Saturday 16 December 2017

Douglas Hyde: first above equals

History: Forgotten Patriot - Douglas Hyde and the Foundation of the Irish Presidency, Brian Murphy, The Collins Press, tpbk, 320 pages, €19.99

First occupant: Dr Hyde after being sworn in as the nation's president on June 25, 1938. Photo: Keystone/Getty Images
First occupant: Dr Hyde after being sworn in as the nation's president on June 25, 1938. Photo: Keystone/Getty Images
Forgotten Patriot: Douglas Hyde and the Foundation of the Irish Presidency 2016 by Brian Murphy

Frank MacGabhann

Brian Murphy's book charts how our first president ticked all the right boxes to become 'the successor of our rightful princes'.

Many years ago, when this reviewer, as a law student, read Article 12.1 of the Constitution, which provides that the President shall have precedence over all other persons in the State, it seemed to me unnecessary and academic. Having read this book, I understand why it was not.

At this remove, it is difficult to credit that in 1936, the opposition to the new Constitution then being debated in Dáil Éireann centred around the issue of the President being a dictator or evolving into one. Both Fine Gael and Labour, taking their cue from events in Europe, strongly believed this. The fact that the margin of ratification of the Constitution in July 1937 was only 56pc in favour indicates that many Irish people held strong doubts as well. This less-than-ringing endorsement led Éamon de Valera away from the idea of having a contested election for Ireland's first president and towards having an agreed, non-party candidate.

The author, Brian Murphy, who lectures in Communications at the Dublin Institute of Technology, has considered two related topics.

The first topic details the background to the enactment of the Constitution in 1937, with particular reference to the actions of the two governors-general during the 1920s and the emphasis placed on the nature of the presidency during the Dáil debates. The second section of the book analyses the political and social aspects of the presidency of Dr Douglas Hyde, the first occupant of that office.

The first governor-general appointed under the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 was Tim Healy, lawyer and nationalist politician, who promised in writing to the British cabinet that he would, in effect, refuse to give the royal assent to any bill that conflicted with the Treaty. Healy's activities and active interference in politics in the 1920s made de Valera resolve to demean and then eliminate that position from Irish life. De Valera was particularly adroit in dismantling the Treaty legally, first removing the Oath of Allegiance to the British crown in 1933. By 1936, when there was semi-paralysis in the British cabinet due to the abdication crisis, de Valera moved decisively. He steered the Constitution Bill through the final stages in the Dáil and got rid of the Treaty once and for all - and Ireland got its own constitution with no specific reference to the British crown. And the governor-general, of course, went the way of Nineveh and Tyre.

Having done so, de Valera eventually decided on Hyde as an agreed candidate for president. It met with unanimous acclaim. Hyde ticked all of the right boxes: non-party, Protestant, Irish scholar, linguist, Gaelic League founder, etc. At his inauguration, de Valera had a wonderful turn of phrase when he called the new president "the successor of our rightful princes".

The author records how Hyde used his presidency to attempt to heal the bitter divisions from the Civil War by his appointments to the Council of State and by bringing political adversaries together to mingle socially.

De Valera transferred one of the ablest and most widely respected civil servants in the State, Michael McDunphy, to the new Office of the President, not only to tutor and assist the new President, but also to actively assert the new doctrine of presidential precedence and emphasise the fact that the President was in no way the successor of the govenor-general.

Since the 1880s, Hyde had been scathing of "West Britonism" in Ireland. (He was just as scathing of Irishmen who hated England yet imitated all things English.) In the 1930s, there were still a sizeable number of "West Britons" in the Irish Free State, of whom Hyde was still scathing. These people had their institutions, chief among them being the Irish Times.

The government and McDunphy took early aim at the newspaper. Using the excuse of neutrality during World War II, they took advantage of the censorship regulations to force the Irish Times to remove its offensive 'Court and Personal' column with the British coat of arms and where the comings and goings of the British royal family were regularly listed before news of the President. Some years later, Minister Frank Aiken told the Dáil, "[The Irish Times] did not give [the President] precedence over all other persons in the State. He sometimes came after every hyphenated person in the country. I have one instance of it here where the only precedence he gets is over an advertisement for corsets in one of the downtown shops. He is put in at the bottom of the list in the social and personal column."

The Irish Times finally threw in the towel and was thereafter careful to list the president first.

There were rows with Punchestown racecourse, the GAA (which revoked the President's position as patron when he attend a soccer match at Dalymount Park), the British Representative over his wife's acting like a lord lieutenant's wife at garden parties, Trinity College and even the St John Ambulance Brigade.

There were other rows over the singing of the British anthem and toasts to the king of England. Hyde and McDunphy won them all and, in doing so, established the principle of presidential precedence that prevails to this day.

The author reveals an inability to understand colonialism and the nature of sovereignty when he criticises McDunphy ("high-handed... extreme... churlish") for doing his job well. However, this book is a welcome contribution to our understanding of the early years of the presidency and how it came into being.

Almost as an aside, the author relates that the septuagenarian Dr Hyde, in addition to his many other talents, was known to have an eye for the women, even in older age. Brian Ó Nualláin, otherwise known as Myles na gCopaleen and Flann O'Brien, penned a very naughty bi-lingual limerick about the good doctor that readers are invited to enjoy.

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