An Irishman's Diary

 

Many of us have a dim folk memory of Douglas Hyde, the first President of Ireland, as an old-fashioned gent with a walrus moustache who had a great gra for the Irish language and served the nation well, if unexcitingly, in his declining years. The 60th anniversary of his installation occurs this year. Papers just released at the National Archives throw fascinating new light on his Presidency, and show that there were potential controversies swirling around his inauguration that might have been as turbulent as that over President McAleese's Communion at Christ Church. The papers may also cause us to revise the general view of pre-Robinson Presidents as non-controversial figureheads.

As part of the celebrations to mark Dr Hyde's inauguration, a special service was organised for St Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin. Dr Hyde was a member of the Church of Ireland, so this event would have had a special significance for members of that denomination.

The papers reveal, however, that there was considerable apprehension in Aras an Uachtarain about what might happen. Specifically, there was concern that the British national anthem might be played (for it was not unknown for it to feature at some social and even religious functions involving the Church of Ireland at this time). The President's secretary, Michael McDunphy, took it on himself to tackle this thorny subject as diplomatically as possible, and telephoned the Dean of St Patrick's, Dean Wilson, to inquire about arrangements for the service.

"Nothing controversial"

The result of his conversation, he noted with satisfaction in an official minute, was that "nothing controversial to any person or group in the State would be included in the service".

Mr McDunphy added: "The assurance was given in a guarded manner as the conversation took place over the phone, but it was abundantly clear that it was meant to cover explicitly the question of the British National Anthem."

After the outbreak of the second World War, in which the Irish State was conspicuously neutral, the problem appeared more publicly at the Dublin Horse Show where, the files noted, one section of the crowd would sing God Save The King lustily when the British show-jumping team appeared. In response, another section of the crowd would reply with Amhran na bFhiann when the Irish team made its entrance. The situation had such potential for controversy that Dr Hyde's secretary drew up special rules for the playing of any anthems when the President was present.

"The singing of God Save the King," he noted, was "obviously an effort on the part of the pro-British element here to demonstrate the contempt in which they hold their own nationality, and their pathetic adherence to that of the country which held Ireland so long in subjection."

Society wedding

Nor was the Horse Show the only area of controversy. In an even more detailed note, Mr McDunphy recounts how he went to some length to ensure that the British anthem was not played, and that King George was not toasted, at a wedding in January 1942 in Lucan House (now the Italian Embassy) to which he had been invited.

The bride was Miss Molly O'Conor, eldest daughter of the late Charles O'Conor of Lucan House. The groom was Mr Luke Teeling, a Flight Lieutenant in the RAF. The best man was the Marquess of Donegal and the assistant best man was Mr More O'Ferrall. Both the President's sister, Mrs Cambreth Kane, and his secretary were invited to the wedding.

Many of Mr Teeling's colleagues in the British army were also invited, Dr Hyde's secretary noted, "and I was concerned to ensure that no attempt would be made by these officers to do what had been done recently on a number of festive occasions, viz. to avail of the opportunity to stage a pro-belligerent demonstration either by toasting the King of England and/or the singing of the British National Anthem."

He telephoned Miss O'Conor, who told him that her views on such matters were well known and that she herself would be totally opposed to any such demonstration. She contacted her fiance to make sure that any potential snub to the Presidency was nipped in the bud.

"There were some 400-500 guests present at the wedding," Mr McDunphy noted, "and I felt sure, on studying the individuals comprising it, that a demonstration of the type which I had taken steps to prevent would have met with the approval and vocal support of at least 50 per cent of those present."

Trinity College

The files indicate the existence of another document - not yet released - "dealing with the singing of the British national anthem and other manifestations of anti-Irish and anti-Catholic bias on the part of Trinity College, Dublin, which is the college of the University of Dublin." Dr Hyde, of course, as a Trinity graduate himself, could be expected to have a particularly keen interest in what the occupants of his alma mater were up to.

Under the National Archives legislation, presidential files up to and including 1967 can technically be made available for public inspection. Up to now, very few have been released for public scrutiny, though a small number of workaday files were released at the end of last year. Although only a handful have been released this year, it is clear from the numbering system that there are hundreds still to be released. It is possible that lack of time to process the material, as well as lack of storage space, may explain their low priority until now, but on the evidence of this year's papers, historians of the Presidency may be in for a treat in years to come.