Eamon de Valera

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Eamon de Valera, 3rd President of Ireland

Éamon de Valera (1882-1975)

Rank 3rd President
Term of Office June 25, 1959 - June 24, 1973
Number of Terms 2
Predecessor Seán T. O'Kelly
Successor Erskine Hamilton Childers
Date of Birth Saturday, October 14, 1882
Place of Birth Manhattan, New York
Date of Death Friday, August 29, 1975
Place of Death Dublin, Ireland
First Lady Sinéad Bean de Valera
Political Party Fianna Fáil
Profession Mathematician, teacher, politician
Nominated By (1959 and 1966) Fianna Fáil
Other Candidates Fine Gael (1959): Seán Mac Eoin

Fine Gael (1966): Tom O'Higgins

Éamon de Valera[1] (born Edward George de Valera, sometimes Gaelicised Éamonn de Bhailéara; October 14, 1882August 29, 1975), was an Irish politician, best known as a leader of Ireland's struggle for independence from the United Kingdom in the early 20th Century, and the Republican anti-Treaty opposition in the ensuing Irish Civil War.

At various times a mathematician, teacher and a politician, he served as Irish head of government on three occasions, as second President of the Executive Council (original name for the prime minister) and the first Taoiseach (prime ministerial title after 1937). He ended his political career as President of Ireland, serving two terms from 1959 until 1973. Eamon de Valera was also the Chancellor of the National University of Ireland from 1922 until 1975.

Revered and despised in equal measure throughout Ireland, during his lifetime and posthumously, Eamon de Valera is generally regarded as the most influential person in the history of 20th Century Ireland.



Born in the New York Nursery and Child Hospital in New York City in 1882 to an Irish mother, he stated that his parents, Kate Coll and Juan Vivion de Valera, a Spanish-Cuban settler and sculptor, were married in 1881 in New York. However, exhaustive trawls through church and state records by genealogists and by his most recent biographer, Tim Pat Coogan (1990) have failed to find either a church or civil record of the marriage. Furthermore, no birth, baptismal, marriage or death certificate has ever been found for anyone called Juan Vivion de Valera or de Valeros, an alternative spelling. As a result, it is now widely believed by academics that de Valera was illegitimate. While this would be irrelevant to many nowadays, one result of illegitimacy in the late 19th/early 20th century was that one was barred from a career in the Roman Catholic Church. Eamon de Valera was throughout his life a deeply religious man, who in death asked to be buried in a religious habit. There are a number of occasions where de Valera seriously contemplated entering the religious life like his half-brother, Fr. Thomas Wheelwright. Yet he did not do so, and apparently received little encouragement from the priests whose advice he sought. In his biography of de Valera, Tim Pat Coogan speculated about whether questions surrounding de Valera's legitimacy may have been a deciding factor.

Whatever his parentage, de Valera was taken to Ireland at the age of two. Even when his mother married a new husband in the mid-1880s, he was not brought back to live with her but reared instead by maternal relatives in County Limerick. He was educated locally at Bruree National School and Charleville Christian Brothers School, both in County Limerick. At the age of sixteen, he won a scholarship to Blackrock College, County Dublin.

Always a diligent student, he won further scholarships and exhibitions and in 1903 was appointed professor of mathematics at Rockwell College, County Tipperary. He graduated in mathematics in 1904 from the Royal University of Ireland and then went back to Dublin to teach at Belvedere College. In 1906, he secured a post as professor of mathematics at Carysfort Teachers' Training College for women in Blackrock, County Dublin. His applications for professorships in colleges of the National University of Ireland were unsuccessful, but he obtained a part-time appointment at Maynooth and also lectured in mathematics at various Dublin colleges.

Early political activity

An intelligent young man, he became an active gaeilgeoir (Irish language enthusiast). In 1908 he joined the Ardchraobh of Conradh na Gaeilge (the Gaelic League), where he met Sinéad Flanagan. A teacher by profession and four years his senior, they were married on January 8, 1910 at St Paul's Church, Arran Quay, Dublin.

While he was already involved in the Gaelic Revival, de Valera's involvement in the political revolution began on November 25, 1913 when he joined the Irish Volunteers. He rose through the ranks and it wasn't long until he was elected captain of the Donnybrook company. Preparations were pushed ahead for an armed rising, and he was made commandant of the Third Battalion and adjutant of the Dublin Brigade. He was sworn by Thomas MacDonagh into the oath-bound Irish Republican Brotherhood, which secretly controlled the central executive of the Volunteers.

Easter Rising

Eamon de Valera with his wife
Eamon de Valera with his wife
Eamon de Valera in his thirties.
Eamon de Valera in his thirties.

