Editor’s note: Éamon de Valera, the Irish statesman and political leader, was born on this day, October 14, 1882, in New York City, to an Irish mother and Basque father. Happy Birthday, Mr de Valera!
I was visiting my first cousin Jerry Bartley in Dublin in June 1975 when he suggested that I might want to attend a gathering of the John McCormack Society at the Gresham Hotel in O’Connell Street. I’ve never been a fan of the great tenor (he can be seen sometimes on Turner Classic Movies in "Song o’ My Heart"), so I gently declined. “Too bad,” said Jerry, “I thought you might want to meet the President.”
Back then, the only “President” that registered in Ireland was the Long Fellow, Eamon de Valera, who had either been Taoiseach or President of Ireland, it seemed, ever since there had been an Irish state. Jerry knew my keen interest in Irish revolutionary history and he was right—this was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. I got to the auditorium in the Gresham and wisely took a seat on the aisle.
At the intermission, de Valera’s aide announced that the President wasn’t feeling well and that he was going to leave. What happened next has stuck in my brain ever since. As he walked down the aisle he extended both of his hands to the side—not unlike the Virgin Mary atop the globe with serpent underfoot—and allowed people to touch him. As he came to me I took his hand and said, “How are you, Mr. President?” He mutely nodded to me and moved on. Even at 92, he had an imposing physical presence—he towered over me—which must have made him an outsized figure to friend and foe alike. Just two months after our brief meeting he was dead.
What remains with me to this day is de Valera’s exit. It was the exit of a master politician, a man who knew his constituency and understood his place in history. Basically, he understood that he was a living symbol of Ireland’s struggle for independence.
At this time Michael Collins had been dead for 53 years and was only beginning to reemerge as a national hero. Margery Forester’s biography "Michael Collins: The Lost Leader" had just been published and slowly Collins—who had been almost airbrushed out of Irish history by de Valera and his party in much the same way the Kremlin politburo under Stalin removed undesirables from official photos—was coming back to life, perhaps even bigger and more colorful than he ever was.
But de Valera’s handshake reminded me that what he really was—a politician. In comparison Collins was an elite revolutionary first, then a politician. Conversely, de Valera was a politician first, then a revolutionary who, after 1916, only had a distant relationship with what the salaciousness of urban guerrilla warfare—as designed by Michael Collins in his absence—was really like.
De Valera and “The Emergency”
As someone who has written two novels about Collins—"The 13th Apostle" and "Terrible Angel"—I wanted to know what made de Valera tick. Unlike other Collins loyalists, I do not find fault with everything Dev did while in office. I think some of the things he did in separating the Irish Free State from British hegemony were called for, including the revamping of the government in 1937.
Many find his neutrality during Ireland’s “Emergency” (everywhere else known as World War II) hard to fathom. I don’t. The British had been lining up Irish revolutionaries for centuries and shooting them. De Valera had been condemned to death in 1916 and was only reprieved by his natural born American citizenship. He had every right to hold a grudge against the British—a very Irish trait! Although “neutral” during the war, de Valera did come to the aid of Belfast when it was bombed (by sending the Dublin Fire Brigade) and he did remind Nazi Germany that Northern Ireland, under the Irish constitution, was a de facto part of the Irish Free State, thus stopping the bombing.
He returned Allied fliers downed in Ireland while interning German ones. He also kept a close eye on the German diplomatic delegation to make sure they were not plotting espionage from Ireland. The one giant stain on this neutral policy in favor of the Allies was an odd one—he traveled to the German legation on Northumberland Road to express his condolences on the death of Adolf Hitler. Oddly enough, he did not extend the same courtesy for President Roosevelt, who had died three weeks earlier.
His biggest political fault may have been his narcissism—he would not leave. After the war he remained on as either Taoiseach or leader of his party until 1959, blocking younger members, including Seán Lemass, who, finally, became Taoiseach in 1959 at the age of 60 (they had to pack de Valera off to Áras an Uachtaráin as the new president to get him out of the Fianna Fáil leadership).
