Sign up for our free Churchill newsletter:
Winston Churchill & Eamon De Valera: A Thirty Year “Relationship”



By David Freeman


Abstract: The 2008 International Churchill Conference in Boston had as its theme “Churchill and Ireland,” and numerous papers have been published in Finest Hour 142-145 under the rubric “Churchill Proceedings,” which are downloadable by registered users of this website.

One of the most important omissions from the printed pages was the following paper by Finest Hour contributing editor David Freeman, who delivered the original in person. The paper in its present form was substantially enlarged for a forthcoming book, The Churchills and Ireland: Connections and Controversies from the 1660s to the 1960s (Irish Academic Press). It is based on Dr. Freeman’s presentation at a conference of the same name in Belfast in June 2009 sponsored by the University of Ulster. Copyright © David Freeman, 2010.


Winston Churchill enjoyed a good joke. According to Dennis Kelly, one of Churchill’s former literary assistants, the following was one of his boss’s favorite stories, one that ‘he used to adore telling’: ‘British bomber over Berlin, caught in the searchlights, flak coming up, one engine on fire, rear-gunner wounded, Irish pilot mutters, “Thank God Dev kept us out of this bloody war.”’i

‘Dev’, of course, was Eamon de Valera who as Taoiseach maintained a policy of neutrality for Ireland throughout the Second World War despite the fact many thousands of Irish citizens served in the armed forces of the United Kingdom and other Allied powers while thousands more moved to Britain to perform vital war work in the civilian sector. Clearly the irony was not lost on Churchill, but the British Prime Minister never understood the domestic political reality in Ireland during the war, resented de Valera’s stance, and failed to acknowledge the tacit assistance the Irish government did provide in the war against Germany. The source of both Churchill’s attitude and that of the Irish population which de Valera’s policy of neutrality reflected obviously pre-dated the 1939-45 conflict. Still, it was never in Churchill’s nature to nurse a grudge, and he was happy to pursue a rapprochement with the Taoiseach when hostilities ended.

They were certainly an amazing pair sitting down to lunch in Downing Street in 1953: Winston Churchill and Eamon de Valera, both in their times the dominant political personalities of their countries. Each featured in the story of Ireland’s journey to independence, and by the time they first shook hands each had been reacting to the words, initiatives, and policies of the other for more than thirty years. Yet, the luncheon was the only occasion in which they spoke face to face, and it came late in each man’s career. In assessing what Churchill and de Valera thought of one another, therefore, the historian is tempted to reply ‘not much,’ not as sarcastic comment, though, but rather as quantitative analysis. The two men only had the one experience upon which to form personal impressions. Tracing out the story of the relationship must depend, then, primarily on examining what each man had to say about the other from a distance. Still, in important ways each influenced the career of the other, and the subject calls for examination.

Prior to their 1953 meeting there had been three distinct periods when the careers of Churchill and de Valera intersected albeit each time indirectly. The first came during the struggle for Irish independence when Churchill served as Colonial Secretary in 1921/2. The second period started when de Valera first became Taoiseach in 1932 ‘with every resolve,’ as Churchill saw it, ‘to violate the [1921Anglo-Irish] Treaty in every way possible.’ii This period culminated with the return of the Treaty Ports to Ireland by the Chamberlain government in 1938. The third and final phase started with the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939 when Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty felt it imperative to re-visit the matter of the Treaty Ports and de Valera felt it even more imperative to keep his nation neutral. This quarrel simmered after Churchill became prime minister in 1940 and continued until one final initiative was made following the attack on Pearl Harbor. After that Churchill had little time for de Valera except as we shall see for the odd notable occasion.

* * *

The first phase of interaction between Churchill and de Valera started with the Anglo-Irish Treaty talks in 1921. However, apart from a speech critical of de Valera’s rejection of possible treaty terms made by British Prime Minister David Lloyd George that summer, Churchill left no contemporary account of his views of de Valera during the talks that ensued. Instead Churchill set down his assessment of de Valera only in retrospect when he published his book The Aftermath in 1929. This means Churchill’s recorded views of de Valera’s actions before and during the treaty negotiations in 1921 are coloured by Churchill’s impressions of de Valera’s subsequent behavior during the period of treaty ratification and implementation in 1922. As Colonial Secretary, Churchill by his own admission played only a marginal role in the treaty negotiations and the events leading up to them. He did, however, have direct responsibility for Ireland once the treaty had been signed. Thus, de Valera’s opposition to the treaty caused Churchill much anxiety that lingered for years afterward.

