MacBride, Seán (1904–88), lawyer and politician, was born in Paris on 26 January 1904. He was the only child of the marriage of Major John MacBride (qv) and (Edith) Maud Gonne (qv) and was baptised under the name Seaghan, but invariably used the more familiar name of Seán. His father, a native of Westport, Co. Mayo, with strong nationalist views, had emigrated to South Africa at an early age in search of employment and had taken a leading part in the Irish brigade which fought against the British in the Boer War. His mother was a strikingly beautiful Englishwoman who had become a convert to Irish nationalism. She met John MacBride in Paris, where she had been living for some years and where she had a relationship with a French politician, Lucien Millvoye, with whom she had two children – George, who died in infancy, and Iseult Lucille (qv). Her marriage to MacBride was short-lived and culminated in acrimonious divorce proceedings in France, with accusations by her against MacBride of infidelity and violence. She was awarded custody of the child, to whom MacBride appears to have been given little, if any, access.
As a result, Seán MacBride spent his early years in France with his mother and received his first education at the Jesuit college of St Louis de Gonzague in Paris. In April 1916 his father was executed for his part in the Easter rising in Dublin. Despite the bitterness of the marriage breakdown, Maud Gonne MacBride, as she continued to describe herself, told her children that John MacBride had redeemed himself by his part in the rising. Shortly afterwards she left Paris for London, and her son was enrolled at the age of fourteen as a boarder at Mount St Benedict, a school run by the Benedictine monk John Francis Sweetman (qv) in Co. Wexford. Although he was to spend the greater part of the next forty-five years in Ireland, he always spoke English with a pronounced French accent.
Early political involvement How long MacBride spent in school in Wexford is difficult to establish. In his memoirs, written in the 1970s but not published until after his death, he claims to have become involved in Sinn Féin politics for the first time during the 1918 election, i.e. when he was fourteen. He also says that he became a student of law and agriculture, an unusual combination, in UCD at some unspecified date between 1918 and 1920, but that he never graduated because of his immersion in nationalist activities. His mother, who had been left reasonably comfortably off by her father, acquired with Charlotte Despard (qv) a large residence, Roebuck House, in the suburbs of Dublin during this period, and that was also to be her son's Dublin home for the remainder of his life.
While there is no reason to doubt MacBride's assertion that he became a member of Fianna Éireann, the junior branch of the IRA, at the age of fourteen, and at the age of sixteen, having lied about his age, was admitted to the IRA itself, the extent of his activities as an IRA member during the period from 1920 to the outbreak of the civil war in 1922 is difficult to assess. It seems clear that he was involved together with Robert Briscoe (qv) in importing arms into Ireland. In his memoirs he also recalls taking part in numerous ambushes in the Dublin area and claims to have been entrusted with a number of sensitive assignments by Michael Collins (qv), explaining that he looked older than his actual age. These culminated in an invitation to him by Collins to accompany him to London for the Anglo–Irish treaty negotiations from October to December 1921. His role, he said, was to provide some form of security for Collins, to arrange for the departure of the delegation from London in the event of the negotiations breaking down, and to bring dispatches between London and Dublin.
Given that he was only sixteen or seventeen at the time, one cannot eliminate the possibility that MacBride in later life overstated the importance of the role he played in the IRA during the period 1920–21. The fact that he was unusually well travelled and sophisticated for his age may have enhanced his status. The difficulties for his biographers are increased by the fact that so many of the leading figures on the Irish side wrote no memoirs. It is clear, however, that he joined the anti-treaty garrison which occupied the Four Courts in 1922 and that he was among those taken prisoner when the civil war began with the shelling of the Four Courts by the national army and the garrison after a short resistance surrendered. He was then detained in Mountjoy prison, where he remained for the rest of the civil war, but in October 1923, while he was being transferred from Mountjoy to Kilmainham, he escaped and succeeded in avoiding recapture. He continued to associate with those opposed to the treaty, including Éamon de Valera (qv), whom he accompanied to Rome in 1925.
