Éamon de Valera's parents were Juan Vivion de Valera, a sculptor who had emigrated from Cuba, and Catherine Coll, an Irish immigrant to the United States. He was born in midtown Manhattan and spent the first two and a half years of his life in America under the care of his father, mother, and an employed minder, Mrs Doyle. Thereafter, his uncle Patrick Coll, brought him to the family home in Bruree, Co. Limerick. Just over three years later, de Valera began his primary level education by attending Bruree National School. He spent eight years here, and was taught by John Kelly for at least one year. Kelly was described as a :-
... young teacher and a brilliant mathematician who made a great impression on his famous pupil.
At this time though primary education was free, most second level education was fee paying. As de Valera's family were labourers, the fees required for attending a private school were beyond their means. The best way for progressing in life and education was to attend one of the Christian Brothers Schools (C.B.S.) which provided 'people, irrespective of social status, the opportunities of a higher education' in the hope of winning an exhibition or scholarship which would enable a student to attend one of the private second level institutions.
De Valera began his second level education at Charleville C.B.S. in 1896 and the following year he successfully won an exhibition worth £20, retainable for three years. The results he obtained were a pass with honours in all the subjects he had taken, namely: Greek, Latin, English, French, Arithmetic, Euclid and Algebra. He was accepted in Blackrock College, Dublin in 1898, and he was described as a 'fanatic for mathematics'. This irked his Greek teacher, John Maguire, CSSp, to such an extent that he ordered de Valera to write a Greek sentence in his mathematics copybook. When de Valera protested saying he had a separate copy for Greek, Maguire rejoined :-
You do as you are told, young man. Have at least one bit of Christianity in the midst of that Abomination of Desolation!
Not all of the teachers, however, held Maguire's opinion towards mathematics, and his arithmetic teacher, Tim O'Sullivan, inspired him to such an extent that he came first in his class. He was also placed first in Euclid, and when all results were combined it was discovered that de Valera ranked highest in the class, winning him Student of the Year. Considering his compatriots included John D'Alton, a future Primate of Ireland, and the illustrious O'Rahillys, both of whom distinguished themselves in the academic sphere, Tomás becoming the first director of the school of Celtic Studies in the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS) and Alfred becoming Professor of Mathematical Physics in University College, Cork (UCC) and later Registrar and President of the same College, it was a good achievement, as the standards were particularly high.
At this time, the Royal University of Ireland held open examinations, which meant students could sit examinations irrespective of college attendance. As a result, some second level institutions, such as Blackrock, decided to offer third level training to students. When de Valera completed Senior Grade and had matriculated successfully, he entered University College Blackrock with the intention of pursuing a degree in mathematics and mathematical physics. In his final year, he received the offer, which he accepted, of teaching in Blackrock's sister College in Rockwell, Co. Tipperary. It was reported that de Valera was a very talented teacher, and therefore, he was entrusted with teaching both Senior Grade students and undergraduate degree students, though he still had to finish his own degree! The pressures of a full teaching load left him little time to study and as a result, had to be contented with a pass degree.
This made further study difficult for him; however, he benefited from the public lectures given by University College Dublin (UCD) lecturers' Arthur Conway and Henry MacWeeney, and lectures given by the Astronomer Royal, E T Whittaker. After meeting Conway, de Valera's interest in quaternions began to grow. He began to study them in depth and Conway reported that :-
... he [de Valera] has in the past two years [1910-1912] gone deeply into the subject of Quaternions, and is at present prosecuting an important original research in them which promises to be of considerable interest.
During this time, de Valera was engaged by several of the top Dublin schools to teach higher mathematics and mathematical physics classes. Without application, he was offered a post lecturing mathematics in Carysfort Teacher Training College. This was an all-female third level institution which was dedicated to preparing girls as primary teachers. Arising from this, and his friendship with Conway and Whittaker, de Valera's confidence grew and he applied for the Chair of Mathematical Physics in University College, Cork, in 1912. A reference, written by Whittaker, describes de Valera's knowledge as both 'broad and deep', and additionally, Whittaker wrote he was impressed by :-
... the intellectual vigour with which he ... interested himself in the most difficult problems of natural philosophy.
After all the applications were assessed the Governing Body took a straw vote to decide who they would recommend to the National University of Ireland (NUI) Senate for the position. In this vote de Valera secured 11 votes, two higher than the nearest competitor, E H Harper. However, in the actual vote they both scored 10 and the two names were sent along with the results of the final vote. Harper was elected to the chair, and de Valera managed to secure a post teaching mathematical physics in the recognised College of the NUI in Maynooth, Co. Kildare.
De Valera had for many years been a supporter of reviving the Irish language. In 1913 he had joined the Irish Volunteers, a revolutionary group opposed to British rule. The group were armed with German weapons which had been smuggled into the country in 1914. In 1916 the Irish Volunteers organised the Easter Uprising which proclaimed the birth of the Irish Republic in Dublin. Due to de Valera's participation in this uprising, his formal study of mathematics stopped. The uprising was quickly put down by British forces and its leaders were sentenced to death. Because of de Valera's American birth he escaped execution. He was imprisoned, but released in 1917. In May of the following year he was arrested again and sent to prison in England. Although still in prison, he was elected President of the Sinn Féin Party which won an overwhelming majority of the vote in December 1918.
