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BOOK LAUNCH: Jack Lynch: A Biography, by Professor Dermot Keogh

17 Nov 2008

Remarks by Micheál Martin TD, Minister for Foreign Affairs

Launch of “Jack Lynch:  A Biography” by Dermot Keogh

Cork, Friday 14 November 2008

Remarks by Micheál Martin TD, Minister for Foreign Affairs


Ladies and Gentlemen, Professor Keogh

It’s an enormous honour and pleasure for me to be present here this evening to launch this new and authoritative biography of Jack Lynch.  I speak as a proud graduate of University College Cork, and as a product of the history department in which Dermot Keogh has served with such distinction for so many years.  And I also speak as someone who, like Jack Lynch, has had the great good fortune to serve the demanding and discerning people of Cork in Dáil Éireann, and to play a role on the national stage.  I cannot claim equal distinction as a sportsman – but then who could, other than Christy Ring.

I congratulate Dermot on this fine book, the product of several years of research and a lifetime of reflection on Irish politics. 

Let me add that as Minister for Foreign Affairs I am happy to count among the officials of my Department Dermot’s daughter-in-law Liz, who is Third Secretary in our Embassy in Beijing.  And of course Liz is married to Dermot’s son Niall, who is following in his father’s footsteps as an historian and has written about Con Cremin, at one time Secretary of the then Department of External Affairs.  Con Cremin was a fine public servant, with the one drawback of having been born in Kerry – which reminds me that there’s about to be a vacancy at the top of the Department of Foreign Affairs.  Perhaps in the spirit of affirmative action any Corkmen or women should be encouraged to apply.

Dermot Keogh had to overcome several hurdles in writing this book.  The first, and most daunting, was the absence of significant personal material.  Jack Lynch left no memoirs, no diaries, no trove of revealing letters.  Official records – particularly from the Department of Foreign Affairs – have  been extensively quarried by Dermot and are illuminating, above all about the conduct of Anglo-Irish relations.  But in general Jack Lynch’s reticence, his modesty, his desire for privacy – while all admirable qualities – undoubtedly pose a challenge to a biographer. 

A second issue is that many of the events chronicled in this book, while they are receding into the realm of pure history, are not quite there yet.  Somebody once said something to the effect that there is no time  harder to understand than the day before yesterday.  And the passions aroused by the turbulent events of the late sixties and seventies have not yet fully receded.

A third challenge is that, as somebody else said, happiness writes white.  And the devil has all the best tunes.  The  Jack Lynch who emerges from the pages of this book was a happy man – sometimes a stressed and careworn man, but fundamentally happy in himself and in his lifelong partnership with his beloved Mairín. 

Perhaps the most poignant and touching story is that of the witty and stoical note he wrote her while in hospital late in life:  I am only disappointed it is now 15 minutes since physio ended and I have not yet had the pleasure of your company.  I will need a detailed encyclopedia for you to explain your wanton neglect.  Yours encouragingly, Jack.”   But their fifty-year marriage might never have come about if  it had not been for Jack’s headgear.  Mairín’s mother, widowed young when her Royal Navy husband was drowned in action in World War One, worked in the forerunner of today’s IBEC – and was a famously uncompromising advocate of the “Buy Irish” principle.  When Jack first came to meet Mrs O’Connor she told Mairín there could be no question of courtship if the cap he was wearing was English-made.  But not for nothing was Jack a loyal and lifelong customer of T. O’Gorman’s Cork Cap Factory.  This was not the only local product of which he was a keen consumer.    A favourite saying on opening a bottle of Paddy with its map of Ireland on the label was “let’s see if we can reach Thurles.”  And before he broadcast to the nation on the dark and dramatic day of 13 August 1969 – when he did not finally use the phrase “stand idly by” -  his resolve was stiffened by a glass of Paddy and the news of a Glen Rovers victory.

Throughout his life and career Jack Lynch as portrayed by Dermot Keogh was, as we would all expect, a remarkably decent and honourable man.  He was secure in who he was and where he came from.  By no means was he a soft touch.  Winning all-Ireland medals in six consecutive years required a spine of steel as well as a broad and sinewy phyique.  Likewise, being one of the academic stars in the North Mon’s top class displayed that he had brains in abundance.  Moreover, while never consumed by ambition  - and in the end quite happy to leave office in 1979 – Jack Lynch was never quite the accidental politician or the reluctant or caretaker Taoiseach of legend. As Dermot Keogh tells it,  while he did not force his way to the top when Seán Lemass announced his retirement, he certainly did not resist having greatness thrust upon him.

In his early career as a politician Jack Lynch quickly showed himself to be a great vote-getter – as befitted a man later described by Liam Cosgrave as the most popular Irish politician since Daniel O’Connell, and the winner of the greatest Dáil majority in our parliament’s history.  He was a Cork hero – Dr Patrick Hillery said that canvassing with him was like canvassing with Cúchulainn.

As Minister for Education he showed common sense and an innate appreciation of the need for society to use all its talents when he ended the marriage bar on women national teachers.

Moving on to Industry and Commerce, he helped stimulate the first great wave of inward investment, as the Irish economy opened up under Seán Lemass.  He was Minister for Finance for a short time only – during a credit squeeze and economic downturn after the 1965 general election.  I note that in  that year, even though the Government had decided that all Ministers should propose cuts in Departmental spending, only the Minister for Defence actually came forward with any – yielding the grand sum of £141,000.

Jack Lynch served as Taoiseach for the best part of ten years in total, and as leader of Fianna Fáil for over thirteen – a modern record surpassed by Bertie Ahern not long before he left office.  Without question the defining issue of his tenure was the eruption of the Northern Troubles.  And it is understandable and right that Dermot Keogh’s account of the years from 1969 to 1971 should take 124 pages  - a quarter of the whole book  -  with the 1971-73 period taking a further 69 pages.

