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Hyde, Hitler and why our first president fascinated press around the world


Douglas Hyde, Ireland's first president, who was inaugurated in 1938

Douglas Hyde, Ireland's first president, who was inaugurated in 1938

Douglas Hyde, Ireland's first president, who was inaugurated in 1938

It had been a busy few days for Adolf Hitler, but Douglas Hyde had not slipped his mind.

It was Saturday, June 25, 1938 and, as Ireland's President-Elect prepared to leave the newly named Áras an Uachtaráin in Dublin's Phoenix Park for his inauguration ceremony, the German Fuhrer was beginning a weekend of relaxation in the Berghof, his Alpine retreat, near Berchstegaden.

The previous week had seen Hitler juggle a number of competing demands on his time. His Nazi regime were currently in the process of finalising a decree forbidding Jewish doctors from treating Aryan patients and, days earlier, Hitler had personally ordered the destruction of Munich's Great Synagogue because it was situated next to the German Art Museum.

And tensions were mounting with the Soviet Union. German economic and diplomatic penetration into Iran was making Stalin increasingly nervous and was the subject of criticism in the Moscow state-controlled press.

Though Ireland was at this stage somewhat peripheral to Hitler's dual quest for Aryan supremacy and German global domination, the fact that Douglas Hyde would be installed as President of Ireland later that day had not escaped the Fuhrer's all-encompassing gaze. The news of Hyde's emergence in April 1938 as the agreed candidate of the two largest political parties in Ireland for the new post had, according to Reuters' Berlin correspondent, "evoked lively interest here."

Hitler, in particular, seems to have been intrigued by the prospect of a septuagenarian folklorist, retired university lecturer, linguist and Gaelic cultural icon becoming Ireland's first citizen. In the run-up to Hyde's inauguration in Dublin Castle on that Saturday, June 25, Hitler "ordered" the Berlin newspapers "to splash" on the Irish presidential installation ceremony. Hitler's instructions created an unexpected financial boon for Irish photographers, many of whom received commissions from German newspapers to provide pictures of Hyde and the events in Dublin.

Hitler's interest in the new Irish President was the subject of some speculation. 'The News Review', a British current affairs magazine, suggested that the intense German coverage was because "Dr Hyde is married to a German woman" and also because "the presidential scholar himself has acknowledged the help he had received from the research work of Gaelic experts on the academic staffs of Berlin and Bonn universities." However, undoubtedly, the primary reason for Hitler's fleeting fixation with Douglas Hyde was that the coming into being of the new Irish presidency diluted Ireland's bonds with the British Empire almost to the point of disappearance. In the pre-Munich Agreement summer of 1938, Hitler may genuinely have hoped to avoid war with the United Kingdom, but he was also quite happy to highlight any geo-political shifts that diminished the prestige of Germany's most formidable rival in Europe.

In the United States, Douglas Hyde was also getting plenty of publicity, but for very different reasons than in Germany. In fact, much of the favourable coverage that Hyde's inauguration generated in America was rooted in the fact that the new Irish President's values stood in stark contrast to the totalitarian style of leadership, which had become prevalent across Europe.

Hyde's Protestantism was a strong feature of American newspaper coverage and there was praise for what was viewed as the broad-minded ecumenicalism of the Irish people in not insisting on a Catholic President. This was a point that was also elegantly made by Joseph Kennedy, the US Ambassador to Britain, when he arrived in Dublin to collect an honorary degree just a fortnight after Hyde's inauguration.

All four of Kennedy's grandparents had emigrated from Ireland to Massachusetts in the era of the Great Famine and, at a state reception in Dublin Castle, an emotional Kennedy spoke of the honour he felt in being welcomed by "the warm handclasps of the great men of my own blood." He described "the choice of Doctor Douglas Hyde to be the President of the State, [as] an act that is eloquent of that brotherhood and tolerance which remain the hope of mankind in an angry world."

Hyde's inauguration was willfully ignored by the British government, with not one cabinet minister commenting on the events in Dublin. However, diplomatic courtesies were maintained in the form of the low-key presence of Geoffrey Braddock, the UK Trade Commissioner and the highest-ranking British diplomatic representative in Ireland, at the installation ceremony in Dublin Castle. 'The Daily Telegraph' and the 'Times', the two newspapers most closely associated with the British political establishment, paid scant attention to Hyde's inauguration. However, British Pathé News, as part of its news digest for cinema-goers, filmed the scenes in Dublin and the commentator told British audiences that Hyde's installation was "the greatest day in the history of the Irish Free State [sic]," "the celebration of another victory for Mr de Valera" and an "example of tolerance which is a model to many another nation."

On the morning of the inauguration, the 'Daily Express' also published an interview with the President-Elect under the headline "Dr Hyde is just a little homesick." Hyde had travelled to Dublin a few days prior to his installation ceremony and he had confessed to the 'Daily Express' reporter that he was already missing home and that "Frenchpark takes a lot of beating."

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In Northern Ireland, almost inevitably, the reaction to Hyde's inauguration broke down into tribal responses. The inauguration was uproariously celebrated in nationalist enclaves. Many Northern nationalists also travelled to Dublin "to witness the pageantry of parades" associated with the inauguration ceremony. In the unionist community, politicians competed with each other to express their indignation. The Northern Ireland Finance Minister, John Miller Andrews, described Hyde's inauguration as a "slight on the King" and "a deplorable tragedy." Sir William Allen, the Stormont MP for Armagh, claimed that "Mr de Valera had made a Protestant President of Southern Ireland simply to blindfold the people of England."

Hyde's selection as President of Ireland was a story with a truly global reach. Newspapers in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina, countries in which Gaelic League branches had sprung up in or around the turn of the 20th Century, prominently covered the story. However, even in countries where there was a negligible Irish diaspora, Hyde was big news. Joseph Walshe, the Secretary to the Department of External Affairs, who was on a private holiday in the run-up to Hyde's inauguration, wrote to de Valera from Cairo to express his "surprise" at the interest in Hyde and the fact that "all the hundreds of papers in Egypt in various languages gave this appointment great publicity."

Hyde's inauguration day began with a journey to a bastion of Irish Protestantism, St Patrick's Cathedral, which had been an Anglican place of worship since 1537, following the English reformation.

It was already bright and warm in Dublin on Saturday, June 25, 1938, as Ireland's President-Elect prepared to depart Áras an Uachtaráin shortly before 9.30 am.

Hyde was understandably nervous. His anxieties were rooted not just in concerns that the inauguration ceremony would pass off smoothly, but also in his own persistent doubts that he was too old for the presidential office. The President-Elect was uncomfortable in the formal attire he had been prevailed upon to wear for the day's ceremonies. In the run-up to the inauguration, newspapers had repeatedly speculated on whether Hyde would "set aside the cloth cap and plus fours which he usually wears" in favour of "morning dress and a silk hat." The President-Elect's daughter, Una Sealy, the wife of a Circuit Court judge, had eventually persuaded Hyde that it would be best if he donned traditional formal wear.

Behind Hyde's public pride in being chosen to be Ireland's first president, there was familial pain. Hyde's wife, Lucy Kurtz, an English-born lady from a distinguished Wurttemberg family, was in poor health. She resolutely refused to leave Roscommon to live with him in Dublin and ill-health also prevented her from attending the inauguration ceremony.

Douglas Hyde leaned closely on his only surviving child, as he began the journey that in a few hours would make him Ireland's first First Citizen.

'Forgotten Patriot: Douglas Hyde and the Foundation of the Irish Presidency' by Dr Brian Murphy is published by the Collins Press and is available in bookshops now

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