Name: Seán Lemass
Party: Fianna Fáil
Terms in office: June ’59-November ‘66
Some professions just lend themselves to producing politicians. Liam Cosgrave, Charles Haughey, Jack Lynch and John A. Costello practiced law. Enda Kenny and DeValera were teachers. Brian Cowen and W.T. Cosgrave were barmen.
Long before he was Taoiseach, Seán Lemass was an assassin.
How did he go from professional homicide specialist to leader of an entire nation? And why do I consider him such a great Taoiseach? Well, that last one should be obvious.
Because I’m afraid of him.
So it’s 1919, three years after the Easter Rising. Most of the Rising’s leaders have been executed, meaning that the republican movement is now being led by people who know what they’re doing. Sorry Padraig Pearse fans, but c’mon. This was his plan:
Michael Collins, a man who understood that you take over the post office after you’ve won the war, was now running a guerrilla campaign against the British government in Ireland. He had a problem though. The British had an extremely effective network of spies, informants and secret police being run out of Dublin Castle who were keeping very close tabs on Collins’ operations, the finks.
Collins issued a formal declaration of “Snitches Get Stitches”, warning all crown agents to either quit their intelligence activities or put their affairs in order. Collins then formed a hand-picked team of elite gunmen called The Twelve Apostles (because there is literally no point in assembling a team of elite gunmen if you’re not going to give them a cool name) and set them loose on the British intelligence apparatus. And before you knew it guys with fedoras were gunning each other down in the streets, in restaurants and in bedrooms in a passable imitation of the climax of The Godfather.
And one of those ambitious young gunmen was Seán Lemass, our future Taoiseach.
Seán Lemass grew up in Dublin’s city centre in the early twentieth century, when the capital was deep in its “Dickensian hellhole” phase. He joined the Irish volunteers at the age of only 15 because he looked older and the rebels were seriously lax about carding. His membership in the volunteers also indirectly led to the single most awful incident I’ve come across for this project.
In 1916, while cleaning his service weapon, Lemass accidentally shot and killed his two year old brother Herbert.
We can only speculate as to the effect this had on Lemass and on his family. Lemass himself never spoke of the incident publicly.
It didn’t, however, dissuade Seán and his brother Noel from taking part in the Easter Rising in 1916. After the rising was defeated, Lemass was jailed but released after only a month because he was only a nipper. By now, Irish republicanism had moved on from Pearse’s “Let’s take on the world’s largest superpower in a straight fight and see how it goes” brand of insurrection and embraced the Collins doctrine of “How about we actually win this thing?”. After a year of arms raids, assassinations and generally being a one man weapon of Lemass destruction (sorry), Seán was imprisoned (again) and finally released when the Anglo-Irish treaty was signed in 1921. After the Dáil split on whether or not to accept Treaty, Lemass sided with DeValera and the other Anti-Treatyites and so the country lurched into Civil War.
The Irish Civil War was not, in the grand historical scheme of things, especially bloody in terms of lives lost or atrocities committed. But it was unusually bitter. Ireland is a small and incredibly tightly-knit nation. You know the saying that everyone is six degrees removed from everyone else? In Ireland it’s more like one and a half. That’s why the Berkeley tragedy hit the whole nation so hard. If you were Irish and you didn’t know the victims or their families, chances are you knew someone who did. So imagine the kind of awfulness that ensues when a populace that interconnected experiences a Civil War. Think of the worst, most destructive family row you can imagine blown up to a population of 3 million people and where people are being physically killed and tortured instead of simply emotionally and you get the idea. What’s amazing about Seán Lemass is that he carried very little resentment toward the other side after the war was ended, and he had more reason than most. He was arrested again (yo, that’s a third strike for you dog) but was released on compassionate grounds after his brother Noel was captured and brutally murdered by pro-treaty forces.
Upon release from prison, Lemass adapted well to civilian life, marrying Kathleen Hughes with whom he would have four children. With DeValera, he founded Fianna Fáil in 1926 although there was originally some dispute over the name. Lemass had wanted to call it “The Republican Party” and Dev, hilariously, wanted to call it “Fine Gael”. Eventually they settled on Fianna Fáil: The Republican Party.
