THERE has been a abundance of Seán Lemass biographies, all pretty much heaping praise on the man dubbed Ireland’s favourite taoiseach. He is acclaimed for being the architect of modern Ireland, a role model for today’s politicians and an iconic figure in the Fianna Fáil party he helped establish in 1926.
Bryce Evans paints a different, less favourable portrait. This biography, which coincides with the 40th anniversary of his death, doesn’t ignore Lemass’s achievements, but it explores the unexplained myths.
With the both the economy and the Catholic Church in such a perilous state, the author feels it is a “fitting time” to appraise Lemass fairly because he believes our present-day problems can be traced back to his time in government.
Under the microscope are his dichotomous relationships with businessmen and the Church, his “dictatorial” leadership of the party and the contradictions behind the economic decisions he made in the 1930s.
Evans uses never-seen-before archived party records to reveal more of what made him tick. He suggests that the “real’ Lemass was not only a workaholic and an authoritarian who resented the decades spent in de Valera’s shadow, but that he also favoured a totalitarian approach to achieving his goals.
As Minister for Industry and Commerce in the 1930s, he used protectionism as a weapon against the Economic War in his bid to industrialise Ireland, a policy he was forced to dismantle two decades later. By Second World War, Ireland was still what Evans describes as “precariously reliant” on British goodwill, while emigration and unemployment were rife.
In his 1937 defence of his policies, Lemass said: “Industrial progress has been so rapid in the last few years that mistakes were nearly inevitable but I do not admit they were either numerous or serious.”
Examples of his “radical authoritarian” thinking were common. A 1935 department memorandum envisaged gender-segregated labour camps in the Gaeltacht where “unskilled men would be taught with various trades”. The men “would not be paid but would be fed, clothed and housed”, while women would attend special schools to train for domestic service. Evans describes his bid to “solve” problems with such schemes as naive.
On one hand, he had the realism and lack of sentimentality to push through reforms needed for industrialisation but on the other he isolated huge pockets of society, particularly the country’s rural community, of which he had no great love. According to Kevin Boland, son of Lemass’s co-worker Gerry Boland: “Lemass had an abrupt manner, he did not have the balance that was required for country people.”
The archives reveal nepotism in the mid-30s when Lemass, as Minister for Industry and Commerce, was responsible for the creation of a plethora of state-promoted companies. At the time Fine Gael’s James Dillon accused his adversary of creating a “bourgeois cronyism”.
Lemass also struggled to adjust during Fianna Fáil’s two periods of opposition post-war, which led to him becoming more dictatorial towards the party’s rank and file.
Evans sums up: “As a political operator, Lemass was not a political pluralist. He held the view that it was unpatriotic not to vote for Fianna Fáil. Only his party could deliver national progress and it would be on their terms. He was adept at dressing up self-interest in the language of self-righteousness, in disguising tribalism as high-mindedness.
“Although scrupulous in pursuing his nationalistic conception of the ‘common good’, a quasi-corporatist cronyism developed under him. When he was in power, the grand narrative of national economic progress allowed little time for free thinkers who challenged state authority.”