• Eamon de Valera: A Will to Power

Author: Ronan Fanning

Faber & Faber, 2015

ISBN: 13: 978-0571312054

RRP: £16.59




  • The Seven: The Lives and Legacies of the Founding Fathers of the Irish Republic

Author: Ruth Dudley Edwards

Oneworld Publications, 2016

ISBN: 13: 978-1780748658

RRP: £15.90




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Eamon de Valera (1882-1975) was the only leader of what Irish nationalists like to call the 1916 Easter Rising not to be executed by the British.  The seven members of the self-appointed Provisional Government who signed the Proclamation of the Irish Republic were all shot in the execution yard at Kilmainham Gaol in May 1916.  Namely, Thomas J. Clarke, Sean Mac Diarmada (who Gaelicised his name from John Joseph McDermott), Eamonn Ceannt, Patrick H. Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh, Joseph Plunkett and James Connolly. Another eight were shot at Kilmainham and Roger Casement was hanged at Pentonville Prison in August 1916.  Clarke and his colleagues were buried in a mass grave at Arbour Hill Cemetery.  Casement’s body was returned to Ireland in 1965 and he is buried among the celebrity dead at Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery.

All up, some 2000 Irish took part in the Easter Rising.  Some 200,000 Irish served in uniform during what was called the Great War of 1914-1918.  The former, some of whom aligned themselves with Germany, have been remembered through the (Irish) ages.  While the latter, until recently, have been all but forgotten – as were the 50,000 Irish who fought with the Allies during the Second World War, at a time when Ireland was officially neutral.

In late April 1916, Clarke, Pearse and Connolly were by no means heroes. They had led a rebellion against Dublin Castle, the centre of British authority on the island of Ireland.  The retaliation by British forces had seen many civilian deaths along with the destruction of large parts of Dublin, one of the most important cities in what was then the British Empire.  Some of the rebels – including Ceannt and Constance Markievicz (nee Gore-Booth) killed Irish policemen.

By April 1966, however, there were few Irish who would query the wisdom of the Easter Rising.  The execution of the 16 rebels half a century earlier had the unintended consequence of making heroes out of men and women who were little known in 1916 and who held no elected office.  As Ruth Dudley Edwards points out, the Irish Jesuit Fr Frank Shaw S.J. wrote an article for the Jesuit journal Studies in 1966 regretting the fact that the Irish “who preferred to solve problems, if possible, by peaceful rather than violent means” and who criticised the “revolutionary ideas” of Clarke and his followers were regarded as “unpatriotic” and “unmanly”.  The Studies’ editorial board did not have the courage to publish Fr Shaw’s article until 1974, almost a decade after it was written.

Yet by April 2016 the revolutionary ideas of the 1916 rebels were being considered in wider context.  For The Dead of 1916 did not simply involve those who fell in the rebellion against British rule along with those who were executed.  As Edwards writes:

Pearse didn’t think of killing for Ireland, but dying for it.  The immediate casualties were 450 dead and 2,600 injured, of whom 116 were soldiers, 16 policemen and 242 civilians (of whom 28 children were from the slums). During the same week, more than 500 Irishmen were killed by a German gas attack on Irish lines. Only 76 rebels died…but…they would become the only deaths that mattered in the national narrative of martyrdom.

As Edwards documents, The Seven possessed an “absolute moral superiority” along with “an ambition to achieve some kind of immortality”.  Clarke was part of a long Irish tradition which embraced the political violence of Wolfe Tone (1763-98) and Roger Emmett (1778-1803) – both of whom were strong on rhetoric but weak on strategy and who encouraged the young to tread the same futile path.  It was Clarke and his Irish Republican Brotherhood (which grew out of the Fenian movement) who was the driver of the Easter Rising. Clarke had served 15 years in a British prison for terrorist bombings in Britain in the late 19th Century.

