Lemass, Seán (1899–1971), revolutionary, politician, and taoiseach, was born 15 July 1899 in Norwood Cottage, Ballybrack, Co. Dublin (where his family were holidaying), second of seven children and second of four sons of John Timothy Lemass (d. 1947), a Dublin hatter, and Frances Lemass (née Phelan; d. 1961), daughter of a Kilkenny horticulturist who worked in Dublin's Botanic Gardens and managed a florist's shop in Wicklow St. Christened John Francis Lemass on 21 July, he was known as ‘Jack’ or ‘Jackie’ to his family and childhood friends throughout his life, despite changing his name to Seán in 1916. The family's home and shop was at 2–3 Capel St. in the commercial heart of Dublin and their political sympathies were nationalist: his paternal grandfather, a native of Armagh, was a Parnellite and one of the nationalist majority on Dublin city council which voted against a ‘loyal address’ to the prince of Wales on his 1885 visit to Dublin; his mother was ‘described affectionately as a “Fenian”’ (Horgan (1997), 6).
Early life He was educated by the Sisters of the Holy Faith at Haddington Road national school and (from 1908) by the Christian Brothers at the O'Connell Schools in North Richmond St., where he won a first-class honours exhibition valued at £15 in mathematical subjects in 1915. In January 1915 he and his elder brother Noel (qv) joined the Irish Volunteers, where he was appointed personal aide to the battalion adjutant, Éamon de Valera (qv). In January 1916, Lemass accidentally killed his two year old brother Herbert with a revolver shot in the family living room; the episode, subsequently erased from family memory, may well have contributed to Lemass's notable reluctance to talk about his revolutionary experiences. His participation in the 1916 rising when he fought in the GPO spelt the end of his formal education. Briefly imprisoned (he was released because of his youth), he forsook a commercial course at Rosse's College for part-time work as a Volunteer officer, which he combined with working in his father's shop. Unlike many Volunteers, he was in neither the Gaelic League nor Sinn Féin, but was among the members of the IRA's Dublin brigade who took part in the assassination of British intelligence officers on Bloody Sunday (21 November 1920); when asked about this period by the military service pensions board, he simply replied: 'I was in charge of the Company' (Irish Military Archives, WMSP 34, REF 2078). He went on the run as a full-time Volunteer thereafter. Arrested by British forces when visiting his home in December 1920, he was interned until the general amnesty of December 1921 in Ballykinlar, Co. Down, where the republicans’ commanding officer was Joseph McGrath (qv). Lemass read widely, especially on economics, during his internment, where his agnostic leanings provoked distrust among more pious prisoners. He neither went to mass nor took part in the daily recitation of the rosary, when, ‘standing a little apart, he would utter, like a liturgical response ...: “Oh God, if there is a God, save my soul, if I have a soul”’ (Horgan (1997), 20).
In opposition, 1922–32 Lemass did not immediately oppose the Anglo–Irish treaty of 6 December 1921 and was appointed training officer to what became the Garda Síochána; but he resigned when his first pay cheque was not issued by the dáil but by the newly established provisional government. Influenced, perhaps, by Oscar Traynor (qv), his commanding officer in the war of independence, he joined the anti-treaty forces which occupied the Four Courts and whose leader, Rory O'Connor (qv), made him adjutant; he was ‘notable for being extremely smartly dressed by any guerilla standards’ (Andrews (1979), 222). Captured on the surrender of the Four Courts garrison, he escaped and joined republican forces in Wicklow, becoming second-in-command of the eastern command of the IRA. He then became the Dublin brigade's director of intelligence but was recaptured in November 1922 and interned in the Curragh. He was released on compassionate grounds in October 1923 after the murder of his brother Noel, an event that underpinned his subsequent reluctance to discuss the civil war. ‘Terrible things were done by both sides’, he said in 1969; ‘I'd prefer not to talk about it’ (Horgan (1997), 28). Republican reaction to the horrific circumstances of his brother's murder prompted his election to the standing committee of Sinn Féin at the 1923 ard fheis, although there is no evidence of his having joined the party until February 1924 (ibid.). It may also have prompted his first nomination, without his knowledge, as a dáil candidate in the Dublin South by-election of March 1924; although then defeated, he won a second by-election in the same constituency in November 1924 and remained a public representative until 1969. His election entitled him to membership of Comhairle na dTeachtaí (a body created by de Valera, consisting of Sinn Féin members of the second dáil and of those who had been elected to, but who had refused to take their seats in, the post-treaty dáil). He assumed responsibility as Sinn Féin's electoral supremo in Dublin city and county in 1925 when he publicly attacked ‘the political influence of the catholic clergy ... That political power must be destroyed if our national victory is ever to be won’ (Lee (1989), 160–61). But his continuing connection with the IRA and role as successor to Frank Aiken (qv), from February 1925, as the notional republic's minister for defence, became even more meaningless when the IRA severed all ties with the dáil in November 1925. As the divisions within Sinn Féin on the wisdom of abstention from the dáil widened with the failure of the boundary commission in December 1925, Lemass was among those who favoured focusing on abolishing the oath of allegiance. A remarkable series of articles he wrote for An Phoblacht (Sinn Féin's newspaper) between September 1925 and January 1926, attacking the party's policies and structures, enhanced his prominence and ‘revealed at this very early stage of his political career some of his most enduring characteristics: a frankness bordering on brutality; a pragmatism unhampered by sentiment; a willingness to cut procedural corners and to take calculated risks; an attachment to decision and action; and a total absence of the fear of failure’ (Farrell (1983), 13).
