Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Cuban Catholic Hero, Savior of Ireland: Eamon de Valera

Éamon de Valera's parents were Juan Vivion de Valera, a sculptor who had emigrated from Cuba, and Catherine Coll, an Irish immigrant to the United States. He was born in midtown Manhattan and spent the first two and a half years of his life in America under the care of his father, mother, and an employed minder, Mrs Doyle. Thereafter, his uncle Patrick Coll, brought him to the family home in Bruree, Co. Limerick. Just over three years later, de Valera began his primary level education by attending Bruree National School. He spent eight years here, and was taught by John Kelly for at least one year. Kelly was described as a [14]:-
... young teacher and a brilliant mathematician who made a great impression on his famous pupil.
At this time though primary education was free, most second level education was fee paying. As de Valera's family were labourers, the fees required for attending a private school were beyond their means. The best way for progressing in life and education was to attend one of the Christian Brothers Schools (C.B.S.) which provided 'people, irrespective of social status, the opportunities of a higher education' in the hope of winning an exhibition or scholarship which would enable a student to attend one of the private second level institutions.
De Valera began his second level education at Charleville C.B.S. in 1896 and the following year he successfully won an exhibition worth £20, retainable for three years. The results he obtained were a pass with honours in all the subjects he had taken, namely: Greek, Latin, English, French, Arithmetic, Euclid and Algebra. He was accepted in Blackrock College, Dublin in 1898, and he was described as a 'fanatic for mathematics'. This irked his Greek teacher, John Maguire, CSSp, to such an extent that he ordered de Valera to write a Greek sentence in his mathematics copybook. When de Valera protested saying he had a separate copy for Greek, Maguire rejoined [6]:-
You do as you are told, young man. Have at least one bit of Christianity in the midst of that Abomination of Desolation!
Not all of the teachers, however, held Maguire's opinion towards mathematics, and his arithmetic teacher, Tim O'Sullivan, inspired him to such an extent that he came first in his class. He was also placed first in Euclid, and when all results were combined it was discovered that de Valera ranked highest in the class, winning him Student of the Year. Considering his compatriots included John D'Alton, a future Primate of Ireland, and the illustrious O'Rahillys, both of whom distinguished themselves in the academic sphere, Tomás becoming the first director of the school of Celtic Studies in the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS) and Alfred becoming Professor of Mathematical Physics in University College, Cork (UCC) and later Registrar and President of the same College, it was a good achievement, as the standards were particularly high.
At this time, the Royal University of Ireland held open examinations, which meant students could sit examinations irrespective of college attendance. As a result, some second level institutions, such as Blackrock, decided to offer third level training to students. When de Valera completed Senior Grade and had matriculated successfully, he entered University College Blackrock with the intention of pursuing a degree in mathematics and mathematical physics. In his final year, he received the offer, which he accepted, of teaching in Blackrock's sister College in Rockwell, Co. Tipperary. It was reported that de Valera was a very talented teacher, and therefore, he was entrusted with teaching both Senior Grade students and undergraduate degree students, though he still had to finish his own degree! The pressures of a full teaching load left him little time to study and as a result, had to be contented with a pass degree.
This made further study difficult for him; however, he benefited from the public lectures given by University College Dublin (UCD) lecturers' Arthur Conway and Henry MacWeeney, and lectures given by the Astronomer Royal, E T Whittaker. After meeting Conway, de Valera's interest in quaternions began to grow. He began to study them in depth and Conway reported that [17]:-
... he [de Valera] has in the past two years [1910-1912] gone deeply into the subject of Quaternions, and is at present prosecuting an important original research in them which promises to be of considerable interest.
During this time, de Valera was engaged by several of the top Dublin schools to teach higher mathematics and mathematical physics classes. Without application, he was offered a post lecturing mathematics in Carysfort Teacher Training College. This was an all-female third level institution which was dedicated to preparing girls as primary teachers. Arising from this, and his friendship with Conway andWhittaker, de Valera's confidence grew and he applied for the Chair of Mathematical Physics in University College, Cork, in 1912. A reference, written by Whittaker, describes de Valera's knowledge as both 'broad and deep', and additionally, Whittaker wrote he was impressed by [18]:-
... the intellectual vigour with which he ... interested himself in the most difficult problems of natural philosophy.
