Winston Churchill, Eamon de Valera and Michael Collins. WikiCommons

Between the years 1874 and 1955 the political names that brought Ireland to nationhood are legendary: Charles Stewart Parnell, Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera, all icons on a separate, higher, even holy, level. But there is another name, an English one at that, intimately involved in the internecine Irish politics of the time. That name is Churchill.

We start in 1874 because that is the birth year of one Winston Spencer Churchill, son of American Jennie Jerome and Lord Randolph Churchill. By age two he knew the grounds at the Viceregal Lodge (now Áras an Uachtaráin, the residence of the Irish President) in Dublin’s Phoenix Park because his grandfather, John Churchill, the seventh Duke of Marlborough, was the Lord Lieutenant/Viceroy of Ireland, appointed by Disraeli. (Winston’s father was his secretary.)

The best way to describe Winston and Randolph’s political attitude towards Ireland would be “schizophrenic.” Randolph is famous for the inflammatory, sectarian-baiting quote “Ulster will fight, and Ulster will be right” and Winston is the man, as Secretary of State for War in Lloyd George’s government, who was responsible for introducing the Auxiliaries and Black and Tans into Ireland in 1920.

The Black and Tans.

The Black and Tans.

Read more: Little known Irish facts: Churchill and Pope Francis both lived in Dublin

However, as Paul Bew documents in his book "Churchill and Ireland" (Oxford University Press), both were supporters of historic Irish causes: Randolph supported the Land League movement of the 1870s and was a champion of Irish educational reform, and Winston was a staunch defender of the Irish Free State after its birth in 1922—although he had second thoughts about Éire with the outbreak of World War II.

Bew is a professor of Irish Politics at Queens University, Belfast, and a crossbench peer in the House of Lords. In the past he has served as an advisor to David Trimble. Bew, clearly a fan of Churchill, makes some interesting points.

Churchill once said: “We have always found the Irish a bit odd. They refuse to be English.” Yet during the War of Independence and during World War II Churchill wanted the Irish to “act English,” something anathema to the Irish character.

IrishCentral asked Bew if he could explain this dichotomy on the part of Churchill: “I think Churchill was slow to see the collapse of Redmondite Ireland," he replied, "which he knew and admired, and much of which was the consequence of World War I.”

Indeed, John Redmond, the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, so misjudged the events of 1916 that by 1919 he was dead, a failure, and the IPP was extinct.

John Redmond caused an enourmous split in the Irish Volunteers with his encouragement to fight with the British during WWI to gain Home Rule for Ireland.

John Redmond caused an enourmous split in the Irish Volunteers with his encouragement to fight with the British during WWI to gain Home Rule for Ireland.

Winston Churchill’s imprint is first really felt in Ireland and on the Irish psyche in Gallipoli in 1915 when at Suvla Bay half of the 17,000 strong Irish Division was killed. It was Churchill’s idea, his folly, and it was an utter disaster that drove him from the government.

Although he had nothing to do with 1916 and its aftermath of executions, he was back in Lloyd George’s government as the War of Independence dragged on and, like his contemporary foes Edward Carson and Sir Henry Wilson, was strongly in favor of introducing conscription to Ireland—something that, ironically, united north and south against Britain.

At the height of the revolution he was outraged by the guerrilla tactics of Michael Collins and the IRA. After the killings of a spy named Jameson and the very dangerous bank examiner Alan Bell in Dublin by Collins’ Active Service Unit known as “The Squad” (and more colorfully as The Twelve Apostles) Churchill wrote to his wife, Clementine: “Really getting very serious …What a diabolical streak [the Irish] have in their character! I expect it is that treacherous, assassinating, conspiring trait which has done them in in bygone ages of history and prevented them from being a great responsible nation with stability and prosperity. It is shocking that we have not been able to bring the murderers to justice.”

The Cairo Gang, a group of British intelligence agents who were sent to Dublin during the Irish War of Independence to conduct intelligence operations and who were killed by Collins' Squad on Bloody Sunday.

The Cairo Gang, a group of British intelligence agents who were sent to Dublin during the Irish War of Independence to conduct intelligence operations and who were killed by Collins' Squad on Bloody Sunday.

Clementine was well aware of her husband’s sanguinary instincts and she tried to temper him. “Do my darling,” she wrote him, “use your influence now for some sort of moderation or at any rate justice in Ireland. Put yourself in the place of the Irish. If you were ever leader you would not be cowed by severity and certainly not my reprisals which fall like the rain from Heaven upon the Just and the Unjust. It always makes me unhappy and disappointed when I see you inclined to take for granted that the rough, iron-fisted ‘Hunnish’ way will prevail.” Using the word “Hun”—the despised Germans of the Great War—shows that Clementine knew how to stick the needle in her husband to get his attention. She went on to say “You know that if the situation was reversed your heart would be with the rebels.”