These qualities were again evident when Sinn Féin split at the special ard fheis in March 1926 (with the defeat of de Valera's motion that republican membership of the dáil would become a matter of policy and not of principle if the oath of allegiance were removed); Lemass then played a key role in dissuading a disillusioned de Valera from retiring from public life, insisting that ‘we have to form a political party. We have to get into politics’ (Horgan (1997), 43). He also convened the meeting of the pro-de Valera members of the Sinn Féin standing committee which endorsed the establishment of a new party, but he failed to convince de Valera that it should be unambiguously called ‘The Republican Party’. The compromise when the new party was launched on 16 May 1926 (‘Fianna Fáil – the Republican Party’) was but the first of many marriages between de Valera's historicism and Lemass's pragmatism. Appointed joint honorary secretary, with Gerald Boland (qv), Lemass was the new party's preeminent organiser, criss-crossing the country in an old car and identifying republican leaders who could recruit local support; ‘he brought military methods into politics ... everything was in the nature of a disciplinary task which had to be done and not complained about’. But he increasingly became ‘the headquarters man’ and Boland ‘the field man’ as he realised ‘he couldn't deal with the rural mind: it was too lackadaisical’ (Horgan (1997), 45–6). Although Fianna Fáil was only a year old when it fought the general election of June 1927, its success in winning the same number of seats (forty-four) as a united Sinn Féin had won in 1923 testified to his electoral skills – he also headed the poll and was elected on the first count with a surplus of nearly 2,000 first preferences in Dublin South.
Lemass had a major role in negotiating the obstacle of abstention after the assassination of Kevin O'Higgins (qv), and he joined de Valera and the other Fianna Fáil deputies in declaring the oath an empty formula and taking their seats in the dáil on 12 August 1927, ensuring that the republican route to power thereafter was constitutional. Yet his attitude to physical force at times still seemed ambivalent, notably in his notorious dáil speech in March 1928 which described Fianna Fáil as ‘a slightly constitutional party’; he later put that speech in the context of persuading republicans still embittered by defeat ‘that political action would help them to achieve what they had not achieved during the civil war’ (Horgan (1997), 56–7). Fianna Fáil won fifty-seven seats at the second election in 1927 (when Lemass got another 1,500 votes and almost two quotas) and from then until they won power in 1932 he was national party organiser: ‘he “had not seen Dublin on a Sunday for three years”’, a time he regarded as the most exhausting of his career. His family saw little of him and his wife recalled how ‘from the day he entered the dáil, a suitcase had to be ready, Seán was forever trotting around the country trying to build up the Fianna Fáil organisation and during by-elections he hardly slept at all ... He used to breakfast in bed at 8.00 a.m. and carefully read all the morning newspapers. By 9.30 a.m. he was in his office ... Sometimes dáil business could keep him away until after midnight. There were at least five or six functions a week which he felt we had to attend ... Even when we used to take a house in Skerries for the summer months, Seán never joined us until night time and even then he usually carried a briefcase full of business ... He would say to me “Kathleen, you will have to cope with the home. I have to cope with the country”’ (Farrell (1983), 21, 46–7).
He was also party whip, and his efforts to fashion a disciplined parliamentary party entailed such draconian decisions as demanding medical certificates from those who missed dáil votes, and vainly declaring the bar in Leinster House ‘out of bounds’. Yet he spoke in the dáil more frequently (it was said he made six speeches for every one by de Valera), more trenchantly, and more diversely than any of his party colleagues, ‘establishing himself as virtually the only person, apart from de Valera himself, entitled to speak with full authority on economic matters’. He was chairman of the parliamentary party's industry and commerce committee, and in 1929 submitted a remarkable thirty-page memorandum on economic policy which exposed the tension between his intellectual and party political instincts. Intellectually, he was attracted by the free trading imperatives of the ‘United States of Europe’ proposal just submitted to the League of Nations by Aristide Briand, minister for foreign affairs and formerly prime minister of France. But, politically, he thought it was only in ‘the far future [that] the spirit of nationality would die out’; in the meantime ‘protection of industries is identical with the struggle for the preservation of our nation’ (Horgan (1997), 49–52).
In government, 1932–48 Although his own preference was for the Finance portfolio which went to Seán MacEntee (qv), Lemass's appointment as minister for industry and commerce – and the youngest member of de Valera's first cabinet – seemed inevitable. His ministerial effectiveness was enhanced by his appointment of John Leydon (qv) as his departmental secretary. Leydon, one of the ablest senior Finance officials, had originally been offered the job by W. T. Cosgrave (qv) just after the 1932 election but declined on the grounds that the new government might not look favourably on his appointment; when Lemass renewed the offer, Leydon pointed out that he did not agree with all his policy statements, and accepted only when Lemass ‘replied that he was not looking for a “yes-man”’ (Fanning (1978), 258). The minister–secretary partnership thus forged was among the most formidable and enduring in the history of the state, and a vital component of Lemass's success in the next sixteen years. Leydon was wise in the ways of Finance, for his were the skills of ‘the gamekeeper turned poacher’. The Lemass–Leydon partnership frequently refused to back down when their policies were opposed by Finance, and sought a decision by the government; although they did not habitually get their way, the cumulative effect of their persistence weakened Finance's hitherto near-absolute control of financial and economic policy (ibid.).
The Control of Manufactures Acts of 1932 and 1934 were at the heart of Lemass's economic policy, and granted licences only to firms making products not already made in Ireland; this he saw as ‘the barest minimum’ for a government committed to a policy of protection. But his cabinet colleagues did not share his appetite for sweeping measures of state intervention. Another example of his readiness to seek drastic solutions and advance unpalatable opinions was a memorandum to de Valera in November 1932 which he himself admitted was ‘revolutionary in character’, urging the postponement of the economic war with Britain until better equipped to fight it. It argued that the country was ‘facing a crisis as grave as that of 1847’ – the most catastrophic year of the great famine – and envisaged ‘a collapse of our economic system ... [and] famine conditions for a large number of our people’. His remedies, requiring ‘dictatorial powers for their execution’, included reducing agricultural production to the point required to feed the state's population plus such exports as would be profitable, ‘the taking off the land of all persons not required’ for this policy and employing all the unemployed (100,000) on public works ‘pending their absorption in industry’ (Fanning (1983), 145–6). His response to criticisms in 1935 that he was doing little to promote industry in the Gaeltacht was just as blunt and brutal: ‘a coordinated plan to reduce population congestion and induce young people to migrate through special training and school schemes, labour camps and special Gaeltacht recruitment into industry, the army and gardaí’ (Farrell (1983), 44). But while de Valera gave Lemass ‘a large degree of autonomy ... confidence and support ... the outlook of the two men on economic and social matters was not identical. De Valera's ideal of a society content with frugal comfort was not one to appeal with any great attraction to the urban mind of Mr Lemass’ (Longford & O'Neill, 329). Another measure of state interventionism in 1935–6 was his proposal to establish a large-scale oil refinery, which only won cabinet approval after the war had begun, and when crude oil had become virtually unobtainable. But Lemass launched a host of other state-sponsored enterprises in the 1930s and was forever identified with their success: the Industrial Credit Company (essentially a state merchant bank), the Turf Development Board (established in 1934 and which became Bord na Móna in 1946), the Irish Sugar Company (which was producing four-fifths of domestic requirements by 1938), the Irish Life Assurance Board, the Irish Tourist Board, Aer Lingus and Aer Rianta – he had a passion for air travel and aeroplanes, and setting up Aer Lingus was the decision for which he most hoped to be remembered because it ‘best symbolised for him Ireland's ability to break free of its island restrictions and create meaningful links with the world outside’ (Horgan (1997), 89).