After all the applications were assessed the Governing Body took a straw vote to decide who they would recommend to the National University of Ireland (NUI) Senate for the position. In this vote de Valera secured 11 votes, two higher than the nearest competitor, E H Harper. However, in the actual vote they both scored 10 and the two names were sent along with the results of the final vote. Harper was elected to the chair, and de Valera managed to secure a post teaching mathematical physics in the recognised College of the NUI in Maynooth, Co. Kildare.
De Valera had for many years been a supporter of reviving the Irish language. In 1913 he had joined the Irish Volunteers, a revolutionary group opposed to British rule. The group were armed with German weapons which had been smuggled into the country in 1914. In 1916 the Irish Volunteers organised the Easter Uprising which proclaimed the birth of the Irish Republic in Dublin. Due to de Valera's participation in this uprising, his formal study of mathematics stopped. The uprising was quickly put down by British forces and its leaders were sentenced to death. Because of de Valera's American birth he escaped execution. He was imprisoned, but released in 1917. In May of the following year he was arrested again and sent to prison in England. Although still in prison, he was elected President of the Sinn Féin Party which won an overwhelming majority of the vote in December 1918.
In February 1919, de Valera escaped from Lincoln Prison. In doing so he used his mathematical knowledge to help him.
Due to de Valera's participation in the 1916 rising, his formal study of mathematics stopped. He did, however, maintain an interest in the subject throughout his life and in some scenario's actively used mathematics to solve political problems. One instance of this can be found in his escape from Lincoln Prison in 1919. At the time de Valera and other leading members of the republican movement were interred under the defence against the realm act, in a very dubious 'German Plot'. In order to publicly humiliate the British forces, and promote propaganda for the Republican side, de Valera decided to escape from prison.
He considered various plans, but he felt the best choice was to copy the prison key. De Valera used his background in mathematics to geometrically copy the chaplain's key in wax during mass, and he used his knowledge of projective geometry to copy this to paper. When the copied key, delivered in a cake made of plaster Paris, came it was found to be too small. De Valera then compared it with the drawing they had of the key, and it fitted perfectly. His mathematician's mind was not long in figuring out the problem. He had allowed the wax to harden while still in the plug tobacco box with the result that in the shrinkage caused by the cooling of the wax the impression became uniformly smaller than the original key.' A copy of the key, which fitted the locks, was eventually made, and de Valera, accompanied by others, escaped on 3rd February 1919.
After visiting the United States to seek funding for the Irish republican cause, he returned to Ireland. A truce was called in 1921 and de Valera began the process of persuading the Dáil to accept his proposals for the future of Ireland. He used a mathematical approach to argue for the type of treaty he thought would be acceptable to all sides.
After a truce had been declared in July 1921, de Valera set about devising a concept which would satisfy both Irish and British aspirations and as a result, formulated his theory of external association. The concept entailed Ireland maintaining her sovereignty at home, i.e. controlling all domestic and international affairs while still retaining a connection with the Commonwealth. Under this compromise, Ireland would guarantee to remain neutral during any war in which Britain was a participant, and in return Britain would renounce any right to govern Ireland or legislate for it. One of the main problems he would encounter in the Dáil was getting all members to accept the proposals.
Although not all accepted his proposal, uncompromising republicans like Brugha and Stack, though not enamoured with it, were eventually won over by de Valera's mathematical explanations, which were based on set theory.
During the Dáil Éireann debates, de Valera drew a Venn diagram to explain his theory and explained it as follows:
The British Commonwealth was represented by a large circle within which were five smaller circles, each representing one of the self-governing countries of that group of nations. The President[de Valera] sketched in Ireland as a circle outside the large circle but touching it.
Although each of the states is represented by a circle, which would lead one to believe that they were sets, they were more likely to represent elements. Therefore, though it may appear that each country is a subset of a larger set called the British Commonwealth (BC), the countries are probably elements of the set, BC.
Some difficulties arise when one tries to decide if de Valera meant the sets to be open or closed. A circular disc which is open does not contain the circumference; however, a circular disc which is closed contains the circumference, i.e. (BC, Ire) does not contain the tangent point; however, [BC, Ire] does. It is unclear whether he viewed the discs as open or closed.
