Soaring ambition – Mary O’Rourke on a way to commemorate Seán Lemass

An Irishwoman’s Diary

May 2021 marked the 50th anniversary of the death of Seán Lemass. There has been a lot of activity, both in writing and in statements, about the event, starting with Micheál Martin's belief that it is shameful that there is not a commemorative statue to Seán Lemass already. This point was taken up by Diarmaid Ferriter writing in The Irish Times, saying that he doubts Lemass would have any interest in any kind of an inanimate statue to commemorate him (Opinion & Analysis, May 14th).

To my mind, the right way to commemorate Seán Lemass is to rename Dublin Airport “Seán Lemass Airport” or “Lemass Airport”.

Why? Because an airport is about looking ahead, looking outwards, and Seán Lemass was constantly looking outwards, planning ahead, and all the time wanting to position Ireland in a modern sense. The only person I shared this idea with was Ivan Yates on his programme The Hard Shoulder. He thought it was a good idea, and that it would fly, but I notice nobody else has come up with the idea.

I think it is something that should be floated. This was brought home to me when on Sunday, May 23rd, John Bowman in his 8.30am Sunday radio programme played an interview he had done with Seán Lemass almost 50 years ago.


It was most interesting to contrast the sonorous, memorable voice of Seán Lemass and the bright, young voice of John Bowman.

Enough of that; why am I taking up this subject? It is because my father, Patrick Joseph Lenihan, was a civil servant in the Taxation Department in Dublin Castle when, in the early 1930s, he had government business with Seán Lemass, who was then minister for industry. They developed a quick friendship, and Lemass invited him to take leave of absence from the Civil Service and to come to Athlone where the government was going to set up a cotton factory to be named General Textiles Ltd.

Lemass said afterwards to my father that he "liked the cut of his jib". Be that as it may, my father agreed and landed home to my mother Annie, living in Sutton at that time with three young children –Ann, aged 4; Paddy aged 6; and Brian aged 8. He said to my mother, "Pack your traps, Annie, we're going to live in Athlone."

And so, she arrived at the no longer in use Ranelagh boys' Protestant secondary school in the middle of a huge empty campus, where the factory was to be situated. We took up our living in the dormitory section of the school. My father's office was on the ground floor, and we lived on the first floor. My mother came to Athlone with three young children and me in her womb. I am the only genuine Athlonian from the family!

General Textiles Ltd was to be known as Gentex, which started business in 1936. My father was the managing director and they started with the help of a Belgian, Henri Legache, who had been involved in the cotton industry in Belgium.

So with the blessing of government, General Textiles started to take on employees, among them 20 Belgians who at the beginning of the second World War wanted to escape from Belgium and brought their skills to Athlone to be used in the newly installed weaving, bleaching and finishing sheds, to be added to later by the spinning shed.

Employment raced ahead and in time reached its peak of 1,000 workers, embracing Athlone town, south Roscommon and south Westmeath. The factory ran a 24-hour shift with hooters going off every eight hours. My father had a strongly socialist streak. Early on he employed a permanent nurse in Gentex, to be followed by twice-weekly doctor visits with all the professional help which they freely dispensed to the workers.

My childish hours were spent in trailing through the weaving and bleaching sheds and being constantly treated to a bar of chocolate or some other goodie.

Henri Legache was a marvellous mentor for Gentex, and my father worked so strongly with him and the board to identify what would be a very good project for Gentex, which were the Constellation sheets. By the way, if I am at a public meeting I sometimes ask if anyone has ever heard of Constellation sheets, and invariably three or four hands will go up and people tell me they still have pairs of those sheets.

Now of course this was a massive employment-inducing project by the Fianna Fáil government of the day. A funny aside is that on one of his frequent visits to Gentex, Seán Lemass said in a jocose way to my father, "Ah Paddy, would you not run for a real party like Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael and damn those Independents?" My father had run in the early 40s for the local Athlone District Council as an Independent candidate, and so Seán Lemass reminded him.

The next time my father ran, he ran for Fianna Fáil. You see, there was no long tradition of Fianna Fáil in my father, separate completely from my mother who was an outright republican. In fact, as a student in UCG studying arts and law, my father had ridden out to Athenry Garda station with a few of his student friends to relieve the force there which was under threat from the republicans.

Employment stayed strong at Gentex until, in time, State subsidies began to wane in light of changing world systems. Then there came a great move towards synthetics so that the allure of pure cotton began to fade. Gradually, over time, employment dwindled but for so many years Gentex provided a solid base of proper employment to so many people.

These were the happy years of my childhood, with so many good memories. I often wonder what would have happened if Seán Lemass, the energetic successful government minister, had not caught the eye and the imagination of the civil servant in the Department of Taxation in Dublin Castle.

So the name and memory of Seán Lemass means a lot to me, and indeed to our family.

I hope the idea of renaming Dublin Airport “Seán Lemass Airport” will gain traction, and that it will eventually come about.

Seán Lemass was a very special person, and he played a memorable role in my childhood.