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Eamon de Valera

Éamon de Valera1 (born Edward George de Valera) (14 October, 1882 - 29 August, 1975), was a leader of Ireland's struggle for independence from Britain in the early 20th Century, and of the Republican opposition in the ensuing Irish Civil War, and was subsequently thrice Irish Prime Minister, as second President of the Executive Council (original name for prime minister) and the first Taoiseach (prime ministerial title after 1937). He finished his career as President of Ireland.

President of Ireland
Term of Office:25 June 1959 - 24 June 1973
Number of Terms:2
Predecessor:Sean T. O'Kelly
Successor:Erskine Childers
First Lady:Sinéad Bean de Valera
Profession:politician, teacher, mathematician
Nominated by:Fianna Fáil (1959 & 1966)
Other candidates:Fine Gael (1959): Sean McEoin
Fine Gael (1966): Tom O'Higgins

Table of contents
1 Childhood
2 Early Political Activity
3 Easter Rising
4 President of Dáil Éireann
5 President of the Republic
6 The Treaty
7 Civil War
8 Entry into the Free State Dáil: The 'Empty Formula'
9 President of the Executive Council
10 DeV's new Constitution - Bunreacht na hÉireann
11 Neutrality in World War II
12 DeV and Churchill Clash on Radio
13 Retirement, then President of Ireland
14 An Overview of deV
15 Offices held in order of Timeline


Born in New York City in 1882 to an Irish mother, he stated that his parents, Kate Coll and Juan Vivion de Valera were married in 1881 in New York. However exhaustive trawls through church and state records by genealogists and by his most recent biographer, Tim Pat Coogan (1990) have failed to find either a church or civil record of the marriage. Futhermore, no birth, baptismal, marriage or death certificate has ever been found for anyone called Juan Vivion de Valera or de Valeros, an alternative spelling. As a result, it is generally agreed that deV (to use his nickname) was illegitimate. While this fact might seem irrelevant to twenty-first century eyes, one result of illegitimacy in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century was that one was barred from a career in the Roman Catholic Church. Éamon de Valera was throughout his life a deeply religious man, who in death asked to be buried in a religious habit. There are a number of occasions where de Valera seriously contemplated entering the religious life like his step-brother, Fr. Thomas Wheelright. Yet he did not do so, and apparently received little encouragement from the priests whose advice he sought. In his biography of de Valera, Tim Pat Coogan speculated as to whether rumours surrounding de Valera's legitimacy may have been a deciding factor. It is worth speculating about how different Irish history would have been had de Valera been able to enter the priesthood or religious life rather than politics.

Whatever his parentage, de Valera was taken to Ireland at the age of two. Even when his mother married a new husband in the mid 1880s, he was not brought back to live with her but reared instead by maternal relatives in Limerick until he was of age to attend boarding school in his beloved Blackrock College, in Dublin.

Early Political Activity

An intelligent young man, he became an active gaeilgeoir (Irish language enthusiast), marrying his Irish teacher, Sinéad Flanagan. He also became an active member of Conradh na nGaeilge, known also as the Gaelic League founded by Douglas Hyde. He joined the nationalist Irish Volunteers on its creation in 1913, and commanded a Volunteer unit in Dublin during the abortive April 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin.

Easter Rising

The Easter Rising showed up a number of contrasting aspects of Éamon de Valera's personality. On the one hand, he showed leadership skills and a meticulous ability for planning. Yet during his command he also experienced what in retrospect was seen as a form of nervous breakdown, so embarrassing that its occurrence was hidden by those who had been with him in 1916 all through his lifetime. In fact the details of his erratic and emotional behaviour only came to light, thanks to a recent biography.2

After the Rising's defeat, he was condemned to death by the British military authorities, but the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. It was speculated that he was saved from execution because of American citizenship. That is technically incorrect. He was saved by two facts. Firstly, he was held in a different prison from other leaders, thus his execution was delayed by practicalities; had he been held with Padraig Pearse, James Connolly and others, he probably would have been one of the first executed. Secondly, his rumoured American citizenship caused a delay, while the full legal situation (ie, was he actually a United States citizen and if so, how would the United States react to the execution of one of its citizens?) was clarified. Both two delays taken together meant that, while he was next-in-line for execution, when the time came for a decision, all executions had been halted in view of the negative public reaction. So timing, location and questions relating to citizenship saved deV's life.

