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Dermot Keogh’s biography of the former Taoiseach Jack Lynch is an impressive and thoroughly researched study of one of the most influential but under-rated figures in Irish politics.

Conscious, perhaps, of past criticisms from some quarters of previous biographies of Jack Lynch by Bruce Arnold and T. Ryle Dwyer, the author acknowledges that biography is always a difficult medium for an historian.

“In using a personality as the prism through which to review the past,” he says, “one is in constant danger of distortion, of exaggeration and of either canonisation or demonisation.”

Jack Lynch was born in the midst of poverty, but not in it. Though he would excel at hurling, one of his most memorable exploits occurred on the football field in Bandon in November 1938, when he averted a replay by wading into a torrent to retrieve the only ball available that day, just as it was about to be swept downstream.

Yet, in early political life, his outlook indicated that he could also take the path of least resistance. Keogh appears to miss the contradiction between his commitments, on the one hand, to the dead hand of protectionism and on the other, to his realisation that economic modernisation and rapid job creation were the keys to the social radicalism he hoped to achieve.

The book details Lynch’s priorities and progress in a succession of departments. In Education, he removed the marriage ban on women teachers, ended the recruitment of untrained teachers, improved the pupil-teacher ratio and reformed the school inspection system.

At Industry and Commerce, he effected the move from protectionism to free trade and thus laid the foundations for Ireland’s later membership of the European Economic Community, though not without considerable pain for the industrial base and significant industrial relations unrest.

Brief stint

Lynch’s brief stint at the Department of Finance is echoed remarkably in Ireland’s current economic situation. In 1965, it became clear that the public finances were deteriorating fast; the deficit was forecast to increase to £8.6 million in 1965/66 and then to balloon to £15.3 million the following year. Lynch’s top civil servant, T.K. Whitaker, advised his Minister not to let things go that far. “The public mood,” he said, “is … in favour of realism. Let them know the worst and they will respond.”

A raft of tax rises

In March 1966, Lynch presented his second Budget, which included an eight-point hike on the standard rate of income tax and a raft of other tax rises. And still it failed to stop the rot. In June, Lynch introduced his third Budget in just over 13 months, the centrepiece of which was a tax on consumer spending. He also tried – but failed – to introduce a tax on land speculators.

A large part of the book is given over to the Troubles and there is an excellent chapter on the negotiations for Ireland’s entry to the EEC. For those interested in party political matters, there is a good section on how Lynch set about professionalising and disciplining Fianna Fáil in advance of its return to power in 1977.

Dermot Keogh says he was encouraged rather than discouraged at the publication of the two biographies mentioned earlier after he began his research for this book, which began eight years ago. For this reader, the product was worth the wait.

Jack Lynch – A Biography, by Dermot Keogh (Gill and Macmillan, €26.99)