'Dev’: the career of Eamon de Valera

Phil Chapple examines a titanic and controversial figure in modern Irish history.

Eamon de Valera was born in 1882 at a time when the conflicting interests of nationalism and unionism were sowing the seeds of conflict in Ireland. Nationalism itself was divided between those seeking Home Rule through constitutional change and a minority of radical, physical-force nationalists whose ultimate aim was a republic. In Easter week 1916, an attempted coup in Dublin by the latter, in the form of the Irish Volunteers and the socialist Citizen’s army, was crushed by forces of the British crown. Over 500 people were killed in the week’s fighting and 15 rebel leaders were executed. Amongst the Irish Volunteers was Eamon de Valera.  

Although born in New York to an Irish mother and Spanish father, de Valera had been sent to live with his mother’s family in rural Limerick. His subsequent upbringing in rural western Ireland had a lasting influence, so that throughout his life he was to espouse the virtues of the simple rural lifestyle. Following his education as a scholarship student at Blackrock College, Dublin, he studied mathematics, graduating in 1904. Four years later he joined the Gaelic League, an essentially cultural rather than political organisation whose purpose was to promote the Irish language and develop Gaelic culture and literature. Through his connections in the Gaelic League, not least his future wife, Sinead Flanagan, he developed a lifelong affinity with the Gaelic language. He also came into contact with individuals who introduced him to the idea of physical force as an agent of political change. For de Valera, this meant joining the Irish Volunteers in 1913. By 1916, he was given command of a battalion which was to play a significant role in the Easter rebellion. The removal of British authority in Ireland and the creation of a Gaelic, Irish republic had become his life’s work. 


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