Lynch, John Mary (‘Jack’) (1917–99), sportsman and taoiseach, was born 15 August 1917 in a small family home beside St Anne's Church of Ireland church in Shandon, a working-class area of Cork city, youngest of five sons and fifth among seven children (one of whom died before he was born) of Daniel (‘Dan’) and Nora Lynch. His father was one of three sons reared on a very small farm in Baugorm, south of Bantry; Jerry emigrated to America and lost touch with the family, and John followed Dan to Cork. Dan Lynch, who once shared digs with J. J. Walsh (qv), minister for posts and telegraphs in the first Free State government, became apprenticed to a tailor, first at Daniels on Grand Parade and later at Cash's, one of the main drapery stores in Cork. In 1908 he married Nora O'Donoghue, whose family of seven daughters and two sons came from a farm near Glounthaune and who was then working as a seamstress in Cork; she continued to work from home after marriage. The family was ‘not well off’ but ‘always well-dressed’ even if their clothes were ‘usually hand-me-downs’, and Jack Lynch attributed his later ‘fastidiousness’ about his appearance to his mother's influence. He was educated at St Vincent's Convent, Peacock Lane (1923–5) and at the CBS, the North Monastery (1925–36) where he won a secondary school scholarship and where his contemporaries included Tadhg Carey (1919–95) (later president of UCC), Leo Skentlebery (ambassador to Argentina and Australia), and Tadhg Ó Cearbhaill (secretary of the Department of Labour). In October 1930, when he was 13, his mother – to whom he was very close and who gave him his love of music – died suddenly of a heart attack when she was about to be discharged after a short stay in hospital. Lynch was ‘absolutely shattered’ and ‘walked around the streets in a daze for hours before coming back home and for years later was deeply affected by the loss’. The Lynches then went to live with the family of his mother's married sister, Statia O'Reilly, first at 5 Vernon View on the South Douglas Road and then at 22 Redemption Road, on the north of the city and closer to ‘North Mon’. Six Lynch children plus their father, in addition to the O'Reilly parents and, eventually, six O'Reilly children, meant that ‘the house was a crowded one’ (Lynch, 34).
Jack Lynch inherited a love of sport from his father, who had played football in his youth but who was not scarred by the exclusivism of many in the GAA: he ‘was interested in all sports, attending soccer and rugby matches as well as Gaelic football and hurling’. Lynch himself played hurling and football for North Mon and was conscious of his ability, especially as a hurler, from an early age. Following in the footsteps of his older brothers, he joined Glen Rovers at the age of 10, where one of the club's father figures, Paddy O'Connell, took him under his wing (Lynch, 35). He also played for St Nicholas, the Glen's sister football team, and he was on the teams that won the minor football county championship in 1930, 1932, and 1933. He enjoyed even greater success in hurling with Glen Rovers, whose minor teams won the county championship four times between 1932 and 1937 (under his captaincy in 1933 and 1934); he then went on to win ten senior county championship medals with the Glen and was preeminent in their eight-in-a-row championships in 1934–41. He also played on the North Mon teams that won the Harty Cup in 1934 (when he was highlighted in the Cork Examiner as ‘prominent all through, scoring long-distance points and, from his stirring play, set up the movements for the Mon goals’), 1935, and 1936, when he captained the team which, on returning from the final in Fermoy, marched in a victory parade with three bands, blazing tar barrels, and thousands lining the streets between the station and the school. Jack Lynch thus became acquainted with the challenges of fame and leadership while still at school. He was only 20 when he first captained the Cork senior hurling team in 1938 (he was captaining the Cork football team at the same time). In 1939 he led Cork to their first Munster hurling championship since 1931, but they were beaten by a single point by Kilkenny in the ‘thunder and lightning’ All-Ireland final played in atrocious weather on 3 September, when the radio broadcast of the match was interrupted by a news flash that France had declared war on Germany; but Lynch was more concerned that evening about losing the match. The war years were golden years for Cork hurling and he played on the teams that won four successive All-Ireland championships: 1941, 1942 (when he captained the team that beat Dublin 2–14 to 3–4), 1943, and 1944. In 1945 he played on the Cork side that won their first ever All-Ireland football championship, and he was on the winning Cork hurling team of 1946, thus becoming the only player to play in six successive winning senior All-Ireland teams. He also played when Cork lost two finals: as captain in 1939 and in 1947, when he became the only player to play in seven consecutive All-Ireland finals. He also won three National Hurling League medals in 1940, 1941, and 1948, as well as three Railway Cup medals with Munster – in 1942, 1943 (as captain), and 1944. He played in the memorable Munster finals against Tipperary in 1949 and 1950 before finally retiring in 1951. Towards the end of his career, when he was slowing down, he was at full forward, but he played most of his games for Cork and all of his All-Ireland finals at midfield. He had the reputation of being hard but fair on both hurling and football fields; tall, strong, and energetic (a civil servant who later knew him as taoiseach recalled a big man who filled the door in Government Buildings), his other sports were athletics, swimming, and handball. But it was his hurling that was the stuff of legend: in 1983 he became the second hurler elected into the Texaco Hall of Fame, and he figured in the Sunday Independent's 1984 Team of the Century, picked to mark the centenary of the GAA. His strengths as hurler were summarised by Con Murphy, who played beside him in four of his six All-Ireland victories: ‘Jack Lynch was tough, uncompromising and extremely competitive. He could adapt to any style. There was no set pattern to his game. He had great flexibility as a player and great manoeuvrability. He was a quick thinker on the field, and a good “reader” of the game. He had a capacity for seeing where the flaws were in the other side, and tipping off his own players about this. It was part of his leadership and captaincy, and it worked whether he was captain or not. On the field he was the “captain” anyway’ (Arnold, 13).