When Belfast and Derry went up in flames in August 1969, both the Irish and the British Governments were of course wholly unprepared.  For this failure political, administrative and diplomatic leaders on both islands – including Jack Lynch as Taoiseach – must share the blame.  The Northern Ireland Government was in a sense prepared  - but in  a disastrously counterproductive way.

But while Jack Lynch knew little enough at first hand about the realities of Northern Ireland he had a number of important resources on which to draw. 

One was the lasting friendship and prudent private counsel of his former Secretary at Finance – the great TK Whitaker, himself an Ulsterman who with great foresight saw that fundamentally what mattered most was reconciliation among Irishmen and women, and whose balanced and sane policy advice was based on that insight.   It was Whitaker who accompanied Jack Lynch to Stormont to meet Terence O’Neill in January 1967.  It was a cold winter and the Southern limousine was met with a fusillade of snowballs hurled by Ian Paisley and his supporters.  As they chanted “No Pope here” Whitaker turned to Jack and said “Which one of us does he think is the Pope?”.

Another resource on which Jack Lynch drew was the loyal support of colleagues like Patrick Hillery,  George Colley and Des O’Malley.  He worked well with senior officials like Dermot Nally, Hugh McCann and Dónal O’Sullivan.  Another plus was the speed with which a younger generation of public servants  - men like Seán Donlon, Michael Lillis and Dermot Gallagher – organised themselves into a formidable machine for acquiring intelligence, producing advice and promoting the Government’s cause. 

But most important of all was Jack Lynch’s own generous and calm personality.  He was never in any sense sectarian or partisan.  As Dermot Keogh recounts, in his home in Shandon local Protestant families were among the visitors.  As a Bar student in Cork, he became firm friends with the young literary man David Marcus.  Dermot tells of how in the Dáil Jack Lynch firmly stood up to and rejected anti-semitic slurs directed against Ben Briscoe by the peppery Patrick McGilligan.  Later on he – a most devout man all his life, and famously the idol of a thousand convents throughout Ireland - was prepared to propose the deletion from the Constitution of the article enshrining the special position of the Catholic Church. And Jack was in every sense ecumenical – his best friend in Cork was his fellow barrister and Fine Gael constituency opponent Stephen Barrett.

In navigating through the turbulent rapids of Irish politics in that bitter and convulsive period, Jack Lynch steered by his own deeply-anchored moral compass. 

His basic credo, from which he never departed, was articulated in his landmark Tralee speech of September 1969, based on a draft by Whitaker.  He said that “the unity we seek is not something forced but a free and genuine union of those living in Ireland based on natural respect and tolerance and guaranteed by a form or forms of government ..providing for progressive improvement of social, economic and cultural life in a just and peaceful environment.  Of its nature this policy – of seeking unity through agreement in Ireland between Iriishmen –is a long-term one.  It is no less, indeed even more, patriotic for that.  Perseverance in winning the confidence and respect of those now opposed to unity must be sustained by goodwill, patience, understanding and, at times, forebearance.” 

Of course, and above all in reacting to internment and Bloody Sunday, Jack Lynch articulated to the British the sorrow and anger of his fellow citizens.  He was never less than a proud patriot. But his nationalism was instinctively open and inclusive, and his abhorrence of violence, and the threat of violence, absolute.  In the most difficult of times Jack Lynch played a vital role in ensuring that the centre did hold; in warding off even worse calamities; and in pointing the way to the better future we now enjoy, with unparalled co-operation between North and South and between Britain and Ireland.

Jack Lynch also kept his party, my party, Fianna Fáil, broadly united when it threatened to split asunder, and for this he enjoys our abiding gratitude.  If it was true that, as Dermot Keogh suggests, he was in a sense airbrushed out of our history for a period, then he must surely now have resumed his rightful place in our pantheon. 

Jack Lynch’s other great achievement was to have steered Ireland into the EEC in 1973.  He had been engaged in that long journey since his time in Industry and Commerce.  And if Patrick Hillery spearheaded the entry negotiations it was Jack Lynch’s leadership which saw the referendum on membership so decisively won.

Jack Lynch was convinced of the value of Ireland’s European involvement.

In a speech delivered in 1972, he said that EU membership would provide

the opportunity to realise our economic and social potential and to ensure the welfare of our people; the opportunity to realise our European heritage in a much fuller and more significant way than heretofore; the opportunity also to play a meaningful and positive role in working for peace in the world.  The opportunity now before us will certainly bring its own demands and challenges. But has anything worthwhile been achieved by our nation – any nation – without effort and imagination? We are now being offered this great opportunity and these major challenges”.

Jack Lynch’s vision of Ireland in Europe has been fully vindicated.  

Overall Jack Lynch’s political and personal lives were both exemplary. The people of Ireland, like the people of Cork, came to love and admire him. Dermot Keogh rightly quotes from the mass of tributes to him on his death. 

I would quote just one – from Maurice Hayes, former Northern Ireland public servant, member of Seanad Eireann, and secretary of the Down County Board, who wrote to Mairín Lynch that Jack “was one of my youthful heroes as a hurler and I have admired him since in everything he did.  He had so much grace and dignity, class and style.  Living where I do in the North I am, along with tens of thousands of others,  grateful to him for his wisdom and good judgement and courage thirty years ago when he stopped a conflagration in which we might all have been consumed on the bonfire of somebody else’s patriotic rhetoric.”  

This profoundly important figure in our history has found a worthy biographer in Dermot Keogh and I am delighted to be here to launch this excellent and magisterial book.

School of History

Scoil na Staire

Tyrconnell,Off College Road,Cork,Ireland.