Thus, it is difficult to ascertain whether the intersection of {Self-Governing Commonwealth Countries} and {Ireland} is empty or non-empty. If we are to assume it is a closed set and the point where Ireland is tangent is common to both, is this what de Valera envisaged when he proposed External Association? If so, to whom does the point belong, if it is a physical entity? Does it belong to both equally or not? In political terms, did de Valera want the connection to exist, but have no meaning or power? The idea he was trying to explain was that Ireland would be associated with the Commonwealth but not a member of it, i.e. Ireland would be tangent to the Commonwealth, but would not have any elements in common with it and most importantly, would not be an element of the Commonwealth as was the case with the other five states mentioned.
This is the most common example which was reported in the media and covered in biographies, but de Valera also drew other diagrams, depending on the political perspective of his audience. At the time, set theory was still a relatively new branch of mathematics, and though it may not have been covered in schools, it seems the Dáil members understood de Valera's explanation well enough to vote for it. Though de Valera had not been studying mathematics formally for some time, through instances such as this one it is clear he still used mathematics as a tool for solving problems.
The treaty, however, still had to be negotiated with the British government. When the treaty was ratified in 1922 forming the Irish Free State, de Valera, opposed it on the grounds that it still required an oath of allegiance to Britain. He then led a military movement against the new government of the Irish Free State. He was imprisoned by the government of the Irish Free State but released in 1924 after which he founded the Fianna Fáil Party. In 1927 de Valera persuaded members of Fianna Fáil to take the oath of allegiance so they could enter the Dáil. There they argued to have the oath of allegiance abolished and argued against taxes payable to Britain. Fianna Fáil gained seats in 1932 and, with Labour support, gained power. De Valera began the process of making Ireland independent from Britain. He produced proposals for a new constitution in 1937 creating Eire in place of the Irish Free State. It was ratified in a referendum.
In 1948 de Valera lost power when he refused to enter a coalition. He then began a world tour to gain support for the unification and independence of Ireland. Full independence was granted when Britain recognised its new status in April 1949, but the consent of the Parliament of Northern Ireland was required before unification could occur. De Valera returned to power in 1951 but failed to gain sufficient support in 1954 to continue. However, in March 1957 he again achieved an overall majority. He resigned his role as head of the government and head of Fianna Fáil in 1959 so that he could stand for the presidency. He was elected president and reelected in 1966. He retired to a nursing home near Dublin in 1973 where he died in 1975.
The most important contribution de Valera made to mathematics both in Ireland and internationally was the foundation of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS) in 1940. The institute initially consisted of two schools namely, the School of Celtic Studies and the School of Theoretical Physics, and in 1947 a third school, the School of Cosmic Physics, was added. It was the result of consultation between de Valera, his past professors Arthur Conway and E T Whittaker, as well as with the foremost American mathematician of the time, G D Birkhoff.
Before the foundation of DIAS, de Valera explored the possibility of securing the services of a world renowned mathematical physicist. The Institute, as proposed, would be under the guidance of these men or women who, it was hoped, would be able to begin in the Institute once it was established. The three names originally mentioned were ConwaySchrödinger, and WhittakerMax Born and Albert Einsteinwere also mentioned; however, both had recently accepted positions - Born at Edinburgh and Einstein at Princeton. Contacting Schrödinger to offer him a position in the yet-to-be-established Institute was a cloak and dagger affair. Whittaker, in a letter to de Valera, wrote that since Schrödinger was 'much disliked' by the Nazis, any attempt to contact him outright would be 'frustrated', and that the Nazis, rather than dismiss him, might kill him. As a result, Whittaker contacted the German physicist, Max Born, who in turn contacted a associate of his, Professor Baer, who then telegraphed a mutual friend of his andSchrödinger's, who promised to meet Schrödinger if at all possible. Less than four months later on the 16th of September, a letter was received from Schrödinger accepting the offer to come to Ireland. Once DIAS was founded, it was discovered that only Schrödinger could accept a position. Conway had been recently made President of University College Dublin, and Whittaker felt he could not leave his university post due to the outbreak of World War II.