It wouldn’t be until the fall of 1921 when Churchill met Collins and they worked on the Treaty that Churchill began to change his feelings towards Ireland. Although some historians disagree, there seemed to be a genuine friendship between Collins and Churchill. “Churchill,” says Bew, “identified with the young Collins.”

The backgrounds of Churchill and Collins were extremely different but once at the negotiating tabel it is rumored they became friends.

The backgrounds of Churchill and Collins were extremely different but once at the negotiating tabel it is rumored they became friends.

Irish Independent columnist Mary Kenny wrote a wonderful play called "Allegiances" about an evening they spent together, based on a reminiscence by Churchill: “He [Collins] was in his most difficult mood, full of reproaches and defiances, and it was very easy for everyone to lose his temper. ‘You hunted me day and night!’ he exclaimed. ‘You put a price on my head!’ ‘Wait a minute,’ I said. ‘You are not the only one.' And I took from my wall the framed copy of the reward offered for my recapture by the Boers. ‘At any rate it was a good price—£5,000. Look at me—£25 dead or alive. How would you like that?’” The tension was broken and the two of them spent the rest of the night drinking. Weeks later, there was the Treaty. (One wonders what would have happened if the acetic de Valera, instead of Collins, had gone to London to negotiate the Treaty? Considering how de Valera was water to Churchill’s oil, the Union Jack might still be flying over the GPO today!)

After the Treaty was signed, Churchill was put in charge of the Irish transition from colony to nation. He became a staunch supporter of the new Free State. He backed Collins—and sometimes bullied him—but he helped bring the new nation to fruition.

One of the most interesting things about Bew’s book was Churchill’s continuous interest in having a united Ireland, where both the Nationalists and Unionists would agree on a commitment. “His ideal,” says Bew, “provided a link to England and based on consent in the end the commonwealth would have been enough.”

Churchill’s biggest battle with Ireland and de Valera was over Ireland’s neutrality during the “Emergency,” which outside of Ireland was known as World War II.

“I think he regarded Irish neutrality,” says Bew, “as a betrayal of the best instincts of the Irish—bravery and generosity.” The Anglo-Irish Treaty that created the Irish Free State in 1921 allowed Britain to retain control of three deep water ports: Cobh (formerly Queenstown) and Berehaven (both in Cork) and Lough Swilly in Donegal. In 1938, Neville Chamberlain’s government returned these ports to Éire as part of the treaty that settled the Anglo-Irish Trade War.

Churchill was an instant critic and considered the treaty folly on the part of Britain. This feeling was even more firmly entrenched when he became First Lord of the Admiralty. “On the British side,” says Bew, “it was believed that there was an understanding that in the event of a crisis they would have use of the ports. [U.S. Ambassador] Joe Kennedy refers to this belief on the Chamberlain side even as he dismisses it.”

Read more: How Michael Collins helped save Winston Churchill’s career

Ireland's war: Life during the Emergency

Ireland's war: Life during the Emergency

But Britain did not regain access to the ports and it stuck in Churchill’s craw. England was under tremendous pressure because the U.S. was not yet in the war and German U-boats were putting a stranglehold on the island nation. But de Valera stood firm.

On the evening of December 7, 1941 a drunk Churchill sent his famous “A Nation Once Again” telegram to de Valera (“Now is your chance, now or never, A Nation Once Again”), perhaps trying to bait or tempt the Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister). It drew zero response from Dev. (One speculates that if Michael Collins had been in charge Churchill probably would have a visitor at #10 Downing Street early the next morning doing his Monty Hall imitation: “Let’s make a deal!”)

Bew is critical of Ireland in World War II for not only its neutrality but because there was a German Legation on Northumberland Road in Dublin. Bew sees insidious actions on the part of these Dublin Germans, and blames de Valera.

However, Dev’s “Emergency” was also, perhaps, one of the high points of his tenure. When the British bombed Belfast he sent the Dublin Fire Brigade to help put out the flames. He reminded the Germans that the northern six counties, under the Irish Constitution, were a de facto part of the Irish state, thus stopping the bombing. The Special Branch kept a close eye on the German legation and clamped down on all IRA activities that might favor Nazi Germany. The Irish government also returned downed Allied flyers while detaining German ones. There were also contingency plans in place in the event of a German invasion of Ireland.

