Book Review Eamon de Valera: A Will to Power

Eamon de Valera: A Will to Power by Ronan Fanning. Published in 2015 by Faber & Faber

Because of his many controversial decisions made during the rebellion, civil war, and his long presidency, it is hard to find an objective biography on Eamon de Valera. However, Fanning’s biography is the fairest and kindest book I’ve read on the Long Fellow.

Fanning goes out of his way to explain many of de Valera’s decisions, doing his best to provide us with an in-depth view into how de Valera’s mind worked and what set him off. Fanning also does his best to stay clear of rehashing old arguments or refighting long lost causes. The best part of this biography is Fanning’s determination to stick to his narrative and to provide only the facts, delving into basic psychology and referring to controversies only when required. Fanning also offers the most logical explanation as to why de Valera stayed out of treaty negotiations and admits de Valera’s culpability in starting the Irish civil war. The strength of the book was discussing de Valera’s return to power after the civil war and his presidency. While many other biographers can get lost in his various accomplishments from 1930 onwards, Fanning avoids overwhelming the reader. He is able to focus on de Valera’s most important accomplishments-the destruction of the oath, the reworking of Ireland’s constitution, and keeping Ireland neutral during WWII while covertly providing the allies assistance. It was the last act that had the great impact on Ireland and enabled it to become truly independent.

However, in his attempt to remain impartial and fair, Fanning provides a simplified version of events, particularly during the rebellion and the civil war. While there is no doubt that de Valera exercised a great power as president and leader of the Dail, Fanning’s assertion that the members of the IRA were completely obedient to all his commands seems a stretch. It is certainly true that de Valera seemed to believe this, but, judging on other books I have read, men like Collins and Mulcahy were far from completely obedient. By focusing only on de Valera’s efforts while portraying everyone else’s choices as examples of the obedient de Valera could inspire in others, Fanning missed the chance to provide a full and complex picture of de Valera’s leadership. While it is important to understand de Valera’s point of view, it would also be useful to understand how the other IRA members dealt with his frequently dictatorial leadership style. It would have also been helpful to see a balanced account of de Valera’s relationship with men like Brugha, Collins, and Mulcahy. Fanning also avoids talking about de Valera’s relationship with the female members, which I have read was far from progressive.

Fanning also overlooks de Valera’s attempts at politicking and stirring of the pot when he returned from America. The IRA was already experiencing schisms that would exacerbate once the treaty was signed and, according to authors such as Foster and Townshend, de Valera added to this discontentment, siding with Brugha against Mulcahy and Collins during their increasingly bitter and spiteful arguments, attempting to send Collins to America after disapproving of his guerrilla tactics, and refusing to take part in the treaty negotiations. While delving into these actions would run the risk of reopening old wounds, it also made the treaty process smoother than it was, laying a lot of the blame on Griffith and Collins, while downplaying de Valera’s discomfort with an IRA that had developed without his leadership (even though it was his decision to go to America while the IRA were still fighting against the British)

Pros:

This is a fair and balanced biography that focuses on de Valera’s accomplishments, wisely trusting the reader to know about the many controversies swirling around the Long Fellow. It provides a logical explanation to de Valera’s departure to America and his refusal to take part in the treaty negotiation. His biography shines when describing de Valera’s return to power and his momentous achievements as Ireland’s president. Fanning also goes out of his way explaining the importance of Ireland’s neutral status during WWII while also providing covert assistance to the allies.

Cons:

By trying to remain impartial, Fanning pays short shrift to the other IRA members and simplifies the many complex issues that the IRA faced and that de Valera often exasperated. He also only briefly mentions how some of de Valera’s terms in the Irish constitution and some of his decrees affected the women and children of Ireland. Fanning goes out of his way to claim that de Valera could inspire complete obedience from his followers but does little to suggest how that affected the creation of the IRA, the creation of the modern Irish presidency, and how that legacy has affected Ireland as it struggled with the IRA campaigns during the 1970s and entering the 21st century.

Overall, this is a well written and fair biography that provides a simplified version of de Valera’s life, but offers little insight to how he interacted with the other IRA members and how his legacy grew and impacted Ireland beyond his death.

4/5

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