Labour relations also fell within Lemass's ministerial remit, and he was responsible for progressive legislation in such areas as unemployment assistance, children's allowances, and industrial relations (the Conditions of Employment Act, 1936, and the 1939 law stipulating that all workers get a week's paid holiday); in June 1937 he became president of the International Labour Organisation and was in Geneva when de Valera called a general election to coincide with the referendum on the new constitution, in the drafting of which Lemass had minimal involvement. Nor was he privy to the nuances of de Valera's conduct of Anglo–Irish relations, although he was a member of the delegation that negotiated the agreements of April 1938 which ended the economic war, when his preoccupation was with the trade agreement that guaranteed virtually free entry to the British market for Irish industrial as well as agricultural products, while upholding the Irish right to retain protective tariffs. In essence, it was ‘a one-way free trade agreement in Ireland's favour’ (Farrell (1983), 47), but its importance paled into insignificance when set against the defence agreement under which the British handed over the treaty ports, thus enabling Ireland to remain neutral in the coming war.
The outbreak of war prompted the first major ministerial reshuffle since 1932. Lemass emerged as the biggest winner when, accompanied by Leydon as departmental secretary, he took over the newly established Department of Supplies, the heart of which was an emergency supplies branch established in anticipation of war in Industry and Commerce in September 1938; Seán MacEntee, his ministerial bugbear, was effectively demoted by translation from Finance to the thus truncated Industry and Commerce. Supplies, de Valera told the dáil on September 1939, was the ‘central planning department for our economic life’ and Lemass controlled the supply and distribution of agricultural and manufactured products – in effect, coordinating and directing the activities of the departments of agriculture and of industry and commerce, and sometimes usurping the previous prerogatives of the Department of Finance (Fanning (1978), 312). In June 1940 the government assigned his department control of the price and of the export and import of all commodities as well as the ‘regulation of the treatment, keeping, movement, distribution, sale, purchase, use and consumption of articles of all kinds’. In another mini-reshuffle in August 1941 Lemass added his old Industry and Commerce portfolio to his portfolio for Supplies. By 1943, the year he legislated to introduce children's allowances, made more than 600 orders under the emergency powers act, and gave six separate radio broadcasts on the supply situation, he had assumed the status of an economic supremo responsible for feeding, fuelling, and clothing the nation (Fanning (1983), 148; Farrell (1983), 56). Although wartime offered other openings for his dirigiste instincts, his initiative in June 1942, when he urged de Valera to establish a department of labour to prepare postwar plans for control of the work force and envisaged possible restrictions on freedom of movement and the power of trade unions, was kicked into touch, remitted to a cabinet committee on economic planning, which became a committee of the whole cabinet in April 1945. The publication of the British white paper on full employment in 1944 triggered another spate of abortive proposals from Lemass, ranging from compulsory consolidation of unproductive smallholdings to an attack on the rigidity of annually balanced budgets, to trade union reorganisation. But his cabinet colleagues did not share his sense of urgency on the need for sweeping changes in the interests of national economic efficiency in the postwar world, and when MacEntee was again moved out of Finance in 1945 when Seán T. O'Kelly (qv) became president and Lemass succeeded him as tánaiste, the plum Finance portfolio fell to Frank Aiken. A more successful Lemass initiative was the industrial relations act of 1946, which set up the labour court to provide a statutory framework for pay talks after the abolition of statutory wage control. The end of the war made for a more congenial climate for critics of the government and for the establishment of three tribunals to explore allegations of corruption in the management of a Monaghan bacon factory, in the sale of Locke's distillery in Kilbeggan, and in charges of stock exchange manipulation of railway shares. The last two fell within the ministerial remit of Lemass, and although he and other ministers were exonerated of all imputations of corruption, then and later he was suspected of cronyism by some opponents.
Postwar turbulence spawned two new political parties, Clann na Poblachta and Clann na Talmhan. Although Fianna Fáil won the same percentage of the vote and one more seat in the 1948 election than they had won in 1943, a new-found determination among the opposition parties to put them out produced the first change of government in sixteen years.
In waiting, 1948–1959 Seán Lemass took badly to the loss of power. Too angry to do as other ministers and feign unconcern at the dáil vote that put them out of office, his voice shook with rage and his face contorted with disappointment as he ‘shouted across the floor’. What triggered such atypical loss of urbanity? Partly, perhaps, sheer disappointment at such unexpected loss of power on the part of the minister accustomed since the war to the largest exercise of power, compounded by frustration at his inability to implement such items on his postwar agenda as the prices and industrial efficiency bill, 1947, ‘a legislative statement of his determination to compel industry where he could not cajole it’ (Horgan (1997), 133–4). ‘Lemass was at his most irritable – and most inconsistent – when he was thrust into opposition and had to watch others attempting what he wanted to achieve’ (Dick Walsh, 68). He may well have shared the emotions voiced by a British prime ministerial heir apparent, H. H. Asquith, some fifty years before: ‘that of all human troubles the most hateful is to feel that you have the capacity of power and yet you have no field to exercise it ... the chilly, paralysing, deadening depression of hope deferred and energy wasted and vitality run to seed’ (Roy Jenkins, Asquith (1964), 67). He also had family anxieties: a 14-year old daughter, undergoing costly hospital treatment for tuberculosis, exacerbated the financial pressures on a full-time politician with three other dependent children and no income other than his salary as a dáil deputy; friends in Skerries remembered his wife's difficulties in promptly paying household bills. But his financial problems were eased by a bank overdraft of £1,000 and his appointment as managing director of the Irish Press (1948–51) – he presided over the launch of the Sunday Press in 1949. But his family saw more of him in opposition. Having first moved from rented accommodation, from Terenure to Rathgar to Dundrum, in 1938 they had bought the Lemass family home at 53 Palmerston Road, and its relative proximity to Kildare St. sometimes allowed him to return for lunch; a friend of his daughters recalls him whistling cheerily to signal his return.
