Past Conferences

Jack Lynch: Politics and Sport, Personality and Leadership

3 Oct 2008
Jack Lynch: Politics and Sport, Personality and Leadership

Plenary: An Taoiseach Brian Cowen

"Jack Lynch: An Appreciation"

For a full transcript of the Taoiseach's address...

Speech by An Taoiseach, Mr. Brian Cowen, TD

Jack Lynch : An Appreciation

University College Cork, 3rd October 2008.




I am delighted to participate in this Conference on the life and times of Jack Lynch. I congratulate UCC and the Irish Examiner on remembering a great Corkman and a patriotic Irishman. Jack Lynch was one of the most popular, most respected and most formidable elected representatives that the Irish people have ever seen.

This is the latest in an on-going series of conferences, organised by University College Cork, whose purpose is to examine the evolution of the independent Irish State. I want to commend the Department of History here for the fine work they are doing in fostering a greater understanding of contemporary Irish history. I also want to make special mention of the “Cork, Munster and the Long Revolution” Project. This imaginative initiative which seeks to gather historical materials in private hands relating to this Province in the years of the First World War, the War of Independence and the Civil War is of immense historical value and will deepen our knowledge of the events that shaped the birth of our nation.

Next year, marks the 30th anniversary of Jack Lynch’s retirement and this Conference provides a welcome forum for an impressive range of speakers to look afresh at different aspects of the achievements and legacy of one of the most crucial figures in the history of modern Ireland.

Though a whole new generation have come of age since he passed off the political stage, Jack Lynch’s contribution and his popularity have stood the test of time. Indeed, an opinion poll conducted at the end of the 20th century revealed that he was conclusively the public’s choice as Ireland’s finest politician.

This should come as no surprise. Jack Lynch gave sterling service to our nation as a TD, a Minister and as Taoiseach. He played a pivotal role in moulding a more progressive and prosperous Irish society. He had a fervent passion for the democratic dignity of the Irish people. He set a high standard in the administration of our public affairs.

This conference coincides with the imminent publication of a major new biography of the former Taoiseach. Jack Lynch has already been the subject of three fine biographies. In his foreword to the initial Lynch biography, T.P. O’Mahony records a discussion he had with another outstanding Irish statesman, John Hume. In 1991, O’Mahony wrote:

As we finished our conversation, Mr Hume said: ‘Jack Lynch deserves a book.’ I would go further – he deserves several, given the times that were in it. This, I suspect, is just the first.

I am delighted that Jack Lynch has now attracted the interest of an historian of the calibre of Dermot Keogh. Professor Keogh is one of the country’s most prolific writers and he is well known for his particularly insightful studies of twentieth century Ireland. Dermot’s unrivalled knowledge of this period means that this new biography of Mr. Lynch will bring both new understanding of a brave leader and fresh perspective on Irish political culture from the end of World War 2 to the start of the 1980s.



In reflecting on Jack Lynch’s very full life, it is important to note that along with being an astute politician, he was also an accomplished sportsman and a fine lawyer. Indeed, long before he entered politics, Jack Lynch had won fame and the enduring affection of the Irish people. His extraordinary sporting achievements are the stuff of legend. Lynch remains the only player ever to win six successive All-Irelands (five in hurling and one in football). He has gone down in the annals as one of hurling’s finest sons and was selected on the Team of the Millennium alongside other legends of the ash such as Eddie Keher, Brian Whelehan and his great Glen Rovers team-mate, Christy Ring.

I also recall with mixed emotions the centenary All-Ireland Final in Thurles in 1984. It was the day, of course, that Cork comprehensively beat Offaly in the Final. But I still remember the pride I felt, standing beside the late Gene Fitzgerald, as the entire crowd rose to give a memorable ovation when Jack Lynch strode onto the field as he was announced as one of the midfielders on the Team of the Century. I knew after that overpowering display of emotion for a great Corkman that it was unlikely to be our day!

