Dillon, James Mathew (1902–86), politician, barrister, and businessman, was born 26 September 1902 at 2 North Great George's St., Dublin, fifth child among five sons and one daughter of John Dillon (qv), Nationalist MP for Mayo East, and his wife Elizabeth (qv), daughter of Sir James Mathew (qv) and Lady Mathew. Sir James was an Irish-born judge of the high court in London and a nephew of ‘the apostle of temperance’, Father Theobald Mathew (qv).
Education and early life James Dillon was educated privately and later at Mount St Benedict, Gorey, Co. Wexford, from 1915 to 1919. Mount St Benedict was nominally a Benedictine school but was run to the increasingly eccentric whims of Father John Sweetman (qv), a somewhat rebellious cleric of advanced Sinn Féin views. Dillon claims to have learned little at Mount St Benedict, but in fact he had a good grasp of history, was a proficient debater and an actor of some standing in the school, and early in life developed a capacious reading habit. He was actively involved in the 1918 general election, campaigning unsuccessfully in Wexford for the Irish Party candidate, Sir Thomas Esmonde (qv).
Dillon moved from Mount St Benedict to UCD in 1919 to study commerce. He was an indifferent student of commerce, with little regard for the prevailing academic standards, leaving the university in 1921 without taking a degree. His main preoccupation at UCD was student politics and debating. He was an unfashionable defender of the Irish Party against the rising tide of Sinn Féin and particularly defended his father's role as the last leader of the Irish Party. He quickly gained a reputation as the outstanding debater of his time, even if his orotund style was seen as belonging to an earlier generation. He also engaged in acting; showed great enthusiasm for the Irish language, which he spoke fluently; and had utter certainty about the rightness of his own views on all matters. He also had a capacity at this early stage to make friends across a very bitter and already divided political spectrum.
The Dillon background was of business and politics. His grandfather John Blake Dillon (qv) had been a leading member of the failed Young Ireland movement, spent years in exile, and ultimately became MP for Tipperary. He died in 1866. John Mitchel (qv), who thought Dillon ‘all wrong, about almost everything’, said: ‘I have known in my time many good men, but one nobler, more generous-hearted, more pure and gallant than John Dillon I never knew or hope to know’ (Manning, Dillon, 11).
Dillon's father John Dillon was one of the dominant political figures in the Irish Parliamentary Party, whose misfortune it was to inherit leadership of that party just as it was being wiped out by Sinn Féin. He lost his seat to Éamon de Valera (qv) in Mayo East in 1918, a loss that was witnessed by the young Dillon and was vividly symbolic of the political change. After 1918 John Dillon found himself cast into political irrelevance and never subsequently exercised any political influence, much to his own dismay and mystification.
James Dillon grew up very much in his father's shadow. His mother died in 1906 and he was raised by his father and a series of strong-minded female nurses. It was a bleak and intensely high-minded upbringing. He revered his father, and like his father found it difficult to come to terms with the new order. He saw himself cast as the youthful defender of the old order and in particular of his father's reputation, a role which he adopted with enthusiasm, and fought with growing self-confident eloquence, in no way daunted by the increasing isolation in which he found himself.
Had James Dillon been free to choose a career he would have opted for medicine, a subject in which he maintained a lifelong interest. Instead, however, it was his father's wish (to which he readily acquiesced) that he would take over the family business, the extensive merchant concern of Monica Duff in Ballaghadereen, Co. Roscommon, where the family had its principal residence. To prepare for this career Dillon trained at Selfridges in London and Marshall Field in New York and Chicago, returning in 1924 to Ireland, where he successfully took control of and modernised the family business. In his spare time he studied for the bar, being admitted in 1931 but never actually practising.
Entry into politics: the birth of Fine Gael Dillon did not long resist the lure of politics. He flirted with the new National League party which emerged in 1927, but declined an offer to run for the dáil. He was approached by de Valera in the late 1920s to stand for Fianna Fáil and was later sounded out by W. T. Cosgrave (qv) but eventually decided to run as an independent in Donegal in 1932. He did not live in or have much connection with Donegal, but the enduring respect for his father's name and the support of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, still strong in Donegal, ensured his election to the dáil. He remained a strong supporter of the marginalised and anachronistic AOH throughout his life.