Although de Valera's prolonged absences on his anti-partition campaign abroad cast Lemass in the role of leader of the opposition, he was paralysed by an inability to do anything that might be seen as usurping the Chief's authority in a parliamentary party peevish at the loss of power. He was also inhibited by party criticism when he reacted to the inter-party government's repeal of the external relations act by publicly regretting that the act had not already been repealed by the Fianna Fáil government – another instance of his impatience with de Valera's subtle ambiguities. The stiffening party line on partition after the emergence of Clann na Poblachta coloured his own occasional references to partition, but ‘he was criticised at the 1951 ard fheis for the supposed crime of fraternising with northern ministers’ (Horgan (1997), 142). Although effective in exchanges with ministers across the floor of the dáil, he sometimes took refuge in spasms of opposition for the sake of opposition, most notably in his knee-jerk resistance in 1949–50 to the establishment of the Industrial Development Authority (IDA) which he seems to have initially envisaged as undermining his bastion in the Department of Industry and Commerce; ‘it also reflected the broader Fianna Fáil concern to undermine the nationalist credentials of the inter-party government in the economic field as on the partition question’ (Patterson, 105).
Nor did Lemass make much impact in the Fianna Fáil minority government of 1951–4. ‘Am I mad to be ... going back to the hassle, low pay, long hours’, he afterwards reflected. ‘It was not our most successful period in office ... we felt hamstrung by the insecure position in the dáil and we had not really got down to clearing our minds on postwar development’ (Horgan (1997), 149–50). He failed to dissuade de Valera from reappointing the innately conservative Seán MacEntee as minister for finance, and it was MacEntee who called the tune for a government critical of the coalition's inflationary policies and determined to reaffirm their own reputation for financial rectitude in the hair-shirt budget of 1952. The failing sight of de Valera and his consequent absence in the Netherlands for over four months in 1951 made for further inertia, as did Lemass's own ill health in 1952, when a gall-bladder operation necessitated Aiken's deputising for him as minister for industry and commerce. Lemass's room for initiative was thus constricted by his own lack of energy, by the political climate, and by the deepening recession and the sterling-area and balance-of-payment crises. Yet 1951–4 saw him ‘gingerly’ relaxing his opposition to non-Irish ownership of industry, and encouraging exports while seeking to deflect anglophobic criticism by stressing that non-Irish capital did not mean English capital; his backing ‘for an export-driven industrial policy became positive and not merely hortatory’ with his formal opening of the American and Canadian offices of Córas Tráchtála in 1953.
The shock of another term in opposition after defeat in the 1954 election triggered Lemass's appointment as Fianna Fáil's director of organisation, and he hand-picked a committee whose membership included some of the next generation of Fianna Fáil ministers – Kevin Boland (qv), Charles Haughey (1925–2006), and Brian Lenihan (qv). But, as in the late 1920s, it was Lemass who was the driving force for root-and-branch reforms which laid the foundations for the electoral success of the next decade. By 1957 he was writing privately of ‘attracting into this country large external firms to establish export facilities here, and frame our tax and other laws to encourage and facilitate this result’. Lemass was also making the running on Northern Ireland policy in his capacity as the chairman of the party's standing committee on anti-partition policy, and in April 1955 had sent de Valera its draft report which urged the strengthening of ‘all links with the Six County majority’, giving them ‘assurances as to their political and religious rights in a United Ireland ... and as to the maintenance of local autonomy’. De Valera's response was immediate and negative: he feared the report would provoke ‘very serious controversy’ and upset northern nationalists. But, although the report was shelved, it marks the beginning of Lemass's abandonment of traditional anti-partitionism: henceforth he dwelt less on the evils of partition and more on the economic benefits of unity. He also intervened decisively at a stormy meeting of the parliamentary party in January 1957 against the backdrop of the IRA's border campaign and the massive funeral of Seán South (qv) when he erupted emotionally at the suggestion that peaceful methods had failed, arguing that ‘they had not been tried. Every time there was the prospect of some advance in north–south relations, the IRA surfaced to blow it out of the water’ (Horgan (1997), 152, 156, 168, 170–73).
‘I don't fully understand where Lemass wishes us to go’, de Valera is supposed to have said about this time (Fanning (1983), 194) but on 11 October 1955, in a much publicised speech on full employment to the party faithful in Clery's ballroom, Lemass charted the way ahead. Circulated in advance as a memorandum to the parliamentary party and promoted in that morning's Irish Press as initiating ‘a comprehensive programme for the development of the country's resources’ (a special supplement next day published the full text), the speech sought ‘to cut through the complacency with which his party contemplated inevitable electoral victory and force them to consider a new approach’ (Farrell (1983), 94–5). The ensuing party debate mirrored the debate then taking place in government that culminated in the publication of Economic development in 1958 and reinforced Lemass's position as de Valera's likeliest successor.
That status had been affirmed by his blocking MacEntee's reappointment as minister for finance after the 1957 election, when Fianna Fáil achieved their first effective working majority since 1944, and which heralded another sixteen years in government; the key portfolio went instead to James Ryan (qv), long one of Lemass's closest friends in the party. It was Ryan to whom T. K. Whitaker, the new and dynamic secretary of the Department of Finance, delivered in December 1957 ‘Has Ireland a future?’, the catechism that laid the foundations for his revolutionary analysis in Economic development, but it was Lemass who chaired the government sub-committee that prepared the Programme for economic expansion (the white paper published on 11 November 1958 in advance of Whitaker's survey) and who had earlier unveiled what was in effect the government's five-year plan to the Fianna Fáil ard fheis, and his own final abandonment of protection.
