Eamon De Valera Biography

From a sentence of death, Eamon de Valera rose to become leader of Sinn Fein and eventually the culture of the Republic of Ireland.

The shaping of the Republic of Eire (Ireland), its profound nationalism, and sense of self-determination, has brought forward many leaders, and buried many martyrs. Among the leaders, Eamon de Valera stands out as perhaps the most consistent and influential, certainly a father of the Republic.

De Valera was born in New York in 1882. A few years later, on the death of his father, he was sent to Ireland to be raised by his grandmother.

By the time of the 1916 Easter Uprising he was deeply embroiled in Irish independence politics, drawn to the direct action/force of arms approach of the Sinn Fein primarily because British concessions to constitutional, parliamentary approaches had been few and those few had generally lacked substance. Throughout his career, de Valera sought nothing less for Ireland than full independence without north/south partitioning.

He emerged a popular hero of the Easter Uprising, one of the few leaders who was not executed by the British. His death sentence was commuted to life. In the aftermath of the Uprising Sinn Fein was able to propagandize participants to the level of martyrs if dead, heroes if still alive, and thereby gain widespread public support for their political positions.

As a conciliatory gesture to encourage American entry into World War I, the British released many Irish prisoners in 1917, de Valera among them. That same year de Valera was elected President of Sinn Fein and the Irish Volunteers, the two most powerful political organizations in Ireland.

In 1918 de Valera was re-arrested, but escaped. The British presumably chose to leave well enough alone and began secret negotiations with the Irish organizations, despite that de Valera was a fugitive.

De Valera presented the case for Irish independence to treaty formulators at the Versailles Peace Conference, and was turned down flat. He then travelled to the United States, convinced recognition of his country by the United States would help sway the British. He was not afforded a hearing.

He returned to Ireland in 1920 to find that the British had legislated separate parliaments, in Dublin and Belfast, with provision for a joint Council of Ireland, anathematic to de Valera's view of a united Ireland. He fought on.

In December, 1921, the Irish Free State was proclaimed, with dominion status in the British Commonwealth. Ostensibly, this was another British concession to independence; however, the legislation contained a proviso that Ulster (Northern Ireland) could opt out if desired to do so. The population was for it. De Valera was against it. He left the formal government. He fought on.

De Valera attempted to form a government-in-exile. Civil war broke out. It was short-lived but deadly. Yet another group of Irish leaders and patriots died, including Michael Collins, one of the chief negotiators of the 1921-22 treaty.

From this low point, de Valera climbed back. By 1926 he had repudiated "direct action" and formed the Fianna Fail Party, which almost immediately won Opposition status in the Eire parliament, the Dail. The abolition of partition was a key Fianna Fail platform plank.

In 1932, Fianna Fail won the general election. It was to retain power until 1948.

During that period de Valera strengthened Eire's position, partly by default, as he played a third part card, so to speak. For example, in 1936, Britain's King Edward VIII abdicated. This required ratification by all members of the Commonwealth. De Valera, recognizing the huge embarrassment to the British of the abdication, negotiated some hard terms from his own government before permitting it to proceed with the ratification. First, and most important, was the establishment of a Republic of Ireland which excluded all reference to the Crown relative to domestic matters. Moreover, any international accreditations requiring the Crown's name, e.g., diplomatic credentials, would be written exclusively in Irish.

De Valera later used Neville Chamberlain's appeasement (of Hitler) policy to have Britain relinguish the Irish sea port controls, controls which had become a malignant symbol of continuous British presence in Irish affairs.

But partition still held; in de Valera's view, the last bastion of Britain's obdurant opposition to a united Ireland. De Valera had guided his country into existence, not in the fullest of shapes he would have preferred, but certainly as close as the times would permit, even with force of arms.

In 1948, de Valera was defeated at the polls. The new government almost immediately cut the final tie between the Republic of Eire and Britain by opting out of the Commonwealth association, a tie de Valera had retained as a possible bargaining chip for unification.

De Valera should, perhaps, have recognized the British were not prepared to bargain partition. During World War II, when Britain was anxious to have Eire rescind its neutrality, the British plainly stated partition was non-negotiable.

Surprising, of de Valera's achievements, many occurred as a result of factors beyond his control but sometimes manipulable. The commutation of his death sentence - was it his American citizenship and the need for Britain to appear to accept the "self-determination" philosophy of Woodrow Wilson and the American-Irish voter bloc that supported him? Then, there was the abdication of the British king, creating an opening to bludgeon concessions from his own government? Came, after that, the appeasement policies of Chamberlain which opened doors to Eire to resolve long-standing economic issues with Britain, contributing to the slow evolution of Irish independence. Perhaps Eamon de Valera was a leader in the right place during the right time. But, then, a leader even in the right place at the right time must have the ability to recognize this and take advantage of it.

Or, put another way, De Valera's popularity, almost reverential, among his people, except for the 1922 hiatus, was also a major factor in the success of his leadership. Great leaders and nation builders often emerge from moments in time and their intuitive ability to seize and shape them. Eamon de Valera is among these leaders.

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