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Republic to Republic DIB entry: Éamon de Valera

16 April 2019

To mark the seventieth anniversary of the declaration of the republic and Ireland’s departure from the Commonwealth on 18 April 1949, we are publishing a number of our entries of figures involved in Irish foreign policy in the decades leading up to it, all of whom feature in the forthcoming online exhibition Republic to Republic: Ireland’s international sovereignty, 1919-49, curated by our colleagues in DIFP and UCD Archives. The RIA will also be hosting a panel discussion to mark the occasion on Thursday 18 April.

Presented below are excerpts from Ronan Fanning’s DIB entry on Éamon (‘Dev’) de Valera pertaining to the drafting of the 1937 constitution and his time in opposition from 1948-51.

Éamon (‘Dev’) de Valera (1882–1975), teacher, revolutionary, taoiseach, and president of Ireland, was born 14 October 1882 in the Nursery and Child's Hospital, Lexington Avenue, Manhattan, New York, the only child of Juan Vivion de Valera and Catherine (‘Kate’) Coll (1856–1932); he was christened Edward (although recorded as ‘George’ in the baptismal register) at St Agnes church, 141 East 43rd Street., on 3 December 1882.


On 9 March 1932 the dáil elected Éamon de Valera president of the executive council by 81 to 68, a majority dependent on Labour Party and some independent support in addition to the 72 Fianna Fáil deputies. More than any other incoming head of government in independent Ireland, de Valera knew exactly what he wanted to do with power: expunge the repugnant elements in the treaty and loosen the British connection so as to win the independence he had argued for since 1922. He took on the external affairs portfolio in conjunction with the presidency of the executive council (taoiseach after 1937) because he believed that foreign policy was too sensitive to be entrusted to other hands; the post-traumatic stress of the treaty split hardened his resolve to run his own Anglo–Irish policy. His style of chairmanship was benevolent but authoritarian. He allowed interminable discussion but no votes in marathon cabinet meetings; liberty to discuss never meant liberty to decide if de Valera wished to decide otherwise. On 14 March his ministers meekly agreed that he would make press statements on policy and ‘that no such communication should be made by any member of the executive council without previous consultation with the president’ (NAI, CAB 1/4/7). Yet his innate conservatism made him resistant to change for the sake of change. One of his first acts, on 10 March (the day after he took office), was to advise all the official heads of government departments that he had no intention of dismissing any of them. To the chagrin of his many supporters who wanted a spoils system, he sought only to bend the machinery of government to his purpose, not to dismantle it. He made particularly effective use of a troika of senior officials in the Department of External Affairs he had inherited from the previous government: Joe Walshe, secretary of the department 1922–46; John Hearne, the department's legal adviser who provided many of the first drafts for de Valera's constitutional revolution; and John W. Dulanty, the Irish high commissioner in London.

De Valera's first task was the abolition of the oath; he so advised the British government on 22 March and introduced the necessary legislation on 20 April, but the Constitution (Removal of Oath) Bill was not enacted until 3 May 1933 because of the senate's opposition. His government also embarked on a campaign of degrading the office of Britain's governor general by humiliating the incumbent, James McNeill. Using the constitutional device that the king must act on the advice of his ministers, de Valera then advised the king to dismiss McNeill, which he did on 1 November 1932; he used the same device to secure the appointment of a nondescript supporter, Domhnall Ó Buachalla, whose only function was to sign acts of the oireachtas and who further degraded the office by refusing to live in the viceregal lodge and by never appearing in public.

De Valera's cautious, crablike approach in regard to the governor-generalship was characteristic of his conduct across the broader spectrum of Anglo–Irish relations and was designed to minimise the prospect of British retaliation. His insistence that he was acting constitutionally was underpinned by the statute of Westminster, enacted by the Westminster parliament in December 1931, which provided that no law of the UK should extend to any of the dominions without their consent; he obtained numerous legal opinions to the effect that the statute ‘leaves it open to the Irish Free State to amend the [1922] constitution in any way it pleases’ (NAI, T/D S. 4469). But the British did retaliate when he refused to transfer the land annuities, notwithstanding his having received a legal opinion in 1929 that there was no legal reason why he should do so. After de Valera had refused an offer of commonwealth arbitration and two fruitless meetings with the British premier in London on 10 June and 15 July, the British imposed a 20 per cent duty on about two-thirds of Irish imports, and the Irish government replied in kind.

