Seán Lemass’s silent anguish

The family history of Seán Lemass contains a tragic incident that has remained largely unknown. The former taoiseach, regarded as one of the key creators of modern Ireland, accidentally shot dead his baby brother, Herbert

Seán Lemass’s public record – involvement in 1916, the War of Independence, the Civil War, forsaking of the armed struggle in favour of electoral politics, and effortless adjustment to ministerial office from 1932 – fits the conventional mould of first-generation Fianna Fáil figures.

Yet in his conduct of politics, his activist approach in government, his reluctance to talk in public about the 1916-23 era and his unwillingness to engage in Civil War recriminations, he stood apart from most of his contemporaries on both sides of the Dáil chamber.

Lemass’s biographers explain this largely by reference to the lifelong impact on him of the murder in 1923 of his older brother Noel; we also need to consider another tragic death within the Lemass family, which took place in January 1916.

The register of coroner's inquests for Dublin, and the national registers of births and deaths, contain entries which present a challenge for Lemass's various biographers. This is because the Dublin coroner's index records, on January 29th, 1916, the death the day before of Herbert Phelan Lemass, listed as a two-year-old (in fact his birth certificate records that he was born on April 12th, 1914). Herbert was a son of John T and Frances Lemass of 2 Capel Street, and therefore a younger brother of Seán and Noel Lemass. Most of Lemass's biographers do not mention any such brother, though Tom Garvin does note that a child he names as Bernard 'died young'.


The Dublin coroner’s index and the coroner’s court register show that Herbert died in Temple Street hospital from laceration of the brain. The wound was caused by a revolver bullet accidentally fired in the family living room at 2 Capel Street by Herbert’s 16-year-old brother, John. (Seán was known as John or Jack within the family.)

An inquest held on Saturday 29 January 1916 was covered in press reports. The Irish Times stated: "The jury . . . expressed the opinion that something should be done to prevent boys getting possession of firearms."

Glasnevin cemetery records show that Herbert was buried there on Sunday, January 30th, 1916. In 1923 Noel, who was murdered at the age of 25, and in 1926 another brother, Patrick, who had died of natural causes at the age of 19, were interred with Herbert in the same plot.

It can be argued this family tragedy should remain an entirely private matter, as it has for over 90 years. Yet the circumstances, as well as the people involved, require otherwise. Séan and Noel were already active Irish Volunteers by January 1916; that was probably why there was a loaded revolver in their home.

Lemass’s various biographers are surely right to say he was marked for life by Noel’s murder in 1923, but so too must he have been by the death of his young brother, Herbert, for which he was responsible.

What is most remarkable is that, although the sad circumstances of Herbert’s death were carried in the press and must have been known to many, I can find no evidence that anyone brought up the tragedy during the rancorous decades that followed Independence.

Did Lemass’s opponents simply not know about Herbert, or was it that his own disinclination to rake over the coals of the Civil War was reciprocated in the reticence of his political enemies?

Lemass's biographers acknowledge the complexity of his character, ideas, motivations, and political activities. All present him as a restless moderniser and a forward-thinking political realist, although in his provocatively titled Seán Lemass: Democratic Dictator (Dublin, 2011) Bryce Evans chastises his subject for, among other failings, being insufficiently socially progressive, and criticises other writers for sustaining rather than debunking a supposed Lemass legend. Yet Evans concurs with John Horgan's more considered Seán Lemass: The Enigmatic Patriot (Dublin, 1997) and Tom Garvin's Judging Lemass: The Measure of the Man (Dublin, 2009), in stressing the long-term impact on Lemass of Noel's murder in 1923.

One distinctive aspect of Lemass’s political persona was his disinclination to hark on about the past. In an era where political discourse inside and outside the Dáil was often marked by bitter references to the wrongdoings of Free Staters or Irregulars, Lemass was notable for his refusal to attack opponents in terms of their “national records” or alleged Civil War misdeeds. He also demonstrated considerable respect for his political opponent WT Cosgrave, the man who headed the pro-Treaty side after the deaths of Griffith and Collins, brought the Free State into being, and decisively defeated Lemass and his republican comrades in the Civil War.

Like Lemass, Cosgrave was raised in Dublin’s inner city, just a step above poverty. Like Lemass, he had lost a close relative during the revolutionary era – his young step-brother Frank Burke was killed fighting alongside him in the South Dublin Union in 1916 – and like Lemass, he did not talk publicly about his family’s loss or attempt to elevate his dead relative to public martyrdom for wider political purposes. When he became taoiseach, Lemass privately sought Cosgrave’s advice, and on Cosgrave’s death in November 1965 Lemass paid him a thoughtful and generous tribute in the Dáil.

