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Sean F. Lemass

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Sean F. Lemass ( 15 July 1899 - 11 May 1971) was the second leader of Fianna Fáil and third Taoiseach of the Republic of Ireland from 1959 to 1966.

Seán Francis Lemass was born on 15 July 1899 in Dublin. He was the second of seven children born to John and Frances Lemass. In January 1915 he joined the Volunteers[?], having lied about his age as he was only fifteen-and-a-half. The battalion leader was Eamon de Valera, future Taoiseach and President of Ireland. While out on a journey in the Dublin mountains at Easter 1916 Seán and his brother Noel met Professor Eoin MacNeill[?]. He informed them of the Easter Rising that was taking place. The following day Seán tried to join the Volunteer post at the General Post Office. He was accepted and became part of the garrison. The Rising however ended in ruins. Lemass, due to his age was released from the 1,783 that were arrested.

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One of the '12 Apostles'?

In November 1920, during the height of the Anglo-Irish War, 12 members of the Dublin Brigade of the IRA took part in an attack on British agents living in Dublin. The group was under the leadership of Michael Collins. It is generally believed, however it has never been proved that Lemass was one of the 12 Apostles that took part on that day which became known as Bloody Sunday, 1920[?].

With deV against the Treaty

During the debates of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921, Lemass was one of the minority who opposed it along with de Valera. As a protest all the anti-Treaty side withdrew from the Dáil. In the Civil war which followed Lemass was second in command to Rory O Connor[?] when the group seized the Four Courts, the home of the High Court of Ireland. The group was eventually captured, however Lemass escaped with some others. (When withdrawing the anti-treaty IRA controversially blew up the Irish Public Records Office, destroying one thousand years of Irish archives.) He was later re-captured and imprisoned again. In June 1923 Noel Lemass, Seán's brother, was abducted in Dublin by a number of men, believed to be connected to the Irish National Army. He was held in secret until October when his body was found in the Dublin Mountains. Seán Lemass was released from prison as a result of this. In August 1924 Lemass married Kathleen Hughes.

Ditching Sinn Fein, Into the Dáil

In 1926 de Valera, supported by Lemass, sought to convince Sinn Féin to abandon its policy of refusing to accept the existence of the Irish Free State, the legitimacy of its Dáil Éireann and of its absentionist[?] policy of refusing to accept election to it. However the effort was unsuccessful and in March 1926 de Valera, along with Lemass, resigned from the party. In May de Valera, assisted by Gerry Boland[?] and Lemass began to plan a new political party. This became known as Fianna Fáil (the Republican Party)1 Many former Sinn Féin TDs were persuaded to join. The new party was strongly opposed to partition but accepted the de-facto existence of the Free State. It opposed the controversial Oath of Allegiance and campaigned for its removal; pending its removal the party announced that it would not take up its Dáil seats. A court case, taken in the name of Lemass and others was begun. However the assassination by the IRA of Kevin O'Higgins[?], the Vice-President of the Executive Council[?] (deputy prime minister) led to the passing of a new Act requiring that all prospective Dáil candidates take an oath guaranteeing that if elected they would take the Oath of Allegiance, a refusal to give the undertaking debarring someone from becoming a candidate in a general or by-election. Faced with the threat of legal disqualification from politics, de Valera capitulated and took the Oath of Allegiance, while claiming that he was simply signing a slip of paper to gain a right of participation in the Dáil, not actually taking an Oath. On 11 August 1927, having signed the Oath of Allegiance in front of a representative of the Governor-General of the Irish Free State, all the Fianna Fáil TDs entered the Dáil.


In 1932 Fianna Fáil won power in the Free State, remaining in power for sixteen uninterrupted years. The party which Lemass had described as only a "slightly constitutional party" in 19292 was now leading the Irish Free State, a state deV and Lemass had a decade earlier fought a civil war to destroy. De Valera appointed Lemass as Minister for Industry and Commerce, one of the most powerful offices in the Executive Council (cabinet). In 1933 Lemass set up the Industrial Credit Corporation to facilitate supplying funds for setting up industry. He also set up the Irish Sugar Company, Bord na Móna and Aer Lingus. Years later Lemass described Aer Lingus as his proudest achievement. While Lemass concentrated on economic matters, de Valera focused primarily on constitutional affairs, leading to the passage of Bunreacht na hÉireann, a new Irish constitution, in 1937. De Valera became the new Taoiseach of the new state of Éire, while Lemass served in the new Government (the new name for the cabinet) again as Minister for Industry and Commerce.

