Seán Francis Lemass, one of the most prominent Irish politicians of the 20th century and Taoiseach from 1959 until 1966, dies at Mater Misericordiae University Hospital in Dublin on May 11, 1971, at the age of 71.
John Francis Lemass is born in Ballybrack, County Dublin before his family moves to Capel Street in Dublin city centre. He is the second of seven children born to John and Frances Lemass. Within the family his name soon changes to Jack and eventually, after 1916, he himself prefers to be called Seán. He is educated at O’Connell School where he was described as studious, with his two best subjects being history and mathematics.
As early as the age of sixteen, Lemass becomes a freedom fighter in the streets of Dublin, engaging in the 1916 Easter Rising, the Irish War of Independence, and the Irish Civil War, landing in jail again and again. He opposes the establishment of the Irish Free State as a dominion under the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 and becomes a member of the headquarters staff of the Irish Republican Army in the civil war of 1922–1923.
Lemass is first elected as a Sinn Féin Teachta Dála (TD) for the Dublin South constituency in a by-election on November 18, 1924 and is returned at each election until the constituency is abolished in 1948, when he is re-elected for Dublin South–Central until his retirement in 1969.
He plays a key role in persuading Éamon de Valera to found a new republican party, Fianna Fáil, in 1926. After de Valera rises to the premiership in 1932, Lemass holds portfolios in all his cabinets for 21 of the next 27 years, notably as Minister for Industry and Commerce, Minister for Supplies, and Tánaiste (deputy prime minister).
When de Valera becomes President of Ireland in 1959, Lemass inherits the office of Taoiseach, serving in this position until 1966. Under him the country takes a more outward-looking approach, and he especially presses for Ireland’s entry into the European Economic Community (EEC), now the European Community embedded in the European Union, and for reconciliation with Northern Ireland.
Ill health forces Lemass to relinquish the leadership of his party in 1966 and he withdraws from politics altogether in 1969. He has been a heavy pipe smoker all his life, smoking almost a pound of tobacco a week in later life. At the time of his retirement it is suspected that Lemass has cancer, but this is later disproved. In February 1971, while attending a rugby game at Lansdowne Road, he becomes ill, is rushed to hospital, and is told by his doctor that one of his lungs is about to collapse.
On Tuesday, May 11, 1971, Seán Lemass dies in Dublin’s Mater Misericordiae University Hospital. He is afforded a state funeral and is buried in Deansgrange Cemetery.
Lemass is widely regarded as the father of modern Ireland, primarily due to his efforts in facilitating industrial growth, bringing foreign direct investment into the country, and forging permanent links between Ireland and the European community. His greatest legacy, Ireland’s membership in the EEC, is not secured until 1973, after his death.