Fianna Fail supporters during the 1948 general election

As we hurtle towards what could be an historic general election – a ferocious battle in which the Soldiers of Destiny appear destined to be slaughtered – a popular myth is starting to be peddled by some sections of the media: the myth that Ireland's malaise began when the boys of the old brigade gave way to the men in the mohair suits.

This myth has been expressed most explicitly by the veteran political analyst Nick Coffey, who wrote in the Irish Daily Mail recently: "Fianna Fáil claims political lineage from the men of 1916. It became the party of land speculators, big business, corrupt bankers and stroke politics. For the party to have a viable future it has to return to the values of its founding fathers."

Founding fathers? You'd think he was paying homage to a shining pantheon of true republican statesmen of the stature of Washington, Madison and Jefferson rather than a cabal of sectarian screwballs who inflicted their demented delusions for several grim decades on a captive populace – those who didn't flee on the emigrant boats (like my maternal grandparents), that is.

The roots of corruption in Irish political life can be traced much further back than November 1966, when the last of the revolutionary generation, Seán Lemass, Seán MacEntee and James Ryan, shuffled off the national stage. In the leadership race to succeed Lemass as taoiseach, it might have appeared as though a totally new breed of politician had suddenly burst onto the landscape, but Fianna Fáil's lust for office long predated them.

Crookery in the corridors of power didn't commence with the mohairs. They certainly flaunted their power and wealth in a fashion the first wave of Fianna Fáilers would have found vulgar, but the rot didn't just set in when Charlie Haughey set his sights on Kinsealy and his own personal island off the Kerry coast. It was there right from the very outset, injected into the fibre of Fianna Fáil by its sly, self-serving founder, éamon de Valera.

Cunning and conniving

Haughey wasn't quite accurate when he hailed Bertie Ahern as "the most skilful, the most devious, and the most cunning of them all". Far more deserving of that damning accolade was Dev, who could have left the Drumcondra mafia standing in the public deception stakes.

Even the dogs in the streets of north Dublin knew that Bertie was a bit of a lad, but he was regarded as a likeable rogue – much like oul' CJ in his more popular periods – especially when the economy was rolling along nicely. Far more cunning and conniving than either of these two, the Long Fella lulled a lot of people for a very long period into the naïve misperception that he was an idealistic dreamer, other-worldly even.

His political opponents frequently fell into that fatal trap. In May 1918, William O'Brien described De Valera as "personally a charming man, but he is too good for this rough world". A few months later, John Dillon assured CP Scott of the Manchester Guardian that he "was a schoolmaster pitchforked into a position of extraordinary prominence and power and nervously conscious of his own inadequacy". Lloyd George got the true measure of the man when he likened his dealings with Dev to "drinking soup with a fork".

Richard Mulcahy, who fought in the Easter Rising and became IRA chief of staff in 1919, remembered the twofold advice he received from De Valera on how to become a successful politician – study economics and Machiavelli. Dev clearly devoted far less time to the former than the latter, but his economic ignorance was always cleverly masked by his Machiavellianism.

Don't be fooled by his oft-quoted cosy fireside broadcasts about comely maidens dancing at the crossroads. Dev was no daft dreamer or clumsy communicator. 'The Chief' was a complete control freak. In his systematic meshing of political and media power to gain supreme mastery of a modern democratic state he was well ahead of his time, a sort of austere Hibernian precursor of Silvio Berlusconi – without the babes in bikinis, of course.

Spin was central to his rise to power and survival in office long before that term entered common parlance. Anyone desiring political power in Ireland, Dev had remarked privately in 1924, "should put publicity before all". The key to his attaining and retaining power was his personal control of the Irish Press. Dev turned himself into a newspaper tycoon in order to become taoiseach and continued to double up as premier and press baron throughout his lengthy political career.

As the media academic Dr Mark O'Brien explained in his penetrating study, De Valera, Fianna Fáil and the Irish Press, the Machiavellian mathematician got the presses rolling to spread the gospel of Fianna Fáil and make himself head of government and then head of state.

The eminent historian Roy Foster has noted that Dev dominated Irish politics for decades by "controlling a dynamic, populist, political organisation that married traditional clientelistic Irish political techniques with up-to-date manipulation of public opinion".

Hitting not just the streets of Dublin but every nook and cranny of the country for the first time in September 1931, the Irish Press played a crucial role in bringing Fianna Fáil to power in 1932. In the same year the International Eucharistic Congress generated scenes in the Phoenix Park which have since been compared to the Fascist spectacles elsewhere in Europe at that time. This fusing of strident ethnic nationalism and triumphalist religious piety was unquestioningly celebrated on the pages of the Press.

Two subsequent stablemates – the Sunday Press and the Evening Press – started pumping out the same stuff in 1949 and 1954 respectively and, throughout the 1960s, this trio of popular paper was both highly profitable and influential.

Festering at the core

How the Long Fella got his long fingers on Irish Press plc and retained a firm grip on it throughout his time in office is the key to understanding why Ireland is in its current predicament. Dev's dealings with the Press clearly expose the fact that financial corruption was festering at the very core of Fianna Fáil from its foundation. A distinguished but ultimately disillusioned editor of that paper, Tim Pat Coogan, has described it as "a sad story of how idealism and revolutions start in hope and glory and end up fumbling in a greasy till".