Upon founding the Institute, de Valera hoped that Ireland would [15]:-
... achieve a reputation comparable to the reputation which Dublin and Ireland had in the middle of the last century
which, it appears was the case according to former director, J L Synge, who maintained that [21]:-
... former scholars are to be found in chairs in many parts of the world, and the school may feel reasonably proud that Ireland has, with profit to herself, made an international contribution to physics.
The foundation of DIAS, among other acts, culminated in de Valera's election as an honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1968.
Throughout his life, he maintained an avid interest in mathematics and even during his Presidency (1959-1966), his secretary, Máire N’ Cheallaigh, recounted:-
... the President's great regret is that the time he can devote to maths is necessarily very limited. However, he has read from time to time articles on modern physics -- atomic particles, quantum dynamics ... the president uses dark green linoleum, covering the top of his large desk in his private study here in Arus an Uachtarain [sic.], as a blackboard on which with chalk he draws geometrical figures and pursues such algebraical expressions as he might find difficult to visualize otherwise.
During this time de Valera's poor sight had deteriorated, and using dark linoleum was the only way he could practice mathematics. After he retired from politics, one of de Valera's official biographers, Néill, wrote to J L Synge detailing de Valera's continuing interest in mathematics. An extract from this letter reads:-
[ Néill] can remember well ... the way in which he would agree to take a walk, on doctor's instructions, only when his secretary had read to him a mathematics problem which he could ponder over as he walked. Indeed I heard him bargain with her! He would agree to do at once some of the less agreeable chores of answering letters or autographing books etc. if she would read some mathematics afterwards.


  1. A Christian Brother, Centenary souvenir of the death of Edmund Ignatius Rice founder of the Christian Brothers of Ireland born 1 June 1762, died 29 August 1844 (Bray Printing, Dublin, 1944).
  2. J Bowman, De Valera and the Ulster Question, 1917-1973 (Oxford University Press 1982).
  3. T P Coogan, De Valera : Long Fellow, Long Shadow (Hutchinson, 1993).
  4. T P Coogan, Eamon De Valera : The Man Who Was Ireland (Harpercollins, 1995).
  5. O D Edwards, Eamon De Valera (Political Portraits) (University of Wales Press, 1987).
  6. S P Farragher, Dev and his Alma Mater (Paraclete Press, Dublin, 1984).
  7. D Ferriter, Judging Dev : A Reassessment of the Life and Legacy of Eamon De Valera (Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, 2007).
  8. C FitzGibbon and G Morrison, The Life and Times of Eamon de Valera (Macmillan, New York, 1973).
  9. D Hannigan, De Valera in America : The Rebel President's 1919 Campaign (O'Brien Press Ltd, 2008).
  10. F P Longford and T P O'Neill, Éamon de Valera, (Gill & Macmillan, Dublin, 1970).
  11. W Moore, Schrödinger, Life and Thought, (Cambridge, 1989).
  12. M Moynihan, Speeches and statements by Eamon de Valera, 1917-73 (St Martin's Press, Dublin, 1980).
  13. T Ryle Dwyer, Eamon de Valera (Gill & Macmillan, 1980).
  14. M Seoighe, From Bruree to Corcomohide: the district where world statesman Éamon de Valera grew up and where the illustrious Mac Eniry family ruled (Bruree/Rockhill Development Association, Limerick, 2000).
  1. Dáil Eireann Deb. vol. 76 col. 1970 (06 July 1939).
  2. W McCrea, Eamon de Valera, Erwin Schrödinger and the Dublin Institute, in C W Kilmister (ed.), Schrödinger, London, 1987 (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1987), 119-135.
  3. NUIA, De Valera's application for a professorship in Mathematical Physics (21 May 1913).
  4. Papers of Eamon de Valera, IE UCDA P150/620 (University College Dublin).
  5. Papers of Eamon de Valera, IE UCDA P150/2609 (University College Dublin).
  6. E L Stark, Als Mathematiker vom Revolutionär zum Staatspräsidenten: Eamon de Valera auf irischer Briefmarke, Praxis Math. 25 (5) (1983), 154-155.