On April 24, 1916 the rising began. De Valera occupied Boland's Mills, Grand Canal Street in Dublin, his chief task being to cover the south-eastern approaches to the city. After a week of fighting the order came from Pádraig Pearse to surrender. De Valera was court-martialled, convicted, and sentenced to death, but the sentence was immediately commuted to penal servitude for life. It is often thought that he was saved from execution because of American citizenship. That is technically incorrect. He was saved by two facts: firstly, he was held in a different prison from other leaders, thus his execution was delayed by practicalities; had he been held with Padraig Pearse, James Connolly and others, he probably would have been one of the first executed; and secondly, his American citizenship caused a delay, while the full legal situation (i.e., was he actually a United States citizen and if so, how would the United States react to the execution of one of its citizens?) was clarified. The fact that Britain was trying to bring the USA into the war in Europe at the time made the situation even more delicate. Both delays taken together meant that, while he was next-in-line for execution, when the time came for a decision, all executions had been halted in view of the negative public reaction; so timing, location and questions relating to citizenship saved de Valera's life.

The Easter Rising showed up a number of contrasting aspects of Eamon de Valera's personality. On the one hand, he showed leadership skills and a meticulous ability for planning. Yet during his command he also experienced what in hindsight was seen as a form of nervous breakdown, so embarrassing that its occurrence was hidden by those who had been with him in 1916 all through his lifetime. In fact the details of his erratic and emotional behaviour only came to light, thanks to a recent biography.[2]

After imprisonment in Dartmoor, Maidstone and Lewes prisons, he and his comrades were released under an amnesty in June 1917. Shortly afterwards he was elected member of the British House of Commons for East Clare (the constituency which he represented until 1959) in the 1918 general election as well as president of Sinn Féin, the previously small monarchist party which had wrongly been credited by the British for the Easter Rising and which the survivors of the Rising took over and then turned into a republican party. The previous president of Sinn Féin, Arthur Griffith, had championed an Anglo-Irish "dual monarchy", with an independent Ireland governed separately from Britain, their only link being a shared monarch. That had been the situation with the so-called Constitution of 1782 under Henry Grattan, until Ireland merged with the Kingdom of Great Britain to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in 1800.

President of Dáil Éireann

Priomh Áire
Cathal Brugha (January — April 1919)
Cathal Brugha (January — April 1919)
Eamon de Valera (1919—August 1921)
Eamon de Valera (1919—August 1921)
President of
The Republic
Eamon de Valera (August 1921—1922)
Eamon de Valera (August 1921—1922)
Arthur Griffith (January—August 1922)
Arthur Griffith (January—August 1922)
W.T. Cosgrave (August—December 1922)
W.T. Cosgrave (August—December 1922)
Office abolished
December 1922

Sinn Féin won a huge majority in the 1918 general election, largely thanks to the executions of the 1916 leaders and the threat of conscription. They won 73 out of 104 Irish seats, with about 47% of votes cast. However, such was the level of support for the party, many seats were uncontested and so this percentage is lower than it would have been had this not been the case. In January 1919, those Sinn Féin MPs, calling themselves Teachtaí Dála, assembled in the Mansion House in Dublin on January 21, 1919 and formed an Irish parliament, known as Dáil Éireann (translatable into English as the Assembly of Ireland). A ministry or Aireacht was formed, under the leadership of the Príomh Aire (also called President of Dáil Éireann) Cathal Brugha. De Valera had been re-arrested in May 1918 and imprisoned and so could not attend the January session of the Dáil. He escaped from Lincoln Gaol in February 1919. As a result he replaced Brugha as Príomh Aire in the April session of Dáil Éireann. However the Dáil Constitution passed by the Dáil in 1919 made clear that the Príomh Aire (or President of Dáil Éireann as it came to be called) was merely prime minister - the literal translation of Príomh Aire - not a full head of state.

In the hope of securing international recognition, Seán T. O'Kelly was sent as envoy to Paris to present the Irish case to the Peace Conference convened by the great powers at the end of the World War I. When it became clear by May 1919 that this mission could not succeed, the President decided to visit the United States. The mission had three objectives: to ask for official recognition of the Irish Republic, to float a loan to finance the work of the government (and by extension, the IRA), and to secure the support of the American people for the republic. His visit lasted from June 1919 to December 1920 and had mixed success. A loan of $6 million was raised, a sum that far exceeded the hopes of the Dáil, and he won wide public support, but official recognition was not forthcoming and he had difficulties with the Irish-American leaders who resented the dominant position he took up and wished to retain their control over Irish affairs in the United States.

Meanwhile in Ireland, conflict between the British authorities and the Dáil (declared illegal in September 1919) escalated into the Irish War of Independence (also called the 'Anglo-Irish War'). The Long Fellow (or An t-Amadán Fada, another of de Valera's nicknames, given to him because of his great height, meaning the Long Fool) left day to day government to Michael Collins (The Big Fellow), his twenty-nine year old Minister for Finance and rival.

