By Larry Kirwan
In a recent interview I was asked why I didn’t include Éamon de Valera in my play, “Rebel In The Soul,” now running at The Irish Rep in Manhattan.
I had to pause a moment before not owning up to the truthful answer. I don’t care much for this most pre-eminent of Irish politicians.
Truth be told, though, Dev was far too canny to ever get mired in a fight between church and state as happened to Dr. Noel Browne.
He instinctively knew that battling the Catholic Church in the Ireland of 1951 was akin to “dancing jigs on quicksand.”
Even his enemies were in awe of Éamon de Valera, for he stood apart, cultivated an air of aloofness, and had no trouble sticking a knife between a rival’s ribs.
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This consummate Irish politician was born in New York City.
His mother sent him back to Bruree, County Limerick at the age of two, soon after the death of his father, a Spanish music teacher.
His grandmother, Elizabeth Coll, raised young Éamon in a laborer’s cottage.
Too poor to afford a bicycle he walked seven miles to and from the Christian Brothers School at Charleville before winning a scholarship to Blackrock College in Dublin.
Blackrock would have a huge influence on the boy from Bruree.
He taught mathematics there and later in life befriended a president of the college, Dr. John Charles McQuaid, with whom he would craft the Irish Constitution of 1937.
He became a national figure when he was one of the last leaders left standing after the 1916 Rising – spared execution because of his American birth.
The first great question mark about de Valera arose when he refused to attend the treaty negotiations in London in 1921.
Many feel that he sent Michael Collins in his place to reap the blame, for he knew that gaining a united Ireland was impossible.
Dev’s reputation has suffered as Collins’ star has ascended. And for good reason.
Ireland would have been a far different place if the charismatic, outgoing Collins had lived to lead the country.
It’s hard to argue that de Valera’s conservative vision did not stifle the country socially and economically, thereby contributing to the ongoing curse of emigration.
However, he did keep Ireland neutral and out of World War II. And yet one of the great strikes against him is that he officially offered condolences to the German minister in Dublin on the suicide of Adolf Hitler.
Whatever way you weigh it, the boy from Bruree is a play unto himself. Though Machiavellian and judgmental, he had a burning love for Ireland, its language, customs, and people.
But was this love perverted by his overweening ego and sheer sense of entitlement?
If he doesn’t play an actual part in “Rebel in the Soul,” he is the elephant in the room that influences the other three characters.
Sean MacBride may have outgrown his position as de Valera’s secretary, but he never lost his awe of the man.
And in 1948, when MacBride’s star was rising as leader of the nascent Clann na Poblachta party, Dev called a surprise election knowing that he might lose, but that his former secretary had not as yet developed the organization to win.
My guess is he also figured that MacBride would not thrive in a coalition with the conservative Fine Gael party – “men I had been shooting at 25 years ago.”
Soon after his expulsion from Clann na Poblachta, Dr. Browne joined the Fianna Fáil party.
De Valera had little time for iconoclastic reformers, however, and showed him the door some years later.
Perhaps, John Charles McQuaid suffered the cruelest fate for he and Dev were close friends.
Yet the Clareman stymied McQuaid’s ambition of becoming cardinal by putting in a word with the Vatican on behalf of the more mild-mannered, and easily managed, Archbishop Dalton of Armagh.
For when push came to shove, Éamon de Valera brooked no competition – a fact that each of the three major characters in “Rebel in the Soul” eventually had to come to terms with.
His star may be on the wane, but it would be the height of folly to ever ignore the towering, tireless boy from Bruree.