May 24, 2013

Finest Hour 147, Summer 2010

Page 57

Leading Churchill Myths (19): “Churchill was drunk and not being serious when he proposed the unification of Ireland in 1941.”

By David Freeman

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Shortly after midnight on 8 December 1941, having just learned of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Prime Minister dispatched a telegram from Chequers to Dublin with instructions for the British Representative, Sir John Maffey, to deliver it in person and immediately to the Irish Taoiseach Eamon de Valera.

Asleep at his residence in the Dublin suburb of Blackrock, de Valera was awakened at 1:30 a.m. with a phone call from his External Affairs Secretary informing him of Maffey’s visit. “Could it not wait until the morning?” the Irish leader asked. It could not.

He rang the Secretary to the Government and the Army Chief of Staff and warned them to stand by for any instructions that might follow from the forthcoming meeting. Maffey duly arrived and delivered the telegram:

Following from Mr. Churchill to Mr. de Valera. Personal. Private and Secret. Begins. Now is your chance. Now or never. “A Nation once again.” Am very ready to meet you at any time. Ends.

De Valera took this to mean “it was Mr. Churchill’s way of intimating ‘now is the chance for taking action which would ultimately lead to the unification of the country.’”1

The action Churchill sought was permission for the Royal Navy to use southern Irish ports in the campaign against German U-Boats. Churchill had made a similar initiative the previous year, promising British support for Irish unification in exchange for port access. As he had in 1940, however, de Valera declined the offer.

Churchill believed this episode important enough to record in his war memoirs although he got the wording of the original telegram slightly wrong. As published in The Grand Alliance, the last line of the message incorrectly reads, “I will meet you wherever you wish.”2 As a veteran of Anglo-Irish political wars, though, Churchill did have the inspiration to include “A Nation once again”—the theme song of the old Irish Parliamentary party in the days of the Home Rule campaign.

Churchill’s telegram has been seen by historians, depending on their perspective, as either “bold and imaginative” or “impulsive and quixotic,” but typically Churchillian either case.3 With the passage of time, though, all could agree with Irish historian Tim Pat Coogan: “The most substantive proposals of the century concerning the possibility of a British withdrawal from [Northern] Ireland” emanated from Churchill’s government.4

Long after the proposals were declined and the war that generated them had ended, a sense of “missed opportunity” began to develop over this episode of history. Could things have been different? If so, who was at fault, Churchill or de Valera?

De Valera could not have granted port access to the British without ending neutrality and making Ireland a belligerent. Short of a direct attack on their country, however, the Irish people would no more tolerate entering the war than the American people before Pearl Harbor—which had triggered Churchill’s midnight cable. Whatever his impulses, political reality prevented de Valera from taking up the offer.

This clear and simple explanation has not satisfied everyone. In Irish historical circles some have felt the need to discount Churchill’s offer as a way of dismissing the “missed-opportunity” argument. The most egregious example of this can be found in the memoirs of de Valera’s youngest son Terry, published in Ireland in 2004.

Terry de Valera’s account came over sixty years after the fact, when the principals were long dead. Although he says that he was at home that night, he admits he did not overhear the conversation between his father and Maffey. He writes that he was afterwards told by his father “that Maffey told him that Churchill was highly intoxicated and sending telegrams in all directions.”

The son goes on to say that his father “had a passion for accuracy” and “did not mince his words in describing Churchill as being ‘drunk’ the night in question.”5 This account was subsequently cited by Diarmaid Ferriter in his 2007 study of de Valera, claiming that Churchill’s message was “alcoholinduced” and “judiciously ignored” by the recipient.6

Far from ignoring the telegram, de Valera sent a reply to Churchill suggesting that the Dominions Secretary, Lord Cranborne, travel to Dublin to discuss the matter. The talks which took place, however, came to nothing.

Terry’s claim of WSC “sending telegrams in all directions” echoes one made by Eamon de Valera’s biographers who wrote: “Churchill’s war memoirs made it clear that he was highly excited that night and scattered telegrams both east of him and west of him.”7

But Churchill’s memoirs record him sending only three very brief telegrams: one to de Valera, one to Chiang Kai-shek and one to Harry Hopkins.8 This is confirmed by an examination of the Churchill Archives.9 Nor could Maffey in Dublin have known how many telegrams Churchill was sending. How then could Maffey have offered a view on this to the Irish Taoiseach?

And if Maffey was in Dublin, how could he have known what state Churchill was in at Chequers? The only possibility would be that he was rung up by the Prime Minister’s Duty Private Secretary or was given the information by the same with the accompanying instructions for immediate delivery of the telegram. The Duty Private Secretary that night was John Martin. He recorded nothing in his memoirs about any telegrams or about the Prime Minister being drunk.

Martin’s salient recollection was of John G. Winant’s “excited cries” of “That’s fine Mr President: that’s fine,” as the U.S. Ambassador spoke on the phone with Roosevelt.10 In any case it is improbable that a private secretary would demonstrate such disloyalty or foolishness by making documentable claims about the drunkenness of his boss, true or false, to a diplomat who he did not even know. And this brings us to still another point.

Sir John Maffey (subsequently Lord Rugby) was a professional diplomat. He had a long career in the Indian Civil Service before becoming Governor-General of the Sudan. He then moved on to serve as Under Secretary for the Colonies before taking up his position as the United Kingdom Representative to Ireland in 1939. His entry in the Dictionary of National Biography emphasizes his “discretion, tact, skill and diplomacy,” a view echoed by de Valera’s own official biographers who described him as “tactful, discreet and discerning.”11

Like de Valera, Maffey was put out at being roused in the small hours of the morning to handle Churchill’s message, but it is inconceivable that a veteran diplomat known for his tact and discretion would respond by disparaging his own prime minister to the head of the government to which he was accredited.

Clearly Maffey could have known none of the information Terry de Valera claims was relayed to his father. Such information lacks foundation and was unlikely to have been passed on even if it did. Unsubstantiated claims of drunkenness have long been made by critics of Churchill, and the tone of Terry de Valera’s memoirs firmly places the author in this camp.

Members of Churchill’s inner circle during the war, including Sir John Martin, repeatedly stated that they never saw the Prime Minister the worse for drink except once and that after a late-night birthday celebration put on by the Russians at Teheran. Churchill’s offers in 1940 and 1941 to support Irish unification with conditions were sincere, sober and serious—even if Irish public opinion made them unviable.


1. The Earl of Longford and Thomas P. O’Neill, Eamon De Valera (London: Hutchinson, 1970), 392-93.

2. Winston S. Churchill, The Grand Alliance (London: Folio, 2000), 485.

3. “Churchillian” was exactly the term de Valera recorded Maffey as using when he handed over the telegram. See Longford, 392.

4. Tim Pat Coogan, De Valera: Long Fellow, Long Shadow (London: Hutchinson, 1993), 551.

5. Terry de Valera, A Memoir (Dublin: Currach, 2004), 225.

6. Diarmaid Ferriter, Judging Dev (Dublin: RTE, 2007), 154.

7. Longford and Neill, 393. This biography was written and published while de Valera was President of Ireland. Dev had final say on the work which should be seen, therefore, as an “as-told-to” autobiography.

8. The Grand Alliance, 485-86.

9. Churchill Archives Centre, CHAR 20/46. See

10. Sir John Martin, Downing Street Years (London: Bloomsbury, 1991), 66-67; Martin Gilbert, In Search of Churchill (London: HarperCollins, 1994), 184.

11. Dictionary of National Biography Volume 36 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 104-06; Longford and O’Neill, 351.

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