  7. J L Synge, The Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, Nature 218 (5144) (1968), 838-840.
  8. J L Synge, Eamon de Valera, Biogr. Memoirs Fell. Roy. Soc. 22 (1976) 634-653.


The Fianna Fáil Party evolved from Ireland’s struggle for independence. Eamon de Valera founded Fianna Fáil on 23 March 1926. The Party’s name, Fianna Fáil - the Republican Party, was adopted on 2nd April 1926. The name Fianna Fáil had a double purpose: it suggested continuity with recent history (as the Irish name for the Volunteers) and also with ancient Irish history. The name Fianna Fáil means ‘Soldiers of Destiny’ and is taken from Old Irish. It has connotations with the Fianna, the warriors of Fionn Mac Cumhaill.

Born in 1882 in New York, but brought up in Limerick, Eamon de Valera studied mathematics at the Royal University. In 1908 he joined the Gaelic League and remained dedicated to the Irish language. He joined the Irish Volunteers in 1913 and during the rebellion of 1916 commanded the 3rd Battalion at Boland's Mill. Sentenced to death, de Valera was reprieved.
On his release from prison in 1917, de Valera was elected MP for East Clare – a political relationship with the Banner County that endured for over forty years. In February 1919, having escaped from Lincoln jail, de Valera was elected president of the first Dáil. In June of that year he went to America and raised over $5 million for the republican cause.
29 June 1919 - De Valera’s first public meeting on USA tour,
Fenway Park, Boston.
The period of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 and the ensuing civil war were difficult times in the life of the country. De Valera realised that in order to make a substantial difference, he would have to take an active part in the political life of the nation. Thus, in 1926, he formed a new party, Fianna Fáil. In 1927 de Valera entered the Dáil (reluctantly taking the oath of allegiance, describing it as an empty formula) and spent the following five years building Fianna Fáil into a formidable machine. 
Fianna Fáil Party elected June 1927.

The first general congress (Árd-Fheis) of the Fianna Fáil Party took place in November 1926. De Valera pledged the party to pursue the ending of partition and the peaceful re-unification of the country. The Árd-Fheis laid down Fianna Fáil’s constitution and aims (which were updated in 1995). These were:
1. To secure the unity and independence of Ireland as a Republic.
2. To restore the Irish language as the spoken language of the people, and to develop a distinctive national life in accordance with Irish traditions and ideals.
3. To make the resources and wealth of Ireland subservient to the needs and welfare of all the people of Ireland.
4. To make Ireland, as far as possible, economically self-contained and self-sufficing.
5. To establish as many families as practicable on the land.
6. By suitable distribution of power to promote the ruralisation of industries essential to the lives of the people as opposed to their concentration in cities.
7. To carry out the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil.
In 1932, less than six years after its foundation, Fianna Fáil was elected to government. In successive general election victories the party remained in office until 1948. De Valera’s first concern as President of the Executive Council (this title was changed to that of Taoiseach in 1937) was to dismantle the imperial connection and to secure, in every way he could, the complete independence of the country. He introduced the Bill to abolish the Oath of Allegiance to the British King in April 1932. De Valera also abolished the office of Governor-General representing the British monarch in Ireland.
Under Eamon de Valera a new Constitution was created in 1937, Bunreacht na hÉireann. This was voted upon by the people in a referendum. The Constitution was the first to be given to the Irish people completely by themselves without a British overview. It has been a remarkably successful and flexible document, an adaptable instrument over the years in a changing nation. The 1937 Constitution made Ireland a republic in all but name - the office of the Presidency was established and the founder of the Gaelic League, Douglas Hyde, became the first president in 1938.
The first Fianna Fáil Government which took office on March 9, 1932.

Under de Valera Fianna Fáil engaged in a concerted campaign of social reconstruction. In the 1930s the Fianna Fáil government moved people out of the slums and tenements. In an eight year period (between 1932 and 1940), 133,220 houses were built or reconstructed. Social services and social welfare were greatly developed and new hospitals were built. Childrens’ Allowances and Widows’ and Orphans’ Pensions were introduced for the first time.
