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Sean F. Lemass
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Sean F. Lemass

Seán Francis Lemass (15 July, 1899 - 11 May, 1971) was Taoiseach of the Republic of Ireland from 1959 until 1966. He was a veteran of the 1916 Easter Rising, the War of Independence and the Irish Civil War. Lemass was first elected as a TD in 1924 and was elected at each election until his retirement in 1969. He was a co-founder of Fianna Fáil in 1926, and served as Minister for Industry & Commerce (1932-1939, 1941-1948, 1951-1954 & 1957-1959) and Minister for Supplies (1939-1945). Lemass was appointed Tánaiste on three occasions (1945-1948, 1951-1954 and 1957-1959). He is remembered for his tireless work to develop Irish industry and for forging new links between Northern and Southern Ireland. Lemass is regarded as one of, if not, the most influential ministers and Taoisigh of the 20th Century and the architect of modern Ireland.

An Taoiseach Seán F. Lemass, T.D
Rank:3rd Taoiseach
Term of Office:June 23 1959 - November 10 1966
Predecessor:Eamon de Valera
Successor:Jack Lynch
Date of Birth:July 15, 1899
Place of Birth:Dublin, Ireland
Date of Death:May 11, 1971
Place of Death:Dublin, Ireland
Political Party:Fianna Fáil

Table of contents
1 Early Life
2 One of the '12 Apostles'?
3 Anti-Treaty
4 Personal Life
5 Fianna Fáil
6 Minister for Industry & Commerce
7 Minister for Supplies
8 The Bleak Fifties
9 Taoiseach
10 Retirement
11 Death
12 Legacy: Ireland's Pope John?
13 Footnote
14 Cabinet
15 Lemass' Governmental Positions

Early Life

John (Seán) Francis Lemass was born on 15 July, 1899 in Dublin. He was the second of seven children born to John and Frances Lemass. Within the family his name soon changed to 'Jack' and eventually after 1916 he himself preferred to be called 'Seán'. He was educated by the Christian Brothers in Dublin, where he was described as studious (his two best subjects being history and mathematics). One of Lemass' classmates was the popular Irish comedian Jimmy O'Dea. In January 1915 Lemass was persuaded to join the Irish Volunteers. His mature looks ensured he would be accepted as he was only fifteen-and-a-half at the time. Lemass became a member of the A Company of the 3rd Battalion of the Dublin City Regiment. The battalion adjutant was Eamon de Valera, future Taoiseach and President of Ireland. While out on a journey in the Dublin mountains at Easter 1916 Seán and his brother Noel met two sons of Professor Eoin MacNeill's. They informed the Lemass' of the Easter Rising that was taking place in the city. The following day (Monday) Seán and Noel were allowed to join the Volunteer garrison at the General Post Office. Seán was equipped with a shotgun and was positioned on the roof. However, by Friday the Rising had ended in ruins and all involved were imprisoned. Lemass, due to his age, was released from the 1,783 that were arrested. Following this Lemass' father wantd his son to continue with his studies and to become a barrister. However, Seán now had a different view of the world, a view which had wisdom far beyond his young years.

One of the '12 Apostles'?

Up to November 1920 Lemass remained a part-time member of the Volunteers. In that month, during the height of the Anglo-Irish War, 12 members of the Dublin Brigade of the IRA took part in an attack on British agents living in Dublin. The group was under the leadership of Michael Collins. The names of those who carried out Collins' orders on that morning have never been disclosed. It is generally believed, however it has never been proved that Lemass was one of the 12 Apostles that took part on that day which became known as Bloody Sunday, 1920. Lemass was arrested in December 1920 and interned at Ballykinlar in County Down. Note; the 12 apostles were Joe Leonard, Seán Doyle, Jim Slattery, Bill Stapleton, Pat McCrae, James Conroy, Ben Barret and Patrick Daly. Mick McDonnell, the first leader, was later succeeded by Daly and, in January 1920, three men were added - Tom Keogh, Mick O'Reilly and Vincent Byrne.


In December 1921, after the signing of Anglo-Irish Treaty, Lemass was released. During the debates of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921, Lemass was one of the minority who opposed it along with de Valera. As a protest all the anti-Treaty side withdrew from the Dáil. In the Irish Civil War which followed Lemass was adjutant and second in command to Rory O Connor when the group seized the Four Courts, the home of the High Court of Ireland. The group was eventually captured, however Lemass escaped with some others. (When withdrawing the anti-treaty IRA controversially blew up the Irish Public Records Office, destroying one thousand years of Irish archives.) He was later re-captured and imprisoned again. In June 1923 Noel Lemass, Seán's brother, was abducted in Dublin by a number of men, believed to be connected to the Irish National Army. He was held in secret until October when his body was found in the Dublin Mountains. Seán Lemass was released from prison on compassionate grounds as a result of this. On 18 November, 1924 Lemass was elected for the very first time as a Sinn Féin TD.

