It is an extraordinary story that spans 50 years and concerns the relations between two countries whose bitter rivalry spans centuries. It is also the story of how such enmity can be overcome. This is the tale of the life-long friendship which developed between Éamon de Valera, and the British officer who arrested him in the Easter Rising of 1916.
Captain Edo John Hitzen (1886 – 1979) was the officer who took the surrender of Commandant Éamon de Valéra on Grand Canal Street in Dublin. Twenty-two years later, he made contact with de Valera, via the British Prime Minister, offering the return of Dev’s revolutionary binoculars. In 1967, he even became an honorary member of the Dublin Brigade of the old IRA.
The story of the friendship between Captain Hitzen and Éamon de Valera is perhaps one of the more astonishing tales to emerge from the post-1916 and Irish War of Independence years. And now the papers and memorabilia that arose from that relationship have been made available for loan to Éamon Ó Cuív, the Fianna Fail TD and grandson of Éamon de Valera. The loan was made by the grand-niece of the Captain, Anne Hearsey, and an exhibition of the material will be shown at Ireland’s National Ploughing Championships, from September 22 to 24.
Unlike the other leaders of the 1916 Rising, Éamon de Valera was spared execution, although he was one of the instigators of the rebellion. More of a desk-bound planner than a physical force activist, de Valera was nevertheless given command of Boland’s Mills outpost in Ringsend – now the location for Dublin’s booming Silicon Docks.
The 1916 Rising was put down after four days and de Valera’s outpost was one of the last to surrender, despite coming under artillery attack. Like the other ringleaders, he was sentenced to death. However, the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, partly due to a delay in moving him to Richmond Barracks where the other leaders were but also partly due to his American citizenship. De Valera was born in New York in 1882 to an Irish mother and a Spanish father.
De Valera would subsequently become an iconic figure in Irish nationalism and would go on to serve long terms both as Taoiseach and then as President. However, he was also a controversial figure, not least for his conservative policies and his pursuit of a fruitless ‘economic war’ with the UK over land annuities – the hated payments made to the now long-gone Anglo-Irish landlords.
It was during this period that Captain Hitzen, in an act of public spirit, wrote to the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain with an offer to return to de Valera the field glasses he had taken from him on his 1916 surrender. Chamberlain was about to meet de Valera to hand back the Irish ports, a conciliatory gesture the British would bitterly regret within just a year when they found themselves at war with Hitler’s Germany.
The Prime Minister was pleased with the offer and wrote to the Captain, “It has given me pleasure to take advantage of your suggestion and this afternoon, at the conclusion of signature of the Agreements between the Governments of the United Kingdom and Eire, I handed the glasses to Mr. de Valera, who expressed his gratification at receiving them back. I should like to thank you for the public spirited way in which you came forward with your generous offer.”
On notepaper from the Piccadilly Hotel in London, the pleasantly surprised de Valera wrote to Captain Hitzen thanking him for, “your kind thought in sending them to your Prime Minister for presentation to me on this occasion.”
In 1941, the Daily Sketch newspaper in Britain, aware of contact between the two unlikely correspondents, wrote to Captain Hitzen urging him to add his name to a public request from Britain for de Valera to abandon his policy of Irish neutrality in World War Two and let the UK use the Irish ports it had returned in 1938, at the meeting at which Chamberlain returned the binoculars.
The Daily Sketch editor suggested that the request should come “'from one, who at one time, had the Irish leader at his mercy  but who later made an excellent gesture which earned the approval of the British Premier, and who now makes an earnest appeal to let bygones be bygones and give Britain the aid she needs.”
However, Captain Hitzen declined to become involved in such a request and continued his friendship with de Valera.
On Saturday April 3, 1948, Captain Hitzen, his wife, and daughter, were the guests of E and M Companies of the 3re Battalion, Dublin Brigade of the Old IRA and witnessed the presenting of service certificates to former Company members. On that occasion, Captain Hitzen even returned the Flag of Truce under which de Valera had surrendered the Boland’s Mill garrison in 1916.
In 1966, on the 50th Anniversary of the Easter Rising, Captain Hitzen was a special guest, at the unveiling of a commemorative plaque by President de Valera, at Boland’s Bakery. Mr P. G. Wood of Boland’s wrote, “The President’s A. D. C. Col. Seán Brennan informed me that the President is most pleased with the wonderful news that he will be able to meet you again.”
In June 1967, Captain Hitzen even received a letter, which stated that he had been elected an Honorary Member of D Company, 3rd Battalion, Dublin Brigade of the Old IRA. and he duly received a certificate of his membership. It was an extraordinary development!
Captain Hitzen died in 1979, four years after de Valera himself, but the story of the long distance friendship between the two former combatants is one of the more unusual and unknown tales to come out of the 1916 Rising. In the run up to next year’s centenary, it is also a tale with a strong contemporary resonance in terms of the reconciliation made between old enemies and an example of moving on in an atmosphere of respect and peace.