Clarke always wanted control, not status.  Since he faced a return to prison if found to be involved in further acts of rebellion, he operated through Mac Diarmada. Clarke was a Protestant, Mac Diarmada a Catholic.  Crippled with polio at the age of 26, he had considerable courage – as did Clarke who managed to stay sane in spite of spending most of his prison time in solitary confinement.

Ceannt, a Catholic, worked as an accountancy clerk.  He is the least well-remembered of The Seven.  Pearse is perhaps the best known of the Irish rebels of 1916. He was the subject of Edwards’ 1977 biography Patrick Pearse: The Triumph of Failure.  Edwards presents evidence to suggest that Pearse was a sublimated pederast.  A shy person by nature, he never took advice from anyone.  Pearse was a Catholic and a poet.

So was Joseph Plunkett, a TB sufferer who was friend of Pearse and MacDonagh.  MacDonagh wrote plays and books. Like Pearse, MacDonagh was into blood sacrifice – unlike Pearse, he had a degree of self-deprecation.  James Connolly was an atheist and a socialist who was a failure at business and completely uncompromising.  As Connolly went about his revolutionary tasks, Mrs Connolly took to begging to feed their children. Ceannt and Connolly were the only two of The Seven with military experience.  But both had hopeless judgement – believing that the British would not use artillery against the rebels, who had taken over the General Post Office and other key positions in Dublin, because British capitalists would not destroy property.  Much of Dublin was razed during the uprising.

None of The Seven believed that the Easter Rising would overturn British rule in Ireland. In the end, they embraced Pearse’s view that “bloodshed is a cleansing and sanctifying thing”.  All rejected the path to independence (i.e. Home Rule) which Irish nationalists were on in the early 20th Century but which had been suspended following the outbreak of the Great War. The post-mortem triumph of The Seven led to the demise of John Redmond’s Irish Parliamentary Party.

The execution of The Seven, all of whom died bravely, left de Valera as the most senior surviving member of the Easter Rising rebels.  De Valera immediately assumed command of the nationalists but was voluntarily in the United States during much of the War of Independence (or Anglo-Irish War) against the British, which commenced in January 1919 and ended in July 1921 with the truce that led to the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921. Michael Collins was the leader of the rebels at the time – who were referred to as the Irish Volunteers and/or Irish Republican Army.

Ronan Fanning, whose father knew but did not much like de Valera, is fair to the man the Irish called The Long Fellow (on account of his height).  However, he is critical of de Valera’s refusal to go to London to negotiate the Treaty or even to involve himself with the signatories (who included Collins) during the negotiations.  As Fanning recognises, de Valera’s “cardinal sin” was his rejection of The Treaty and his consequent culpability for the Irish Civil War – when anti-Treaty forces went to war with the democratically elected government of the Irish Free State.

Collins died during this conflict between the Irish. The Irish Civil War was fought between the Provisional Government (which became the Irish Free State) and Irregulars (the Irish Republican Army). It ran between June 1922 and May 1923.  There were about a thousand fatalities – 77 of whom were executed by the Free State government.

Like so many of the 1916 rebels, de Valera was possessed of a dogmatic authoritarian nature and believed in the cleansing power of blood sacrifice.  He claimed to know what the Irish people thought by examining their own heart and once declared: “The people had no right to do wrong”.  He also declared at Thurles, during the Civil War, that it might be necessary for his supporters “to wade through Irish blood, through the blood of the soldiers of the Irish [Free State] government and through, perhaps, the blood of some of the members of the [Free State] government in order to get Irish freedom”.  De Valera was jailed by the Free State government for a year, following the end of the Irish Civil War.

Following his release from prison, de Valera gradually embraced democratic politics and was involved in the formation of the Fianna Fail party. He became prime minister of Ireland after the 1932 election, with the support of the Labour Party. As prime minister, de Valera acted decisively against the rebels of the Irish Republican Army, his erstwhile comrades in arms.  He had little interest in economics and finally left Irish politics in 1959, much as he had found it decades previously.