Personal Life

On 24 August 1924 Lemass married Kathleen Hughes. It must be pointed out that this marriage took place much to the disapproval of the bride's mother and father. The wedding took place in the Church of the Holy Name, Ranelagh,Dublin. Jimmy O'Dea acted as Lemass' best man. Together Seán and Kathleen had four children - Maureen (b.1925), Peggy (b.1927), Noel (b.1929) and Sheila (b.1932). Maureen Lemass would later go on to marry a successor of Lemass as Fianna Fáil leader and Taoiseach - that man is Charles Haughey.

Fianna Fáil

In 1926 de Valera, supported by Lemass, sought to convince Sinn Féin to abandon its policy of refusing to accept the existence of the Irish Free State, the legitimacy of its Dáil Éireann and of its abstentionist policy of refusing to accept election to it. However the effort was unsuccessful and in March 1926 de Valera, along with Lemass, resigned from the party. At this point de Valera contemplated leaving public life, a momentous decision that could have changed the course of Irish history forever. It was Lemass who encouraged him to stay and form a party. In May de Valera, assisted by Gerald Boland and Lemass began to plan a new political party. This became known as Fianna Fáil (the Republican Party). Lemass began travelling around the country trying to get support for Fianna Fáil. Many former Sinn Féin TDs were persuaded to join. The new party was strongly opposed to partition but accepted the de-facto existence of the Irish Free State. It opposed the controversial Oath of Allegiance and campaigned for its removal; pending its removal the party announced that it would not take up its Dáil seats. A court case, taken in the name of Lemass and others was begun. However the assassination by the IRA of Kevin O'Higgins, the Vice-President of the Executive Council (deputy prime minister) led to the passing of a new Act requiring that all prospective Dáil candidates to take an oath guaranteeing that if elected they would take the Oath of Allegiance, a refusal to give the undertaking debarring someone from becoming a candidate in a general or by-election. Faced with the threat of legal disqualification from politics, de Valera capitulated and took the Oath of Allegiance, while claiming that he was simply signing a slip of paper to gain a right of participation in the Dáil, not actually taking an Oath. On 11 August, 1927, having signed the Oath of Allegiance in front of a representative of the Governor-General of the Irish Free State, all the Fianna Fáil TDs entered the Dáil.

Minister for Industry & Commerce

In 1932 Fianna Fáil won power in the Free State, remaining in power for sixteen uninterrupted years. The party which Lemass had described as only a "slightly constitutional party" in 1929 was now leading the Irish Free State, a state de Valera and Lemass had a decade earlier fought a civil war to destroy. de Valera appointed Lemass as Minister for Industry and Commerce, one of the most powerful offices in the Executive Council (cabinet), and a position he would occupy in every de Valera government. Lemass had the two difficult tasks of developing Irish industry behind tariff walls, and convincing the Department of Finance regarding state involvement in industry. However, he worked hard and tirelessly for the industrial betterment of Ireland. In 1933 Lemass set up the Industrial Credit Corporation to facilitate supplying funds for setting up industry. A number of 'semi-state' companies modelled on the success of the ESB were also set up. These include the Irish Sugar Company, to develop the sugar-beet industry, Turf Development Board for turf development and an Irish airline, Aer Lingus. Years later Lemass described Aer Lingus as his proudest achievement. The Irish market was still too small for multiple companies to exist so practically all the 'semi-states' had a monopoly on the Irish market. While Lemass concentrated on economic matters, de Valera focused primarily on constitutional affairs, leading to the passage of Bunreacht na hÉireann, a new Irish constitution, in 1937. De Valera became the new Taoiseach of the new state of Éire, while Lemass served in the new Government (the new name for the cabinet) again as Minister for Industry and Commerce.

Minister for Supplies

Lemass moved to a new portfolio in 1939 following the outbreak of World War II (known in Éire as The Emergency), becoming Minister for Supplies. It was a crucial role for the officially neutral Ireland (in fact, as since released government papers show, the neutrality was to a significant part fiction, with Éire secretly aiding the Allies; the date of D-Day, for example, was decided because of weather forecasts from Ireland, which indicated the incoming weather systems from the Atlantic, the right weather being crucial to the success of the Normandy landings). Officially neutral, Éire had to achieve an unprecedented degree of self-sufficiency and it was Lemass's role to ensure this. The fact that he was charged with such a crucial role is indicative of he faith held in his abilities by de Valera. Lemass had the difficult task of organising what little resources existed. In 1941 the Irish Shipping Company was set up to keep a vital trickle of supplies coming into the country. However, petrol, gas and a number of basic foodstuffs remained in short supply. Lemass's seniority was shown when, following Sean T. O'Kelly's election as President of Ireland in 1945, de Valera chose Lemass over older cabinet colleagues to become Tánaiste (deputy prime minister).

