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Éamon de Valera

Updated: May 1

Eamon de Valera played a pivotal role in shaping Ireland’s history during the 20th century. Born in New York City in 1882 to a Spanish father and an Irish mother, de Valera was sent to County Limerick, Ireland, at a young age after his father’s death. He received his education in Ireland, eventually becoming a mathematics teacher and a fervent supporter of the Irish-language revival.

De Valera’s involvement in Irish politics began in 1913 when he joined the Irish Volunteers, a group organised to resist British opposition to Home Rule for Ireland. He gained prominence during the Easter Rising of 1916, commanding an occupied building and becoming the last commander to surrender. Due to his American birth, he escaped execution but was sentenced to penal servitude.

After his release in 1917, de Valera was elected president of Sinn Féin and led the party to a landslide victory in the 1918 general election. Controversially, he travelled to America during the Irish War of Independence and delegated the ceasefire negotiations with Britain to others, allowing him to ultimately reject the treaty that established the Irish Free State.

De Valera’s political career continued as he led the opposition to the Irish Free State government during the civil war. Despite imprisonment, he organized the Fianna Fáil party, which entered Dáil Éireann in 1927, advocating for the abolition of the oath of allegiance and other changes.

In 1932, Fianna Fáil defeated the incumbent government, and de Valera became Taoiseach. During his time in office, he focused on severing connections with Britain, withholding payment of land annuities and engaging in a disastrous “economic war” to achieve national self-sufficiency.

In 1937, de Valera oversaw the ratification of a new constitution that transformed the Irish Free State into Ireland, a sovereign and independent democracy. He also negotiated the Anglo-Irish defence agreement, ensuring Ireland’s neutrality during World War II while providing covert assistance to the Allies.

De Valera’s political dominance continued until 1948 when opposition parties formed a coalition government. However, he returned to power in 1951 and served multiple terms as Taoiseach and President of Ireland until his retirement in 1973. His tenure is associated with extreme social conservatism, reactionary fiscal policies and docility to the Catholic church. He passed away in 1975, leaving behind a legacy as the dominant figure of mid-20th century Ireland.

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