Eamon de Valera, although born in New York City, in the United States of America, devoted his life to help the people of Ireland. As he once said it, “If I wish to know what the Irish want, I look into my own heart.” De Valera loved Ireland and its people with a deep and lasting passion. It was he, probably more than any other person in their history, who helped that country win freedom from British rule and then shaped its history well into the twentieth century.
De Valera’s mother, Catherine Coll, usually known as Kate, came to the states in 1879, at the young age of twenty-three. Like so many other Irish immigrants of that time, she had suffered from poverty, and even hunger, in her native land and saw America as a place where she could go to try and get a fresh start. She first took a job with a wealthy French family that was living in Manhattan. This is where and when she met Vivion Juan de Valera. He was a Spanish sculptor who came to the home of her employers to give music lessons to the children. In 1881, the couple married. A little over a year later, while living at 61 east 41st Street, Kate Coll de Valera gave birth to the couple’s only child. His name was Edward, called by Eddie at first, but would become known to the world by the Irish variation of that name, Eamon. Always in poor health, Vivion de Valera left his young family behind him and traveled to Colorado, hoping that perhaps the healthier air would help him out. Within a few months he died. Now a widow, Kate went back to work, leaving Eamon in the care of another woman who also had come from the tiny village of Bruree, in County Limerick. Later in his life, Eamon would remember occasional visits from, as he knew her, a woman in black, which ended up being his true mother. Kate de Valera decided that Eamon would be better cared for by her family back in Ireland. Before long he found himself away from noise of Manhattan, living in Bruree in a one-room house with mud walls and a thatched roof. Living with him were his grandmother, his twenty-one-year-old uncle, Pat, and young Hannie, his fifteen-year-old aunt. Shortly after Eamon arrived, the family moved to a cottage, built by the Irish government for farm workers, but it was only a little bit larger. It was made up of two rooms, most of which were given over to kitchen space. After a year Eamon’s mother visited briefly- long enough for her to announce her new marriage to an American, Charles Wheelwright, known to Eamon as “Uncle Charley”. Kate soon returned to America. She thought it would be best that four-year-old Eamon remain in Ireland. Eamon’s childhood was typically Irish. He worked at farming with the rest of his family, went to school, played rugby, and starred as a runner. At the age of fourteen, after eight5 years of school, it was time to decide what he was going to do next. He considered returning to America.
He even wrote to his mother about it. It was just not to be. Instead, he enrolled at the Christian Brothers’ School seven miles from his home. Since the family could not afford to buy him a bicycle, he had to walk the entire distance- both ways every day- carrying a heavy load of books. Eamon proved so strong a student that after two years; he was admitted with a scholarship to Blackrock College. That school, which was located near Dublin, was run by the Holy Ghost fathers. Eamon entered the college unsure of his future career but leaning toward either teaching or priesthood. It soon became clear to him that his greatest interest, as well as his greatest academic strength, lay in mathematics. After five years at Blackrock, he became a mathematics teacher at a school in Tipperary while completing his college degree. In 1904 he graduated from the Royal University in Dublin. Very tall and thin with dark hair, dark eyes, and pale skin, like his Spanish father, what struck people immediately was his seriousness. Just as he had been passionate about rugby and track as a youngster, now he was passionate about his devotion to the Catholic Church, to the study of mathematics, and the cause of freedom from British rule for Ireland. He remained a private person, seldom smiling, seldom revealing his emotions. Whether he was happy or unhappy was difficult to tell. He taught Latin, French and mathematics at various secondary schools, but also at colleges, training teachers. Finally he became faculty at St. Patrick’s College, an outstanding Irish seminary, responsible for preparing men for the priesthood. At St. Patrick’s his involvement with Catholicism became even more intense. As part of his concern for Irish independence, Eamon plunged into the study of Gaelic, the language of ancient Ireland. It was at a meeting of the Gaelic league that he met an extraordinarily beautiful young actress, Jane Flanagan, then only eighteen-years-old. Jane soon changed her name to the Gaelic Sinead Ni Fhlannagain. Soon, she and Eamon became fluent in the ancient language. They also fell in love. After a courtship of two years, they were married. It was a marriage destined to last more than sixty years and to bring the couple great personal happiness, along with six children and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
By 1910, the year the de Valera’s were married, the struggle for Irish independence from Great Britain had grown even more bitter. This struggle was by no means new. Long before Eamon’s birth, such leaders as Michael Davitt and Charles Stewart Parnell had championed the cause of poor Irish farmers, forced to leave their homes when they could not pay rent to the British landlords. In time, many Irish leaders came to see freedom from British rule as the only answer. At first, Eamon tried not to involve himself in politics. Instead, he devoted himself to the Gaelic League. But as the situation with England grew more intense, he joined both the Irish Republican Brotherhood and Sinn Fein (We Ourselves)- groups pressing for Irish freedom. He was even more active in the Irish Volunteers, a group that was arming itself and preparing for open rebellion. He became commander of the Third Battalion of the Volunteers, a force of about 125 men. In April 1916, the bloody Easter rebellion broke out in Dublin. De Valera seized the railroad station there, as well as a large bakery. They defeated British reinforcements sent to recapture those positions. But after nearly a week, the British, armed with artillery and heavily outnumbering the Irish, finally forced the exhausted rebels to surrender. As the British troops closed in on them, de Valera is said to have declared to his troops, “You have but one life to live and but one death to die. See that you do both like men.” He and his battalion were the last to give in. In the weeks that followed, the British put the leaders of the rebellion on trial. Sixteen of them were hanged. De Valera’s wife, as well as his family in America, pleaded that his life be spared. They argued that to execute a person born in America would stir up anger among the American people. At the time, Britain desperately needed American help in World War I. It was decided, therefore, not to hang de Valera. Instead, he was sentenced to life in prison. In June 1917, the British announced a general amnesty, setting free all of the Irish prisoners that they were holding. On his release from jail Eamon was greeted by the Irish people as a hero. Of all of the major leaders of the Easter Rebellion, only he had survived. He was elected president of Sinn Fein. He was elected president of the Irish Volunteers. Everywhere he went people cheered him. Now de Valera threw himself completely in the struggle for Irish independence. He set forth a strategy that, he was certain, would lead to victory. Meanwhile, British losses on the European battlefields of World War I had been climbing rapidly. In 1918, hoping to fill their badly depleted ranks with Irish soldiers, the British put into affect a program of conscription- a draft. The Irish refused to serve.