Hurling opened the door to Lynch's first job in Dublin: once he sat the leaving certificate examination in 1936 and before he got the results of the civil service entrance examination, he was offered a temporary job in the newly established Dublin District Milk Board by Seán Ó Braonain, later secretary of the Department of the Gaeltacht and a member of the Civil Service Hurling Club, who was as ‘anxious to recruit new talent to the club as he was to the new Milk Board’. Lynch duly joined the civil service – he had also passed entrance examinations for the Agricultural Credit Corporation, for the Electricity Supply Board, and for teacher training college – and on 29 December 1936 took up an appointment as a clerk in the Cork circuit court. The county registrar gradually allowed him to ‘take over as acting registrar’, sitting in court on his own over the next six years and acquiring a working knowledge of law and legal procedures. He began taking evening classes for the Kings Inns at UCC in 1941, where his only fellow student was David Marcus, later literary editor of the Irish Press. ‘He would come home for his tea and study from seven to twelve midnight’, recalled his brother Theo, ‘and then he would get up again early in the morning to study again before going to work, and at the same time he was playing hurling and football’ (Dwyer, 21–2). The last two years of the course could only be taken at the King's Inns, and his sporting connections again proved their worth when in 1943 Paddy Ó Ceallaigh, a principal officer in the Department of Finance and also the chairman of the Civil Service Football Club, arranged his transfer to the district court clerks’ branch in Dublin; Lynch duly joined the club, which in 1944 won the Dublin Senior Football championship for the first time in their history. He was soon appointed private secretary to the secretary of the Department of Justice, Stephen Roche (qv). When he was called to the bar in 1945 he abandoned an obviously promising career in the civil service and began practising as a barrister in Cork, living in a rented house in Farrenleigh Park off the Model Farm Road; he was also a member of the 47th North Cork Battalion of the Local Defence Force.
On 10 August 1946 he married Máirín O'Connor (Máirín Lynch (qv)), whom he had first met in 1943 in Glengariff, where he had gone on holiday with some of the Cork team who had won the Munster final. She also had an interest in sport (she had played junior interprovincial hockey for Leinster) and they went swimming and hiking, as well as dancing in the evenings – Jack had a baritone voice and enjoyed singing. The only child of Margaret and Arthur O'Connor (a medical student from Dublin lost in action in the Royal Navy during the first world war (Keogh (2008), 20–21) ), Máirín O'Connor was born in 1916 and had been educated by the Dominicans in Muckross Park and Eccles St. in Dublin, where she then worked as a clerical officer in the civil service. Neither the Lynch nor the O'Connor family were politically active. Although his father's relations in west Cork had ties to the United Irish League of William O'Brien (qv) (1852–1928) and were later anti-treaty, politics was ‘very seldom ... even mentioned’ in the Lynch household, although he was conscious of Éamon de Valera (qv) as ‘being a marvellous, romantic figure’ when he carried a banner at a 1932 election rally (Lynch, 37). Máirín's mother, Margaret O'Connor, who worked with the Dublin Industrial Development Association on the promotion of Irish goods, was known to throw out hats made in England; when she was afflicted by a stroke after Jack and Máirín had returned to Dublin, they moved her into the house they had bought at 21 Garville Avenue, Rathgar, their home for the rest of their lives. Máirín had no family other than her mother; Jack's siblings gave him an extended family with over thirty first cousins, so it was unsurprising that she (and, sometimes, he) did not always attend Lynch family occasions; ‘he was increasingly protected by Máirín, and it was in her nature, as an only child, to be overwhelmed by the scale and exuberance of her husband's family and to draw back’ (ibid., 36–40). Jack and Máirín Lynch had no children and she had a hysterectomy in her late thirties; although she considered adoption, when he became a minister she decided that, despite an innate shyness and distaste for public life, she wanted to be free to travel with him.
Dáil deputy and parliamentary secretary
Jack Lynch's resignation from the civil service in 1945 made him eligible for dáil membership, and Fianna Fáil first approached him to run in the Cork by-election of 1946. He declined because Pa McGrath, a friend and lifelong member of Fianna Fáil, was seeking the nomination, and his first political engagement was a speech he made in praise of McGrath's personal virtues. He had no further political involvement until the 1948 election campaign, when he was again approached by Fianna Fáil and also by Clann na Poblachta – not, as was often said subsequently, by Fine Gael, although Stephen Barrett (qv), the Cork Fine Gael deputy, was one of the few he consulted who concurred on advising him to choose Fianna Fáil: ‘it's the old horse for the long road’ (Nowlan interview – Kevin B. Nowlan (qv) was a colleague of Lynch at the bar, whom he also consulted). Lynch was beginning to make his mark at the bar and was apprehensive about the uncertainties of politics, but Máirín ‘tried to persuade him to do what he really wanted. In the end we tossed a coin (in Cash's doorway in Cork) which landed in favour of Jack's handing in his nomination form just one hour before closing time!’ (Máirín Lynch to the author, 13 August 1997). The still hesitant Lynch chose to go to a law dinner rather than to the election convention, to which he went, ‘clad in dinner jacket’, only after he had been nominated and before he had yet ‘formally joined Fianna Fáil’. Members of Glen Rovers were his power base: they printed special polling cards and canvassed for him personally to the exclusion of the other party candidates. Lynch, ever the team player, protested and ‘went so far as to impound the personal canvass cards but they got another supply’. He duly topped the Fianna Fáil poll, which he did not do again until the 1957 election (Lynch, 37–8). ‘That he was a barrister was irrelevant. That he was electable was the key point ... Jack, according to himself, deliberately set out as someone from the other side of the tracks, to infiltrate the social and sporting haunts of the merchant princes and impress them with his undoubted charm’ (Dunlop, 21).