Churchill’s ‘backward’ view of events in his memoirs helps explain the withering sarcasm he reserved for de Valera when he wrote his account of Irish independence in 1929. For example, when describing a meeting between de Valera and Northern Irish leader Sir James Craig for secret talks in May 1921, Churchill recorded that: ‘At the end of four hours Mr de Valera’s recital of Irish grievances had only reached the iniquities of Poyning’s Act in the days of Henry VII.’iii Similarly, Churchill expressed his displeasure for what he saw as de Valera’s time-wasting posturing to establish the terms on which the forthcoming treaty talks would take place. ‘Mr de Valera,’ Churchill wrote, ‘would no doubt have gone on indefinitely fighting theoretical points without the slightest regard to the resultant misery and material ruin of his countrymen.’iv

As a member of the British team that negotiated the 1921 Treaty, Churchill felt a sense of comradeship with those primarily responsible for concluding the agreement. The political sacrifices made on the British side by his Cabinet colleagues Lloyd George, Austen Chamberlain, and his close friend Lord Birkenhead combined with the supreme sacrifices made on the Irish side by Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins deeply resonated with Churchill’s sense of history and chivalry. Against this background, Churchill saw de Valera as both a malignant force and shameful opportunist who disgracefully used the sacrifices of his countrymen to advance his own career.

Churchill again resorted to satire when describing de Valera’s actions during the period of treaty ratification and implementation in 1922. Churchill believed de Valera’s pronouncements clearly committed him to the spirit if not the exact form of the treaty and expected the Irish leader to ‘stand by his colleagues’ who signed the agreement and ‘make allowances for their difficulties.’ ‘But we speedily learned,’ Churchill observed, ‘that Mr. de Valera was still maundering about Poyning’s Act, and that his view of Anglo-Irish relations and of the griefs of Ireland had not yet reached the sixteenth-century part of the story.’v In fact, of course, de Valera had quite caught up with the times and come out firmly in opposition to the Treaty. It was this action that so embittered Churchill.

If de Valera had accepted defeat gracefully in 1922 and taken up a position of political opposition within the structure of the new Irish Free State, Churchill most likely would have shown him some measure of respect. But de Valera could not accept the new structure as in any way legitimate. He viewed the treaty as a document that had been signed under duress. Lloyd George, after all, had threatened the Irish delegation that without their signatures on the treaty there would be ‘war—and war within three days.’vi Consequently de Valera felt justified in resorting to extra-legal means to oppose the establishment of a ‘Free State’ which he viewed as an imposition of the enemy. It was this decision more than anything else that led de Valera to incur the wrath of Churchill. Above all Churchill believed in the institution of parliamentary democracy and never failed to castigate those whom he perceived as throwing over this priceless inheritance.

As the cabinet minister responsible for the transfer of power from British to Irish authority following the signing of the treaty, Churchill was anxious that the necessary elections in Ireland take place as soon as possible. During the first months of 1922 he repeatedly urged the Provisional Government led by Collins and Griffith to expedite the process but appreciated their enormous difficulties. As Churchill saw it, ‘Mr de Valera, knowing himself to be in a minority, and, as it proved, in a small minority, set to work by every means in his power to obstruct, to delay, and if possible to prevent, such an election.’ ‘For this purpose,’ Churchill continued, de Valera ‘had recourse to the Irish Republican Army.’vii In fact the IRA was itself split over the treaty. But a radical Republican rump, Churchill asserted ‘was always available, and around them and behind them gathered those predatory elements which in a greater or less degree exist in every society and claim to lead in times of revolution.’viii

The preceding remarks, taken from the text of Churchill’s 1929 account The Aftermath, were based on speeches that Churchill made in Parliament in 1922 and, if anything, constitute a toned-down version of the rhetoric he originally put on record. For example, while addressing the House of Commons on 25 March 1922, Churchill said that he was encouraged for the hope of a settlement when as he saw it de Valera resorted to desperate remarks about the need ‘to wade through blood’ in order to get freedom. ‘In this case you will notice,’ Churchill observed, ‘that it is Irish blood that Mr de Valera was going to wade through.’ ‘There is the true spirit of madness,’ Churchill insisted, ‘there is the true spirit of this Bolshevist mania, that the world is so bad and so hopeless that there is nothing for it but to wade through blood towards some distant doctrinaire ideal.’ix Similarly, speaking to the Commons on 12 April, Churchill asserted that when it became clear that the vast majority of ‘Irish people wanted to take the Irish Free State and to make a success of it . . . de Valera and his confederates . . . began to talk of wading through blood and of establishing a Mexican regime.’x Here it is necessary to look past the hyperbole. Of course, de Valera was no Bolshevik; his abhorrence of Marxism paralleled Churchill’s. And although half Spanish, de Valera was not out to establish a Mexican-style government of 1920s vintage. It was the means of de Valera to which Churchill objected.

In May word came that Collins was so fearful of any election being disrupted by anti-treaty forces (known as the Irregulars) that he had concluded an electoral compact with de Valera that would give the Irregulars an agreed upon number of seats in the new parliament. Predictably this infuriated Churchill. ‘The Irish masses,’ he asserted, ‘were not to be allowed a voice in their fate; they were to be led by the nose by a tiny minority making an immoral deal among themselves and parceling out the nation as if they were cattle.’xi After pleading from Collins, Churchill agreed to support the election in June anyway, but no doubt he took satisfaction when the compact broke down and pro-treaty candidates won a decisive majority. Churchill’s loss of his own seat in the British elections that followed in October, however, combined with the defeat of the Irregulars in the Irish Civil War the following spring meant that Ireland in general and de Valera in particular ceased for a decade to occupy his mind.