MacBride married, on 26 January 1926, Catalina (Kid) Bulfin, whose father, William Bulfin (qv), had written a successful travel book about Ireland entitled Rambles in Eirinn. He was still unqualified and had no job, but his mother had started a jam factory with Madame Despard in Roebuck House, and he worked for her in addition to undertaking occasional journalism, spending time in Paris as well as in Dublin. He maintained his links with the anti-treaty side and in 1927 was arrested on suspicion of having been one of the assassins of Kevin O'Higgins (qv), the minister for justice in the Free State government. Maud Gonne asked her friend and admirer W. B. Yeats (qv), now a member of the Free State senate, to intercede with W. T. Cosgrave (qv), the president of the executive council, on her son's behalf, which he did without success. MacBride, who was being detained under draconian emergency legislation enacted in response to the assassination, was, however, able to establish an impeccable alibi: on the day of the murder he had been in Brussels in connection with the jam-making business, where he had met Major Bryan Cooper (qv), a TD and supporter of the government. He was as a result released.
He declined to follow de Valera when the latter decided to take the purely political road and established Fianna Fáil in 1927. He was one of the founders in 1931 of a new party called Saor Éire, which was effectively the political wing of those on the anti-treaty side who were opposed to de Valera's espousal of constitutional politics.
MacBride, however, had no great enthusiasm for the new party: he preferred to concentrate his energies on the IRA, which was still engaged in a campaign of violence, including the murder of members of the security forces, and of which he had become adjutant general. He was prominent among those who opposed a leftward leaning group in Saor Éire, led by Peadar O'Donnell (qv). He thought their policies would mean the IRA's contesting elections, which he was against, since, as he put it, he had ‘no faith in the opinion of the mass of the people’.
In June 1936 the government (since 1932 led by de Valera) declared the IRA an illegal organisation and its chief of staff, Maurice (Moss) Twomey (qv), was arrested and jailed. MacBride succeeded him as chief of staff, but his tenure of the position was not particularly happy; he seems to have been regarded by the rank and file as an exotic and intellectual figure. While he says in his memoirs that he decided to sever his connections with the IRA when the constitution was enacted the following year, on the ground that, as he saw it, sovereignty was now vested in the people for the first time, it is uncertain how final the severance was. The army council, however, did decide at this time (1937) that he should be replaced as chief of staff by Tom Barry (qv), and it seems likely that this, together with other factors, meant that, at the least, he was not as actively involved in the IRA's activities as before. The lack of any clear IRA policy in the new context, created by de Valera's largely successful removal of the features of the treaty most objectionable to the anti-treaty side and the constant feuding between factions in the organisation, was probably not congenial to the intelligent and energetic MacBride, and he had in any event at this stage resumed and successfully completed his legal studies; he was called to the bar in October 1937.
Lawyer While he became a member of the western circuit, MacBride established himself at an early stage in a criminal practice in Dublin. Shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, de Valera's government secured the enactment of the Offences Against the State Act, which enabled them to intern without trial a number of IRA members. MacBride appeared for one of the internees in the case of Burke v. Lennon, which led to a celebrated judgment from Mr Justice George Gavan Duffy (qv), striking down part of the legislation as repugnant to the new constitution. It was a notable forensic triumph for a relatively new junior, and MacBride scored a further success when the supreme court decided that the government were not entitled to appeal the decision. The case led to the second amendment of the constitution, designed to restore the power of internment.
The introduction of the original legislation had been prompted in part by a bombing campaign in England carried out by the IRA early in 1939. But the government were also concerned by the links which were being established between the IRA and the Nazi regime in Germany. MacBride's half-sister, Iseult Gonne, was married to the novelist Francis Stuart (qv), who emigrated to Germany in 1940 and later made anti-British and anti-American broadcasts to Ireland from Berlin. But there is no evidence that MacBride shared his views or played any part in the IRA's involvement with the Nazis. He did, however, maintain links with some prominent members of the IRA throughout the war years.
MacBride became a senior counsel in 1943, having spent only six years at the junior bar. The most significant part of his practice continued to be as counsel for the defendant in criminal cases, and he defended a number of IRA members. Shortly after the end of the war he became immersed in active politics as one of the founders in 1946 of a new party, Clann na Poblachta, of which he was to be the leader. The catalyst for its establishment was probably the death on hunger strike in Portlaoise prison of a prominent IRA member, Sean McCaughey. MacBride appeared at the inquest on behalf of the next of kin and extracted some damaging admissions from the prison doctor as to the inhumane conditions in which McCaughey had been kept. Among those who joined him in setting up the new party was his junior counsel at the inquest, Noel Hartnett (qv) (1909–60). While it predictably attracted former IRA members, it also appealed to many disillusioned Fianna Fáil supporters and others who were discontented with the economic and social state of Ireland at the time. Emigration was soaring, industrial employment had declined, wages were frozen, and, even after the end of the war, some foodstuffs were still rationed. A bad harvest in 1946, resulting from an unusually wet summer, increased the government's difficulties. So also did a protracted and bitter teachers’ strike in the same year, which provided many recruits for the new party. In three by-elections held in October 1947, Clann na Poblachta won two seats from Fianna Fáil, MacBride himself being returned for Co. Dublin. De Valera responded by calling a general election, no doubt in the hope that this would deny the new party time to develop its organisation.
