Seán MacBride (1904-88)

[given-name Seaghan, and always so-called by Maud Gonne MacBride] b. 26 Jan., at 13 rue de Passy, Paris, son of John MacBride [q.v.] and Maud Gonne MacBride; bapt. St. Josephs’s Church, Terenure, with John O’Leary acting as godfather; separated from his father by his mother’s legal action, 1905; raised as French-speaker, in Paris, at his mother’s house, 13 rue de Passy; ed. at Mount St Benedict’s, Gorey (Co. Wexford), from 1918 when his mother defied a govt. ban in returning to Ireland; active in War of Independence, organising IRA resistance in Wicklow-Wexford counties up to the treaty-negotiations; accompanied delegation to talks in London but opposed the Treaty, 1921; endured several prison sentences, and went ‘on the run’;
lived as journalist in Paris, employing his first language; accompanied Eamon de Valera - who was disguised as a priest - to the Irish Race Conference held at at the Grand Hotel in rue Scribe (9ième Arr.); chief of staff, IRA, Dublin 1936; fnd. Cumann na Pobhlachta na hÉireann, 1936, as alternative platform for Republicans opposed to Congress; entered bar, 1937; resigned from IRA on enactment of Irish Constitution, 1937; defended Republican prisoners, and pleaded for Peter Barnes and James McCormack who were hanged in Birmingham for the Coventry bombing of Aug. 1940; acted for Charles Kerins (IRA Chief-of-Staff), accused of the murder of Detective Garda O’Brien, Oct. 1944, and lodged objection to his death sentence by special court (exec. 1 Dec. 1944);
founded Clann na Poblachta, 1946; served as first Min. of Foreign Affairs in coalition government, 1948; rejected NATO in the belief that the Allies could be bargained with over Northern Ireland and Partition; relentlessly attacked de Valera’s statement that ‘forty-five shillings [45/-] a week is an adequate income for a family in a Christian country’; acceded to Council of Europe, affirming neutral status; repeal of External Relations Act, and counselled declaration of republic, Easter Monday, 1949; supported hierarchy against Noel Browne in Mother and Child scheme controversy; his party reduced from ten to two seats, June 1951; founded Cultural Relations Committee, 1951;
held his seat and re-elected, 1954; refused to open a James Joyce exhibition in Paris; defeated 1957, and 1961; quit politics; acted as constitutional lawyers; prominent in human rights defence; took Lawless case on internment to European Commission on Human Rights; founder-mbr of Amnesty International, with Peter Benenson and others, and Chairman, July 1961; appt. Peter Calvocoressi to investigate charges, resulting in 2-day executive meeting at Elsinore, Denmark, and the retirement of Benenson; made by Benenson against members of the secretariat, 1966; Sec.-Gen of International Commission of Jurists, 1963-71; Exec. chairman Internat. Peace Bureau, Geneva, 1969; retired from chair of Amnesty International, 1974; appt. President of International Peace Bureau, 1974;
appt. UN High Commissioner for Namibia, 1973-76, with rank of Asst. Sec.-Gen.; awarded Nobel Peace Prize, 1974, and Lenin Peace Prize, 1977 (a unique “double”); estab. MacBride Principles on equal representation and equal opportunity in N. Ireland; awarded American Medal for Justice, 1978; UNESCO internat. comm. for study of communication problems, chairman; report, 1980 (Many Voices, One World); formulated MacBride Principles as a guide to American companies employing in S. Africa, and later recommended by nationalists in Northern Ireland; won support in last campaign in US; first recipient of the Tipperary Peace Prize in 1984;
d. Roebuck House, Clonskea, Dublin, 15 Jan. 1988; buried in Republican Plot, Glasnevin, with Catalina MacBride and his mother; The Day’s Struggle [...] a memoir of 1904-1951 was dictated to Catriona Lawlor, his secretary from 1977 to 1988, and issued in 2005; he was married to a Catalina, dg. of William Bulfin. DIB DIH

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Seán MacBride, That Day’s Struggle: A Memoir 1904-1951 (Currach Press 2005), 234pp., ill. (+16 photos).

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  • Ronan Sheehan, ‘Interview with Seán MacBride’, in Crane Bag, 2. 1&2 (1978); rep. Crane Bag Book of Irish Studies (1982), pp.296-303.
  • Ulick O’Connor, “Homage to Seán MacBride (died 16 July 1988)”, anthologised in Irish Poetry Now, ed. Gabriel Fitzmaurice (Wolfhound 1993) [q.p.].
  • Anthony J. Jordan, Seán MacBride: A Biography (Blackwater Press 1995), 199pp., 24pp., ill. [reviewed by Rory Brennan, Books Ireland, Nov. 1995, p.284].
  • Elizabeth Keane, Sean MacBride: A Life (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan 2007), 352pp.
  • Caoimhe Nic Dháibhéid, Seán MacBride: A Republican Life 1904-1946 (Liverpool UP 2011), 245pp.
See also Kevin Rafter, The Clann: The Story of Clann na Poblachta (Mercier Press 1996); Eithne MacDermott, Clann na Poblachta (Cork UP 1998); Steve Bruce, The Edge of the Union: The Ulster Loyalist Political Vision (OUP 1994), p.56 [critique of the ‘MacBride Principles’]; Conor Cruise O’Brien, Memoir: My Life and Times (1998) [a remorseless critique; see note]; David Norris, ‘Sean MacBride’, in Speaking Ill of the Dead, ed. Myles Dungan (New Island Press 2007) [a rebuke]; Kevin McNamara, The MacBride Principles: Irish America Strikes Back (Liverpool UP 2010), 313pp.