Jack Lynch entered the dáil just as Fianna Fáil went into opposition for the first time in sixteen years and decided to appoint a researcher and a secretary to the parliamentary party; Lynch was offered both posts. Although he had been assured he could also keep up his practice at the bar, he found drafting speeches for de Valera, indexing dáil debates and newspaper reports, as well as preparing briefs for members of the front bench, a full-time job. Lynch ‘got on very well with Dev and liked him a lot’, learning ‘a lot of the need for precision in speech ... particularly ... his meticulous attention to the words he used in public speeches’ (Lynch, 36–40). After a year, de Valera agreed that he could return to the bar, but back in government in 1951 he again singled Lynch out for fast-track preferment by appointing him parliamentary secretary to the government with special responsibility for the Gaeltacht, an appointment that enabled him to attend cabinet meetings. There was a brief overlap between the beginning of Lynch's parliamentary career and the end of his sporting exploits: he had been in the dáil for two years before his last competitive game of hurling in the Munster final of 1950, and he was already a parliamentary secretary when he played his last competitive game of football (for St Nicks against the army) in the Cork county championship in 1951. He returned to the Cork bar when Fianna Fáil returned to opposition in 1954, and by 1957 was earning as much as his subsequent ministerial salary; although he was still torn between law and politics, his acceptance of de Valera's offer of appointment in 1957 as minister for education and the Gaeltacht (he held the latter for only three months) finally resolved the issue (ibid.).
Much the youngest cabinet minister, Lynch again learned from de Valera, under whom protracted government meetings took place twice a week. ‘Dev ran the cabinet more the way I do’, Lynch later said; ‘I like to engage everyone round the table like Dev did ... interpret[ing] a decision if it has not already become clear cut’ (Lynch, 40). James Dukes, his private secretary in Education, described him as the most calm man I have ever worked with, who ‘hated anything that was done wrong’ and ‘always planned his time well’. ‘He was immensely courteous to everyone. He didn't give his opinion easily. He liked to mull things over. He liked to consider every bit of evidence – a product of his legal training – and he was good on legislation’ (Arnold, 42). Despite his youth and, perhaps, because of his admiration for de Valera, Lynch was innately conservative; like de Valera, he sought to avoid offending the catholic church and he cleared in advance with Archbishop McQuaid (qv) his announcement that married women teachers could retain their posts from 1 July 1958. Yet despite Lynch's conservatism, the latitude he gave Seán O'Connor (qv) as departmental secretary paved the way for the ministers for education who transformed the educational landscape in the 1960s. ‘If we were to take a greater interest in our system of education’, he said publicly soon after his appointment, ‘the teachers would feel less isolated in their battle for the mind of the country's youth, would feel more at one with the community generally and ... far-reaching effects might be achieved’ (Garvin, 151). But, although reluctant to leave Education when he was ‘just on the verge of achieving something’ (Lynch, 41), he could not turn down the offer of Industry and Commerce in 1959.
That Lynch was as well thought of by Seán Lemass (qv) as by de Valera was reflected in the new taoiseach's entrusting him with his long-cherished Industry and Commerce portfolio. It fell to Lynch to dismantle the tariff barriers that Lemass himself had erected in the 1930s as well as to implement the second programme for economic expansion, the brainchild of Ken Whitaker, the hugely influential secretary of the Department of Finance who now began to shape much of Lynch's thinking. The growing international responsibilities of Industry and Commerce led to its being divested of other of its multifarious functions: the Department of Transport and Power was established in 1961, and the Department of Labour in 1966. For the previous seven years all labour and industrial relations were part of Lynch's ministerial remit; and, despite being credited with resolving the lockout of bus workers and the ESB strike in 1961, he complained of having his holidays and private life disrupted as he was ‘constantly called into the settlement of strikes’ (Lynch, 41) – notably the 1964 strike of building workers in Dublin, when the government's acquiescence in trade union demands caused a cabinet crisis and the resignation of Paddy Smith (qv). But the largest measure of the confidence Lemass reposed in Jack Lynch was in regard to Ireland's application for membership of the EEC in January 1962. Lemass told the dáil that the conduct of negotiations (insofar as it involved the attendance of a minister in Brussels) would be entrusted to Lynch; and it was Lynch who accompanied him on his tour of the EEC capitals, canvassing support for the Irish application. Although that application collapsed when the French president, Charles de Gaulle, vetoed the British application in January 1963, it was important that Lynch was associated from the outset with Ireland's opening to Europe – not least because his non-confrontational approach to party politics helped to consolidate the pro-European all-party consensus. Lynch believed that eventual Irish membership of the EEC was inevitable, and he presided over ‘enormous changes’ in Irish industrial life: ‘the high walls of protection gave way to freer trade, the Control of Manufacturers Act was repealed and foreign industry assiduously courted into Ireland’ (Lynch, 41).
Lynch's next ministerial promotion was due to his having a safe pair of hands and came after the election of April 1965, when Lemass chose him to succeed James Ryan (qv) as minister for finance. This marked the start of his close relationship with Ken Whitaker, who came to have an often decisive influence on Lynch, arguably for the rest of his political career and certainly until 1973. Lynch and Whitaker were contemporaries and Whitaker felt he could talk to his new minister (and to his future taoiseach) with total freedom; the mutual confidence between the two men was nourished by the companionship of travelling together – in particular to meetings of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Washington. The Anglo–Irish Free Trade Area Agreement, concluded in London in December 1965, was a landmark in the trail Lynch had been blazing in Industry and Commerce; it provided for the phased dismantling of the tariff barriers in existence between Ireland and Britain since the 1930s, culminating in completely free trade by 1975. Again it was Lemass who led the negotiations, and again it was Lynch who bore the brunt of defending Lemass's volte-face in the dáil, when he argued for the imminence of free trade.
Lynch's eighteen-month stint as minister for finance was marked by speculation about his emergence as Lemass's heir apparent, but he and his wife ‘concluded definitively that [he] should make it clear from the outset that [he] would not be a contender’ (Lynch, 42). And so he did. But, confronted with the prospect of an internecine contest for the succession between George Colley (qv), Charles Haughey (qv), and Neil Blaney (qv), Lemass told the other candidates he would be backing Lynch, whom he had eventually persuaded to stand, and asked them to withdraw in his favour; Haughey and Blaney agreed, Colley declined. The outcome of the first leadership election in the history of the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party was a foregone conclusion. John Healy (qv), writing in his ‘Backbencher’ column in the Irish Times a year before, and notwithstanding his own preference for Haughey, had explained why: ‘Jack Lynch would win pulling up in a party vote tomorrow morning. He does everything right. When every other government minister drives a Mercedes, Jack drives a Cork Ford. He smokes a thinking pipe. He likes the quiet little jar. He doesn't want anything, just the job. A nice fellow. A hell of a nice fellow. He's the best bet since Arkle’ (Dwyer, 127). Lynch did not want the job, but he was unbeatable once he agreed to stand, and he defeated Colley by 52 votes to 19 on 9 November 1966; the dáil elected him taoiseach by 71 votes to 64 next day.
