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Seam Lemass

Seán Lemass was a prominent figure in Irish politics, serving as Taoiseach and Leader of Fianna Fáil from 1959 to 1966. His political career, spanning from 1924 to 1969, was marked by significant contributions to industry, commerce, and economic development.

Lemass’s early life was shaped by his involvement in the Irish Volunteers during the Easter Rising of 1916, where he participated in fighting at the General Post Office and Moore Street. Despite being arrested and interned, he remained active in the Irish Republican Army (IRA) during the War of Independence and the subsequent Civil War.

In 1924, Lemass was elected as a Sinn Féin Teachta Dála (TD), later joining the founding members of Fianna Fáil in 1926. Throughout his tenure as a TD, he held various ministerial positions, including Minister for Industry and Commerce and Minister for Supplies, playing key roles in economic policy and development.

He became Taoiseach on June 23, 1959, following de Valera’s departure. At fifty-nine, he represented a younger generation of leadership compared to his predecessor. Lemass swiftly consolidated control over Fianna Fáil, fostering a transition from the old guard to a new cadre of politicians, including Brian Lenihan and Charles Haughey. Concurrent personnel changes in Fine Gael and Labour leadership ushered in a new era, with Lemass standing as a bridge between generations. 

The Lemass era, spanning 1959 to 1966, oversaw remarkable economic reforms, earning Lemass credit for steering Ireland’s economy toward modernization. His pragmatic approach, rooted in his business background, laid the groundwork for an economic turnaround. The Lemass government embraced policies fostering free trade and attracting foreign investment, notably through tax incentives and grants.

The First Programme for Economic Expansion, crafted by Lemass’s government, aimed at reviving Ireland’s economy by dismantling protectionist measures. The programme’s success was underscored by Ireland’s accession to the GATT in 1960, despite earlier resistance. However, challenges such as a 1963 turnover tax briefly marred progress, though by 1964, Ireland saw a substantial reduction in unemployment and emigration. Such swift change was not without cost. Slum clearances in Dublin resulted in the destruction of much of the city’s Georgian heritage, while new, cheap social housing programmes such as Ballymun quickly deteriorated into ghettos.

The Lemass era witnessed significant social change. A surge in industrialization and urbanization, coupled with the establishment of RTE, reshaped Irish society. The relaxation of insularity, marked by the rise of televised debates on previously taboo subjects, signaled a new era of openness.

Internationally, Lemass navigated Ireland’s foreign policy adeptly, advocating for UN membership for China and contributing troops to peacekeeping missions. His government’s pursuit of EEC membership underscored a broader shift toward European integration, though challenges like neutrality persisted.

After his retirement in 1966, Lemass’s health deteriorated, culminating in his passing on May 11, 1971. His legacy endures as a transformative figure in Irish politics, credited with modernizing the economy and steering Ireland toward a more open, globally engaged future.

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  • more of a ‘force for good’

  • Less of a ‘force for good’


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