This is a remarkably revealing book about many things, not least the role of civil servant Michael McDunphy, who, as secretary to the first Irish president, was adept, aggressive and relentless in protecting the interests of Douglas Hyde and, by extension, generating a respect for the status and independence of the office of president that was to endure.
Two distinct advantages allow Brian Murphy to recount, in fascinating detail, how this was done: the availability of the files relating to the office in the National Archives, and the papers of McDunphy, held in private possession, but to which the author was granted access by McDunphy’s son. It is as much a book about McDunphy as it is about Hyde, who remains somewhat in the shadows for long stretches of this book. He was on the margins after suffering a stroke in April 1940, two years after he became president, his worries about being too old, aged 78 in 1938, to take on the office proving well founded.
Hyde, the founder of the Gaelic League in 1893, was a popular and respected public figure; in the words of his daughter Una he was a “gentle, refined” person and she suggests his cultural pursuits and longevity militated against a proper recognition of his greatness. This is debatable; Murphy highlights many examples of the esteem in which he was held, and the label “forgotten patriot” is somewhat exaggerated, given the author’s parallel assertion that “president Hyde remained one of the most talked-about figures in Irish life”.
The extent to which Hyde “took on a huge workload” is also questionable, and while Murphy asserts on a number of occasions that Hyde’s presidency “has been dismissed as a sleepy presidency”, he does not identify where such claims have been made. Murphy is quite breathless in extolling the greatness of Hyde, who in truth required a lot of hand-holding in Áras an Uachtaráin.
But Murphy is correct about the dangers of overlooking context: “The unfair comparison that extols modern presidents for expanding the role of the office while implicitly criticising early presidents such as Hyde for taking a more restrained approach . . . lacks historical context. This criticism completely misses the point that a more expansionist role for the presidency could not have come about without the diligent and often unglamorous work of early presidents in establishing initial credibility and respect for the office.” This thesis is soundly proven; Murphy skilfully mines the sources and the book is often riveting and highly entertaining.
It was decided by Éamon de Valera and McDunphy that Hyde would not make an inauguration speech, as it would have amounted to “an address to the nation” which under the Constitution would have required prior consultation with the government. This issue of what powers the president did and did not have and what form of head of state was desirable forms the basis of Murphy’s exploration of the origins of the office, part of de Valera’s quest to rid the Free State of the political architecture of imperialism by replacing the office of governor-general, which had become politicised and divisive. The challenge in the sometimes fervid political atmosphere of the 1930s was to design a presidency that would be above party politics.
The debates on the draft constitution in the Dáil frequently involved the use of the word “dictator” in relation to the proposed office; the provision that “subject to this constitution, additional powers and functions may be conferred on the president by law” generated deep suspicion and alarm. De Valera’s unconvincing answer to criticism was that it was inconceivable “why a government should hand over to somebody else powers which they could exercise themselves”. The wording of the contested clause was amended to “on the advice of the government” to fend off the charges of facilitating dictatorship, or what the
referred to as “the seed of dictatorship in the Nazi-like powers to be conferred on the president”.
Hyde’s transition to the presidency was not seamless; rumours of his candidacy led to him being “amused rather than interested”. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael agreed to ask him to serve, but the approach to him was a shambles; the Labour Party was sidelined and Dublin TD Alfie Byrne, who was keen to be president, claimed he was “jockeyed” out of the race. Hyde, however, “neatly covered a number of political imperatives”, with his cultural background and his Protestantism, which could be used to suggest the State was ecumenical and inclusive.
The choice of McDunphy was also politically wise as he had good relationships with both William T Cosgrave and de Valera, but he subsequently had serious rows with Michael Moynihan, secretary to the government, who sought to cut off McDunphy’s direct access to the taoiseach. This was one of the great turf wars of the Irish civil service of that era, and McDunphy won it handsomely.
