Walshe, Joseph Patrick (1886–1956), diplomat, was born 2 October 1886 in Killenaule, Co. Tipperary, fifth among six children of James Walshe (1835–1900), hotelier, retailer, farmer, and nationalist county councillor for Tipperary South Riding (1899–1900), and Frances Ellen (‘Fannie’) Walshe (neé Heenan; 1858–1931). Educated at the Jesuit apostolic school, Mungret College, outside Limerick city, he entered the Society of Jesus in 1903, studying for two years at the Jesuit noviciate at Tullybeg, King's Co. (Offaly). He continued his education at Gemert in the Netherlands, where he remained to 1910, studying with priests from the Jesuit province of Toulouse forced to take refuge in the Netherlands because of the anti-clerical laws then in force in France. During these years he became fluent in French and acquired the rudiments of German and Dutch.
On returning to Ireland in 1910 Walshe taught French, Latin, Greek, English, mathematics, and Irish (of which he was a fluent speaker) at Clongowes Wood College, Co. Kildare. His students included the future archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid (qv). In 1913 Walshe entered UCD and was awarded a BA (1916). He left the Jesuits in 1916 without completing his training, possibly suffering from ill health, but remained a devout catholic through his diplomatic career, seeking to place Irish foreign policy on a strongly catholic footing. He eschewed the catholicism of Maynooth and looked to Rome, the Holy See, and European catholicism for inspiration. In December 1933 he wrote that ‘the church in Ireland . . . has failed because it has departed from the ideals of the universal Church and concentrated the minds of the people on one or two negative commandments to the exclusion of the general teaching of Christ’ (Documents on Irish foreign policy, iv, 275).
Returning to UCD on leaving the Jesuits, Walshe studied for an MA in French, which he was awarded in 1917. During this period he also studied law and became politically active in the Irish independence movement. He held a number of short-term jobs in Dublin in these years, including waiting in Jammet's, the famous French restaurant (he was, after all, a hotel owner's son) and working in a French-language bookshop in the city. France and Italy, in particular the Vatican, in addition to the Holy Land, were to exert an enduring cultural and intellectual influence on Walshe through his life.
Though he was a qualified solicitor, diplomacy interested Walshe more than a legal career. In November 1920 he joined the Dáil Éireann mission to the Paris peace conference, led by Seán T. O'Kelly (qv), as part of the clandestine pre-independence Irish foreign service. This period in Paris, as well as his earlier years in Gemert, had a strong influence on Walshe and his later style showed influences from French diplomacy. Returning to Dublin in early 1922, he became secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs at the suggestion of the outgoing secretary, Robert Brennan (qv), who had resigned, being unable to accept the 1921 Anglo–Irish treaty. Holding the pro-treaty core of the department (renamed External Affairs in December 1922) together through the civil war (1922–3), Walshe was initially designated ‘acting secretary’, a term he disliked.
In the 1920s Walshe protected his small department from the predatory Department of the President of the Executive Council, which sought to incorporate External Affairs into its own structure, and from the Department of Finance, which sought to close External Affairs down. In August 1927 he was officially appointed secretary, his position now being equal to the heads of other government departments. Walshe used the period following the assassination of his minister, Kevin O'Higgins (qv), to effect this change when the president of the executive council, William T. Cosgrave (qv), was acting minister for external affairs. With Cosgrave on his side, Walshe could overcome any opposition from Finance. A small expansion of the department's overseas missions followed in 1929, when Ireland opened legations in Paris, Rome, and the Holy See. By the end of the 1920s Walshe had built a professional, apolitical, and impartial diplomatic service out of the ruins of the Dáil Éireann diplomatic service which split over the 1921 treaty. He undertook important overseas work, attending the assemblies of the League of Nations and the imperial conferences of 1923, 1926, and 1930. Travelling to Rome in 1929, he undertook the groundwork for the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Ireland. When Ireland hosted the 1932 eucharistic congress, he organised the official welcome for distinguished visitors.
