Nunan, Seán (1890–1981), republican and diplomat, was born 23 May 1890 in London of Irish parents. His father was a native of Newcastle West, Co. Limerick, who was brought to London by his parents c.1855, and his mother was born in London of Irish parents who originally came from ‘around Drumcollogher’ in Co. Limerick (BMH statement). Nunan's parents were extremely nationalistic and strongly pro-Fenian. He was a member of the London Gaelic League and the GAA from childhood and joined the Irish Volunteers in London in 1913. Following the 1914 split in the movement he remained with the Irish Volunteers. As rumours spread of a possible rising in Ireland, Nunan and his brother Ernest (‘Ernie’) returned to Ireland in 1915 and joined E Company of the 4th Battalion at Rathfarnham, Co. Dublin. They were later transferred to the ‘Larkfield’ Battalion, which was comprised chiefly of returned exiles and was commanded by Count George Plunkett (qv).
Before the rising, Nunan was one of the founders of the Larkfield–Kimmage camp, a converted mill used for drilling and the manufacture of bombs. With his brother he fought in the GPO during the 1916 rising. On the ceasefire order Nunan downed arms at the Gresham Hotel on O'Connell St. He was interned at Stafford jail and at Frongoch camp. While he was a prisoner, Nunan was judged to be liable for conscription because of his birth in London. He was forcibly enlisted in the 6th Battalion of the London Regiment. Refusing to follow orders, he was court-martialled, found guilty, and sentenced to twelve months’ hard labour at Winchester prison and later at Wandsworth prison. He was eventually released as he was found not to be eligible to serve in the British armed forces, having taken up arms against the crown.
Returning to Dublin, Nunan joined C Company of the 2nd Battalion of the Volunteers. Nunan was active in the campaign for Sinn Féin at the Longford by-election and served as one of the election agents for Éamon de Valera (qv) in Clare for the 1918 general election. He was also in charge of the arrangements at the Kilkenny by-election at which W. T. Cosgrave (qv) was elected. Later he worked in Sinn Féin headquarters on Harcourt St., Dublin. In 1919 he was sworn into the IRB. By March 1919 he had taken part in the release from Mountjoy prison of a number of Sinn Féin prisoners, including Piaras Beaslaí (qv) and J. J. Walsh (qv). He then assisted Michael Collins (qv) in intelligence gathering, recording the work of detective ‘G-men’ engaged in the political aspects of anti-IRA work at Brunswick St. (latterly Pearse St.) police station.
Nunan served as one of the four clerks of Dáil Éireann from January to April 1919 and was a caller of the roll. From April to June 1919 he was private secretary to Éamon de Valera, for whose political judgment he would always retain the highest regard. To de Valera, Nunan was ‘a legion’ (Documents on Irish foreign policy, i, 43). To Nunan, de Valera ‘epitomised the new Ireland born in 1916’ and had a ‘magnetic personality and patent honesty of purpose’ (BMH statement).
In June 1919 Nunan was sent to the USA in connection with the dáil loan, working his passage from Liverpool to New York as a fireman on board the Cunard liner Aquitania, arriving on 22 June. He remained with de Valera as his secretary and unofficial ADC until November 1919; thereafter he was transferred to the bond certificate headquarters as registrar of the Irish Republican Bonds Association. He was responsible for dispensing $100,000 of the money collected by the loan and for arranging the procurement of arms for the IRA and their dispatch to Ireland.
Though Nunan was close to Michael Collins, he did not accept the 1921 Anglo–Irish treaty. Having returned to Ireland, disembarking at Cobh on 27 December 1921, from April to September 1922 Nunan served on the White Cross committee which distributed relief aid to republican dependants. Just before his death (August 1922), Collins was known to have been anxious to dismiss Nunan from government service. Nunan was put under military surveillance for his suspected involvement in and sympathies towards anti-treaty politics. Forces of the national army raided Nunan's offices in Dublin, yet nothing incriminating was found. Though there was no definite evidence against Nunan, he was suspended (September 1922) on political grounds for his involvement in the White Cross committee and was finally dismissed (January 1923). Returning to the US (1924), Nunan commenced work in a stockbroking business in New York.
On the election of Fianna Fáil (1932) Nunan applied to have his dismissal examined by the committee of inquiry into the cases of civil servants who resigned or were dismissed for political reasons in 1922. He was reinstated in the civil service as a public interest appointment on 1 November 1932, being appointed secretary to Leo McCauley (qv), the consul general in New York. Nunan's reappointment was the subject of an angry exchange in the dáil on 7 December 1932 between Fianna Fáil's Seán T. O'Kelly (qv), standing in for the minister for external affairs, Éamon de Valera, and Cuman na nGaedheal's Desmond FitzGerald (qv) and Patrick McGilligan (qv), both former ministers for external affairs, who questioned Nunan's suitability to take up a diplomatic posting.
Nunan spent six years in New York before moving to London as first secretary (1938–41). He accompanied the minister for the coordination of defensive measures, Frank Aiken (qv), to the US in April 1941 and remained there as counsellor at the Irish embassy in Washington from August 1941. In 1946 he returned to New York as consul general, where he remained to 1 March 1947. In 1947 he was appointed Irish minister to the US, succeeding Robert Brennan (qv); he held the post for three years, to 1950. This was an important period in Irish relations with the US and Nunan relied on the services of two experienced rising talents within External Affairs, Thomas Commins (qv) and Hugh McCann (qv), in Washington as Ireland became involved in the European recovery program and refused to join NATO.
Nunan returned to Dublin initially as assistant secretary at External Affairs, but on 26 September 1950 he replaced Frederick Boland (qv) as secretary of the department, following Boland's move to London as ambassador. After Boland's careful modernisation of Irish foreign policy in trade and economic affairs from 1946, Nunan's appointment was not an inspired choice; it was made on grounds of seniority, which remained the norm in External Affairs until the 1960s. He lacked wide knowledge of the scope of Irish foreign policy, having spent the greater part of his career serving in US postings. Nunan was a survivor from the Dáil Éireann foreign service; his talents were not suited to the needs of 1950s Irish foreign policy, and his years as secretary saw little of the leadership supplied by Boland, much of the important work in the department being undertaken by his assistant secretaries and by senior counsellors, in particular Tim O'Driscoll (qv).
Nunan retired on 23 May 1955 at the statutory age of 65, and was appointed a director of the Irish Press newspaper; he remained active on the board of the newspaper until his death. He died 31 January 1981 at his home, Dún Mhuire, Vico Road, Dalkey, Co. Dublin, and was buried in Glasnevin cemetery on 3 February. He left an estate of £110,941.
Seán Nunan married Ann Ryan, they had one child, Seamus.