Lemass was a rare breed of Irish politician in that he rarely spoke of his service during 1916 or the War of Independence, when other Irish politicos would have gotten that tattooed on their foreheads if they thought it wouldn’t alienate older voters. Lemass was never one to reminisce about his military service, once noting that “Firing Squads don’t have reunions.”
When DeValera came to power, Lemass was appointed Minister of Industry and Commerce and was given the unenviable job of modernising the Irish economy in the wake of the Great Depression. Probably his biggest achievement in this period was the founding of the national airline, Aer Lingus.
In 1959 DeValera was finally convinced to relinquish power from his withered claw and slip off to a quiet retirement as President of the nation, Lemass became Taoiseach as Dev’s obvious and anointed heir apparent. The Lemassera is remembered as the foundation of “modern” Ireland. Many of the state bodies that still exist today in some form or other were founded in this time, and Lemass’ policies of economic liberalisation managed to reduce unemployment and emigration and the Irish population began increasing for the first time since the Famine in 1845.
The nineteen sixties also saw an increasing liberalisation of Irish society with Pope John XXIII’s Second Vatican Council easing many of the strictures of Catholic life.
Also during Lemass’ tenure was the establishment of the state broadcaster, RTÉ. The advent of television meant subjects that were previously taboo could now be discussed publicly, like contraception and the fact that those little red hats bishops wear are redonkulous. Another major milestone in Irish history was the visit of John F. Kennedy to the nation of his ancestors in 1963. Kennedy represented something wondrous to us; the idea that the great-grandson of starving Irish emigrants could rise to a place where they could threaten the entire world in a reckless nuclear stand-off. Lemass led the nation through the euphoria of Kennedy’s visit, and the subsequent trauma of his assassination a few short months later.
Lemass also greatly improved relations with Northern Ireland, which is ironic considering that he once fought a war to prevent it’s coming into existence. Lemass became the first Taoiseach to visit the North on the invitation of newly appointed first Minister Terrence O’Neill, an invitation that Lemass then reciprocated. Unfortunately this era of good feelings wouldn’t survive the onset of the troubles in the early seventies but, hell, nice while it lasted.
On foreign policy he laid the groundwork for the eventual entry of Ireland into the EEC which would be completed by his successor Jack Lynch. Ireland also became more heavily involved in global affairs, with Irish troops being sent to the Congo as part of a UN peacekeeping mission.
In November 1966, a few months after the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising, Seán Lemass resigned. He was unique in playing a pivotal role in the creation of not one, but two Irelands. With his role in the Easter Rising and the War of Independence he helped create the Irish Free state on the early twentieth century. And with his achievements in creating a native infrastructure, media and economy he laid the groundwork for the modern Irish nation.
- As Minister for Supplies during the Emergency he established a direct trade route to Africa to secure a steady supply of quality tea, thereby by ensuring the survival of the nation.
- In the course of researching Lemass I came across a letter he wrote to one Teresa Dalton in 1941 (you’ll have to scan down, it starts at page 66). Teresa’s husband, Charlie, was applying for a disability pension, claiming psychological trauma from his time in the IRA. In the letter, Lemass vouches for Charlie’s story, confirming that they served together and that Charlie did indeed suffer extreme mental strain. Lemass writes about the psychological cost of combat with a sympathy and understanding that’s rare for someone of the era (PTSD wasn’t officially classified until 1980). That’s commendable in and of itself. But what makes this so generous on lemass’ part is, not only did he and Charlie Dalton fight on opposite sides of a bitter Civil War, Dalton’s brother Emmet was suspected to have been behind the killing of Seán’s brother Noel. Helping the brother of the man who killed his brother with his disability claim? Class act, Lemass.
- As Minister for Industry he embroiled Ireland in a six-year and extremely costly trade-war with Britain. This was the economic equivalent of trying to win a fight by repeatedly punching yourself in the nutsack and then keeling over while mumbling “I accept your surrender.”
- Fun little factoid I stumbled across; Lemass apparently plotted with the IRA to bomb a Poppy Day ceremony in Dublin. In 1929. Seven years after the Civil War had ended. Thankfully the plan was abandoned but still,Lemass, what the hell dude?
- Great Taoiseach. But no father should allow his daughter to marry Charles Haughey.