BOOK REVIEW / More sinner than saint: 'De Valera: Long Fellow, Long Shadow' - Tim Pat Coogan: Hutchinson, 20 pounds

Roy Foster
Saturday 16 October 1993 23:02 BST

ANYONE desiring political power in Ireland, Eamon de Valera remarked privately in 1924, 'should put publicity before all'. He was at the time being held in prison by his ex-revolutionary comrades, at the end of a disastrous civil war provoked by his refusal to accept the treaty which they had negotiated with Britain three years before. As it turned out, he himself would enter constitutional politics, accept the treaty's terms while claiming to repudiate them, swear a parliamentary oath while declaring he did not believe it, and rule the country for more than 30 years. Throughout, political realities were ignored by sleight of hand. Publicity helped confer a unique authority and future generations had to live with the results.

Tim Pat Coogan's biography is a massive indictment of the man, following his riveting life of de Valera's great rival Michael Collins. Long and sometimes verbose, it never lacks brio. Coogan has an ear for a telling phrase, a fund of anecdotes and a truffle-hound's nosefor a scoop. De Valera's American links are revealed in new detail, his marriage and personal life interrogated with breezy iconoclasm, his financial affairs interpreted as far less high-souled than usually assumed. Overall, his contribution to modern Ireland is weighed as negative rather than positive. Even the impression of intellectual honesty and personal probity comes across as 'publicity', too.

This may be a gathering trend. Two years ago T Ryle Dwyer published a trenchant critique, freely acknowledged by Coogan, and Deirdre MacMahon's forthcoming scholarly study will lay further ghosts yet. There is more to say about his later relations with colleagues, especially the modernising Sean Lemass, and the creation and dynamism of the Fianna Fail party. But Coogan shows, more thoroughly than anyone, how far de Valera dictated his own 'official' biography, which breathes reverence through every word, tiptoeing gingerly past murky corners and questionable forks in the road. De Valera was capable of inaccurately telling biographers he was present at a legendary shoot-out, or had been elected 'President of the Republic' in 1918 (a title he unilaterally assumed, with enormous implications, while campaigning in America two years later). Little gets past Coogan. At one point the accusation 'lie' is levelled three times in 10 pages. And when de Valera's celebrated use of semantics approaches hypocrisy, the point is robustly made.

But biographers can empathise with their subjects without liking them. Coogan sympathetically reconstructs a sad boyhood: probably illegitimate, rejected by his mother in America, a tough life on a poor Limerick farm. (The piquant rumour that de Valera's real father was a Protestant from the local Big House is examined but remains unproven.) Through brains and grit, young 'Eddie Coll' (he was generally known by his mother's name) escaped up the educational ladder as a mathematics teacher; significantly, much of his later affections were reserved for Blackrock College, the institution that liberated him. And a strong implication of Coogan's book is that de Valera remained at heart a priest in politics.

His baptism of fire in the 1916 Rising, condemnation, reprieve, imprisonment, escape, legendary American tours and tragic quarrel over the treaty - all this set the tone for his future career. Inevitably, the years up to the mid-1920s form the bulk of the book. Repeatedly, de Valera converted practical defeat into rhetorical victory - the Rising, quarrels with Irish-American leaders, the treaty split, the Civil War, the entry into the Dail. The same tactic would gloss over the distancing of Ulster, the failure to revive spoken Irish, economic stagnation, the haemorrhage of emigration. And a virtue was made of his personal commitment to moronic artistic censorship and sectarian constitutional law.

Longevity conferred a certain immunity from blame, but so did his political brilliance. Coogan astutely demonstrates how personal inadequacy was transmuted into political charisma; private narrow-mindedness, self-delusion, even jealousy were eclipsed in the public sphere by a legendary political personality, somewhere between Savonarola and Kenyatta. His claim that he had only to look into his own heart in order to know how 'the Irish people' felt struck a chord; those unrepresented in what Coogan calls 'vascular oracularity' were dismissed as inconsiderable and un-Irish. They included a million Northern Protestants, but de Valera privately admitted that he never understood Ulster people and even - mirabile dictu - felt closer to the English. (Late in life he dramatically told the Childers family that Erskine Childers had warned him that he misunderstood Ulster; it is one of Coogan's best anecdotes.)

Inconsistencies abound. De Valera admitted that the treaty negotiators could not bring back a republic; he claimed to be returning American sympathisers the money they had subscribed to the cause, while diverting it into the Irish Press which became the de Valera family business; he clothed unwelcome reality in 19th-century fustian about 'bondslaves' and 'Legions of the Rearguard', occasionally turning up at political rallies in a cloak and riding a white horse.

And yet there was political geniusthere, too. His manipulation of Irish neutrality in the Second World War was masterly; he could strike a note of magnanimity and dignity when it was called for; he inspired extraordinary devotion (not always repaid in kind); he was, much of the time, genuinely convinced he was right. Most historians who examine the record of the 1920s become 'Free Staters'; Coogan endorses this (though if - as he believes - Collins was preparing to reclaim Ulster by force, one wonders what would have become of the rest of the treaty). And even de Valera, confronted with 'the files', decided that the achievement of the Cosgrave government in building a stable new state was 'magnificent'. Yet he had caused it to be established in blood, opposing the treaty because of a difference in the wording of the oath, unleashing, as Cardinal Logue put it, 'a wild and destructive hurricane . . . from a thin, intangible, unsubstantial vapour'. And then he spent a political lifetime proving that the treaty system - just as Collins had claimed - was flexible enough to achieve a republic associated with the Commonwealth. Six counties remained sundered, but they were not the reason he had opposed it in the first place. Coogan puts it squarely down to power politics and pique.

Above all, he created a political weather that hung over the island for his lifetime. In a fine passage, Coogan defines it as 'rain, God, graves, the Irish language and de Valera', symbolised by the institution of the political funeral. His book is in its way a personal testament (Coogan edited the Irish Press), which accounts for occasional unevenness but also confers its passion and anger. The Irish reaction to de Valera is still Oedipal in its intensity: he treated us like children, so we blame him for the imperfections of our maturity.

(Photograph omitted)

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