The victory of Fianna Fail in the Irish elections of 1932 finally brought de Valera to power. Churchill responded guardedly concerning himself above all with the future security of Britain. The Oath of Allegiance to the Crown required by the 1921 Treaty of those holding office in the Irish Free State did not for Churchill represent simply a nostalgic loyalty to an Imperial past. As he saw it, the Oath legally bound the Free State to support Britain against the King’s enemies in a time of war. Thus he told the Commons in June 1932, ‘the whole question of Imperial and national safety is involved the moment you accept or tolerate Mr de Valera’s demand to be an independent Republic with the right . . . to deny their ports or their coasts to us even in time of war.’xii For Churchill security always came first, and it was for this reason that he carefully watched de Valera for any action that seemed to abrogate the treaty. The passage of the Statute of Westminster the previous year meant that the self-governing elements of the Empire were then at liberty to leave altogether. ‘Obviously,’ Churchill wrote in the Daily Mail, ‘if the Oath of Allegiance is abolished by Mr de Valera the Treaty is broken and the Irish Free State will cease to exist as a political entity.’ Churchill outlined what he believed to be the advantages of Ireland remaining in the Commonwealth and disadvantages of severance adding that he was willing ‘to give Mr de Valera a fair chance.’ ‘But the best way to give Mr de Valera a fair chance,’ Churchill concluded, was ‘to make it plain to him and his colleagues from the outset that Great Britain will resent any repudiation of the Treaty by every means in its power.’xiii But these were Churchill’s Wilderness Years, and he himself had no means to direct policy.

In 1935 Churchill, normally a dedicated supporter of free trade, found himself in agreement with the decision of the British Government to impose tariff sanctions on Ireland. This action followed de Valera’s decision to suspend payment of the annuities that had enabled Irish farmers under the Land Purchase Acts to gain the freehold of the properties they worked and so end the acrimonious Land War. The source of the new dispute lay in the 1920 Government of Ireland Act, the legislation passed by the British Parliament that formally partitioned the island. As part of the act, outstanding land-annuity payments were to become revenue for the governments intended to be set up in the North and the South. Although the 1920 Act had never been accepted in the South, de Valera took the legally dubious but politically popular view that the Free State was still entitled to its share of the money. Churchill, however, as Chancellor of the Exchequer in March 1926 had secured a commitment from the Cosgrave government that payments continue to be made to the British Treasury. When that pledge was broken, Churchill predictably exploded. Almost the whole equivalent of these payments, he insisted in the Daily Mail was ‘poured back into Ireland year by year by British payments of war pensions and the like.’ ‘Yet Mr. de Valera gained satisfaction and popularity,’ Churchill charged, ‘by refusing to pay them directly to the British Exchequer. So duties were erected against Irish produce which collected more than the sums they were owing.’xiv Churchill believed that this financially self-defeating action was simply an effort by de Valera to gain political support by irritating ‘the British public by petty affronts and verbal quibbles.’xv

As far as Churchill was concerned, however, the tariff war paled in comparison with the decision of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to give up all British claims to the Treaty Ports in an agreement concluded with de Valera’s government on 25 April 1938. These ports consisting of Lough Swilly in Co. Donegal along with Queenstown / Cobh and Berehaven / Castletown in Co. Cork had been reserved under the 1921 Treaty for the continued use of British naval forces. Churchill himself had chaired the joint sub-committee responsible for working out this section of the treaty and took a more than proprietary interest in preserving the results. Irish ports had proven vital in support of anti-submarine warfare during the First World War. Such a threat remained, of course, in 1938, but the dual status of the ports under the treaty chaffed the emotions of Nationalists in the South. In his Second World War memoirs, Churchill wrote ‘that Mr de Valera was surprised at the readiness with which the British Government had deferred to his request’ to yield the ports.

Churchill indicated he had been assured that de Valera included the idea ‘in his proposals as a bargaining counter to be dispensed with when other points were satisfactorily settled.’xvi But in this matter Churchill was misinformed. De Valera biographer Tim Pat Coogan has shown in his 1993 book that securing the ports was in fact the Taoiseach’s top priority.xvii

Right or wrong about how it happened, Churchill could not abide the result. On 5 May 1938 he delivered a major address in the Commons listened to with what he afterwards described as ‘a patient air of scepticism.’ Churchill had been one of the few members of the House to vote against the agreement and felt that ‘there was even a kind of sympathetic wonder that anyone of’ his ‘standing should attempt to plead so hopeless a case.’xviii In the course of his remarks Churchill ridiculed the Chamberlain Government for claiming to ‘have ended the age-long quarrel between England and Ireland.’ ‘But that is clearly not true,’ Churchill countered, ‘because Mr de Valera has said that he will never rest until Partition is swept away.’ Already, Churchill insisted, the treaty had ‘been violated and repudiated in every detail by Mr de Valera.’xix What guarantee did Britain now have that Southern Ireland would not declare neutrality during a future war? ‘Therefore,’ Churchill finished with characteristic foresight, ‘I say that the ports may be denied to us in the hour of need and we may be hampered in the gravest manner in protecting the British population from privation, and even starvation.’xx On this point Churchill was almost alone in foretelling the truth.