The Irish Machiavelli
But as a student of Collins, the three things that disturb me most about de Valera are his dealings with Collins between 1919 and 1922. The first Dáil met at the Mansion House in Dublin on January 21, 1919. At that meeting de Valera was recorded as “fé ghlas ag Gallaibh”—“imprisoned by the foreign enemy.” Michael Collins was not there that day either. He was in England planning de Valera’s escape from Lincoln Gaol, which he pulled off on February 4, 1919. Back in Dublin (the embarrassed British did not pursue him at this time) Dev was elected Príomh Aire (First Minister or Prime Minister) of the Dáil.
De Valera spent an inordinate amount of time in prison during the War of Independence (in 1918 he ignored Collins’ warning and allowed himself to be arrested by the British thus landing in Lincoln Gaol). While in prison he apparently came under the influence of Niccolò Machiavelli’s "The Prince," which might be called a handbook for the ruthless passive-aggressive politician.
The Random House College Dictionary defines Machiavellian “as being or acting in accordance with the principles of government analyzed in Machiavelli’s treatise, 'The Prince' (1513), in which political expediency is placed above morality; characterized by unscrupulous cunning, deception or dishonesty.” The only thing missing in this dictionary definition is a picture of Richard Nixon, Machiavelli’s bastard love child.
According to de Valera’s highly-prejudiced (in favor of Collins) biographer Tim Pat Coogan, Dev once said to Richard Mulcahy, Chief of Staff of the IRA, who was very close to Collins, “You are a young man going in for politics. I will give you two pieces of advice—study economics and read 'The Prince.'” Mulcahy subsequently did read the book but found it “a handbook for teddy-boys. A way for exerting gangsterism on a part of Italy.”
The First Abdication—The Star-Spangled Retreat
I often refer to de Valera’s “Abdications.” The first occurred on May 1919 when he left Ireland for America, not to return for 20 months. At this point, the war was beginning to heat up as the IRA began to confront the British and Collins’ Squad (“The Twelve Apostles”) was on the verge of putting the heat on the “G-Men,” the intelligence agents of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). I cannot think of similar situations where a revolutionary leader left his country voluntarily during wartime. It’s as if George Washington had said in 1776: “I’ll see you guys in a couple of years.”
Other revolutionaries may have been deported or forced to flee, but de Valera did this on his own, supposedly to bring Ireland’s message to the world and raise money for the cause. While abroad, de Valera’s vacuum would be more than ably filled by the Minister for Finance, Michael Collins.
During this period (May 1919-December 1920) the war was essentially won by Collins and his men. Collins once famously said “Whoever controls Dublin controls Ireland” and he proved this true by terrorizing the British so much that they introduced the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries to control the Irish population. The final blow was on Bloody Sunday, November 21, 1920, when the Squad assassinated 14 British intelligence officers, terminating much of the British control of Dublin, and thus Ireland.
While in America de Valera’s deviousness manifested itself in the chasms he caused among the American Fenians. John Devoy, leader of Clan na Gael, came to despise him and his Machiavellian ways. Terry Golway in his biography of Devoy wrote: “Devoy would later write that had it been up to him, he’d have had de Valera shot rather than waste the government’s time and money with a mere prison sentence.”
De Valera Returns from America
On December 23, 1920—one month and two days after Bloody Sunday—de Valera arrived back in Dublin. He was greeted by Tom Cullen and Batt O’Connor, two of Collins’ closest friends, at the boat. De Valera asked how things were going. “Great,” gushed Cullen. “The Big Fellow is leading us and everything is going marvelous.”
“Big Fellow,” de Valera huffed, “We’ll see who’s the Big Fellow!” It was apparent that Eamon de Valera did not return to Ireland to play second fiddle to Michael Collins.
It was during this period (December 1920-July 1921) that the Irish and English tried to figure out how to get out of the quagmire that had become Ireland. De Valera quickly downsized Collins with the help of Cathal Brugha and Austin Stack. Collins’ stark tongue and brutal efficiency had been felt by both of them during de Valera’s absence. Collins had shamelessly poached Brugha’s portfolio as the Minister for Defence and had mocked Stack’s work at Home Affairs. Now it was payback time.