The subsequent election in 1948 became known as the ‘Put Them Out’ election, in which all the opposition parties exploited the apparently widespread desire for change after sixteen years of Fianna Fáil government. It propelled MacBride, an unusual figure with his cadaverous appearance and foreign accent, to the centre of public life for the first time. His party's relatively radical programme, promising social and economic reform, including expenditure on housing, health, electrification, and afforestation, and the state's departure from the Commonwealth seemed to have a wide appeal to an electorate anxious for change, but the party made the mistake of putting up over ninety candidates without having adequate resources for so many contests. They also suffered from some virulent Fianna Fáil attacks, particularly from Sean MacEntee (qv), alleging communist sympathies on the part of its leading figures, including MacBride – a recall to the days of Saor Éire. A reorganisation of the constituencies, moreover, had blatantly favoured the government, and when the election took place in February 1948 it looked as though de Valera had successfully seen off the challenge. Clann na Poblachta had only ten seats and, while Fianna Fáil had failed to secure an overall majority, the opposition parties, including two feuding labour parties, seemed too disparate a group to provide an alternative government. However, they were at least united in their desire to put an end to de Valera's tenure of office, and the result was the first Irish coalition or ‘inter-party’ government, led by the attorney general in the Cosgrave government, John A. Costello (qv). MacBride's party was allotted two portfolios, the leader becoming minister for external affairs and his youthful colleague Dr Noel Browne (qv) minister for health. The latter appointment was to have fatal consequences for MacBride's future in Irish politics, but the early stages of both ministerial careers gave little hint of the problems to come.
In government MacBride was in some ways exceptionally well qualified to be a successful foreign minister: unusually for an Irish politician of the time, he was interested in international affairs, and his fluent command of French, as well as his personal charm, intellect, and industry, impressed his foreign counterparts. De Valera had insisted on retaining the external affairs portfolio since coming into office in 1932, and MacBride's tenure of the post raised the profile of the department considerably. This was helped by his regular attendance at meetings of newly formed bodies such as the Organisation for European Economic Cooperation and the Council of Europe. He was prominently involved in the drafting of the Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, which was to be one of the most conspicuous successes of the latter body. However, he also paid the penalty of not being sufficiently aware of looming problems at home in his own party.
MacBride's influence in the government, initially at least, extended beyond his own department. He had decided views on economics which were at odds with the fiscal orthodoxy prevalent in the Department of Finance, and these had some effect on the government's policies. His distrust of civil servants was also reflected in the remarkable decision, taken at his instance, to exclude the government secretary, Maurice Moynihan (qv), from meetings of the cabinet. He also enthusiastically supported Noel Browne's energetic campaign to eliminate tuberculosis, then a widespread disease in Ireland, which included a major hospital building programme.
Since Fine Gael was the largest party in the government and had traditionally supported Ireland's continuing membership of the Commmonwealth, no surprise was caused by MacBride's statement on assuming office that his party's policy on this issue was now ‘in abeyance’. However, leading members of the government, including Costello himself, had frequently expressed their dissatisfaction with the ambiguous nature of Ireland's relationship to the Commonwealth. They contrasted de Valera's claim that Ireland was a republic with the practice under which the letters of accreditation of Irish diplomats were signed by King George VI. There was thus no opposition in the cabinet when Costello at a press conference on an official visit to Canada in September 1948 said that Ireland's last formal link with the Commonwealth, the External Relations Act, 1936, was to be repealed, but there was to be much controversy in later years as to whether there had been any decision by the cabinet on the issue. No such decision prior to Costello's announcement in Ottawa is recorded in the cabinet minutes, such as they were – it will be recalled that the government secretary was excluded from meetings – and the secretary of the Department of External Affairs, F. H. Boland (qv), said in later life that he was taken completely by surprise by Costello's announcement. So too was the British Labour government. Noel Browne in his memoirs also said that no such decision had been taken by the cabinet. While MacBride in his memoirs does not suggest that any formal decision was taken by the cabinet, he emphasises the support for leaving the Commonwealth expressed by ministers at cabinet meetings.