Freed under an amnesty in 1917, he was elected member of the British House of Commons for East Clare (the constituency which he represented until 1959) in the 1918 general election as well as president of Sinn Féin, the previously small monarchist party which had wrongly been credited by the British for the Easter Rising and which the survivors of the Rising took over and then turned into a republican party. The previous president of Sinn Féin, Arthur Griffith, had championed an Anglo-Irish dual monarchy, with an independent Ireland governed separately from Britain, their only link being a shared monarch. That had been the situation with the so-called Constitution of 1782 under Henry Grattan, until Ireland merged with the Kingdom of Great Britain to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in 1800.

President of Dáil Éireann

Sinn Féin won an overwhelming majority of MPs in the 1918 election in Ireland amid allegations of fraud and the intimidation of non-Sinn Féin candidates out of the race. For various reasons historians question how representative that victory was; while few doubt Sinn Féin had mass support, the fact that most Irish seats in 1918 were uncontested make it impossible to show how extensive that mass support was (though recent calculations based on actual electoral contests at parliamentary and local government level suggest its support base was in the region of 45-48%, considerably lower than the 90%+ claimed in the past). In January 1919, those Sinn Féin MPs, calling themselves TDss, assembled in the Mansion House in Dublin and formed an Irish parliament, known as Dáil Éireann (in english, the Assembly of Ireland). A ministry or Áireacht was formed, under the leadership of Príomh Áire (also called President of Dáil Éireann) Cathal Brugha. De Valera had been re-arrested in May 1918 and imprisoned and so could not attend January session of the Dáil. He however escaped from Lincoln Gaol in February 1919. As a result he replaced Brugha as Príomh Áire in the April session of Dáil Éireann. However the Dáil Constitution passed by the Dáil in 1919 made clear that the Príomh Áire (or President of Dáil Éireann as it came to be called) was merely prime minister - the literal translation of Príomh Áire - not a full head of state.

As conflict between the British authorities and the Dáil (declared illegal in September 1919) escalated into the Irish War of Independence (also called the 'Anglo-Irish War'), de Valera went to the United States to raise financial support from Irish Americans for the Irish revolution. The Long Fellow or An t-Amadán Fada, another of de Valera's nicknames given to him because of his great height) left day to day government to Michael Collins(The Big Fellow), his twenty-nine year old Minister for Finance and rival.

President of the Republic

Returning to a country gripped by the Irish War of Independence, de Valera in August 1921 had Dáil Éireann change the 1919 Dáil Constitution to upgrade his office from prime minister or chairman of the cabinet to a full President of the Republic. Declaring himself now the Irish equivalent of King George V, he argued that as Irish head of state, in the absence of the British head of state from the negotiations, he too should not attend the peace conference called the Treaty Negotiations (October-December 1921) at which British and Irish government leaders agreed to the effective independence of 26 of Ireland's 32 counties as the Irish Free State, with the other six in the north remaining under British sovereignty as Protestant-dominated Northern Ireland. (Technically, the Six Counties were originally part of the Free State, but with the option of opting out immediately, which they did straight away. Having done so, a Boundary Commission came into place to redraw the Irish border. Nationalists expected its report to make Northern Ireland so small it would not survive, eventually joining the South. A Council of Ireland was also provided in the Treaty as a model for an eventual all-Irish parliament. Hence neither the pro- nor anti-treaty sides made much complaint about partition in the Treaty debates. They all expected it would prove shortlived.)

The Treaty

The Republic's delegates to the Treaty Negotiations were accredited by President de Valera and his cabinet as Plenipotentiaries (ie, negotiators with the legal authority to sign a treaty without reference back to the cabinet.). However the Treaty proved controversial in so far as it replaced the Republic (which was unrecognised by any international state) by a dominion of the British Commonwealth with the King represented by a Governor-General of the Irish Free State. De Valera baulked at the agreement, even though his opponents claimed he had refused to go because he knew what the outcome would be and didn't want to get the blame. Curiously, he reacted to news of the signing of the Treaty not with anger at its contents (which he refused even to read when offered a newspaper report of its contents) but with anger over the fact that they had not consulted with him, their president, before signing! De Valera and minority of supporters in Sinn Fein left Dáil Éireann and tried unsuccessfully to set up a republican administration with a republican ministry under himself. Griffith was elected President of Dáil Éireann in his place. A Crown-appointed administration under Michael Collins was created also.