President of the Republic

In January 1919, at his first Dáil meeting after his return to a country gripped by the Anglo-Irish War, de Valera introduced a motion calling on the IRA to desist from ambushes and other tactics that were allowing the British to successfully portray it as a terrorist group, and to take on the British forces with convenional military methods. This was immediately shot down, and he was forced to issue a statement expressing support for the IRA, and claimed it was fully under the control of the Dáil. This was seen as evidence of how out of touch de Valera was with the realities of the struggle for independence on the ground by his critics. He then, along with Cathal Brugha and Austin Stack, brought pressure to bear on Michael Collins to undertake a journey to the U.S. himself, on the pretext that only he could take up where de Valera had left off. In reality, these three felt that Collins was overeaching his authority. Collins successfully resisted this move, and stayed in Ireland. In August 1921 de Valera had Dáil Éireann change the 1919 Dáil Constitution to upgrade his office from prime minister or chairman of the cabinet to a full President of the Republic. Declaring himself now the Irish equivalent of King George V, he argued that as Irish head of state, in the absence of the British head of state from the negotiations, he too should not attend the peace conference called the Treaty Negotiations (October-December 1921) at which British and Irish government leaders agreed to the effective independence of 26 of Ireland's 32 counties as the Irish Free State, with the other six in the north remaining under British sovereignty as Protestant-dominated Northern Ireland (Technically, Northern Ireland was originally part of the Free State, but with the option of opting out immediately, which they did straight away. Having done so, a boundary commission came into place to redraw the Irish border. Nationalists expected its report to recommend that largely nationalist areas become part of the Free State, and many hoped this would make Northern Ireland so small it would not be economically viable. A Council of Ireland was also provided in the Treaty as a model for an eventual all-Irish parliament. Hence neither the pro- nor anti-treaty sides made much complaint about partition in the Treaty debates. They all expected it would prove shortlived).

The Treaty

The Republic's delegates to the Treaty Negotiations were accredited by President de Valera and his cabinet as plenipotentiaries (that is, negotiators with the legal authority to sign a treaty without reference back to the cabinet). However the Treaty proved controversial in so far as it replaced the Republic (which was unrecognised by any international state) by a dominion of the British Commonwealth with the King represented by a Governor-General of the Irish Free State. De Valera balked at the agreement, even though his opponents claimed he had refused to go because he knew what the outcome would be and didn't want to get the blame. Because of the secret instructions given to the plenipotentiaries, he reacted to news of the signing of the Treaty not with anger at its contents (which he refused even to read when offered a newspaper report of its contents) but with anger over the fact that they had not consulted with him, their president, before signing. All of this, of course, was despite the fact the de Valera refused to go the treaty negotiations in the first place. After the Treaty was narrowly ratified, de Valera and a large minority of Sinn Féin TDs left Dáil Éireann and tried unsuccessfully to set up a republican administration with a republican ministry under himself. Griffith was elected President of Dáil Éireann in his place.

Civil War

Relations with the new Irish government, which was backed by most of the Dáil and the electorate, and the Anti-Treatyites under the nominal leadership of de Valera, now descended into the Irish Civil War (June 1922), in which the pro-treaty Free State forces defeated the anti-Treaty IRA. Even de Valera's most passionate supporters admit his behaviour at that point was the low point in his career. Speeches where he talked of "wading through the blood" of ministers exacerbated the bitterness of the conflict. Though nominally head of the Anti-Treatyites, de Valera had little influence and spent part of the time in prison. Among the Civil War's many tragedies were the assassination of Michael Collins, who was the head of the Provisional Government, the death through exhaustion of the President of Dáil Éireann, Arthur Griffith, the execution of one of the treaty signatories, Robert Erskine Childers and the deliberate booby-trapping and destruction by republicans of the Irish Public Records Office in the Four Courts, which destroyed one thousand years of Irish state records in an act that even the strongest defenders of the anti-treaty cause describe as a "pointless act".

Entry into the Free State Dáil: the 'empty formula'

The foundation of Fianna Fáil in 1926De Valera, the new leader of the new party, is on the left. On the right is Domhnall Ua Buachalla, whom he would appoint as Governor-General in 1932 as a gesture to undermine the office.
The foundation of Fianna Fáil in 1926
De Valera, the new leader of the new party, is on the left. On the right is Domhnall Ua Buachalla, whom he would appoint as Governor-General in 1932 as a gesture to undermine the office.

