In a Word . . . de Valera

My late father believed he walked on water, unaided, and probably skipped and jumped as well without once sinking

 

Hello, good morning, and happy birthday Mr President. No, not the one who blows more than Hurricane Irma. I refer to the real President. He who was there forever through the long, so slow-moving days of my childhood. The one affectionately known (to some) as “Dev”.

Others had less flattering names for him which simply could not be repeated here on the same page as Thinking Anew and the Church Notes. As with all truly divisive figures, no one was equivocal about Dev.

My late father believed he walked on water, unaided, and probably skipped and jumped as well without once sinking. It was why my late brother was named Eamon Pearse, neither name needing further explanation. And why my baby sister is called Sinéad, after Dev’s wife, the lovely Bean de Valera.

Once in my young life I saw my father speechless, a miracle in its day. It was in July 1968 and while we were standing at the grave of Ireland’s first president, Douglas Hyde, in Portahard, Co Roscommon. The occasion was the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Gaelic League (Conradh na Gaeilge) by Hyde, and Dev had come to pay homage.

Tall and gaunt, of waxen pallor, standing stiffly upright with hat in his hand, he was gentle and reverent as he shuffled slowly to the graveside and our collective jaws hit the churchyard clay in awe. It was the only time I ever saw this living legend my father had painted as a latter-day Fionn MacCumhaill.

“Taoiseach seven times, President twice, founder of Fianna Fáil – it’s a very simple, modest grave,” said the late Shane Mac Thomáis as he led us to Dev’s resting place on a tour of Glasnevin cemetery in 2007.

“Is it true Dev and the wife didn’t get on?” asked one of the tour party. “It was said they didn’t talk a lot later on,” replied Shane. “Did he shoot Michael Collins?” asked another. “. . . come on . . .” said Shane, ushering us rapidly to Jim Larkin’s grave.Even in death Dev raises all sorts of questions. There lies its sting.

He was born 135 years ago on this day in 1882.

Happy birthday Mr President.

The surname de Valera is believed to have originated in north-eastern Spain and is derived from the Latin valere, meaning “strong”, “vigorous”, “potent”.

inaword@irishtimes.com

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