Civil War

Relations with the new Irish government, which was backed by most of the Dáil and the electorate, and the Anti-treatyites under the nominal leadership of deV, now descended into civil war (June 1922), in which the pro-treaty Free State forces defeated de Valera's Republicans. Even de Valera's most passionate supporters admit his behaviour at that point was the low point in his career. Speeches where he talked of "wading through the blood" of ministers hardly cooled tempers. Though nominally head of the Anti-treatyites, de Valera had little influence and spent part of the time in prison. Among the Civil War's many tragedies were the assassination of the Collins, who was the head of the Provisional Government, the death through exhaustion of the President of Dáil Éireann, Arthur Griffith, the execution of one of the treaty signatories, Erskine Childers and the deliberate booby-trapping and destruction by republicans of the Irish Public Records Office, which destroyed one thousand years of Irish state records in an act that even the strongest defenders of the anti-treaty cause describe as a "pointless act".

Entry into the Free State Dáil: The 'Empty Formula'

The foundation of Fianna Fáil in 1926
De Valera, the new leader of the new party, is on the left. On the right is
Domhnall Ua Buachalla, whom he would appoint as Governor-General in 1932.
After ordering his supporters (April 1923) to dump their arms rather than surrender them or continue a now fruitless war, de Valera returned to political methods. Frustrated by Sinn Féin's refusal to move on from the past, deV resigned from the presidency of the party and the party itself in March 1926 to form a new party, Fianna Fáil (Soldiers of Destiny), a party destined to dominate twentieth century Irish politics. The party made swift electoral gains but refused to take the Oath of Allegiance (spun by opponents as an 'Oath of Allegiance to the Crown' but actually an Oath of Allegiance to the Irish Free State with a secondary promise of fidelity to the King in his role in the Treaty settlement: The oath was actually largely the work of Michael Collins and based ironically on three sources, British oaths in the dominions, the oath of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and a draft oath prepared by de Valera in his proposed Treaty alternative, Document No.2). The party begun a legal case to challenge the requirement that it take the Oath, but the assassination of the Vice-President of the Executive Council (ie. deputy prime minister) Kevin O'Higgins led the Executive Council under W.T. Cosgrave to introduce a Bill requiring all Dáil candidates to promise on oath that if they were elected they would take the Oath of Allegiance. Forced into a corner, and faced with the option of staying outside politics forever or taking the oath and entering, deV and his TDs took the Oath of Allegiance in 1927, declaring it "an empty formula", even though one that people had fought and killed in a civil war over five years earlier.

President of the Executive Council

Án Taoiseach Éamon de Valera
President of the
Executive Council:
March 9, 1932 - December 29, 1937
Taoiseach:December 29, 1937 - February 18, 1948
June 13, 1951 - June 2, 1954
March 20, 1957 - June 23, 1959
Predecessors:W.T. Cosgrave
John A. Costello
Successors:John A. Costello
Sean Lemass
Date of Birth:October 22, 1882
Date of Death:August 29, 1975
Political Party:Fianna Fáil

In February 1932 Fianna Fáil won power in the Dáil, and de Valera was appointed President of the Executive Council (Prime Minister) by Governor-General James McNeill: withholding Ireland's land annuities to Britain (payments for earlier British government compensation to landlords in Ireland following land reform legislation), he led Ireland through the subsequent period of economic reprisals known as the "Economic War" (1932-1938). Under de Valera's leadership, Fianna Fáil won further general elections in 1933, 1937, 1938, 1943 and 1944.

DeV's new Constitution - Bunreacht na hÉireann

DeV entering Leinster House, home of the Free State parliament.