Note: as Donat O’Donnell, O’Brien had earlier written a witty leader profiling of his former Minister Sean MacBride [i.e., in The Leader].

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Ronan Sheehan, ‘Interview with Seán MacBride’, in Crane Bag, Vol. 2, Nos. 1 & 2 (1978); rep. in Crane Bag Book of Irish Studies (1982), pp.296-303. The questions largely related to an earlier interview with Sean Twomey and the article by Conor Cruise O’Brien in previous issues; in the course of this interview, MacBride endorses the idea that the Northern Unionists’ Britishness is the result of British governmental spoon-feeding; that Irish Republicans have in principle a right to conduct a violent struggle if they perceive their nation to be divided by colonialism; that they are not necessarily morally damaged by it, and that Conor Cruise O’Brien is pretty generally wrong about the ‘states of Ireland’; also speaks of the ‘campaign of denigration of 1916 and the independence movement’ [302]

John P. McCarthy, Dissent from Irish America (Univ. of America Press 1993), accuses Irish American militants of using them as sheep’s clothing rather than opposing Hillsborough Agreement outright and the community reconciliation that flows from it; considers that the Principles masquerade as ‘American style affirmative action’ but do not encourage investment and community reconciliation. [Reviewed in Irish Literary Supplement, Fall 1994.]

Conor Cruise O’Brien, ‘The Power of a Nation’s Ghosts’ [2nd extract from his Ancestral Voices, 1994], in Sunday Independent, 23 Oct. 1994,. giving an account of MacBride’s intellectual formation and his political career; notes that he probably ended his active connection with the IRA in 1925; writes derogatorily of his psychic character, and recalls that to the international press-corp he was known as ‘Death Takes a Holiday’ because of his concupiscent habits; quotes Honor Tracy on his shows of Catholicism, appearing at Iveagh House on Sundays clutching his Missal (‘Ireland is a country where Mr. Sean MacBride goes to Mass’); concludes that MacBride took sides against Noel Browne not out of conviction because the IRA told him to, in order to preserve the coalition that they then valued for purposes of the cause; ‘Looking back on it, I have an impression that Sean had managed to strike a bargain with those ghosts. That if he would always do what they required of him in Irish politics - by always helping the IRA - they would let him alone in other respects.’

Conor Cruise O’Brien, account of MacBride published anonymously in 1952: ‘When he laughs, which he does often, his skin, of very good quality parchment, crackles into a complex system of fine folds; the remarkable eyes, prominent and yet recessed, like those of some mad monk of romance, flicker with the persuasions of gaiety; the chuckle of that exotic uvula conspires, with the bandit eyebrows, giving a touch of diablèrie  to what you may be very sure is a most harmless witticism. / The total effect is rather impressive and not at all amusing [...]’ (Quoted in Roy Foster, review of Caoimhe Nic Dháibhéid, Seán MacBride: A Republican Life 1904-1946, in The Irish Times (20 Aug. 2011), Weekend, p.11 - called ‘a bravura piece’ by Foster - as infra.)

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David Andrews: ‘Andrews on Saturday’ [column], The Irish Times (26 May 2001): ‘Sean MacBride’s arguments are almost entirely based on arguments of history and political legitimach and internal or domestic law. He did not argue the case in terms of international law, as he would have known well that it was likely to fail (and this was even before the Anglo-Irish Agreement or the Good Friday agreement, which formally recognised the principle of consent.). / The 32-Counties Sovereignty Movement seems to labour under the misapprehension that declaring the Irish nation sovereign back in 1916 and 1919 was enough to make it so in the eyes of international law, and tha it has no been left the sole remaining guardian of th sovereign nation. This is not the case. / The Irish nation was able to establish its sovereignty only in 26 counties […] the sovereignty of the Irish nation was never established in the six counties so it is misleading to suggest that it has been given up or abandoned by anyone, be it the Irish Government, be it the SDLP, or Sinn Féin.’