In February 1919, de Valera escaped from Lincoln Prison. In doing so he used his mathematical knowledge to help him.
You can see more about this at THIS LINK.
After visiting the United States to seek funding for the Irish republican cause, he returned to Ireland. A truce was called in 1921 and de Valera began the process of persuading the Dáil to accept his proposals for the future of Ireland. He used a mathematical approach to argue for the type of treaty he thought would be acceptable to all sides.
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The treaty, however, still had to be negotiated with the British government. When the treaty was ratified in 1922 forming the Irish Free State, de Valera, opposed it on the grounds that it still required an oath of allegiance to Britain. He then led a military movement against the new government of the Irish Free State. He was imprisoned by the government of the Irish Free State but released in 1924 after which he founded the Fianna Fáil Party. In 1927 de Valera persuaded members of Fianna Fáil to take the oath of allegiance so they could enter the Dáil. There they argued to have the oath of allegiance abolished and argued against taxes payable to Britain. Fianna Fáil gained seats in 1932 and, with Labour support, gained power. De Valera began the process of making Ireland independent from Britain. He produced proposals for a new constitution in 1937 creating Eire in place of the Irish Free State. It was ratified in a referendum.
In 1948 de Valera lost power when he refused to enter a coalition. He then began a world tour to gain support for the unification and independence of Ireland. Full independence was granted when Britain recognised its new status in April 1949, but the consent of the Parliament of Northern Ireland was required before unification could occur. De Valera returned to power in 1951 but failed to gain sufficient support in 1954 to continue. However, in March 1957 he again achieved an overall majority. He resigned his role as head of the government and head of Fianna Fáil in 1959 so that he could stand for the presidency. He was elected president and reelected in 1966. He retired to a nursing home near Dublin in 1973 where he died in 1975.
The most important contribution de Valera made to mathematics both in Ireland and internationally was the foundation of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS) in 1940. The institute initially consisted of two schools namely, the School of Celtic Studies and the School of Theoretical Physics, and in 1947 a third school, the School of Cosmic Physics, was added. It was the result of consultation between de Valera, his past professors Arthur Conway and E T Whittaker, as well as with the foremost American mathematician of the time, G D Birkhoff.
Before the foundation of DIAS, de Valera explored the possibility of securing the services of a world renowned mathematical physicist. The Institute, as proposed, would be under the guidance of these men or women who, it was hoped, would be able to begin in the Institute once it was established. The three names originally mentioned were Conway, Schrödinger, and Whittaker. Max Born and Albert Einstein were also mentioned; however, both had recently accepted positions - Born at Edinburgh and Einstein at Princeton. Contacting Schrödinger to offer him a position in the yet-to-be-established Institute was a cloak and dagger affair. Whittaker, in a letter to de Valera, wrote that since Schrödinger was 'much disliked' by the Nazis, any attempt to contact him outright would be 'frustrated', and that the Nazis, rather than dismiss him, might kill him. As a result, Whittaker contacted the German physicist, Max Born, who in turn contacted a associate of his, Professor Baer, who then telegraphed a mutual friend of his and Schrödinger's, who promised to meet Schrödinger if at all possible. Less than four months later on the 16th of September, a letter was received from Schrödinger accepting the offer to come to Ireland. Once DIAS was founded, it was discovered that only Schrödinger could accept a position. Conway had been recently made President of University College Dublin, and Whittaker felt he could not leave his university post due to the outbreak of World War II.
Upon founding the Institute, de Valera hoped that Ireland would :-
... achieve a reputation comparable to the reputation which Dublin and Ireland had in the middle of the last century
which, it appears was the case according to former director, J L Synge, who maintained that :-
... former scholars are to be found in chairs in many parts of the world, and the school may feel reasonably proud that Ireland has, with profit to herself, made an international contribution to physics.
The foundation of DIAS, among other acts, culminated in de Valera's election as an honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1968.
Throughout his life, he maintained an avid interest in mathematics and even during his Presidency (1959-1966), his secretary, Máire Ní Cheallaigh, recounted:-
... the President's great regret is that the time he can devote to maths is necessarily very limited. However, he has read from time to time articles on modern physics -- atomic particles, quantum dynamics ... the president uses dark green linoleum, covering the top of his large desk in his private study here in Arus an Uachtarain [sic.], as a blackboard on which with chalk he draws geometrical figures and pursues such algebraical expressions as he might find difficult to visualize otherwise.
During this time de Valera's poor sight had deteriorated, and using dark linoleum was the only way he could practice mathematics. After he retired from politics, one of de Valera's official biographers, Néill, wrote to J L Synge detailing de Valera's continuing interest in mathematics. An extract from this letter reads:-
I [ Néill] can remember well ... the way in which he would agree to take a walk, on doctor's instructions, only when his secretary had read to him a mathematics problem which he could ponder over as he walked. Indeed I heard him bargain with her! He would agree to do at once some of the less agreeable chores of answering letters or autographing books etc. if she would read some mathematics afterwards.
Article by: Cáit Ní Shúilleabháin University of Cork and Edmund Robertson.