It is often said that sports do not build character, they reveal it. In the case of Jack Lynch, this was certainly true. Liam O’Tuama relates an insightful anecdote from a game which took place in cold, wet November weather between Clonakilty and Lynch’s football team from Blackpool, St Nick’s. O’Tuama recounts:

it was a county final and St. Nick’s were leading. They had two footballs, one of which was punctured and the second was kicked into the nearby stream, swollen to a flood by the rain, there was fear that the game would have to be abandoned. This would have destroyed the Blackpool team’s chance of an historic county double. Jack plunged into the water, swam towards the disappearing ball and retrieved it. He then returned, dripping wet, and resumed the game, which St. Nick’s won.

That same determination and courage which epitomised Lynch the sporting hero were the very same qualities which were at the heart of his character and went to the core of his politics.


Defining Values

Anyone who is not from Cork has an opinion on, if I could put it diplomatically, the sense of place which Cork people have. Certainly a formidable record of sporting achievement is important to this, but at its most fundamental it reflects a much older and very deep sense of belonging. The names of Tomas MacCurtain, Terence MacSwiney, Thomas Kent and other patriots remain rightly revered in the history of this place and Cork’s significant contribution to our quest for national freedom has left an enduring legacy of a proud people, confident in their ability to confront any challenge.

The sporting chant “Come on the Rebels” would have rung in Jack Lynch’s ears on many big occasions. For many Cork people, and certainly for the rest of us, Jack Lynch personified that unquestioning certainty that to be from Cork brought with it an inherent winning edge. The more modern manifestation of that Cork sense of being a winner is probably best typified nowadays by the slogan I’ve seen on some supporters’ jerseys in recent years – “Irish by Birth, Cork by the Grace of God”!

What people found appealing in Jack Lynch’s character was the obvious comfort he projected in who he was, in his ability to carry his fame lightly and in the sense that he had never strayed from his Shandon roots. Where ever he was throughout the world or anywhere in this country he was the same person. While he was instinctively a private individual, people felt they knew him personally. They liked who and what he was. And they liked his political style too – tough and uncompromising when needs be but, never personal or denigrating of opponents.

He spoke positively about the future, confident in the capacity of the people to respond to straight-forward and honest leadership. In a word, the people trusted him and they knew he would never betray that trust. He had shown character and courage in the field of play for many years where he was tough if necessary but always sporting. He was a gifted hurler who had earned the unanimous respect of his peers in a golden era of hurling prowess from the mid-1930s to the mid-1940s. Sitting in the stand in Pairc Ui Caoimh or attending an international summit, he was always the same Jack Lynch as far as the people were concerned.

I have vivid memories of the excitement and anticipation that surrounded Mr. Lynch’s visits to my home area, particularly at election time. There was a real stir about the place. An important man was coming to town. Everyone came out to meet him, men and women, young and old, people from all walks of life. He was a hero to so many yet he was a man of real modesty and great courtesy. Even in the midst of tense political campaigns, he invariably seemed unruffled and at ease. He had a deep empathy with people and he clearly revelled in being out and about with the public.

Jack Lynch was a man of extraordinary achievement but he never lost his sense of being an ordinary man. As a political leader, his very demeanor and style spoke volumes of his belief that politicians must never become distant or removed from those they represent. He had little respect for those cynics who seek to portray politics as mutually exclusive from the people’s interests.

Undoubtedly, the greatest influence on Jack Lynch was his wife Máirin. They were married for 53 years and throughout his career she was a constant presence at his side. She was a woman of astute judgement and deep loyalty whose counsel he valued. She shared in his many triumphs and helped him endure the inevitable disappointments of political life. In her own right, Máirin Lynch was a very popular and deeply influential figure in Irish public life. She represented our republic with dignity and to great effect and she too is remembered with special affection by the Irish people.



Jack Lynch was first elected to Dáil Éireann in 1948. His talents were such that Mr deValera rapidly promoted him. In 1951, he was appointed Parliamentary Secretary to the Government.

Leag Eamon deValera cúram na Gaeltachta ar Sheán Ó Loingsigh. Bhí athbheochan na teanga ar cheann dá chuid mórspriocanna polaitiúla ag deValera. Mheas de Valera go raibh forbairt eacnamaíochta agus shóisialta na Gaeltachta tábhachtach don náisiún ar fad. Léirigh an Taoiseach muinín faoi leith sa Loingeach nuair a thug sé cúram na Gaeltachta don pholaiteoir óg.

