Seán Lemass’s silent anguish
The family history of Seán Lemass contains a tragic incident that has remained largely unknown. The former taoiseach, regarded as one of the key creators of modern Ireland, accidentally shot dead his baby brother, Herbert
Family tragedy: Seán Lemass in 1964; the Coroner’s Register 1907-1916 from the National Archive; and the entry detailing the death of Herbert Lemass due to laceration of the brain caused by a bullet fired accidentally by his brother. The photograph of the burning Four Courts was taken in 1922 by 17-year-old Joe Rodgers, who lived across the River Liffey, on Essex Quay. Coroners Register photographs: Dara MacDónaill; Montage: Dearbhla Kelly/ Irish Times Premedia
Seán Lemass’s public record – involvement in 1916, the War of Independence, the Civil War, forsaking of the armed struggle in favour of electoral politics, and effortless adjustment to ministerial office from 1932 – fits the conventional mould of first-generation Fianna Fáil figures.
Yet in his conduct of politics, his activist approach in government, his reluctance to talk in public about the 1916-23 era and his unwillingness to engage in Civil War recriminations, he stood apart from most of his contemporaries on both sides of the Dáil chamber.
Lemass’s biographers explain this largely by reference to the lifelong impact on him of the murder in 1923 of his older brother Noel; we also need to consider another tragic death within the Lemass family, which took place in January 1916.
The register of coroner’s inquests for Dublin, and the national registers of births and deaths, contain entries which present a challenge for Lemass’s various biographers. This is because the Dublin coroner’s index records, on January 29th, 1916, the death the day before of Herbert Phelan Lemass, listed as a two-year-old (in fact his birth certificate records that he was born on April 12th, 1914). Herbert was a son of John T and Frances Lemass of 2 Capel Street, and therefore a younger brother of Seán and Noel Lemass. Most of Lemass’s biographers do not mention any such brother, though Tom Garvin does note that a child he names as Bernard ‘died young’.
The Dublin coroner’s index and the coroner’s court register show that Herbert died in Temple Street hospital from laceration of the brain. The wound was caused by a revolver bullet accidentally fired in the family living room at 2 Capel Street by Herbert’s 16-year-old brother, John. (Seán was known as John or Jack within the family.)
An inquest held on Saturday 29 January 1916 was covered in press reports. The Irish Times stated: “The jury . . . expressed the opinion that something should be done to prevent boys getting possession of firearms.”
Glasnevin cemetery records show that Herbert was buried there on Sunday, January 30th, 1916. In 1923 Noel, who was murdered at the age of 25, and in 1926 another brother, Patrick, who had died of natural causes at the age of 19, were interred with Herbert in the same plot.
It can be argued this family tragedy should remain an entirely private matter, as it has for over 90 years. Yet the circumstances, as well as the people involved, require otherwise. Séan and Noel were already active Irish Volunteers by January 1916; that was probably why there was a loaded revolver in their home.
Lemass’s various biographers are surely right to say he was marked for life by Noel’s murder in 1923, but so too must he have been by the death of his young brother, Herbert, for which he was responsible.
What is most remarkable is that, although the sad circumstances of Herbert’s death were carried in the press and must have been known to many, I can find no evidence that anyone brought up the tragedy during the rancorous decades that followed Independence.
Did Lemass’s opponents simply not know about Herbert, or was it that his own disinclination to rake over the coals of the Civil War was reciprocated in the reticence of his political enemies?
Lemass’s biographers acknowledge the complexity of his character, ideas, motivations, and political activities. All present him as a restless moderniser and a forward-thinking political realist, although in his provocatively titled Seán Lemass: Democratic Dictator (Dublin, 2011) Bryce Evans chastises his subject for, among other failings, being insufficiently socially progressive, and criticises other writers for sustaining rather than debunking a supposed Lemass legend. Yet Evans concurs with John Horgan’s more considered Seán Lemass: The Enigmatic Patriot (Dublin, 1997) and Tom Garvin’s Judging Lemass: The Measure of the Man (Dublin, 2009), in stressing the long-term impact on Lemass of Noel’s murder in 1923.