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.