By now Lemass had become privately frustrated with waiting to clamber to the top of the greasy pole – Seán MacEntee's wife was the recipient of one ‘tirade ... against Dev’, a product of his ‘sense of living in a no-man's land between loyalty and impatience’. Publicly he presented a serene façade when de Valera's decision to retire as taoiseach in mid January 1959 was not implemented until his election as president of Ireland six months later. The delay copper-fastened Lemass's succession. ‘Dev set it up for Lemass’, said Charles Haughey. ‘He made him tánaiste, neutralised opposition. I'm sure he talked to the old guard as well’ (Horgan (1997), 180–84). On 22 June Seán Lemass was unanimously elected leader of Fianna Fáil; that he was proposed and seconded by two cabinet colleagues with whom he had a history of disagreements (Seán MacEntee and Frank Aiken) testified to the strength of that unanimity.
Taoiseach, 1959–66 Seán Lemass was 60 when he was elected taoiseach by Dáil Éireann, of which he had been a member for more than thirty years, and where he had served as a minister for more than twenty. Such a long wait in the wings has masked the reality that, in other ways, he was an exceptionally lucky taoiseach. Lucky in the circumstances of his uncontested succession: that he was seventeen years younger than de Valera and far younger than the other veterans of 1916 in de Valera's cabinet (Garvin, 26). Lucky that the gradual passing of the old guard gave him the chance to appoint an energetic and forward-looking generation of ministers untrammelled by the baggage of a revolutionary past. Lucky that the economic climate, both nationally and internationally, was better than that experienced by any government since the foundation of the state: lucky that the radical change of national aspirations represented by the publication of Economic development had been accomplished before he became taoiseach; lucky that the consequent First programme for economic expansion was so successful; lucky in the buoyancy of international trade and the catalytic effect on the Irish economy of the expanding British growth-rate. Lucky that ‘the emergence of the EEC and of EFTA enabled him to plead the pressures of international reality as a justification for adapting domestic policy to changed circumstances’ and that the widening ‘gap in living standards between north and south’ enabled him to present ‘economic growth as an essential step on the road to unification’ (Lee (1976)). Lucky in the opportunities offered by Terence O'Neill (qv) succeeding Lord Brookeborough (qv) as prime minister in Northern Ireland, and in the British goverrnment's application for membership of the EEC. Lucky that his tenure as taoiseach coincided with T. K. Whitaker's secretaryship of the Department of Finance, with the US presidency of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and with the papacy of John XXIII and the second Vatican council. Lucky in the liberating social impact of Telefís Éireann (which began transmission on 31 December 1961). Lucky, in sum, that he achieved power when the national and international mood was optimistic and when the times were indeed a-changing. But, as befitted a perennial poker player, Seán Lemass knew how to ride his luck, and he made the most of the opportunities it offered.
The abrasive vein in his early speeches as taoiseach evoked both his own impatience and the changing national mood. ‘The men and women of today are in no mood to harken to Jeremiahs’, he told one party gathering, and he warned the dáil against the Irish ‘disposition to be sorry for ourselves. I personally hold the philosophy, which I think applies to nations as well as to individuals, that once you start getting sorry for yourself, you are finished’. He inveighed against pessimism and urged the virtues of a revived patriotism directed towards constructive purposes – a patriotism he described as ‘a combination of love of country, pride in its history, traditions, and culture, and a determination to add to its prestige and achievements’ (Farrell (1983), 98–9). Although he did not so describe it, it was his own latter-day reworking of the Sinn Féin doctrine of self-reliance.
Lemass made no significant changes in the cabinet he inherited from de Valera, other than promoting Jack Lynch (qv) to his old job as minister for industry and commerce and plucking Patrick Hillery (1923–2008) from the backbenches to fill the consequential vacancy as minister for education. Nor did he make major ministerial changes after the 1961 election, when, in their first election without de Valera, Fianna Fáil lost their overall majority: the three big beasts stayed in their lairs – Ryan in Finance, MacEntee in Health and as tánaiste, and Aiken in External Affairs. He found it almost impossible to break the bad news to MacEntee, then aged 76, that he was dropping him from the cabinet in 1965 when Ryan also retired. He was ‘always reluctant to contemplate change’, he later acknowledged, ‘because you get in the habit of working with the same set of people, you know to handle them, you know how to get results out of them’. Nor did he engineer the most noteworthy ministerial departure – of Paddy Smith (qv) from Agriculture. The prickly Smith ‘shared a common rural suspicion of Lemass’ and had spearheaded opposition within the cabinet in 1962 to a proposal for tariff concessions to Northern Ireland. Then during the campaign for two critical by-elections early in 1964 Smith took exception to Lemass's intervention in the wage agreement negotiations between the ICTU and the FUE that resulted in the acceptance of his suggestion of a 12 per cent wage rise – a breach in the wages standstill stipulation in the government's white paper of 1963 that exceeded the employers’ offer by 50 per cent. It was the last straw for Smith, who believed Lemass was ‘paying too much attention to the trade unions and not enough to the farmers’ (Dick Walsh, 74), although he did not finally quit until October 1964 after another such intervention designed to settle a building strike, so achieving the distinction of becoming the first cabinet minister ever to resign from a Fianna Fáil government on an issue of principle. Lemass responded decisively: after consulting Ryan and MacEntee, he seized the next day's headlines and minimised the impact of Smith's resignation by immediately moving his son-in-law, the quintessentially urban Charles Haughey, from Justice into Agriculture. The episode well illustrates both Lemass's interventionist instincts in the economy (albeit at the cost of a grotesquely inflationary wage settlement) and the ruthlessness with which he protected his authority when challenged. The plus side of his championship of cooperation between unions and employers since the 1940s was the emergence (1963) of the National Industrial Economic Council and the negotiation of the 1964 national wage agreement, which he hailed as marking ‘the passing of the old class-war conception of society and the emergence of a new and much more intelligent partnership idea’, an embryo of the social partnership established in 1987 (Mansergh, 334). The First and second programmes for economic expansion were likewise prompted by ‘Lemass's search for a development project based on class collaboration rather than on conflict... [and left] a lasting imprint on public policy’ (Patterson, 153).