After the IRA dumped their arms rather than surrender them or continue a now fruitless war, de Valera returned to political methods. In 1924 he was arrested in Newry for "illegally entering Northern Ireland" and held in solitary confinement for a month in Crumlin Road Jail, Belfast. After narrowly losing a vote of the Sinn Féin party to accept the Free State Constitution (contingent on the abolition of the Oath of Allegiance), de Valera resigned from the presidency of the party and in March 1926 formed a new party, Fianna Fáil (Soldiers of Destiny), a party destined to dominate twentieth century Irish politics. The party made swift electoral gains but refused to take the Oath of Allegiance (spun by opponents as an 'Oath of Allegiance to the Crown' but actually an Oath of Allegiance to the Irish Free State with a secondary promise of fidelity to the King in his role in the Treaty settlement. The oath was actually largely the work of Michael Collins and based on three sources: British oaths in the dominions, the oath of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and a draft oath prepared by de Valera in his proposed Treaty alternative, Document No.2). The party began a legal case to challenge the requirement that it take the Oath, but the assassination of the Vice-President of the Executive Council (ie. deputy prime minister) Kevin O'Higgins led the Executive Council under W.T. Cosgrave to introduce a Bill requiring all Dáil candidates to promise on oath that if they were elected they would take the Oath of Allegiance. Forced into a corner, and faced with the option of staying outside politics forever or taking the oath and entering, de Valera and his TDs took the Oath of Allegiance in 1927, declaring it "an empty formula", albeit one that hundreds had fought and killed over in a civil war five years earlier. In 1931, in a populist and controversial move, he backed Mayo County Council when they fired a Protestant head librarian on the grounds of religion, stating that "a county that is 98% Catholic is entitled to a Catholic head librarian."

President of the Executive Council

In the 1932 General Election Fianna Fáil secured 72 seats and became the largest party in the Dáil, although without a majority. De Valera was appointed President of the Executive Council (Prime Minister) by Governor-General James McNeill on March 9. He at once initiated steps to fulfil his election promises of abolishing the oath and withholding land annuities owed to Britain. In retaliation the British imposed economic sanctions against Irish exports, and the resulting economic war caused much distress. On his advice the appointment of James McNeill as Governor-General was terminated by King George V on November 1, 1932 and a 1916 veteran, Domhnall Ua Buachalla, was appointed Seanascal in his place. Thus another symbol of monarchical authority was virtually removed. To strengthen his position against the opposition in the Dáil and Seanad, de Valera called a general election in January 1933 and won 77 seats, giving him an overall majority. Under his leadership, Fianna Fáil won further general elections in 1937, 1938, 1943 and 1944.

De Valera took charge of Ireland's foreign policy as well by acting as his own Minister for External Affairs. In that capacity he attended meetings of the League of Nations. He was president of the Council of the League on his first appearance at Geneva in 1932 and, in a speech that made a worldwide impression, appealed for genuine adherence by its members to the principles of the Covenant of the league. In 1934, he supported the admission of the Soviet Union into the league. In September 1938 he was elected nineteenth president of the Assembly of the league, a tribute to the international recognition he had won by his independent stance on world questions.

De Valera's new Constitution - Bunreacht na hÉireann

Éamon de Valera entering Leinster House, home of the Free State parliament
Éamon de Valera entering Leinster House, home of the Free State parliament

During the 1930s, de Valera had systematically stripped down the Irish Free State constitution that had been drafted by a committee under the nominal chairmanship of his great rival, Michael Collins. In reality, de Valera had only been able to do this due to three reasons. First, though the 1922 constitution was supposed to require amendment through public plebiscite eight years after its passage, the Free State government under W.T. Cosgrave had amended that period to 16 years, meaning that until 1938 the Free State constitution could be amended by the simple passage of a Constitutional Amendment Act through the Oireachtas. Secondly, while in theory the Governor-General of the Irish Free State could reserve or deny the Royal Assent to any legislation, in practice the power to advise the Governor-General so to do as and from 1927 no longer rested with the British Government in London but with His Majesty's Government in the Irish Free State, which meant that in practice, the Royal Assent was automatically granted to legislation; the government was hardly likely to advise the Governor-General to block the enactment of one of its own bills. Thirdly, in theory the Constitution had to be in keeping with the provisions of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the fundamental law of the state. However that requirement had been removed only a short time before de Valera gained power. Thus, with all the checks and balances that had been provided to preserve the Treaty settlement neutralised, de Valera had a free hand to change the 1922 constitution at will.

This he did with a vengeance. The Oath of Allegiance was abolished, as were appeals to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. The opposition-controlled Senate, when it protested and slowed down these measures was also abolished. And finally in December 1936, de Valera used the sudden abdication of King Edward VIII as king of his various realms including King of Ireland to pass two Bills; one amended the constitution to remove all mention of the King and Governor-General while the second brought the King back, this time through statute law, for use in representing the Irish Free State at diplomatic level.

In 1931, the UK parliament had passed the Statute of Westminster, which established the legislative equal status of the self-governing dominions of the British Empire, including the Irish Free State, and the United Kingdom. Though many constitutional links between the Dominions and the UK remained, this is often seen as the moment at which the Dominions became sovereign states. In July 1936, de Valera as constitutionally the King's Irish Prime Minister, wrote to King Edward in London indicating that he planned to introduce a new constitution, the central part of which was to be the creation of an office de Valera provisionally intended to call President of Saorstát Éireann, which would replace the governor-generalship. The title ultimately changed from President of Saorstát Éireann (Uachtarán Shaorstát Éireann) to President of Ireland (Uachtarán na hÉireann), but it still remained the central feature of his new constitution, to which he gave the new Irish language name Bunreacht na hÉireann (meaning literally the Constitution of Ireland).