The Bleak Fifties

In 1948, partly due to its own increasing isolation and also due to a republican backlash against its anti-IRA policies (which during the Emergency had seen the execution of IRA prisoners - in part due to IRA links with the Nazis), which had produced a rival republican party, Clann na Poblachta, Fianna Fáil lost power. The First Inter-Party Government, made up of Fine Gael, Labour, National Labour, Clann na Talmhan, Clann na Poblachta and others, was formed under Fine Gael TD John A. Costello. In opposition, Lemass played a crucial role in re-organising and streamlining Fianna Fáil. As a result (and also due to internal crises within the Inter-Party government over the declaration of the Republic of Ireland (a description that replaced Éire as the twenty-six county state's effective name) and also the controversial Mother and Child Scheme) In 1951 Fianna Fáil returned to form a minority government. Lemass again returned as Minister for Industry and Commerce. Lemass believed that a new economic policy was needed, however de Valera disagreed. Seán MacEntee, the Minister for Finance, tried to deal with the crisis in the balance of payments. He was also un-sympathetic to a new economic outlook. In 1954 the government fell and was replaced by the Second Inter-Party Government. Lemass was confined to the Opposition benches for another three years. In 1957 de Valera, at the age of seventy-five, announced to Fianna Fáil that he planned to retire. He was persuaded however to become Taoiseach one more time until 1959, when the office of President of Ireland would become vacant. Lemass returned as Tánaiste and Minister for Industry and Commerce. In 1958 the first Programme for Economic Development was launched. de Valera was elected President of Ireland in 1959 and retired as Fianna Fáil leader and Taoiseach.


On 23 June 1959 Seán Lemass was appointed Taoiseach on the nomination of the Dáil. There was a sense of excitement at Lemass replacing the elderly and nearly blind de Valera as head of government. Lemass concentrated his energies on social and economic issues. The Programme for Economic Development became government policy and was implemented by Lemass. By 1963 the unemployment rate and emigration fell dramatically. The population of the twenty-six county Republic of Ireland rose for the first time since the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s.

In 1961 Lemass faced his first general election as Fianna Fáil leader. He failed to win an overall parliamentary majority but retained power with the help of some Independent TDs. The Taoiseach continued to introduce new faces to the Cabinet and retire some of de Valera's generation. The new arrivals included future president Patrick Hillery and future Taoiseach (Lemass' own son-in-law) Charles Haughey. His eventual successor Jack Lynch who had entered cabinet in de Valera's last years, became one of Lemass's senior ministers, as did future Tánaiste Brian Lenihan. Some of de Valera's old guard were kept initially: Seán MacEntee, Frank Aiken and James Ryan. In August 1961 Ireland, along with Britain, applied for membership of the European Economic Community. However the application was vetoed by Charles de Gaulle. On December 31 1961 Teilfís Éireann (later Radio Telifís Éireann (RTÉ) began broadcasting. Programmes such as the Late Late Show challenged traditional conservative images of Ireland, with debates on divorce, feminism, contraception and homosexuality.

Ireland's progress continued abroad also when in 1962 the country was elected to the Security Council of the United Nations. In 1963 President John F. Kennedy of the United States made a historic visit to Ireland. There was great public celebrations at the time as President Kennedy returned to his ancestral country. In October the same year Lemass returned the compliment when he paid a visit to the United States. In 1964 the second Programme for Economic Expansion was launched. This programme was more ambitious and it failed to reach its target. It was abandoned in 1967. In 1965 Lemass was re-appointed as Taoiseach with an overall majority.

Lemass favoured a new attitude in relation to Northern Ireland. In a change from anti-partition Fianna Fáil policy epitomised by de Valera he favoured a policy of re-conciliation and increased co-operation. This co-operation between the two governments would concentrate on such issues as tourism, trade and agriculture. In 1963 Capt. Terence O Neill became the Northern Ireland Prime Minister. He was a younger more pragmatic politician and was not afraid of new ideas. He issued an invitation to Lemass to meet him in Belfast. On 14 January 1965 Lemass travelled to Stormont. The Irish Cold War was finally over. On 9 February 1965 O Neill travelled to Dublin to meet Lemass. Meetings between other ministers soon followed.