De Valera had no interest in seeking a financial solution to the economic war of 1932–8, because for him the essence of the problem was political. If the British prevailed, he told the Fianna Fáil ard fheis in November 1932, ‘then you could have no freedom, because at every step they could threaten you again and force you again to obey . . . What is involved is whether the Irish nation is going to be free or not’ (Moynihan, 227). The economic war was a godsend to de Valera because at a time of worldwide economic recession it enabled him to introduce protectionism under the guise of patriotism. National prosperity, moreover, had no place in his thinking for, as he had told the dáil in July 1928, an independent Ireland that preferred freedom to the luxuries of empire must accustom itself to ‘frugal fare’ (Moynihan, 154); he now portrayed the economic austerity of his first years in government as the price demanded for freedom. He was sufficiently confident of the electoral appeal of this strategy to call a snap general election in January 1933, despite the misgivings of most ministerial colleagues. Fianna Fáil's success – 49.7 per cent of the vote and 76 seats – gave him an overall majority and forced the British government to recognise that he would be in power for the foreseeable future.

His strategy, he told an Easter rising commemoration in 1933, was to ‘yield no willing assent to any form or symbol that is out of keeping with Ireland's right as a sovereign nation’ but to ‘remove these forms one by one, so that this state we control may become a republic in fact’ (Moynihan, 237). In November 1933 he enacted three constitutional amendments – abolishing the right of appeal to the privy council and the governor general's right to withhold his assent from bills, and transferring his function of recommending money bills to the executive council. He instructed John Hearne to begin work on the heads of a new constitution at the end of April 1935, and on 29 May told the dáil of his intention ‘to bring in a new constitution which, so far as internal affairs are concerned, will be absolutely ours’ (Moynihan, 264). In August 1936 he ‘mentioned’ – the wording of the cabinet minute is redolent of his absolute control of Anglo–Irish policy – to his ministers that he intended so to advise the new king, Edward VIII (NAI, CAB 1/6/315). Nothing happened during de Valera's absence in Zurich from March to May 1936 for treatment for his deteriorating eyesight, a cause of ‘great anxiety’ to his family since 1933 (de Valera, 57). But the abdication crisis gave him the chance to put in place the key feature of his new constitution. His reaction reflected what his wife described as his ‘capacity for making a grave decision with astonishing speed if he thought this was vital’ (ibid., 165). On 10 December, the day of abdication, the cabinet agreed to delete all mention of the king and of the governor general from the 1922 constitution and ‘to make provision by ordinary law for the exercise by the king of certain functions in external matters’ (NAI, CAB 1/7/35–6). By 12 December he had rushed through the oireachtas two bills, the Constitution Amendment (No. 27) Bill and the External Relations Bill, giving effect to the abdication and recognising the crown for the purposes of diplomatic representation and international agreements. This surgical strike accomplished the most sensitive element of his constitutional revolution. The British were unlikely to risk controversy about the relationship between monarchy and the dominions in the immediate aftermath of the abdication scandal, so again, as with his previous amendments, they chose not to retaliate.

The paradox inherent in the 1937 constitution is that its architect designed it more as an end than as a beginning: its purpose was not to inaugurate a brave new world but to drop the curtain on the old world of the Irish Free State. Published on 1 May, approved by the dáil on 14 June, endorsed by referendum on 1 July, it came into effect on 29 December 1937. It affirmed the Irish nation's ‘inalienable, indefeasible, and sovereign right to choose its own form of government, to determine its relations with other nations, and develop its life, political, economic, and cultural, in accordance with its own genius and traditions’ (art. 1) and declared that ‘Ireland is a sovereign, independent, democratic state’ (art. 5) whose head of state would be a president elected by direct popular vote to hold office for seven years (art. 12). Again de Valera shrank from the strait-jacket of the republic, preferring to name the state ‘Éire’ (‘Ireland’) rather than ‘Poblacht na hÉireann’ (‘The Republic of Ireland’). This ambiguity, like the external relations act of 1936, wreathed Ireland's relationship with the commonwealth in a haze of uncertainty designed to deter British retribution that might entail the loss of rights of Irish-born citizens in Britain or, even worse, their enforced repatriation and the closure of the safety valve of emigration. When the name of the state was changed to ‘The Republic of Ireland’, moreover, as de Valera explained to the 1937 Fianna Fáil ard fheis, he wanted ‘to see it in operation, not for twenty-six counties alone, but for the whole thirty-two counties’ (Moynihan, 331). He also hoped that even a vestigial commonwealth link might make it easier to end partition in order that, as he naively explained to the British, ‘when Northern Ireland came in, the contact with the crown which they valued so highly should not be entirely severed’ (Fisk, 63).