This might be dismissed simply as evidence that Lemass had mellowed with the years, but other material indicates he had long been willing to set aside Civil War differences. In May 1941, when minister for supply in de Valera’s Emergency government, Lemass sent a five-page hand-written letter to the wife of a veteran who believed that her husband’s disability ‘arose out of active military service with the IRA’.

Lemass gave his recollections of her husband’s condition during 1920. They were in the same billet in South William Street, although not in the same unit: “your husband . . . was of highly strung disposition, and on more than one occasion I came to the conclusion that the strain of his work was telling on his nerves”.

Lemass became “seriously concerned about him” on the evening of Bloody Sunday, November 21st, 1920: “It was your husband’s duty to accompany a party of IRA to one house occupied by four . . . [British] agents, all of whom were shot. He returned . . . to the billet and I realised that he had become unnerved by his experiences of the morning. So obvious was his condition that I and one of the others took him out for a walk although it was an undesirable and risky thing to do.”

The young man was still “inclined to be hysterical. I recollect that a tap in the dispensary was leaking and making a gurgling noise. This noise apparently reminded your husband of a similar noise he had heard when the four men were shot . . . it was with difficulty that he was quietened.”

Lemass concluded by saying that “your husband was very young and his experiences could not but have left a permanent mark on him”, and suggested the names of other veterans “who would, I feel sure, support this account”.

The significance of this letter lies not simply in its compassionate tone, and its recognition of the impact of violence on a young man, but in its subject. The man concerned was not one of Lemass's anti-Treaty comrades fallen on hard times; rather, Charles Dalton was a Free State army officer who had been implicated in one of the conflict's more brutal atrocities, the killing of three youths at the Red Cow in November 1922, hours after they had been arrested in Drumcondra for putting up republican posters. The prisoners were first taken to Wellington Barracks on the South Circular Road; they were later driven away by Dalton and other soldiers. The next morning, the three were found shot dead by the side of the road near Clondalkin.

There are clear similarities between their fate and that of Noel Lemass, who was abducted by Free State agents in Dublin in June 1923 after the Civil War ended.

His corpse was found four months later buried on the Featherbed Mountain near Sally Gap, the place now marked by a commemorative stone cross. Bryce Evans presents evidence that the Lemass family believed Noel’s killing was the work of Charles Dalton’s older brother, Emmet.

What, then, are we to make of Lemass’s compassionate letter about Charles Dalton, written just 18 years after the Civil War, if not to accept it as evidence alike of his decency and of his understanding of how exposure to violence can destroy people? Is it possible that he provided comparable quiet support for other former opponents seeking pensions or compensation for their IRA service?

Unfortunately it could be years before we find out: the Dalton document surfaced only because it was selected for inclusion in a briefing document presented to Taoiseach Enda Kenny during a visit to the Military Service Pensions Project in Cathal Brugha Barracks in December 2011, at which I was present. This remarkable project, funded by the Departmentt of Defence, has seen the conservation and preparation for release of more than 280,000 files relating to the period 1916-23.

These contain material of enormous value not only to historians but to people across the world whose families were connected with or touched by the Irish revolution – the descendants of RIC men, civilians and British soldiers, as well as of those who were active participants in the War of Independence and Civil War, and in the largely neglected civil strife in Northern Ireland from 1920 to 1922/3.

The records will be fully searchable not only for individual applicants for pensions or other benefits, but for senior officers providing references. During a few days of access to these records I was able to find telling references given by my two grandfathers, Hugh Halfpenny of Down and Jim Moloney of Tipperary, in the files of individual applicants from their counties of whom I had never heard. I also encountered revealing and sometimes harrowing accounts of the killings of IRA men, policemen, soldiers and civilians which cast new light on various individual incidents.

The records also cast light on the often harsh circumstances of veterans and their families in the decades after independence; patriotism did not inoculate anyone against poverty.

The Military Service Pensions records are now ready for phased release, and many of those related to 1916 have been digitised to allow web access. They will complement the Bureau of Military History witness statements ( and the 1901 and 1911 censuses ( already on the web, which have transformed public access to records of the revolutionary era and have experienced phenomenal international usage, strengthening links with the Irish diaspora.

Unfortunately, the release programme is being delayed by an interminable wrangle over what Government department should pay for the fitting out of a suitably safe and secure public reading room for the Military Archives, responsible for these extraordinary records. The tragedy is that by the time the money is eventually found and the collection released, it will probably be too late for most of those people, now in their 70s, 80s or 90s, who are the children of the generation who lived through or were killed in the revolutionary era.

Is censorship of the historical record by delay an appropriate way for the state to mark the decade of commemorations?

Eunan O'Halpin is professor of
contemporary Irish history at Trinity College Dublin