Film-maker bids to prove de Valera's Cuban roots

30/12/2004 - 11:16:17

A film-maker from Havana is on a mission to prove that former president and Taoiseach Eamon de Valera was half Cuban.

The history books tell us that De Valera’s father, Juan, was a Spanish merchant who settled in New York.

But Ishmael Ortega, 55, a teacher at Havana Film School, believes Juan was a penniless sculptor and music teacher who emigrated to Manhattan from Cuba.

He married Kate Coll from Limerick who gave birth to Eamon in 1882.

However Juan died when Eamon was two and Kate sent him to live with his grandmother Elizabeth in Knockmore, Co Limerick.

Mr Ortega, who is researching a film on the subject which may be commissioned by RTE, said he believes the De Valera surname comes from the Valera clan in rural Cuba.

He said: “I’ve been to the Mantanza province where this Valera name is common and I’ve met members of the Valera family.

“They look remarkably like Eamon De Valera. They are tall and slim with oval-shaped faces.”

Mr Ortega, who is a friend of Irish movie director Jim Sheridan, says his documentary film may be taken up by RTE in the near future.

Mr Ortega said Eamon de Valera, who died in 1975, aged 92, once tried to track down his family’s coat of arms in Spain, but was unsuccessful.

He said: “There was no record of his family name in Spain.”

Dublin historian Micheal MacAonghusa believes that Mr Ortega’s theory is "quite possible" as the precise background of De Valera’s father was always a mystery.

He said that Cuba was under Spanish rule until 1895 so all Cuban nationals would have been classed as Spanish subjects at the time.

He said: “The whole thing about his father is very shadowy. A Spanish-speaking Cuban living in New York at the turn of the 19th-century could be mistaken as a Spaniard because Cuba was actually a colony of Spain until 1895. To say that his father was Cuban is quite possible.”

Mr MacAonghusa added that De Valera was always sympathetic to the Cuban struggle for independence.

He added: “De Valera always kept in touch with what was happening in Cuba. He wanted Ireland to be autonomous, and free from imperialist threat.

De Valera’s indelible political legacy survives today in the present government with his grandchildren. Síle De Valera is Education and Science junior minister and Eamon O’Cuiv is Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs.

Another grandson, arts worker Ruairi O’Cuiv, said he would welcome any new research into his grandfather’s life.

He said: “I’m pleased to think that I may be connected to Cuba. I’d be delighted if anybody turns up comprehensive factual research regarding my ancestors.”

A founding father of Fianna Fáil in 1926 and the Irish State, De Valera had an incalculable influence on modern Ireland.

He was jailed for opposing conscription during the First World War, but was elected as MP for East Clare while still in prison.

He stubbornly defended Ireland’s neutral stance during the Second World War and clashed with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill over the airwaves.

He served two terms as president to complete a lengthy political career.

As island nations, Ireland and Cuba have always enjoyed very friendly links despite the US embargo of Castro’s nation.

Ireland is one of the few countries in the EU to have diplomatic links with Cuba and currently has a non-resident ambassador in Mexico looking after consular affairs in Cuba.

Cuba is soon expected to return the gesture by accrediting its London ambassador to Dublin.

In 1995, Ireland voted for a Cuban resolution at the UN General Assembly, which demanded an end to the US blockade of the island.

Cuba also supported Ireland in its successful bid to become a member of the UN Security Council two years ago.

And more Irish visitors have been jetting to Cuba in recent years thanks to weekly Aeroflot flights between Shannon and Havana.

There is also an ’O’Reilly Street’ in the island’s capital, which celebrates the links between Ireland and Cuba.

A wall plaque with an inscription in Gaelic, Spanish and English says: “Two island peoples in the same sea of struggle and hope – Cuba and Ireland.”

Every year hundreds of students travel to Cuba to pick oranges or labour on building sites and TDs and senators in the Irish-Cuban Friendship Group have visited Cuba to represent the EU parliament.

Cuban icon, Che Guevara, whose grandmother was Anna Lynch from Co Galway, led the revolutionary struggle in the early 1960s.

Che visited Ireland just once: He flew into Shannon on a stop-over flight from Prague in March 1965.

His daughter, Alieda, visited Ireland in 2002 to research her Irish roots and attended the St Patrick’s Day Parade in Cashel, Co Tipperary.

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