Dev didn't need secret benefactors or bagmen like CJ. When he purchased 43% of Irish Press Limited for a paltry £1,000 through clever cloaking of statistics, he was set up for life. Had he tried a similar trick in more recent times he would doubtless have had to endure the same humiliations as Haughey and Ahern, being dragged before tribunals in Dublin Castle.

In mitigation, it might be argued, Dev's motivation was never merely personal enrichment but the advancement of a national movement. The first FF supremo had no penchant for Charvet shirts or sailing around in his own private yacht, for sure. Dev would never have dreamed of declaring, as Haughey once did to an associate, that he wanted to "go through life on a first-class ticket".

He was never as materialistic as the men in the mohair suits, but he displayed an unceasing need for power, privilege and position which could not be put down simply to a patriarchal concern to nurture a new state.

Undeniably, he and his offspring did benefit significantly in financial terms from his cunning creation of a publishing empire. While he preached the virtues of frugal living, his own family were positioned securely among the possessing classes: they enjoyed a feather-bedded existence while the majority had to make do with macaroon bars.

Padraig Pearse warned prophetically that "he who builds on lies rears only lies". Fianna Fáil was constructed on lies because that is the only way its founder could emerge from the political wilderness and manoeuvre his way into office.

In 1924, when he began to plot the construction of the propaganda machine that would propel him into power, De Valera was being held captive by his ex-revolutionary comrades at the end of a grim civil war which he almost single-handedly started because of his alleged political principles.

To become taoiseach for the first time in 1932, Dev would have to do what he had defamed the Free Staters for doing – swear a parliamentary oath and accept partition. He needed some way of explaining to the voters the sudden malleability of his previously unbending principles and the Press eloquently provided such an explanation on a daily basis.

The great Czech novelist Milan Kundera has written that "the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting". Dev could never have attained power if a sufficient proportion of the electorate hadn't succumbed to collective amnesia regarding his previously uncompromising positions and pronouncements.

With characteristic audacity, Dr Noel Browne sought to expose the swindle, tabling a motion in the Dáil in 1959 censuring Dev for doubling up as taoiseach and a newspaper tycoon. Dev ducked out of that particular debate and wrote letters to three national newspapers the following day insisting that he had "not and never had any beneficial interest in shares in Irish Press Limited, other than a few hundred personal shares". Control of the vast bulk of the family's stockingholding had been transferred to his son Vivion, he insisted.

Press baron and millionaire

In 1996, shortly before he became a Fianna Fáil minister, Éamon Ó Cuív complained to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission about his grandfather being described in an RTé current affairs programme about political funding as a newspaper baron and "a millionaire". Ó Cuív's complaint was swiftly tossed out when it was pointed out by the producer that another prominent member of the same political dynasty, Síle de Valera, had been on the show and raised no objection when this factual point about her grandfather was made.

How the De Valera family established and maintained control over a major national newspaper stable for three generations was the topic of a fascinating TV documentary screened in 2004 by RTé as part of its Hidden History series. Family Fortune: De Valera's Irish Press was lapped up by grizzly old newspaper hacks still prone to weep into their Guinness about the presses no longer rumbling on Burgh Quay. Television critics also hailed the film as terrific.

But most ordinary viewers/voters probably didn't bat an eyelid. A whole new generation of newspaper readers had never clapped eyes on a Press masthead. Besides, the Celtic Tiger was roaring and the champagne was flowing. Whatever financial chicanery brought Fianna Fáil into being, its progeny was delivering previously unimagined prosperity. We know the folly of such euphoria now.

Today, as this little republic reels from not just an unprecedented economic crisis but also the sordid revelations in the Ryan report, we need to remember who kicked off the financial corruption and crafted a constitution which accorded special status to the Roman Catholic church, an externally-controlled institution which placed many of the most vulnerable young citizens of this state at its perpetual mercy.

'Got to get out of the land of De Valera' was the chorus line of a song sung back in the 1990s by a Celtic rock band in New York called Black '47. It could serve as an inspirational anthem during the upcoming general election. There has to be some escape from the lies and corruption that have plagued Irish public life since Dev deviously devised his power-seeking masterplan.

Rob Brown is Senior Lecturer in Journalism at Independent College Dublin

Airing Fianna Fáil's dirty sheets

It was in 1924, in the aftermath of the defeat of his anti-treaty forces in the civil war, that éamon de Valera began to plot his political comeback through the creation of what he called a paper for the people. His notion of a newspaper "as Irish as the Daily Mail is English" excited thousands of ordinary men and women in Ireland and Irish America.

Many contributed to what was billed by Dev, during a fundraising tour of the US in 1919, as a Republican Loan – which would be repaid in full as soon as the Republic gained international recognition. The vast bulk of this money was diverted into Dev's devious plan to create his own self-serving propaganda machine.

The swindle was pulled off through the craftiest of manoeuvres. Inserted into the articles of association of the company was a curious stipulation about a "controlling director" who would have sole control of financial and political policy, could hire and fire at will, and had a veto on any commercial or editorial decision.

"The shares and control structures of The Irish Press Ltd reveal the most brazen concentration of power in the hands of one individual known to the newspaper industry anywhere in the western world," a commentator in Magill noted in 1978. "For although the De Valera family owns only a minority of the shareholding in the company, the articles of association make it absolutely impossible for any outside individual... to wrest any measure of control from it."

Tim Pat Coogan, would come to describe this as "the corporate equivalent of the three divine persons in the one God" – the divinity in question being Dev.