Furious, Great Britain declared a state of martial law in Ireland. Soldiers known as “Black and Tans” because of the uniforms they wore were sent there to force the Irish to do their patriotic duty by serving in the British army. One of the first acts of the Black and Tans was to arrest the leaders of the Irish resistance. Without even a trial, Eamon was thrown into Lincoln Prison in England. For nearly a year, he stayed in jail. Then, one day, during a Catholic religious ceremony, he saved the wax from a candle used in the service. With that wax he made an impression of the prison passkey and managed to smuggle it to Michael Collins, another Irish leader. From that impression Collins had a key made, cleverly returning it to de Valera in a fruitcake disguised as a gift. On February 3, 1919, de Valera saw his chance. Using the key, he made a daring escape from prison. In Manchester, England, he hid in the house of a priest. Then, pretending to be seamen, he managed to board a ship bound for Ireland. To avoid discovery, he hid below the decks between sacks of potatoes. While the police hunted desperately for him in England and Ireland, he made his way back to America. He got a job working as a coal stoker on a merchant ship. In a free election held in Ireland, the Sinn Fein party had won a tremendous victory. It was decided to set up a dail (parliament) and to run Ireland as if British rule did not exist. Even though Eamon was not even in the country at the time, he was elected president of the assembly. Formal peace talks then followed, supposedly to bring a final settlement between Ireland and England. De Valera himself, decided not to go to these talks in London. He sent delegates. After nearly two months of talks the Irish delegates finally agreed to a treaty and signed it. When de Valera saw the document he was furious. Under its provisions, the twenty-six largely Catholic counties of southern Ireland gained certain limited freedoms from British rule, while the six largely Protestant counties at the north were to have their own separate government. In effect, Ireland was partitioned- divided into two countries: the Protestant north, now know as Ulster, and the Catholic south, now called the Irish Free State. To de Valera and his followers, there could only be one solution- one Irish nation, completely united and completely independent of British rule. The result was civil war.
In 1922 brutal fighting began. For nearly a year the fighting continued. Thousands of lives were lost. By the spring of 1923, British troops had won the war, crushed the rebellion. During the following summer the British arrested de Valera, claiming that he was an agitator, stirring up the people. Without even trial, they threw him into prison again. Still, de Valera refused to give up. On his release from prison in 1924, he started at once to organize those people who still dreamed of an independent Irish nation. He was again thrown in jail. This is when he realized that military force would not win Irish freedom, but clever politics might. De Valera formed a new political party called the Fianna Fail (Soldiers of Destiny). As leader of the Fianna Fail he joined with the labor party to form a new government for the Irish Free State. For five years, from 1932 to 1937, he personally held the office of both president of the Cabinet and the minister for external affairs. Then in 1937, he took the new title of prime minister. By 1944, de Valera was so popular that Fianna Fail held twice as many seats in the Irish parliament as any other party. He also became the minister of education at this time. The political situation then changed. By 1948, de Valera’s party had lost its majority. It was defeated by a group of smaller, moderate parties headed by John A. Costello, who now became prime minister. The newly elected parliament soon voted to separate completely from the British Commonwealth, officially becoming “The Republic of Ireland” in April 1949. De Valera, growing old, refused to retire. While out of office he traveled to America, to Australia, to India, always speaking eloquently on behalf of Irish unification. In 1951, he became prime minister once again, only to lose to Costello in 1954.In 1957, at age seventy-four, he once again won election as the leader of his nation. His victory came in spite of serious problems in the Irish economy, and as a result, the loss of many people through emigration to the United States and other countries.
But age had begun to take its toll on Eamon. Despite a successful operation, his eyesight, which was never very strong to begin with, was all but gone. He spent many hours alone with his wife, listening to the radio or having her read to him. In 1959 he resigned from the office of prime minister, serving in the largely ceremonial post of president. While holding that position, he visited the United States at the age of eighty-one, speaking to a joint session of Congress. Americans, he said, deserved thanks from the Irish people for having helped so much in winning freedom for that nation from British rule. But the task would remain unfinished, declared de Valera, until northern and southern Ireland at last were united. Whether the union would ever occur still remains unclear. And de Valera must have known that it would not happen in his lifetime. In 1973 he and his wife retired to a nursing home near Dublin. And it was there, one year later, that she died. Then, on August 29, 1975, Eamon de Valera himself followed her to the grave. For nearly a century he was the dominant figure in Irish political life. Despite economic hard times, the continuing failure to unite the partitioned Irish nation, and the bloody violence of civil strife, de Valera remained a symbol of hope to the Irish nation. To the editor of The Irish Echo, a newspaper published in the United States, Eamon de Valera ranked considerably higher than most people saw him. “He was probably the single Irishman who influenced history most in this century.” And that is no small tribute for a child born on the streets on New York into a life that appeared to offer little, if any, hope of success.
O’Brien Maire and Conor Cruise. A Concise History of Ireland. Thames and Hudson. London. 1972.
MacManus Seumas. The Story of the Irish Race. Random House. New York. 1990.