- Two Unpublished Letters to Eamon de ValeraWith an Introduction by Brad Kent
Shaw’s epistolary output has been the subject of much admiration. Numbered in the hundreds of thousands, it is inevitable that heretofore publicly unknown letters are sporadically discovered. Some of these letters remain unpublished but safely housed in such familiar repositories of Shavian archives as the British Library, the Dan H. Laurence Collection at the University of Guelph, and the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas. But there are also letters found in private and public collections throughout the world that tend to be off the beaten track for people interested in Shaw and thus they risk never coming into contact with those to whom they might be of some value. Indeed, serendipity led to unearthing two of his unpublished letters in the Eamon de Valera Papers housed in the University College Dublin Archives.1
Eamon de Valera dominated twentieth-century Irish political life like no other person. A veteran of the Easter Rising of 1916, he was voted to Westminster in the 1918 general election as a Member of Parliament for Sinn Féin, the party of which he was president. But with the rest of his party’s elected members, he abstained from parliament, forming instead the breakaway Irish National Assembly, known as Dáil Éireann. Following the Irish War of Independence, he was a part of the large minority of Irish politicians who rejected the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which in part contributed to the onset of the Irish Civil War in mid-1922. After several years in the political wilderness, de Valera split from Sinn Féin and formed Fianna Fáil, a new party that entered the Dáil in 1927 and won its first election to form the government in 1932. De Valera served as Taoiseach, the Irish prime minster, from 1932 to 1948, and for two later stretches, 1951–54 and 1957–59. He was then president of Ireland [End Page 27] from 1959 until 1973, just two years before he died at the age of ninety-two. Throughout his time in government, he was a contentious figure, reconciling some mainline factions of Irish Republicanism with the Catholic Church, carrying out a lengthy economic trade war with Britain over sanctions and tariffs for much of the 1930s, and maintaining Irish neutrality during World War II. Like Shaw, he was a modern Methuselah whose reputation has been largely on the decline in recent years. In de Valera’s case, the period of his rule in Irish politics popularly became shorthand for backwardness and insularity as Celtic Tiger Ireland succumbed to the siren song of neoliberal economics.
As Shaw routinely took an active interest in Irish matters, it is perhaps inevitable that he shared some correspondence with de Valera. A few of these letters have been published in Dan H. Laurence’s four-volume collection, and they do much to reveal a good working relationship between the two men. On 5 May 1945, for example, Shaw wrote to inform de Valera that he wished to bequeath an inherited property in Carlow on the District Council.2 However, his donation had a caveat: they had to establish a permanent Voluntary Civic Improvement Fund to ensure its maintenance. Because no national empowering act existed, the District Council feared passing the resolution. Shaw therefore appealed to de Valera to pass general legislation for all of Eire. De Valera notified Shaw on 2 June that the government concurred with Shaw’s views that a national law was needed.3 Seán MacEntee, the Minister for Local Government and Public Health, introduced the bill that had been instigated at the behest of “our great compatriot, the unique Mr. George Bernard Shaw,” and suggested that as such it should perhaps be referred to as “The Shaw Bill” in his honor.4 The proposal was not officially enshrined, but having met with much approval in the Dáil following considerable praise for Shaw, it was enacted on 4 August 1945 as the Local Authorities (Acceptance of Gifts) Act. The two men also shared the dream of creating an Irish film company...