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"Views of Four Presidencies (1938-1975)" - exhibition of the records of the Office of the Secretary to the President

Commentary by Dr Diarmaid Ferriter (continued)

The phrase 'guardian of the Constitution' as often cited in relation to the President, has been disputed by some. Professor John Kelly's seminal work on the Irish Constitution notes: 'It scarcely needs to be said that this flattering title sometimes bestowed on the Presidency … is pure journalistic hyperbole. The Constitution nowhere describes the Presidency in such terms and is extremely sparing in its attribution of any independent functions of the office at all' (1).

Historian of the Presidency, Jim Duffy, has also written about what he sees as the discrepancy between perception and constitutional reality concerning the office. He has disputed the contention that governments have a veto over what Presidents can say. Although Article 13.7 does stipulate that the President may not address a message to the nation or the Houses of the Oireachtas without discussing it with the Council of State and having the text approved by the Government, Duffy argues that this is not a general restraint on what a President may say. If it were such, the Council of State would have to be in almost permanent session (2).

The President may be directly elected for a seven year term in a national vote, or, if the political parties choose, nomination procedures can be used to agree a candidate and avoid a vote. While the Constitution allows for outgoing Presidents to nominate themselves for election to a second term, other potential candidates need to be proposed either by 20 members of the Oireachtas (TDs or Senators), or the councils of four counties or county boroughs. Given that these local authorities are composed on party lines, this route was rarely feasible and was not in fact used until 1997. On five occasions - 1938, 1952, 1974, 1976 and 1983 - only one candidate was nominated, while there have been six contested elections; 1945, 1959, 1966, 1973, 1990 and 1997.

Letter from Richard Nixon, President of the United States of America, dated 30 June 1972, to President Eamon de Valera, introducing Ronald Reagan, Governor of California. The office of President in the earlier years was occupied by distinguished senior politicians or venerable public persons, all of whom were male. Of the Presidents relevant to this exhibition, Douglas Hyde was 78 years old when elected, while Sean T. Ó Ceallaigh was 63, Eamon de Valera 76 and Erskine Childers 67. In 1972, as one of the documents illustrates, American President Richard Nixon informed President de Valera that admiration for him was 'shared by all the world's democracies for you are our senior democratic leader' (PRES 1/2003/18/62).

As the documents that form the basis of this exhibition indicate, the Presidency has been more about symbolism than active politics, in keeping with its role as outlined in the Constitution. It may be significant, for example, that when Eamon de Valera, as Taoiseach, made his first formal visit to President Douglas Hyde, despite the contention of the Secretary to the President that 'the conversation covered a wide range of subjects, including matters of policy', the Taoiseach 'remained with the President in his study for about three minutes' (PRES 1/P 464).

In many ways that first meeting set the tone for the relationship between President and government. But there was also a determination to emphasise the 'Irishness' of the office, as demonstrated by the refusal in 1942 to allow the British representative in Ireland, Sir John Maffey, tenancy of a building in the Phoenix Park, close to the President's residence, on the grounds that 'there are many people in this country who pretend to believe that the President is merely a successor to the post of governor general … a clean break away from that position is essential' (PRES 1/98/1/09).

A concern to maintain the dignity and decorum of the office is also apparent in these documents, as Memorandum dated 27 July 1943, regarding the behaviour of the poet, Patrick Kavanagh, at a Red Cross reception at the Áras.reflected in the displeasure at the poet Patrick Kavanagh, then a freelance journalist, abusing his journalist's pass to pose as a principal guest at a function hosted by the President for the Red Cross in 1943. Not only was he wearing a 'green woollen jumper' but also 'sandals without socks' and 'altogether untidy', not to mention the fact that he 'has written some very obscene poems in English papers and is inclined to be truculent with ministers'. On this occasion, it was the Minister for Justice who was on the receiving end of his truculence (PRES 1/P 3112).

Garden parties were a recurrent feature of the presidential social calendar and functioned as a practical means of facilitating access across a wide spectrum of society. In June 1939 Maud Gonne refused an invitation to a garden party hosted by Douglas Hyde 'because of the horrid Coercion Act to which you have or are about to…append your signature' (PRES 1/P 499). In 1946 it was decided to abandon the custom of the President shaking the hands of all guests at such functions. A planned garden party with an attendance of 3,000 guests would have involved President Ó Ceallaigh and Mrs. O' Ceallaigh proffering 6,000 handshakes between them. On the 'optimistic assumption' there would be 30 handshakes per minute, this would have taken three to four hours (PRES 1/P 2771).

During the period covered by this exhibition, Presidents occasionally found themselves embroiled in controversy. Douglas Hyde's attendance at a soccer match in 1938, for example, was regarded in some quarters as inappropriate (PRES 1/P794). Presidents did not shy away from associating themselves with memorials commemorating Ireland's War of Independence, as reflected in Sean T. Ó Ceallaigh's unveiling of the Soloheadbeg memorial in January 1950 (PRES 1/P 4391). However, they were not in a position to respond to lobby groups in order to influence government decisions, such as the group led by the parish priest of Bantry that appealed to President de Valera to accept a petition protesting against the proposed closing by CIE of the West Cork Railways in 1961 (PRES 1/P 5709/61).

Telegram dated 18 March 1952, from Harry S. Truman, President of the United States, to President Seán T. Ó Ceallaigh, thanking him for the gift of a basket of shamrock which he received on Saint Patrick's Day. Important functions of the Presidency included the conveyance of congratulations, felicitations or sympathy to heads of state on behalf of the Irish people, either in person or by post - a telegram from President Harry Truman to President Sean T. Ó Ceallaigh thanks him 'for the little box of shamrock which reached me fresh and green at Key West' on St. Patrick's Day, 1952 (PRES 1/P 4740). Presidential priorities were to meet and greet visiting dignitaries and Irish citizens, to add dignity to solemn occasions, to attend first nights at the theatre, to present prizes, endorse charities and to sign bills formally into law.

There was sparse funding of the office. In August 1939 it was suggested that downsizing the office due to wartime exigencies had little to recommend it, partly because 'the cost of entertaining is borne out of the President's pocket' (PRES 1/P 1353).

The style but not the substance of the office could of course be affected by personality. President Hyde seemed a rather shy and reserved man. In a questionnaire dealing with his likes and dislikes, he declined to name his favourite actor or actress, or fictional character, but displayed a love of rustic pursuits. His chief hobby was shooting game, and his favourite animal was an Irish setter, but he was not fussy about food, his favourite being 'anything I get' (PRES 1/P 2053). President Ó Ceallaigh was more gregarious and enjoyed the ceremonial set pieces and costumes, while President de Valera settled easily into the role of dignified and internationally-renowned elder statesman.

By the end of the century there was a determination by some to engender more of an interest in the office beyond the cut and thrust of an election. Proponents of a new style of Presidency sought to find an effective way of changing the image of the office in line with a rapidly changing Ireland. If successful, they could perhaps make the Irish people more interested in the Presidency and the person who held it, a logic that set the tone for the much more active, visible and occasionally controversial presidential terms of recent times.

Dr Diarmaid Ferriter


(1) JM Kelly, The Irish Constitution (3rd edn, Dublin and London, 1994), p 83

(2) Jim Duffy, Irish Times, 12 July 2002

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Administrative history of the Office of the Secretary to the President

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