Through the 1920s Walshe identified himself strongly with the incumbent Cumann na nGaedheal government. Following the election of Fianna Fáil in 1932, Éamon de Valera (qv) became president of the executive council (prime minister) and minister for external affairs. Walshe initially feared that he would be removed as secretary of the department, but on the contrary he made himself indispensable to de Valera in the most important areas of Irish foreign policy (in particular in Anglo–Irish relations), and he and de Valera developed a strong working relationship. Though the strategic direction of foreign policy remained with de Valera, Walshe had considerable latitude in its execution, revelled in being de Valera's éminence grise, and often appeared to model his modus operandi on those of seventeenth-century French diplomats such as Père Joseph, Cardinal Richelieu, or Cardinal Mazarin. Though he committed very little to paper of his views on the correct style and manner of diplomacy, there are striking similarities between François de Callières's On the manner of negotiating with princes, first published in 1716, and Walshe's diplomatic style.
Under de Valera, Walshe further strengthened External Affairs's position in the Irish administrative system. By the outbreak of the second world war, External Affairs, and Walshe himself, had played a central role in de Valera's redefinition of Anglo–Irish relations, culminating in the 1938 Anglo–Irish agreements on trade, finance and defence. Walshe was now identified closely with de Valera, and the later 1930s saw his greatest hold on power.
Through the war Walshe undertook high-level negotiations with British officials to ensure that Ireland, though neutral, provided Britain with intelligence reports and other assistance. Walshe knew that Ireland was under threat of invasion from Britain and from Germany. Ireland lacked a viable military capacity to repel any invader, and throughout the conflict had to rely on the soft power of its diplomatic service to protect Irish neutrality. Heading that service, Walshe made sure to keep on good terms with the British representative in Dublin, Sir John Maffey (qv), and the German minister to Ireland, Eduard Hempel (qv), but he found his relationship with the American minister, David Gray (qv), much more difficult to maintain. Photographs show that Walshe aged noticeably during the war. Coming close to complete physical and mental breakdown in 1942, he nevertheless skilfully handled the crises of wartime diplomacy, in particular the ‘American note’ incident of February 1944, and had earlier calmed growing tension between Ireland and Germany as Hempel showed his disapproval at the interning of crash-landed German airmen while allied airmen were allowed over the border into Northern Ireland. Walshe ensured that Ireland, though secretly strongly pro-Allied, appeared in public as scrupulously neutral. However, he was unable to prevent de Valera from undertaking on 2 May 1945 his visit to the residence of the German minister to give his condolences on the death of Hitler. Walshe had a strong interest in the politics of Vichy France and something of an interest in Italian corporatism; like many people of his time he was also prone to the occasional anti-Semitic remark, but he was never a supporter of the ideologies of Hitler's Germany – he was a firm supporter of democracy, and his catholicism was strongly at odds with Nazi policies.
In September 1946 Walshe presided over a four-day conference of the heads of Irish missions abroad and the heads of key senior departments of state at Iveagh House. It was to draw up the blueprint for Irish foreign policy in the post-war years, which would in particular promote national cultural propaganda and foreign trade. The conference had the feel of a religious retreat about it, and in his résumé of the conference Walshe tellingly referred to Ireland's diplomats as ‘apostles for this country’ (NAI, DFA Secretaries files, P100).