But ministerial changes were less significant than the change of style that reflected a dramatic acceleration in the pace of government decision-making. The shape of the cabinet table was changed from rectangular to oval so that Lemass could see ‘who was saying no’ (Horgan (1997), 196). Cabinet meetings no longer dragged on for hours because, unlike de Valera, who always sought unanimity, Lemass was an impatient chairman who liked meetings to start and finish on time, who forced quick decisions at the cost of comprehensive debate, and who did not shrink from forcing votes, either at cabinet or at party meetings; he took pride in presiding ‘over a government in which there were plenty of arguments’. He was also ‘adept at resolving inter-departmental and inter-ministerial disputes before formal cabinets and was sufficiently senior and dominant to secure his own way on all major decisions’ (Farrell (1983), 107–8). His dominance was reflected in his sobriquet as taoiseach: ‘the Boss’, while it signalled respect and obedience, evoked none of the warmth cloaking the description of de Valera as ‘the Chief’. His authoritarian streak occasionally surfaced in his dealings with RTÉ: in the speech he drafted for his minister for posts and telegraphs, Michael Hilliard (qv), to deliver at the opening of the television service, for example, when he warned against ‘the pretext of objectivity’ being used ‘to excuse the undue representation’ of governmental faults. RTÉ's coverage of the government's dispute with the farmers in 1966 prompted his most notorious intervention when he told the dáil that ‘Radio Telefís Éireann was set up by legislation as an instrument of public policy and as such is responsible to the government’ (Horgan (2004), 28, 40–42).
Sometimes government decisions were made ‘on the nod’ (Farrell (1971), 71) with inadequate evaluation of the issues involved. A classic example in 1961 was the extravagant and Lemass-driven government subsidy for the hapless aircraft-manufacturing project of Henri Potez in the teeth of opposition from the Department of Finance. That Lemass made no secret of his disdain for certain cabinet colleagues – that he ‘regarded Aiken as a fool’ and Erskine Childers (qv), whom he twice demoted to more junior ministries, ‘as a “landlord's man” who had “no time for the peasants, for the small farmers”’ (Horgan (1993), 193, 197) – inspired an imitative but more venomous contempt among younger ministers, particularly Charles Haughey. The upshot was the collapse of the solidarity that had characterised de Valera's cabinets. Todd Andrews (qv), although very friendly with some of de Valera's ministers, all of whom he had known personally, remarked that he ‘never heard one of them make an adverse comment on their colleagues ... They didn't all love one another as brothers but they acted, as far as outsiders were concerned, as if they did. They were tied by a personal bond of loyalty, shared experience, and personal affection for Dev. No such considerations pervaded the successive cabinets of Seán Lemass. Snide remarks about one another were common enough. Accounts of cabinet proceedings were leaked and often discussed with outsiders ... there was always personal tension in his cabinet which finally crystallised in the contest for the succession’ (Andrews (1982), 250).
Yet Lemass's encouragement of competition among the younger ministers he brought into the cabinet – Hillery (1959), Haughey (1961), Brian Lenihan (qv) (1964), Donogh O'Malley (qv) (1965), and George Colley (qv) (1965) – galvanised their energies and created a climate in government conducive to the abandonment of shibboleths and to a multiplicity of new departures which Lemass invariably supported. Lenihan's relaxation of the censorship laws was a case in point. But although Lemass's own instincts were liberal, he shrank from confrontation with the catholic church. When he drew Lenihan's attention to the second Vatican council's decree on religious liberty and asked him to consult informally with members of the hierarchy about whether it would allow divorce and remarriage for citizens whose religion permitted it, he did not persist when Lenihan got a frosty response from Archbishop's House to the mere suggestion that he might meet Archbishop McQuaid (qv). Lemass likewise allowed McQuaid to veto a book-sharing proposal with Trinity College emanating from R. J. Hayes (qv), director of the National Library.
Lemass's role in the promotion of the educational expansion programme that was to transform Irish society was especially significant; he told the dáil in October 1959 that his government aimed at educating all children until they were at least 15. ‘Expansion would not have happened except for Lemass’, according to Patrick Hillery, the minister for education who set up the commission to inquire into higher education which produced the seminal report Investment in education (1965); by then Hillery had already extended post-primary and university scholarships and had also announced plans for comprehensive secondary schools and regional technical colleges. ‘It is in the growth and improvement of our education system that the foundations of our future prosperity must be firmly based’, declared Lemass in 1962; and such sentiments duly found expression in the Second programme for economic expansion in 1963. In 1965 he likewise supported the proposals of his next minister for education, George Colley, for the amalgamation of primary schools notwithstanding clerical opposition. So, too, with the dramatic announcement by his last minister for education, Donogh O'Malley, in September 1966 that the state would introduce free post-primary education. Although Lemass rebuked the impetuous O'Malley for making the announcement without having formally consulted the government, that he did not oppose the concept of free post-primary education in principle paved the way for the greatest educational revolution in the history of the state (John Walsh, 146–65).
The most significant shifts in policy personally directed by Lemass related to Northern Ireland and to Europe. His 1959 admission to the British ambassador – that the Irish government had made many mistakes in relation to the north – marked the first step on a new path, and he was contemptuous of Northern Ireland's abstentionist nationalist politicians, whom he derided as ‘old women’. The IRA's border campaign had ebbed before he became taoiseach, and his government approved a general amnesty for the remaining IRA prisoners within weeks of their ceasefire in 1962. Although Lemass responded to subsequent spasms of IRA activity such as the firing of rifle shots at two British naval vessels, departing after courtesy visits, by discreetly discouraging such visits as counter-productive, his response to IRA-inspired rioting after Princess Margaret's visit in January 1965 was public and caustic: nothing ‘would mark more strikingly the great changes of our times or the strengthening of our republican self-respect than to see a member of the British royal family coming to Ireland on a private visit, travelling freely around Ireland, without anybody paying any special attention’.
