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The Presidents’ Letters: An Unexpected History of Ireland

Wide ranging correspondence covers high-level rows and direct links with citizenry

The President’s Letters: An Unexpected History of Ireland
Author: Flor McCarthy
ISBN-13: 9781848407695
Publisher: New Island
Guideline Price: €24.95

In 1961 then president Éamon de Valera wrote to taoiseach Seán Lemass about the launch of the upcoming “Patrician Year”, a celebration of 1,500 years of Christianity in Ireland, to be held on St Patrick’s Day in Armagh. De Valera felt it was his “duty” to participate, but was aware that the government would be wary of him crossing the Border to participate in a major event, given the “political relations between the two parts of the country”.

Sixty years on, the recent furore over President Michael D Higgins’s refusal to attend the commemoration of partition in Armagh shows how such tensions over our head of State’s role remain. Journalist Flor McCarthy’s new and diverse collection of correspondence from and to Áras an Uachtaráin reveals how our nine presidents have used their words to define and redefine their office. The fascinating selections run from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael’s joint letter (in classical Gaelic type) inviting Douglas Hyde to become the first president in 1938 to Higgins’s somewhat grandiose 80th birthday message to Bob Dylan this year (“from one poet to another”).

From its very creation, the presidency has been concerned with navigating sensitivity. An Áras memo from 1938 criticised the “bad manners” of the “pro-British” element of the crowd at the Dublin Horse Show who sang God Save the King in front of Hyde, while comments from the GAA note that his subsequent appearance at an Ireland-Poland soccer international led to his removal as a patron of the organisation.

The political confines of the office feature heavily in many of the selections, from a memo on a late-night meeting in 1944 when Hyde considered refusing de Valera’s request for a snap election, to minister for defence Paddy Donegan’s second letter of apology (the first having made things worse) after calling Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh “a thundering disgrace” in 1976. A draft of the president’s subsequent letter of resignation includes handwritten allegations in irritated blue ink that taoiseach Liam Cosgrave had not kept him “even remotely” informed about matters of state, “a mandatory requirement” of the Constitution.

Included too are the Áras telephone logbooks from January 27th, 1982, where entries for 20:45, 21:10, and 21:30 are listed “From Brian Lenihan”, the revelation of which would later scupper his own bid for the presidency in 1992.

Governments’ wishes

Letters concerning Mary Robinson’s engagement with community groups in Northern Ireland show how presidents have not always followed governments’ wishes, but there is considerable correspondence about keeping them in line. Seán T Ó Ceallaigh’s revelation to the press after a trip to Rome that Pius XII hoped for “the fall of communism” irritated both the pope and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, provoking a critical letter from the Embassy in Rome (“it is de rigeur never to refer to talks with the Holy Father”). One of the oddest letters comes from Libyan dictator Muammar Gadafy, who wrote to Patrick Hillery in 1986 demanding that Ireland undergo a “cultural revolution”. A note from the Department of Foreign Affairs advised Hillery not to reply.

Given the constraints on what presidents can say and do, many of the most interesting selections are letters sent to the Áras by citizens, revealing how the office’s direct link to the people is its defining feature. McCarthy has unearthed a wide range of such messages from home and abroad, and North and South.

“It was certainly a different 12th of July”, wrote a Belfast visitor after a cross-community Áras garden party hosted by Mary McAleese in 2011. More tragically, 12-year-old Shaun McLaughlin from Buncrana presented McAleese with a poem he and his classmates had written about the peace process entitled Don’t Shatter Our Dream, just two months before he was among the dozens murdered by the Real IRA in the 1998 Omagh bombing.

Request to ‘outlaw school’

For children, the president is perhaps the most comprehensible symbol of Irish democracy, and their letters are particularly eye-catching. Michelle Burke (11) wrote to Hillery protesting against the death penalty in Saudi Arabia, where a Scottish couple had been convicted of murdering Irish nurse Helen Feeney: “I know I’m only a child. But it is my point of view”. Schoolboy Shane Doyle wrote to Hillery on a more personal issue, asking him to “outlaw school”. “I cannot grant your request”, the president replied.

“This country might as well be England”, schoolchildren from Tramore, Co Waterford, wrote in a letter to de Valera about the Irish language in 1971, “and soon all our dances, poems and songs will be changed for English ones”. Many presidential letters make both personal and official use of the language, not least de Valera’s message for inclusion on Apollo 11.

That the words of a President of Ireland sit on the surface of the moon illustrates the symbolic importance of the office in helping the country take its place among the nations. This varied collection, enlivened with short commentaries from David McCullagh, Catriona Crowe, Harry McGee and others, is a reminder of how our presidents continue to shape their role with their pens.

– Dr Christopher Kissane is a historian and writer