Spanish father, de Valera had been sent to live with his mother's family in rural Limerick. His subsequent upbringing in rural western Ireland had a lasting influence, so that throughout his life he was to espouse the virtues of the simple rural lifestyle. FoLlowing his education as a scholarship student at Blackrock College, Dublin, he studied mathematics, graduating in 1904. Four years later he joined the Gaelic League, an essentially cultural rather than political organisation whose purpose was to promote the Irish language and develop Gaelic culture and literature. Through his connections in the Gaelic League, not least his future wife, Sinead Flanagan, he developed a lifelong affinity with the Gaelic language. He also came into contact with individuals who introduced him to the idea of physical force as an agent of political change. For de Valera, this meant joining the Irish Volunteers in 1913. By 1916, he was given command of a battalion which was to play a significant role in the Easter rebellion. The removal of British authority in Ireland and the creation of a Gaelic, Irish republic had become his life's work.

Revolutionary

The emergence of de Valera as a republican hero is inextricably linked to the aftermath of the Easter Rising, and in particular the draconian policy of courts-martial and executions implemented by the British military authorities in Dublin between 3 and 12 May 1916. The upper tier of the republican movement had been wiped out, so that de Valera became, by default, the senior surviving figure of the revolutionary wing of Irish republicanism. He had narrowly escaped execution when his death penalty, along with those of dozens of other 'rebels', was commuted to life imprisonment. His record as commandant of the Volunteers battalion that probably inflicted more casualties that any other on the British during Easter Week, and that was the last to surrender, conferred upon him the respect of his peers. Thus he was able to take on the role as unofficial leader of the remnants of the Volunteers from prison cells in a succession of English gaols.

Following a general amnesty that saw the release of the Easter 'rebels' in late 1916 and 1917, de Valera returned to Ireland where he was to take up the mantle of political leader. He spearheaded the remarkable progress of the republican cause in 1917-21. Within a very short time he had imposed his own authority, marginalising the role of republican women who had held the movement together whilst up to 2,000 men had been held at Frongoch prison camp in Wales. Perhaps, though, his most important achievement in this period was to unite the many strands of republicanism under the banner of Sinn Fein. By adopting this as the name of the new political party and becoming its President in October 1917, he set a course which saw republicanism become the dominant influence in Irish politics. Thus moderate republicans opposed to the use of violence found themselves united in the cause of an independent republic with physical-force republicans. A succession of byelection victories, including de Valera's own at East Clare in July 1917, created the momentum which enabled Sinn Fein to destroy the Irish Parliamentary Party at the General Election of December 1918. …

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