While the world of literary criticism may welcome Fitzgerald’s insights to its endless debates and revisions, his take on the life and career of Eamonn de Valera could prove more disputatious. In this instance, it is the history of the Irish State, which is alleged to have been influenced by Asperger’s syndrome.
Eamon de Valera (1882 – 1975) is the dominant figure of 20th century Irish public life. Born in New York to an Irish mother and a Spanish father, he came to Ireland as an infant, following his father’s death. A brilliant mathematician, de Valera taught after graduating from what is now University College Dublin.
He joined the Irish Volunteers in 1913 and was one of the leaders of the 1916 Rising against British rule in Ireland. The following year, he was elected president of Sinn Féin. After escaping from Lincoln prison in 1919, he went to the U.S. to raise funds for the Irish cause. He travelled there for eighteen months, thereby avoiding involvement in the Irish War of Independence. De Valera returned to Ireland in 1921 but did not negotiate the final stage of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which divided Ireland into Northern Ireland (part of the United Kingdom) and the Irish Free State (a dominion of the British Empire).
Following the signing of the treaty, de Valera and others who were opposed to it, walked out of the Dáil (Irish parliament), signalling the beginning of the Irish Civil War (June 1922 – May 1923). Although de Valera’s followers were defeated, within a decade, his newly formed party, Fianna Fáil (‘Soldiers of Destiny’), was elected to government. Between spells as Taoiseach (premier) and latterly as President, de Valera’s presence dominated the Irish political landscape until well into the 1960s.
Professor Fitzgerald describes de Valera as a loner: “He had almost no personal relationships. He was great in crowds but couldn’t relate one-to-one. He was obsessed with mathematics, and with power and control. He was always regarded as an odd fellow, and he couldn’t relate to Michael Collins (de Valera’s former comrade in the Irish War of Independence who became the leader of the Irish Free State Army and died in the Civil War) who was a much more ‘human’ individual”.
According to Fitzgerald, there is reason to believe that the Civil War might not have happened were it not for de Valera’s particular mentality: ‘He remained obsessed throughout his life with nationalism and the Irish language. He was very damaging to relationships with the North – he had nothing but contempt for the politicians there, and was very insensitive to people. If he hadn’t been autistic, he probably wouldn’t have left the Dáil after the Treaty was signed. There’s a slight chance – maybe 5% – the Civil War could’ve been prevented if de Valera didn’t have autism.’
As Taoiseach, de Valera maintained a position of neutrality during World War II, a stance Professor Fitzgerald regards as autistic, considering the horror which was unfolding in Europe. When Hitler committed suicide at the end of the war, de Valera went to the residence of the German ambassador to Ireland to extend his condolences. Fitzgerald describes this action as ‘absolutely bizarre’. There are not many who would argue with such a judgement now.
Autism and Creativity focuses on men. Professor Fitzgerald explains that when he started writing the book, it was about Asperger’s syndrome, he realised he’d written about the male brain: “Asperger’s syndrome is an extreme form of the male brain. If you want to understand men in their extreme form, read this book. Men tend to be what we call ‘systematizers’: they’re logical and rational. Women tend to be empathic, sensitive to feelings, sociable and so on”.
Obviously, not everyone with Asperger’s syndrome is a creative genius, but what about the corollary? Is genius an abnormality? Professor Fitzgerald cites Temple-Grandon: “The price of normality, of being an average person, is not having genius. The average person is good at relationships, likes being with people, and has no great creativity. I don’t think you can be a genius without having some abnormality in peer relations. There tends to be a tremendous imbalance between extraordinary creativity and an immature personality. The price of genius is a deficit in social relationships”.
Autism and Creativity: Is there a link between autism in men and exceptional ability? by Michael Fitzgerald, is published by Brunner-Routledge.