An Interview with de Valera
Browsing through my books recently, I found one my mother gave me for my 31st birthday in 1968. It was the diaries and letters of Harold Nicholson, parliamentary secretary in Winston Churchill’s wartime government, who was married to the writer Vita Sackville-West. It was a bizarre marriage, to put it mildly, but that’s not what I’m going to be on about today.
On a visit to Dublin in 1942, Nicholson met Daniel A. Binchy, Professor of Jurisprudence in UCD, uncle of the academic lawyer and pro-life campaigner Professor William Binchy and of the novelist Maeve Binchy. Nicholson also gave a lecture to the Law Society and paid a visit to Eamon de Valera, then Taoiseach. He later wrote about this interview in his diary:
He is not what I expected. I expected a thin sallow man with huge round black spectacles, a thin mouth, great lines from nose to lip-corner, and lank black Spanish hair. But he is not thin, and pale rather than sallow, not a bit haggard, benevolent cold eyes behind steel-framed glasses, hair that is soft and almost brown, no great lines in his face anywhere. An unhealthy look about the gills, and faint indications of white puffiness. A firm gentle voice with a soft Irish accent. An admirable smile, not showing teeth, but lighting up the eyes and face very quickly like an electric light bulb that doesn’t fit and flashes on and off. Yet not an insincere smile. A happy smile.
His conversation is uninteresting. He talks rather in a monologue. He asks about things at home and sympathises much with Churchill’s difficulty in having to cheer up the country and yet not give us bright and optimistic forecasts. “I know that difficulty–I know it all too well.” He talks about the “partition” but in a stereotype way and I don’t feel much fire behind that… He speaks affectionately about France, and fears that that the Germans will beat Russia this spring. He thinks that if we in Britain were beaten, America would not carry on an Atlantic war but would compromise with Germany and Japan. He is indignant with Churchill for not supplying Ireland with arms. I say it is due to our shortages. He taps thick whitish fingers. “No, it is something more than that.” I fear he is right about this. He then touches on the Press. I tell him that he only gets the disagreeable cuttings, and that on the whole our Press is good about Ireland. I tell him that before I became a Governor of the BBC, I was under the impression that the papers were on the whole friendly to that institution, But now I see files of press-cuttings, I have the impression that every paper devotes column after column to unfair attacks on the BBC. He is amused by this, and the faint flash of his smile lights up his porridge-coloured face.
He is a very simple man, like all great men. He does not look like a strong man, nor are there any signs in his face of suffering and endurance…Deep spiritual certainty underneath it all, giving to his features a mark of repose
More about Nicholson’s visit to Dublin in subsequent posts.