De Valera oversaw the development of Irish agriculture through founding research stations which sponsored a scientific approach to farming and encouraging maximum farm production rather than reliance on imports. The British Government refused international arbitration on the land annuities question - a payment of about five millions pounds a year to the British Treasury negotiated by the Cumann na nGaedheal government in 1926. When de Valera refused to pay the annuities, the British imposed tariffs and the Economic War broke out. It was ended in 1938, the same year that de Valera negotiated the return of the Irish ports (which under the Treaty Britain could use in the event of war). Historians view de Valera’s achievement in the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1938 as one of the most crucial periods of his political career.
The return of the Treaty ports meant that de Valera was able to adopt a policy of neutrality despite great pressure from Britain, the United States of America and Germany during the Second World War.
British garrison leaving Spike Island 11 July 1938 as Britain hands back the Treaty ports.

Neutrality was also a further demonstration of independence and it led to the adoption of a political outlook which has been the State’s official position ever since. Maintaining neutrality in the face of great danger to Ireland in World War II was one of de Valera’s finest achievements. He later gave the classic reason why a small nation such as Ireland should maintain its policy of principled neutrality: A small nation has to be extremely cautious when it enters into alliances which bring it, willy-nilly, into those wars. As I said during the last war, the position was that we would not be consulted in how war would be started - the great powers would do that - and when it was ended, no matter who won, suppose the side on which we were won, we would not be consulted as to the terms on which it should end.
Taoiseach Eamon de Valera and
Winston Churchill, 1953.
Elsewhere in foreign affairs, at the League of Nations de Valera was president of both the council and the assembly during the 1930s. This further strengthened the role that he played on the international stage, and showed that a small nation such as Ireland could play an important part in world affairs.
During the decade from 1948 to 1957 there were successive changes of government. Fianna Fáil returned to power from 1951-54. In 1952, the party introduced a Mother and Child scheme which had caused the downfall of the previous inter-party government. Fianna Fáil convincingly won the 1957 General Election and remained in power until 1973. In the final two years of de Valera’s political career the First Programme for Economic Expansion was implemented.
In 1959, after thirty-three years at the head of Fianna Fáil, Eamon de Valera resigned as leader and Taoiseach and was elected President of Ireland (succeeding Sean T. O’Kelly), a position he held until 1973.
In total Eamon de Valera had been head of the government for twenty-one years and President for fourteen - with such experience, there is no doubt that this was a man who was the dominant figure in twentieth century Irish political life.
Eamon de Valera is seen as perhaps the most consistent and influential figure with regard to the shaping of Ireland, its profound nationalism, and sense of self-determination. It is widely held that great leaders and nation builders often emerge from moments in time and their intuitive ability to seize and shape them - Eamon de Valera is most surely among those leaders.


1882: Born in New York on 14 October.
1885: Sent by his mother to live with her family in Ireland.
1904: Graduates from the Royal University of Ireland.1908 Joins the Gaelic League.

1910: 8th January. Marries Sinéad Flanagan.
1913: 25th November. Joins Irish Volunteers.
1916: 24th April. Commander in Bolands Mills during the Easter Rising. Later sentenced to death for participation but death sentence rescinded.
1917: Joins Sinn Féin and replaces long-time leader Arthur Griffith as president. Elected MP for East Clare in a bye-election but refuses to take his seat in the House of Commons.
1918: Re-elected MP in 1918 general election.
1919: 1st April. Elected Príomh Aire (chief minister) of the new Dáil Éireann, the assembly formed by a majority of Irish MPs. Forms his first government. In May de Valera travels to the United States to lobby on behalf of Irish republicanism, raising $5 million in the process.
1921: December. The Dáil, against de Valera's advice, approves Anglo-Irish Treaty. De Valera resigns as president.
1922–1923: Irish Civil War.
1926: 23rd March. De Valera forms a new political party, Fianna Fáil.
1927: Faced with disqualification from contesting elections, de Valera takes the Oath of Allegiance (describing it as an empty formula) and enters the Dáil.
1932. Forms his first Free State government.
President de Valera with
Princess Grace of Monaco and her
1937. Enactment of new constitution, Bunreacht na hÉireann. De Valera becomes Taoiseach for the first time.
1951. Re-elected as Taoiseach.
1957. Re-elected as Taoiseach for the last time.
1959. Elected as President of Ireland.
1966. Re-elected as President.
1973. De Valera retires from public office.
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