Prime Minister and convict?

14 October 2014

Today is the birth date of Éamon De Valera, Irish ‘rebel’ and later, the first Prime Minister of the Republic of Ireland. He was born in New York City in 1882 to an Irish mother; his parents, Catherine Coll (later Mrs Wheelwright), an immigrant from Bruree, County Limerick and Juan Vivion de Valera were reportedly married on 18 September 1881 at St. Patrick’s Church in Jersey City, New Jersey. However, no-one has been able to locate any such marriage certificate or any birth, baptismal or death certificate information for anyone called Juan Vivion de Valera (nor for ‘de Valeros’, an alternative spelling). On Éamon De Valera’s original birth certificate, his name is given as George de Valero and his father is listed as Vivion de Valero. The first name was changed in 1910 to Edward and the surname corrected to de Valera.

Juan Vivion died in 1885 leaving Catherine Coll and her child in poor circumstances. Éamon was taken to Ireland by his Uncle Ned at the age of two. Even when his mother married for a second time in the mid-1880s, he was not brought back to live with her but was raised instead by his grandmother, Elizabeth Coll, her son Patrick and her daughter Hannie, in County Limerick. He was educated locally at Bruree National School, County Limerick and C.B.S. Charleville County Cork. At the age of sixteen, he won a scholarship.

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. He was reprieved, in part, due to his American birth.

His subsequent rapid rise was due as much to his being the most senior officer to survive, as to his undoubted political talents. Following 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 before being rearrested in 1918 for allegedly plotting with the Germans (a baseless accusation) and held in Lincoln jail. He dramatically escaped with two other inmates, using a copy of the Catholic chaplain’s key and, while on the run, he was elected leader of the first Dáil.

After leaving Sinn Féin in 1926 due to their policy of abstentionism, he founded Fianna Fáil and was head of government (President of the Executive Council, later Taoiseach) from 1932 to 1948, 1951 to 1954, and 1957 to 1959, when he resigned after being elected as President of Ireland.

Assessments of de Valera’s career have varied; he has often been characterised as a stern, unbending, devious and divisive Irish politician. Biographer Tim Pat Coogan saw his time in power as being characterised by economic and cultural stagnation, while Diarmaid Ferriter argued that the stereotype of de Valera as an austere, cold and even backward figure was largely manufactured in the 1960s and is misguided.

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