De Valera and the 'Black Fifties'

Roy Johnston reviews De Valera's Ireland, ed Gabriel Doherty and Dermot Keogh (Mercier Press) and Ireland in the 1950s, ed Dermot Keogh, Finbar O'Shea and Carmel Quinlan (Cork University Press). Both titles 15.95 euro pbk

DERMOT KEOGH is the Modern History Professor in University College Cork. Both books are the products of a project funded by the Higher Education Authority which is aimed at increasing public understanding of the post-independence period, under the general title 'Culture Contact: Nation and State'. Both involve contributins by many authors, some of whom lived throught the periods described. De Valera's Ireland lacks any notes describing who the authors are; though many are well-known to contemporary readers, some are not. This deficiency is made good in the second title, Ireland in the 1950s.

Owen Dudley Edwards gives many useful insights into the US background and contacts of de Valera, some of which help to explain the many paradoxes and contradictory aspects of his character. He takes the Kennedy 1963 address to the Dail as his starting-point, using it to develop arguments about the League of Nations, neutrality in the war and partition. He goes into Woodrow Wilson as role model, the origins of the Irish Press, and the relationship with the Hierarchy. He credits Dev as the "...saviour of Ireland from fascism..." and "...containing political Catholicism which elsewhere in Europe facilitated a slide or a capitulation to totalitarianism...", keeping at bay "...the sinister threat ...posed by Professor Michael Tierney, seeking an Irish version of Mussolini's doctrine integrated with the papal encyclicals...". As he says in his last line: " demands much further study".

Sean Farragher gives a somewhat bland account of Dev's relationship with Blackrock College. More substantive is the next essay, by Dermot Keogh, who tries to assess Dev's role in the civil war, between the hagiographers and the demolitionists. Demolitionists appear to dominate currently, if the Michael Collins film is a good indicator, but Keogh suggests that Dev's militarist rhetoric, identified by some demolitionists as a trigger, was in fact due to misreporting. The conduct of the war was largely outside Dev's influence, though he did manage to have a hand in bringing it to an end, after Liam Lynch's death, in the context of his replacement by Aiken. As elsewhere, there remain unanswered questions.

Tom Garvin deals with the civil war aftermath. He addresses the question of the status of the Treaty: was it an ignoble defeat or a workable compromise? He pulls no punches in describing the sources of the bitterness arising frm the civl war; these dug deeper than those of the Parnell split. The cost of the war was of the order of a quarter of the GNP, equivalent to about 9B euro today. It contributed to the strengthening of Partition, and the further alienation of the northern nationalists, while confirming the unionists in their hegemony. Finland had a feroceous civil war in 1918, in which 25,000 were killed, yet protagonists were sharing government by 1937. Garvin concludes that "...a crippling of Irish public political culture occurred (with) an exaggerated reliance on Chirch and central State structures..." which faded only in the 1960s " a general social pluralism began to melt the socilogical glaciers generated by the 'great freeze' of the post Civil War period."

Ged Martin in his chapter 'de Valera Imagined and Observed' has a few gems; after some time with Lloyd George, Smuts, Midleton and others, for example John Gunther who noted that de Valera was not a citizen of the country he ruled, picked on Hitler and Stalin as parallel examples. Keynes on the other hand in 1933, in a UCD lecture critical of 'laissez-faire' economics, expressed sympathy with Fiannaa Fail self-sufficiency, though he regarded the wheat policy as "insane". Gunther however had come to Dublin primed with negative experience from Europe aflame with petty nationalisms and their leaders, found de Valera "alert, interested and courteous...". Martin concludes with an insightful comment: "...the civil rights movement of the mid-1960s suggested that Northern Ireland could be destabilised far more effectively by Catholics trying to get into (it)...than ... to get ut of it...".

Catriona Clear surveys the scene from the angle of the women's movement. There was more overt feminism in the epoch than is currently given credit for, with the writings of Maura Laverty and Dorothy Macardle to be reckoned with, and the work of formidable trade unionists like Louie Bennett, who addressed the 'servant problem' by a proposal to develop a vocation with good hours and pay, as a respected social service.

Brian Kennedy has some critical things to say about the Arts Council, which was set up under Dev in 1951 and initially concentrated its support on drama and music, the visual arts being seen as 'big house' stuff and not part of the national tradition. In 1956 its director PJ LIttle was replaced by Sean O Faolain, under Costello, despite opposition by JC McQuaid. O Faolain however initially took a somewhat narrower view, and helped focus opposition to the introduction of television. He did subsequently attempt to mobilise opposition to the destruction of Georgian Dublin in the late 50s.

John McGahern's recollections of the 1950s in Dev's Ireland are mostly positive, despite the banning of his books. He recollects the "freemasonry of the intellect, with a vigourous underground life of its own that paid scant regard to Church or State". Brian Walker contrasts commemorations and identies, north and south. The Armistice Day commemoration in the early1920s was initially a shared memory, but Easter Rising commemorations subsequently emerged and invoked a ban. Dev in the 1930s used St Patrick's Day to emphasise the 'Catholic nation' concept. Walker, writing from a Protestant perspective, succeeds in stating the problem of how commemorations relate to perceptions of national identity. Gearoid O Crualaoich invokes cultural nationalism, via Herder, Hyde, Yeats and others, taking Dev's speech inaugurating RTE as point of departure.

There is more meat in Gearoid O Tuathaigh's 'cultural visions' chapter, linking the early vision of the Gaelic League with the more modern Gramscian Marxist radicalism of Mairtin O Cadhain. The book concludes with a paper from Garrett Fitzgerald in which he attempts to lay to rest the concept of 'civil war politics', while emphasising the divisive nature of Dev's politics regarding the North.

