Jack Lynch: a biography

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 4 (Jul/Aug 2009), Reviews, Volume 17

1Jack Lynch: a biography
Dermot Keogh
(Gill and MacMillan, €26.99)
ISBN 9780717134694

Jack Lynch died in 1999. Since then, he has received four biographies, more attention than has been given to any other recently deceased taoiseach. This has three causes. The first is what his latest chronicler, Dermot Keogh, describes as indignation at Lynch being ‘airbrushed out of history’ (p. XI) by his successor. The second is an attempt to portray a utopia that never existed and never could exist: an uncorrupted capitalist Ireland. The third is the challenge of deciphering an enigma.
Of all Lynch’s biographers, Keogh is most nearly the official one. He received maximum cooperation from his subject’s widow, Mairín, from close relatives, friends and colleagues. He seems to have exhausted all Lynch’s available personal papers. Yet something seems missing. This is due, partly, to Keogh’s presentation. Admiration for Lynch is unsurprising in such a work, yet the insertions and omissions used here to justify it are too obvious and often inexplicable. Pages read like a biography less of Lynch than of Whitaker, Childers or Hillery. On the other hand, while there is much on Lynch’s hurling (justifably: his political career developed as a series of sporting contests), Keogh summarises his subject’s scholastic achievements as only that he was ‘among the best in the best class’ (p. 13). Though he reports the future Mairín Lynch as having ‘an aptitude for mathematics but not for languages’ (p. 20), Lynch’s change from economic protectionism (p. 33) to free trade is not examined, nor is his acceptance in his early years as taoiseach of the role of front man for Haughey and the Taca-teers (the nickname ‘Honest Jack’ was coined ironically). Only single pages are devoted to two particular spheres important in his career: industrial unrest and the women’s movement. As minister for industry and commerce, Lynch saw the Republic have the highest strike record in Europe, while, as taoiseach, spontaneous strikes and workplace occupations influenced the surrender of the British Embassy to the people of Dublin in 1972. The women’s movement helped him to accept the denounced Labour aim of ending the special constitutional position of the Catholic Church. In the end, Lynch appears no more substantial than to the contemporary outsider: a slim figure in a well-cut Irish-made suit, courteous, personally honest, but ruthless in protecting his team and his position and, above all, carried along by, rather than influencing, great events.
This is not due solely to presentation. The appearance was all too real. This is shown in Mairín Lynch’s judgement of her husband and herself, ‘we were not very political people’ (p. XIV), and in Tony O’Reilly’s anecdote that Lynch chose his party by flipping a coin (p. 462). Haughey had a moral deficit but Lynch had a political deficit. When necessary, he could manoeuvre to defend his team and his position as captain, but what he was defending it to do was another matter. The result was that, while the rich paid for Haughey, they could rely on Lynch to do what they wanted through deference and lack of imagination.
This appears in his two most celebrated achievements. Keogh cannot show exactly how Lynch affected Ireland’s EEC entry beyond signing the agreement. His preparations for free trade were another matter. Though capitalist Ireland could not continue protection, free trade meant radical adjustment in industry. To advance this, committees were established by Lynch as the responsible minister. In 1963 he expressed disappointment at their achievements (p. 87). Keogh records nothing more. In his inaugural speech as taoiseach, Lynch’s most definite programmatic proposals were entering the EEC and curbing wage rises (p. 122). Neither he nor his successors as ministers for industry and commerce (some of his closest allies) tried harder to stop free trade decimating Irish industry, contributing to the crises in the 1980s and today.
On Northern Ireland, Lynch survived through his opponents’ weakness. His aspiration of unity by consent fitted the interests of the Republic’s bourgeoisie, many of whom would have been happy to see the northern province towed out into the Atlantic and sunk, but feared to say so lest they provoked the poorer classes. Contrariwise, as the arms fiasco showed, armed struggle for a capitalist united Ireland appealed to a minority of any class. He had done nothing to prepare for the quarter-century of troubles after 1969. Keogh has to admit ‘the nebulous view that Northern Ireland policy was the preserve of the Taoiseach’, adding that, ‘if that was so, the responsibility for the failure to prepare for what was to follow must rest in that quarter’ (p. 152). Subsequently, he veered according as much to advice as to events. He was not alone. His main source, T. K. Whitaker, veered from demanding condominium status for the North (p. 178) to deploring the irresponsibility of the SDLP (p. 351). The buck stopped with Jack, however, and his concern was always to defend himself and his party.
Eventually, his non-political perspective caused him to refrain from influencing what he would have seen as his party’s best option: Colley’s succession to him. He had no overriding vision beyond his undoubted dislike of Colley’s opponent, Haughey. It was not enough to move him. The series was over; the new team was not his concern. HI

D. R. O’Connor Lysaght is the author of The story of the Limerick Soviet (3rd edn, 2003).

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