Éamon de Valera, the Irish diaspora and photography, 1919-1939.

This week, Tim Ellis writes about the importance of photography in joining the Irish diaspora with Éamon de Valera’s premiership of Ireland. Tim is currently organising a PhD and ECR workshop, along with Sean Donnelly, on New Directions of Irish History – you can find out more here.

The Irish diaspora formed a significant source of strength for Éamon de Valera. De Valera was born in the United States, and though he moved to Ireland at the age of two he maintained much pride in his Irish, American and Hispanic heritages. After assuming the leadership of Sinn Féin, de Valera visited the United States on several occasions and was received with rapture. During his visit in 1927, de Valera raised considerable funds for the Irish Pressnewspaper- which proved to be vital in de Valera’s subsequent electoral success. Photography played a significant role in creating, fomenting and exploiting his links with the Irish diaspora.

De Valera addressing a public meeting in America.

De Valera was constantly photographed during this visits to the United States. During his first visit in 1919, de Valera was handled ably by Joseph McGarrity, who ensured that his client appeared at the right times, in the right places and in the right way. Throughout his trip, de Valera submitted to lengthy photo calls, allowing journalists in Boston, for instance, fifteen minutes to have his photograph taken. [1] On another occasion, a Mr. Sean Nunan sent McGarrity several photos of de Valera, ‘in order that you make select the one that you prefer… I think you should be able to get a good picture from one of these.’ [2.]

De Valera’s “public relations” manager in the USA, Joseph McGarrity.

Similarly, in 1927, de Valera submitted to lengthy public meetings, interviews and photocalls. The Irish World, a prominent Irish-American newspaper noted that as de Valera stepped off the boat at once the camera battalion moved into action. He was photographed with his hat on and his hat off, full length and close-up. Quietly and seriously, he submitted to the ordeal, smiling once or twice as he obeyed the requests of the photographers.’[3.] Éamon de Valera and his closest supporters clearly recognised the importance of being photographed and being seen by the Irish-American public.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, de Valera’s political opponents in Ireland frequently criticised his eagerness to be photographed when abroad. The United Irishman, the party newspaper for Cumann na nGaedheal, argued that de Valera ‘would never be able to resist Geneva…  the click of the cameras, to see his name sprinkled over the page of a newspaper.’ [4.] Other opponents suggested that this superficial publicity disguised de Valera’s unpopularity outside Ireland. The Irish Independent described de Valera’s visit in 1927, claiming that he found ‘solitude where once he and his cause acclaimed’ and that as he ‘sat alone in his suite at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel… there was significance in his loneliness as he sat staring into the greyness of the dwindling afternoon.’ [5.]

Fianna Fáil were so scandalised by these claims that the party produced a pamphlet which included a photograph showing ‘a portion of the Office Wall at Fianna Fail Headquarters, decorated with cuttings from the Daily Newspapers of New York, Philadelphia and Boston, of March 1927.’ As the photo shows, de Valera’s image dominated these front pages. According to the leaflet, ‘de Valera  [was] greeted like conquering hero here’ as ‘wild cheers’ accompanied his passage along the New York Broadway. As this example shows, photography offered a useful way of supplying convincing ‘proof’ of de Valera’s support in America- which in turned helped to cement his reputation in Ireland. [6.]

It was perhaps in the diaspora that de Valera’s most ardent supporters treasured his photographs. Through being printed, framed and hung on walls across countless diaspora homes, the photographs of de Valera became treasured examples of material culture. These acts of buying, cutting out, framing and hanging potently signified reverence for de Valera. A young Irish student in the United Kingdom wrote to de Valera in 1937, declaring that ‘I am one of your strongest supporters. I consider you as the finest leader Ireland has had yet. Your new constitution is splendid, at last Ireland is once more a nation…. I have a picture of you in my room, it is taken from a journal and I have had it framed.’[7.] Photos of revered politicians could brighten up the most dismal living spaces. A reporter for theKerryman reported seeing in a cell in Sing Sing Prison, New York, ‘a picture of the Sacred Heart. In a further, occupying a prominent position at the head of the bed was a photo of de Valera.’[8.]

