Book review: The Lives of Daniel Binchy: Irish Scholar, Diplomat, Public Intellectual

Daniel Binchy, Ireland’s ambassador to the Weimer Republic, once described Adolf Hitler as a ‘harmless lunatic’ but one of the country’s most perceptive and insightful intellectuals was not fooled for long, as Ryle Dwyer notes.

Tom Garvin

Irish Academic Press, €22.50

Review: Ryle Dwyer

DANIEL ANTHONY BINCHY, this country’s first diplomatic representative to Germany in the 1920s, was born in 1899 in Charleville, Co Cork, where the family had a shop. 

He stood out for a number of reasons, which makes this book a valuable study of facets of his life as scholar, diplomat, and intellectual.

While the book glosses over his family background, there are still some interesting sidelights. 

One of those employed in the family business was John Higgins, who was sacked around the time of the civil war and warned that when all this “blackguardism” was over, “there would be no jobs for Republicans in this firm, or anywhere else for that matter.” 

Higgins, who was a poor man for the rest of his life, was the father of President Michael D Higgins. 

Daniel Binchy, Ireland’s first ambassador to Germany, was born in Charleville in 1899. The scholar, diplomat, intellectual and uncle to Maeve Binchy, was a brilliant linguist, studied to become a Jesuit, but withdrew before being ordained, going on to earn a doctorate in Munich. He despised Hitler and Nazis.
Daniel Binchy, Ireland’s first ambassador to Germany, was born in Charleville in 1899. The scholar, diplomat, intellectual and uncle to Maeve Binchy, was a brilliant linguist, studied to become a Jesuit, but withdrew before being ordained, going on to earn a doctorate in Munich. He despised Hitler and Nazis.

Binchy’s most famous relative was probably his niece, the writer and novelist Maeve Binchy. 

When she visited him one time as a young girl, he bribed her to stay away from him.

“I have a ten-shilling note in my pocket,” he told her. 

“If I give you this princely sum, will you promise never to enter this room again?”

At Clongowes, Joseph P Walshe was one of Daniel Binchy’s teachers. 

Walshe had been preparing to join the Jesuits for a number of years but he withdrew before being ordained. 

He went on to become the Secretary of the Department of External Affairs.

After Clongowes, Binchy went on to the National University. He was a brilliant linguist, speaking fluent German, French and Italian. 

He won a scholarship to study at the University of Munich, where he earned a doctorate, writing his dissertation was on the Irish Benedictine monastery of Ratisbon.

During his time in Munich he had his first encounter with Adolf Hitler in 1921, and later published an extraordinary account of their meeting. 

He initially described Hitler as “a harmless lunatic with the gift of Oratory.”

“No lunatic with the gift of oratory is harmless,” a friend astutely warned. 

It was largely through his contact with Joe Walshe and his study in Germany that Binchy was appointed the Irish Free State’s first ambassador to the Weimar Republic in October 1929.

“He turned out to be an excellent choice, submitting to the Irish government perceptive, accurate and wise assessments of the toxic politics that marked the dying years of the Weimar Republic,” according to Professor Tom Garvin, who notes that Binchy perceptively recognised that Hitler thrived on his ability “to define the situations as doomed” and then depict his own leadership as “the last chance of salvation.”

Binchy distinguished himself in Berlin “by writing able and perceptive reports on German political life and on public opinion in the country.” 

He was greatly disturbed by the political situation generated by the Nazis, but unlike Charles Bewley, his successor in Berlin, or Fianna Fáil deputies like Dan Breen and Tom McEllistrim, sr, Binchy was not fooled by Hitler.

Dan Breen: On unapologetic supporter of Hitler.
Dan Breen: On unapologetic supporter of Hitler.

When Ben Briscoe, the Jewish Fianna Fáil deputy admonished Dan Breen for supporting Hitler, Breen was unapologetic. 

“You can’t serve Ireland without a hatred of England,” he replied.

Breen was “a completely uneducated man,” Dr Garvin notes. 

“All his life he had a picture of Hitler on the wall in his home, and wept bitterly when he heard of the Fuhrer’s death in 1945.” 

The author’s meaning is clear but it was obviously a gross exaggeration to say that Breen had that picture hanging “all his life”.

While Binchy despised Hitler and the Nazis, he nevertheless astutely predicted, before he stepped down from his diplomatic post in Berlin, that Paul von Hindenburg would defeat Hitler by several million votes in the 1932 Presidential election.

Binchy also astutely predicted, “Hitler’s mad assault on German higher education could be a gift not only for higher education in Britain and America but for Ireland also.”

The eminent physicists who helped to develop the atomic bomb after fleeing to the United States were collectively categorised as “Hitler’s Gift” to America. 

This country also benefited by attracting eminent intellectuals like the Nobel-prize winning physicist Erwin Schroedinger and also Walter Heitler.

While Heitler was Jewish, Schroedinger was not. He fled Germany because he deplored the anti-Semitic behaviour of the Nazis.

The de Valera government hired both Schroedinger and Heitler to head up the new Dublin Institute of Advance Studies, which prospered as a result. 

Its success can therefore be partly attributed to the way the Nazis wrecked Europe and European higher education.

Binchy’s scholarship and judgment were recognised by the British Foreign Office, which recruited him to write on Italy. 

Although he despised the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini as a person of “low intellect” and “poor character,” he nevertheless recognised that Mussolini was at least an improvement on Hitler. 

This was possibly his only redeeming feature.

Binchy’s mammoth study, Church and State in Fascist Italy, published in 1941, was a perceptive assessment of the Italian fascist regime. 

In 1946 Binchy was awarded a senior fellowship at the University of Oxford, where he and Myles Dillon, a brother of the Fine Gael politician James Dillon, became the two resident Irish Celticists.

In 1950 Binchy moved back to Ireland to take up a fellowship at the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, but he continued to spend much time abroad, and took up a visiting professorship at Harvard University in 1954.

Although primarily aimed at an academic readership, this concise and well-written book should also have a broader appeal.

Binchy argued that the medieval commentators commonly misunderstood the meaning of the ancient texts. 

“They naturally made great play with their archaic texts, being well aware that the layman would never guess how limited was their knowledge of these texts.”

Binchy set off “an intellectual atomic bomb of his own in 1962,” according to author, by publishing a long article in Studia Hibernica, arguing that there was little agreement even among the academic writers about the different traditions in writing about St Patrick. 

It was usually suggested that St Patrick came to Ireland in 432, but Binchy noted a “distinguished medievalist has put forward a plausible argument” the patron saint was actually dead by 431.

Binchy became the main academic investigating the old Gaelic legal system and his last major work was a six-volume study of almost all the collected text of the native Irish legal traditions. 

Although he immersed himself in his academic intellectual pursuits in later years, he did sally back to modernity on occasions.

“Every now and then Binchy displayed his old penchant for commenting on the contemporary scene almost as a refreshment after months or even years of absorption in the minutiae of a thousand years earlier,” the author contends.

“The traditions of Gaelic aspirations,” he wrote, “are based primarily on representative democracy and central administration after the British model.” 

Lest anyone attributed get carried away with stories of native genius, he concluded that “the Republican form of government has its source, not in native tradition (to which the very idea would have been abhorrent), but rather in the American and French Revolutions.”


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