Ireland, in essence, was neutral during World War II—on the side of the Allies. (Bew also supplies an interesting list of Anglo-Irish points of cooperation during the war: “A secret memorandum of the Irish Department of External Affairs, dated May 1941, detailed thirteen areas of cooperation with Britain. They included information on transport and military facilities in Ireland, free air space for British planes, broadcasting facilities, collection of and passing-on information, a coast watch service, routing of official German and Italian communications through Britain, internment of spies, and blacking-out of areas at British request. Ireland also provided much food for Britain.”)

Probably the blackest mark on de Valera’s handling of Ireland during World War II came at the very end of the war. For some unknown, bizarre reason de Valera visited the German Legation to express his condolences on the death of Adolph Hitler. (He did not extend the same sympathies three weeks earlier upon the death of President Roosevelt.)

Bew looks at the port issue solely from the viewpoint of the British. The Irish government received the ports back in a treaty that was duly approved by both governments. The British could have invaded Ireland to regain the ports, but wouldn’t that make them look like Germany trampling over small nations?

From de Valera’s view, the ports were Irish territory and why should they allow the British access? Wasn’t Britain the country that:

  1. Occupied Ireland for 700 years
  2. Persecuted Catholics in their own country
  3. Nearly cleared Catholics from the island with a famine
  4. Imposed punitive taxes on a poverty-stricken country
  5. Brutalized the Irish during the War of Independence with the Black and Tans
  6. And, on a personal note, condemned one Commandant Eamon de Valera to death in 1916

The appearance of de Valera at the German Legation was the last straw for Churchill. After VE-Day was declared Churchill went on the radio and directed venom at de Valera and the Irish:

“This was, indeed, a deadly moment in our life and had it not been for the loyalty and friendship of Northern Ireland, we should have been forced to come to close quarters with Mr. de Valera, or perish forever from the earth. However, with a restraint and poise to which I venture to say history will find few parallels, His Majesty’s government never laid a hand upon them, though at times it would have been quite easy and natural. We left the de Valera government to frolic with the Germans and later with the Japanese representatives to their hearts’ content.”

A picture of De Valera taken while he served as Irish President.

A picture of De Valera taken while he served as Irish President.

Churchill’s speech was met with disbelief in Ireland and de Valera was forced to respond: “Mr. Churchill is fiercely proud of his nation’s perseverance against heavy odds. But we in this island are still prouder of our people’s perseverance for freedom through all the centuries … I regret that it is not to this nobler purpose that Mr. Churchill is lending his hand, rather than, by the abuse of a people who have done him no wrong, trying to find a crisis like the present, excuse for continuing the mutilation of our country.”

Bew sums up the whole kerfuffle succinctly: “For Churchill, the greatest error was to indulge in the emotions of revenge and spite. Post-conflict he was soon to go out of his way to send warm messages to Dublin.”

After the war the two old warriors would be voted out of office, but by 1953 they were both back running their respective governments. They finally met face-to-face for the first time at 10 Downing Street (for the record, these two old antagonists were aged 79 and 71, de Valera being the junior partner). At the meeting Dev told Churchill that he would not have taken Éire out of the commonwealth in 1949 (the government of John Costello did) and then spoke of the north: “I spoke first of a possible unification of the country. To this he replied that they could never put out the people of the Six Counties, so long as they wished to remain with them.”

When looking at the framework of the Good Friday Agreement one see the hand of Churchill in the settlement. The Republic and the Northern Ireland can unite—when they are ready to unite. “I think,” says Bew, “that Churchill's emphasis on consent and fair play for Northern Catholics and north/south cooperation is in the Craig/Collins pacts of 1922 and the core of the Good Friday Agreement.”

Was the work of Churchill to be seen in the Good Friday Agreement? Pictured: Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, George Mitchell, and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair when the agreement was signed.

Was the work of Churchill to be seen in the Good Friday Agreement? Pictured: Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, George Mitchell, and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair when the agreement was signed.

Maybe someday, when the time is perfect, the ghost of Winston Churchill will sing like he sang on December 7, 1941—A Nation Once Again!

Dermot McEvoy is the author of the "The 13th Apostle: A Novel of a Dublin Family", "Michael Collins, and the Irish Uprising" and "Irish Miscellany" (Skyhorse Publishing). He may be reached at [email protected] Follow him at www.dermotmcevoy.com. Follow The 13th Apostle on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/13thApostleMcEvoy/.