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Response to Review of Seán Lemass: Democratic Dictator

Brian Girvin is right: this is ‘not the last word’ on Seán Lemass. Nor does it claim to be. Rather, as more generous reviews of the book have noted, it is ‘a welcome addition to the canon’; a contribution to the historiography of a man commonly dubbed the ‘architect of modern Ireland’.(1)

All nations need their heroes. But during the giddy Celtic Tiger years, name-dropping Lemass became de rigeur for a now-discredited Irish political elite. Carefully airbrushed, Lemass was spun as a sort of liberal prince charming who saved Ireland from the medieval spell Eamon de Valera had cast upon it.

I do not suggest for a moment that Lemass was ‘a dictator’. A more careful reading would show that Lemass was dubbed a democratic dictator by veteran Irish political commentator Bruce Arnold back in 1966. But this observation is typical of the literalism that pervades Girvin’s review.

I do, for example, spend ‘considerable space describing Lemass’s ambitious plans to build a new ministerial office block’. But most readers will recognise that, past the bricks and mortar, this serves as a metaphor for power politics on Dublin’s Kildare Street.

While I concede the error about George Colley’s religion – an accident of word processing – other criticisms in this review strike me as a touch fastidious. If we are to stoop to this level, I’d point out that Girvin gets Lemass’s date of birth (1899) wrong in his very first sentence.

Other comments are wider of the mark. I do, in fact, detail the rivalry between Seán MacEntee and Lemass, and in some detail. The documentary record shows clearly that the young Lemass was often out on a limb amongst cabinet colleagues.

Dialogue with industry experts during the 1940s would not have produced veto. A more sensitive interaction with business, community groups and farmers can work: as the most recent studies in British war socialism, reviewed on this website, have demonstrated.

Professor Girvin talks of the need for context, but at times seems to jettison it when quoting me. I do not ‘side’ with the ‘medievalists’ of the vocational lobby, just acknowledge that some of their points were valid. This remark is typical of the black and white rendering of Lemass, the progressive, versus a negative conservative block that appears in much of the existing biographical literature.

More importantly, the reviewer omits the book’s praise for its subject: my rejection of the labelling of Lemass and his earlier republican comrades as ‘cranks’; his brilliant reorganisation of the Fianna Fáil party while in opposition in the 1920s and 1950s; his uncompromising stance with greedy bourgeois types during periods of pronounced austerity.

There are disagreements on some points of political significance, which are very much open to interpretation. I am pleased that Brian Girvin has taken the time to engage with my book and that he regards my material on the Department of Supplies and the wartime black market as ‘original and informative’.

But while I welcome the positive comments, I feel Professor Girvin could have been more generous in acknowledging the swathes of new material unearthed from dozens of archives over a number of years: the rich new material on murdered brother Noel; Michael Collins’ closeness to the Lemass family; our protagonist’s term as titular IRA chief; his rather Machiavellian undermining of colleagues to further his early career; his failure to establish an Irish merchant navy in the 1930s; the political and moral economy of protectionism; his skill as a newspaper propagandist; his closeness to the Catholic hierarchy; the years of party reorganisation ‘on the road’; the warm relations with British counterparts; the appeal of Charles Haughey; and, finally, his attitude towards Irish arts and culture, about which there still remains a large gap in knowledge.    

Sometimes, to challenge powerful historical myths, a corrective is badly needed. Hence the late Peter Hart’s controversial The IRA and its Enemies.(2) Like Hart, my book challenges a few shibboleths. Unlike him, I do not distort sources.

It is disappointing, therefore, that Girvin makes the leap from enervated nit-picking to questioning my sources. This book shows that it is possible to imaginatively deploy solid archival evidence in redressing the very overblown dichotomy between the ‘backward’ de Valera and the ‘progressive’ Lemass.  

  1. For more nuanced appraisals of the book see Eamon Delaney, Sunday Independent, 18 September 2011; Harry McGee, Irish Times, 1 October 2011; Dermot Bolger, Sunday Business Post, 25 September 2011; Maurice Hayes, Irish Independent, 1 October 2011; Bruce Arnold, Irish Independent, 23 January 2011; Vincent Browne, Tonight With Vincent Browne, TV3, 5 September 2011; Pat Kenny, Today with Pat Kenny, RTE Radio 1, 15 September 2011; Patrick Geoghegan, Talking History, Newstalk, 9 August 2011; Karen Funnell, Irish Examiner, 31 December 2011; Books Ireland, October 2011; Bruce Arnold, Irish Independent, 23 January 2011.
  2. Peter Hart, The IRA and its Enemies (Oxford, 1999).