In 1933, de Valera declared that the “the Irish genius has always stressed spiritual and intellectual values rather than material values”.  A decade later, in a St Patrick’s Day address, he described his ideal Ireland as consisting “of a people who were satisfied with frugal comfort and devoted their leisure to things of the spirit”.  This de Valera depicted as “the home of people living the life that God desires that man should live”.  It is not at all clear that the good people of Ireland shared The Long Fellow’s utopianism.  Many voted with their feet and emigrated to Britain, and beyond, to experience some of the material values denied to them in de Valera’s utopia.

When he believed it necessary, de Valera was willing to stand up to the Catholic Church.  However, this only occurred with respect to the Church’s attitude towards matters relating to the Irish Republic.  As Connor Cruise O’Brien has written, “on issues like divorce, contraception, obscene literature, there was no question of standing up to the Church because Mr de Valera – a Catholic, in the traditional sense from rural Ireland – agreed with the Church on such matters”.

The Australian Catholic political activist B.A. Santamaria never visited Ireland and showed no interest in de Valera.  However, his attitude to politics was similar to that of The Long Fellow.  Santamaria clashed with some members of the Catholic Hierarchy on politics but, before the Second Vatican Council, readily followed the teachings of the Church on faith and morals.  Santamaria’s only disputes with the Hierarchy on faith and morals occurred when he believed that the Church was becoming too liberal by watering down some traditional teachings.

Santamaria was close to the Irish born Daniel Mannix, the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne between 1917 and 1963.  Mannix was a long-time supporter of de Valera and hosted him at Mannix’s residence in Raheen in Melbourne when – at the invitation of the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne – he visited Australia in 1948.  Mannix makes a brief, albeit important, appearance in Fanning’s biography.

Fanning describes Daniel Mannix as “arguably the most important” of de Valera’s allies in the Catholic Church “because he was the most high ranking in the clerical corridors of power”.  According to Fanning, at a meeting in 1925 in Rome, Mannix advised de Valera that he should accept the status quo and seek election to the Free State government so that he could participate in the political development of Ireland.

Also, Mannix and Monsignor John Hagan (rector of the Irish College in Rome) prepared a document advising how de Valera could enter the Dail (i.e. the Irish parliament) consistent with his political and religious beliefs.  At the time, Sinn Fein (the party to which de Valera then belonged) had an abstentions policy with respect to the Dail in that its members refused to enter the Dail since all Irish parliamentarians at the time were required to make an oath of allegiance to the King.

In time, de Valera accepted the line of advice provided by Mannix and Hagan and found a way to rationalise his decision to take the necessary oath of allegiance in 1927 and lead his party back into the Dail.

What’s fresh about Fanning’s book is that he documents that the British did not really want to retain its ports which were handed over to the Irish government at the time that the 26 counties of Ireland became fully independent (during de Valera’s prime ministership) in 1938. The six counties in Ulster remained – and remain – part of the United Kingdom.  For his part, de Valera agreed never to allow the use of Ireland as a base from which another nation could attack Britain.  In fact, de Valera’s government gave secret support to the Allies during the Second World War – despite its leader’s indiscretion in expressing condolences to Germany in April 1945 on the death of Adolf Hitler.

What’s fresh about Edwards’ book is her support for the democratic tradition in Irish politics which co-existed with the revolutionary tradition but which has enjoyed little support among the men and women who created the nationalist myths – principally by means of false history, poetry and song.

Ruth Dudley Edwards was born in Dublin and attended Catholic schools.  As she describes life as a child in Dublin in the 1950s:

Occasionally, Grandmother would arrive home in late afternoon and announce portentously: “I have had tea with Mrs Tom Clarke and she says the Pearses think they own 1916”. I did not really follow what this was about  – it would take a while for me to grasp that men I had been told were heroes and martyrs were not mythical beings but real people with living relatives who were not always in harmony.