On the whole, I found this an unsatisfactory book from the angle of providing an overall assessment of the role of Dev, though it can be mined for various critical glimpses of aspects of the solution to the problem of national identity in our divided country. The political division has in fact largely, thought not totally, prevented the emergence of a genuine inclusive national identity, and it can be said that partition has been a nearly-complete success, from the standpoint of its Tory architects. It remains to be seen if there remains enough momentum to enable a unified national identity to be regenerated from the resultant wreckage.

Turning to Ireland in the 1950s, we have here 17 papers, basically the proceedings of a conference held in February 2001 in Cork. Dermot Keogh's introductory overview defines the Censorship Board (at which they used to laugh in the 1960s, regarding them as 'small-minded ignoramuses') in fact as being 'reactionary ideologues, who knew exactly what they were doing. The country had to be protected from outside influences and liberal tendencies, and from liberal tendencies within our own borders. Free thought is dangerous...'.

Ireland in the 50s

Irish Times literary editor and art critic Brian Fallon's view of the 1950s, while personal and anecdotal, gives quite a positive impression of much going on, despite the censorship, in a lively literary and critical underground. Dermot Keogh (UCC) gives a detailed scholarly analysis of the processes that led to the abandonment of the Blaskets. Gerry O'Hanlon (CSO), Enda Delaney (QUB) and Tracey Connolly (UCC) cover different aspects of the emigration process which dominated the decade. There was a strong 'establishment' view that it was a necessary 'safety valve' without which society would be under threat.

John Bradley (ESRI) analyses the role of 1930s protectionism which persisted throughout the 1940s and laid the basis for the disastrous 1950s economic performance, with insights from Keynes' 1933 Findlay Lecture in UCD. The latter gave apparent support to Dev's policies, but added many qualifications in the small print which turned out to be dominant. The Whittaker policy revision in the late 1950s opened up the republic to globalising capital, with Ireland well placed to take advantage of the US-originating investment boom, as analysed in European terms by Servan-Schreiber. This in the Irish case had the consequent of decoupling Irish trade from its total dependence on Britain, and our subsequent accession to the EEC. Alternative policies, as contemplated by the Irish Left at the time, would have resulted in Cuban-style isolation, and were a long way from being politically credible.

Andrew McCarthy (UCC history) goes into the history of the health services, particularly the issue of the problem of how emigrants fell victim to TB, and whose fault it was; the British blamed the Irish and vice versa. People living in Britain in crowded conditions, who had not had a primary infection in Ireland generating immunity, were particularly at risk. Catriona Clear (UCG) contributes a feminist angle on the conditions of domestic servants. Sandra McAvoy (UCC) analyses the abortion question, touching on James Ashe, the Bishops, the TCD Medical School, Nurse Cadden and the back-street service industry, as well as the emigration trail.

Irene Furlong has established something of a reputation as a historian of Irish tourism, in Maynooth. She has positive things to say about the environment which encouraged the emergence of the B&B as the mainstay of the industry, and critical things to say about the environment which impeded the early initiatives like an Tostal, such as the opposition of the Archbishop to things like Joyce's Ulysses, O'Casey's Father Ned and Tennessee Williams' Rose Tattoo. The stop-go attitude to civil aviation on the Atlantic was also a negative factor. Maurice Fitzgerald, a UCC graduate now in Loughborough, analyses diplomatic relations between Ireland and the US in the 1950s; these became strained towards the end of the decade with Aiken's attempt to get China discussed in the UN. US diplomats in Ireland tended to be of rather poor quality. The Kennedy visit to Ireland in 1963 was in return for the O'Kelly visit to the US in 1959. Linda Dowling Almeida (NYU) contributes a paper on the culture of Irish immigrants in New York. She remarks on the domination of the 50s immigrants by the county associations, and on the lack of mutual recognition between the 50s and 80s immigrants.

James Ryan and Liam Harte attempt to cover the experience of emigrants to Britain, both commenting adversely on the lack of literary attention, despite the best efforts of a handful which included Donall Mac Amhlaigh. There is an implied attempt, perhaps unconsciously, of the Irish literary establishment to write the emigrant experience out of Irish literary history, though the authors, by digging, do find some. Finally, there is an analysis by Dermot Keogh of the emigration and attitudes of the Jewish community in Ireland to the state of Israel. The problem of recognition of Israel came up in Sean MacBride's time, and it is interesting that the main concern was the issue of access to Jerusalem and the holy places, rather than the problems posed by the violent dispossession of the Palestinians.

These books are part of a process which some have condemned as 'revisionism', but increasingly this negative 'labeling and dismissing' is being seen as irrelevant, as useful additional insights emerge from which we can learn.

De Valera on the whole comes out more positively than might have been expected by some. He does not fit into the standard historical pattern which generated Cromwell, Napoleon and Stalin in post-revolutionary situation. We still have to get a serious in-depth critical biography. He managed to keep 'Eire' out of the war, and he managed to contain the influence of McQuaid within bounds which gave Protestants room to survive and contribute to politics, as indeed did my father Joe Johnston. The latter was a Carson critic in the 1910s, a Free State supporter in the 1920s and a severe Dev critic in the 1930s and 40s, in the Seanad and elsewhere, and yet served his final term in the Seanad up to 1954 as a de Valera nominee*.

Some insights into the life, times and political evolution of the reviewer's father can be found in his book Century of Endeavour, published by Academica/Maunsel in the US, and distributed by Lavis in Oxford. Some overview notes on it can be found on the reviewer's website at where it heads the political group in the table of contents.

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