Foreword: Eamon de Valera was one of the most important figures in the history of Ireland. His relationship with the people of the country was often strained and his attitude and motives have frequently puzzled historians throughout this century. The fact remains however, that without his involvement in the Irish Nationalist movement the course of Irish history would have been radically different.
He was born in New York on the 14th of October in 1882 to Catherine Coll (a young Irish immigrant from County Limerick) and Juan Vivion de Valera (an immigrant of Spanish origin).
Little is known of his early childhood except that his family moved from America in 1885 to Ireland where the young Eamon studied at Blackrock College in Dublin and was largely reared by his Grandmother. He studied languages and mathematics and was, like Michael Collins, a student of English Rule in Ireland. The early 1900s was a time of the great Gaelic cultural revival in Ireland as literature, drama, sport and the language of the Gaelic nation were all revived.
The main spearhead of the revival was The Gaelic League which he joined in 1908. He was greatly influenced by the League and learned the Irish language whilst immersing himself in the Gaelic culture. The Gaelic League was an obvious recruiting ground for the various revolutionary organisations of the time and it was not long before de Valera became a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. De Valera was second in command to Thomas MacDonagh of the Dublin Brigade during the Easter Rising of 1916.
The Rising failed and the seven leaders, MacDonagh and Pearse among them, were executed, along with 9 other rebels. De Valera was also sentenced to death as an organiser of the revolt but was to escape the firing squad because of the confusion surrounding his ancestry (the English authorities did not want to risk the execution of an American citizen).
De Valera was elected as the leader of Sinn Fein upon his release and set about the formation of an Irish parliament (the Dáil). He was arrested in 1918 for subversion and imprisoned in England in Lincoln prison. With the help of Michael Collins he escaped to America to raise both funds for and consciousness about, the Irish plight. In his absence the War of Independence was being waged by Collins. The English Prime Minister of the time was Lloyd George who wanted to see an end to the violence.
De Valera returned to negotiate with Lloyd George and soon realised that his ambition of a free and independent Ireland would not be granted. He returned home and sent a delegation led by Michael Collins to negotiate a settlement.
The subsequent Anglo-Irish Treaty was ratified by the Dáil in 1922 but de Valera opposed both the partition of the country and the Oath of Allegiance to the English crown that the Treaty required. A bloody Civil War followed which saw both the defeat of the Anti-Treaty side, led by de Valera, and the death of Michael Collins.
De Valera was again imprisoned but released in 1926 when he formed the Fianna Fáil party. He now attempted to achieve his aims by the use of constitutional politics. By 1932 he had removed the Oath of Allegiance and sought about establishing an independent Ireland. He created an Irish Constitution in 1937 but an Irish Republic was not declared because of the partition of the country.
De Valera resisted both bribes and threats from Churchill during the war years (“the emergency”) and it was not until the Costello led Government declared a Republic in 1949 that the effects of the Anglo-Irish Treaty were finally removed from the Southern part of Ireland. Partition remained.
De Valera was Taoiseach of Ireland for much of the fifties and on 25 June, 1959 he was inaugurated as President of Ireland, a position he held for 14 years. He retired in 1973 and died shortly afterwards, on 29th August 1975 at the age of 92.
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