This was the time of Lemass's most dramatic northern initiative, when he met Northern Ireland's reformist prime minister, Terence O'Neill (qv), first in Belfast and then in Dublin on 14 January and 9 February 1965. Never before had the head of government in independent Ireland had official talks with his Northern Ireland counterpart on Irish soil, but Lemass had always been sceptical of a northern policy based on parroting anti-partition pieties. Here as elsewhere, he preferred realities to aspirations and dealt with Northern Ireland as it was, not with what he hoped it might become. The first meeting was organised secretly by T. K. Whitaker (a northerner by birth) and O'Neill's private secretary; although Lemass consulted Aiken in advance, he said nothing to his other ministers until the night of 8 February. His initiative seemed to bear immediate fruit when the nationalist party accepted the role of official parliamentary opposition on 2 February, but the thaw in north–south relations and increased cross-border cooperation on mutually agreed economic issues was damaged by the recrudescence of intercommunal tensions in the north that accompanied the 1966 celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary of the 1916 rising. Lemass, moreover, moved warily in shedding the relics of de Valera's Ireland. Although O'Neill had publicly hailed his willingness ‘to come to Stormont as a kind of recognition [of Northern Ireland]’ and had urged that the Irish government use and promote ‘the terms Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland government instead of Six Counties and the Six County government in all publicity, including radio and television’, Lemass shrank from upsetting the traditional sensitivities of Frank Aiken, whom he never felt strong enough to depose as minister for external affairs. Thus in March 1966, when his minister for finance, Jack Lynch, urged the use of the term ‘Northern Ireland’, Lemass played safe, disingenuously suggesting that, while it was preferable to use the term ‘Northern Ireland’, the term still used by the Department of External Affairs, ‘The six counties of Northern Ireland’, was not ‘one to which I think great exception would be taken in the north-east’, O'Neill's complaints on this very point notwithstanding; ‘if the minister for external affairs thinks it important to adhere to it, it could be adopted. I have no strong views either way.’
Lemass's European new departure was more fruitful and less inhibited. Unlike any former head of government, his predominant interest was economic policy; the zeal of his belated conversion to free trade and his personal direction of the quest for EEC membership ensured that economic interdependence became the motor driving Irish foreign policy. His government's publication of a white paper about the EEC was immediately followed in July 1961 by exploratory talks with the British government, after which Lemass baldly announced that ‘if Britain decides to apply for membership we will apply too’. The first Irish Gallup poll showed a 76 per cent approval rating for membership of the EEC, and the Irish application was duly submitted on 1 August. The decision to apply for full membership of the EEC exposed the idealist/realist tension between neutrality as an affirmation of independence and European integration as an expression of interdependence. Lemass, always impatient with the pieties of neutrality – he once complained to T. K. Whitaker that the linkage between partition and neutrality had never been discussed by de Valera's cabinet – instructed an interdepartmental working party, chaired by Whitaker, to reconcile the continued Irish refusal to join NATO with Irish commitment to European integration. The hurried presentation at a Saturday morning meeting in the week before Christmas 1961 of the formula dragged out of a procrastinating Iveagh House – that non-participation in NATO arose from the aspiration for a united Ireland and was ‘thus not an expression of any principle of neutrality, nor does it weaken in any way our positive attitude towards the ideal of European unity’ – reflected the frenetic pace with which Lemass drove forward the process. Buoyed up by his success in the election of October 1961, he then secured his party flank at the ard fheis in January 1962, which adopted a motion expressing ‘approval of the manner in which the government is handling the negotiations for Ireland's entry into the EEC and on its approach to international affairs in general’. National aims, he told the ard fheis, must henceforth ‘conform to the emergence, in a political as well as in an economic sense, of a union of Western European states, not as a vague prospect of the distant future but as a living reality of our own times’. Two days later, on 18 January, he unequivocally advised the EEC's council of ministers that, ‘while Ireland did not accede to the North Atlantic treaty, we have always agreed with [its] general aims’. He spelt out the same message in a tour of European capitals and went even further in a New York Times interview in July, declaring that ‘a military commitment will be an inevitable consequence of our joining the common market and ultimately we would be prepared to yield even the technical label of neutrality. We are prepared to go into this integrated Europe without any reservation as to how far this will take us in the field of foreign policy and defence.’ His vision of interdependence also had an Atlanticist dimension, not least in his ambition to persuade American companies to invest in Ireland, and he practised what he preached during the October 1962 Cuban missile crisis when, as the CIA advised President Kennedy on the eve of his Irish visit in 1963, ‘the Irish were most cooperative with the United States government and searched all [Soviet] Bloc air traffic transiting Shannon’. Such was the Irish public's adulation for Kennedy, moreover, that any perceived difference would have lost votes; the readiness of the Irish delegation at the UN in the late 1950s to incur American displeasure dissipated and they never challenged ‘anything ... that the Kennedy administration did’ (Fanning (2000), 324–5; Horgan (1997), 199, 220–23).
The abortion of Ireland's EEC application, consequent upon de Gaulle's veto of the British application in January 1963, does not detract from the significance of the tectonic shift towards Europe in Irish foreign policy, masterminded by Lemass in 1961–2. Although he was dead before Ireland finally entered Europe in 1973, his decisive leadership ten years before laid unshakable foundations for a broadly based and unwavering national commitment to the European ideal. The equanimity with which he accepted the economic interdependence between Ireland and Britain, inherent in the coordination of policy towards the EEC, found further expression in the progressive dismantling of tariff barriers culminating in the Anglo–Irish Free Trade Area agreement of December 1965. The presence of Lemass at London negotiations, when the British team was led not by the prime minister but by the British secretary for trade and industry, showed his appetite for leadership and his indifference to protocol, as well as his dominance of the other Irish ministerial negotiators Ryan and Aiken (neither of whom is recorded as having spoken for two days except to ask one question apiece).
Although Lemass was again returned to power at the election of April 1965, fought on the slogan of ‘Let Lemass lead on’, his health was by now deteriorating under the impact of smoking a pound of strong pipe tobacco a week; but he claimed that it was for political rather than health reasons that he decided to make way for a younger man well in advance of the next election. On 8 November 1966, against the backdrop of NFA protest marches and the controversy surrounding Donogh O'Malley's promise to provide free post-primary education, he announced his intention to resign as taoiseach. At the meeting of the parliamentary party that elected Jack Lynch as his successor, Seán MacEntee denounced his ‘astonishing and unjustifiable’ decision ‘to leave at this juncture in our affairs ... he could not have chosen a worse time to do so’. Another critic, Todd Andrews, writing seventeen years later with the benefit of hindsight, was more explicit: ‘he made no effort to provide for the succession, as prudence and commonsense would have demanded. The result has been years of dissension and near ruin for the Fianna Fáil party’ (Horgan (1997), 337, 333).
