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Sunday, June 26, 2016

IRELAND | June 24–Éamon de Valera Resigns

This day in 1973, Éamon de Valera resigned as President of Ireland. His personal survival to that age can be attributed to his birth in New York City! His birthplace seemed to be of little importance until his life was spared by the British after the 1916 Easter Rising, because of his U.S. citizenship.

He lived out his years in Blackrock and I could see the sentry box in front of his walled enclave every day when I bicycled in 1951-52 from our house–"Springfield", Sydney Avenue (as I remember the address)–to Blackrock College. I was in the junior school at Blackrock, Willow Park, being nine years old.

They started me out in a lower grade but realized that they main thing holding me back was not knowing the Irish language. Someone, possibly my mother, persuaded the Holy Ghost Fathers (C.S.Sp.) that learning Irish was not a priority for a typical U.S. citizen visitor not planning to spend the rest of his life in Ireland.

From my first days learning Irish I remember a few words like an cupán, meaning cup. When my instruction in Irish was ended, I was advanced one grade.

But I digress. When he resigned, de Valera was the world’s oldest statesman, 90 years old.

He was born in New York City in 1882 to a Spanish father and Irish mother. His father died when young Éamon was two years old. His mother couldn't look after him alone and so he was packed off to live with his mother’s family in County Limerick, Ireland. He attended the Royal University of Ireland, class of 1904 and obtained his degree in mathematics.

He became an important figure in the Irish-language revival movement and the independence movement. In 1913, he joined the armed Irish Volunteers, which advocated Ireland’s independence from Britain. In 1916 he participated, as mentioned, in the Easter Rising in Dublin. He was the last rebel leader to surrender and his life was spared because of his American birth. He was released from prison in 1917 under a general amnesty.

He then became president of the nationalist Sinn Fein Party. In May 1918, he was deported to England and imprisoned again, but in December 1918 Sinn Fein won an Irish national election, making him the unofficial leader of Ireland.

In February 1919, he escaped from jail and traveled to the United States, where he raised money for for the Irish Republican (independence) movement. When he returned to Ireland in 1920, Sinn Fein and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) were waging a guerrilla campaign against the British army. forces. In 1921, a truce was declared. The following year a group of Sinn Fein leaders including Arthur Griffith split with de Valera and signed a treaty with Britain that partitioned off the more Protestant counties in the north and let the rest of Ireland, Éire, be independent.

A civil war followed, with de Valera supporting the IRA against the Irish Free State (the new government of the autonomous south). He was imprisoned by William Cosgrave’s Irish Free State ministry. In 1924, he was released and two years later left Sinn Fein, forming Fianna Fail, which eight years later won control of the Dail Eireann, the Irish assembly.

So the same year that FDR was elected President, de Valera was elected Taoiseach, or Irish prime minister. For the next 16 years, de Valera pursued a policy of political separation from Great Britain, including the introduction of a new constitution in 1937 that declared Ireland the fully sovereign state of Éire. During World War II, he maintained a policy of neutrality but repressed anti-British intrigues within the IRA.

In 1948, de Valera narrowly lost reelection because the public was weary of his party’s long monopoly of power. Out of office, he toured the world advocating the unification and independence of Ireland. His successor as Taoiseach, John Costello, officially made Ireland an independent republic in 1949 but lost the prime minister’s office to de Valera in 1951. The seesaw continued–relative Irish economic prosperity in the 1940s declined in the 1950s, and Costello began a second ministry in 1954, replaced again by de Valera in 1957. In 1959, de Valera resigned as prime minister and was elected Irish president–a largely ceremonial post. On June 24, 1973, de Valera retired, and died two years later.

Comment

At the beginning of World War II my father was plucked from FDR's senior civil service by William ("Wild Bill") Donovan of the O.S.S. to Dublin to check on whether de Valera was assisting the British on intelligence issues despite Éire's official neutrality. My father's conclusion was that the Irish didn't like the Brits but they liked the Nazis even less and were cooperating fully with British intelligence.

One event that sanitized biographies omit is that de Valera went to the German Embassy in Dublin to sign the condolence book when Hitler died in his bunker. By this time the Nazis were defeated, with–from the perspective of the Allies–minimal involvement by Éire (although many from Éire signed up to serve in the British Army). The poke in the eye for Churchill and Britain obviously was designed to play well with de Valera's Irish Nationalist base, and did not reflect the Éire government's actions in the war years. However, even as a strictly political move it was extremely foolish. By this time the many atrocities propagated by Hitler were largely uncovered and his signing of the book was used to justify hostility to de Valera in Britain, the USA and the many other countries that contributed to defeating Hitler. This blot on de Valera's name will never be forgotten.