The second phase of Churchill’s involvement with the actions of de Valera closed a few months later at the end of 1938 when Churchill spoke to a constituency meeting at Chingford on 9 December. ‘When earlier in the year, the Prime Minister made a heart-to-heart settlement with Mr de Valera,’ Churchill stated,

I warned him with my defective judgment, that if we go[t] into any great danger Mr de Valera would demand the surrender of Ulster as a price for any friendship or aid. This fell out exactly, for Mr de Valera has recently declared that he cannot give us any help or friendship while any British troops remain to guard the Protestants of Northern Ireland.xxi

It should be noted that Churchill made these remarks just a few weeks after his equally unwelcome speech about the Munich Agreement.


The third major period of interaction between Churchill and de Valera started with the outbreak of the Second World War when Churchill once again became First Lord of the Admiralty. As Churchill predicted, de Valera opted for neutrality and denied the British access to the ports. In a letter to the Fist Sea Lord, Churchill claimed ‘three quarters of the people of Southern Ireland are with us, but the implacable, malignant minority can make so much trouble that de Valera dare not do anything to offend them.’xxii In another letter, this one to the Foreign Secretary, Churchill questioned the validity of de Valera’s neutrality stance. The First Lord did not believe any Commonwealth country had the right to remain neutral. ‘Legally,’ Churchill said, he believed Ireland was ‘at war but skulking.’xxiii Prime Minister Chamberlain, however, did not believe that the time had been reached when seizure of the ports could be justified. With this Churchill concurred, and the matter largely rested until the following year when he himself became prime minister.

The fall of France in June 1940 led to a resumption of discussion in Britain about the Treaty Ports. This proved ironic since the German acquisition of French ports gave their navy an advantage that lessened the value of the Irish ports to the British. Improved U-boat technology also altered the situation. Naval historian David Ramsay has explained that, ‘in World War I the Kriegsmarine had relatively few submarines with the range and ability to operate in the western Atlantic and the campaign had thus mainly been fought in the Western Approaches close to Ireland and the Irish ports had thus been extremely important.’ But during the Second World War new U-boats with long-range capability operating from French ports meant that, ‘Doenitz’s wolfpacks could successfully operate far out into the Atlantic’ lessening their incentive to venture into the destroyer-filled passages off the British coastline.xxiv New technologies along with bases in Iceland also gave the Allies enhanced anti-submarine warfare capabilities that largely obviated their need for the Irish ports.

These facts, however, were not so clear in 1940. Consequently, de Valera’s adamant intransigence on the ports issue severely coloured Churchill’s assessment of the Taoiseach’s performance during the war. Churchill did not feel the need to include in his memoirs any of the mitigating and quite legitimate political reasons for the Irish leader’s decision. Nor did Churchill catalog the many ways that Eire provided tacit but tangible assistance to the British war effort including de Valera’s iron-fisted suppression of pro-Axis elements in Ireland. On the point of Irish neutrality Churchill did not quickly forgive or forget.

In the summer of 1940, of course, Britain faced the very real threat of invasion. Casting about for any kind of assistance was only right and proper. Churchill, therefore, dispatched the Dominions Secretary, Malcolm MacDonald, on a seemingly hopeless mission to meet with de Valera and discuss the ports once again. This was partly to give MacDonald a chance to atone for his role in surrendering the ports in the first place, a sin for which Churchill regarded the Dominions Secretary as ‘rat-poison.’xxv It had long been feared, though, that de Valera would insist on ending partition as a price for cooperation on the ports. Churchill, in fact, did not wholly oppose this idea. On 18 June, the same day as Churchill’s famous ‘Finest Hour’ speech, Ernest Bevin, the Minister of Labour, proposed in a private letter to the Prime Minister the creation of a ‘joint Defence Council’ for Britain and Ireland with the promise for a new constitution ‘on the basis of a united Ireland at the end of hostilities.’ Bevin recommended the President of the United States for appointing the chair of any constitution-making body. In reply Churchill noted: ‘I certainly should welcome any approach to Irish unity: but I have 40 years experience of its difficulties.’ Nevertheless, he went on to confess that while he could ‘never be a party to the coercion of Ulster to join the Southern counties,’ he was very ‘much in favour of their being persuaded.’ ‘The key,’ Churchill concluded, ‘is de Valera showing some loyalty to Crown & Empire.’xxvi

