By Mary Sheerin

On 15 January, 1959, when Éamon de Valera announced his intention to resign as Taoiseach and stand in the forthcoming presidential election, it was said that many members – including some senior government ministers – left the parliamentary party meeting with tears in their eyes.

Clearly a Fianna Fáil party, not led by its founding father, was a difficult concept to accept.

Éamon de Valera was always a controversial figure. People either loved him or hated him and there have been more books written about him than any other figure in Irish political life. As recently as 2017, Dr David McCullagh penned yet another one.

It was said that the English hated him. Some say this was because ‘Dev’ did not fit the prototype of their perception of the typical Irishman – hard drinking and jolly. Whereas, De Valera was pedantic and austere and believed to be a fervent Catholic. Tall and thin, he became known as ‘The Long Fellow’.

As stated above, people either loved him or hated him; my father worshipped him and I grew up thinking that if Mr de Valera wasn’t Taoiseach that THE WORLD – not just Ireland – would fall apart!

He was extremely close to the then Archbishop of Dublin, Dr John Charles McQuaid – who like de Valera – had a very long reign in power.

Éamon de Valera was born in New York on 14 October, 1882. He came to Ireland with his uncle, Edward Coll, in 1885 and attended the local school in Bruree, Co. Limerick.
A bright and studious child, he won a scholarship to Blackrock College in Dublin where he shone both academically and on the rugby field. He became a teacher of mathematics at Carysfort College.

Wishing to improve his Irish, he joined the Gaelic League. He later married his teacher, Sinéad Flanagan, who was four years older than him. They had seven children. Sinéad de Valera wrote children’s books in both Irish and English.

De Valera was strongly committed to the nationalist movement and joined the Irish Volunteers in 1913. When the Easter Rising broke out he was in charge of the battalion at Boland’s Mills. He was subsequently jailed but escaped execution and, as the sole surviving senior commander of 1916, became President of the newly elected provisional Dáil Éireann in 1919.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own