Forgotten Patriot is the story of Douglas Hyde, the first President of Ireland under the 1937 Constitution.
By Ryle Dwyer
He founded the Gaelic League in 1893 and was therefore responsible for the “cultural proselytising from which Irish sovereignty flowed,” according to Brian Murphy.
Hyde’s term as President was marred by ill-heath resulting from a stroke, but the author ably demonstrates that the President still made a very significant contribution.
The presidency had actually been the focal point of opposition to the new Constitution, as critics contended that designating the President as supreme commander of the Defence Forces would pave way for Éamon de Valera to establish a dictatorship.
With much of Europe ruled by dictators, the allegation was taken seriously, but Hyde demolished any suspicion by his conduct in office.
De Valera had initially hoped Seán T O’Kelly would be the first President, but The Irish Times published a letter from someone using the pseudonym ‘Fianna Gael’ suggesting that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael select Hyde as an agreed candidate to elevate the presidency above party politics.
“The first President should be a man who will command general respect and support. He ought to be a man above all politics —with no political ‘record’,” the letter writer contended. “The nomination of Dr Hyde by messrs de Valera and Cosgrave, acting in concert, would transform in a single stroke the whole complexion of our political life.” The newspaper promptly endorsed the idea in an editorial. Matters rested there until Joseph Cardinal MacRory called for an agreed candidate for President. He did not mention Douglas Hyde, who was a Protestant, but there were very few people on whom Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael were likely to agree. The two parties duly agreed on Hyde, and he was elected by acclimation.
Hyde quickly established a precedent when he attended a soccer international between Ireland and Poland, much to the irritation of the Gaelic Athletic Association, which promptly dropped him as a patron.
The President went on to attend rugby games also. When GAA president Séamus Gardiner and secretary Pádraig Ó Caoimh later sought to meet Hyde’s successor Seán T O’Kelly in 1945, de Valera castigated them for the GAA’s insulting behaviour towards Hyde.
The Taoiseach was possibly expressing his own frustration. A decade later he told a dinner in Shannon that he had retained a life-long interest in rugby but had not attended a game since 1913, for fear of stirring controversy. Hyde’s behaviour stood out in magnificent contrast.
Michael McDunphy was appointed secretary to the President. He assisted in helping to set a number of precedents.
McDunphy insisted the President be treated essentially as the first citizen, and he was careful to distance the office from any links with the old governor-general, or British royalty.
All royal portraits were removed from Áras an Uachtaráin, and McDunphy insisted the press list the President’s social engagements before those of British royalty.
During the Emergency years of the second world war Hyde signed the Offences Against The State Act (1939) with some misgivings, which were justified when part of it was soon ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
The government was forced to release subversives, who took part in a raid on the Magazine Fort in Phoenix Park, making off with 13 lorry-loads of arms and ammunition.
The government quickly amended the Act, and de Valera openly indicated that he hoped Hyde would refer the bill to the Supreme Court before signing it. Hyde duly obliged, and this prevented any further challenges, after the Supreme Court deemed the bill constitutional.
Hyde sought to ensure Irish neutrality was even-handed towards the belligerents, which was far from the reality. De Valera certainly wished for the Germans to view his policy in that light, and Hyde played a significant role in boosting relations with Edouard Hempel, the German minister, by bending over backwards to ingratiate him.
Groundbreaking man of principle
Hyde was unwilling, for instance, to provide humanitarian assistance to Julius Pokorney, professor of Celtic Philology at Berlin University, but de Valera did assist in helping to save the professor’s life. Pokorney was being victimised because one of his grandmothers had been Jewish. Dr Murphy rightly depicts Hyde’s indifference to the professor’s plight as a stain on the President’s record.
At the end of the war McDunphy controversially proffered President’s Hyde condolence to Hempel following the death of Hitler. This was the day after de Valera’s similar and much misunderstood gesture.
Dr Murphy overlooks a confrontation that de Valera had with David Gray, the US minister, on the eve of the visit.
Gray had accused de Valera of being flagrantly indifferent towards the Allies, whereas the Taoiseach had secretly provided all the help the Allies actually desired.
Gray had been behind the Allied demands for the expulsion of German and Japanese diplomats from Dublin in 1944. The Americans said de Valera should realise that countries often used their diplomats as spies.
Of course, de Valera knew this, because Irish diplomats in Rome, Berlin and Vichy were being used as American spies with his connivance.
Although de Valera was pilloried in the Allied press, he used the whole thing to his advantage after he lost a minor vote in the Dáil. He asked the President to call a general election.
Hyde had discretion to refuse a dissolution. He considered refusing request, because de Valera could probably have won a vote of confidence next day, but McDunphy persuaded the President to call the general election anyway. Fianna Fáil duly won a 16-seat majority in the ensuing election.
On the eve of Hitler’s suicide, Gray was behind another stunt when he asked for permission for the US to seize the German legation in Dublin to get hold of German codes, in case Uboats continued the war in the Atlantic after the impending surrender of Germany.
The idea of Uboats carrying on the war after Germany’s surrender was preposterous and, anyway, the Allies already had the German codes.
Gray was just using the issue as another ploy to distort Irish neutrality. De Valera was so annoyed that on hearing the news of Hitler’s death next day, he reacted with sympathy for the German minister, who had adopted an understanding attitude towards some open concessions that Dublin made towards the British out of apparent necessity.
“During the whole of the war,” de Valera wrote, “Dr Hempel’s conduct was irreproachable. He was always and invariably correct — in marked contrast with Gray. I certainly was not going to add to his humiliation in the hour of defeat.”
De Valera was not in power when Hyde died in 1949, but neither he nor most of the government had the guts to attend his protestant funeral service in St Patrick’s Cathedral, for fear of antagonising Archbishop John Charles McQuaid. The only Catholic politician who did attend was Health Minister Noel Browne.
This insightful and interesting book is well-written and thoroughly researched, with over 1,100 notes on sources.
Maybe the ultimate significance of Hyde’s presidency is a little exaggerated, but there is no doubt that the book ably demonstrates that the first President’s role has hitherto been seriously underestimated.
Forgotten Patriot: Douglas Hyde & the Foundation of the Irish Presidency by Brian Murphy. The Collins Press, €19.99.