Taoiseach Profile: The great industry man, Seán Lemass

De Valera's successor proved to be the great industry man

With the General Election nearly upon us, we take a look back at some of the Taoisigh that have graced the halls of the Leinster House, what their greatest political achievements were and how this has impacted directly on Ireland.

From Eamon DeValera to Enda Kenny, the careers of these Taoisigh changed the course of Ireland's political history and helped form this little nation.

The fourth in our series is a man who is credited with turning around industry in Ireland and perhaps making it the impressive exporter it is today, Sean Lemass.

Who was he?

Lemass was born the second of seven children to John and Frances Lemass and grew up in Ballybrack, Dublin before moving to Capel Street.

Trajedy struck the family as Sean himself was responsible for the death of his brother after an accident involving a revolver. He was just 16 at the time. Another brother Patrick died of natural causes while Noel, an anti-Treaty IRA officer was found dead in the Dublin mountains following his believed arrest by the National Army or police.

Lemass married Kathleen Hughes and had four children, one of which, Maureen, went on to marry Lemass' successor Charles Haughey.

The Volunteers

At just 15, Lemass joined the Irish Volunteers was allowed to join a regiment posted in the General Post Office for the 1916 Rising. His brother Noel also joined. Following the Rising and his capture, he was released after a month due to how young he was. It wouldn't be the last time that Lemass would be imprisoned.

During the War of Independence, Lemass is believed to have served in the Twelve Apostles, the soldiers who were responsible for killing secret British agents on Bloody Sunday. Tim Pat Coogan has tied his involvement back to the death of a British agent, a member of the so-called Cairo Gang. Lemass was again imprisoned and released after the signing of the Treaty.

Civil War and Fianna Fáil

Lemass opposed the Treaty signed in 1921 between Ireland and Britain and was one of the soliders who served in the Four Courts with the rebels, the event which kicked off the beginning of Civil War in Ireland. Although he escaped, he was once again picked up and interned in 1922, only to be released when the body of his brother Noel was found.

After the Civil War ended, Lemass became an instrumental part of the peace process and the foundation of Fianna Fáil. In fact, it was he who urged De Valera to set up the party. They opposed the existence of the Free State and the Oath of Allegiance but were eventually forced to take this by the Government who enacted a law to ensure it would be taken.

By 1932, Fianna Fáil were the biggest party in the country and with their landslide victory in the 1932 election, Lemass took over the office of Minister for Industry and Commerce, a role he held in every De Valera government until he took over as Taoiseach.

The Minister

Taking over as Minister for Industry and Commerce was no mean feat. Lemass had a difficult job of trying to build the economy behind tarriff walls while simultaneously trying to make sure that money was invested. However, he was instrumental in setting up many of the companies that have become household names to people like the ESB, Turf Development and Aer Lingus, one of his proudest achievements.

In 1939, he became the Minister for Supplies following the commencement of the Second World War, an important position which basically meant he had to make Ireland as self-sufficient during the War as was humanly possible and keep supplies coming into the country. This policy of self-sufficiency would prove to be a stumbling block for the country in years to come.

Following the war, Ireland was a destroyed economy and Fianna Fáil lost their hold in government to the first Inter-party government of the Free State. They replaced this government in 1951 and again won a majority in 1957. By 1959, De Valera announced he was running for Presidency and Lemass took over as the leader of the Fianna Fáil party.

The Taoiseach

Lemass's election as Taoiseach and leader of the Fianna Fáil party symbolized the beginning of a period of great change. Most of the older leaders of the parties now stood aside to allow a new guard form. They included people like Charlie Haughey, Brian Lenihan and Jack Lynch.

With the changing of the guard, Lemass heralded in an era of economic change and industry growth. De Valera had disagreed with him on a change of economic policy but now he had free reign. His government embarked on a free trade policy, reducing tarriffs and attempting to attract businesses into Ireland. He also made an application to join the European Economic Community. Coupled with this, the Government launched a National Development plan, one that would later focus on the crucial area of education (free schooling and free travel began under Lemass's ministers).

With the changes to the economy, slowly social change began. Ireland became a little more liberal in its approach and certainly more urbanised which all lead to the symbolic visit of John F. Kennedy, the President whose family had left Irish shores during the Famine.

Impact on Politics

Lemass is arguably one of the most important Taoisigh in the State, ushering in an era of modernisation and urbanisation in Ireland, breaking with the old and welcoming the new. The current economy and our place in the European Union, which Ireland didn't officially enter into until 1973, would possibly not exist without his policies.

Despite the self-sufficiency policies that proceeded World War II, some that he himself introduced, he recognised that Ireland would never be able to achieve economic wealth without free trade and international agreements. He was also extremely influential in Northern Ireland where relations began to thaw for the first time since the Boundary Commission.

Ireland changed monumentally during his term as Taoiseach. His style of leadership was followed by both those within his own party and others from the opposition.

In 1966, he announced he was retiring as Taoiseach and in 1969, he departed from the Dáil. He passed away in 1971, a leader who had given 50 years of service.

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