During the 1930s, de Valera had systematically stripped down the Irish Free State constitution that had been drafted by a committee under the nominal chairmanship of his great rival, Michael Collins. In reality, deV had only been able to do this due to three reasons. First, though the 1922 constitution was supposed to require amendment through public plebiscite 8 years after its passage, the Free State government under W.T. Cosgrave had amended that period to 16 years, meaning that until 1938 the Free State constitution could be amended by the simple passage of a Constitutional Amendment Act through the Oireachtas. Secondly, while in theory the Governor-General of the Irish Free State could reserve or deny the Royal Assent to any legislation, in practice the power to advise the Governor-General so to do as and from 1927 no longer rested with the British Government in London but with His Majesty's Government in the Irish Free State, which meant that in practice, the Royal Assent was automatically granted to legislation; the government was hardly likely to advice the Governor-General to block the enactment of one of its own bills! Thirdly, in theory the Constitution had to be in keeping with the provisions of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the fundamental law of the state. However that requirement had been removed only a short time before de Valera gained power. Thus, with all the checks and balances that had been provided to preserve the Treaty settlement neutralised, de Valera had a free hand to change the 1922 constitution at will.

This he did with vengence. The Oath of Allegiance was abolished, as were appeals to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. The opposition-controlled Senate, when it protested and slowed down these measures was also abolished. And finally in December 1936, deV used the sudden abdication of King Edward VIII as King of his various realms including King of Ireland to pass two Bills; one amended the constitution to remove all mention of the King and Governor-General while the second brought the King back, this time through statute law, for use in representing the Irish Free State at diplomatic level.

In July 1936, de Valera as constitutionally the King's Irish Prime Minister, wrote to King Edward in London indicating that he planned to introduce a new constitution, the central part of which was to be the creation of an office deV provisionally intended to call President of Saorstát Éireann, which would create the governor-generalship. The title may ultimately have changed from President of Saorstát Éireann (Uachtaráin Shaorstát Éireann) to President of Ireland (Uachtaráin na hÉireann), but it still remained the central feature of his new constitution, to which he gave the new Irish language name Bunreacht na hÉireann (meaning literally the Constitution of Ireland).

De Valera's new constitution embodied a process called Constitutional Autochthony, that is, the assertion of legal nationalism. At various levels it contained key symbols to mark Irish republican independence from Britain. These included:

In reality, as with much of de Valera's policies, most of the above were more apparent than real. * For all the anti-partition rhetoric, partition remained a legal reality, accepted by Article 3;

Thus for all the constitutional autochthony symbols, the Irish state was neither as nationalist nor as catholic, neither as gaelic nor as free from the Crown as deV, through his use of symbols, tried to suggest.

Neutrality in World War II

Éire under de Valera remained ostensibly neutral during World War II, although the British MI5 took more than a passing interest in his deeds and whereabouts. Furthermore, contrary to claims, Éire was secretly aiding the Allies side; the timing of D-Day, for example, was decided thanks to weather reports supplied by Éire which told of incoming weather conditions from the Atlantic. Allied airmen were 'accidentially' allowed to 'escape' into Northern Ireland while German airmen who crashed in Éire were interned. Overall, his policy of apparent neutrality enabled de Valera and the opposition to maintain a political unity that might not have been achievable had Ireland openly sided with the Allies and so provoked anti-British campaigning by the IRA. (De Valera had no hesitation in executing IRA prisoners during the War also!). Irish neutrality on balance was probably the best tactic for the Allies too, as an attack by Germany on a neutral Ireland risked enraging Irish-Americans and so bringing the United States into the war earlier. In contrast, had Éire openly sided with the Allies, it would have been, both politically and militarily, the Allies' weakest link, drawing resources for its protection at a time when there were no resources to spare.

DeV and Churchill Clash on Radio

In his VE day radio broadcast, British Prime Minister and old de Valera adversary Winston Churchill launched a strong attack on the Irish government's policy of neutrality, while being careful to distinguish that from any criticism of the Irish people as a whole or of individual Irishmen - a nuance that may well have failed to be communicated. De Valera's reply, also in a radio broadcast, won widespread respect and praise in Ireland from even his bitterest opponents. However, at the time and in the emotions of the moment, it lowered the respect for him held by people in combatant countries, who did not aways fully appreciate the points and who were also influenced by indignation at his official and diplomatically proper condolences on the death of Hitler. De Valera told Radio Eireann listeners:

It is indeed fortunate that Britain's necessity did not reach the point when Mr. Churchill would have [invaded Ireland]. All credit to him that he successfully resisted the temptation which, I have not doubt, may times assailed him in his difficulties and to which I freely admit many leaders might have easily succumbed. It is indeed hard for the strong to be just to the weak, but acting justly always has its rewards.

