John Hearne, the unsung architect of de Valera’ s 1937 Constitution

In legal circles, if not among the wider public, ‘the Irish Thomas Jefferson’ is much admired

John Hearne: His draft constitution was a “thing of beauty”.

John Hearne: His draft constitution was a “thing of beauty”.

 

Eighty years ago today the people of the Irish Free State voted in favour of adopting a new constitution. When Bunreacht na hÉireann came into force six months later, the new country celebrated.

By today’s standards the festivities were modest. The national flag was flown on public buildings; a 21-gun salute was fired at the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham; and at 9.40am the new taoiseach, Eamon de Valera, was driven to St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral for a solemn votive Mass.

Among the congregation at the church on Marlborough Street was a slightly-built, 44-year-old civil servant. His face went largely unrecognised by the crowds, and though he has been referred to within legal circles as “the Irish Thomas Jefferson”, his name has remained unknown to the wider Irish public ever since.

Now, nearly a century later, Eugene Broderick has produced the first biography of John Hearne, legal expert at the Department of External Affairs and architect of the 1937 draft Constitution.

It is important to try and understand Hearne’s role more completely

Broderick has written books on a range of topics: the history of Fine Gael, on Catholic-Protestant relations in modern Ireland, on holy wells and on the sectarian boycott at Fethard-on-Sea in 1957.

This volume, however, posed a particular challenge. Hearne was the quiet man of the constitutional process; the ultimate anonymous civil servant. There are no personal papers belonging to him, neither are there records from official sources during the writing of the document.

“Nevertheless,” Broderick declares in his introduction, “it is important to try and understand Hearne’s role more completely”.

John Hearne: Born at William Street in Waterford on December 4th 1893.
John Hearne: Born at William Street in Waterford on December 4th 1893.

John Hearne was born at William Street in Waterford on December 4th, 1893. His father was a bootmaker who established a successful factory and, in 1901, was elected mayor of the city.

Robustly nationalistic

Young John attended Waterpark College, a newly established Christian Brothers school that attracted boys from prosperous middle-class families. His education was not as robustly nationalistic as might be expected: “When reminiscing to an American audience in 1957,” writes Broderick, “Hearne commented that, as a boy, the only history he knew ‘was a kind of birth-and-death register of defunct British monarchs’.”

Hearne went on to study for the priesthood, but although he was awarded a BA in Philosophy and Arts in 1915, he left the seminary during the following academic year. However, the training he received in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, logic, ethics and morality would serve him well in later life.

“The formative years spent at the seminaries in Waterford and Maynooth,” Broderick quotes Chief Justice Susan Denham as observing, “clearly influenced John Hearne’s understanding of the world and human nature, and graced the stylishly written drafts he wrote, which ultimately became part of our Constitution.”

Broderick has recreated, with impressive intricacy, what Dev calls Hearne’s “fundamental part” in “framing the first Free Constitution of the Irish People”

Perhaps it was Hearne’s interest in matters theological and philosophical – along with his committed Catholicism – which allowed him to work so effectively with Éamon de Valera.

It was, on the face of it, an unlikely alliance: Hearne and his family were staunch Home Rulers and Redmondites, supporters of the 1921 treaty. Yet Dev seems to have regarded him with respect, even affection, as is evident from the handwritten dedication on a copy of the draft constitution which he presented to Hearne.

Broderick has recreated, with impressive intricacy, what Dev calls Hearne’s “fundamental part” in “framing the first Free Constitution of the Irish People”.

He traces each draft as it was drawn up, explores what Broderick calls “the collective mind” involved in the making of our body of fundamental legal principles. He details the contemporary reaction, and attempts a wider, deeper assessment of the issues that have made the Constitution so controversial over the past 80 years.

Grabbing the spotlight

Though Broderick concludes that Hearne and de Valera were a team, it is almost impossible to prevent the latter from grabbing the spotlight. There are remarkably few glimpses, in this book, of John Hearne the man; if it were not for the occasional notes and anecdotes donated to the author by Hearne’s son Maurice, who had assembled them with a view to writing his own biography, there would have been fewer still.

But Broderick insists that Hearne’s draft Constitution was a thing of beauty in its own right, and that his influence on the Constitution was positive and strong. He spells out Hearne’s concern with the protection of human rights in a period marked by the rise of dictatorships throughout Europe.

“At the time of the Dáil debate on the draft Constitution,” he writes,“Poland, Lithuania, Yugoslavia, Austria, Estonia, Germany, Bulgaria, Latvia, Greece, Italy and Spain had all succumbed to the rule of dictators.”

Broderick’s book finishes as it began, in a church, where Hearne’s funeral was as modest and self-effacing as his life

Inevitably, it leads the reader to wonder: if Hearne had had more influence, how different would our Constitution have been? Take the preamble’s famously – or infamously – incantatory lilt: “In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred, We, the people of Éire, Humbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ . . . ”

Hearne’s preamble was considerably more streamlined. “In the name of Almighty God, We, the sovereign Irish People through our elected representatives assembled in Dáil Eireann, sitting as a constituent assembly, in order to declare and confirm our constitutional rights and liberties, consolidate our national life, establish and maintain domestic pace on a basis of freedom, equality and justice . . . ”

After serving as Ireland’s first Ambassador to the US and, in retirement, as legislative consultant to the newly independent countries of Nigeria and Ghana, Hearne died in Dublin in 1969.

Broderick’s book finishes as it began, in a church, where Hearne’s funeral was as modest and self-effacing as his life. There were no grandiloquent speeches at the graveside. The civil servant remained anonymous to the end.

John Hearne: Architect of the 1937 Constitution of Ireland, by Eugene Broderick, is published by Irish Academic Press. The book is launched at an international conference on “The Irish Constitution 1937-2017”, taking place on June 30th and July 1st in Waterford City Hall/Medieval Museum

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