He entered Dáil Éireann as an independent, determined to eschew both Sinn Féin parties, and in his first vote supported de Valera for president of the executive council. Increasingly, however, he found himself opposing Fianna Fáil policy, especially the economic war with Britain and its aggressive anti-English nationalism, and – while not attracted by W. T. Cosgrave or Cumann na nGaedheal – found himself increasingly at one with the stand taken by that party. In particular, however, he made common cause with a number of other independents, mainly farmer-based, the most prominent of whom was Frank MacDermot (qv). Though reluctant at first, Dillon emerged with MacDermot in late 1932 as joint leaders of the new National Centre Party, whose principal aim was to break the mould of civil war politics and to end the economic and constitutional battles with Britain. The new party, a disparate lot, found themselves facing a sudden and tumultuous election campaign in January 1933, and both Dillon and MacDermot had meetings broken up by Fianna Fáil and IRA supporters. The party did surprisingly well, winning eleven seats, but with Fianna Fáil's overall majority they were destined to remain in opposition.
1933 was a crucial year in Dillon's political evolution. On entering politics he had sworn to have no truck with either Sinn Féin party. By mid 1933, however, he had persuaded himself that a combination of Fianna Fáil's economic policy, its connivance at IRA disruptions of political meetings, and its general constitutional policies posed a threat to political stability. In a situation characterised by confusion and differing agendas he played a leading part in bringing together Cumann na nGaedheal, the new Centre Party, and the emerging Blueshirt movement to form a new political party, Fine Gael. This new party was led by the Blueshirt leader Eoin O'Duffy (qv), the former chief of the Garda Síochána, a man who was politically inexperienced and personally erratic and who did not at that time have a dáil seat.
Dillon, just eighteen months into politics, now found himself a vice-president of the second largest party in the state and in a position of real prominence in Free State politics. He early displayed the characteristics which were to distinguish his political career – his outstanding, if already outdated oratorical talents, and utter fearlessness in expressing what were often unpopular and controversial views. He quickly established himself as an outstanding parliamentary performer, both in his oratory and mastery of parliamentary procedure, in a dáil in which there were few such, and won a growing reputation as a flamboyant platform speaker. His reputation as a parliamentarian was to grow with the passing years, and parliament was from this point on to be at the centre of his life. Although he had begun his political life as an independent he adapted quickly to party politics (hardly surprising, given his father's inheritance), and he always argued that political effectiveness was better achieved within a party rather than working as an independent.
Fine Gael did not achieve its primary objective – that of displacing Fianna Fáil – and was damaged in particular by the Blueshirt experience and O'Duffy's leadership, though Dillon was to maintain right to the end of his life that, but for the efforts of the Blueshirts, freedom of speech and assembly would not have been possible, and he dismissed with contempt the charge that the Blueshirts constituted a fascist threat. Given his own subsequent career, it was a case he could make with conviction. Throughout the 1930s Dillon was one of the most vigorous members of a demoralised Fine Gael and when Donegal was divided into two constituencies he had no difficulty in successfully transferring to Monaghan in 1937. Although never resident in that county, he held his seat in Monaghan until his retirement in 1969.
The approach of war Dillon's political tradition and his own fundamental philosophy made him a strong nationalist, but his nationalism was different in kind to most others in Irish politics. In particular he was a strong advocate of Irish membership of the British Commonwealth, and he saw it both as a framework within which Irish unity could ultimately be achieved and also as providing an English-speaking forum within which the Irish Free State could exert international influence. He was also one of the few Irish politicians to take an informed interest in developments in Europe, and in particular (and from an early stage) saw and warned against the threat to democracy and world order posed by the rise of German fascism. He found himself out of sympathy with the decision of the government, backed unanimously by the oireachtas, to opt for neutrality at the outset of the second world war in 1939.
As deputy leader of Fine Gael, Dillon now found himself in a difficult situation. The Fine Gael party, its leaders and supporters were as committed to neutrality as was Fianna Fáil, and public opinion was overwhelmingly in favour. Dillon, while reluctant at first, supported this policy and appeared on all-party recruiting platforms throughout the country urging people to join the defence forces. Privately, however, he felt that there was no place for Irish neutrality in a conflict between parliamentary democracy and fascism. For the moment he confined himself to speaking strongly for the allies and attacking what he saw as elements of pro-Nazi sentiment and collaboration within some official circles, both political and in the administration. His concern, however, deepened with the fall of France and the dramatic advances which followed. Ultimately Dillon came to a simple view: if Britain fell, an invasion of Ireland was inevitable, as Germany would not leave its western flank undefended. Germany would show no more respect for a neutral Ireland or its democratic structures than it had in other invaded countries, and it was in Ireland's best interest to do everything in its power to prevent a German victory. Dillon did not advocate Ireland entering the war on the side of the Allies but he did urge that every possible help be given to them. He eventually made his position public at a Fine Gael ard fheis in February 1942. In so doing he left his party no option but to expel him, though in fact he resigned before he was pushed.