The repeal of the Act and the ending of Ireland's membership of the Commonwealth would, in other circumstances, have been a triumph for MacBride and his party. But Costello's announcement in Canada made, if Boland is correct, without any consultation with MacBride's department and the taoiseach's decision to pilot the legislation through the oireachtas himself, suggest that the decision owed more to Costello's unhappiness with the External Relations Act, and his belief that repealing it would successfully outflank de Valera on the issue, than to MacBride's influence. In the event, while the British government raised no objection and cooperated in ensuring that Irish citizens continued to receive the same treatment as Commonwealth citizens, the unionist government in Northern Ireland seized the opportunity to secure the inclusion for the first time in Westminster legislation (the Ireland Act, 1949) of a guarantee that the status of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom would not be altered without the consent of the Northern Ireland parliament – a significant reverse for the anti-partition aspirations of the inter-party government, not least those of MacBride himself.
MacBride was closely involved in the Irish application for financial assistance from the United States under the Marshall Plan designed to encourage European recovery in the post-war period. He was also the negotiator on behalf of the sixteen applicant nations. He was successful in ensuring that the Irish application was dealt with by his department rather than the Department of Finance, the leading officials in which were unenthusiastic at the prospect of such aid, taking the view that it would be squandered by politicians on wasteful and inflationary schemes. The amounts actually received in loans and grants were significantly lower than he had hoped, but some of them went to a project dear to his heart, afforestation.
When the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation was formed in 1949 under the leadership of the USA, and Ireland was invited to join, MacBride saw the invitation as an opportunity to obtain American support for the ending of partition. Far from being hostile to the prospect of Ireland being involved in a military alliance, even one armed with nuclear weapons, he was an enthusiastic supporter of the US policy of containing the expansion of the Soviet Union, and had facilitated the transmission of funds through diplomatic channels to the Italian Christian Democrat party when a communist victory in the 1948 general election seemed a real possibility. While his views on these issues were in stark contrast to those he put forward in later life, they reflected the attitudes of virtually all Irish politicians of the time. But President Truman and his secretary of state, Dean Acheson, were unmoved by MacBride's assertion that Ireland could not join the alliance while Britain remained in occupation of Northern Ireland, and an attempt to negotiate a bi-lateral defence treaty with the US after NATO had been established was also rejected. While MacBride's efforts to use the Irish membership of NATO as a means of ending partition were naive and futile, he was by no means alone among Irish politicians in using the international scene in vain attempts to secure assistance from other countries in ending partition: de Valera had embarked on a world tour with the same object in mind after his 1948 defeat.
The crisis in Clann na Poblachta Meanwhile, serious tensions had developed between MacBride and one of his principal lieutenants in Clann na Poblachta, Noel Hartnett. Hartnett was convinced that under MacBride the party had lost its raison d’être, and he was joined in this view by Noel Browne, of whom he was a close friend. Hartnett resigned from the party in February 1951, and a few weeks later it was plunged into the crisis surrounding the collapse of Browne's mother and child scheme.
The Health Act of 1947, brought in by the Fianna Fáil government, had included provision for a similar scheme of ante- and post-natal assistance for mothers and children under sixteen, with no means test, but it had not been implemented when they left office. Browne's attempts to introduce such a scheme met with strong opposition from the medical profession, but it was the intervention of the catholic hierarchy that was to prove critical. They disapproved of the scheme on two grounds: first, that it was wrong to require the taxpayer to bear the cost of medical assistance to any except those who could not afford to pay for it and, second, that the scheme would permit the giving of advice by doctors to women in gynecological matters which would be contrary to catholic moral teaching. Browne, under the mistaken impression that he had satisfied the bishops on their reservations, went ahead with his proposals. But the hierarchy renewed their objections through Archbishop John Charles McQuaid (qv) of Dublin, and Costello and MacBride told Browne that the government could not proceed with the scheme. Browne refused to give way, and although the constitution provided that a minister could be removed from office only by the taoiseach, it was MacBride who demanded Browne's resignation, which the latter transmitted to Costello on 10 April 1951. Browne also released to the newspapers his correspondence with the other parties, including a particularly vitriolic letter from him to MacBride.
