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The man who shaped a nation

(AP Maginness, Irish News)

In terms of longevity alone Eamon de Valera, the Long Fella, makes Winston Churchill look like a historical pygmy. However, de Valera's imprint on the Irish nation transcends time. He is, whether you like him or not, the most influential man in the history of the Republic. It was he who wrote the Irish Constitution, a document which continues today to form the backbone of the state.

As with all historical figures he has been subject to much heated discussion and his legacy has been extolled as much as it has been besmirched.

Regardless of any amount of historical revisionism, he was there when the 1916 Easter Rising took place; he was there when the IRA fought the War of Independence; he sent Michael Collins as an emissary to London to discuss the Treaty; he took sides in the Irish Civil War and he served as taoiseach and president.

His importance cannot, like his legacy, be undermined. It is with this in mind that the memoir of Terry de Valera, the now 83-year-old youngest son of Dev, must be viewed and therefore given importance.

Terry de Valera provides a dense account of growing up with one of the modern Irish state's founding fathers. At times first-hand it often borrows from written accounts from Terry's mother, Eamon's wife, Sinead. Before his mother's death and while his father was president, Terry persuaded her to write down her memories of the key events of her life.

It is a detailed affair that is at times frustratingly anecdotal. But when it gets to the point it provides a clear and personalised insight into the important episodes of Irish history.

Below we publish an extract from A Memoir, by Terry de Valera.

The Easter Rising: It was after Brian's [Terry's brother] death that my mother began to speak more about her past life, reminiscing about her family, her childhood, her days in the Gaelic League and her early married life...

Although I remember well so much of what she told us, I asked her to record these memories for me. When she was in Áras an Uachtaráin, I purchased a hard-backed notebook in Helys, the stationers in Dame Street. I gave this to her, and in it she recorded in her own neat handwriting so many of her precious historical recollections:

On Holy Thursday, April 20 1916, Dev did not undress that night but lay down with a revolver [in fact not a revolver but his Mauser] by his side. On Good Friday, we knelt down in the little kitchen at three o'clock and prayed that we would be all left together...

Dev did not sleep at home on the Friday or Saturday night [April 21 and 22] and instead stayed with Michael Malone. Michael Malone was a splendid soldier, always cheerful and reassuring. One could not but feel that there was something coming, but I never realised that a rising was contemplated. Michael said to me: "We will have a bloodless victory." How blind I was. God knows what we can dare and what we can endure, some of the women were wonderful...

On Easter Sunday morning [April 23 1916], Páidín O'Keefe called to our house with a copy of the morning paper. He seemed greatly agitated. MacNeill had called off the Rising. Even then I did not see the full significance of it all. That night, I had a headache and was in bed when Dev came home to say goodbye. I had no idea that it might be his last goodbye. He then went to the room where the children slept. Viv says he always remembers that goodbye.

On Monday morning, the 24th, a messenger came from Dev, telling me to send him his kit and to cover it in brown paper. The O'Rahilly was in the house while the messenger was there and they spoke some words to each other. The O'Rahilly himself was killed in the Rising. I must have been very dull and wanting in understanding, for even then I did not sense what was going on. In the afternoon, Bridget, the maid, went out to a matinee in the theatre. She returned soon and I remarked that she was back very early. I shall never forget her reply: "The Volunteers are digging trenches in Stephen's Green." Then I understood all.

Bridget came in on 4 May and said: "Rebel leaders suffer the extreme penalty... What does that mean Ma'am?" Thank God Bee was there. Poor Bridget was very good but had not too much imagination. Máirín, who was barely four at the time, said: "Bridget don't bring in any more bad news to Mummy." In the evening I went into the house next door and the bad news was confirmed.

The following days were anxious ones. Every morning brought bad news of another execution. The military raided our house and no-one – none of our friends – was allowed to come near the house. A kind little neighbour, Mrs Cockrane, an Englishwoman and an admirer of Lloyd George, minded the children while the military raided. I have often thought of her since and remember her with gratitude and affection. The soldiers made a thorough search, and after them the G-men came. Some time before the Rising, I gave Dev's birth certificate to my people in Munster Street. When the G-men were searching through Dev's papers, I got frightened and forgot I had given the certificate to my people. One of the G-men asked: "What nationality is Mr de Valera?" "He is an American citizen," Bee replied. It may have been that remark that reminded me of the birth certificate, and I asked them what papers they were taking or some such question. Bee said to me "Sílim go bhfuil siad agamsa" [I think I have them]. "No more of that now," said one of them, but it was enough to ease my mind...

There seemed to have been little hope for Dev, but Bee went to Munster Street and got the birth certificate which she brought it to Fr Flanagan in Marlborough Street. Fr Flanagan said it should be brought to the American Consul. Molly Cotter and Marie Dixon brought it to the Consul. I went then to the Consulate myself and the Consul and Vice-Consul were very kind to me. I went to them several times and when I apologised for my importunity, the elder man said: "You are as welcome as the flowers in May."

Travelling through the city was difficult. Things were dislocated after the Rising. The trams did not run as usual, though they were still in action. Most people, I think, had now given up hope that Dev's life would be spared...

That night [the Wednesday after the Rising] I was putting Éamon to bed, I looked out the window and saw a cab stopping at the door. A priest got out, Fr McCarthy from James' Street. Bee opened the door and said: "We can bear any news, Father, if it is not death." "It is not death," was the reply.

October 2, 2005

This article appeared first in the July 30, 2005 edition of the Irish News.

This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News