Ryan, Eoin (1920–2001), lawyer, businessman, and politician, was born in Dublin on 12 June 1920, at a time when his father and mother were actively engaged in the war of independence. His father, Dr James Ryan (qv), when a medical student had attended to James Connolly (qv) in the GPO in 1916 and his mother, Máirín Cregan – who as Máirín Ni Chriagáin was a noted writer of children's stories in Irish – also held a 1916 service medal. While they were among the preeminent Fianna Fáil dynasties, there was another dimension to the Ryan family which was captured by Fine Gael senator Maurice Manning in his tribute to Ryan following his death in December 2001: ‘The Ryans were a Civil War family, with members on both sides of the political divide, but there was never any sense of bitterness or any attempt to exploit Civil War memories. On the contrary, theirs was a family of reconciliation.’
Ryan was educated at Presentation College, Bray, and at Mount St Joseph's College, Roscrea. From there he went on to UCD but broke off his studies to join the Defence Forces during the emergency years, rising to the rank of captain during the period 1940–43. He maintained his links with the army throughout his life and was proud of this involvement. Having resumed his studies at UCD, in 1944 he was awarded a BA in economics and the diploma in public administration, and in 1945, following studies at the King's Inns, he was called to the bar. A very successful commercial law practice saw him called to the inner bar in 1963. From his early adulthood, he was in close contact with contemporary politics through his father; the future taoiseach Seán Lemass (qv) used to play poker with James Ryan in Eoin's Dublin flat.
Unlike his father, Eoin never plunged full time into political life. Instead, he preferred to advance his views in the seanad and in the governing bodies of the Fianna Fáil party, where he served for many years on the national executive and as a vice-president. Over three decades he managed to combine a career in the seanad with practising at the bar and being an influential presence in the boardrooms of high-profile companies. He became a member of the Fianna Fáil national executive at the second meeting, held on Monday 12 July 1948, of the executive elected by the nineteenth Ard-Fheis. Item 5 on the agenda dealt with the matter of co-options, and there were thirteen nominees for the five available positions. Ryan was successful, along with inter alia Major Vivion de Valera (qv) and the future attorney general and supreme court judge Anthony J. Hederman. Ryan duly attended his first meeting on 21 July 1948.
Following Fianna Fáil's loss of power in the 1954 general election, Seán Lemass asked a group of young party activists, including Ryan, to travel the country to reinvigorate the party at the local level. They were not only to reorganise a demoralised party but also to spread the Lemass economic doctrine designed to lift Ireland out of its depression. Others in this modernising group of Fianna Fáil young Turks were Charles Haughey (1925–2006), Brian Lenihan (qv), and George Colley (qv). Lemass also put Ryan on a committee with Michael Yeats (1921–2007) charged with developing new education policies. Noel Browne (qv), the former Clann na Poblachta minister who had subsequently joined Fianna Fáil, had inspired the setting up of this committee.
Fianna Fáil's return to power in 1957 saw Ryan winning a seanad seat on the labour panel. He was to serve as a senator until 1987, having switched to the industrial and commercial panel in 1961. For four of those years (1965–9) his father was also a senator, having retired from the dáil. Ryan was an ardent supporter of Ireland playing a full role in European affairs. He represented Ireland at the Council of Europe from 1960 to 1964 and was leader of the delegation from 1962 to 1964. In 1963–4 he was vice-president of the general assembly of the Council of Europe. He was also active in the Irish Council of the European Movement and was chairman in the crucial pre-EEC entry years of 1971–3.
During his long and distinguished career in the seanad, Ryan served on numerous committees, including the select committee on statutory instruments (1957–9), the committee on procedure and privileges (1973–81), the dáil and seanad joint committee on the legislation of European communities (1973–7), and the committee on state-sponsored bodies (1978–81), of which he was chairman. He was leader of the seanad from 1977 to 1981 and leader of the Fianna Fáil group from 1973 to 1977 and from 1981 to 1983.