By resisting his temptation in this instance, Mr. Churchill, instead of adding another horrid chapter to the already bloodstained record of the relations between England and this country, has advanced the cause of international morality an important step-one of the most important, indeed, that can be taken on the road to the establishment of any sure basis for peace. . .

Mr. Churchill is proud of Britain's stand alone, after France had fallen and before America entered the War.

Could he not find in his heart the generosity to acknowledge that there is a small nation that stood alone not for one year or two, but for several hundred years against aggression; that endured spoliation's, famines, massacres in endless succession; that was clubbed many times into insensibility, but that each time on returning consciousness took up the fight anew; a small nation that could never be got to accept defeat and has never surrendered her soul?

Mr. Churchill is justly 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. We, of our time, have played our part in the perseverance, and we have pledged our selves to the dead generations who have preserved intact for us this glorious heritage, that we, too, will strive to be faithful to the end, and pass on this tradition unblemished.

As a speech, it probably counts among de Valera's finest and even his opponents spoke of their pride in his words. But the speech also contained another interesting but often overlooked phrase. Early in the speech, he told listeners,

I know the reply I would have given a quarter of a century ago. But I have deliberately decided that that is not the reply I shall make tonight. I shall strive not to be guilty of adding any fuel to the flames of hatred and passion which, if continued to be fed, promise to burn up whatever is left by the war of decent human feeling in Europe.

Allowances can be made for Mr. Churchill's statement, however unworthy, in the first flush of his victory. No such excuse could be found for me in this quieter atmosphere. There are, however some things which it is my duty to say, some things which it is essential to say. I shall try to say them as dispassionately as I can.

In those sentences he showed a degree of criticism of his own behaviour in the past that was occasionally repeated, particularly towards the end of his life, how a quarter of a century before, during the Treaty debates and the civil war, he had used war-like provocative words and sentences, such as 'wading through the blood of Irishmen', that inflamed tension; indeed, his aside however unworthy was provocative there and then if not to later perceptions, in the circumstances he himself had noted. The Éamon de Valera of 1945, in his sixty-fifth year, was not the hothead of 1921 and would not make precisely the same mistakes. Though overshadowed by other parts of his most famous speech, those lines showed a self-critical side to Éamon de Valera that was rarely expressed publicly.

Retirement, then President of Ireland

Defeated in the election of February 1948, de Valera resigned as Taoiseach of Ireland on February 18 but led two more governments (1951-1954 and 1957-1959) before retiring as party leader to serve two terms (1959-1973) as President of Ireland (an office created by him in Bunreacht na hÉireann). By now, he was almost totally blind, but hid the fact through the use of an aide, whose job was to whisper sotto voice to deV instructions such as the number of steps to take, or where to 'look'. (In one famous photograph, President de Valera is seen 'inspecting' a new statue just erected of Irish patriot Robert Emmet, apparently standing back in admiration. In fact, he could not see it at all!) However de Valera's career came to the brink of disaster in 1966 when he was almost defeated in his final electoral battle, for re-election to the presidency. So close was the election that a mere one vote more in each ballot box in the Republic for his opponent would have been enough to secure the election of Fine Gael's youthful presidential candidate, Tom O'Higgins. While de Valera narrowly won the election, by a majority of a mere 10,000 votes in a poll of over 1,000,000, he did develop a deep dislike and distrust for his campaign manager, Agriculture Minister and future taoiseach (prime minister) Charles J. Haughey. He warned colleagues later that Haughey would 'destroy the (Fianna Fáil) party', a perceptive analysis of the now disgraced former prime minister who did indeed almost destroy Fianna Fáil in the 1980s, and who has since been the subject of tribunals enquiring into proven financial improprieties. (Haughey is currently due to stand trial, as a result of the revelations.)