Although Lynch was Lemass's successor and preferred choice as taoiseach, it was not Lemass but de Valera who was Lynch's role model: ‘de Valera's continual search for a consensus within Fianna Fáil was central also to Lynch's political character as it developed. Like de Valera, Lynch worked within a conservatism that was inherently Irish’. But, unlike de Valera, ‘Lynch on his own was never an original thinker in terms of policy, nor naturally disposed to innovative action. He was not a reformer. He saw the best in what existed and generally he liked what he saw’ (Arnold, 49–50, 55). A certain insecurity about his lack of a Fianna Fáil pedigree contributed to his reluctance to confront antagonistic ministerial colleagues such as Blaney and Boland, whose fathers had been founder members of Fianna Fáil and who derided Lynch because, in Blaney's phrase, he ‘literally didn't have a Fianna Fáil background at all’. They may have assumed because of his ministerial minimalism that he would be putty in their hands; ‘let him in so long as he does what we tell him’, said Boland to Blaney (Dwyer, 128–9).
Jack Lynch was vulnerable as taoiseach from the outset because of the circumstances of the succession. He had no cronies or power base within the parliamentary party; ‘he had always been a very private person’ noted Pádraig Faulkner, who had voted for Colley because he ‘scarcely knew’ Lynch, despite having been in the dáil with him for over nine years; others had voted for Lynch ‘because they believed he was too soft to continue for long in that position’ (Faulkner, 56). Some cabinet colleagues – Haughey and Blaney, in particular – thought they had more right to be taoiseach than he had, not least because they knew their hunger for the job was greater than his, and the innate loyalty to the leader previously characteristic of Fianna Fáil was corroded by a culture of faction and conspiracy. Lynch admitted having been chosen as a compromise candidate – an admission he later came bitterly to regret – and he resented being described as an ‘interim taoiseach’ (Collins, 38–9). He was criticised for his reactive approach to leadership and suffered from comparisons with Lemass. ‘Lynch did not feel the same compulsion as Lemass to get things done ... Lynch was instinctively a temporiser. Having no strong views himself on most things, he preferred to lead from behind, and to let policy “emerge”. It was not that he could not act when his back was to the wall. He would show that he could, to the discomfiture of the doubters. But he was not a natural pacemaker. He preferred to move from a consensus position’ (Lee, 409).
That Lemass ‘had encouraged ministers to act independently made it difficult for Lynch subsequently to put his stamp of authority on the cabinet’ (Ferriter, 693). So, too, did Lemass's having effected the change from one generation of ministers to the next: Lynch was conscious that he been ‘thereby deprived of one major strength every prime minister usually enjoys: the power of cabinet appointment ... in effect most ministers knew that they owed their position to Sean Lemass’. That he was of an age with most cabinet colleagues meant that he ‘was never viewed as a father figure within the party as previous leaders had been’ (Lynch, 43). He became taoiseach, moreover, when the economic climate was characterised by rising unemployment, a slowing growth rate, the abandonment of the second programme for economic expansion in 1967, and mounting inflation that had been fuelled by over-generous wage agreements under Lemass. Like Lemass he was suspicious of the media, and in April 1967 he blocked an RTÉ proposal to send a news team to Vietnam on the grounds that ‘such a visit would be an embarrassment to the government in its foreign policy’; he likewise refused to endorse a call by U Thant, the secretary general of the UN, for a halt in the American bombing of North Vietnam. He was suspicious of RTÉ’s political programmes and still more of such popular programmes as the ‘Late Late Show’; in November 1967, when Donogh O'Malley (qv) agreed to take part in the show, subject to the taoiseach's approval, Lynch refused to see Gay Byrne, saying that he disapproved of ministers going on the show as there was already provision for political discussion on other programmes.
Although Fianna Fáil's overall majority in the 1969 election was a personal triumph for Lynch, it had two contradictory effects. It dispelled the notion that he was a caretaker taoiseach and strengthened his authority, emboldening him to drop the veteran Frank Aiken (qv) from the cabinet, replacing him as minister for external affairs with the more energetic and more Europhile Patrick Hillery: Lynch ‘was more interested in Europe ... de Gaulle had resigned ... my job was to get Ireland to the negotiating table’ (Hillery interview). But the prospect that electoral success would prolong his leadership discomforted his detractors, and Kevin Boland successfully resisted Lynch's proposal to move him out of the Department of Local Government. The contempt of his cabinet critics was publicly apparent during the dáil debate on the nomination of the government, when Lynch passed Boland a note as he made an unconventionally long and acrimonious speech; Boland glanced at the note, crumpled it up, threw it on the floor of the chamber, and continued speaking unabashed.
Northern Ireland had not been an issue in the 1969 election but it now became the acid test of Jack Lynch's authority as taoiseach. His initial response to the RUC's batoning civil rights marchers in October 1968 was hesitant and did not reflect the public outrage articulated by the opposition, by Fianna Fáil backbenchers, and above all by Blaney, whose inflammatory speech at Letterkenny on 8 November prompted an intervention from Ken Whitaker. Whitaker had accompanied Lynch to his own Stormont summit with Terence O'Neill (qv) in December 1967 and was to continue to advise him on Northern Ireland after he became governor of the Central Bank in March 1969; he urged a policy ‘of seeking unity in Ireland by agreement between Irishmen’ and abandoning all thought of using force ‘as a means of undoing partition’. But Lynch had already sought refuge in Fianna Fáil's traditional anti-partitionism on 30 October, privately at a meeting with Harold Wilson, the British prime minister, and publicly at his subsequent press conference. While privately supportive of Whitaker's policy, he yielded to Blaneyite pressures by again banging the anti-partition drum in addressing the Fianna Fáil national executive, and told the dáil only that he regretted Blaney had made the Letterkenny speech without his prior approval. The seeds of the dissension on northern policy that rocked the Fianna Fáil government in 1970 were thus sown as early as the autumn of 1968 (Fanning, 59–63). The deletion of an expression of regret from the draft statement prepared for Lynch when Terence O'Neill resigned in May 1969 signalled another triumph for Blaney's belligerence, which blossomed into full flower when large-scale violence broke out in Derry and Belfast in mid–August 1969.