De Valera's new constitution embodied a process called Constitutional Autochthony, that is, the assertion of legal nationalism. At various levels it contained key symbols to mark Irish republican independence from Britain. These included:

  • a new name for the state, Éire
  • a claim that the island of Ireland was a natural national territorial unit (Article 2) and so challenged Britain's partition settlement of 1920;
  • a new popularly elected 'President of Ireland' to replace the British King and Crown and the appointed Irish Governor-General;
  • recognition of the "special position" of Roman Catholicism, which had for most of Britain's rule in Ireland been suppressed and discriminated against;
  • a recognition of a Catholic concept of marriage which excluded divorce, something that was culturally associated with English Protestantism (e.g., Henry VIII) but which had no history of acceptance within Catholicism.
  • the declaration that the Irish language was an official language of the nation, along with English.
  • the use of Irish language terms to stress Irish cultural and historical identity (eg, Uachtarán, Taoiseach, Tánaiste, Rialtas, Dáil, Seanad, etc.)

In reality, as with much of de Valera's policies, most of the above were more apparent than real.

  • For all the anti-partition rhetoric, partition remained a legal reality, accepted by Article 3;
  • for most of its existence, the popularly elected president was never popularly elected, but chosen by the political parties for their own reasons. In addition, the key powers that defined who a head of state was (ie, being the representative of a state at international diplomatic level) were possessed by the 'King of Ireland' (as George VI was proclaimed and continued to be called until the declaration of the republic in April 1949;
  • the "special position" of the Roman Catholic Church was a constitutionally meaningless phrase. In some areas (De Valera's refusal to make Catholicism the established church, his refusal to side with Franco in the Spanish Civil War, the constitutional recognition given to the existence of the Church of Ireland, the Presbyterians, the Methodists and in particular in Irish Jewish community) de Valera's constitution was actually quite radical and distinctly non-Catholic in its day. For that reason, Pope Pius XI refused to support its adoption, an endorsement constitutions in predominantly Catholic countries routinely sought and often got.
  • the features of the "Catholic" family focused on in the constitution (family based on marriage, with no divorce and the belief that the family was central to society) accurately mirrored most of the beliefs (divorce excepted) of the mainstream Protestant faiths on the island, namely the Church of Ireland and the Presbyterian Church (except for "High Church" Anglicans, who also oppose divorce).
  • Though given symbolic superiority, Irish in reality remained a language of a small and rapidly dwindling number of people. In contrast, the state's second official language, English, was the language of the vast majority of people.

Thus for all the constitutional autochthony symbols, the Irish state was neither as nationalist nor as Catholic, neither as Gaelic nor as free from the Crown as de Valera, through his use of symbols, tried to suggest.

Neutrality in World War II

Germany's interest in Ireland before and in the early years of World War II (called The Emergency in the Free State) including investigating whether the IRA could be used against Britain, investigating the tactical advantages of invading Ireland, and negotiating with the Irish government. Germany courted the Irish government, before and during the war, though with little success. De Valera kept the Free State neutral in World War II. The British MI5 naturally took more than a passing interest in his deeds and whereabouts. Whereas the neutrality of the USA was terminated with the attack on Pearl Harbor, Irish neutrality was maintained right through to the end of the war. Both the possibility of a German invasion and a British invasion were discussed in the Dáil.


Irish neutrality took on some unique characteristics of its own:

  • The Irish government secretly aided the Allies side; for example, the timing of D-Day was decided thanks to weather reports supplied by Ireland which told of incoming weather conditions from the Atlantic.
  • Most Allied airmen were 'accidentally' allowed to 'escape' into Northern Ireland, while all German airmen who crashed in the Free State were interned.
  • Roughly 45,000 Irish Free State men voluntarily joined the Allied forces (including Patrick Clancy and his brother, Tom Clancy (singer), both of whom, ironically had also been IRA volunteers) without interference from the Irish government (which had prohibited Irishmen from entering the Spanish Civil War, some years earlier).
  • On the occasion of the death of Adolf Hitler, de Valera paid a visit to Eduard Hempel, the German minister in Dublin, to express sympathy over the death of the Führer. This action was criticised by some of the victorious allies, but he thought it necessary to preserve Ireland's neutral image.


Non-neutrality could either have meant support for Germany or the United Kingdom. Neither was particularly appealing and either would have led to an upsurge in subversive activity. An alliance with Germany risked certain invasion from the UK. An alliance with the UK risked internal political instability. De Valera's policy of neutrality probably enabled de Valera and the opposition to maintain a political unity. That might not have been achievable had de Valera wanted to openly side with the Allies, which would have provoked the IRA. De Valera interned hundreds of IRA men during the war, and had no hesitation in executing IRA prisoners to set an example. He feared that IRA actions might provoke the British into crossing the border.