On 21 June MacDonald met with de Valera and made a proposal based on what had been outlined by Bevin and approved by Churchill and the Cabinet: there would be a declaration of a united Ireland in principle. Ulster would remain a belligerent and Eire would remain neutral, but a joint Defence Council would be created if both parties desired. Additionally, British military forces would have access to Irish ports and aerodromes while the British government provided supplementary equipment to the forces of Eire. De Valera responded with what must rate as one of the most astonishing counter-offers in the history of diplomacy: the immediate unification of Ireland and neutrality for the entire island. In other words, not only would he continue to deny the British access to the southern ports, he proposed to deny them access to the northern ports as well. This was so preposterous that MacDonald rejected it on the spot. Interestingly, though, de Valera also suggested the possibility of allowing US forces into a united Ireland to guarantee the island’s neutrality—an idea which, if implemented, would have placed Eire in a difficult position following the attack on Pearl Harbor eighteen months later.

On 26 June MacDonald returned to Dublin with a final proposal: in exchange for Eire immediately entering the war in support of the Allies a joint body would be set up ‘at once to work out the practical and other constitutional details of the Union of Ireland.’ This too de Valera rejected, a decision confirmed by the Irish Cabinet which saw the very real costs of war as coming up front in exchange for the ‘deferred payment’ of unity from a Britain that could soon be bankrupt as a result of defeat.xxvii Still, it remains the case that what Tim Pat Coogan has described as ‘the most substantive proposals of the century concerning the possibility of a British withdrawal from Ireland’ emanated from Churchill’s government.xxviii

How serious, then, was Churchill’s commitment to the pledge of British support for Irish unification? In a lengthy letter he sent to President Roosevelt later that year on 8 December Churchill wrote:

It is not possible for us to compel the people of Northern Ireland against their will to leave the United Kingdom and join Southern Ireland. But I do not doubt that if the Government of Eire would show its solidarity with the democracies of the English-speaking world at this crisis, a Council for Defence of all Ireland could be set up out of which the unity of the Island would probably in some form or other emerge after the war.xxix

Churchill may very well have believed this, but, given the realities understood by politicians in both the North and South of Ireland at the time, his view was probably unrealistic.

In any case both Churchill and de Valera had also to consider the possibility of a German invasion of Ireland. Churchill had already ruled out seizing the Irish ports by force except as a last desperate need. Thus, so far as invading Ireland went, according to the Cabinet minutes of 20 June 1940, the Prime Minister ‘was in favour of allowing the enemy to make the first move.’ If German forces attacked the South, Churchill told the Cabinet, ‘the whole of Ireland, including Mr de Valera, would in those circumstances be on our side.’ The Germans understood this too, of course, and for once avoided the temptation of adding an unnecessary enemy to their burden.

In retrospect, Churchill had to have seen the parallel between the situation in Eire throughout the war and the situation in the United States before the attack on Pearl Harbor. De Valera, like Roosevelt before 7 December 1941, sympathized with the Allied cause and quietly supported it as he could. Short of a direct attack on their country, however, nothing would convince the vast majority of Southern Irish voters to enter into formal hostilities. De Valera saw this clearly and recognized that no Irish government that went against the public will could possibly survive. These were not facts, though, that Churchill ever admitted on record.

What Churchill did do in 1940 was try to persuade President Roosevelt to pressure de Valera on the matter of the ports. In a draft telegram dated 5 July, Churchill wrote ‘de Valera and his Party are reconciling themselves to throwing in their lot with the Germans, whom they think are bound to win.’xxx The defeatist tone of this sentence, however, caused Churchill to delete it and all references to Ireland in the final draft. Following another Cabinet discussion about the ports in November, Churchill drafted a letter to the President that for once recognized ‘the difficulty of de Valera yielding to pressure from the United Kingdom.’xxxi This draft too, however, failed to pass final muster. Eventually in a telegram that Churchill did send to Roosevelt on 13 December, the Prime Minister explained his own country’s difficulty in continuing to allocate shipping space for supplying Ireland and seeking the President’s views about a discontinuation of this policy. ‘You will realize,’ Churchill concluded, ‘that our merchant seamen as well as public opinion generally take it much amiss that we should have to carry Irish supplies through air and U-boat attacks and subsidize them handsomely when de Valera is quite content to sit happy and see us strangled.’xxxii

