Friday 28 July 2017

Review: Biographgy: Sean Lemass: Democratic Dictator by Bryce Evans

Collins Press, €15

How to get from gunman to high office in four easy moves -- this new biography of Lemass could be a handy guide book for Martin McGuinness.

On the Lemass model, all it takes is time -- and not a lot of time. Ten years after repudiating the democratically expressed will of the people and precipitating a disastrous civil war, Éamon de Valera was Taoiseach.

A decade-and-a-half after being a member of Collins's murder squad on Bloody Sunday, Seán Lemass was a cabinet minister, while still retaining links with IRA personnel.

There are interesting parallels between Fianna Fail in the early days and Sinn Féin's current move into the mainstream: the disengagement from the gunmen, the development of respectability, networking with business and the church.

Bryce Evans sets out to challenge the received wisdom that consistently portrays Seán Lemass as a benign democrat, the pragmatic moderniser, compared to the autocratic, backward-looking de Valera.

However, in seeking to redress the balance, he may have tipped the scales of judgment toward unfairness.

Evans's book is best read as a review of earlier books on Lemass, filling in some of the gaps in previous accounts.

He has trawled through the archives and combed the literature and memoirs. Some of the trove is gossip, and perhaps he relies too much on people like Kevin Boland and Todd Andrews, who seldom had a good word to say about anybody.

That said, the accounts from British sources of meetings with Eden and later Macmillan are fascinating, with Lemass complaining of the burden of PR and the trials of being a Dub in Fianna Fáil.

Evans is good on areas like Lemass's reorganisation of Fianna Fáil, even if this did ultimately lead to the replacement of comely maidens by townies in mohair suits.

The early chapters deal in considerable detail with the murder of Noel Lemass and with Seán's record as a gunman.

Where others boasted of their military exploits, Lemass, it seems, acquired a national record by being reticent about his. All his biographers have indicated the significance of the manner of his brother's killing on the emotional development of the young Lemass, but Evans's portrayal of a political opportunist riding to power on the episode will strike most as a cheap shot.

As it is, Lemass's lack of recrimination, and his willingness as a minister to maintain relationships with those he knew to be implicated, are a model for peacemakers anywhere.

There is an irritating tendency through much of the narrative to reach for the pejorative epithet. What others might see as an appetite for work is dismissed as a lust for power; terms like Stalinist are strewn about.

Evans appears to be angry with his subject, but it is not clear what for: whether for abandoning the Legion of the Rearguard, or not doing so soon enough; for being a wild poker player, or not taking chances; or for losing his radical edge and cosying up to the church and big business.

He perhaps makes insufficient allowance for the contexts in which Lemass was working, especially in wartime, and for the baggage he carried of Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil economic dogma.

There is a very odd reference to George Colley, a Christian Brothers' boy from St Joseph's Marino, as "a Protestant backbencher", and the Stormont Minister William McCreery appears as McCreevey.

Evans has made an important contribution to our knowledge of Lemass and his shaping of modern Ireland.

He has rescued Lemass from being a plaster-cast statue by portraying a complex human who can be ruthless and compassionate, devious and driven, who has difficulty with social relationships, a private man in a public office who is not always consistent, and who can be impatient and intolerant of others and of the structures within which he operates.

By applying a wider angle lens, he has transformed the monochrome icon of earlier studies into a 3D figure.

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