Some historians might argue that Irish neutrality was the best tactic for the Allies too, as an attack by Germany on a neutral Ireland would have enraged Irish-Americans and so brought the United States into the war earlier, although had Ireland joined the war in 1939, the reality of the war would have been brought to the USA earlier, which would, of course, have been in the Allies' best interests and would have shortened the war and saved millions of lives.

In 2005 documents were released from the Public Record Office regarding contacts between de Valera and a British MI6 officer in 1942 over the Irish Free State joining the Allies, which was rejected by de Valera. Details of the meetings were not disclosed but it is believed an offer was made over the status of Northern Ireland.

De Valera and Churchill clash on radio

In his Victory in Europe Day radio broadcast, British Prime Minister and old de Valera adversary Winston Churchill launched a strong attack on the Irish government's policy of neutrality, while being careful to distinguish that from any criticism of the Irish people as a whole or of individual Irishmen - a nuance that may well have failed to be communicated. De Valera's reply, also in a radio broadcast, won widespread respect and praise in Ireland from even his bitterest opponents. However, at the time and in the emotions of the moment, it lowered the respect for him held by people in combatant countries, who did not always fully appreciate the points and who were also influenced by indignation at his official and diplomatically proper condolences on the death of Hitler. De Valera told Radio Éireann listeners:

It is indeed fortunate that Britain's necessity did not reach the point when Mr. Churchill would have [invaded Ireland]. All credit to him that he successfully resisted the temptation which, I have not doubt, many times assailed him in his difficulties and to which I freely admit many leaders might have easily succumbed. It is indeed hard for the strong to be just to the weak, but acting justly always has its rewards.
By resisting his temptation in this instance, Mr. Churchill, instead of adding another horrid chapter to the already bloodstained record of the relations between England and this country, has advanced the cause of international morality an important step-one of the most important, indeed, that can be taken on the road to the establishment of any sure basis for peace. . .
Mr. Churchill is proud of Britain's stand alone, after France had fallen and before America entered the War.
Could he not find in his heart the generosity to acknowledge that there is a small nation that stood alone not for one year or two, but for several hundred years against aggression; that endured spoliations, famines, massacres in endless succession; that was clubbed many times into insensibility, but that each time on returning [to] consciousness took up the fight anew; a small nation that could never be got to accept defeat and has never surrendered her soul?
Mr. Churchill is justly proud of his nation's perseverance against heavy odds. But we in this island are still prouder of our people's perseverance for freedom through all the centuries. We, of our time, have played our part in the perseverance, and we have pledged ourselves to the dead generations who have preserved intact for us this glorious heritage, that we, too, will strive to be faithful to the end, and pass on this tradition unblemished.

As a speech, it probably counts among de Valera's finest and even his opponents spoke of their pride in his words. But the speech also contained another interesting but often overlooked phrase. Early in the speech, he told listeners,

I know the reply I would have given a quarter of a century ago. But I have deliberately decided that that is not the reply I shall make tonight. I shall strive not to be guilty of adding any fuel to the flames of hatred and passion which, if continued to be fed, promise to burn up whatever is left by the war of decent human feeling in Europe.
Allowances can be made for Mr. Churchill's statement, however unworthy, in the first flush of his victory. No such excuse could be found for me in this quieter atmosphere. There are, however some things which it is my duty to say, some things which it is essential to say. I shall try to say them as dispassionately as I can.

In those sentences he showed a degree of criticism of his own behaviour in the past that was occasionally repeated, particularly towards the end of his life, how a quarter of a century before, during the Treaty debates and the civil war, he had used war-like provocative words and sentences, such as 'wading through the blood of Irishmen', that inflamed tension; indeed, his aside however unworthy was provocative there and then if not to later perceptions, in the circumstances he himself had noted. The Eamon de Valera of 1945, in his sixty-fifth year, was not the hothead of 1921 and would not make precisely the same mistakes. Though overshadowed by other parts of his most famous speech, those lines showed a self-critical side to Eamon de Valera that was rarely expressed publicly.

Post-War Period

After the Emergency the position of Fianna Fáil began to weaken. Sixteen years in power finally took its toll on the electorate and the opposition political parties. In 1948 de Valera was ousted from power by the first Inter-Party Government, with John A. Costello as Taoiseach. De Valera, as leader of the opposition, embarked on a world campaign on the partition question. In 1951 he was back in power but without an overall majority. He was Taoiseach again of what many would consider to be his worst government. No new ideas emerged and the same faces that formed his first administration back in 1932 were still in power.

Fianna Fáil was defeated again on the 1954 general election. However, like the first coalition government, the second lasted only three years. At the general election of 1957 de Valera, then in his seventy-fifth year, won an absolute majority of nine seats, the greatest number he had ever secured. This was the beginning of another sixteen year period in office for Fianna Fáil. A new economic policy emerged with the First Programme for Economic Expansion. He remained as Taoiseach until 1959, handing over power to Seán Lemass.