De Valera kept tight control of drafting the new constitution through a committee of four officials (he excluded ministers) working directly to him – John Hearne, Maurice Moynihan, Philip O'Donoghue, and Michael McDunphy. He held the religious article (44), omitted from the first three drafts, in an even firmer grip, drafting it himself although his eyesight was by then so bad that ‘he could only write by using a pen with a very large nib, which meant that vast amounts of paper overflowed from his desk on to the floor’ (de Valera, 51). The wording of that article was not revealed until the text of the constitution went to the cabinet on 27 April, and it went unchanged for final printing next day. De Valera's catholicism had remained unshaken by the hierarchy's joint pastoral of October 1922 excommunicating those who persisted in the war against the provisional government. He never fulminated against the church, but instead sought support from countervailing forces within the church – such as Archbishop Mannix of Melbourne and the Irish College in Rome – and he never behaved as if he himself had been excommunicated. Once in office, Fianna Fáil asserted their catholic credentials: a cabinet meeting in April 1932 favoured suspending sittings of the oireachtas on church holidays, opening dáil sittings ‘with an appropriate form of prayer’ and displaying a crucifix in the dáil chamber (NAI, CAB 1/4/47–8); the eucharistic congress of June 1932, when de Valera and his ministers paraded cheek by jowl with bishops and cardinals in front of vast crowds, set the seal on the process. But de Valera rejected the demands of leading catholic churchmen such as Cardinal Joseph MacRory and John Charles McQuaid, then president of Blackrock College and later archbishop of Dublin (1940–72) for a wording more fully consonant with catholic teaching, and he circumvented the prospect of their public criticism by sending Joe Walshe on a secret mission to secure the Vatican's tacit acquiescence. From a liberal perspective the ‘special position’ conferred on the catholic church under article 44 was clearly offensive, but from de Valera's perspective it was a compromise, and its explicit references to protestant denominations and to the Jews denied the catholic church the exclusive recognition it would have preferred.

The end of de Valera's quest to reconcile sovereignty with majority rule marked the end of ambiguity in his attitude to the IRA, with whose rejection of the 1922 constitution and withholding of allegiance to the institutions of the state he had at first identified. But now that he had secured the legitimacy of the state to his own satisfaction, those who took up arms against it could expect no mercy. ‘The moment the constitution was enacted by the people’, he told the dáil when introducing the treason bill (providing for the death penalty for treason as defined in article 39) in February 1939, ‘treason had a new meaning . . . Once the constitution was passed, treason was defined as an act of treachery against this state, and nothing else.’ Now the Irish people ‘had established a state in accordance with their wishes, those who tried by violent means to overthrow that state should be held here, as in other countries, to be guilty of the most terrible crime of a public character which is known in civilised society’ (Dáil Éireann deb., lxxiv, 966–7).


De Valera reacted to loss of power after the 1948 election with determination; ‘he'll not get my left flank’, he said of MacBride to his son on the day the dáil reassembled (de Valera, 269). As leader of the opposition, in response to Clann na Poblachta criticisms of Fianna Fáil for having no plan to end partition, he launched a spectacular worldwide propaganda campaign to put an anti-partition girdle round the earth. Accompanied by Frank Aiken, he left Ireland on 8 March and, after a month in the US, moved on to Australia and New Zealand (27 April–11 June) and then to India (14–16 June); there followed anti-partition tours of Britain in October and November. The fantasy of reunification loomed larger as the appetite for independence was finally satiated by the Republic of Ireland act in December 1948; it repealed the external relations act and provided for a declaration, in de Valera's phrase, that ‘the state that exists under the 1937 constitution is a republic’ (Dáil Éireann deb., cxiii, 410). Publicly, de Valera welcomed the end of controversy about Ireland's constitutional status, but privately he questioned the wisdom of the inter-party government's interpretation that the act marked a final breach with the commonwealth. Asked by Churchill in 1953 if he would have taken Ireland out of the commonwealth, he answered ‘no’: ‘he had no objection ever to Ireland being a member of the commonwealth. What he had an objection to was an oath of allegiance to the king as king of the commonwealth . . . he had come to the conclusion that the commonwealth was a very useful association for us because the commonwealth countries (especially Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) had a strong interest in Ireland’ (Keogh, 190–91). The inter-party government's rejection of the invitation to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in January 1949, like the Republic of Ireland act, affirmed their inability to escape from de Valera's agenda. He endorsed MacBride's explicit linkage of partition with neutrality when he told a press conference in March 1949 that, if he were in power and ‘if the partition business were out of the way’, he, too, ‘would advocate entrance into the pact if Ireland was united’ (Ir. Times, 22 Mar. 1949). The unanimous if futile demand for reunification had also found expression in the all-party, anti-partitionist Mansion House committee on 27 January, and two of de Valera's future biographers, Frank Gallagher and T. P. O'Neill, were among the civil servants seconded to participate in what proved to be no more than a propaganda exercise churning out anti-unionist bombast.