The unflappable Lynch was surprised by the excitability of his colleagues at the first of a series of crisis cabinet meetings on 13 August, particularly by Brian Lenihan (qv). Patrick Hillery, who missed that meeting, likened the atmosphere at the next meeting to a ballad session in a pub. ‘Jockeying for position in the leadership contest to succeed Lynch was in there all the time ... my colleagues were all watching for Jack to stay a short time ... they were establishing their patriotic records, George [Colley] and Charlie [Haughey] especially; neither Colley nor Haughey wanted the Department of External Affairs to have responsibility for Northern Ireland policy’. The machinery of Irish government was lamentably ill equipped to respond to the crisis. Not one official in the taoiseach's department, in the Department of External Affairs, or in any other government department was responsible for assessing what was happening in Northern Ireland – Hillery had vainly asked ‘Where's the Northern Ireland desk?’ at the end of his introductory tour of Iveagh House in July 1969, and the Anglo–Irish division in what became the Department of Foreign Affairs was not established until 1971 (Hillery interview). The vacuum in the taoiseach's department was worse: not until the appointment of Dermot Nally in January 1973, only weeks before Fianna Fáil went into opposition, was a senior official in the taoiseach's department charged with responsibility for Northern Ireland. The extremities to which the beleaguered Lynch was reduced during the ‘Battle of the Bogside’ became apparent when, on the morning of 15 August, a garda knocked on the door of the Connemara holiday home of the governor of the Central Bank, asking Whitaker to contact the taoiseach.
Uncertainty about where official responsibility for northern policy rested contributed to the chaotic drafting of the celebrated speech Lynch delivered on television on the night of 13 August, when he announced that the Irish government ‘can no longer stand by and see innocent people injured and perhaps worse’, that they were establishing field hospitals along the border, and that they had asked the British government to seek the urgent dispatch of a UN peace-keeping force to Northern Ireland. The speech, Blaney later boasted, ‘was composed word for word – every comma, every iota – as a collective cabinet speech ... It was a cabinet speech, made by Jack Lynch’. Lynch avoided ever taking a vote on Northern Ireland policy and, as the initial impact of the events of mid August 1969 receded, the cabinet divisions were not obvious. The problem for Lynch, working in conjunction with Hillery, was to map out a Northern Ireland policy behind which the party would remain united – ‘we had to show we were leading along a line that could be followed’. Lynch's justification of his ‘do-nothing’ policy was: ‘I know plenty of good, decent people who were saying “Why don't we do something more positive?” But in those days, to have done anything more would have led to annihilation. I don't mind telling you that I had a hard job maintaining the balance at the time’ (Dwyer, 178, 400).
Lynch began to take control of Northern Ireland policy in his Tralee speech on 20 September 1969. The speech, drafted by Whitaker, reaffirmed the commitment ‘to seek the reunification of the country by peaceful means’ and stressed that reunification with ‘the agreement of a sufficient number of people in the north’ was ‘a long-term’ aim that did not seek ‘to extend the domination of Dublin’ (Lynch, Speeches, 9–12). Blaney again broke ranks in another tirade from Letterkenny on 8 December that Lynch ignored. Blaney and Boland then orchestrated opposition at the tumultuous Fianna Fáil ard fheis on 17 January 1970. This time Lynch met the challenge head on and received a standing ovation to the chant of ‘We back Jack!’ to the humiliated fury of Blaney and Boland. But such excitement was as nothing when set against the high drama of May 1970. On 5 May Lynch persuaded his alcoholic and hospitalised minister for justice, Micheál Ó Moráin (qv), to resign. On 6 May the country awoke to the news that Lynch had dismissed Blaney and Haughey because ‘they do not fully subscribe to government policy’ on Northern Ireland. On 7 May Boland resigned from the government in protest and Lynch appointed Desmond O'Malley minister for justice; he completed the consequential ministerial reshuffle on 8–9 May. On 28 May Blaney and Haughey were arrested on charges of conspiring to import arms and ammunition. On 2 July Blaney was discharged. On 23 October, after two jury trials, Haughey was acquitted and, flushed with triumph, challenged Lynch, then at the UN in New York, from the steps of the Four Courts. But Lynch copper-fastened his control of the party at a press conference where ‘in an extraordinary show of solidarity he was met at the airport by the entire cabinet – apart from two ministers who were out of the country – fifty TDs, twenty-seven senators, and the two leading party elders, MacEntee and Aiken ... [Haughey] swallowed his pride and marched through the lobbies to vote confidence in a taoiseach he despised’ (Collins, 84).