President of Ireland

His last bid at constitutional reform failed when the people, by referendum, rejected his proposal that proportional representation be replaced by the direct vote. On the same day in June 1959 he was elected President of Ireland in succession to Seán T. O'Ceallaigh, defeating General Seán MacEoin by a comfortable majority. By now, he was almost totally blind, but hid the fact through the use of an aide, whose job was to whisper sotto voice to de Valera instructions such as the number of steps to take, or where to 'look' (In one famous photograph, President de Valera is seen 'inspecting' a new statue just erected of Irish patriot Robert Emmet, apparently standing back in admiration. In fact, he could not see it at all). As President he received many distinguished visitors, including Presidents Charles de Gaulle and John F. Kennedy. In 1964, at the age of eighty-one, he visited Washington and addressed Congress, speaking for twenty-five minutes without notes.

De Valera narrowly avoided humiliation in 1966 when he was almost defeated in his final electoral battle, for re-election to the presidency. So close was the election that a mere one vote more in each ballot box in the Republic for his opponent would have been enough to secure the election of Fine Gael's youthful presidential candidate, Tom O'Higgins. While de Valera narrowly won the election, by a 1% majority of 10,000 votes in a poll of over 1,000,000, he did develop a deep dislike and distrust for his campaign manager, Agriculture Minister and future Taoiseach Charles J. Haughey. He warned colleagues later that Haughey would 'destroy the (Fianna Fáil) party', a perceptive analysis of the now disgraced former prime minister who did indeed almost destroy Fianna Fáil in the 1980s, and who has since been the subject of tribunals enquiring into proven financial improprieties. (Haughey was due to stand trial as a result of the revelations, but was let off the hook because of potentially prejudicial comments made by Tánaiste Mary Harney on live television.)

On the occasion of his visit to Ireland in 1963, President John F. Kennedy joined with Irish President Eamon de Valera to form The American Irish Foundation (see The Ireland Funds).

De Valera finished his final term of office in 1973, aged 91, the oldest head of state in the world at the time. During his sixty-three year career in public life he received numerous honours. He was elected Chancellor of the National University of Ireland in 1921, holding the post until his death. Pope John XXIII bestowed on him the Order of Christ. He received honorary degrees from universities in Ireland and abroad and in 1968 was elected FRS, a recognition of his lifelong interest in mathematics. He also served as a member of the Parliament of Northern Ireland (for Down from 1921 to 1929 and for South Down from 1933 to 1937), though he held to the Republican policy of abstentionism and did not take his seat in Stormont. He retired from the Presidency in June 1973, having served for fourteen years, the longest period allowed under the Constitution.

Eamon de Valera died in Lyndon Nursing Home, Blackrock, County Dublin on August 29, 1975 aged 92. His wife, Sinéad de Valera, four years his senior, died the previous January, on the eve of their 65th wedding anniversary. He is buried in Dublin's Glasnevin Cemetery.


Eamon de Valera's grave. His wife, Sinéad, and son, Brian (who was killed in a horse-riding accident in 1936) are buried there also. (Close up view of the gravestone)
Eamon de Valera's grave. His wife, Sinéad, and son, Brian (who was killed in a horse-riding accident in 1936) are buried there also. (Close up view of the gravestone)

Ireland's dominant political personality for many decades, as well as co-owner of one of Ireland's most influential group of newspapers, Irish Press Newspapers, de Valera is alleged by critics to have kept Ireland under the influence of Catholic conservatism, though to his credit his constitution did explicitly recognise the existence and rights of the Jewish community in Ireland in 1937, at a time when much of Europe was beginning the process of wholesale extermination of Jews. This did not prevent him from blocking the immigration of Jews from mainland Europe, many thousands of whom could have been saved but ended up dying at the hands of the Nazis and the Fascists, on the grounds that Jews were a "nuisance on the body politic" and "do not assimilate" (by that criteria Irish emigration would cease to exist). According to Andy Pollak of the Irish Times, "a handful" of Jews entered Eire during "The Emergency"; another sources estimates that 38 Jews found a haven in Eire (possibly through human smuggling).

To his credit, he did reject fundamentalist Catholic demands by organisations like Maria Duce that Roman Catholicism be made the state religion of Ireland, just as he rejected demands by the Irish Christian Front that the Irish Free State support Franco during the Spanish Civil War. His role in Irish history is no longer unequivocally seen by today's historians as a positive one, and a recent controversial biography by Tim Pat Coogan alleges that his failures outweigh his achievements, with de Valera's reputation declining as that of his great rival in the 1920s, Michael Collins is rising.

Overall, historians regard de Valera as a brilliant but flawed leader: from his disastrous behaviour during the Civil War that inflamed hatred rather than cooled tempers, to his 1937 constitution, studied most recently by Nelson Mandela's South Africa, as they designed their own. Erratic, brilliant, tactful, tactless, innovative and most of all pragmatic, Eamon de Valera, the American-born head of an Irish republic, was the most influential Irish leader of the twentieth century, admired, criticised and studied the world over, by leaders from Nehru to John F. Kennedy.

