Affectionately nicknamed the ‘long fellow’, Eamon de Valera was the dominant political figure in the history of twentieth century Ireland. Fortunate to avoid execution after the Easter Rising, he went on to lead the country as Taoiseach (Prime Minister) and represent it as President over the following fifty years.
De Valera was born in New York, the son of a Spanish-born father and Irish immigrant mother. After his father’s death in 1885, he was brought up in Limerick and educated both there and in Dublin. He studied mathematics at the Royal University and subsequently taught the subject at a teacher training college. After joining the Gaelic League in 1908, which stimulated his interest in Irish politics, he was drawn to militant nationalism and enlisted in the Irish Volunteers in 1913. During the Rising, he was commandant at Boland’s Bakery; following the surrender he was court-martialled and sentenced to death. In part because of his American birth he was reprieved. His subsequent rapid rise was due as much to his being the most senior officer to survive as to his undoubted political talents. After his release from Dartmoor prison in June 1917, he almost immediately won a by-election in East Clare, standing for Sinn Féin. He was elected President of the Sinn Féin party and of the Irish Volunteers in October 1917, and on 1st April 1918, was made President of the first Dail.
Controversially in June 1919, during the Anglo-Irish war, de Valera went to the United States; he sought unsuccessfully to gain its recognition of the Irish Republic but did raise $5 million there in funds. Returning in December 1920, he at once gave new impetus and cohesion to the Sinn Féin government. He favoured a truce with Britain but unexpectedly decided not to lead the Irish delegation which negotiated the Treaty (October-December 1921). Critics claim he did this to evade responsibility for the inevitable compromises it entailed. His defence was that in Dublin he could better preserve national unity and gain acceptance of any agreement reached. In any event he rejected the Treaty and resigned as President following its ratification by the Dail. Though he sought some basis for continuing co-operation with its supporters, both his sometimes inflammatory speeches and his attempts to mobilise opposition to it made a civil war more likely.
De Valera was somewhat marginalized during the conflict but was imprisoned afterwards for a year which enhanced his credibility with republicans. He subsequently formed a new party, Fianna Fail, and in 1927 it entered the Free State Dail. The next five years were spent in building up its organisation and he established a newspaper, the ‘Irish Press’, in 1931. Fianna Fail`s election victory in 1932 marked the beginning of 16 unbroken years in power, during which de Valera was both Prime Minister and responsible for foreign affairs. His was the most formative influence on the development of the new state. His policy initiatives included high tariffs to induce economic self-sufficiency, the gradual weakening of ties with Britain, a new and deeply conservative constitution (1937) and neutrality in World War II. His party lost power for six years between 1948-57 but was then returned with a large majority. In 1959 de Valera resigned as Taoiseach; soon afterwards he was elected President of Ireland and again in 1966. He retired in 1973 and died on 29th August 1975 at the age of 92.