Saint or sinner?


BIOGRAPHY: HARRY McGEEreviews Seán Lemass: Democratic DictatorBy Bryce Evans The Collins Press, 328pp. €17.99

MORE THAN 75 years later, the proposal seems outrageous. The 1935 ministerial paper purported to address the chronic lack of employment in Gaeltacht areas. The minister suggested that labour camps be established in the Gaeltachts, where unskilled men from the locality would be sent. Once there, they would receive training in various trades and be fed and lodged but get no pay. Local women would attend special schools to be trained as domestic servants for employment in the cities. All would work elsewhere. Meanwhile, the State would build hotels in those areas to allow others to holiday in the emptying villages.

This almost Soviet scheme was the brainchild of Seán Lemass, which may come as a surprise to those whose fix on Lemass derives from any account of him written over the past three decades. The modern view of Lemass is undoubtedly benign, verging on hagiographic.

It paints him as a politician whose unwavering stance on protectionism and self-sufficiency in his earlier career may have led to inertia, but one who, in tandem with the super-civil servant TK Whittaker, dismantled his own edifice and opened Ireland to international industry and investment

All those neat contrasts: Lemass’s vision was forward-looking and progressive while de Valera’s was arcane and rural. He was honest and straight compared with some of those who succeeded him as Fianna Fáil leaders, including his son-in-law Charles Haughey.

It boils down to a phrase used to describe him that has gone beyond cliche: “the architect of modern Ireland”.

Every Fianna Fáil leader since the 1960s has stated publicly his wish to aspire to Lemassian values and standards. If you look at Brian Cowen’s speech on becoming taoiseach, in May 2008, it reads as a paean to everything that Lemass stood for.

But the snippet about Lemass’s Gaeltacht- labour-camp proposal goes to the heart of the thesis put forward by the historian Bryce Evans in this biography of Ireland’s fourth taoiseach. Astoundingly, it is the sixth published biography of Lemass. And Evans, who lectures in history at University College Dublin, is conscious that another study of the life may be seen as overkill. He addresses this early by nailing his contrarian colours to the mast.

Evans argues that preceding biographies of Lemass – the “Lemassography”, to employ Evans’s clunky phrase – have airbrushed out to varying degrees events, key decisions, less appealing characteristics and views that don’t sit easily with the accepted narrative. Most of these predate the Damascene conversion of 1959. Hence the oxymoron of the subtitle Democratic Dictator, a phrase that derives from a 1966 article written by a young Bruce Arnold.

Evans claims the book is a rebalancing: “hile no ‘hatchet job’, neither does it paint Lemass as icon or iconoclast,” he contends. He has one biographer in his sights: Tom Garvin and his 2009 book, Judging Lemass: The Measure of the Man. Evans does not pull his punches when writing about his UCD colleague, asserting that he has clung to a “narrative of progress and development”. Elsewhere he claims he will “explode Tom Garvin’s contention that Lemass was a ‘cultural revolutionary’ ”.

Evans shines new light on Lemass and his make-up by excavating half-forgotten material and re-examining key events and decisions. He also reasserts Lemass’s unfailing loyalty to Dev despite the “clinical separation” of both by Lemass admirers. He contends with some authority that Lemass was more than a mere bystander to the rise of Haughey.

Evans is strongest in his portrayal of Lemass’s long tenure as minister for industry and commerce and the vice-like grip he maintained on Irish industrial life for three decades, through the protectionist era, as minister for supplies during the “Emergency”, and as director of elections and chief disciplinarian of Fianna Fáil.

The thesis advanced is strong. Lemass had many good qualities but was also a man who was hungry for power, showed autocratic and dictatorial tendencies, was wrong on protection, moved too late to act on the Emergency, was not a huge respecter of democratic niceties, was unpopular with colleagues, was too obeisant to the church, was socially conservative and misogynistic, could be ruthless with colleagues, was involved in the mass rigging of votes in 1932, and was prone to cronyism. The book also acknowledges the huge influence of a previously unheralded civil servant, John Leydon in Industry and Commerce.

Sometimes, Evans seems to over-reach for conclusions based on scant or contentious evidence and, at times, could be accused of the subjectivity ascribed to others.

For example, he argues that Lemass’s early career owed far more to the murder of his IRA brother Noel than is thought. The account of events surrounding Noel’s death is very well written, but the underlying argument goes only so far. It is hard to imagine Lemass remaining long in obscurity in the absence of that intervening tragedy.

One major difficulty is that Evans seems too conscious of the Lemassography. He frequently refers to the “read” of other biographers, especially Garvin, rather than allowing his own strong narrative to stand on its own merits. There are also a few errors – George Colley is described as a Protestant, for example.

Some conclusions are more convincing than others. Of dictatorial bent Lemass may have sometimes been, but it never over-rode his democratic instincts; some of his more intolerant ideas for “labour camps” or for evicting unproductive farmers were also swiftly overruled by colleagues. The book’s contentions on his obeisance to the Catholic Church seem overstated. The evidence supporting Cardinal Conway being “right wing” seems slight.

Lemass needed to centralise power and control everything, Evans argues consistently. But the examples of ruthlessness were isolated.

With de Valera, especially, loyalty trumped everything else. Still, the Lemass that emerges from this welcome addition to the canon, though perhaps a little less benign and saintly, is nonetheless impressive.

Harry McGee is Political Correspondent of The Irish Times