Éamon de Valera was a man loved by his supporters but distrusted and hated by those who blamed him for the Irish civil war. (That latter sentence could equally apply to Michael Collins from the opposite side of the political divide.)
Although born in Brooklyn, New York, “Dev” had an almost mystical and spiritual belief about an Ireland that he wanted to exist.
De Valera is famous for something he never said, an Ireland of “maidens dancing at the crossroads,” but in a 1943 he did envisage “The ideal Ireland that we would have, the Ireland that we dreamed of, would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as a basis for right living, of a people who, satisfied with frugal comfort, devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit – a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contest of athletic youths and the laughter of happy maidens, whose firesides would be forums for the wisdom of serene old age.”
De Valera was one of the leaders of the 1916 Rising and only avoided execution because of his American citisenship and/or the general revulsion about the execution of the 1916 leaders. He was an immensely astute (manipulative) politician and a natural leader of the Sinn Féin TDs elected in the 1918 election.
His standing amongst his fellow TDs is evidenced by his being elected President of the first Dail Éireann by a unanimous vote. During the War of Independence, he spent many months in the United States drumming support and finance for the Irish cause.
It is not clear why he did not get directly involved in the Treaty negotiations in London. Instead, he sent Michael Collins to negotiate on behalf of the Irish people. The signing of the Treaty on 6 Dec provided legislative autonomy for twenty-six counties of Ireland, but resulted in the partition of Ireland and the foundation of the state of Northern Ireland. De Valera refused to accept the January 1923 vote of Dail Éireann approving the Treaty. Soon Ireland was again in a bloody conflict, but this time it was Irishman against Irishman in a vicious conflict laced with atrocity after atrocity on both sides.
De Valera and the anti-Treaty-ites were forced to call a halt to their campaign in May 1923. (It Is worth noting that the various campaigns conducted by the IRA throughout the rest of the 20th century derive from their lack of acceptance of this surrender or of the Treaty vote. The IRA never accepted the legitimacy of either government in the North or the Republic.)
Disillusioned with Sinn Féin and its abstentionist policies, De Valera founded Fianna Fáil in 1926. In order to take his seat in the Dail in 1927, he accepted the oath of allegiance (to the English crown) stating it to be but an empty formula. Fianna Fáil came to power in 1932 and dominated the Irish political landscape for most of the century.
As Taoiseach, he kept Ireland neutral during WWII, much to the chagrin of Churchill who desperately desired Ireland’s ports. The antipathy between the two men led to a number of verbal spats with De Valera acquitting himself extremely well in the eyes of his countrymen. De Valera also responded superbly to Lloyd George protestations prior to the Treaty negotiations of 1921
The “brilliant but austere De Valera” (in the words of JFK) brought international opprobrium on Ireland when he visited the German ambassador in Dublin to offer condolences on the death of Hitler.
In 1959, after thirty-three years at the head of Fianna Fáil, Éamon de Valera resigned as leader and Taoiseach and was elected President of Ireland (succeeding Sean T. O’Kelly), a position he held until 1973.
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