Minister for Supplies

Lemass moved to a new portfolio following the outbreak of World War II (known in Éire as The Emergency[?]), becoming Minister for Supplies. It was a crucial role for the officially neutral Ireland (in fact, as since released government papers show, the neutrality was to a significant part fiction, with Éire secretly aiding the Allies; the date of D-Day, for example, was decided because of weather forecasts from Ireland, which indicated the incoming weather systems from the Atlantic, the right weather being crucial to the success of the Normandy landings). Officially neutral, Éire had to achieve an unprecedented degree of self-sufficiency and it was Lemass's role to ensure this. The fact that he was charged with such a crucial role is indicative of he faith held in his abilities by de Valera. Lemass's seniority was shown when, following Sean T. O'Kelly's election as President of Ireland in 1945, de Valera chose Lemass over older cabinet colleagues to become Tánaiste (deputy prime minister).

In 1948, partly due to its own increasing isolation and also due to a republican backlash against its anti-IRA policies (which during the Emergency had seen the execution of IRA prisoners - in part due to IRA links with the Nazis), which had produced a rival republican party, Clann na Poblachta[?], Fianna Fáil lost power. The First Inter-Party Government[?], made up of Fine Gael, Labour, National Labour, Clann na Talmhan, Clann na Poblachta[?] and others, was formed under Fine Gael TD John A. Costello. In opposition, Lemass played a crucial role in re-organising and streamlining Fianna Fáil. As a result (and also due to internal crises within the Inter-Party government over the declaration of the Republic of Ireland (a description that replaced Éire as the twenty-six county state's effective name) and also the controversial Mother and Child Scheme[?]) In 1951 Fianna Fáil returned to form a minority government. Lemass again returned as Minister for Industry and Commerce. Lemass believed that a new economic policy was needed, however de Valera disagreed. Seán MacEntee[?], the Minister for Finance, tried to deal with the crisis in the balance of payments. He was also un-sympathetic to a new economic outlook. In 1954 the government fell and was replaced by the Second Inter-Party Government[?]. Lemass was confined to the Opposition benches for another three years. In 1957 de Valera, at the age of seventy-five, announced to Fianna Fáil that he planned to retire. He was persuaded however to become taoiseach one more time until 1959, when the office of President of Ireland would become vacant. In 1958 the first Programme for Economic Development was launched. de Valera was elected President of Ireland in 1959 and retired as Fianna Fáil leader and Taoiseach.


On 23 June 1959 Seán Lemass was appointed Taoiseach on the nomination of the Dáil. There was a sense of excitement at Lemass replacing the elderly and nearly blind de Valera as head of government. Lemass concentrated his energies on social and economic issues. The Programme for Economic Development became government policy and was implemented by Lemass. By 1963 the unemployment rate and emigration fell dramatically. The population of the twenty-six county Republic of Ireland rose for the first time since the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s.

In 1961 Lemass faced his first general election as Fianna Fáil leader. He failed to win an overall parliamentary majority but retained power with the help of some Independent TDs. The Taoiseach continued to introduce new faces to the Cabinet and retire some of de Valera's generation. The new arrivals included future president Patrick Hillery and future taoiseach (his own son-in-law) Charles Haughey. His eventual successor Jack Lynch who had entered cabinet in de Valera's last years, became one of Lemass's senior ministers, as did future Tánaiste Brian Lenihan[?]. Some of de Valera's old guard were kept initially: Seán MacEntee[?], Frank Aiken and James Ryan[?]. In August 1961 Ireland, along with Britain, applied for membership of the European Economic Community. However the application was vetoed by Charles de Gaulle. On December 31 1961 Teilfís Éireann (later Radio Telifís Éireann began broadcasting. Programmes such as the Late Late Show challenged traditional conservative images of Ireland, with debates on divorce, feminism, contraception and homosexuality.

Ireland's progress continued abroad also when in 1962 the country was elected to the Security Council of the United Nations. In 1963 President John F. Kennedy of the United States made a historic visit to Ireland. There was great public celebrations at the time as President Kennedy returned to his ancestral country. In October the same year Lemass returned the compliment when he payed a visit to the United States. In 1964 the second Programme for Economic Expansion was launched. This programme was more ambitious and it failed to reach its target. It was abandoned in 1967. In 1965 Lemass was re-appointed as Taoiseach with an overall majority.

Northern Ireland

Lemass favoured a new attitude in relation to Northern Ireland. In a change from anti-partition Fianna Fáil policy epitomised by de Valera he favoured a policy of re-conciliation and increased co-operation. This co-operation between the two governments would concentrate on such issues as tourism, trade and agriculture. In 1963 Terence O Neill[?] became the Northern Ireland Prime Minister. He was a younger more pragmatic politician and was not afraid of new ideas. He issued an invitation to Lemass to meet him in Belfast. On 14 January 1965 Lemass travelled to Stormont. The Irish Cold War was finally over. On 9 February 1965 O Neill travelled to Dublin to meet Lemass. Meetings between other ministers soon followed.