In 1966 the Republic of Ireland celebrated the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising. Lemass was one of the last surviving members along with Eamon de Valera. The celebrations were alleged by some to have undone the good work that resulted from the Lemass-O Neill meetings. Others perceived it as the last gasp symbolically of irredentist Irish nationalism. A sign of the move shift can be gauged by the fact the last surviving senior leader of the Rising, Eamon de Valera, came within 1% of defeat in an Irish presidential election less than two months after the celebrations he played such a central part of. In November 1966 Lemass announced his decision to retire as Fianna Fáil leader and Taoiseach. The anniversary celebrations possibly cemented his decision. On 10 November 1966 he officially announced to the Dáil with his usual dry wit, 'I Have resigned.' That very day Jack Lynch became the new leader. He was the first Taoiseach not to have been influenced by Civil War politics. Lemass, who had served his country for fifty years, now retired to the backbenches. He remained a TD until 1969.


During the last few years of his leadership Lemass' health began to deteriorate. He had been a heavy pipe smoker all his life, smoking almost a pound of tobacco a week in his later life. At the time of his retirement it was suspected that Lemass had cancer, however this assumption was later disproved. In February 1971, while attending a rugby game at Lansdowne Road, Lemass became unwell. He was rushed to hospital and later told by his doctor that one of his lungs was about to collapse.

On 11 May, 1971 Seán Lemass died in the Mater Hospital in Dublin.

Legacy: Ireland's Pope John?

Sean Lemass remains one of the most highly regarded of Irish Taoisigh, being described even by later Fine Gael Taoisigh Garret FitzGerald and John Bruton as the best holder of the office, and the man whose cabinet leadership style they wished to follow. (Bruton hung a picture of Lemass in his office.) Some historians have questioned whether Lemass came to the premiership too late, arguing that had he replaced deV as Fianna Fáil leader and taoiseach in 1951 he could have begun the process of reform of Irish society and the industrialisation of the Republic of Ireland a decade earlier than 1959, when he eventually achieved the top governmental job. Others speculate whether he had been able to achieve some of his policy reforms he did initiate in the 1950s because de Valera was still the leader, his opponents being unwilling to challenge him given that he appeared to have deV's backing. What is not in doubt is that Eamon de Valera and Sean Lemass held diametrically different visions of Ireland; deV's was of a pastoral rural based society "given to frugal living", Lemass has a vision of a modern industrialised society, a member of the EEC.

Sean F. Lemass has been called "Ireland's Pope John XXIII." Like Pope John replaced Pope Pius XII so Lemass replaced another old man of towering intellect who embodied tradition, Eamon de Valera. Like Pope John, Lemass appeared like an old man in a hurry for change, who in a few short years changed his society in a way few thought imaginable. Like Pope John, Lemass saw old problems in new ways, in his case his new rapprochment with Northern Ireland. Like Pope John's reforms within Roman Catholicism with Vatican II, some of Lemass's changes proved double edged swords; of his new ministers embodied lower standards of behaviour than their predecessors - Charles Haughey retired as taoiseach under a cloud, with a Tribunal of Inquiry later investigating allegations of financial impropriety, while other ministers in the 1960s were linked to dubious fundraising efforts for Fianna Fáil and associations with property developers. Perhaps the ultimate parallel between the elderly Irish prime minister and the elderly pope, who both came to power at the end of the 1950s and had short periods in power, is the universal affection with which both men are held, and the extent to which their successors are compared to the two old men in a hurry who took power at the end of the 1950s within a year of each other, and brought change in a speed, scale and depth no-one could have thought possible.


1 Lemass, the pragmatist, wanted to call the new party simply The Republican Party. De Valera, attached to gaelic symbolism, insisted on the Irish language name Fianna Fáil (meaning 'soldiers of destiny' (after contemplating the name Fine Gael (meaning 'family of the Gael') which ironically became the name of the main opposition party to Fianna Fáil later). The eventual name for the new party chosen was a combination of deV gaelic and Lemass's english. It was indicative of Lemass's status in 1926 that his preferred choice of name was included in the final title, albeit in secondary location to deV's chosen name.

2 In 1929 Lemass himself was move above restoring to extra-legal behaviour. He discussed with the IRA the possibility of discussing Remembrance Day ceremonies due to be held in College Green in the centre of Dublin and which drew thousands of people. However the discussed attack never took place and Lemass broke off contact with the IRA soon afterwards. National Archives of Ireland files.


Lemass' Governmental Positions

Preceded by:
Patrick McGilligan
Minister for Industry & Commerce;
Followed by:
Seán MacEntee
Preceded by:
Minister for Supplies
Followed by:
Preceded by:
Seán MacEntee
Minister for Industry & Commerce;
Followed by:
Daniel Morrissey
Preceded by:
Thomas F. O'Higgins
Minister for Industry & Commerce;
Followed by:
William Norton
Preceded by:
William Norton
Minister for Industry & Commerce;
Followed by:
Jack Lynch
Preceded by:
Eamon de Valera
Followed by:
Jack Lynch