Lemass’s legacy more complex than most assume, biographer claims

Former taoiseach was an economic moderniser but not socially liberal

Sean Lemass pictured with Eamon de Valera  Photograph: Paddy Whelan

Sean Lemass pictured with Eamon de Valera Photograph: Paddy Whelan


Former taoiseach Seán Lemass would have aligned with the present Irish Government in relation to Brexit but he could not be considered as a social progressive, his biographer has stated.

Dr Bryce Evans told the Parnell Summer School that many contemporary politicians most notably the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar have embraced Lemass as the father of Irish modernism, but his legacy was more complicated than that.

Dr Evans, who is a lecturer in Liverpool Hope University, said Lemass would have approved of the present Irish Government’s approach to Brexit.

He would view Brexit as an opportunity and would support the Irish Government’s stance on keeping the focus on the Border.

Lemass was also a committed European and would see Ireland’s alignment with the interests of the EU during the Brexit negotiations as a good thing, added Dr Evans.

He said the Lemass Tapes, which were recently published in The Irish Times, showed that Lemass understood the UK was not really committed to the European project.

In the tapes, even before the UK joined the then European Economic Community (EEC), Lemass predicted: “I don’t think that any member of the British government ever fully understood that they could not be half in and half out of the EEC.”

In 2011 Dr Evans published his biography of Lemass entitled, Sean Lemass: Democratic Dictator. He said it was a more critical appraisal of the former taoiseach than had been published previously.

He described the book as a riposte to the idea of Lemass as a “liberal prince charming who liberated twee old Ireland”.

Dr Evans said Lemass was an economic moderniser, but was not socially liberal. He was, he said, a “social conservative and nervous about the pace of change”.

He also retained a close relationship with the Catholic Church and, in particular, then Archbishop of Dublin Dr John Charles McQuaid.

He concluded: “Lemass was a lot less liberal than we think. He was not a pluralist and though the Irish needed strong central authority in order to counteract their ‘fissiparous tendencies’.

He added: “He did not like anyone too different or too expressive; he referred to outspoken people as ‘cranks’ – neither did he like politicians who were independents and he did not like voices that departed from mainstream national narratives.”

Lemass was born in the Victorian era and was a product of his time, he suggested. He was also “conventionally sexist” and regarded women’s employment as “contrary to the Irish way of life”.

The Lemass Tapes can be viewed here: https://https://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/the-lemass-tapes