Contributed by Bryce Evans
In the midst of the present malaise in Irish politics and economics it’s tempting to look back to the Great Men of Irish history. Of these Great Men few are as celebrated as Seán Lemass, whose latest biographer is veteran UCD political scientist Tom Garvin. Launching Garvin’s Judging Lemass Brian Cowen staked a typically rodomontade claim to the Lemassian mantle by asserting that Lemass would back the current government’s economic strategy. As demonstrated by Cowen’s reversion to ‘What if?’ history – a dubious form of historical enquiry once dismissed by eminent historian E.P. Thompson as ‘unhistorical sh*t’ – the danger of all this celebrating of Great Men is that everyone tends to get a bit carried away. Lemass, as Garvin states in the book, was ‘not infallible’. This is about as close as the learned professor gets to any meaningful criticism of the authoritarian tendencies of the former Taoiseach though.
The main departure from previous biographies is Garvin’s take on the future Taoiseach’s youth. Garvin incisively details Lemass’s nationalist/Parnellite political inheritances of militarism and constitutionalism and powerfully conveys the death of Lemass’s brother Noel, whose mutilated, lifeless body was dumped in the Dublin mountains by Free State troops during the Civil War. The family insight is aided by Garvin’s access to material held by the Haughey and Lemass families and Judging Lemass is lavishly illustrated throughout with election material, portraits and official documents from seven decades of private and public life. As Lemass matures, the book successfully communicates Lemass’s infectious efficiency and studied pragmatism, his dry humour and – most pointedly – his frustration when held back by those he perceived as less talented than himself. As an abstentionist Republican in the 1920s Garvin details how Lemass suffered amidst a ‘galaxy of cranks’; later, when in power in the 1930s, he often had to contend with Church obduracy to the march of modernity.
But if Garvin is admirably strident in his criticism of the pious, green dreams of patriots and priests, it is teleology – cloying and consistent – that is undoubtedly Judging Lemass’s greatest sin. Unsurprisingly, Garvin is strongest when applying his verbose rhetoric to socio-political trends in independent Ireland. He is perhaps weakest on the economic front. Hesitating to deviate even slightly from the T.K. Whitaker metanarrative, Garvin fails to investigate the reality behind Lemass’s frequent talking-up of the economy in the 1960s, nor the fact that industrial relations were in disarray when he resigned in ’66, despite his efforts to promote social partnership. A repetitive theme is Garvin’s deeply patronising attitude, almost aping Lemass’s, towards Ireland’s rural peripheries. To summarise: Lemass progressive / Contemporaries inert.
There is precious little on the Emergency (1939-45) – a crucial formative period when, as Minister of Supplies, Lemass became – to quote Ronan Fanning – the ‘economic overlord’ of Ireland. Liberal constraints happily bulldozed, Lemass aggressively pushed the boundaries of state intervention to new lengths during the 1940s. An ardent advocate of camp labour, it was left to the Boys of the Old Brigade whom Garvin derides to rightly rebuke Lemass when he trod the wrong side of the liberal / authoritarian divide. Garvin claims his stockpiling of fuel and foods ‘paid off handsomely’ during the 1940s. In fact Lemass failed to stockpile many essential supplies and continued to sanction the export of items key to Ireland’s survival. The post-1959 Lemass is familiar to most and Garvin’s book adds little to our understanding of Lemass’s period as Taoiseach. Instead the years 1959-66 are presented as the happy culmination – but all too late, of course – of Lemass’s talents. The familiar ‘opening up’ attitudes towards the North and Europe is dutifully relayed and – fear not – is accompanied by enough pictures of Lemass and J.F.K. to please those American relatives over on a flying visit this Christmas.
This is the familiar story of Lemass the Great Man. Lemass indeed was a Great Man, perhaps one of the greatest men of twentieth century Irish history, but a man nonetheless: fallible, human, the product of social and economic currents rather than their master, reactionary as well as progressive, and certainly undeserving of sugary hagiography.