In my primary school, where teaching was through Irish and the ethos was intensely patriotic, there were reverential references to Éiri Amach na Cásca (the uprising at Easter) or Aiséiri na Cásca (literally, the resurrection at Easter) as the heroic climax of 800 years of nationalist struggle.  We were told that afterwards there was a war of independence against the British, which we won.  History seemingly came to an end in 1921.

We were told nothing at school about the casualties of 1916 or the subsequent war: the dead who mattered were those executed by the British, particularly Patrick Pearse.  Nor were we told about the bitter civil war following the Anglo-Irish treaty, or the seventy-seven men executed by Free State forces. And if Northern Ireland was ever mentioned, it was as a bit of Ireland that was ours, and we would get it back some day.  No one ever seemed to go there or know anything about it.

Edwards has focused on the Irish men who voluntarily supported the Allies (including Australia) between 1914 and 1918.  Like Australia, there was no conscription for overseas service in Ireland during the Great War – those who successfully fought the aggression of Imperial Germany in both nations during the Great War did so voluntarily.

Tim Pat Coogan’s Michael Collins: A Biography, published in 1991, did much to restore the reputation of the man who, unlike de Valera, took the responsibility of attending the Treaty negotiations in London and did his duty in securing the best possible deal for the Irish nationalist cause.

A strength of Edwards’ book is that she focuses on Bulmer Hobson, who has been virtually written out of Irish history.  Hobson, a Quaker and a member of the IRB, warned of the extreme danger in mounting an uprising against British rule during the time of the Great War – especially since the weapons expected from Germany had not arrived. Hobson declared that “no man had a right to risk the fortunes of a country in order to create for himself a niche in history”.  This was a critique of The Seven and their supporters – in particular Clarke and Pearse.

On Good Friday 1916, Hobson – along with Eoin MacNeill and J. J. O’Connell – drafted a countermand of all Pearse’s orders concerning the planned uprising.  Hobson was kidnapped by the IRB and not released until Monday evening – after the insurrection had commenced.  Thereafter, as Edwards writes, “he would be shunned and airbrushed out of the nationalist narrative”.  But Hobson was correct – as was Casement who advised against the Easter Rising since he believed it could not succeed.

Hobson was devoted to what the German sociologist Max Weber termed an ethic of responsibility.  The likes of Clarke and Pearse were committed to an ethic of ultimate ends.  The evidence suggest that what was achieved at the time of the 1921 Anglo-Irish treaty could have been attained without the violence of Easter 1916 – in other words, the ethic of responsibility would have done

Ruth Dudley Edwards and Ronan Fanning – along with the likes of Tim Pat Coogan, Owen Dudley Edwards, Roy Foster, Connor Cruise O’Brien and Charles Townshend – have done much to challenge the Irish nationalist mythology which grew out of, and thrived upon, the Easter Rising. Their approaches, however, are different.

To Edwards, “the main result of violence from 1916 was to exacerbate tribal hatred on the island and leave it with two confessional and mutually hostile bourgeois states with many tens of thousands of refugees, isolationism, poverty, bigotry and philistinism”.  She states that Irish democracy survived “because first the Free State and then de Valera’s Fianna Fail suppressed the irreconcilables [i.e. the IRA]”.

To Fanning, de Valera achieved “greatness” due to his conduct of Irish foreign policy. He maintains that “without Eamon de Valera Ireland would never have achieved independence so quickly and certainly would not have achieved it before the Second World War, the only international crisis that has so far threatened to overwhelm the independence of the state”.

Yet Fanning acknowledges that the great catastrophe in de Valera’s life turns “on the six years between the truce of July 1921 and his leading his republican followers back into the Dail in 1927”.  Fanning regards as “incontrovertible” the change of de Valera’s critics that his cardinal sin was his rejection of the Treaty and his consequent culpability for the Civil War.  It remains to be seen whether the centenary of the Irish Civil War will be remembered in 2022.

Gerard Henderson is the author of Santamaria – A Most Unusual Man (MUP 2015)