But Walshe's years running External Affairs were drawing to a close. In May 1946 he took up the post of ambassador to the Holy See, his first overseas posting since 1922. He was the first Irish diplomat to hold a posting at this diplomatic rank. In the post-war world his old-style diplomacy was overtaken by new forms of technocratic and multilateral diplomacy, and he became something of an anachronism to junior officers in External Affairs. But to Walshe, representing Ireland at the Vatican was the highest possible accolade and the crowning moment of his diplomatic career. During his eight years at the Holy See he was on the front line of the Cold War. With Italian politics bitterly divided between left and right, he – a lifelong opponent of communism – obtained financial support from Ireland for the Christian Democrats in the 1948 elections. He wished to show the Vatican that Ireland was a strong supporter of the catholic church in its anti-communist crusade, but Irish fidelity did not always rank as highly in Vatican opinions as Walshe hoped. Having moved from a post that involved running a growing department, down to running an embassy with a very small staff, he often appeared to be depressed while posted to the Holy See. He no longer held the levers of power; and while he could operate in one of his dearest environments, he was now only a minor player on a much larger and more complex stage. In 1954, in recognition of his services, the Holy See awarded Walshe the Order of the Sword and Cape, and made him a Chevalier Grand Cross of the Order of St Sylvester, with the rank of papal chamberlain.
On retirement in October 1954 Walshe hoped to live in Rome and remain of service to the Vatican. However, the heart and respiratory problems that had dogged him during his life returned. To improve his health he moved to Kalk Bay, Cape Province, South Africa. While returning to Rome in early 1956, he was taken ill in Egypt and died of cardiac asthma at the Anglo–American Hospital, Cairo, on 6 February 1956. He was buried in the Commonwealth War Graves cemetery, Cairo. It is said that Walshe had made it clear before he died (though it is not in his will) that he wished to be buried where he died, expecting it to be Rome, rather than Cairo. Yet, as he was a frequent traveller in Egypt, Sudan, and Palestine in the 1930s, this can perhaps be regarded as a second best.
Joseph Walshe remains among the most significant figures in the history of twentieth-century Irish diplomacy. He was the founder and father of the modern Irish diplomatic service. He rebuilt the Department of External Affairs from the ruins of the split over the 1921 treaty, and served the Cumann an nGaedheal, Fianna Fáil, and inter-party governments. His colleague Leo McCauley (qv) wrote to Walshe in 1934 that he knew that the Department of External Affairs was ‘the apple of your eye, bone of your bone, flesh of your flesh’ (NAI, DFA S78(a)).
Walshe favoured a closed style of diplomacy and was often in conflict over matters of policy with his own colleagues and with senior officials in other government departments. He often kept his assistant secretary and best friend from UCD days, Seán Murphy (qv), in the dark about important decisions. Walshe was also mercurial and quick to take offence. Though he would say that his mood swings were merely mischievous on his part, he almost fell out with Murphy over the direction of Irish policy towards France in 1940–41, when Murphy, on the spot as minister to the Vichy government, was in a better position to comment on developments in France. Walshe had had a similar run-in with Seán Lester (qv) in 1931 over the Irish response at the League of Nations to the Japanese invasion of Manchuria; and by the 1950s he had a less than civil relationship with the Irish minister to Rome, his old colleague from the Dáil Éireann foreign service, Michael MacWhite (qv). It is therefore no surprise to learn that when he was approached by Michael McDunphy (qv) to contribute a witness statement to the Bureau of Military History, he replied: ‘I am afraid that I should have to ask to be relieved of such a task . . . I cannot believe that it would be a good precedent for a civil servant to tell the story of his own period . . . that kind of story, especially in a post like mine, would have repercussions which, cumulatively, could be quite detrimental to the interests of the state’ (NAI, DFA Holy See Embassy 20/87). It is abundantly clear that Walshe saw External Affairs as his creation, and that he and it were inseparable.
Though a civil servant, Walshe was a strongly political actor, often uneasy with the constraints of public service. He was not always a cool, calm diplomat and was prone to being excitable, overzealous, and emotional. His complex personality left a strong impression on those who met him. He could appear as all things to all people, seeking out their vulnerable points and using them as a means to achieve his own ends. Contemporaries remarked on his ability to influence people and to win them over to his way of thinking. Yet in his private life Walshe was unostentatious and humble, happy to have been of service to the Irish state.
He never married and on his death left an estate to the value of £3,014 to his brother Patrick. Unsubstantiated lore in External Affairs was that he had always hoped to marry his colleague Sheila Murphy (qv), but his poor health came in the way.