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Speech by the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar T.D., at the launch of David McCullagh’s De Valera: Rise


Members of the Oireachtas, distinguished guests, colleagues, ladies and gentlemen.

It is a pleasure to be here to launch the first volume of David McCullagh’s planned two volume study of one of the most significant figures in twentieth century Irish political history.

I believe an occasion like this is an opportunity to put aside partisan differences, and focus on the things in politics which unite us – a spirit of public service, a patriotic desire to do what is best for the country, a sense of idealism which transcends policy differences. We saw this in the eloquent tribute which Micheál Martin as Úachtaráin Fhianna Fáil delivered in the Dáil recently following the death of one of my forbears, Liam Cosgrave.

We also saw it seven years ago, when my then constituency colleague, the late Brian Lenihan, delivered a powerful and poignant speech on Michael Collins at the annual Béal na Bláth commemoration.

We need more occasions like these, removed from the point-scoring of daily politics, where we have an opportunity to reflect on people who devoted their lives to the service of this country.

In this decade of centenaries, we of course remember that De Valera was a commanding officer in the 1916 Rising and played an important role in the creation the state. We do not have to agree with all of his actions, or all of the decisions he made, to be able to appreciate and respect that.

So I come here not to praise De Valera, or to bury him, but to assess him as an historical figure in the context of his life and times, which is something that this book succeeds in doing so well.

Dr. McCullagh has done a remarkable job in distilling a half of century of Irish history - viewed through the prism of the life of De Valera - into an engaging and thought-provoking read. It is a book which confirms his reputation as an historical scholar to match the considerable one he has as a journalist and broadcaster.

In this book, there are some fascinating insights into the personality of de Valera.

For example, we learn that ‘Throughout his life, de Valera had a tendency to fall asleep when reading’. On one occasion, when he was a student, he was caught by a prefect, and to catch him out the prefect turned the book upside down before waking him up. Unapologetic, de Valera insisted that he was able to read upside down!

The level of research is hugely impressive. We learn that while training to be a teacher, de Valera enjoyed climbing over the wall to go to the local pub, Keegan’s. Unfortunately the last one over the wall had to buy the first round, which was a problem for the cash-strapped De Valera. So he spent his time during the day studying the footholds on the wall, so that he would have no trouble getting over quickly in the darkness.

Interested in girls, as a student de Valera once gate-crashed a party in Blackrock with a friend. The two of them made themselves look older by wearing false moustaches, and it was enough to fool the person at the door. Unfortunately, the heat of the room soon melted the glue, and the moustaches fell off, and they were soon ejected.

We later read that as a teacher, De Valera was much loved by his students, and on one occasion they bought him a ticket for the rugby international between Ireland and Wales as a show of their appreciation.

Of course, rugby was one of the great passions of his life. Despite his slight build, he was some player as well.

When he began teaching at Rockwell College they laughed when they saw him first tog out, as they didn’t believe he would be able ‘to stand up to the strenuous type of Munster play’. But they were soon won over by his ‘courage and determination’.

So, the image we have of de Valera as aloof and austere, unable to take a joke, with no sense of fun, is ably demolished in the opening chapters of this book. For example, de Valera himself used to love telling the story of how on one occasion – after a few years in prison – he had to give some unpleasant medicine to his son, Terry. After being forced to swallow it, his son stomped up the stairs, shouting ‘I wish he would go back to jail again!’

It is hard not be moved by de Valera’s letters from prison after the 1916 Rising, he was sentenced to death and was convinced that he would be taken out and shot any day. He wrote to one of his rugby-playing friends at Rockwell and joked that he had played his last match.

To another who wrote of his agony at having left behind his wife and children, the ‘helpless little ones’.

Some parts of the life resonated with me. For example, I enjoyed reading about de Valera’s love of the Irish language and how he went to great lengths to learn it, believing it was a central part of his identity.

Perhaps my favourite story in the book is one that shows that de Valera was no match for Collins when it came to travelling incognito and avoiding drawing attention to oneself. On one occasion, de Valera was travelling to Paris with Sean MacBride and was worried about being arrested. So in London he purchased a false passport under the name of ‘Father Walsh’.

Unfortunately his cover was almost blown when he went into a shop to buy a fountain pen and tested it out by practicing his distinctive signature – Éamon de Valera. MacBride was forced to him a strong kick.

