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Lemass did not want to be taoiseach ‘for purely selfish reasons’

Seán Lemass tapes: Still regarded as Ireland’s greatest taoiseach, Lemass missed the pleasures of cards and golf and going to race meetings

Seán Lemass, who became taoiseach on June 23rd, 1959, at the age of 59, after Éamon de Valera was elected president of Ireland, never wanted the job, he said in now-revealed tapes.

In the end, he spent more than seven years in office and finally retired in November 1966. Today, he is regarded by many as Ireland's greatest taoiseach. His successor, Leo Varadkar, has a portrait of him in his office.

Though he never wrote an autobiography, Lemass did sit with businessman Dermot Ryan in 1967 for dozens of hours of taped reflections of his life and career.

The tapes, which were handed over by Ryan to the Lemass family five years ago, have now been lodged by Lemass’s great-grandson, Aidan O’Connor, with University College Dublin’s archive.

Lemass, as tanáiste and minister for industry and commerce in the Fianna Fáil government which took office again in 1957, was effectively Taoiseach anyway.

Éamon de Valera played no part in drawing up the country’s first economic programme, which was launched in 1958 – still seen to this day as one of the most important chapters in the State’s history,

Lemass’s reluctance to be taoiseach did not extend, however, to accepting that any of the Fianna Fáil colleagues he had served with in cabinet should get the job instead of him.

He had urged de Valera not to stand for the presidency, suggesting that he should carry on as an “adjudicator” taoiseach, leaving Lemass to do the work: “I would have preferred if time stood still.”

With typical candour, he told Ryan: “I could see no way of avoiding it except by keep Dev as Taoiseach until he died in the expectation that he would not interfere with what I was doing, as he was not interfering anyway.”

In the end, he said, he took the job out of a sense of duty when de Valera finally vacated the office at the age of 75. His reluctance, he told Ryan, was motivated, he admitted, by entirely selfish reasons.

Cards and golf

Lemass was a creature of habit. He valued his free time. He liked to play cards and golf. He attended race meetings and was often irritated when political pressures meant he could not.

“For a long time I used to have the illusion that I could shed my ministerial personality when I was not doing ministerial work like walking up the street, you know, as a private citizen.

“This illusion died slowly but it died and I would have said it was for purely selfish reasons that I did not want to aspire to the office of taoiseach. Life was enjoyable.

“I had all the work I wanted to do and all the power I wanted to exercise. At the same time, I could have relaxation that was more or less normal and which I assumed would cease to be available as taoiseach.”

Lemass loved to go the races on a Saturday but denied he was ever a “serious gambler”, though he was dogged with unproven rumours he had large gambling debts, mostly from playing cards.

“It became a habit of mine to go every Saturday to a race meeting. I’d be disgusted if there was no race meeting on because of bad weather or because it was too far out of Dublin,” he told Dermot Ryan.

“But when I became taoiseach I decided that I couldn’t do this as it wasn’t in conformity with the dignity of my office and it took me a hell of a long time to adjust to the situation.

"I had nothing to do on a Saturday afternoon. Ultimately, I began to acquire a habit of bringing home the longer type of government reports which you'd want to study at leisure – copies of the Economist and the Statist and other papers of that kind, which were serious reading in the full sense."

Later on, Lemass had no regrets about departing from the office of taoiseach: “On the contrary, the only sense I experienced when I was out was relief – free at last of all the responsibilities.

“I had succeeded in having a fairly long and active political life and that was the end of it; the feeling that I had enhanced rather than damaged [my] reputation in that period.

“I did not damage my personal reputation; I never did anything without some amount of public goodwill for the work I had done,” he told Ryan two years after he had retired, adding “people still say he was not a bad fellow”.

Lemass said he was not worried about the judgment of historians, as long as such judgments did not hurt his children, or his grandchildren. “If they can say my old grandfather was not too bad a guy when he was in it and feel that this is some advantage, so much the better.

“If I ended up in jail it might have been a different story, and this is a terrible handicap for children whose ancestors get themselves into public disapproval for some social misbehaviour.”