Collins and de Valera also differed on how the war was to proceed. Soon after he returned from America de Valera told Mulcahy “You are going too fast. This odd shooting of a policeman here and there is having a very bad effect, from the propaganda point of view, on us in America. What we want is, one good battle about once a month with about 500 men on each side.”
Collins was incensed. While he and his men had put their lives on the line every day, sleeping in a different bed every night, this is the thanks he got from someone who had been living it up at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City for the past two years.
Subsequently, De Valera finally got his “one good battle.” Dev decided to burn down the Customs House in May 1921. Collins was against it and tried to protect his men and his Squad from participating in it as much as he could. It was obvious that de Valera didn’t understand guerrilla warfare. The Customs House burned, but over 100 volunteers were apprehended. Collins knew his army was close to elimination.
Ironically, the British misjudged their victory. They did not know that they had delivered a near fatal death blow to the Dublin IRA and now had them on the ropes. They wrongly concluded that this audacious act proved that the IRA was strong and far from defeated. Both de Valera and the British got it wrong—and in the fog of war, King George V brokered a truce within two months. This is one of the few times in history where two wrongs made a right!
The Second Abdication, the Treaty: “We Must Have Scapegoats”
In July de Valera went to London to meet British Prime Minister David Lloyd George. It became apparent fairly quickly how the whole scenario would play out. Two words were thrown about: Saorstat (Free State) and Phoblacht (Republic). Lloyd George liked Saorstat. He hated Phoblacht. De Valera knew exactly where he stood as he headed back to Dublin.
Back in Dublin, the Machiavellian maneuverings began in the late summer. De Valera had no intention of getting himself stuck in this no-win situation. He hemmed-and-hawed trying to get himself out of the mess he found himself in. He knew he could not get a Republic from Lloyd George. If he went to London he knew the best he could hope for was a Free State with dominion status, such as Canada. He knew the hardcore Republicans would be outraged and would fry him.
Some of Dev’s excuses are classic. One was that as the “President” of Ireland—a country that did not exist in reality—he was head-of-state and could not negotiate with Lloyd George, who was the mere Prime Minister of Great Britain, and not the head-of-state (the King was).
All his maneuvering finally saw Michael Collins, against his will, being sent in de Valera’s stead to work with the leader of the delegation, Arthur Griffith. “To me, the task is a loathsome one,” Collins wrote. “I go in the spirit of a soldier who acts against his best judgment at the orders of his superior.” According to Coogan’s biography, de Valera was heard commenting about the plenipotentiaries: “We must have scapegoats.”
Collins was suspicious from the start. He did not stay with the Irish delegation—he figured that Erskine Childers, the secretary of the delegation, was Dev’s in-house spy—so he set up his own household with the help of many of his intelligence agents at #3 Crow Street. De Valera expected Collins to fail—and must have been shocked when he brought an Irish Free State back with him from London.
Collins knew that he was in an impossible situation and commented on the morning of December 6, 1921, the day that the Treaty was signed, that he had signed his “actual death warrant.” The best way I can describe de Valera-Collins-Treaty triangle is crude, yet true: “The second mouse gets the cheese.” Collins found himself stuck in de Valera’s excellent Machiavellian mousetrap while the “Long ’Hoor”—as Collins now referred to Dev—nibbled at the cheese.
The Third Abdication—Civil War
In early 1922 the Dáil began the debate on the Treaty. De Valera proved himself to be an excellent parliamentarian—much to the chagrin and frustration of Collins who declared to the Dáil: “We will have no Tammany Hall methods here. Whether you are for the Treaty or whether you are against it, fight without Tammany Hall methods. We will not have them.”
It was at this point that de Valera introduced what Alfred Hitchcock called in his films a “MacGuffin”: something that seems essential to the plot, but, in reality, has nothing important to do with the final outcome. De Valera’s MacGuffin was the Oath of Allegiance to the King.
Because of the Oath he and his followers could never, ever, vote for the Treaty. In "Michael Collins Own Story" by Hayden Talbot—which was supposed to be Collins’ autobiography but he died before it was published—Collins says of the controversy surrounding the Oath: “…No one but a factionist, looking for means of making mischief, would have thought it worthwhile to have risked wrecking the Treaty for.”
