Éamon de Valera became President of Ireland 62 years ago today
Irish History

Éamon de Valera became President of Ireland 62 years ago today

ON this day in 1959 Éamon de Valera became the third president of the Republic of Ireland.

Undoubtedly one of the titans of modern Irish history, de Valera took centre stage in the fray of national politics for over half a century, seeing Ireland through World War Two and key moments in its transition to an independent state.

Here we explore the complicated life of Éamon de Valera, a man whose legacy both divides and unites his fellow countrymen.

De Valera the Orphan

Éamon de Valera was born on 14 October 1882 at the New Jersey Nursery and Child's Hospital, a home for impoverished orphans and abandoned children.

His birth certificate lists his parents as Catherine Coll, originally from Bruree, Co. Limerick, and Juan Vivion de Valera, an artist from the Basque region of Spain.

Following his father’s death in 1885, de Valera was sent back to Ireland to live with his grandmother, Elizabeth Coll, who raised him in Bruree.

A bright child, he showed promise at school and was granted a scholarship at 16 and was eventually enrolled at Dublin’s prestigious Blackrock College.

The Militant Republican

When de Valera was 24, it is thought that he seriously considered joining the priesthood and even approached the President of Clonliffe Seminary in Dublin for vocational guidance.

But as the budding young Republican began to make a name for himself as a staunch champion of the Irish language, and later in the sphere of politics, his career path naturally presented itself.

He would soon be taking part in Howth gun running and would, despite his dislike of secret societies, be sworn into the Irish Republican Brotherhood.

By the time of the 1916 Easter Rising, de Valera had played a significant enough role to be sentenced to death – a fate he narrowly escaped due to the fact he was born in the United States.

However, this account remains controversial and has been challenged by the author John Turi, who claims in his book, England’s Greatest Spy: Éamon de Valera, that de Valera’s life was spared because he was a British informant at the time.

The Eminent Statesman

Over the next two decades de Valera rose from being a troublesome anti-colonial revolutionary to a political heavyweight, eventually becoming Ireland’s first Taoiseach in 1937.

Showing his knack for the subtleties of statecraft, the Irish leader spent the 1930’s removing all obligations to Britain in the Irish Constitution yet still managed to strike a historic trade deal with the country in 1938.

In foreseeing the commercial significance of Ireland's closest maritime neighbour as clouds of war were gathering on the European continent, and putting political enmity to the side, de Valera showed shrewd wartime leadership.

But as with much of his life, his war years are seen as both his finest hour, as former Taoiseach Leo Varadkar claimed some years ago, and his most shameful.

De Valera kept Ireland out of the war and made no secret that he thought small states should stay out of big power conflicts.

This decision has been praised as prudent wartime realpolitik, but his government’s sympathy for the Axis powers, particularly Nazi Germany, has also been criticised as one of the darkest moments in the fledgling Irish nation’s short history.

As President of the Executive council and then Taoiseach, de Valera, like his counterparts in London, accepted a spree of Nazi land grabs on the European continent.

The belief that both Ireland and Germany had been short-changed at the Treaty of Versailles in the aftermath of World War One fostered a sense of mutual victimhood, as well as de Valera’s apparent soft spot for the Germans.

While other nations shut down Axis embassies as the tide of the war began to shift in the allies’ favour, Ireland allowed the German legation in Dublin to remain open.

Even as late as 1945, when the advancing allies had borne witness to the horror of Nazi death camps, de Valera expressed his condolences to the German Minister in Dublin for the death of his Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler, who, along with his new wife Eva Braun, committed suicide in his bunker as the Soviet Red Army closed in on Berlin.

The view that a carefully leveraged alliance with Germany against Great Britain could benefit the Irish nationalist cause was not uncommon in the first half of the 20th century.

But the question was always at what cost, and for many prominent Irish nationalists, an alliance with Nazism was not deal breaker in pursuit of Irish independence and unification.

Though he had his misguided sympathies, de Valera did distance himself from Nazi Germany following its invasion of Czechoslovakia, which he refused to recognise as legitimate.

The Historian Paul Bew argues in his book Ireland: The Politics of Enmity 1789-2006, that de Valera thought the discoveries of Bergen Belson concentration camp were "anti-national propaganda” and struggled to come to terms with it as it undermined the main justification for Irish neutrality: the moral equivalence between the Axis and Allied powers.

Radical to Conservative

Like many political titans, de Valera's youthful radicalism mellowed with age and experience into a cautious social and fiscal conservatism.

While in opposition in 1955, de Valera warned against the formation of a European Parliament and European federalism more broadly.

He said that Ireland "did not strive to get out of that British domination to get into a worse [position].”

As with his English counterpart and rival Winston Churchill, the great wartime leaders were beginning to be seen as out of touch with the younger generation, impatient for the social and cultural change brought about by the 1960’s.

Still shrewd in his ability to judge the political wind, de Valera removed himself from the fray of parliamentary politics and ran for the ceremonial role of President of Ireland.

After winning at the ballot box, he became president of Ireland on this day, June 25, 1959, and remained in the job for 14 years – making him the country’s longest serving president.

Indeed, upon his retirement in 1973 at 90 years of age, he was the oldest head of state in the world.

Éamon de Valera died several years later, on August 29, 1975, from pneumonia and heart failure in Blackrock, Dublin.