An independent in government He was now back as an independent, totally isolated from his old party and reviled and taunted by many of his political opponents. One Fianna Fáil opponent said of him: ‘He stands alone; abhorred by this party, cast out by the Fine Gael party, avoided by Labour, shunned like a plague by Clann na Talmhan. He stands alone . . . in abject isolation’ (Manning, Dillon, 198). Dillon was indeed isolated, with his phone tapped and his speeches censored, but he still managed to be reelected as an independent in Monaghan in the elections of 1943 and 1944, and in spite of widespread hostility remained one of the most assiduous and colourful contributors to the work of the dáil. As the theatre of war moved east and the danger of allied defeat receded he was approached by Fine Gael to rejoin the party and offered the leadership, on condition he relinquished his views on neutrality, especially since they were no longer strategically important. He refused – ironically, had he accepted he might well have been taoiseach in 1948.
He remained as an independent in the post-war period, frustrated by his long spell in opposition and constantly urging opposition unity in face of Fianna Fáil's seemingly permanent grip on power. By now he was one of the most persistent and damaging critics of a tired and error-prone administration, though as yet no real alternative appeared and Fine Gael seemed to be in terminal decline, while the Labour party was deeply divided and inert. The unexpected happened in 1948 when Dillon, heading a loose federation of independents, played a leading role in establishing the first inter-party government under John A. Costello (qv). In spite of ideological differences Dillon had no difficulty in sharing cabinet with the Clann na Poblachta leader and former IRA chief of staff Seán MacBride (qv) – they had been to Mount St Benedict together and he was overjoyed to get the agriculture ministry.
As minister for agriculture Dillon was bold and energetic. Agriculture was the ministry he coveted, seeing it as the only serious engine for economic growth and viewing it as having been neglected through a combination of wartime shortages and mismanagement. His proposals for agriculture were based on the fundamental need to increase production at all levels in order to sustain and increase export earnings, which in turn would buy much-needed fertilisers and machinery. Within that framework his emphasis was on ensuring assured prices and guaranteed markets, improving the quality of livestock, providing better veterinary services, encouraging mechanisation and modernisation, and providing local leadership through committees of agriculture. He persuaded the government to invest substantial Marshall aid funds in agriculture – against strong opposition from the Department of Finance, which viewed Dillon as dangerously extravagant – and much of this funding was channelled into his ambitious land-reclamation project.
Dillon was a flamboyant and energetic minister. He used the most modern techniques of marketing to catch the attention of the farming community and to persuade them of the need for change. He even wrote some of the new-style advertisements himself, including a celebrated advertisement aimed at the poultry industry, subtitled ‘Gallina senescens delenda est’ (‘the aging hen must be destroyed’). The purpose of this advertisement in Latin was to catch he attention of the farming community, who would seek to have it explained to them by the teacher or the priest. And apparently this is what happened.
Dillon returned to opposition in 1951 as an independent, but in 1952 rejoined Fine Gael and once again became minister for agriculture when the second inter-party government was formed in 1954. He continued in the department where he had left off, and his principal contribution to this government was his advocacy of the ‘parish plan’ which he initiated in 1955. He contributed significantly to the ambitious plan for economic recovery then being put together by his cabinet colleague T. F. O'Higgins (qv) (1916–2003) in an attempt to tackle the crippling problems of economic stagnation and emigration. Dillon's contribution concentrated on the potential from agriculture, but the plan – which presaged many elements of the first programme for economic expansion – died with the breakup of the inter-party government in 1957.
Leader of Fine Gael Dillon was never again to hold office but continued in politics for another decade. He took over the leadership of Fine Gael in 1959, many felt more out of a sense of duty than hunger or ambition, and he held that position until 1965. He was the first party leader from outside the Sinn Féin tradition, a fact which worried some of his colleagues, and he was seen as too conservative on economic and social issues for reformers such as O'Higgins and Declan Costello. The party he inherited was not in a healthy state. It had been demoralised by the heavy losses in the 1957 election, and had few full-time politicians, poor organisation, and no backup or research facilities. More that that, many of its TDs were more concerned with holding their own seats than developing the national party, and Dillon had to accept a front bench elected by the parliamentary party rather than one appointed by himself. He was also hampered by the fact that the Labour party had decided on a ‘no coalition’ policy in 1960 – probably the single most significant factor in denying Dillon the possibility of becoming taoiseach. It was also a time of huge social change as Seán Lemass (qv) reversed his own decades-old policy of economic self-sufficiency and began to attract foreign investment and industry to Ireland and moved Ireland towards membership of the European Economic Community. Dillon had no fundamental problem with either of these moves but was less convincing and less persuasive than Lemass in their advocacy.