Apart from participating in the all-party committee on the constitution he himself had established in 1965 and which reported in 1967, Lemass played no further part in politics and retired from the dáil in 1969. When Jack Lynch came to his home to seek advice during the arms crisis of 1970 in which his son-in-law was enmeshed, his response was terse and predictable: ‘I can't help you. You are the taoiseach’.
His honours included a papal decoration (1948), the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany (1962), and a clutch of honorary doctorates. He also held a number of directorships in retirement to provide financial security for his wife, Kathleen. Lemass was admitted to Dublin's Mater Hospital in February 1971, where he died of pyopneumothorax (collapse of the lungs) on 11 May 1971. He rejected the pomp and militaristic ceremonial of interment in the republican plot at Glasnevin and was instead buried 14 May in Deansgrange cemetery, showing in death that same disdain for ostentation that had so characterised his life.
Seán Lemass married (24 August 1924) Kathleen, a daughter of Thomas Hughes, a buyer in Arnott's, a Dublin department store, whom he had met when their families rented holiday homes in Skerries; his best man was Jimmy O'Dea (qv), school friend, Capel St. neighbour, and collaborator in amateur theatricals long before he became Ireland's best-loved comedian. They had four children: Maureen (b. 1925), who was to marry Charles Haughey; Peggy (b. 1927); Noel (1929–76) who was Fianna Fáil TD for Dublin south west (1956–76) and became a junior minister (1969–73); and Sheila (b. 1934).
Assessment Seán Lemass was always something of an outsider among Irish republicans – ‘different somehow to the rest of us’, said Gerry Boland (Lee (1989), 408). He had nothing in common with the predominantly rural, devoutly catholic, or fervently Irish-speaking elements in Fianna Fáil personified by de Valera. Yet, like de Valera, there was an element of the exotic about Lemass. ‘Charlie Chaplin’ (because of his toothbrush moustache), ‘the Jewman’ (because of his swarthy appearance – a British Foreign Office profile of 1963 remarked that he was rumoured to be of Jewish origin and that ‘his appearance does not belie this fact’ – and ‘Mephistopheles’ (because of his pencil moustache and sleek black hair) were among his sobriquets (Horgan (1997), 26, 37, 125). ‘The best-dressed member of the government, he indulges in frequent changes of suits’, wrote a sympathetic observer in 1946 (Skinner, 81). Poker, horse-racing, golf, and, later in life, angling were his pastimes; he was more at home at Leopardstown or in Skerries golf club than in Croke Park. His ‘private religious agnosticism and his renowned lack of interest in the Irish language and the other cultural accoutrements of Irish identity, so important to de Valera, caused him to underestimate the power of more primordial voices’, whether republican or unionist (Patterson, 154).
Yet for the better part of forty years the political career of Seán Lemass was conducted in the shadow of Éamon de Valera, who respected and admired but did not always understand ‘his ablest ... most independent-minded and most impatient (indeed his only impatient) minister’ (Lee (1989), 189). The revisionist myth that reduces Lemass to de Valera's antagonist explains his enduring popularity outside Fianna Fáil. The relationship puzzled the secretary to the government, Maurice Moynihan (qv), who described Lemass as ‘very un-Irish. He had the huguenot strain in him. He was very determined, confident in himself, hard-working. Lemass barked a lot. He fought continuously with MacEntee in cabinet. Dev was reluctant to interfere at all’ (O'Sullivan, 105). Yet, while Lemass ‘was not necessarily the closest to his leader's heart and intentions, he was among the most resolute and unswerving of his supporters ... His loyalty to the Chief was unbounded; it was also sincere. There was something boyish in his devotion to the taoiseach, whose authority and decisions he never questioned, once those decisions were made. He was never a sycophant and refused to advocate policies such as might have accorded more closely with the desires of his leader ... It has always been a mistake to assume ... that he is not interested in ideals (which by definition almost are rarely capable of complete fulfillment). The difference is that he has also been interested in the results and cannot devote too much time to ideals which have no likelihood of being ever achieved. He is quite prepared, if necessary, to espouse losing causes; he would never tolerate a lost one. And, in this sense, he belongs to those who are ‘realists’ in politics and are mainly concerned with achieving what is possible rather than what is best in a purely theoretical sense’ (Leader profile).
Here we find the intellectual underpinnings both of his embrace and of his abandonment of protectionism, and of his unspoken but deep-seated scepticism about such pillars of de Valera's Ireland as the Irish language and the catholic church. He eschewed ‘invocation of Ireland's “Christian” mission’ in the manner so frequently affected by former taoisigh and he despised ‘the rhetoric that portrayed the Irish as a spiritually superior people’ (Lee (1989), 199). Yet realism demanded that he could not publicly blaspheme against the household gods of Fianna Fáil without endangering his own power base. Hence, perhaps, his laconic gruffness and ‘critical taciturnity’ (Andrews, 240), cloaking what Seán MacEntee's obituary identified as his ‘one fixed nucleus: an abiding, restless, ever active urge to make his country and her people, not only prosperous and peaceful, but of some account in the world’ (Farrell (1983), 124).
Hence, too, his pioneering commitment to the two great causes that bore fruit only after his death: European integration and reconciliation with Northern Ireland. He created and then re-created Fianna Fáil as the strongest force in Irish party politics. Backroom architect of the party's initial electoral successes in 1927–32, he presided over its reorganisation and redirection in the 1950s. He transformed a party focused on the achievement of political independence into a party bent on economic success. His aim, he told Charles Haughey in 1963, was to maintain ‘the image of Fianna Fáil as the party which is planning for the future, which has definite aims and a known policy, the displacement of which from office would be the prelude to a period of economic recession’ (Horgan (1997), 203). The endurance of that image into the twenty-first century has proved the most lasting accomplishment of Seán Lemass.