Born in Manhattan, New York of a Spanish father and an Irish mother, he was sent to live with his grandmother in Limerick at the age of two after his father died. At the age of sixteen he won a scholarship worth £20 per annum to Blackrock College, Co Dublin. In 1903 he was appointed professor of mathematics at the Rockwell College, Co Tipperary. He graduated in 1904 with a pass degree in mathematics from the Royal University of Ireland (University College Dublin) and went to teach at Belvedere College.
In 1910 he married Sinead Flanagan and they had seven children. A fluent Irish speaker, de Valera joined the Gaelic League in 1908 and the Irish Volunteers in 1913, having being sworn into the IRB by Thomas MacDonagh.
In 1916 he commanded the garrison at Boland’s Mills. Sentenced to death for his role, this was later commuted to life but he was released in June 1917.
It has been disputed as to whether this was because of his American citizenship, or that British, concerned at the turning tide of public opinion, had already ‘set an example’ with the executions. De Valera played a significant role in the Irish independence movement. From June 1919 to December 1920, he raised $6 million in American in support for a new Irish government.
He was president of Sinn Fein from 1917 to 1926 and was President of the first Dail in 1919, and then President of the Irish Republic in 1921. He opposed the Treaty and resigned when the Dail ratified it. He left Sinn Fein to form Fianna Fail and in 1932 led that party into government. In 1932, Fianna Fail put the Constitution — largely de Valera’s work — to a referendum. He was Taoiseach and Minister for External Affairs from 1937 to 1948 and again from 1951 to 1954, and finally from 1957 to 1959. De Valera was President from 1959 to 1973. His political aim remained a 32-county Irish republic.