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.
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.
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.
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.
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.