A Biography of a Flawed Colossus – Fanning on de Valera

A Book Review by Elizabeth Malcolm


Cover page

Ronan Fanning, Éamon de Valera: A Will to Power (London: Faber & Faber, 2015), pp. xi + 308;

ISBN 978-0-571-31205-4;

RRP $39.99.

As Ronan Fanning, a retired UCD professor of Irish political history, readily admits in his new biography of Éamon de Valera, many others have already charted the life of Dev, sometimes in immense detail. Fanning’s own bibliography lists eight full biographies and seven partial ones; while of course any book dealing with twentieth-century Irish politics could hardly fail to acknowledge the tall figure of Dev. In his introduction Fanning pays tribute to de Valera’s status: ‘he bestrode Irish politics like a colossus for over fifty years’, he writes; but, at the same time, he is quick to point out that Dev ‘remains the most divisive figure in the history of modern Ireland’ (p 1). Fanning considers de Valera’s ‘culpability for the Irish Civil War…irrefutable’. However, if some of his actions can’t be ‘excused’, Fanning hopes they ‘can, perhaps, be explained’ (p 2). The book’s goal therefore is to ‘attempt to reconcile the obloquy’ that de Valera incurred for ‘his conduct in 1921-2, that will forever scar his reputation, with his right to recognition as Ireland’s greatest statesman’ (p 2). It is a tall order in a relatively short work: 270 pages of text to cover a political career spanning some sixty years and a life that encompassed ninety-three years.

De Valera under arrest 1916

De Valera under arrest 1916

One emerges from reading the book impressed by Fanning’s achievement. He is adept at distilling the essence of the various periods of de Valera’s long career. Whilst navigating his way carefully through often complex details, Fanning never loses sight of the big picture. And when he makes a judgement, it is usually measured and always supported by plenty of evidence. This is a sceptical, critical biography, but by no means a hostile one. Fanning fully appreciates Dev’s remarkable achievements, however, he is not slow to point out shortcomings and mistakes, some catastrophic. And Fanning often locates the root of Dev’s political failures in his difficult personality. As is well known, de Valera was conservative and autocratic and could be infuriatingly pedantic, but Fanning also finds him: vain, petulant, devious, aloof, sometimes ‘profoundly undemocratic’ (p 266), blind to the needs of others, a neglectful husband and a bad father. De Valera’s statesmanship may have been admirable at times and his political skills impressive, but this study paints a portrait of a fairly unattractive human being.

Fanning seems more interested in Dev’s early life and his tortuous route to power rather than in his later years. Around 60 per cent of the book is devoted to the years before 1932, while Fanning makes clear that after 1945 Dev’s achievements were few. This is hardly a psychological study, although it does cite a recent book arguing that de Valera suffered from Asperger’s Syndrome (p 264). Nevertheless, Fanning is persuasive in tracing many of the man’s later strengths, as well as his character flaws, to his deprived childhood, which, argues Fanning, instilled in him a high degree of self sufficiency, an ability to control his emotions, a sense of personal mission, a steely determination and, what the sub-title to this book terms, ‘a will to power’.

As has often been remarked, de Valera never knew his Basque-Cuban father and was abandoned by his mother at a very young age, condemned to life as a poor Co Limerick rural labourer—the sort of life his mother had fled by emigrating. It is important to note that his maternal family were labourers, not tenant farmers; in other words, they were at the very bottom of Irish rural society. For all his later extolling of the virtues of peasant life, it is clear that Dev himself hated his experience of it and did all he could to escape. When his mother refused to allow him to join her and her new family in New York, he turned to the church and was rewarded by priests who engineered his entry into the élite Blackrock College in affluent suburban south Dublin. Fanning stresses how crucial Blackrock was to de Valera, but also how unlikely. An expensive fee-paying boys’ school, serving the Dublin professional and commercial Catholic middle class, he entered it as the possibly illegitimate, half-Irish son of a Limerick rural labouring family. Fanning leaves the illegitimacy question open, although he notes that Dev’s lack of a parental marriage certificate certainly barred him from the priesthood. Yet, with continuing clerical support, de Valera went on to get a tertiary education, even if his pass degree prevented him from pursuing the academic career that had been his goal. In Ireland around 1900 there must have been few boys from impoverished rural labouring backgrounds who were catapulted abruptly into the middle class via private schooling and university education. Dev’s clearly owed his chance in life to the church, not to his family, and it was a debt he never forgot.