He was also zealous about disrespectful references to the president and failure to give his engagements adequate recognition. When McDunphy was invited to a private wedding he contacted the bride, who was getting ready to marry an RAF man, beforehand, to insist that any pro-British display or toast would be inappropriate given his position. He also waged a prolonged campaign against
The Irish Times
over its “court and personal” column giving precedence to royal rather than presidential activities, another heavy-handed intervention that worked. The GAA also landed itself in hot water by removing Hyde as patron because he attended a soccer international; Murphy argues that ultimately this “reverberated positively on the office of president” as Hyde was widely seen as a victim of injustice. Reaction to this controversy also demonstrated how quickly the office was gaining acceptance across the political spectrum.
The politics of neutrality dominated Hyde’s term, but the assertion that “the office of president played an integral part in the national effort to keep Ireland out of the second World War” is perhaps overstating the case. Certainly McDunphy was adept at information-gathering from foreign diplomats in Ireland, and the president, though wholly debilitated after his stroke, stayed on to avoid upheaval during the Emergency. But to describe McDunphy as “on the high-wire of wartime diplomacy” or “at the cutting edge of Irish diplomatic efforts” is unnecessary; having conversations with the British representative in Ireland John Maffey’s secretary was hardly the stuff of risky statecraft.
McDunphy was certainly bullish in seeing it as his mission to ensure there would be “no chink in the national armour” regarding neutrality, and his memos make for absorbing reading, but he also exaggerated how extensive that armour was. He insisted, “It would need more than half a million first-class troops and equipment to take Ireland” (I was reminded of the dismissive assertion of the poet Patrick Kavanagh that neutral Ireland “would be hard-pressed to protect a field of potatoes from an invasion of crows”). While McDunphy had revealing conversations with Capt Lauriston Arnott, a former officer of the British army, his wartime reports did not include parallel accounts of encounters with the German presence in Ireland. Hyde had a good relationship with the German minister in Ireland Eduard Hempel, whereas the American representative David Gray’s relationship with the Áras was “tempestuous”. McDunphy saw Gray as “charged with a mission of bringing this country into the war”; Gray in turn saw McDunphy as “an officious ass”, which he often was; indeed, this was one of the traits that made him so good at his job.
While de Valera clearly took pride in the creation of the office of president, defended it vigorously and encouraged McDunphy, he also had to deal with a president who, on occasion, asserted his independence and established important precedents by referring the Offences Against the State Amendment Bill in 1940 and the School Attendance Bill in 1942 to the Supreme Court for rulings on constitutionality. But de Valera was not averse to taking advantage of Hyde. In 1944, Fianna Fáil lost a Dáil vote (not a confidence vote) and de Valera could sniff an overall majority in the event of an election, partly because the opposition was in such disarray. We are reliant on McDunphy’s account as to what then transpired. De Valera visited the bed-ridden president requesting he dissolve the Dáil; McDunphy then arrived, as de Valera, being especially canny, suggested he should be there. When de Valera left, Hyde said, “I must refuse,” but McDunphy persuaded him otherwise by pointing out that the numbers were not there to elect an alternative taoiseach. Hyde then relented, meaning in effect it was McDunphy who decided that the Dáil would be dissolved.
There was uproar in the Dáil when the dissolution was granted; Labour Party leader William Norton dramatically claimed “high treason was committed in the park last night” as a result of a “nocturnal invasion” of “the aged man”. But this episode was also important because it exposed a key constitutional ambiguity: what is the test of the taoiseach having “ceased to retain the support of a majority”? Is losing one vote proof of that? If confidence in the government was de Valera’s concern, why did he not call a confidence vote, which he would almost certainly have won?
This engrossing book underlines that there was a lot more going on during the Hyde presidency than has been assumed, and the Áras was much more than a convalescent home. It was ironic and sad, however, that during Hyde’s state funeral in 1949, most Catholic politicians remained outside St Patrick’s Cathedral, as it was a reserved sin for Catholics to attend a Protestant ceremony. That funeral was for a president who had been partly chosen to stress that Ireland was religiously tolerant.
Diarmaid Ferriter is Professor of Modern Irish History at UCD