Since the foundation of the state a de Valera has always served in Dáil Éireann. While Eamon de Valera served until 1959, his son, Vivion de Valera, was a Teachta Dála between 1945 and 1981. His grandchildren, Éamon Ó Cuív and Síle de Valera, are currently members of the Dáil, with both having served in the Irish Government as ministers.


  1. ^ His name is frequently misspelled Eamonn De Valera but in fact he never used the second 'n' in his first name (the standard Irish spelling) and always a small 'd' in 'de Valera'.
  2. ^ According to accounts from 1916 de Valera was seen running about, giving conflicting orders, refusing to sleep and on one occasion, having forgotten the password almost getting himself shot in the dark by his own men. According to one account, deV, on being forced to sleep by one subordinate who promised to sit beside him and wake him if he was needed, suddenly woke up, his eyes 'wild', screaming 'set fire to the railway. Set fire to the railway'. Later in the Ballykinlar Internment Camp one deV loyalist approached another internee, a medical doctor, recounted the story and asked for a medical opinion as to deV's condition. He also threatened to sue the doctor, future Fine Gael TD and minister, Dr. Tom O'Higgins, if he ever repeated the story. Tim Pat Coogan, De Valera: Long Fellow, Long Shadow (Hutchinson, London, 1993) hardback. pp.69-72. ISBN 009175030X

First Cabinet, March 1932-February 1933

Second Cabinet, February 1933-July 1937


Third Cabinet, July 1937-June 1938


Fourth Cabinet, June 1938-July 1943


Fifth Cabinet, July 1943-June 1944

Sixth Cabinet, June 1944-February 1948


  • June 14, 1945: Seán T. O'Kelly resigns from the Cabinet after being elected President of Ireland.
  • June 19, 1945: The Department of Co-Ordination of Defensive Measures is abolished following the end of "The Emergency". Seán Lemass and Frank Aiken succeed Ó Ceallaigh as Tánaiste and Minister for Finance respectively.
  • July 31, 1945: The Department of Supplies is abolished with all functions transferred to the Department of Industry & Commerce.
  • January 21, 1947: The Department of Health & Social Welfare is established with James Ryan becoming the first Minister. Patrick Smith joins the Cabinet replacing Ryan as Minister for Agriculture.
  • January 22, 1947: The title of the Department of Local Government & Public Health is altered to the Department of Local Government.

Seventh Cabinet, June 1951-June 1954

Eighth Cabinet, March 1957-June 1959


Preceded by:
Cathal Brugha
President of Dáil Éireann
Succeeded by:
office replaced by President of the Republic
Preceded by:
Office of President of Dáil Éireann
President of the Irish Republic
Succeeded by:
Arthur Griffith
Preceded by:
William J. Walsh
Chancellor of the National University of Ireland
Succeeded by:
T.K. Whitaker
Preceded by:
William T. Cosgrave
President of the Executive Council
Succeeded by:
Office abolished and replaced by Taoiseach
Preceded by:
Office of the President of the Executive Council
Succeeded by:
John A. Costello
Preceded by:
Patrick McGilligan
Minister for External Affairs
Succeeded by:
Seán MacBride
Preceded by:
John A. Costello
Succeeded by:
John A. Costello
Preceded by:
Seán MacBride
Minister for External Affairs
Succeeded by:
Liam Cosgrave
Preceded by:
John A. Costello
Succeeded by:
Seán F. Lemass
Preceded by:
Seán T. Ó Ceallaigh
President of Ireland
Succeeded by:
Erskine Hamilton Childers

Taoisigh na hÉireann
Prime Ministers of Ireland
Irish Government Buildings

Eamon de Valera | John A. Costello | Seán Lemass | Jack Lynch | Liam Cosgrave | Charles Haughey | Garret FitzGerald | Albert Reynolds | John Bruton | Bertie Ahern

Previous prime ministerial offices under earlier constitutions

Príomh Aire 1919—1921 Cathal Brugha | Eamon de Valera
President of the Irish Republic 1921—1922 Eamon de Valera | Arthur Griffith
Chairman of the Provisional Government 1922 Michael Collins | W.T. Cosgrave
President of the Executive Council 1922—1937 W.T. Cosgrave | Eamon de Valera

Uachtaráin na hÉireann
(Presidents of Ireland)

Douglas Hyde | Seán T. Ó Ceallaigh | Eamon de Valera | Erskine H. Childers | Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh |
Patrick Hillery | Mary Robinson | Mary McAleese

see also Áras an Uachtaráin | Blue Hussars | Constitution of Ireland | Council of State | DeV's car | External Relations Act | Governor-General |
Lord Lieutenant of Ireland | Official Seal | Presidential Inauguration | Presidential Standard | Republic of Ireland Act | Secretary-General to the President | Presidential Commission | Viceregal throne

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