But de Valera had no illusions about the prospects of reunification, and told the dáil on his return as taoiseach in 1951: ‘If I am asked, “Have you a solution for [partition]?”, in the sense “Is there a line of policy which you propose to pursue which you think can, within a reasonable time, be effective?”, I have to say that I have not and neither has anybody else’ (Moynihan, 543). Now that he had nothing left to prove in regard to sovereignty, he relinquished the external affairs portfolio to Frank Aiken, the most absolutist of his ministerial colleagues on neutrality. In August 1952 his eyesight again deteriorated when he suffered a detached retina; it was only after six operations in Utrecht that the retina was reattached and he did not return to Dublin until December; thereafter he had only peripheral vision, restricting all his movements except in places he knew well. In June 1954 he again went into opposition on the return of a Costello-led coalition government.

Image courtesy of UCD Archives.

Éamon de Valera papers, UCDA P150; Sean O'Faolain, De Valera (1939); T. Desmond Williams, ‘Ireland and the war’, Kevin. B. Nowlan and T. Desmond Williams (ed.), Ireland in the war years and after, 1939–51 (1969); The earl of Longford and Thomas P. O'Neill, Éamon de Valera (1970); David W. Miller, Church, state and nation in Ireland, 1898–1921 (1973); Oliver MacDonagh, Ireland: the union and its aftermath (1977); Maurice Moynihan (ed.), Speeches and statements by Éamon de Valera 1917–1973 (1980); John Bowman, De Valera and the Ulster question 1917–1973 (1982); Joseph Lee and Gearóid P. Ó Tuathaigh, The age of de Valera (1982); Ronan Fanning, Independent Ireland (1983); Robert Fisk, In time of war – Ireland, Ulster and the price of neutrality 1939–45 (1983); John A. Murphy, ‘The achievement of Éamon de Valera’, J. P. O'Carroll and John A. Murphy (ed.), De Valera and his times (1983), 1–16; Sean P. Farragher, Dev and his alma mater (1984); Deirdre McMahon, Republicans and imperialists: Anglo–Irish relations in the 1930s (1984); Owen Dudley Edwards, Éamon de Valera (1987); Brian Farrell (ed.), De Valera's constitution and ours (1988); J. J. Lee, Ireland 1912–1985 (1989); Tim Pat Coogan, De Valera: long fellow, long shadow (1993); Dermot Keogh, Twentieth-century Ireland: nation and state (1994); Pauric Travers, Éamon de Valera (1994); Ronan Fanning et al. (ed.), Documents on Irish foreign policy, i: 1919–22 (1998); Michael Laffan, The resurrection of Ireland: the Sinn Féin party, 1916–1923 (1999); Patrick Murray, ‘Obsessive historian: Éamon de Valera and the policing of his reputation’, RIA Proc., ci C, 37–65 (2001); Ged Martin, ‘De Valera imagined and observed’, Gabriel Doherty and Dermot Keogh (ed.), De Valera's Irelands (2003); Terry de Valera, A memoir (2004); Tom Garvin, Preventing the future: why was Ireland so poor for so long? (2004); Catriona Crowe et al. (ed.), Documents on Irish foreign policy, iv: 1932–36 (2004); v: 1937–39 (2006); Gerard Hogan, ‘De Valera, the constitution and the historians’, Ir. Jurist, xl (2005), 293–320; Charles Townsend, Easter 1916: the Irish rebellion (2005); Diarmaid Ferriter, Judging Dev (2007)

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