If you were to ask Americans to make a list of the most important leaders in US history, many names would appear repeatedly: George Washington. Thomas Jefferson. Abraham Lincoln.
Make a similar list for Ireland, and one name on every list would be Éamon de Valera. He fought in the 1916 Easter Rising, an event being commemorated here next week, and went on to be taoiseach (prime minister) of the first Dail that declared itself as the legitimate government of Ireland in the wake of the Rising. This was even before the British had relinquished control and signed the treaty that established the Irish Free State.
After the Free State came into being, De Valera founded and led the Fianna Fail political party, which has controlled the Irish government for well over half of the nation’s 100 year history. De Valera was the party’s leading figure from the 1920s, when the state was formed, through the 1960s when he retired. He was taoiseach for much of that time, and was Ireland’s president when the Rising’s 50th anniversary was marked in 1966.
I recently had the extreme privilege of meeting de Valera’s grandson Éamon Ó Cuív, a current member of the Dail from Galway. Needless to say, he represents Fianna Fail, the party his grandfather founded.
The meeting came about through a process started when my friend and colleague Tim Madigan was visiting a few weeks ago. We decided we should try and meet Deputy Ó Cuív because of a Rochester connection: de Valera’s mother (Ó Cuív’s great-grandmother) is buried in Rochester’s Holy Sepulchre Cemetery. Tim’s idea was to invite Éamon to visit Rochester some day because of that.
We were not able to meet Éamon on that visit to his Galway office. But an aide there gave us his email address, and Tim went to work. In the process of several messages between Éamon and Tim about a potential visit to Rochester, Éamon expressed an interest in meeting with me also, given that I am here in Galway.
Éamon gave Tim his mobile phone number so I could call and arrange an appointment. I did, and it turned into an invitation to lunch in the members’ dining room at Leinster House in Dublin, the seat of the Irish government. This would be the equivalent of being invited by a US member of Congress to a private lunch in the members’ dining room at The Capitol.
It was a brilliant time. We mostly talked about history, and his grandfather’s role in so much of Ireland’s early development. It was fascinating getting such a personal perspective on things I have only read about in history texts. Not surprisingly, Éamon respects and reveres his grandfather, especially for his abilities as a master politician who could read and lead public opinion in ways that were crucial to the Irish state’s development. As a math professor as well as a politician, de Valera had a real knack for details, which his grandson said was crucial to governing the fledgling state and matters such as enacting the nation’s constitution in 1937.
I already have a pile of memories from this trip to Ireland, but meeting Éamon Ó Cuív over lunch at the center of the Irish government will stand out as something really special.