On This Day – 23 June 1959 Seán Lemass becomes Taoiseach

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It was a long apprenticeship. Not quite on a par with that of the current Prince of Wales as he waits to become King of England, but not far off. Sean Lemass was elected to the Dail in 1927 as a member of the newly created Fianna Fail party. The previous year he had resigned from Sinn Fein, along with Eamon de Valera, because of Sinn Fein’s insistence on retaining its abstentionist policy. Dev contemplated leaving politics altogether. Instead Lemass persuaded him to form a new political party.

Thus began that long apprenticeship. It finally ended thirty-two years later, and within a further four years Lemass had reached the dizzy heights of the cover of Time magazine, and an article entitled ‘New spirit in the ould sod’. Can it possibly get any better?

Lemass was just sixteen years old when he, and his brother Noel, had taken part in the 1916 Rising. Ironically they had been told it had begun by the sons of Eoin MacNeill and headed straight for the GPO. So, theirs was a sort of countermanding order in reverse.

Sean was sent up to the roof of the building, and armed with a shotgun. A fat lot of use a shotgun was on the roof of the GPO. He continued in the service of the Irish Volunteers / IRA during the War of Independence. There is still historical controversy about whether Lemass was one of the IRA hitmen who murdered a number of British agents on the morning of what would become known as ‘Bloody Sunday’. It was not something he ever talked about.

He and his brother—still only in their early twenties— took the anti-Treaty side in the Civil War. Sean Lemass was second-in-command of the force that occupied the Four Courts in defiance of the new Free State Government. But the Civil War ended in defeat and personal tragedy. In 1923 Noel Lemass was kidnapped and murdered. His body was dumped in the Dublin Mountains. The following year Sean Lemass was elected Sinn Fein TD for Dublin South City.

In 1932, three years after Lemass had famously described them as a ‘slightly constitutional party’, Fianna Fail went into government for the first time. Lemass was given responsibility for Industry and Commerce and that was, more or less, where he remained for much of the next three decades. Although he has been lauded as the ‘architect of modern Ireland’ during his tenure in Industry and Commerce, he was responsible for a tariff policy that, ultimately, did little for Irish industrial development.

It’s hard to say exactly when he became heir apparent. Perhaps he always was, or maybe he didn’t get the noble call until 1945, when de Valera made him Tanaiste. He was promoted over the heads of older men after having spent much of the ‘Emergency’—our colourful euphemism for World War Two—as Minister for Supplies. In that department, he was responsible for the production and distribution of vital goods, at a time of huge shortages. So, no great pressure there.

While he waited for de Valera to retir,e he had the great good sense to become the father in law of one Charles J. Haughey, in 1951. You may have heard of him.  Eventually the Long Fellow opted to move to the Park in 1959. De Valera became President and the interminable internship of Sean Lemass was at an end. Ireland’s greatest civil servant, T.K. Whitaker, beckoned and the rest is economic history. The two would drag the country into economic modernity as the orthodoxy of de Valera was abandoned. The first and second programmes for economic expansion, launched in 1958 and 1963, kick-started a moribund economy. Ireland, under Lemass, became a more industrialised and urbanised society. In 1965 he took the unprecedented step of travelling across the border for talks with the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Terence O’Neill. If this was Russia it would have been called ‘perestroika’. Under Lemass Ireland was, at last, open to the outside world rather than just populating it.

Sean Lemass became Ireland’s fourth Taoiseach, in succession to Eamon de Valera, fifty-eight years ago, on this day.

 

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On This Day – 14 October 1882 – Birth of Eamon de Valera

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One of the most successful Irish movies of the year has been the adaptation of Colm Toibín’s novel Brooklyn. But that borough of the city of New York has a much more compelling Irish association. It was the chosen destination of an Irish immigrant Catherine Coll, from Co. Limerick, and it was from there that she met a young Spanish sculptor, got married and had a son in 1882. That son, their only child, went on to become the dominant Irish political personality of the 20th century, Eamon de Valera.

 

Not that the young de Valera, named Edward by his parents, knew much about his mother Catherine and his father Vivion. The latter was dead by the time he was three and his mother was forced by economic circumstances to have her son sent to Ireland in 1885 to be brought up by relatives in Bruree, Co. Limerick. There he was known as Eddie Coll. He later became a scholarship boy in Blackrock College where he was to become a teacher. In the 1911 census he was still Edward de Valera but his involvement in the Gaelic League sparked an increased interest in Irish. Until the formation of the Irish Volunteers in 1913 his politics were those of Home Rule, but the transformation of his philosophy was ultimately to lead to his command of the 3rd Battalion of the Volunteers in the Easter Rising of 1916.

 

Despite the execution of men far more junior than he de Valera survived the violent aftermath of the Rising. There is a myth that his death sentence was commuted because of his American citizenship. In fact it was more to do with timing and happenstance. In the wake of the controversial execution of James Connolly when General Sir John Maxwell, British military governor in Ireland, asked the young Irish prosecutor William Wylie whether de Valera should be shot on the basis that he might cause trouble in the future, Wylie made the memorable but hardly clairvoyant observation ‘I wouldn’t think so, sir, I don’t think he is important enough. From all I can hear he is not one of the leaders.’

 

After 1916 his star was in the ascendant. He won the East Clare by-election in 1917, led Sinn Fein to a sweeping victory in the 1918 General Election and escaped from Lincoln Jail in 1919. But his personality often let him down. In Lincoln Prison he made few friends among his fellow Republican inmates. Famously, in the exercise yard, he played handball alone. When he went to the USA after his escape, to raise funds and awareness, he succeeded in falling out with the political leaders of Irish America, John Devoy and Daniel Cohalan.

 

Never too far from controversy his decision in late 1921 not to accompany the Irish delegation to the London peace talks has been condemned, justifiably or otherwise, as a convenient cop out designed to ensure he remained untarnished by the inevitable fudge of the Treaty. His subsequent rejection of the agreement signed by Collins and Griffith, and the counter proposals of his ‘Document Number 2’, have been criticized as Jesuitical and self-serving.

 

He was largely sidelined during the Civil War – notwithstanding the contrary evidence advanced by the plot of Neil Jordan’s film Michael Collins – and seemed to depart from the principles he had enunciated in January 1922 when, in 1926, he and his followers took their seats in the Dail. This was essentially the governing parliament of a state that fell far short of the Republic for which he had argued in the divisive debate over the Treaty.

 

1932 saw the perennial poacher turn long-term gamekeeper when Fianna Fail won the General Election that year. Bar two brief periods of multi-party coalition he led the country for the next twenty-seven years, wrote the constitution that still, more or less, governs us today, and can be accused of presiding over an economy only rescued from stagnation by his successor Sean Lemass.

 

But he also, arguably, had the nous and the courage to lead Ireland through an economic war with our nearest neighbor in the 1930s, and to keep the country neutral during World War Two, as well as a number of other significant achievements.

 

Like or loathe him you cannot ignore Eamon de Valera – a much more impressive name for a political leader, it has to be said, than Eddie Coll.

 

Eamon de Valera, was born in New York one hundred and thirty four years ago, on this day.

 

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