Speech by John Bruton, former Taoiseach, at 9.35am on Saturday 22 February 2020 in City Hall Waterford at the opening of a seminar on the life of General Richard Mulcahy;
Mr Mayor, John Pratt, members of General Mulcahy’s family, ladies and gentlemen, it a tremendous honour to be invited to give this opening address.
Richard Mulcahy was born in Waterford in 1886 in Manor Street in the city. He was educated here, and later in Thurles, by the Christian Brothers.
Today’s programme will give us a full overview of the life of this patriotic Irishman. It deals with his role as a revolutionary, his role in the Civil War, and, more importantly perhaps , with his role as a constitutional parliamentarian, Minister and Party Leader.
General Mulcahy spent ten years of his life occupied with military matters. He spent 36 subsequent years, engaged in peaceful, democratic, constitutional politics.
The first 10 years have attracted quite an amount of biographical attention, but the subsequent 36 years less so. That continuing imbalance is being partially redressed today by the contribution of David McCullagh.
I encountered General Mulcahy twice…… once when, in 1966 when I was 19, he addressed us in the Students branch of Fine Gael on the 50th anniversary of 1916 in the Shelbourne Hotel, and later when he addressed a Fine Gael Ard Fheis dance in Cleary’s ballroom in the same year.
The speech to students went very well and was scholarly, reflective and informative. Sean McEoin and Miceal Hayes also spoke.
Unfortunately the General spoke at equal length on both occasions.
As the attendees at the dance had other priorities, a shorter address on the latter occasion might have suited us better!
We will learn more about Dick Mulcahy, the human being, later today and I particularly looking forward to Jim Ryan’s talk about his wife and about his talented and interesting extended family.
In preparing these few words, I have tried to come to an understanding of Dick Mulcahy by reading some of his contributions to Dail debates, especially those he made towards the end of his parliamentary career, when he might be expected to have concentrated on the things he regarded as most important.
The first thing to say is that he seems to have been someone who sat in the Dail Chamber and listened to others, even when he himself was not planning to speak.
This is evidenced by his numerous one line interventions often on procedural matters. One of these interventions was to invite the newly elected young Fianna Fail Deputy, Charles J Haughey, who was persistently interrupting one of Mulcahy’s colleagues, to “shut up”. I do not think he succeeded.
The second thing that comes across from his Dail contributions is his deep and abiding interest in the Irish language. His very last speech was entirely in Irish of the Estimate for the Department of the Gaeltacht. He was active in promoting education through Irish outside the Gaeltacht. He was particularly interested in Coláiste Mhuire in Dublin, where one of his successors as leader of Fine Gael, Alan Dukes, was to be educated.
Thirdly, one gets a sense of his deep interest in education generally. When he was leader of the largest party forming the government in 1948, and might have expected to become Taoiseach, he did not seek that job as he knew that, if he insisted, the multi party government might not have come together at all.
In the circumstances, he would probably have had his pick of all the other Ministries. Significantly he chose Education. In 1954, when he again led the largest party forming the government, he again stood back from seeking to be Taoiseach and again chose Education.
In one of his later contributions on educational matters, he argued that the curriculum was “vastly overcrowded”.
He wanted young people to acquire skill that would get them work. As he put it in 1959
We may sing , dance, play music but until we get people skills for the work of life we will not progress.
The other characteristic that he shared with many of his generation was a deep religious faith. This influenced his educational philosophy. He felt we should approach education from a standpoint which
unreservedly accepts the supernatural conception of man’s natural destiny
and added the
existence of a nation is a manifestation of God’s providence.
These are views that are not widely held today. But they flow logically and inexorably from Mulcahy’s core beliefs about the nature and goal of human life. Those who criticise his approach to Education should be equally explicit about their beliefs about the nature and goal of human life.
His later Dail contributions show he had a sense of Ireland’s vulnerability to international events. He served on the Council of Defence during World War Two. In his speech on the External Affairs Estimate in 1960, he reflected on the possibility of nuclear war. He said
Science has provided itself today with weapons that would be safe only in the hands of God.
He added that
It is emotions, not materialism , and not economics, that will dictate the world we live in tomorrow
Both statements are as true today as they were when Dick Mulcahy made them in 1960.
A study of Mulcahy’s life impresses the reader with a sense of his strong loyalty to causes greater than his own personal ambitions.
As I have mentioned already, this is notable in his standing back, although party leader, to allow John A Costello to become Taoiseach.
It is also notable in the way he coped with his removal from office as Minister for Defence in the wake of the Army Mutiny in 1924. He found himself in deep and personal conflict with some of his colleagues in the Cumann na nGaedhael government, but he stayed in politics, supported the government in the Dail, and subsequently returned to office.
The Army Mutiny highlighted the issue of the presence in the Army at the time of secret an unaccountable organisations with political agendas, the secret IRB and the “Old IRA” or IRAO.
Mulcahy and his ministerial colleagues, despite their differences, helped demilitarize society and establish unambigously civilian rule of this state. In 1932, he vetoed any military attempt to interfere with the transfer of power to Fianna Fail.
Mulcahy believed that party leaders should work at politics full time. After he became party leader in 1944, on the resignation of WT Cosgrave, he travelled to country, alone on his motor bike, endeavouring to revive the Fine Gael Party. Indeed, if he had not done so, the party might not have survived at all.
He had a long parliamentary career. He was first elected in Clontarf in 1918 defeating the Irish Party candidate, Patrick Shortall.
He subsequently represented Dublin North West, and Dublin North, losing his seat there in the 1937 election but regaining it in 1938.
He again lost the seat in 1943, but moved to Tipperary for the 1944 Election where he was successful.
He held the Tipperary seat until he retired in 1961, making way for Surgeon Paddy Hogan, a TD I remember with great affection.
Of course, Dick Mulcahy is also to be celebrated as a successful revolutionary. This will be developed in the papers today by Pat McCarthy, Pat Taaffe and Anne Dolan.
His role in the fighting at Ashbourne Co Meath in 1916 showed he had a great grasp of military fieldcraft, and communications in battle. This stood to him in the fighting between 1919 and 1923.
Ashbourne was the most successful engagement of 1916 from a Volunteer perspective. But the human cost was real. Eight RIC members were killed…. DI Gray, Sgt Shanagher, and Constables John Young, James Hickey, John Gormley, Richard McHale and James Cleary…all later laid out in eight coffins before the High Altar in St Mary’s Catholic Church in Navan.
Two local civilians died in the crossfire, 26 year old John Hogan and 24 year old James Carroll.
The volunteer casualties were John Crennigan and Thomas Rafferty.
All should be remembered, if we want future generations to be sensitive to the true cost of warfare.