Lessons from ‘an old schoolmaster’

Week III

There is no denying that Éamon de Valera was born in New York ( October 14 1882 ), and was therefore an American citizen. Following the Easter Rising, he was arrested for his role commanding his battalion at the south east approaches to Dublin at Boland’s Mills by the Grand Canal. He was sentenced to death on May 8 1916 by a military court. His wife Sinéad immediately got the American consul to intervene.

At the time Britain was anxious for America to assist them and their Allies in the desperate struggle against Germany along the Western Front. It was not going to antagonize America unneccesserily. Dev’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

The late historian and biographer Ronan Fanning suggests that Dev’s escape probably owes more to luck, that to the place of his birth.

When General John Maxwell decided to proceed with the execution of James Connolly on May 12 (not withstanding a telegram telling him to stop all executions from Asquith, the British prime minister ), he asked the crown prosecuting officer WE Wylie, whether de Valera, who was next on the list, was important. ‘Wylie made the immortal reply: “No. He is a schoolmaster who was taken at Boland’s Mills,”’ and de Valera’s life was spared.*

After his resounding victory at the East Clare by-election, Dev returned to Dublin in triumph. ‘From Sligo to Vinegar Hill bonfires blazed in celebrtion. De Valera’s return from Clare was a triumphal procession. In Dublin he told the crowds that in order that Ireland’s case might be heard at the peace conference she should claim absolute independence.

The political initiative, almost overnight, had passed into the hands of the opponents of the (John Redmond’s ) Irish Parliamentary Party.’**

‘Cold blooded’

Now followed a time of feverish activity It was essential to unite the forces of the Volunteers and Sinn Féin. This was achieved at a lively convention, (which Arthur Griffith called the 10th Ard Fheis of Sinn Féin ), attended by 1,700 delegates. There were bitter recriminations at the organisation of the Rising, against the Irish parliamentary party, but there was a massive swell of opinion for their only ambition which was Ireland’s freedom, and an Irish Republic. A new Sinn Féin emerged. Dev was elected its president unopposed. Cathal Brugha was appointed chief of staff; while Michael Collins was director of organisation.

Prime minister Lloyd George watched de Valera’s progress as a politician. In the House of Commons he commented on his speeches: ‘They are not excited and, so far as language is concerned, they are not violent. They are plain, deliberate, and I might say cold-blooded incitements to rebellion...’

Conscription crisis

There was still criticism of the activities and ambitions of Sinn Féin, notably from the Catholic church. But a new crisis quickly brought all sides together. In the spring 1918 Germany launched a series of successful attacks along the Western Front. Known as the Ludendorff Offensive, the Allies’ lines in west Flanders were seriously penetrated. The British government became alarmed to such an extent that Lloyd George announced that Ireland’s exclusion from conscription could no longer be justified.

Nationalists of every hue came together at the Mansion House Conference on April 18 1918. De Valera proposed the motion denying the right of the British government to enforce compulsory conscription in this country. It was unanimously carried.

Dev later won the support of the Catholic church which courageously, for the time, stated that conscription forced upon Ireland was ‘an oppressive and inhuman law which the Irish people have a right to resist by every means that are consonant with the law of God.’***

Dev’s personality and character at the Mansion House meeting impressed the older nationalists such as William O’Brien. He wrote how de Valera’s ‘transparent sincerity, his gentleness and equability captured the hearts of us all.

‘Even in obstinacy (and it was sometimes trying ) with which he would defend a thesis as though it were a point of pure mathematics...became tolerable enough when with a boyish smile he would say: “ You will bear with me won’t you? You know I am an old schoolmaster.”’

Of course the ‘schoolmaster’ stuff drove his detractors wild. But as the popular hero of the day, there was no one to rival him. He moves off into the sanctity of ‘Chieftain’, a status the Irish are happy to confer on her greatest leaders.

NOTES: * Dictionary of Irish Biography.

** Eamon de Valera, by the Earl of Longford and TP O’Neill, published by Gill and Macmillan, 1970.

*** The British government shrank from the consequences of extending conscription to Ireland.

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