Two men of destiny meet on Tawin Island

Week V

Summers on Tawin: de Valera with boatmen on the beach at Tawin Island (photo taken from Diarmaid Ferriter’s Judging Dev).

Summers on Tawin: de Valera with boatmen on the beach at Tawin Island (photo taken from Diarmaid Ferriter’s Judging Dev).

In his interesting biography of Éamon de Valera,* Diarmuid Ferriter wrote that in December 2000 gardaí seized 24 love letters from de Valera to his young wife Sinéad, which were being advertised for auction by Mealy’s of Castlecomer. It was believed that the letters were stolen in the mid 1970s from the de Valera family home. The owners who had bought them in the UK some years previously in an effort to ensure their return to Ireland, were unaware that they were stolen.

De Valera wrote the letters between 1911 and 1920 from Mountjoy Jail, Lincoln Jail and from the US during his mission there 1919 - 20, and five letters were written from Tawin Island, on the east coast of Galway when he was director of the Conradh na Gaeilge summer school in the summers 1911 - 1913.

The letters were returned to the de Valera family, and as far as I remember, were considered too private to be published in full. But certain rather intimate passages did leak out. In them Dev, the young husband, often appears vulnerable and regretful about the impact of his long absences. They include references to his acute physical longing for his wife; the desire to press her close to his body and heart, and the frustration caused by their separation.

The publicity surrounding the discovery of these letters caused quite a stir because they seemed to offer a previously unopened window to the private de Valera, who for many was the ‘epitome of joyless rectitude’. The journalist Cian O hEigeartaigh rather unfairly but memorably remarked: ‘Just when we were getting used to the idea that our parents had sex and enjoyed it, a further imaginative effort is called for’.

Lloyd George’s budget.

But it is not just idle curiosity which makes these letters so interesting. It is intriguing to see the contrast between the private man and the public figure. In his early informative years we only get glimpses of this tall mathematics scholar gradually moving towards his passion for Ireland, and all things Irish, even to the extent of offering his life for his country. Yet, his initial study of the Irish language had to be coloured to some extent that among his teachers at he Conradh na Gaeilge club in Dublin was a young woman Sinéad Flanagan. She was about four years older than he, and a national school teacher. In the summer she and others went down to a Conradh na Gaeilge college at Tourmakeady (Coláiste Connacht Thuar Mhic Éadaigh ), between the western shore of Lough Mask and the Partry mountains in Co Mayo. In 1909, the year before they were married, Dev followed her down. Historians the Earl of Longford and TP O’Neill** tell us that one day Dev cycled from Tourmakeady to Spiddal, Co Galway, for the unveiling of a memorial plaque to Micheál Breathnach, the Irish teacher and writer. He was accompanied by Liam Ó Briain and Pádraig Ó Domhnalláin. They ran into a tremendous thunderstorm which drenched them to the skin. They called on an unofficial distiller in the district who gave them some poteen mixed with goat’s milk as an antidote to the chill which they were bound to catch. It was so good that they returned to the house to get another bottle for their friends. At first the woman was reluctant to sell, but was eventually persuaded to part with another bottle but at an inflated price. When O Domhnalláin protested, the woman blamed the recent Lloyd George’s budget for the price hike. No doubt the young men were highly amused.

Happy partnership

Dev and Sinead’s marriage which endured for almost 60 years, proved the happiest of partnerships. Longford and O’Neill wrote that ‘through long years of trouble and struggle, the enduring patience and understanding of Mrs de Valera played an immense part in the life of her husband.

She was a born teacher, a writer of fairy stories, with a wonderful love for children and for her home. Her husband’s duties, in and out of office, were for him alone. She did not interfere. Her duties were to her family, and she did all in her power to free her husband from domestic anxieties. Although she had taken a leading part in Conradh na Gaeilge activities before her marriage she always avoided the limelight. In her own unassuming way she played her part for Ireland far more effectively than those who were prominently before the public. The charm of her youth stayed with her through life, and was still captivating men who met her over fifty years after she married. The late President Kennedy’s gesture as he left Dublin airport in 1963, when he had said farewell to all his Irish friends, was to give a special hug to Mrs de Valera. He showed that he too had come under her spell’.

Memories of Tawin

Dev and Sir Roger Casement were to meet for the first time during his second summer at Tawin. When Dev accepted his position as director of the summer school in August 1911, he was concerned that his oral Irish was not good enough. But he need not have worried. That year he was accompanied by Sinéad and their infant son Vivion.*** The following year he was on his own. Casement returned to the island to see how the school was doing. We do not know what passed between these two men, both of whom would pay a dramatic role in Ireland’s bid for freedom barely five years later.

But Casement was obviously impressed with the school. After leaving he sent five pounds as a contribution towards prizes for a sports event which was to be held at the end of the course. In his letter he insisted ‘that all competitions be in Irish, not English, the judgements in Irish, and so far as was practicable the prizes of Irish make.’

After his execution at Pentonville Prison on August 3 1916, Casement’s body was buried in quicklime. But in 1965 his remains were repatriated to Ireland. After an impressive State funeral, he was buried with full military honours in the Republican plot in Glasnevin cemetery, Dublin. He had previously rested at Arbour Hill for five days, during which time half a million people filed passed his coffin.

Dev, still President of Ireland at the time, the last surviving leader of the Easter Rising, and in his mid-eighties, defied the advice of his doctors, and attended the ceremony at Glasnevin along with an estimated 30,000 others.

I remember photographs of Dev, wrapped in his dark cloak, standing over the grave motionless, lost in thought. Memories must surely have brought him back to that August day when they met for the first time on Tawin Island in Galway Bay, more than 50 years before.


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