De Valera finished his final term of office in 1973, aged 91, the oldest head of state in the world. He died in a Dublin nursing home in 1975 aged 92, within weeks of the death of his wife, Sinead. He was buried in Dublin's Glasnevin Cemetery.

An Overview of deV

Éamon de Valera's grave
His wife, Sinead, and son, Brian (who was killed in a horse-riding accident in 1936) are buried there also.

Ireland's dominant political personality for many decades, as well as co-owner of one of Ireland's most influential group of newspapers, Irish Press Newspapers, de Valera is alleged by critics to have kept Ireland under the influence of Catholic conservatism, though to his credit his constitution did explicitly recognise the existence and rights of the Jewish community in Ireland in 1937, at a time when much of Europe was beginning the process of wholesale extermination of Jews. He also rejected fundamentalist Catholic demands by organisations like Maria Duce that Roman Catholicism be made the state religion of Ireland, just as he rejected demands by the Irish Christian Front that the Irish Free State support Franco during the Spanish Civil War. His role in Irish history is no longer unequivocally seen by today's historians as a positive one, and a recent controversial biography by Tim Pat Coogan alleges that his failures outweigh his achievements, with deV's reputation declining as that of his great rival in the 1920s, Michael Collins is rising.

Overall, historians regard de Valera as a brilliant but flawed leader: from his disastrous behaviour during the Civil War that inflamed hatred rather than cooled tempers, to his 1937 constitution, studied most recently by Mandela's South Africa as they designed their own. Erratic, brilliant, tactful, tactless, innovative and most of all pragmatic, Éamon de Valera, the American-born head of an Irish republic, was the most influential Irish leader of the twentieth century, admired, criticised and studied the world over, by leaders from Nehru to John F. Kennedy.


1His name is frequently misspelt Eamonn De Valera but in fact he never used the second 'n' in his first name (the standard Irish spelling) and always a small 'd' in 'de Valera'. (Similarly his nickname was always written as 'deV', not 'Dev' or 'DeV'.

2. According to accounts from 1916 de Valera was seen running about, giving conflicting orders, refusing to sleep and on one occasion, having forgotten the password almost getting himself shot in the dark by his own men. According to one account, deV, on being forced to sleep by one subordinate who promised to sit beside him and wake him if he was needed, suddenly woke up, his eyes 'wild', screaming 'set fire to the railway. Set fire to the railway'. Later in the Ballykinlar Internment Camp one deV loyalist approached another internee, a medical doctor, recounted the story and asked for a medical opinion as to deV's condition. He also threatened to sue the doctor, future Fine Gael TD and minister, Dr. Tom O'Higgins, if he ever repeated the story. Tim Pat Coogan, De Valera: Long Fellow, Long Shadow (Hutchinson, London, 1993) hardback. pp.69-72. ISBN 009175030X

Offices held in order of Timeline

President of Dáil Éireann

Preceded by:
Cathal Brugha
(Jan-April 1919)
President of Dáil Éireann Succeeded by:
office replaced by President of the Republic

President of the Republic

Preceded by:
Office of President of Dáil Éireann
President of the Republic Succeeded by:
Arthur Griffith

President of the Executive Council

Preceded by:
William T. Cosgrave
President of the Executive Council
Uachtaráin an Árd Comhairle
Succeeded by:
Office abolished and replaced by Taoiseach


Preceded by:
A new office, replacing President of the Executive Council
Prime Ministers of Ireland
Taoisigh na hÉireann
Succeeded by:
John A. Costello
Taoiseach (1948-1951)
Preceded by:
John A. Costello
Taoiseach (1948-1951) with First Inter-Party Government
Prime Ministers of Ireland
Taoisigh na hÉireann
Succeeded by:
John A. Costello
Taoiseach (1954-1957)
Preceded by:
John A. Costello
Taoiseach (1954-1957) with Second Inter-Party Government
Prime Ministers of Ireland
Taoisigh na hÉireann
Succeeded by:
Sean Lemass
Taoiseach (1959-1966)

President of Ireland

Preceded by:
Sean T. O'Kelly
Presidents of Ireland
Succeeded by:
Erskine Hamilton Childers