De Valera, Éamon (Ireland)

Reference work entry


Éamon de Valera was the dominant figure of twentieth century Irish politics. Determined to achieve a united independent Ireland, he served as President of the Provisional Government of Ireland (1919–21), Prime Minister of the Irish Free State (1932–48, 1951–54, 1957–59) and President of the Republic of Ireland from 1959–73. He emerged as a leader in the 1916 Easter Uprising and by the time of his death was a world-renowned statesman.

Early Life

De Valera, who was called Edward as a child, was born to an Irish mother and Spanish father in New York on 14 Oct. 1882. When his father died 2 years later, de Valera was sent to Co. Limerick where he was brought up my his mother’s family. A talented mathematician, he graduated from Dublin’s Royal University in 1904 and then held a series of teaching posts. In 1910 he married Sinead Flanagan, with whom he had seven children, and 3 years later he joined the Irish National Volunteers.

Operating within this organization, he led a battalion in the 1916 Easter Uprising and won recognition for his refusal to surrender until the last moment. The following year he was condemned to death but his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, partly in recognition of his American birth. Meanwhile he was elected president of Sinn Féin (We ourselves), having become the MP for Clare. He was released from prison in a general amnesty but was re-arrested and sentenced in 1918, serving his time in Lincoln in England. He escaped the following year and fled to the USA where he solicited support for the nationalist cause and raised substantial finance.

While de Valera was in America, the Irish MP’s formed an Irish Assembly (Dáil Éireann) and declared a republic under de Valera’s presidency. In de Valera’s absence, Arthur Griffith held the reins of power. The British government introduced the Government of Ireland Act in 1920, which allowed for most of Ulster to remain British while giving dominion status to the rest of Ireland. It failed to satisfy either side and Griffith (along with Michael Collins) negotiated a new Anglo-Irish Treaty (1921–22) with British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, which allowed for a slightly enlarged Irish state.

De Valera disapproved of the agreement because of the partition of Ireland, and he resigned his presidency of the Dáil and Sinn Féin. De Valera fought against the treaty in the ensuing civil war and served a spell in prison during 1923–24. In 1926 he formed a new party, Fianna Fáil (Soldiers of Destiny). He allowed his members to take the required oath of loyalty to the British sovereign but, as the main opposition, he campaigned for the removal of the oath, the end of partition and the termination of land purchase annuities to Britain.

Career Peak

After election success in 1932, de Valera became Prime Minister and in the same year became head of the Council of the League of Nations. The troubled relations with Britain resulted in economic hardship in Ireland, but Britain’s 1936 abdication crisis strengthened de Valera’s bargaining position. In 1937 he drafted the constitution that established Eire as a sovereign republic and removing many of the symbols of British domination. During World War II Ireland remained neutral and de Valera retained the premiership until 1948.

Ironically, it was the successor government of John Costello, that lasted until 1951, which withdrew Ireland from the British Commonwealth. de Valera had resisted such a move considering it detrimental to the chances of re-uniting the two Irelands. He re-gained power in 1951, was succeeded by Costello in 1954 and served a final spell as Prime Minister from 1957–59. His periods in government during the 1950s were overshadowed by mass emigration, declining industrial output and spiralling unemployment. de Valera’s style of leadership was informed principally by his devout Catholicism and sense of social conservatism.

Later Life

By 1959 de Valera had failing eyesight and resigned as Prime Minister (a position known as Taoiseach since 1937). He successfully stood for election as President in June 1959 and won a consecutive term in 1966. He retired in 1973, moving into a nursing home near Dublin where he died on 29 Aug. 1975. He overshadowed virtually every other Irish politician of his age but, although he succeeded in creating an independent Irish state, Ireland remained divided.

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© Springer Nature Limited 2019

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