A Critical Portrait of 'the Man Who Was Ireland' -- Eamon de Valera

TIM PAT COOGAN'S hefty book is the most recent of many attempts to sort out the meaning of Eamon de Valera's life -- one lived for Ireland and the Irish people.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1882 of an Irish mother and Spanish father, de Valera was raised in Ireland. As a survivor and senior officer of the Easter Rising of 1916, the revolutionary battle that marked the beginnings of the modern Irish Republic, he became an idolized Irish hero. He headed the Irish side in the Anglo-Irish War (1919-21) that resulted in the establishment of the Irish Free State.

De Valera's refusal to recognize the Free State led to the civil war that followed (1922-23) and to imprisonment by his former revolutionary colleagues. In 1926, he founded the Fianna Fail (Warriors of Destiny) party. Fianna Fail won control of the Irish government in an election six years later and held it for the next sixteen.

It was de Valera who, in 1937, drafted the present Irish Constitution and, as prime minister, led the nation through the perilous waters of neutrality during World War II and into the doldrums which followed. He died in 1975, having retired two years earlier at the conclusion of two seven-year terms as president of Ireland.

Coogan -- the author of well-received studies of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and of Michael Collins, guerrilla warrior and founding father of the Irish Free State -- is admirably equipped to tell us about ''the man who was Ireland.''

Though the story he tells is by no means unfamiliar, no one has told it at such length and with such elaborate exposition of the numerous controversies that have riveted the attention of all who have seriously contemplated de Valera's life.

Nor have previous biographers told the story with such brio or so much of the novelist's attention to laying out a detailed narrative.

In the prologue, Coogan professes dedication to fair treatment of his subject, but few, if any, would accuse him of that. Indeed, Coogan is something of a nag when it comes to pointing out what he sees as de Valera's faults: a politician who was cunning, manipulative, power-hungry, with an abiding devotion to his own interests, and insufferably self-righteous.

It would appear that much of the book's energy derives from anger over de Valera policies aimed at fostering a Catholic and Gaelic-speaking nation of small farmers, self-sufficient and inviolate behind tariff and censorship walls. These policies resulted in economic stagnation, accelerated emigration of the nation's young (infuriating to Coogan), and an additional excuse for Northern Ireland Protestants to hold fast to partition.

Coogan's indictment is powerfully argued, but, paradoxically, it makes de Valera a far more interesting figure than he has appeared to be previously. It seems that it will be all but mandatory for additional studies to illumine what Coogan leaves in darkness.

William Butler Yeats observed de Valera during his United States tour of 1919-20, undertaken to win American support for Ireland's cause, the first of many such efforts. The poet was not impressed: ''A living argument rather than a living man.... He will ask too much of everyone and will ask it without charm. He will be pushed aside by others.''

Time proved the poet wrong. Like de Gaulle of the early World War II years, de Valera possessed unsuspected powers to endure and to lead. Coogan's book makes clear what they were: a commanding personal presence (his sobriquet ''the chief'' was conferred upon him by his comrades in prison ); a keen intelligence; a vision sufficiently elevated above immediate circumstance to see something of the future; and a fortitude resting upon a powerful will that enabled him to stay the chosen course.

It was in the service of these noble traits that he employed the ignoble characteristics that so preoccupy Coogan. Ireland has been a remarkably stable country, despite the omnipresence of the subversive IRA. No little credit for this is due to de Valera's creation, the Fianna Fail party, and to his leadership during the depression of the 1930s, when fascism was on the rise, and during the turbulence of World War II, when he ruthlessly suppressed the IRA.

IN denigrating de Valera as a politician, Coogan has not made sufficient allowance for the intractable nature of the materials available with which to fashion a nation. De Valera's leadership in maintaining Irish neutrality during World War II gives him a claim to the role of statesman.

Chiefly at issue, especially in the early years of the war, were the naval bases in southern Ireland that Neville Chamberlain's government had turned over to the Irish in 1937. Two years later, with the renewal of German submarine warfare, the bases appeared critical to the security of Britain's Atlantic approaches.

Despite intense pressure from Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, the Irish leader held to neutrality, denying the bases to the Allies.

To have done otherwise would have been to risk the return of civil war. But at the same time, downed Allied airmen were routinely helped across the Northern Ireland border. The Irish Army, such as it was, secretly cooperated with the British in devising plans against a possible German invasion.

The tone of Coogan's chapters that tell the neutrality story may jar the reader, striving as they do for comedy, but they nevertheless reveal the great strength and skill with which de Valera dealt with his antagonists.

De Valera overstayed his welcome. By the war's end his dream of a Gaelic-speaking peasant paradise had become a nightmare. After 1959, when he stepped down as prime minister and up into the ceremonial office of president, the dream was abandoned by his successors. Ireland is now a more open society, a member of the European Union. Partition appears to be on the way to extinction.

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