Everyone knew, including de Valera, that if the Treaty was not approved the British would rush troops into Ireland as never before and there would be a war that the IRA could never win. “I am against this Treaty,” said de Valera, “not because I am a man of war but because I am a man of peace.”
Not getting their way, de Valera and cohorts like Cathal Brugha and the Countess Markievicz left the Dáil in a huff. The Dáil approved the Treaty, as did the Irish people in an election on June 16, 1922. De Valera was out of the picture; Arthur Griffith was now the new President of the Dáil and Michael Collins ran the new National Army as the anti-Treaty forces began their offensive. The “man of peace” had facilitated the Irish Civil War.
If de Valera had remained in the government as the leader of the loyal opposition much of the angst and violence on both sides may have been avoided and this filthy war might have never happened. But he didn’t and the split in the country lasted for the rest of the 20th century. In fact, de Valera’s biographer Tim Pat Coogan wrote: “His [De Valera’s] behavior after the Treaty was signed was irresponsible and caused lasting damage to his colleagues and to Ireland.”
How De Valera’s Abdications Made Ireland—and his Political Career
The irony of de Valera’s three abdications is that they led to the establishment of what today is the Republic of Ireland:
- - When he left Ireland in May 1919 he delegated the war to Collins who, through his intelligence system and intimidation, beat the British
- - By not going to London to lead the negotiations for the Treaty—and by sending Collins—he got the nation he tried to disown in the Dáil debates
- - By abdicating his responsibility as the loyal opposition and leaving the Dáil he guaranteed the passage of the Treaty not only in the Dáil but also at the ballot box. If the Treaty had been defeated, de Valera would not have had a country to eventually lead and his political career would have been altered tremendously or terminated
- - Looking back at Dev’s maneuverings it brings to mind one of the great lines of Irish politics. Oliver St. John Gogarty, a great friend of Collins and Griffith and a long-time foe of de Valera, once said of the Long Fellow: “Every time he contradicts himself—he’s right!”
- - De Valera left the government in 1922, but he would return again as a TD in 1926 and in one of the great political hypocrisies of the 20th century took the Oath of Allegiance to the King in order to take his seat in the Dáil. (In 1933, as President, he abolished the Oath.) Perhaps de Valera was following one of the principals of his hero Machiavelli: “A prince never lacks legitimate reasons to break his promise.”
I think it can be safely stated that with Collins in the political picture de Valera may not have had the political career he did. De Valera most certainly would have been challenged by Collins at every turn and if there was ever a man who could cut de Valera down to political-size, it was the quick-thinking and resourceful Collins.
You can just imagine Dev in the Dáil trying to defend his failing policies under blistering questions from Collins. It would have been great political theater, but it was not to be. Once again you can see the hand of Niccolò Machiavelli in de Valera’s maneuverings around Collins: “Men ought either to be indulged or utterly destroyed, for if you merely offend them they take vengeance, but if you injure them greatly they are unable to retaliate, so that the injury done to a man ought to be such that vengeance cannot be feared.”
In the End, de Valera Comes Clean
There were many petty things done to the memory of Michael Collins by de Valera. He even gave the Collins family a hard time when they wanted to erect a headstone at his grave in Glasnevin Cemetery in 1939. De Valera personally supervised the circumstances surrounding the placing of the Celtic cross marker and would allow neither family (except for Collins’ brother, Johnny) nor press to attend. “With a final Machiavellian touch,” Coogan wrote, “to cover himself against a charge of pettiness at having the Prime Minister of the country interest himself in such a matter on the eve of a new world war, he describes himself as ‘acting Minister for Finance.’ ”
It seems that it wasn’t until the advanced old age that de Valera came to acknowledge that Collins had contributed greatly to the creation of the Republic. In 1966 President de Valera was asked to contribute to an educational foundation named for Collins that would grant scholarships to deserving young men and women. De Valera declined to donate, but went on to state: “It is my considered opinion that in the fullness of time history will record the greatness of Michael Collins and it will be recorded at my expense.”
* 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 www.facebook.com/13thApostleMcEvoy.