The crisis was portrayed by the Irish Times, the only recognisably liberal newspaper in Ireland at the time, as graphically demonstrating the subservience of Irish politicians to the church. This was not surprising, given that Costello and MacBride had made it clear that as ministers they felt obliged to act in accordance with catholic moral teaching and were supported in this view by the entire cabinet. (Even Browne accepted at the time that, as a catholic, he thought it his duty to act as a minister in accordance with catholic moral doctrines, although he refused to accept that the bishops’ objections were grounded in such doctrines.) Unionists in Northern Ireland claimed that it reinforced their worst suspicions of clerical dominance in the republic. There was also the indisputable fact that at the time the National Health Service in the UK was being established without any opposition from the catholic hierarchy there. It is difficult to quarrel with the verdict of most historians that the damaging repercussions of the crisis could have been avoided by more adroit handling of the issues on the part of all concerned. Only three years later, the Fianna Fáil government was able to introduce a broadly similar scheme without episcopal objection.
The effects on Clann na Poblachta and its leader were immediate and catastrophic. Unusually in Ireland, the internal disagreements in a political party were publicly and viciously aired, and in the general election which followed a few weeks later, when some independent deputies withdrew their support from the government on a farming issue, the party was almost annihilated. MacBride, who only five years earlier had become the charismatic leader of a movement dominated by radical republican and left-wing elements, was now irredeemably associated with the most socially conservative elements in Irish life and, although he was one of the two Clann na Poblachta deputies returned, his political career never fully recovered. He informed Costello that he would not accept ministerial office because of the reduced representation of his party, but this did not arise, as Fianna Fáil under de Valera returned to office as a minority government. He was elected again as one of three Clann na Poblachta deputies in the next election in 1954, but the party adopted the same policy of not serving in the second inter-party government led by Costello. They continued to support the government, but relations cooled as the economy moved into a severe depression. There was also a renewal of IRA violence in 1956 directed at Northern Ireland and, although the measures adopted in response by the government were relatively mild, they were viewed unfavourably by Clann na Poblachta. Early in 1957 the party withdrew its support from the government, and in the general election which followed (5 March) MacBride lost his seat (though Clann na Poblachta won three seats). He failed to be elected in two by-elections (Dublin south-central 1958 and Dublin south west 1959) and in the 1961 general election. He never stood for the dáil again. Clann na Poblachta was dissolved in 1965.
International role MacBride had returned to practice at the bar in 1951 and appeared in a number of notable cases in subsequent years. Among these was a case in the European Court of Human Rights in 1958 where he was successful in securing the release of the Greek Cypriot leader, Archbishop Makarios, who had been deported by the British government to the Seychelles, and the Ó Laighleis case in 1960 in which MacBride invoked – unsuccessfully – the European Convention of Human Rights in an attempt to strike down Irish internment legislation.
MacBride's interest in the protection of human rights, which had been evident in his work on the European Convention, was also reflected in the part he played in the establishment of Amnesty International: he became the chairman of its international executive committee in 1961. In 1963 he left the bar to serve as the full-time secretary general of the International Commission of Jurists based in Geneva. He became a familiar figure on the international scene and was president of – among other bodies – the International Peace Bureau in Geneva. In 1973 he was appointed the United Nations commissioner for Namibia when the UN requested the Union of South Africa, which occupied the territory under a League of Nations mandate, to leave the territory and permit elections to be held – which South Africa refused to do. MacBride, who was given the rank of UN assistant secretary general, was said by the secretary general in a tribute after his death to have played a major role in securing international support for Namibian independence.
MacBride's work at the international level, however, received its most impressive acknowledgement in 1974, when he was awarded the Nobel peace prize jointly with a former Japanese prime minister, Eisaku Sato, thus becoming the first Irish Nobel peace laureate. The award to him of the Lenin peace prize in 1977 by the Soviet Union was greeted with less general enthusiasm; it was seen by some as a dubious honour for an advocate of human rights.
After his tenure as commissioner for Namibia came to an end in 1977, MacBride returned to practise at the bar. He never became actively involved in politics again, but was among those who sought to bring to a negotiated end the IRA hunger strikes in Long Kesh prison in Northern Ireland in 1981. His socially conservative instincts were reflected in his support for the pro-life campaign in the 1983 abortion referendum and his opposition to the 1986 referendum to remove the prohibition on divorce from the constitution.
MacBride died 15 January 1988, at the age of eighty-three, after a short illness and was buried in Glasnevin cemetery beside his mother and his wife: the latter had predeceased him in 1976. He was survived by the two children of their marriage, Anna MacBride White (b. 1927) and Tiernan (1934–95). In his will he left all his papers to Catriona Lawlor, his personal secretary for the last eleven years of his life. She edited and published in 2005 his memoirs of the period 1904–51 under the title That day's struggle.