There was much more ‘unity of spirit and purpose’ in the cabinet and ‘no overt hostility to Lynch’ (O'Malley interview) as the situation in Northern Ireland worsened in 1971–2. The internment crisis of August 1971 exacerbated British disillusion with Northern Ireland ministers, and Edward Heath invited Lynch to a hastily convened summit at Chequers on 6–7 September – his first formal meeting with a British prime minister since October 1968 – and then to a tripartite meeting with Brian Faulkner, again at Chequers, on 27–8 September. The events of Bloody Sunday (30 January 1972), when British paratroopers shot dead thirteen civilians in Derry, intensified the sense of crisis, and the introduction of direct rule from Westminster (24 March 1972) further softened British reluctance to talk to Lynch. Publicly, Lynch protested about internment, Bloody Sunday, and the escalating death toll; and the burning of the British embassy in Dublin by a mob pointed to a dramatic deterioration in British–Irish relations. Privately, he remained set on a course of conciliation and cooperation designed to maximise his influence with Heath, whom he had met in Brussels on 23 January after they had both signed the treaty of accession to the EEC, when he had argued that if Heath's ‘main preoccupation was the Common Market, then time is running out on the north’ (NAI 2003/13/22). Lynch was likewise concerned to prevent differences on Northern Ireland impinging on joining Europe – ‘if it had gone wrong there would have been death all over the place and we would never have got into Europe’, recalled Patrick Hillery (Collins, 86). Lynch again met Heath in Munich (at the Olympic games on 4 September), in Paris on 21 October, and in London on 24 November for discussions on the forthcoming British white paper on Northern Ireland. On 7 December he carried the referendum deleting the special position of the catholic church in the constitution by a majority of more than five to one. Although Lynch was no longer taoiseach when the British white paper charting the road to Sunningdale was published (March 1973), it conceded his most persistent demand: ‘that any new arrangement for Northern Ireland should ... be so far as possible acceptable to and accepted by the Republic of Ireland’; it also provided for a conference attended by the Irish government before the establishment of a new power-sharing executive. Heath's sentiments when Lynch lost office reflected the transformation in the relationship between taoiseach and prime minister that remained a key factor in British–Irish relations in the coming decades; he felt he ‘had succeeded in making a lot of progress with Mr Lynch’ (NAUK PREM 15/1690, extract from the record of Heath's meeting with Willy Brandt, 2 Mar. 1973), and valued ‘what he described as [their] “very helpful working relations”’ (NAI 2004/21/465, Donal O'Sullivan to Hugh McCann, 7 Feb. 1973).
Marking time, 1973–9
The achievements of 1969–73 in regard to Northern Ireland and Europe were the high-water marks of a political career that was anti-climactic thereafter. The split in Fianna Fáil had one beneficial result: the opposition parties trusted and supported Jack Lynch in spite of the fact that he was a Fianna Fáil taoiseach. In the long term, this laid the foundation for the evolution of an enduring bipartisan Northern Ireland policy; in the short term, it ensured that the advent of the Fine Gael–Labour coalition of 1973 was characterised not by change but by continuity. This was personified in the close friendship between Jack and Máirín Lynch and the new minister for foreign affairs, Garret FitzGerald (qv), and his wife Joan (qv); many in Fianna Fáil felt they ‘had an almost unhealthy regard for one another politically ... Jack and Garret were like-minded people who moved in the same circles, met one another at the same diplomatic dinners, and observed the same unwritten rules of behaviour while others, mostly their own backbenchers, indulged in the raw savagery of jungle politics’ (Dunlop, 222–3). One senior civil servant who had drafted a speech for Lynch in his last days as taoiseach was surprised when he delivered it in his first dáil debate on Northern Ireland as leader of the opposition.
Yet 1973 was a bad year for Jack Lynch. His response to the Littlejohn affair – when two English brothers, sentenced on 3 August to long terms of imprisonment for a 1972 bank robbery, alleged they had been acting under instructions from the British Ministry of Defence – was tentative and touched raw republican nerves in Fianna Fáil. It also saw his first experience of physical frailty when he shattered his right heel bone boarding a boat near his holiday home in west Cork; the injury never fully healed and necessitated a series of minor operations to reduce the pain; thereafter he walked with a limp, often with a stick; ‘he developed a hip problem, possibly as a result of his limp. Hence he was not able to walk off the effects of whiskey as he had in earlier years, and his tolerance for alcohol began to decrease’ (Dwyer, 373–4). Patrick Hillery's appointment as Ireland's first European commissioner deprived him of a major ally, and he was denied in opposition the civil service advice on which he had been so dependent since 1957. He instead took refuge in the advice of a team of backroom advisers resented by many members of the parliamentary party. First among these was Martin O'Donoghue, a member of TCD's economics department whom he had appointed as his first non-civil service adviser in 1970 and who now became his éminence grise; O'Donoghue's influence rested on his understanding ‘that Lynch couldn't really be bothered with policy issues. Of course, Lynch regarded policy as important, but he believed that the thinking regarding policy for the country as a whole wasn't for the politicians’ (Dunlop, 80). Other appointees were young: Seamus Brennan (1948–2008) (as general secretary of the party), Frank Dunlop (press secretary), and Esmond Smyth (as the party's researcher); they made ‘a huge impact and put Lynch in a commanding position in the run up to the 1977 election’. But he had made his ‘biggest political mistake’ when he brought Charles Haughey back from the wilderness and appointed him as spokesman for health in the shadow cabinet reshuffle of January 1975 (Collins, 101–2). The decision was Lynch's alone: when Desmond O'Malley, the closest of his front-bench colleagues, demurred, he realised that he was being told of a fait accompli merely as a matter of courtesy (O'Malley interview).
Fianna Fáil's American-presidential-style 1977 election campaign, when he made a major speech every day in a nation-wide tour, was Jack Lynch's last hurrah. The ‘best if not the only [electoral] asset that Fianna Fáil had at the time, he was extremely televisual’ and photogenic – a key element of the campaign was ensuring that his photograph ‘appeared in every national newspaper every day’ (Dunlop, 14, 71). Fianna Fáil's landslide victory gave them an unmanageably large overall majority of twenty-three, the biggest in the history of the state; ‘I would have preferred a smaller majority’, he admitted on RTÉ’s election night programme (Dwyer, 334). Unlike Charles Haughey, Lynch knew few of the new Fianna Fáil deputies and ‘did nothing to harness – or direct – the energies of his expanded parliamentary party’. ‘Who in the name of God is that?’ he asked, as he watched future minister and European commissioner Pádraig Flynn, attired in a white suit and polka-dot shirt, first entering Leinster House (Dunlop, 82–3, 26). ‘A stickler for protocol’, he became increasingly remote, and not even cabinet colleagues as close as George Colley, his tánaiste and minister for finance, could telephone him without going through his private secretary (Aylward interview). Meanwhile Charles Haughey, appointed as minister for health and social welfare, was poised to renew his challenge for the leadership.