By November 1940 British shipping losses in the Atlantic had become so severe that Churchill stated in Parliament his view that the unavailability of the southern Irish ports had become ‘a most heavy and grievous burden.’xxxiii This sparked a British press attack against de Valera causing the Taoiseach to complain that Irish support for Britain had been increasing until this incident. In the Dail, de Valera declared: ‘There can be no question of the handing over of these ports so long as this State remains neutral.’ The British Representative to Eire, Sir John Maffey, reassured the Irish government that his prime minister’s statement carried with it no threat. De Valera’s official biographers, however, record that their subject was ‘not reassured.’xxxiv If so, this suited Churchill perfectly. He wrote Lord Cranborne, who had replaced MacDonald as Dominions secretary, that ‘it would be better to let de Valera stew in his own juice for a while.’ ‘The claim now put forward on behalf of de Valera,’ Churchill believed, ‘is that we are not only to be strangled by them but to suffer our fate without making any complaint.’ Maffey ‘should not be encouraged to think that his only task is to mollify de Valera and make everything, including our ruin, pass off pleasantly.’ ‘Apart from this,’ Churchill concluded, ‘the less we say to de Valera at this juncture the better, and certainly nothing must be said to reassure him.’xxxv

After enduring the immediate threats of 1940, however, Churchill’s mind became less and less preoccupied with Ireland. In January 1941 a German invasion of Britain’s neighbor did remain a concern, and Churchill believed that ‘the mad policy of de Valera’ would make ‘it difficult to ward off the first lodgment.’xxxvi But he also stated that while possession of the ports was ‘a grievous injury and an impediment,’ he did not see them yet as ‘vital.xxxvii Instead, Britain settled for imposing mild economic sanctions against Eire.

In the spring of 1941 the British government began considering extending conscription to Northern Ireland. When de Valera interfered in this thought process to warn against the idea, Churchill naturally exploded and reportedly described the Taoiseach as a ‘murderer and perjurer.xxxviii On 22 May John Dulanty, the Irish High Commissioner in London and an old friend of Churchill’s, went to see the British Prime Minister. Dulanty reported that Churchill appeared to lose his temper and claimed the demand for conscription came from the Six Counties but ‘no obstruction would be put in the way of those who wanted to run away.’ Churchill said he was not interested in any trouble that might result in Ireland as there was ‘trouble and bloodshed everywhere.’xxxix There would indeed have been trouble in Ireland with the IRA becoming the principal beneficiary. Sensing this de Valera consulted opposition leaders and got their backing along with that of the otherwise troublesome US ambassador in Dublin, David Gray, and Gray’s counterpart in London, John G. Winant. Armed with this support, de Valera instructed Dulanty to deliver a personal message to Churchill. Dulanty returned to Downing Street on 26 May and duly read out the Taoiseach’s letter which warned that ‘the imposition of conscription in any form would provoke the bitterest resentment amongst Irishmen and would have the most disastrous consequences for our two peoples.’ For his troubles, Dulanty received a full blast of Churchillian invective and afterwards reported that the interview had been ‘exceedingly unsatisfactory.’xl Eventually, Churchill settled down. Input from Northern Irish leaders and consultation with the Cabinet led him for once to agree with de Valera. He announced to the Commons that the plan ‘would be more trouble than it was worth.’xli Only at the end of the year did Ireland leap again to the front of Churchill’s mind.

The attack on Pearl Harbor not only brought the United States into the war it effectively neutralized in Washington the influence of Irish-American hostility towards Britain. Churchill realized this at once. When he learned of the attack, he responded with one of his occasional but characteristic gestures that people, depending on their perspective, see as either ‘impulsive and quixotic’ or ‘bold and imaginative’. After midnight on the morning of 8 December 1941 Churchill sent de Valera a message marked ‘Personal, Private and Secret.’ The contents of which read: ‘Now is your chance. Now or never. “A Nation once again”. Am ready to meet you at any time.’xlii Adding drama to the moment, the message was personally delivered to de Valera’s private residence by Maffey shortly after 2 AM. In an aide memoir de Valera subsequently recorded his impression that the cable ‘was Mr Churchill’s way of intimating “now is the chance for taking action which would ultimately lead to the unification of the country.”’ But the Taoiseach did not ‘see any basis of agreement and that disagreement might leave conditions worse than before.’xliii After meeting with his government the next morning, de Valera decided to wait two days before sending his own personal and private message to Churchill in which he suggested that ‘a visit from Lord Cranborne would be the best way towards a fuller understanding of our position here.’xliv Cranborne’s visit the following week came to nought, but the Dominions Secretary quite properly pointed out to the Taoiseach that ‘if Ireland remained neutral, it would not be represented at the post-war peace conference.’xlv This implied no threat. Cranborne had a ministerial duty to remind the leader of a Commonwealth government that Eire faced the possibility of isolation in the post-war international community as indeed turned out to be the case. In any event, Churchill’s final initiative on the Irish ports came to an end. Twice in the space of a year and a half he had gone further than any British government has gone before or since in holding out the possibility of a united Ireland, and twice he was rebuffed. This ended the third major period of interaction between Churchill and de Valera.

