The Irish Times view on the Lemass tapes: a new take on an exemplary leader

Sean Lemass and then president Eamon de Valera at the Michael Collins memorial mass in Dublin in June 1969. Photograph: Paddy Whelan

Sean Lemass and then president Eamon de Valera at the Michael Collins memorial mass in Dublin in June 1969. Photograph: Paddy Whelan

 

The publication today of excerpts from the interviews with Seán Lemass by Dermot Ryan underlines and enhances the significance of Lemass’s lengthy role in Irish political and economic history.

But, more significantly, these interviews also provide important new evidence of his skill in facing the challenges of national economic development, and of the stresses and strains within Fianna Fáil that generally presented the electorate with impressive, even monolithic, displays of unity.

No future history of Irish political and social development in the 20th century can be written without reference to these candid – unbuttoned, even – reflections on the key features of the Lemass era.

Lemass never wrote a memoir, but these interviews are a better, more significant, and quite possibly more honest legacy than the memoirs of many of his political contemporaries. It is not difficult to imagine that, with his customary bluntness, with the candour of a man released from the chains of office, and with a strong sense of his own mortality, he knew exactly what he was doing. He emerges from these tapes as a man with a frank, but modest and realistic, assessment of his own major role in Irish public life, and also of his own mistakes. It is a rare example of a post-career reflection which actually enhances, rather than minimises, the reputation of its author.

That said, these extraordinarily vivid interviews also provide significant evidence of things that went wrong as, in politics, they often do. Lemass himself admits – as he accepts he would have been unable to do at the time – the errors in economic policy in the immediate postwar period which acted as a brake on national development, and the political misjudgment which led to Fianna Fáil’s unexpected defeat in 1948.

Related to all of this is the role of Eamon de Valera and his patent unwillingness to let go of the reins of office at a time when his powers were failing, and when he was increasingly a chairman – and not always an effective one – rather than The Chief of legend.

These interviews provide, at key points, evidence of the tension experienced by Lemass himself as he attempted to reconcile his intense loyalty to de Valera with his impatience at that long, long farewell

However, an added value of these extraordinary interviews is that they also show us a man at the height of his powers, whose abilities would have guaranteed him success in any field he chose to enter.

That he chose to devote them to public life in the service of his country is not the least of the reasons why today, almost half a century after his death, he can still serve as an exemplar and an inspiration to many, regardless of party.

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