The Boy from Bruree

Eamon de Valera was born in New York on October 14, 1882 to Catherine Coll, a native of Bruree, who is believed to have married another immigrant, Vivion de Valera, a Spaniard, in that city the previous year, writes Martin Byrnes.

Shortly after the birth of the boy, Vivion de Valera moved away from the grimy and smog-filled air of New York for health reasons, presumably tuberculosis, and died in Denver, Colorado, two years later.
Whether the two events were connected or not, the boy “Edward” was brought to Ireland about the time of his father’s death, to be raised by her own family in the small labourer’s cottage outside Bruree village on the Athlacca road. He was brought to Ireland by a brother of Catherine Coll, who soon returned to America. Another of Catherine’s sister, Hannie, also soon took the boat.

A few years later, Catherine visited Bruree to announce that she was to remarry, but declined the boy’s pleadings that he be taken back with her to America. And so it was that his uncle Pat and his grandmother raised the boy, schooling him firstly at Bruree, and later, after the old woman’s death in 1895, at Charleville CBS to which the boy often walked the seven miles each way daily. There he succeeded and won a £20 scholarship tenable for three years, which allowed him to attend Blackrock College, south of Dublin, a boarding school run by the Holy Fathers. He had been refused at two other schools, including St Munchin’s College, apparently because of suggestions of his illigitemacy.
It was at Blackrock that he developed his lifelong love for rugby.

In those days, Trinity College was exclusively Protestant. The Royal University merely prepared syllabuses and conducted examinations, but did not have any campus of its own. So, with his third year of his scholarship, the young de Valera enrolled in the university college which was attached to Blackrock College and studied for his first year arts exam. From this he received a further scholarship.
His first job was as a teacher in the Holy Ghost Fathers’ Rockwell College, near Cashel, where he still had an ambition to study for the priesthood, and during which time he qualified with a pass degree from the Royal University. He then had a number of temporary teaching jobs, ironically including at St Munchin’s in Limerick, which had earlier refused him as a student, and studied Irish in the hope of becoming a lecturer in the National University which was in the process of being established in 1908. One of his Irish language teachers in conradh na Gaeilge was Sinéad Flanagan, who was to become his wife and lifelong companion.

He was given a part time and temporary post as a mathematics professor at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, where its President was Fr Daniel Mannix, a native of Charleville, who was later to become Archbishop of Melbourne and Cardinal Primate of Australia. But it was to be his part in the Easter Rebellion of 1916 which would send him into national prominence. He was the commander of the rebels in Boland’s Mills for the short-lived attempt at overthrowing British rule, was arrested and sentenced to death with the other leaders, including Pearse and Connolly and fellow Limerickman Thomas Clarke. It is understood it was his American citizenship, and the wish of Whitehall not to alienate the US which was still reluctant to enter the Great War which led to his sentence being commuted to life imprisonment. He was released under a general amnesty a year later.

Upon his release, he was elected MP for East Clare and also president of Sinn Féin. He with the other Sinn Féin MPs refused to attend Westminster.

In 1918, he was again arrested and was imprisoned in London Jail, but escaped to America in 1919. Elected “President of the Irish Republic” when the Sinn Féin MPs constituted themselves as the First Dáil in Dublin’s Mansion House in 1920, he returned to Ireland and co-ordinated the state-wide guerrilla war against British rule from hiding places in Dublin.

He authorised the Treaty negotiations of 1921, and was in Limerick the night word came through that the Griffith, Collins and the other negotiators had accepted partition and limited independence for the 26 counties.

He rejected the Treaty, which was endorsed by the Dáil and a short but bloddy civil war followed which raged most fiercely in Munster. It was during this conflict that departing anti-treaty forces burnt the main building of Newcastle West Castle, not a stone of which remains standing today.

After the civil war was suppressed, de Valera was arrested by the Cumann na nGael government of William T Cosgrave, and spent a year in prison.

In 1926, he broke from Sinn Féin and formed a new party, Fianna Fáil, which took its seats in the Dáil at its first election the following year, and which gained power in the next election of 1932. Becoming president of the Executive Council and Minister for External Affairs, de Valera at once abolished the Oath of Allegiance to the King and suspended payments of annuities due to London under the Land Purchase Acts in respect of the buy-outs of former English-held estates in Ireland to give tenure to native tenants. This led to a trade stand-off in which Irish exports to Britain were embargoed.

This Economic War lasted until 1938 when Britain made an agreement to settle the outstanding issues, as a new and terrible war with Hitler’s Germany looked increasingly unavoidable.
The raising of the embargo meant that Ireland was reasonably self-sufficient during the 1939-45 conflict, throughout which the 26 counties maintained neutrality, refusing to fight for a British state which contained Northern Ireland.

Prior to the war, de Valera, as President of the League of Nations had tried to avert conflict, but nothing came of it as unanimity was required on all resolutions and because Germany had simply withdrawn from the Geneva-based body in 1933.

The Irish Constitution, Bunreacht na hÉireann, was enacted in 1936 and took effect in 1937, and specifically laid claim to “the island of Ireland, it’s islands and territorial seas”. It had been largely written under de Valera’s personal supervision and replaced the office of Governor General (of a British dominion) with that of president, although falling short of an outright declaration of a republic.

After 16 years in power, the de Valera Government was voted out of office by a coalition of Fine Gael, Labour and others in 1948, but he was re-elected in 1951, losing out again in 1954. He was returned to power in 1957 and continued as Taoiseach for two further years when he contested and won the presidency at the age of 77. Seán Lemass taking over as Taoiseach until 1966, to be succeeded by Jack Lynch who together would complete another unbroken 16 years of Fianna Fáil in government. De Valera was re-elected as president in 1966 with a slender majority and served out his second term until his retirement at the age of 91. Even in his last months of office, the old statesman opposed Lynch’s calling of the 1973 general election, believing the timing to have been wrong, but had no alternative but to sign the warrant of dissolution.

Predeceased by his wife, de Valera died two years later in 1975, and was buried in third order monastic robes, signifying his lifelong adherence to the faith.

Within months of first achieving power, de Valera was head of government for the holding in Dublin of the Eucharistic Congress of 1932, which would be by far the biggest outpouring of religious fervour in Ireland until the visit of Pope John Paul II, 47 years later. De Valera paid an official visit as Taoiseach to Pope Pius XII and visited sacred sites around Rome, including the Sanctuario at Genazzano, in which ancient village the Irish Augustinians had an establishment San Pio. He was famously friendly with the austere Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, whose influence on legislation and on education was legendary.

Right through his adult life, Eamon de Valera was plagued by bad eyesight, and latterly had to be shepherded to and from public engagements by the gentle hand of his aide-de-camp and friend, Col Seán Brennan. As president, he addressed the United Nations, delivering a long and wide-ranging address entirely from memory, being unable to work from a script. He was still president when he received the youthful John F Kennedy to Ireland in 1963, just months before the latter’s death.

During his periods as Taoiseach, de Valera never appointed a Limerick TD to Cabinet, but kept close connections with his personal roots in both Limerick and Clare. He travelled most years to the annual agricultural show in Ennis and famously attended the opening of the old schoolhouse in Bruree as a museum to his life, and contributed many artefacts to its exhibition cabinets. His own school desk is preserved there.

Courtesy of the Limerick Leader
November 2004