* * *

After American entry into the war, the Roosevelt Administration took up the futile cause of pressuring de Valera to open the Irish ports to Allied shipping. At a meeting in Washington with Vice-President Wallace and other US Government leaders in May 1943, Churchill inquired whether the newly-envisioned United Nations would include countries that remained neutral during the war. The Prime Minister thought the promise of UN membership could be used as leverage to induce Ireland and other neutrals to declare for the Allies. ‘When the United Nations brought the guilty nations to the bar of justice,’ Churchill said ‘he could see little but an ineffective and inglorious role for Mr de Valera and others who might remain neutral to the end.’xlvi Ultimately, it was the Soviet Union that vetoed charter membership for Eire in the United Nations on the grounds that it had made no contribution to the war against Fascism.xlvii Cranborne’s warning proved correct.

Churchill and de Valera did not cross swords again directly until the end of the war. This was the occasion of Churchill’s Victory Broadcast on 13 May 1945. In the course of his remarks he made the following statement:

Owing to the action of Mr de Valera . . . the approaches which the Southern Irish ports and airfields could so easily have guarded were closed by the hostile aircraft and U-boats. This was indeed a deadly moment in our life, and it if had not been for the loyalty and friendship of Northern Ireland we should have been forced to come to close quarters with Mr. de Valera or perish for ever from the earth. However, with a restraint and a poise to which, I say, history will find few parallels, His Majesty’s Government never laid a violent hand upon them . . . and we left the de Valera government to frolic with the Germans and later with the Japanese representatives to their heart’s content.xlviii

However understandable Churchill’s feelings for including this passage in his speech, it backfired quickly when de Valera responded with his own famous broadcast touching on how Ireland had stood alone through centuries of aggression. De Valera’s speech was widely acclaimed at home but made little impact elsewhere. The exchange of remarks between the two political titans took place against the backdrop of newsreel footage then reaching the world for the first time that revealed in graphic horror the full magnitude and depravity of the Holocaust. Under the immediate circumstances, neutrality during the war did not appear to the wider world as admirable, honorable or courageous.

With the publication of the first volume of his memoirs in 1948, Churchill took one last jab at de Valera over the matter of the Treaty Ports. After this he let the issue go, and in the following year the two men finally came face to face for the first time at a Council of Europe meeting in Strasbourg. Accounts of this chance meeting vary. Approaching the bottom of a staircase, de Valera unexpectedly found Churchill at the top naturally surrounded by members of the Press. Churchill, some reported, smiled encouragingly, but this may not have registered with de Valera who was nearly blind. In any case, de Valera himself later stated that he did not wish to be photographed with Churchill and chose instead to execute an orderly retreat.

Finally, after much encouragement, de Valera did agree to meet with Churchill on 16 September 1953. By then both men were in their second go-round as heads of government. The momentous encounter took the form of a lunch at 10 Downing Street. Unfortunately, we only have de Valera’s account of what was said. Churchill’s secretary, Anthony Montague Browne, refused even to be in the same building as the Irish leader. An RAF veteran, Montague Browne first considered and then dismissed the idea of making a citizen’s arrest of de Valera. Instead he contented himself with ‘the sort of silly joke’ he knew Churchill sometimes appreciated: ‘I hope the Taoiseach,’ he remarked, ‘is not followed by an unpleasant supper surprise.’xlix Afterwards, Churchill described his lunch with de Valera as ‘a very agreeable occasion’ and told his physician Lord Moran: ‘I like the man.’l

For his part de Valera reported that Churchill ‘went out of his way to be courteous.’li This time a photograph was taken.lii It was reported that at lunch ‘they had mainly talked about “the higher mathematics,”’ de Valera’s subject in his teaching days. Though as historian John Ramsden notes, ‘how Churchill kept up his end on this particular subject is something of a mystery.’liii De Valera did make a request for the return of the remains of Sir Roger Casement, executed for treason in 1916. Churchill replied that he personally favoured the idea but would have to refer the matter to the law officers.liv Inevitably, they also spoke of partition. By this time, however, the Attlee Government had guaranteed that Northern Ireland would never without the consent of its majority be made to leave the United Kingdom. Churchill candidly informed de Valera that on this issue ‘there were also political factors which no Conservative would ignore’ by which he meant that at that moment his own thin parliamentary majority rested almost entirely upon the Ulster Unionists in

De Valera astonished and no doubt pleased Churchill with the assertion that if he, de Valera, had remained in office in the late 1940s he would not have taken Eire out of the Commonwealth as the Costello Government had done. And so the first, last and only meeting between the two leaders came off well enough that Churchill cheerfully waved goodbye as de Valera’s car departed. In the following year upon his eightieth birthday Churchill was delighted to receive the best wishes of the Long Fellow. After a lifetime of acrimony a magnanimous settlement had at last been reached between the towering statesmen of twentieth-century Britain and Ireland.


i Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill Volume VIII: Never Despair (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988), p. 885.


ii Winston S. Churchill, ‘Great Events of Our Time’, The Collected Essays of Sir Winston Churchill Volume IV (London: Library of Imperial History, 1976), p. 386. First published in News of the World, 27 June 1937.