Chaith an Loingseach go leor ama ag taisteal tríd na Gaeltachtaí ar fad, ag cur eolas ar na deacrachtaí ar leith a bhí acu agus ag obair go crua ag mealladh fostaíochta chucu ar bhealach a bheadh chun tairbhe don Ghaeltacht.

Le linn an ama sin tháinig feabhas ar líofacht Ghaeilge an Loingsigh agus rinne sé chuile iarracht as sin amach a húsáid a spreagadh, i measc an aosa óig ach go háirithe.

Chreid sé gur gné lárnach dár bhféiniúlacht náisiúnta i an Gaeilge. Tá an dearcadh céanna ag mo Rialtas féin, caithfidh muid a húsáid a spreagadh agus a neartú i ngach uile phobal.

Following a brief spell in opposition, Jack Lynch was appointed Minister for Education in deValera’s final cabinet. In a Department then renowned for its conservatism, Lynch was a reformer and a progressive force. He ended the long running ban on married women working as teachers. He nurtured an ethos which equated investment in education with a down-payment on future prosperity. He raised school leaving ages; he oversaw significant increases in per capita grants in primary and secondary education; and, he introduced special funding for the technological sector.

Lynch enjoyed the great confidence of Sean Lemass. On his election as Taoiseach, Lemass appointed him to the Ministry of Industry and Commerce, the portfolio where Lemass had spent almost his entire ministerial career. Following the retirement of the veteran Jim Ryan, Lemass made Jack Lynch his Minister for Finance. Lemass and Lynch were economic pragmatists concerned with building up our country and securing “the economic foundation of independence.”

As a Minister, Jack Lynch was central to the great leaps forward this country made in the 1960s. He was at the cutting edge of the implementing the Programme for Economic Development and in bringing forward the policies to give effect to the critical move away from protectionism towards free trade, industrial development and attracting foreign investment. During this period in which Jack Lynch was a pivotal figure in the economic strategy of Lemass’s administrations, unemployment decreased by a third, emigration was halved and national investment doubled.


Populist Leader

In 1966, on Lemass’s retirement, Jack Lynch was elected Leader of Fianna Fáil defeating George Colley in the leadership contest. He proved to be an extraordinarily capable and popular leader, earning the sincere tribute from Liam Cosgrave on his retirement that he was Ireland’s most popular politician since Daniel O’Connell.

Any serious attempt to analyse Jack Lynch’s political career must focus on the fondness and respect in which he was held by the Irish people. This was a factor that was consistently reflected throughout his tenure as Úachtaran Fhianna Fáil at the ballot box.

From my own perspective, it is tempting to point out that while he enjoyed extraordinary success at the hustings, he actually lost his first electoral test as Fianna Fáil leader when a referendum he campaigned strongly for was defeated in 1968! I make no comparison with today. Put simply, Jack Lynch was an electoral phenomenon.

In his home constituency, he topped the poll in every General Election from 1961. In his final election, in 1977, he garnered a massive 20,079 first preferences which amounted to a 39% share of the vote. In the 1973 election, he had secured an incredible 45.9% of the first preference vote in the constituency of Cork City North.

Jack Lynch faced his first General Election as leader in 1969. My late father stood for Fianna Fáil for the first time in that election. We successfully won three seats out of five in Laois-Offaly for the first time that year, undoubtedly assisted by Jack Lynch’s national popularity. In the run-up to the poll, plenty of doubt had been expressed about Fianna Fáil’s electability without the dominant figures of deValera or Lemass at the helm. The outcome was a personal triumph for Jack Lynch in which he resoundingly answered his critics. He managed to do what no Irish political leader had done previously or has ever managed to do since – that was to achieve an overall majority at the first time of asking.

Though he lost office following the 1973 election, he again put in an extraordinary electoral performance. The common wisdom prior to the poll was that Fianna Fáil would suffer serious losses arising from the trauma and the divisions of the Arms Trial. Lynch however put in a valiant effort. He travelled the country in a whirl-wind fashion, accompanied by Máirin, seeking the endorsement of the people. And he very nearly succeeded in snatching victory from the jaws of the defeat. In his own writings, Lynch with some pride mused on how close-run a thing the 1973 election was.

