Seán Francis Lemass, born John Francis Lemass, Irish patriot and Fianna Fáil politician who serves as Taoiseach and Leader of Fianna Fáil from 1959 to 1966, is born at Norwood Lodge, Ballybrack, Dublin on July 15, 1899. He also serves as Tánaiste (1945-48, 1951-54 and 1957-59), Minister for Industry and Commerce (1932-39, 1945-49, 1951-54 and 1957-59), Minister for Supplies (1939-45) and Teachta Dála (TD) (1924-69).
Lemass is the second of nine children born to John T. Lemass and his wife Frances (née Phelan) Lemass. He is educated at O’Connell School, where he is described as studious (his two best subjects being history and mathematics).
Lemass is persuaded to join the Irish Volunteers. He becomes a member of the A Company of the 3rd Battalion of the Dublin Brigade. The battalion adjutant is Éamon de Valera, future Taoiseach and President of Ireland. While out on a journey in the Dublin mountains during Easter 1916, he is informed of the Easter Rising that is taking place in Dublin. On April 25, Seán and his brother Noel are allowed to join the Volunteer garrison at the General Post Office (GPO). He is equipped with a shotgun and was positioned on the roof. He also is involved in fighting on Moore Street. However, the Rising ends in failure and all involved are imprisoned. He is held for a month in Richmond Barracks but, due to his age, he is released. Following this, his father wants his son to continue with his studies and be called to the Irish Bar.
Lemass 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 Irish Civil War (1922–23). He plays a key role in persuading 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 of Industry and Commerce and then as Tánaiste.
When de Valera becomes President of Ireland in 1959, Lemass is appointed Taoiseach on June 23, 1959, on the nomination for Dáil Éireann. 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 Communities, embedded in the European Union, and for reconciliation with Northern Ireland. His greatest legacy, Ireland’s membership in the EEC, is not secured until 1973, after his death.
In 1966, Ireland celebrates the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising. Éamon de Valera comes within 1% of defeat in that year’s Irish presidential election, less than two months after the celebrations in which he played such a central part. On November 10, 1966, Lemass announces to the Dáil his decision to retire as Fianna Fáil leader and Taoiseach with his usual penchant for efficiency, “I have resigned.” He retires to the backbenches and remains a TD until 1969. On the day of his retirement, Jack Lynch becomes the new leader of Fianna Fáil and Taoiseach.
During the last few years of his leadership, Lemass’s health begins to deteriorate. He had 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 he has cancer, but this assumption is later disproved. In February 1971, while attending a rugby game at Lansdowne Road, he becomes unwell. He is rushed to hospital and is told by his doctor that one of his lungs is about to collapse.