Time to consider positive aspects of de Valera legacy

Eamon de Valera died 30 years ago on Monday

Eamon de Valera died 30 years ago on Monday. Historian Diarmaid Ferriter suggests that we should be moving towards a more sophisticated assessment of the man

Almost exactly 30 years ago, as the summer drew to a close, the most polarising and significant politician of 20th century Ireland died a quiet death. Eamon de Valera was 93 when he died at a Blackrock nursing home at midday on August 29th 1975. His wife, Sinéad, had died seven months earlier, on the eve of their 65th wedding anniversary.

Five years before he died, his officially-approved biography, by Lord Longford and Thomas P. O'Neill, had insisted that he was a creator of Ireland's destiny and that: "It is impossible to exaggerate the extent to which de Valera submitted all his actions to a criterion which was at once intellectual and moral."

But, in the days following his death, journalist Con Houlihan suggested that one could "only look on Eamon de Valera's life as a failure". He wrote: "By his own stated ambitions, he was a failure - it is as cruelly simple as that."


Other writers developed this negative assessment in the years after his death. In 1993, the biography by Tim Pat Coogan concluded that de Valera's career was a triumph of rhetoric over reality; that he did "little that was useful and much that was harmful".

For anyone under the age of 60, the de Valera they saw was always an old man: nearly blind and a symbol, almost a relic, of depressed and difficult decades. In 1948, at the age of 66, when most people are considering retirement, electoral defeat broke Fianna Fáil's 16-year grip on power. But de Valera had no intention of departing the political stage - he returned to serve another two terms as taoiseach in the 1950s before Seán Lemass succeeded him. And de Valera then went on to serve two terms as president.

The consensus is that he stayed too long and, in doing so, hindered the embrace of the policies which were finally to achieve some prosperity for the country.

In staying so long, his critics were able to reduce him to a one-dimensional embodiment of the negative aspects of Irish independence - the economic stagnation, the emigration, the failure of the language to thrive and the continued partition of the country. All of these shortcomings, it seemed, could be parcelled under the label "de Valera's Ireland".

It was almost as if de Valera was in power on his own, whereas he was in fact surrounded by a host of strong and able politicians in his own party: Lemass, Seán Mac Entee, Frank Aiken and James Ryan, to name but a few, and they were happy to see him last the course, as were the huge number of loyal Fianna Fáil voters.

Words like "restless" and "vigorous" are frequently employed to describe his successor, Seán Lemass, as if anything that had gone before was the opposite: staid and lethargic. But, even if Lemass had taken over in 1948, it should not be assumed that the embrace of free trade would have happened then. T.K. Whitaker was not appointed secretary of the Department of Finance until 1956, and Lemass himself acknowledged that he and his party did not get to grips with the need for completely novel thinking about the economy until the mid to late 1950s.

It is not the case that a restless and vigorous Seán Lemass was desperately impatient to be taoiseach while de Valera clung to the office beyond his welcome. Lemass was, in fact, a reluctant taoiseach. Tom Garvin, in his book Preventing the Future, quotes a weary Lemass in July 1959 writing to de Valera: "Since I took over as taoiseach, I have not ceased to wonder how you carried the burden for so long without showing the strain. You are a wonderful man and surely tough as teak."

De Valera was indeed tough; he was also difficult, did not tell his colleagues in government enough, behaved irresponsibly after the war of independence, failed to devote enough attention to economics, and left questions unanswered about his inappropriate involvement in the Irish Press company while taoiseach.

But is it not time now to acknowledge that his qualities as taoiseach outweighed his failures and shortcomings? Thirty years after his death, should we not be moving towards a more sophisticated assessment of de Valera and his legacy?

He was a man of international significance and a role model in the 20th century struggle for small nations to challenge and defeat imperialism. He contributed enormously to the commitment to democracy in the 1930s, a hugely dangerous decade for democracy. When in power, he did not shirk the need to confront republicans who sought to bypass the need for a mandate. He was strategically brilliant when it came to political tactics and Anglo-Irish negotiations - a leader who developed a sophisticated and moral foreign policy underpinning the sovereignty he masterminded for Ireland in the 1930s and the 1940s - and he framed a constitution which has endured.

Was the much-derided "Ireland which we dreamed of" speech in 1943 really that bad?

Lazily sneered at as the "comely maidens" speech, it contained much that was positive - an emphasis on a country at ease with itself, with an elevated sense of community, rights and responsibilities between the different generations, healthy children, and scepticism about the idea that wealth would solve everything.

In the main, de Valera practised what he preached. He lived his last years frugally and left £2,800 in his will. State papers released in 2003 demonstrated the huge gulf which existed between the civil war generation of Irish politicians and some of their greedy successors - the papers highlighted that one of the greatest fears of de Valera in his twilight years was that his state income would be insufficient to provide for the cost of healthcare for himself and his wife.

Had he lived to witness it, de Valera would doubtlessly have been appalled at the activities of some of the subsequent generation of Fianna Fáil.

Whatever his faults, and the question marks over his role in the Irish Press company, de Valera was a patriotic politician whose loyalty was to party and State rather than to himself; this was one of the reasons he continued to hold office until the age of 91 and refused to accept an increase in the allowance for the office of president.

In that sense, the title of Charles Haughey's collected speeches, The Spirit of the Nation, was more applicable to de Valera than to Haughey.

Of course, one can only speculate as to how he would have reacted to the emergence of coalition governments involving Fianna Fáil. He was of the old school which believed that coalitions were a recipe for instability and weak government. But he, too, could be a pragmatist, and ideologically, given that on more than one occasion he alluded to the idea that Fianna Fáil was the real Labour Party in Ireland, he may well have believed that they would be more suitable bedfellows for his party than the Progressive Democrats.

No one would suggest that the social and economic depression of the 1950s was in any way positive, but in an age of vulgar wealth and consumption, catastrophic male suicide rates, sky-high house prices and declining civic responsibility and participation, maybe it is time to reconsider positive aspects of the de Valera legacy.

Diarmaid Ferriter lectures in Irish history at St Patrick's College, Dublin City University. His book, The Transformation of Ireland 1900-2000, will be published in paperback next week by Profile Press