Dr. Bill O' Gorman, from WIT, speaking about this site on WLR

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

John J. Hearne: Ireland's Thomas Jefferson

Seventy years ago, in 1937, Bunracht na hÉireann, the Constitution of Ireland was put to the people of Ireland and passed by popular referendum. Since 1938 it has, and not without debate, remained the basic law of Ireland. The nature and extent of the state of Ireland, our electoral system, so recently again in operation, the Houses of the Oireachtas, the office of Uachtarán na hÉireann, the scope of the judiciary as well as a collection of social directives, the ‘Fundamental Rights’, very much of their time but subsequently controversial, are contained in this short document.

Modern Ireland has perhaps been rather negligent in honouring the creators of our state. One of these men, and they were nearly all men, Waterford-born constitutional lawyer and diplomat John J. Hearne, the ‘Boy Orator’ of post-1916 politics in the city, was Eamon de Valera’s right hand man and technical advisor during the drafting of the 1937 Constitution. In photographs, Hearne’s small frame, youthful if melancholy looks, neat blond hair and well-cut dark suits suggest both the dashing diplomat and the detail-conscious draughtsman. In the opinion of the historian and editor of Executive Editor, Documents on Irish Foreign Policy, (Royal Irish Academy) Dr. Michael Kennedy, Hearne was Ireland’s Thomas Jefferson.

In this anniversary year of the drafting of Bunracht na hÉireann, Waterford Civic Trust decided to mark Hearne’s birthplace at 8 William Street in Waterford city in a long overdue tribute to one of the unsung figures who secured the framework of Irish democracy in the troubled years between the world wars when so many European states turned to fascism.

Born on 4 November 1893 John Hearne was the fourth son of Richard and Alice Mary Hearne. Richard Hearne was a Waterford boot manufacturer and Mayor of the city on two occasions, in 1902 and 1903. He was educated at Waterpark College, Waterford, and at University College Dublin.

Hearne joined the Department of External Affairs in 1929 as Legal Adviser. He played a prominent role as a member of Ireland’s delegation to the assemblies of the League of Nations and at the conferences of members of the Commonwealth, of which Ireland was then a member. Hearne’s legal skills were invaluable to de Valera in his negotiations with Britain to revise and ultimately replace the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty.

Hearne’s lasting legacy to the Irish state is as one of the drafters of the 1937 constitution of Ireland. In January 1935 he was appointed to a committee of three senior civil servants by de Valera to prepare the new constitution, and when it was completed, Hearne was recognised as one of its main architects.

When Ireland opened diplomatic relations with Canada in 1939 Hearne was appointed High Commissioner to Ottawa. He tried to use his relationship with Canadian Prime Minister William MacKenzie King explain Ireland’s wartime neutrality to the Allies in an attempt to get Canada to influence Allied policies towards Ireland.

Hearne’s final years in Ottawa saw him present during the official visit to Canada in 1948 when his former colleague as Attorney General, now Taoiseach (Prime Minister), John A. Costello announced that Ireland was leaving the Commonwealth.

Hearne left Canada in March 1950, to become Ireland’s first Ambassador to the United States. He developed important contacts with Presidents Truman and Eisenhower and his reports to Dublin captured astutely the American political environment of the 1950s.

Retiring on 4 November 1960, his 67th birthday, and four days before the election of John F. Kennedy, Hearne then served as a legislative consultant to the governments of Nigeria and Ghana, helping these two young states to develop their democracy as he had done for Ireland in the 1930s. Sadly, African democracy proved less stable than its Irish counterpart.

He died in Dublin in 1969, MacKenzie King had described Hearne as ‘typically Irish in his persuasive ways’, though the continued that Hearne was ‘warm hearted toward friends, bitter towards England’ over the partition of Ireland. John Hearne was first and foremost an Irish nationalist and his lasting bequest to his country is in the articles of Bunracht na hÉireann.

On Tuesday, 5 May 2007, the day of the unveiling of the plaque in Hearne’s honour, , the Mayor of Waterford, Cllr. Cha O’Neill hosted a Mayoral reception for the relatives of the late John Hearne, who travelled to Waterford for the occasion. These included, his daughter Mary Berlinger who travelled from Zurich, his daughter-in-law, Bernadette Hearne, and grandson John travelling from Dublin, Alice Bowen, his cousin from Cork, and Mary Flynn, his Waterford cousin. Also present were Alice Bowen’s son John and daughter-in-law Teresa.

Mr. John Bowen very generously sponsored the erection of the plaque by Waterford Civic Trust, and was warmly praised by the Mayor for his very civic minded generosity. The Mayor also complemented the Chairman of Waterford Civic Trust Mr. Padraig O’Griofa for taking the initiative on having the plaque erected. He also thanked Arthur and Mary Blake, for allowing the erection of the plaque on their premises at 8 Lombard Street, the birthplace of John Hearne.

The Mayor expressed the hope that by the 75th anniversary of the drafting of our constitution that we would see in Waterford a suitable commemorative sculpture. The Mayor went on to thank Dr. Michael Kennedy for his assistance to Waterford Civic Trust in researching the life and times of John Hearne

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