Irish Eclectic

Eamon DeValera: An Irish Giant Despite Uncertain Roots

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Irish EclecticBy Brian McGowan

We continue this month exploring Irish patriots, a group in which few stand as large as the legendary Eamon DeValera. 

At the age of 34, “Dev,” as he was known to friend and foe alike, faced a hangman’s noose for his role in the Easter Rising of 1916, another of Ireland’s many attempts to break the bonds of British rule. 

One thing alone saved him – a baptismal certificate his mother produced that showed he had been born in New York City in 1882. The British relinquished. Executing a man who claimed U.S. citizenship would surely not have swayed the U.S.A. to join Great Britain and her allies in the trenches of the First World War. Dev went on to fight another day, and ultimately led the Republic of Ireland in the role of Taoiseach, or prime minister, for many years.

DeValera. Now, that definitely does not sound like an Irish surname. It isn’t. It is Spanish.

And here the ambiguities of DeValera’s parentage surface. Some even suggest that his purported father, a Spanish native named Juan Vivion DeValera, may have been a fabrication by Dev’s mother, in an attempt to hide the real identity of the man with whom she either had an affair or otherwise been compromised. 

Regardless, there is no argument that the outcome of that union became the man who more than any other shaped Ireland, for better or for worse, in the years after the yoke of British rule was lifted – at least for the 26 counties of Southern Ireland that eventually became the present-day Republic of Ireland.

New York City in the 1880s was an Irish city. The majority of the population was Irish-born, and Irish immigrants continued to stream there in search of its “streets paved with gold.” One was a 23-year-old woman named Catherine Coll, from Bruree, County Limerick. She set foot in New York in October 1879. 

Author Tim Pat Coogan’s biography, “Eamon DeValera: The Man Who Was Ireland,” recounts several possible situations the poor girl faced as she tried to make her way in a land of strangers. Boston-based amateur genealogist, Jim McNiff, has one observation that has not surfaced in other investigations. He suggests the possibility that Catherine, known as Kate, a domestic servant, may have been seduced by an employer, or even possibly the employer’s son.

Enter Juan DeValera, who is variously recorded as being a sculptor, a painter, a music teacher or even a restaurant dishwasher. An acquaintance of Kate’s employer, he hastily marries her in 1881 in Greenville, N.J., where her employers have moved with Kate in tow. A year later a son is born. Christened George, and sometimes called Edward, he will have no memory of his father and scant recollection of his mother. 

Juan, always of poor health, goes west to Denver, where it is hoped that the mountain air will restore his health. Sadly, it does not, and he dies there in November 1884. His purported son is just two years old.

But how does the boy, New York-born and only half-Irish, end up in Ireland? His grieving mother puts him in the care of a family friend so that she can return to work, and before long realizes he might be better off with family back home in Ireland. Her brother, Edward Coll, is about to return there, having soured on America. In 1885 he takes his barely three-year-old nephew with him back to Bruree, there to be raised in a strange place by a grandmother he has never met.

Some of these experiences may have shaped a personality in DeValera that some would call cold and calculating, always hiding something behind what must have been a great poker face. But in the end his mother came through, and when she learned that her son was about to be executed for rebellion, she left no stone unturned in producing evidence of his birth on American soil, a fact that more than any saved him from a martyr’s death in 1916.

Pleasantville resident Brian McGowan was born and raised in the Bronx and is a second-, third- and fifth-generation Irish-American/Canadian, as his immigrant ancestors followed several paths to the New World. Reach him at or on Twitter (@Bmcgowan52M). He is the author of two books, “Thunder at Noon,” about the battle of Waterloo, and “Love, Son John,” about World War II. Both are available at

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