So the book is an entertaining read as well as a thought-provoking one.

Sometimes I think there can be a very thin line between a politician’s greatest strength and their greatest weakness. What can be a virtue at certain times in their career, can at other times be the very thing that undermines them.

De Valera’s greatest strength was his single-minded determination, his stubborn refusal to back down, even when his position seemed hopeless.

Ireland benefitted from this single-minded determination during the second world war, as De Valera affirmed our independence, and pursued a neutral course even in the face of considerable hardships and threats. That was arguably his finest hour, building on some of his political successes in the 1930s, which I hope will be explored in the second volume.

However the very same single-minded determination was perhaps to blame for decisions he made in 1921 and 1922 which I would not agree with.

However, as Taoiseach, I have no hesitation in acknowledging the greatness of De Valera. It was something that was recognised by Collins, and Griffith, and Cosgrave, and others, who, I think, genuinely loved him and followed him for a time.

De Valera is someone who deserves to be honoured by the state for his considerable achievements over a very long career.

The great triumph of this book is that it shows both sides – the greatness and the failings, the iron character which helped forge the modern Irish state, and the unbending figure who at times was unable to allow it to progress and modernize.

McCullagh, the historian is measured and objective, and goes where the evidence leads him. I think on balance he is fair to De Valera, acknowledging and assessing his strengths as a leader, while not being blind to his weaknesses and errors of judgment.

Reading the book I couldn’t help wondering how McCullagh the broadcaster would have approached an interview with de Valera. Having been interviewed by David on many occasions myself I can imagine how it would have gone. Tough, but fair. Plenty of time given to answer the question. And lots of great reaction shots of David looking quizzical!

Over the weekend I read Micheál Martin’s review of this book in The Irish Times where he rightly praised the ‘intense research which is striking in its breadth.’

Martin – a published historian in his own right - defended De Valera by suggesting that because de Valera is ‘subjected to a level of microscopic examination’ it is perhaps no surprise that this places ‘him at an obvious disadvantage’.

De Valera has been described as an ‘unfulfilled academic’ and certainly his early academic potential was never fully realised.
During the War of Independence, the Provost of Trinity searched for De Valera’s examination papers in 1905 when he took the scholarship exam and, after he found them, dismissed him as a ‘dreamer’ and a ‘disappointed fanatic’.

However McCullagh is sympathetic to De Valera’s academic struggles, suggesting that, although he was a hard-working and talented student, he ‘frequently found exams difficulty’. I think this is the correct assessment. It is certainly supported by the evidence of the professors he encountered, including one who noted that although De Valera was brilliant and original he was better suited for research work as he couldn’t ‘do himself justice in examinations’.

Students who struggle at exams could perhaps take some comfort from de Valera’s example, and his later achievements.

De Valera is often portrayed as dogmatic and inflexible, and certainly there are times when he was. But we must credit him with showing courage and flexibility in the 1920s when he abandoned the hard-line, doctrinaire thinking of the extreme anti-Treaty forces and set-up his own party in 1926.

Despite having to swallow all of his previous objections, he also showed great courage in taking the decision to bring this party into the Dáil in 1927.

By doing so, he confirmed the legitimacy of the institutions of the state, despite his reservations about the way they were created. This was an important service to Irish democracy and should not be underestimated.

When he won the election in 1932 and succeeded W.T. Cosgrave as head of government, he was involved in a peaceful transfer of power that did credit to all involved.
At a time when the new democracies of Europe, created after the first world war, were falling victim to disorder and dictatorship, Ireland provided a unique example of how old disagreements could be put aside.

The politicians on all sides believed one truth to be self-evident: if the ideal of democracy meant anything, it meant the will of the people had to be respected even when you disagreed with it.

So, although the subtitle of this book is ‘Rise’ it is about much more than the rise of one man, Éamon de Valera.

It is about the rise of Ireland, from being a part of the British empire to a newly independent state. It is about the rise of the democracy we value so much today, from the turmoil and tragedy of civil war to a time when the democratic will of the people was finally accepted by all.

This could have been the story of the fall of Ireland into dictatorship. Instead it tells the story of the rise of the modern, free, Irish democratic state and Eamon de Valera as one of its founding fathers.

It is a story we should celebrate in the years and decades ahead.

So I congratulate David for illuminating this story with his scholarship and declare this book officially launched.