Had about 2,000 votes spread throughout key constituencies swung to us then we would have ended up with the two seat majority instead of a two seat minority. In the event I think that the 1973 election result was probably Fianna Fáil’s greatest electoral achievement with me as leader although the party was the loser. We increased our total first votes by almost 24,000 and pushed up our percentage vote from 45.7 in 1969 to 46.2 – never before had a political party, or combination of parties, won such a high vote and lost the election. Remember what we had been through over the previous four years. There was a time during that period when it was widely believed we would be decimated at the polls whenever an election took place.

I remember the 1973 election well myself as a young teenager. My father was beaten by 23 votes.

The 1977 General Election campaign saw Fianna Fáil win the biggest majority in the history of the State. The Party’s campaign was rooted in the special relationship Jack Lynch had with the Irish people. Fianna Fáil ran a presidential style campaign and this was smart politics. Lynch’s appeal was such that in opposition he had gained the sobriquet, “the Real Taoiseach.” Fianna Fáil unashamedly played on this factor and the party’s election slogan urged “Bring Back Jack!””

Jack Lynch was both a shrewd electoral tactician and a statesman concerned with the need to replenish our democracy. At the recent Fianna Fáil Parliamentary Party meeting in Galway, I spoke about the importance of bringing forward more women and young people as candidates at the next local elections. These were key ingredients in Fianna Fáil’s 1977 campaign and, as a party today, we should not forget that progressive lesson.

Yvonne Galligan, who has extensively researched the role of women in politics, has noted that the modernisation process in Irish society which led to the development of identifiable feminist politics in Ireland did not bypass Fianna Fáil. She wrote:

The issue of women’s political representation was one which elicited a clear political response. Fianna Fáil were first to prioritse the election of women to public office. In 1977, Jack Lynch indicated his support for the political representation of women by adding six women candidates to the Fianna Fáil list for the 1977 general election and by subsequently nominating three women to the Seanad. Indeed… the increased support of women for Fianna Fáil in 1977 [played] a significant part in the electoral success of the party.

The 1977 General Election was the first election in which 18 year olds could vote, which meant that a quarter of the electorate was voting for the first time. Lynch showed great foresight in appointing a young and dynamic General Secretary, Seamus Brennan, who was central to the establishment of Ógra Fianna Fáil. This strong youth organisation strengthened Fianna Fail’s electoral capacity and enhanced the Party’s democratic credentials.

Lynch and Brennan both placed great store on harnessing the idealism of our young people as a necessary source of renewal and vitality in our politics. Irrespective of electoral concerns, Jack Lynch abhorred voter apathy and he knew more young people in politics is essential to a vibrant public life and a better country. It is worth reflecting on his wise words to the Fianna Fáil Ógra Conference prior to the 1977 election. Lynch said :

whether it be to join and support or indeed to strongly oppose us, we in Fianna Fáil exhort each and every young person in this State to become involved in political organisations, pledged to maintain our parliamentary democracy and pledged to use the democratic machinery to defend the fundamental rights and freedoms of our people.



As Taoiseach, Jack Lynch’s achievements were many and they were far-reaching. It would take almost all of the time allotted to this entire conference to even touch upon all that he accomplished on behalf of our country. But to my mind, his greatest legacy is rooted in his skill in leading this country into the European Economic Community in 1973, and safely through the outbreak of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Lynch was a prime-mover behind Ireland joining the EEC and he appointed Dr. Patrick Hillery as the Government’s chief negotiator. It was the right decision for our country. It was a great vote of confidence in our ability to make our way and to move beyond the shadow of our nearest neighbour. It set this country firmly on a new pathway to progress and prosperity.

Lynch had the vision to see beyond a narrow “little Irelander, ourselves alone” ideology. He knew the quest for national self-determination in Ireland has always been about taking our place among the nations, not standing separate from them. He summed up the question of our engagement with Europe as:

the choice is between taking part in the great new renaissance of Europe or opting for economic, social and cultural sterilisation. It is like that faced by Robinson Crusoe when the ship came to bring him back into the world again.

In the world in which we live today, we would do well to remember that opting out has its consequences, it weakens rather than strengthens our prospects. This country can not afford to turn its back on closer co-operation with like-minded countries on critical international issues such as developing trade links that foster jobs at home and obtain opportunities for us abroad, protecting the environment, tackling climate change, dealing with international crime networks, drugs cartels, and dealing with migration and ensuring the security of vital energy supplies in the years ahead.