Although continuity again characterised Northern Ireland policy and Garret FitzGerald, by now leader of Fine Gael, ‘kept in close touch with Jack Lynch as taoiseach on Northern Ireland affairs’ in 1977–9 (FitzGerald, 330–31), Lynch's hands-off, almost indolent approach meant ministers had a free hand in running their departments. This was especially true of Martin O'Donoghue, who was charged with implementing the economic promises in the election manifesto by being appointed as minister for a new department, Economic Planning and Development, on his first day as a dáil deputy – an appointment criticised by T. K. Whitaker, one of Lynch's senate nominees, whose warnings of a paralysing tension with George Colley and his officials in Finance were soon vindicated. Lynch had no appetite for tough budgetary decisions – he had been critical of Fianna Fáil's hairshirt budget in 1952 – and his last government's expansionist promises set a dangerous economic trend. He himself identified the breach in the link with sterling in March 1979 (which followed Ireland's joining the European Monetary System (EMS) despite Britain staying out) and the negotiation of the revised National Understanding with the ICTU in July 1979 as ‘major achievements’ of his last government (Lynch, 51).
Jack Lynch's strength as leader of Fianna Fáil depended on his reputation as an unrivalled vote-winner, but that was dented when Fianna Fáil took only five of the fifteen seats in the elections to the European parliament in June 1979, and when Neil Blaney, running as an independent, won a stunning victory in Connacht–Ulster. Dissatisfaction with his leadership surfaced at a caucus meeting of some thirty backbenchers on 26 June, and at next day's formal parliamentary party meeting a reluctant Lynch was forced to agree to a special meeting to discuss the election results. A recrudescence of the latent republicanism in Fianna Fáil and a growing sense that he had lost his limited appetite for the job of taoiseach increased his vulnerability. An ineptly taciturn performance at a fraught meeting which he had unwisely sought with an angry Margaret Thatcher, after the funeral service of Lord Mountbatten (who had been murdered by the IRA near his Sligo home on 27 August), prompted rumours that he ‘was coasting as taoiseach ... the word spread, mainly within Fianna Fáil circles, that Jack Lynch had lost his bottle’ (Dunlop, 108–9) and in a speech commemorating Liam Lynch (qv) on 9 September Síle de Valera, a Fianna Fáil backbencher elected in 1977, implicitly criticised his abandonment of republicanism. Lynch was testy and irritable during the Irish visit of Pope John Paul II at the end of September, when he derived no benefit from the mood of national celebration. The shield of electoral invincibility finally shattered on 7 November when Fine Gael won two by-elections in his native Cork. Lynch, who was then on what proved to be his last official visit to the US, ‘was profoundly shaken by the results ... from his own county where he would have expected the old loyalties to be maintained’. He made matters worse at a meeting with the press in Washington when he let slip that there had been a minor change in government policy allowing the British to overfly the border, notwithstanding his denial when questioned on the same issue by Bill Loughnane (qv) at a recent parliamentary party meeting. When Loughnane then called him ‘a liar’, Lynch responded by telephoning George Colley, the deputy party leader, from Texas and telling him to expel Loughnane from the parliamentary party. Colley could not even press the motion to a vote and Loughnane's subsequent calls for Lynch's resignation meant that his authority had collapsed before he had returned from America (Mills, 124–7). Jack and Máirín Lynch had already privately agreed that he would stand down as taoiseach early in 1980. Comforted by ill-founded assurances from an overconfident George Colley that he would win the ensuing leadership contest, he decided to go early and announced his decision to resign as taoiseach and leader of Fianna Fáil on 5 December 1979. On 11 December Charles Haughey, who had defeated George Colley by forty-four votes to thirty-eight, became taoiseach.
Jack Lynch received no presentation from Fianna Fáil to mark his departure because, as he wrote to Charles Haughey, he neither wanted it nor considered ‘it would be entirely appropriate for the party to make such a presentation in the circumstances’. Airbrushed from the iconography of ard fheiseanna by Haughey, Lynch ‘attended no public party event of any significance, then or later. He retreated from party politics, seemingly with relief’ (Arnold, 223, 228), and relinquished his dáil seat at the next election (1981). In November 1993 he suffered a stroke that made him nearly blind and that meant he was in increasing pain from his shattered heel because he could no longer sustain the general anaesthetics necessary for further operations. He died 20 October 1999 in the Royal Hospital, Donnybrook, Dublin, and after a state funeral in the North Cathedral in Blackpool, Cork, he was buried on 23 October in a distant corner of St Finbarr's cemetery, far from the more grandiloquent graves of Cork's republican heroes. That the graveside oration was delivered by Desmond O'Malley, his closest cabinet confidant and subsequently the founding leader of the Progressive Democrats, well symbolised in death the distance from Fianna Fáil that had marked the first and last decades of Jack Lynch's life.
Jack Lynch was once driving an old man through some of his favourite countryside near Gougane Barra; the old man sat sunk in apathy until they came to a memorial cross ‘when he jumped from the car with a shout, “Jasus, Jack, who was shot here?” He was disappointed. The memorial was to Saint Finbar and he, alas, did not have a national record’ (Walsh, 7). The anecdote encapsulates the ambivalent relationship between Jack Lynch and Fianna Fáil. It is not just that he was the first leader of Fianna Fáil who did not have a national record; the canard that he had tossed a coin before deciding whether to join Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael remains significant because it could never have been said about any of the previous or subsequent leaders of Fianna Fáil. Much more than the politicians of the previous generation who are sometimes so described, Jack Lynch was indeed a politician by accident: the accident of his having already achieved national recognition because of his unique record in Croke Park. That Jack Lynch was famous before he ever joined Fianna Fáil was hard for some cabinet colleagues to bear. His softly spoken style of leadership was the antithesis of Fianna Fáil fervour. ‘Softness of speech and manner, consideration for others, readiness to listen, absence of pomp, a sense of humour were elements of a most attractive personality which combined modesty and unpretentiousness with good judgement and a deep sense of responsibility and firmness of purpose’, wrote Ken Whitaker. ‘I never saw him in a rage or heard him say anything disparaging or hurtful about others’ (Irish Times, 21 Oct. 1999). His lifestyle was conservative, the antithesis of the flamboyance of the ‘men in the mohair suits’; he once said dismissively of Donogh O'Malley that ‘he wore pink shirts’, and he refused to go by helicopter to the Whiddy Island oil terminal after the explosion on the oil tanker Betelgeuse in 1979 ‘on the grounds that it would be too “flash”’ ((Dunlop, 21,189).