iii Winston S. Churchill, The Aftermath (London: Folio, 2007), p. 230. First published 1929.


iv Ibid., p. 236.


v Ibid., pp. 243-4.


vi Ibid., p. 241.


vii Ibid., p. 245.


viiiIbid., p. 246.


ix Winston S. Churchill, Complete Speeches, Robert Rhodes James, ed., (New York: Chelsea House, 1974), p. 3283.


x Ibid., p. 3312.


xi Churchill, Aftermath, p. 263.


xii Churchill, Complete Speeches, p. 5186.


xiii Churchill, ‘Plain Words on the Irish Treaty’, Collected Essays Volume II, pp. 252-3. First published in the Daily Mail, 29 March 1932.


xiv Churchill, ‘What is the Future of Ireland?’ Collected Essays IV, p. 375. First published in the Daily Mail 1 May 1935.


xv Ibid., p. 376.


xvi Winston S. Churchill, The Gathering Storm (London: Folio, 2000), p. 217. First published by Cassell & Co. 1948.


xvii Tim Pat Coogan, De Valera: Long Fellow, Long Shadow (London: Hutchinson, 1993), pp. 507-20.


xviii Churchill, Gathering Storm, p. 217. This speech Churchill thought important enough to have reprinted just three years later. See Winston S. Churchill, Into Battle (London: Cassell & Co., 1941). Published in the United States as Blood, Sweat and Tears.


xix Churchill, Complete Speeches, p. 5949.


xx Ibid., p. 5954.


xxi Ibid., p. 6047.


xxii Martin Gilbert, ed. The Churchill War Papers Volume One (New York: Norton, 1993), p. 143.


xxiii Ibid., p. 270.


xxiv David Ramsay in communication with the author 25 June 2008. Passages quoted drawn from deleted text of Ramsay’s Blinker Hall (London: Spellmount, 2008).


xxv Coogan, p. 520.


xxvi Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill Finest Hour 1939-1941 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983), p. 433.


xxvii Coogan, p. 552.


xxviii Ibid., p. 551.


xxix Martin Gilbert, ed. The Churchill War Papers Volume Two (New York: Norton, 1995), p. 1194.


xxx Warren F. Kimball, ed. Churchill & Roosevelt: The Complete Correspondence (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), Vol. I, p. 54.


xxxi Ibid., p. 92.


xxxii Ibid., p. 113.


xxxiii Churchill, Complete Speeches, p. 6299.


xxxiv The Earl of Longford and Thomas P. O’Neill, Eamon De Valera (London: Hutchinson, 1970), p. 374.


xxxv Churchill War Papers Two, p. 1126.


xxxvi Martin Gilbert, ed. The Churchill War Papers Volume Three (New York: Norton, 2001), p. 73.


xxxvii Ibid., p. 91.


xxxviii John Ramsden, Man of the Century (London: HarperCollins, 2002), p. 243.


xxxix Longford and O’Neill, p. 384


xl Ibid., p. 386.


xli Coogan, p. 591.


xlii Coogan, p. 592. “A Nation Once Again’ was the song of the old Irish Parliamentary Party. In his memoirs Eamon de Valera’s youngest son Terry claims he was told by his father that Maffey delivered the telegram with a forwarning to the Taoiseach that Churchill was ‘drunk. This claim made over sixty years after the fact lacks any merit. See Terry de Valera, Memoirs (Dublin: Currach, 2004), p. 225.


xliii Longford and O’Neill, p. 393.


xliv Ibid., p. 394.


xlv Ibid., p. 395.


xlvi Kimball, Vol. II, p. 225.


xlvii Independent of the Russians the Roosevelt administration had decided to blackball Ireland from the UN—a decision made redundant by the Soviet action. Ironically, then, in the changed atmosphere of the Cold War Ireland achieved UN membership in 1956 as a result of a deal struck between the US and USSR with the latter agreeing to admit several pro-western countries in exchange for Western agreement to admit several Soviet-backed countries.


xlviii Churchill, Complete Speeches, p. 7158.


xlix Anthony Montague Browne, Long Sunset (London: Cassell, 1995), p. 147.


l Lord Moran, Churchill: The Struggle for Survival (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966), p. 504.


li Longford and O’Neill, p. 443.


lii See Diarmaid Ferriter, Judging Dev (Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 2007), p. 267.


liii Ramsden, p. 258.


liv The problem lay in the fact that the bodies of executed prisoners were buried in stacked graves due to space limits in prison cemeteries. In order to disinter remains, the government needed permission from the next of kin of any prisoners buried above the ‘target’ body. This was not always possible, and besides the bones of the various prisoners became hopelessly mingled over time. It later emerged that when Casement’s remains were returned to Ireland in 1965 the assembled skeleton was simply cobbled together from the various makings turned up by the convict work-detail at Pentonville. See Coogan, p. 734.


lv Longford and O’Neill, p. 443.


Copyright © David Freeman, 2010