A framed photo of de Valera, typical of the kind that would have hung on the walls of many Irish-American homes.

Photographs retain a special meaning in diasporic communities. As Gail Baylis argues, ‘first generation Irish emigrants were, in comparison to other European emigrants, the least likely to return to their country of origin. For these groups photographs allowed their owners to retain links to their “home” country.’ [9.] As David Lloyd also suggests, cultural artefacts (which he terms ‘kitsch’) displayed in the home can help owners to manage the difficulties and disruption of migration. Lloyd argues that ‘when, overshadowed by more powerful neighbours, culture is all the nation has to distinguish it.’ In diaspora communities, we thus see ‘the apparently inevitable declension of the icons of authentic national culture into kitsch. The images proliferate: round towers and wolfhounds, harps and shamrocks.’ [10.] Photographs of de Valera not only strengthened bonds between de Valera and the Irish abroad, they also acted as substitute for the land left behind.

As the evidence suggests, photography was clearly treasured as a publicity tool by de Valera and his closest supporters. Photography of public events offered a demonstration of de Valera’s support amongst the diaspora, which in turn strengthened his standing in both Ireland and abroad. At the same time, individual photographs which had been printed, framed and hung on walls solidified imagined personal links between de Valera and individual members of the diaspora. The significance of photography to de Valera’s diaspora support, in some ways, emblematic of the diaspora experience. In this, there is a strong sense of pathos. Emigrants generally retain a strong sense of their bonds with their ‘home nation,’ yet for the emigrant, their ‘home’ remains absent from most of their experiences. As Roland Barthes has argued, ‘in photography I can never deny that the thing has been there. There is a superimposition here: of reality and of the past.’ [11.] As a result, photographs curiously, yet poignantly, collapse the boundaries of both time and space.


Tim Ellis is a second year PhD student and graduate tutor at Teesside University. Previously he studied at Queen’s University Belfast (MA) and the University of Oxford (BA). His PhD explores the significance of visual culture and visibility in constructing political power in the Irish Free State, 1922-39. His research has been supported in part by a bursary from the British Association of Irish Studies. He has also presented his research at conferences in Dublin, London and Bradford, and is due to give a paper in Galway later this year. He currently edits the NEE-HIP blog which has been set up to showcase postgraduate research in Irish history in the North East of England. His can be found on twitter as @6Howff.



(Abbreviations: NLI- National Library of Ireland, UCDA- University College Dublin Archives)

[1.] Dave Hannigan, De Valera in America: The rebel president and the making of Irish independence (Basingstoke, 2010), p. 28.

[2.] Letter from Seán Nunan to Joseph McGarrity, 4 September 1919 (NLI MS 17,439/24).

[3.]Irish World,12 Mar., 1927 (UCDA P176/28).

[4.]United Irishman, 24 Sept. 1932.

[5.] ‘The Independent versus the Truth: A photograph: some questions’ [1927] (UCDA P176/827).

[6.] Ibid.

[7.] Letter from Patrick J.R. Kennedy to Éamon de Valera, 14 Oct. 1937 (UCDA P150/2435).

[8.]Kerryman, 16 July, 1927.

[9.] Gail Baylis ‘Imagined narratives: Photography and the construction of diasporic cultural memory’ in Aoileann Ní Éigeartaigh, Kevin Howard and David Getty (eds)Rethinking diasporas: Hidden narratives and imagined borders (Newcastle upon Tyne, 2007), pp 20-1.

[10.] David Lloyd, ‘The recovery of kitsch’ in David Lloyd (ed.), Ireland after history (Cork, 1999), p. 89.

[11.] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (trans. Richard Howard, London, 2000), p. 76.

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