In 1966 the Republic of Ireland celebrated the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising. Lemass was one of the last surviving members along with Eamon de Valera. The celebrations were alleged by some to have undone the good work that resulted from the Lemass-O Neill meetings. Others perceived it as the last gasp symbolically of irredentist Irish nationalism. A sign of the move shift can be gauged by the fact the last surviving senior leader of the Rising, Eamon de Valera, came within 1% of defeat in an Irish presidential election less than two months after the celebrations he played such a central part of. In November 1966 Lemass announced his decision to retire as Fianna Fáil leader and Taoiseach. The anniversary celebrations possibly cemented his decision. On 10 November he officially announced to the Dáil that he had resigned. That very day Jack Lynch became the new leader. He was the first Taoiseach not to have been influenced by Civil War politics. Lemass, who had served his country for fifty years, now retired to the backbenches. He remained a TD until 1969.

In February 1971, while attending a rugby game at Landsdowne Road, Lemass became unwell. He was later told by his doctor that one of his lungs was about to collapse. The fact that he was a heavy pipe smoker didn't help matters. On 11 May 1971[?] Seán Lemass died in the Mater Hospital in Dublin. His daughter, Maureen, is married to the man who became fourth Fianna Fáil leader, Charles J. Haughey.

Legacy: Ireland's Pope John?

Sean Lemass remains one of the most highly regarded of Irish Taoisigh, being described even by later Fine Gael taoisigh Garret FitzGerald and John Bruton as the best holder of the office, and the man whose cabinet leadership style they wished to follow. (Bruton hung a picture of Lemass in his office.) Some historians have questioned whether Lemass came to the premiership too late, arguing that had he replaced deV as Fianna Fáil leader and taoiseach in 1951 he could have begun the process of reform of Irish society and the industrialisation of the Republic of Ireland a decade earlier than 1959, when he eventually achieved the top governmental job. Others speculate whether he had been able to achieve some of his policy reforms he did initiate in the 1950s because de Valera was still the leader, his opponents being unwilling to challenge him given that he appeared to have deV's backing. What is not in doubt is that Eamon de Valera and Sean Lemass held diametrically different visions of Ireland; deV's was of a pastoral rural based society "given to frugal living", Lemass has a vision of a modern industrialised society, a member of the EEC.

Sean F. Lemass has been called "Ireland's Pope John XXIII." Like Pope John replaced Pope Pius XII so Lemass replaced another old man of towering intellect who embodied tradition, Eamon de Valera. Like Pope John, Lemass appeared like an old man in a hurry for change, who in a few short years changed his society in a way few thought imaginable. Like Pope John, Lemass saw old problems in new ways, in his case his new rapprochment with Northern Ireland. Like Pope John's reforms within Roman Catholicism with Vatican II, some of Lemass's changes proved double edged swords; of his new ministers embodied lower standards of behaviour than their predecessors - Charles Haughey retired as taoiseach under a cloud, with a Tribunal of Inquiry later investigating allegations of financial impropriety, while other ministers in the 1960s were linked to dubious fundraising efforts for Fianna Fáil and associations with property developers. Perhaps the ultimate parallel between the elderly Irish prime minister and the elderly pope, who both came to power at the end of the 1950s and had short periods in power, is the universal affection with which both men are held, and the extent to which their successors are compared to the two old men in a hurry who took power at the end of the 1950s within a year of each other, and brought change in a speed, scale and depth no-one could have thought possible.


1 Lemass, the pragmatist, wanted to call the new party simply The Republican Party. De Valera, attached to gaelic symbolism, insisted on the Irish language name Fianna Fáil (meaning 'soldiers of destiny' (after contemplating the name Fine Gael (meaning 'family of the Gael') which ironically became the name of the main opposition party to Fianna Fáil later). The eventual name for the new party chosen was a combination of deV gaelic and Lemass's english. It was indicative of Lemass's status in 1926 that his preferred choice of name was included in the final title, albeit in secondary location to deV's chosen name.

2 In 1929 Lemass himself was move above restoring to extra-legal behaviour. He discussed with the IRA the possibility of discussing Remembrance Day ceremonies due to be held in College Green in the centre of Dublin and which drew thousands of people. However the discussed attack never took place and Lemass broke off contact with the IRA soon afterwards. National Archives of Ireland files.

Preceded by:
Eamon de Valera
Taoiseach (1957-1959)
Prime Ministers of Ireland
Taoisigh na hÉireann
Succeeded by:
Jack Lynch
Taoiseach (1966-1973)

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