…and now the shells fall…

Éamon de Valera was one of the seventy-three Sinn Féin leaders arrested in May 1918 for their involvement in ‘treasonable communication with Germany’ outlined in a proclamation issued to the press by Lord French, commonly referred to as the ‘German Plot’. He was sent first to Gloucester Jail, and then, in early June, to Lincoln jail.

During his time in Lincoln Jail, the Allied counteroffensive which ended World War I began with the Battle of Amiens on 8 August. The Central Powers collapsed and armistices were signed with Bulgaria (Armistice of Salonica, 29 September 1918), the Ottoman Empire (Armistice of Mudros, 30 October 1918) and the Austro-Hungarian Empire (Armistice of Villa Giusti, 3 November 1918). On 11 November 1918, the Armistice with Germany came into force, ending the fighting on land, sea and air between the Allies and Germany.

In a previously unseen letter, Eamon de Valera writes to his wife, Sinéad, from Lincoln Jail on 11 November 1918. He describes hearing

the sirens and bells which announce that the armistice with Germany has been signed. It will bring relief to many an anxious heart—it will bring joy to many—but how many homes will the joybells cease ringing will be plunged into a grief which at the moment is not felt but which will be crushing when those who remain return home and it is realised that those who have fallen will never return.’

He goes on to comment on the nature and consequences of war, including its impact on women

For the sake of the women of the world at any rate I am glad it is over. They it is who have suffered most. Their imaginings have been far worse than the worst horrors the men have had to endure’.

A few weeks later, de Valera writes from Lincoln Jail to his mother Catherine (Kate) Wheelwright (née Coll) on the subject of the war’s end: ‘I am sure you are all relieved that the war is over.’ He discusses in detail America’s position following the armistice and comments with some prescience on the dangers that await the victors:

…the nations that have suffered grievously through the war—even were their reasons for taking up arms the very best—are likely to be heady now with the wine of victory—desirous only of revenge.—and then another treaty of Versailles with a future war in store.

He continues discussing the power of the press ‘What a power for evil it is, setting classes and nations at each others throats’ and goes on

to hope Uncle’s children and Aunt’s have come through the fighting. It is particularly hard on those who are now receiving the news of the deaths of relatives. After the armistice it seems so awful. Whoever caused the war humanity has paid a heavy price for it.

In both letters de Valera’s thoughts on the armistice and the war are framed by his concern for family during his imprisonment and his personal meditations on faith. Full transcripts of these letter can be found below.

The letters above form part of the UCD Library Cultural Heritage Units online exhibition documenting WWI ‘… and now the shells fall thick and fast’

 

P183/57 Letter from Éamon de Valera to his wife, Sinéad.
11 November 1918, 4pp
From Lincoln prison

A chuisle,
I got your recent letters. I hope the children are now all well and that, as so often happens, when the strain was relaxed you did not yourself get the disease.

I have just heard the sirens and bells which announce that the armistice with Germany has been signed. It will bring relief to many an anxious heart—it will bring joy to many—but how many homes will (sic) the joybells cease ringing will be plunged into a grief which at the moment is not felt but which will be crushing when those who remain return home and it is realised that those who have fallen will never return.

The thoughts that occur to me here today would fill volumes—we have leisure for thought calm sober thought—thoughts on the vanities of men and of Empires—vanities which the lessons of this war will not dispel.

A hundred years ago ‘twas Napoleon this time ‘twas Germany—whose turn will it be next? Many nations like many many individuals when during this struggle they were sick would were resolved to be monks they are now they are well we shall see what they will become. I can see with a cynic’s eyes but I have not a cynic’s tongue to express what I see.

I should not weary you with this. The huge happenings through which we are passing will make their own suggestions to you—and thoughts and feelings like these are incommunicable. For the sake of the women of the world at any rate I am glad it is over. They it is who have suffered most. Their imaginings have been far worse than the worst horrors the men have had to endure. They who live in Those of the victorious nations will forget for a time their nightmare in the joy of victory but alas for those in the nations that have been vanquished.

I was surprised to find I was not correct in my guess as to the books you would choose—you must tell me what they are when I see you. When that may be I do not know. God has preserved you all safe so far and I trust that when I do see you, you will all be as well as when I saw you last. Some of my letters to you I think have been suppressed. I wrote to acknowledge receipt of letter re my candidature at the coming election. That has probably been held up also I suppose.

I love to hear about yourself and the children—you need not fear that such tidings as in your last will weary me. To others what they say or do may not matter to me they are much (sic). You will yet get your birthday gift. Be of good cheer. Éamon.
Tell the children how fond I am of them.
P150/173 Letter from Éamon de Valera to his mother, Catherine Wheelwright.
28 November 1918, 4pp
From Lincoln prison

My dear Mother,
I got your letter & Toms just around my birthday. I hate writing to you from a place like this—and yet when I am at liberty I have so little time to write.

I am sure you are all relieved that the war is over. If America holds to the principles enunciated by her President during the war she will [land a noble] place in the history of nations—her sons will have every reason to be proud of their motherland. These principles too are the basis of true genuine statecraft—a firm basis that will bear the stress of time—but will the President be able to get them accepted but others whose entry into the war was on motives less unselfish? His task is difficult for, the nations that have suffered grievously through the war—even were their reasons for taking up arms the very best—are likely to be heady now with the wine of victory—desirous only of revenge.—and then another treaty of Versailles with a future war in store. So far indications are that he has succeeded—succeeded certainly fare beyond anything which history would give warrant for anticipating. What an achievement should he succeed in getting established a common law for nations—resting on the will of the nations—making national duels as rare as private ones duels between individual persons are at present! If that be truly is aim may God steady his hand. To me it seemed that a complete victory for either side would have made it impossible almost. Tom refers to mentions references to me in the press. I once remember baulking at an essay “the Press” in an examination.

I often regret I had not then my present experience of it! What a power for evil it is, setting classes and nations at each others throats. To me if seems that its powers for evil are those always used—its powers for good seldom. The terrible hypnotism of it too! I read the English papers here a good deal—were I an Englishman I’d feel rather proud of the Manchester Guardian it is sane in general. As far as its views on Ireland goes that is another matter—anyhow I am not at liberty to speak write on that subject.

I hope Uncle’s children and Aunt’s have come through the fighting. It is particularly hard on those who are now receiving the news of the deaths of relatives. After the armistice it seems so awful. Whoever caused the war humanity has paid a heavy price for it.

I know you will be glad that I have served all our masses here. I feel like a little boy again and I pray that my childish faith may ever remain with me. I tell you this because I know it will give you more pleasure that anything else I could write. I hope you will see Tom soon. You must feel lonely without him through I am certain you do not regret you reared him for such a calling. This life is so very short in comparison with the future it counts for little what sorrows and inconveniences it brings. Were it not so short who would be ready to die. With love to yourself and Uncle Charlie. I am dearest mother
Eddie

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