- - Monday, June 6, 2016



By Ronan Fanning

Harvard University Press, $29.95, 308 pages, illustrated

Had Eamon de Valera, one of the key players in the Irish Easter Rising almost exactly a century ago in the spring of 1916, not been born in New York, he would have been executed along with the other ringleaders. At least that’s the legend, but one of the many fascinating areas probed by Ronan Fanning, a professor emeritus of Modern History at University College Dublin, in his compact but searching biography is that there’s much more to this story than the conventional wisdom.

De Valera’s wife certainly approached the American consul in Dublin with the relevant information, and certainly British Prime Minister Asquith and his government — desperate for the United States to enter the war on the Allied side — were loath to execute one of its citizens. But Mr. Fanning tells us that “de Valera made no such representations on his own behalf [and] he also said he always regarded himself as an Irishman” and that there were other domestic political reasons — British as well as Irish — as well as technical issues behind the commutation of his sentence.

This nuanced look behind the facade is typical of Mr. Fanning’s scrupulousness as a scholar as well as his subtlety. He subjects de Valera’s role in the uprising to an exhaustive analysis, revealing in the process many lesser known facts. But being dedicated to unearthing the underlying truth does not mean that he is unaware of the power of myth and its uses: “What mattered, in short, in paving the way for de Valera’s subsequent rise to power was not what he did in 1916 but the political purposes to which what he did could be bent.” Drawing on excellent secondary sources — and even primary ones like interviewing de Valera’s son — he shows us the motivations behind the great man’s often enigmatic actions as well as their effect on making and strengthening an independent nation.

All the controversies that marked de Valera’s career, from his rejection of the partitioning Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 — which led to a dozen years in the electoral but definitely not the political wilderness — to Irish neutrality in World War II receive their always enlightening due. Mr. Fanning is no simplistic apologist for his subject, but nor he is he hostile toward him. This approach is more than usually valuable, for de Valera was a polarizing and controversial figure, and so a balanced assessment is especially welcome in assessing his decades-long political dominance.

There are many surprises along the way, even for those readers well-informed on Irish history and politics, not least de Valera’s surprisingly pragmatic view of partition, despite his abhorrence of it. For him Ireland’s sovereignty as a nation was supreme and it was to establishing it absolutely that all his efforts were in the end aimed. As an elder statesman, he lived to see Ireland become a member of the EEC (precursor of today’s European Union). He was all for the trade and other economic advantages, but he was concerned about political federalism, which would inevitably weaken or even destroy Irish sovereignty.

Mr. Fanning writes that “Ireland’s entry into the EEC in 1973 signaled that sovereignty was no longer an issue because by then independence had long been taken for granted. Yet without Eamon de Valera Ireland would never have achieved independence so quickly.” Reading this book amid the continentwide debate about ever-increasing European federalism leaves me in no doubt that, delighted as de Valera would be that membership of the EU has finally liberated Ireland from residual British influence, he would now be a determined political Eurosceptic.

Ireland’s neutrality in World War II kept it out of the United Nations for a full decade. As a leading light in the League of Nations between the wars, one might think that this might have upset de Valera, but he was cool to the new organization: “While he recognized that the ‘democratic character of the League’ had inhibited ‘its ability to take action when action should have been taken,’ ” he thought the U.N. “represented a swing round from the democratic to the dictatorial form of organization. What is being substituted now is a dictatorship of the great powers.” Indeed, it was a Soviet veto that initially kept Ireland out of the U.N. in 1946 despite British and U.S. support.

In his great poem “Easter 1916,” W.B. Yeats invokes the names of the executed rebels to proclaim that they were “transformed changed, changed utterly: a terrible beauty is born.” Had de Valera been shot with them, his name would have been similarly immortalized, but Mr. Fanning doubts that Ireland could have achieved true national sovereignty for several decades — or perhaps ever — without his indomitable will, steely determination and political skill. This biography makes a strong and ultimately convincing case for de Valera as the indispensable founding father of the sovereign Irish Republic we know today.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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