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.

We need to restore that sense of ambition and confidence in our ability to compete as we review where we go now in our relationship with Europe after the referendum vote last May. I happen to believe that Jack Lynch’s vision of Ireland in Europe has been vindicated. EU membership has enabled us to make huge economic and social strides. We have embraced our European heritage in a productive manner. EU involvement has facilitated a positive Irish commitment to peace in the world, for example through our current involvement in the European Union mission in Chad.

I want to build on the European legacy bequeathed to us by Jack Lynch and others of his generation. To do so, Ireland must continue to regard the European Union as a place of opportunity, as a positive political environment in which we can pursue our interests in conjunction with countries that share our values and ambitions. Irish people clearly want us to remain at the heart of the European Union and it is important that we do so. That is the challenge facing today’s generation.


Northern Ireland

Lemass had summed up his policy on Northern Ireland in four words “Patience, Tact and Goodwill.” Jack Lynch was also a great exponent of that philosophy. At the start of Northern Ireland’s journey into abyss, this island was indeed fortunate that a politician of Lynch’s acumen and calm held the office of Taoiseach.

Jack Lynch showed tremendous courage and skill in guiding the country through a hugely volatile period. He was unflinching in his support for the nationalist community but also resolute in his belief that there could be no deviation from Fianna Fáil’s traditional policy of unity by peaceful means.

Jack Lynch was an implacable opponent of the men of violence. He held no truck with militant republicanism. He had contempt for those who in committing atrocities claimed to have a mandate from the Irish people. In August 1969, Lynch trenchantly stated:

No group has any authority to speak or act for the Irish people except the lawful Government of Ireland.

Jack Lynch stood steadfastly for democratic order. He staunchly defended constitutional republicanism. He was a voice for peace and sanity at a time when our country needed it most. For that, quite apart from his many achievements, he deserves our enduring respect.

At an emotionally charged 1971 Ard Fheis, Lynch set forth his vision for the future of this island rooted in an ethos of reconciliation, equality and mutual respect. He said:

Without detracting from genuine values, a new kind of Irish society may be created equally agreeable to North and South… We wish to extend an olive branch to the North.

That policy is our policy. It means advancing the interests of every single person on this island through greater economic co-operation, social harmony and cultural ties. It means an absolute opposition to sectarianism and bigotry and a no tolerance approach to those who still believe Irish unity can be built on division and violence. It also means continuing to foster harmony and holding out the hand of friendship to the unionist community.

The key to the future lies in sticking to those principles and giving full and unequivocal support for the settlement endorsed by the people, North and South, in the Good Friday Agreement and underpinned by the implementation of St Andrews Agreement.

As we now work towards the centenary anniversary of 1916, we should also recall, as Jack Lynch famously did in his last month as Taoiseach, that “the paradox of Pearse’s message to the Irish nation is that we must work and live for Ireland, not die, and most certainly not kill for it”.



Thirteen years prior to Jack Lynch uttering those words, on the day he was first elected Taoiseach in November 1966, he had simply said “All I shall say now is that I shall endeavour to fulfil my duties as Taoiseach to the best of my ability.” It was a pledge on which Jack Lynch delivered in full.

A subsequent biographer, Bruce Arnold, wrote for the Irish Independent on the very day that Lynch retired:

the standards which he established, and to which he has held with a graceful and determined skill, have been the best of all in political life: country first, party second, self a poor and honest third.

Jack Lynch was a man of integrity and calm who inspired great loyalty. He was a leader of courage whose motivation was a supreme sense of duty and a commitment to public service. He charted a course for this country through difficult times with integrity and sound judgement. He was a politician who always put the nation first. He remains an inspiration for his immense contribution.

I vividly remember Jack’s funeral here in Cork City. I will never forget walking in the cortege coming down Roman Street from the North Cathedral heading to the Christy Ring Bridge. I recall, as the local people stood at their doors to pay their last respects, we walked on towards the river. We could suddenly hear the spontaneous refrain from “The Banks of My Own Lovely Lee” as they applauded him on his final journey. Of all the tributes that were rightly paid to him, that for me, was the most eloquent and poignant of them all - Cork’s finest son at peace and in harmony with his people.

School of History

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