Martin Mansergh, ‘Remembering the fascinating career of Sean MacBride’, in The Irish Times (17 July 2004): ‘[...] The affirmative MacBride principles, adopted by many US state legislatures, and a catalyst for further fair employment reform, caused continuing seizures among British consuls-general across America. / MacBride’s radical and meteoric republican party, Clann na Poblachta, formed of a feeling that the revolution was failing, did help provide an alternative to Fianna Fáil. It shook up the Department of Finance, which produced a first public capital programme. / Its most controversial foreign policy decisions, declaration of the republic and departure from the Commonwealth, which provoked the British guarantee to the unionists, were motivated, according to MacBride, by the fact that partition could not be discussed there. We have seen in recent days how Mauritius, as a Commonwealth member, was unable to take an action against Britain to the International Court of Justice. / The anti-partition campaign was mostly for domestic consumption, and was not a fruitful model. But the 1949 all-party declaration against partition was the classic statement of the republican case, deployed by Fianna Fáil against the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985. The value of Irish membership of NATO as a bargaining chip was hopelessly exaggerated. The mother and child controversy, mishandled all round, was a pyrrhic victory for the Church, a gift to unionists, and destroyed the clann. MacBride had to reinvent himself.’ Mansergh relates that when President Hillery proved reluctant to serve a second term, Mansergh himself suggested to Charles Haughey that MacBride be nominated, to which ‘Haughey shook his head indulgently, explaining that, politically speaking, Seán MacBride was the anti-Christ for about 80 per cent of the Irish people.’ Also notes that Maud Gonne thought she was marrying Ireland when she married his father John MacBride, quoting Donal McCracken, Forgotten Protest: Ireland and the Anglo-Boer War (q.d.)

Roy Foster, review of Caoimhe Nic Dháibhéid, Seán MacBride: A Republican Life 1904-1946, in The Irish Times (20 Aug. 2011), Weekend, p.11 - also quotes ‘bravura’ sketch of MacBride [as supra]. Further writes of MacBride's ‘conflicting worlds’ comprised of ‘mismatched parents’ and an early childhood lived out against ‘the background of their deeply antagonistic separation’. Remarks: ’Nic Dháibhéid pays particular attention to MacBride’s chequered course during the “Emergency”, where she contests his claim (trustingly accepted by a previous biographer) that he was consistently in favour of neutrality and “democratic politics” throughout. Though he was untainted by the anti-Semitism embraced by his mother and sister, and less openly favourable to Nazi policies than his brother-in-law, Francis Stuart, Nic Dháibhéid argues that a network of contacts and overtures indicate that MacBride favoured the Axis cause until the tide turned against them in 1942, and anticipated future rewards in a New Order Europe after the Allies lost. While this is hard to prove incontrovertibly, especially given the inaccessibility of his personal papers, the case is suggestive. / It would partly fit Cruise O’Brien’s analysis, or Noel Browne’s later denunciation of his ex-colleague as “cruel and authoritarian” - though O’Brien judged that MacBride was in the end not like Hitler but more resembled “one of those through whom dictatorships occur”. Whatever the truth of this, one should note - as Nic Dháibhéid fairly does - the time, ingenuity and commitment that MacBride put into his legal work, as defender of republican cases throughout his life, and the principled stand he took on behalf of civil liberties threatened by special legislation, from the 1940s on. This was the foundation for his distinguished international career as defender of juridical liberties and human rights in the postwar years, bringing many prizes and honours.’

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Garret Fitzgerald records that MacBride blundered in negotiations over membership of NATO, which he would have liked, on the premisses that the Allies would be willing to accede to a United Ireland in exchange for Irish co-operation. (Irish Times, ‘Comment’; Saturday, 19 Oct. 1996).

Harry Gleeson: Brendan Ó Cathaoir writes in “Irishman’s Diary” on the hanging of Harry Gleeson for his supposed murder of Molly McCarthy, which Sean MacBride defended and appealed on the grounds that the charge to the jury had been ‘incomplete, defective, unsatisfactory and incorrect’. The execution was carried out on 23 April 1941 in spite of a petition signed by 7,000. (The Irish Times, 25, 26, 27 Dec. 2001, p.17.)

David Norris (TCD Senator) spoke of the foibles and vanity of MacBride at “Speaking Ill of the Dead”, a conference convened by Myles Dungan (RTÉ), and held at the National Museum (Collins Barracks), 31-Mrch-1 April 2006, co-sponsored by the National Museum and RTÉ.

Mr. Gentleman: MacBride is rumoured to be the model for this character in the early Edna O’Brien novels. (See Rory Brennan, review of That Day’s Struggle, in Books Ireland, Summer 2006, p.144.)

Communist Third International: The the League against Imperialism sponsored by Moscow under the aegis of the Third International attracted Sean MacBride, Peadar O'Donnell and other Irish figures on the left- and centre-left of the political spectrum. (See Kate O’Malley, Ireland, India and Empire: Indo-Irish Radical Connections, 1919-64, Manchester UP 2009.)

Amnesty International: There is reportage and correspondence about his role in investigating the allegations laid against the secretariat by Peter Benenson in 1996. (Letter of Catriona Lawlor, in The Irish Times, 14 March, 2005.)

Council of Europe: ‘Much credit has been given to Seán MacBride for his skill in bringing together the Council of Ministers and nurturing the fledgling Council of Europe. The real triumph, however, was the establishment of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms which, even though he felt wasn’t far-reaching enough, he signed in Rome on November 4th, 1950 as a step in the right direction. / Within a decade, MacBride again made history by bringing the very first case (Lawless) of an individual against his government to the European Court of Human Rights - never imagining, I’m sure, that so many years later there would be 80,000 cases pending. (Letter of Catriona Lawlor, in The Irish Times, 14 March, 2005 - signed Redesdale Rd., Mount Merrion, Dublin).

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