‘Honest Jack’ – the sneering nickname invented by John Healy, the favourite and favoured journalist of those same cabinet colleagues – epitomised their sense that the new taoiseach was out of joint with the temper of their times. Jack Lynch's very happy albeit childless marriage – he was hugely influenced by his wife, Máirín, with whom he lunched at home in Rathgar almost daily – also occasioned the derision of cabinet colleagues; Jim Gibbons was among those who ‘thought Lynch's childlessness made him less of a man and that it wasn't quite fitting that the taoiseach and leader of the country's largest political party depended, or appeared to depend, on his wife for political advice’ (Dunlop, 21, 42), and Máirín's ‘alleged influence in political affairs’ prompted ‘the quip “petticoat power”... [among] disaffected members of Fianna Fáil’ (Keogh (1994), 307).
That he ‘had no clear-cut political philosophy and ... [stood] for nothing in particular except a kind of affable consensus’ (Murphy, 7), that there was not a fanatical fibre in his body, were weaknesses in the eyes of Fianna Fáil antagonists, but they were also the strengths that enabled him to garner all-party support, especially in regard to Northern Ireland. This ability to personify national consensus was reflected in his being christened ‘the real taoiseach’ in 1973–7; on Lynch's resignation the former Fine Gael taoiseach, Liam Cosgrave, not known for magnanimity towards Fianna Fáil opponents, described him as the most popular Irish politician since Daniel O'Connell (qv). Lynch defined ‘good leadership [as] staying with the people and certainly not getting too far ahead of them. There is an obligation on a leader to do what he believes and bring people with him’ (Dwyer, 400). He found no pleasure in power, another weakness that was the converse of a strength: he ‘never wanted power, and he exercised it uneasily, and sometimes not at all. “At times of crises, Lynch always gave the impression he'd prefer to be somewhere else”, said one civil servant. Crises pained him, although he was a superb crisis manager’ (O'Mahony, 248). To thousands who could never bring themselves to vote for de Valera or Lemass, Jack Lynch was the acceptable face of Fianna Fáil. The first Fianna Fáil taoiseach to authorise an official government presence at the annual commemoration of the death of Michael Collins (qv) at Béal na mBláth, he personified an Ireland in which civil war hatreds had no part, and presided over the new Ireland's entry into the European Economic Community in 1973 and into the European Monetary System in 1979. Despite his low-key style, he also showed ‘a surprising readiness to challenge some ruling pieties, if in a characteristically low-key way’ (Foster, 20). He removed the catholic church's special position from the constitution and supported integrated education – notably the multi-denominational school project in Dalkey – notwithstanding the opposition of Cardinal William Conway (qv); he ‘never really seemed to pay too much attention to the bishops’ statements on public affairs and seldom, if ever, considered their position when developing or announcing any party policy. He was critical of certain elements of the church, both at hierarchical levels and on the ground, for its ambivalent attitude to the IRA’ (Dunlop, 55–6).
‘It is peculiarly difficult to assess Jack Lynch's stature ... He inherited an economy that had entered a period of sustained growth ... He had no long-term perspective, and little grasp of underlying trends. He presided over the wanton decision to unbalance the current budget in 1972 ... [and] over an unfortunate escapade in economic policy [in 1977–9]. In ordinary circumstances, Lynch would have been as ordinary a taoiseach as Cosgrave’ (Lee, 496). But the circumstances of Jack Lynch's term as taoiseach were extraordinary. ‘Lynch was faced in 1970 with a more serious challenge than anybody before ... to his position as taoiseach, as representing the democratically elected government of Ireland and its institutions. Relatively few countries of a settled democratic nature have had to endure active subversion within a cabinet ... There's always been a long tradition in Ireland of ... subversion from outside. What made 1969–70 different was that for the first time ever you had subversion from inside. And that was the huge challenge that Lynch had to confront and he did it successfully ... He did it very calmly and he avoided the kind of violent reaction that some others who came after him would have created in the way that they might have handled it. To some extent he was minimalist in his approach but there are times in which a minimalist approach can be the most effective ... Blaney and Boland and Haughey could have been fired in a way that could have given them an excuse almost to foment a civil war but that didn't happen ... Maybe his decision in 1975 to bring Haughey back was part of the same kind of thinking ... he thought he'd be able to handle him better and I think he would have too were it not for the size of the majority in 1977 when he lost control to some extent’ (O'Malley interview).
That the northern virus infected the southern body politic so little for so long ‘was partly due to the quarantine measures adopted by Jack Lynch [who] found himself confronting a confused popular instinct, searching for a way to do nothing while persuading itself of its anxiety to do something. How to disengage from the implications of the rhetoric without affronting self-respect required a sustained mastery of shuffle techniques’ (Lee, 458). Not for nothing did he become the hate figure caricatured as ‘Union Jack’ by the Provisional IRA and their ilk, for his leadership was the largest obstacle to their recruitment in the south of those who liked to think of themselves both as republican and as respectable. John Healy wrote of him as a defender rather than an innovator or creative leader: ‘Jack Lynch was a full back seeing no one scored off him; Lemass the dashing full forward always trying to score goals’ (Keogh (1994), 344). The events of 1969–70 posed the most dangerous threat to democracy in independent Ireland since the civil war, and the last thing the state needed was a taoiseach always trying to score goals. What it did need was a defender of the state and of its democratic institutions and, in Jack Lynch, that is what it got.