Ryan was director of elections when Fianna Fáil swept back into power in a landslide victory in 1977, and was appointed leader of the party in the seanad. He stood out in the Fianna Fáil party for his approach, liberal for the time, to the then controversial issues of contraception and divorce. When Jack Lynch (qv) resigned as taoiseach and Fianna Fáil leader and was replaced by Charles Haughey in December 1979, there was well-documented tension between the new leader and the disappointed candidate George Colley, who was less than fulsome in his pledges of loyalty to his new leader. The deal which enabled a Haughey-led administration to be formed, with Colley as tánaiste and holding a veto over Haughey's appointments to the posts of minister for justice and defence, was brokered in Ryan's Park Avenue house. He was again director of elections in 1981 when Fianna Fáil was ousted from power. Later that year he strongly criticised the new taoiseach, Dr Garret FitzGerald (qv), for announcing a ‘crusade’ against ‘sectarian’ laws and warned against any attempt to remove Articles 2 and 3 of the constitution, which expressed ‘the unalterable aspiration of the great majority of the Irish people to the unity of Ireland’.
In October 1982, when the heaves against Haughey's leadership began, Ryan, then Fianna Fáil leader in the seanad, firmly aligned himself with the anti-Haughey faction. At the meeting of the Fianna Fáil national executive on 4 October 1982 he declared that Haughey had proven ‘an electoral liability’. He did not support Haughey in the vote of confidence in his leadership passed at the same meeting. This meeting took place just two days before the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party voted 58 to 22 against a motion of no confidence in Haughey's leadership, proposed by the backbench TD Charlie McCreevy. Ryan was easily re-elected to the seanad in February 1983 on the industrial and commercial panel. This was despite what was reported as ‘a quiet campaign waged by pro-Haughey elements in the party’ against him (Ir. Times, 3 Feb. 1983). He was to pay for his outspoken opposition to Haughey's leadership, nonetheless, when he was replaced as leader of the Fianna Fáil group by the Kilkenny senator Michael Lanigan.
There was another clash with Haughey over the latter's interpretation of the report of the New Ireland forum in May 1984 as saying that the ‘unitary state’ was the only basis for a solution to the Northern Ireland problem. Ryan publicly rejected this interpretation and called for a parliamentary party meeting to thrash out the differing views. The signing of the Anglo–Irish agreement the following year increased the distance between Ryan and the official Fianna Fáil stance as laid down by Haughey. He refused to vote for the Fianna Fáil amendment criticising the agreement in the seanad because he did not see the agreement as incompatible with Articles 2 and 3 of the constitution. He did not seek election to the 18th seanad in 1987, which meant that, for the first time since the foundation of the state, the oireachtas had no member from his family. His son Eoin was, however, elected to the 19th seanad in 1989.
After his retirement from the seanad, Ryan's only subsequent appearance in public life came when he appeared on 28 June 2000 as a witness to the Moriarty tribunal, an inquiry into payments to politicians and related matters. His evidence was juxtaposed in media coverage with that of Dr Michael Smurfit, who gave evidence that Charles Haughey had been personally soliciting money from him at the same time that Ryan was approaching him for donations to the Fianna Fáil party.
Ryan died on 14 December 2001. The leader of the seanad summed up his importance to Fianna Fáil: ‘As an officer of the party and friend and adviser to many taoisigh and ministers, his importance to the Fianna Fáil organisation was far greater than his official role.’ In the history of Ireland's commercial life, Ryan will always be associated with the New Ireland Assurance Company, of which he was chairman for many years from 1971. At New Ireland, he played a leading role in resisting a takeover attempt by the rival PMPA of Joe Moore and in bringing in the French UAP company as a white knight with a substantial shareholding. Other companies of which he was a director at various times included the Smurfit group, Lyons Irish Holdings, the Ulster Investment Bank, the Doyle Hotel group, the Smith group and Aran Energy. He was also a governor of the Central Bank after retirement from politics.
Away from the storms of politics and the power struggles of the boardrooms, Ryan and his wife, Joan Olive Dowd (1923–2003), whom he married in 1949, enjoyed poetry and the theatre. They were friends of the poet Patrick Kavanagh (qv), and supported him at his neediest periods. Kavanagh was godfather to their daughter Derbhail (they also had three sons, James, Eoin and Mark), and the Kavanaghs’ wedding reception was held in what was then the Ryans’ Dublin home at 4 Winton Rd.