De Valera and colleagues 1919. Credit Wikipedia

De Valera and colleagues 1919. Credit Wikipedia

Another interesting point that Fanning brings out is how non-political young Edward de Valera—as he was called—then was and also, even when he belatedly entered politics, how non-republican. According to Fanning, he was older than most of those involved in the Easter Rising and, until his early thirties, had taken little if any interest in politics. He didn’t join the Gaelic League until 1909, and did so then only because he thought that learning Irish might help his faltering efforts to secure a permanent teaching job. But, having fallen in love with his Irish teacher, he became an enthusiastic student of the language. When he joined the Irish Volunteer Force in 1913 it was to fight to defend Home Rule. He refused to join Sinn Féin and resisted joining the Irish Republican Brotherhood, only doing so under pressure in 1915. Then he never attended meetings, so played no part in the planning of the Rising, and as soon as he was able in 1917 he resigned. He was finally propelled into Sinn Féin politics in mid 1917, having emerged as a leader among the prisoners held in English jails for twelve months after the Rising. Fanning argues that de Valera’s remarkably swift rise from obscurity was largely due to the political power vacuum created in the wake of the 1916 executions. As for the goal of a republic, de Valera often appeared equivocal over it, while his instructions to the Irish delegation negotiating with the British in late 1921 said nothing about a republic. None of his colleagues really understood his preferred option of ‘external association’ with Britain, but, whatever this was, it was not a republic.

Fanning is scathing about the whole Treaty debâcle and the resulting Civil War. He certainly criticises Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins for signing a treaty in London without first consulting de Valera in Dublin, but he reserves most of his ammunition for Dev. The list of de Valera’s mistakes and failings—even crimes—is lengthy. They include: his decision during the War of Independence to spend over a year in America (1919-20), where his ego was inflated by uncritical acclaim; his stubborn refusal to go to London himself to lead the negotiations in late 1921; his failure to explain his ideas clearly enough to the London negotiators; then his angry rejection of the Treaty even before he knew its contents, just because it wasn’t his treaty; his attempts to subvert democratic debate on the Treaty in the Dáil; his rabble-rousing speeches against the Treaty, whose bloodthirsty rhetoric all but incited civil war; and finally his impotence during the Civil War, which he endured in gloomy silence, side-lined by the Irish Republican Army. It is a very sorry catalogue indeed; more than enough to have put paid to most political careers. Yet, phoenix-like, Dev rose from the ashes; he was ultimately rehabilitated, although his reputation in Ireland was forever tarnished by the events of 1921-2.

De Valera as Taoiseach. Credit AllPosters

De Valera as Taoiseach. Credit AllPosters

In his remaining hundred or so pages, Fanning considers Dev in power and, in doing so, he brings out the remorseless logic of the man’s politics, the almost mathematical calculation that often lay behind them. Having failed to overthrow the new state by force during the Civil War, de Valera reasoned that the only alternative was to enter the Free State political arena and subvert it from within, even though this meant breaking with many of his former republican colleagues. In this context Archbishop Daniel Mannix makes a brief appearance in the book: urging Dev when they met in Rome and Ireland in 1925 to stand for election to the Dáil (pp 149-50). Fanning sees the 1937 Irish constitution as without doubt de Valera’s greatest achievement: Dev was the ‘architect of the independent Irish state’, he writes (p 267). Once his constitution was in place, de Valera turned on the republican movement and ruthlessly suppressed it. He saw no justification for it any longer in his independent Ireland and would not tolerate its continuing challenge to his authority. Fanning also stresses the logic of Ireland’s neutrality during 1939-45, a policy that remains controversial but that Fanning himself approves of: it was for de Valera, he writes, a practical demonstration of Irish sovereignty and of the country’s newly declared independence. However, though a man of political vision, Fanning argues that Dev’s vision was seriously blinkered: for him independence was an end, rather than a means to an end. Once he had achieved and asserted Irish sovereignty in the late 1930s and early 1940s, his focus shifted, not to the country’s desperate economic problems and persistent high levels of emigration, but to goals that Fanning considers were unrealistic and even naïve: the ending of partition and the fostering of an ‘Irish-speaking pastoral idyll’ (p 267). Perhaps somewhat cruelly, Fanning interprets de Valera’s increasingly blindness as a metaphor for the clouding of his political vision after 1945.

This is a fine book, well written and incisively argued. I would certainly recommend it to anyone wanting to get to grips with the enigmatic figure of Dev and with Irish politics generally during the early and mid twentieth century.


Professor Elizabeth Malcolm

Elizabeth Malcolm occupied the foundation Gerry Higgins Chair of Irish Studies at the University of Melbourne until her retirement to continue research in 2014.