Dillon inherited a party in fractious mood, uncertain of its role, sluggish and lethargic in the performance of its duties. The six years of Dillon's leadership were characterised most of all by a struggle to control the future direction of the party. The party modernisers – O'Higgins, Costello, and, from the sidelines, Garret FitzGerald (qv) – wanted not just organisational change but for Fine Gael to embrace a broadly social democratic approach with a higher level of state involvement in the promotion and management of the economy and the augmenting of social services. Dillon in his own way was a moderniser and believer in efficiency; but he was suspicious of the ideology which he saw in these proposals, and for him the central issues of politics remained unchanging: individual liberty, the rule of law, the supremacy of parliament, and, in the words of his great hero Tom Kettle (qv), ‘tackling the forest of practical problems tree by tree’.
In the general election of October 1961 Dillon presented a moderately updated programme, but the absence of any electoral pact with Labour determined the outcome of the election. In the event Dillon did well, pushing the Fine Gael vote up by 50,000 and winning seven new seats, but all to no avail as Lemass had little difficulty in forming a minority government with the support of independents.
It was during the 1961–5 period that the battle for control of Fine Gael began in earnest. Dillon soon found himself holding the middle ground between the conservatives, led by Gerard Sweetman (qv), and the Costello wing. It was a long and at times bitter battle and matters were brought to a head after a series of Fianna Fáil by-election victories in 1964. Eventually, on the eve of the April 1965 general election Fine Gael officially adopted the Just society document propounded by Costello as its core policy. Dillon, as leader, accepted the verdict but try as he might, he was an unconvincing and unconvinced advocate of the new approach. The Just society, however, did catch the imagination, especially among younger voters, and was undoubtedly a seminal document as far as the development of Fine Gael under Garret FitzGerald was concerned. For the moment, however, doubts about Dillon's emotional and intellectual commitment to the new policy damaged his and its credibility. But even more damaging to the party's credibility as an alternative government was the Tullamore speech of Labour leader Brendan Corish (qv) in March 1965, in which he said that Labour would not enter any coalition – in spite of the many similarities between the Labour policy and that of Fine Gael. The election saw Fine Gael fight one of its best organised and most vigorous campaigns in decades, but all to no avail. Fine Gael was up a further 2 per cent in popular vote but gained no new seats. Seán Lemass returned, again without an overall majority; and shortly after his election Dillon, under no pressure, resigned as leader of Fine Gael.
Retirement and final years Dillon remained an active member of the dáil until the 1969 election, when after thirty-seven continuous years as a member of Dáil Éireann he stood down. In retirement Dillon became national president of the AOH, did some book reviewing, represented the diocese of Achonry on the National Council for the Apostolate of the Laity, and was increasingly irritated by the new generation of Vatican theologians: ‘. . . it seems to me that the theologians have taken it into their heads that it is their business to run the church and that the bishops are no longer to be trusted to discharge the duties of their office. I hope that the authorities of all Christian churches will remind the theologians that their sphere is research and discussion . . . government is a matter for the accepted authority of these churches’ (Manning, Dillon, 384).
As a politician James Dillon was distinctive and different. In a dáil of greys and drab he was always impeccably groomed, with a broad-brimmed black hat, his cigarette clasped in an elegant cigarette holder, his lower lip protruding. He moved in stately fashion, his bearing invested with gravitas. He was courteous and formal, austere in his eating and drinking habits, a devout traditional catholic, but suspicious of political bishops. He was extremely widely read in history, politics, philosophy, and medicine, was an avid cinema goer, and numbered among his close friends the writers Frank O'Connor (qv) and Sean O'Faolain (qv), and the renowned tenor Count John McCormack (qv).
He was the greatest orator of his time – perhaps the greatest orator ever in Dáil Éireann – but in all probability his sheer bravura obscured the intellectual and policy content of his speeches and conveyed the impression of a figure from an earlier age. He was a tough politician in an age of tough politics and revelled in the rough and tumble of political life. Most of all he was possessed of great moral courage which armoured him to stand alone, prepared to sacrifice his political career and reputation in defence of an unpopular and unpalatable principle. He died 10 February 1986 in Ballaghadereen.
He married (1942) Maura, daughter of John and Mary Phelan, who ran a drapery business in Clonmel. It was a whirlwind courtship – they were engaged four days after meeting and married six weeks later. It was a long and happy marriage. They had one son, John Blake Dillon (b. 1945). James Dillon's papers, including his unpublished ‘Memoir’ (1982), are in the library of TCD.