Saturday, 6 June 2015

Seán Lester, the last secretary general of The League of Nations.

The Last Secretary General – Seán Lester and the League of Nations. 

Douglas Gageby. Town House and Country House, Dublin. 1999.

I wrote the following letter to Douglas Gageby the author of the above book on January 1st 2000.

Dear Douglas,

I read your biography of Seán Lester shortly after I had received it from you. It has taken me all this time to say how much I enjoyed reading it. The service Lester gave to Ireland and to Europe was so typical of the high standards of dedication, loyalty and commitment which were evident among civil servants during the early years of the State. Ireland was remarkably lucky to have men of such caliber, particularly during its early formative years.

I was absorbed by two aspects of his life. His years in Danzig must have stretched his patience and his morale to the very limit. The behaviour of the Nazis was in retrospect a precursor of their subsequent history in Germany and elsewhere. Your description reminds me in a small way of 1933 in Ireland when the Cumann na nGaedheal political meetings were being attacked and broken up by the IRA and Fianna Fail mobs. I was only eleven years old then but I witnessed some of the most violent attacks on the platforms during the 1933 election and I still recall the foreboding I had that, as a community, we were in danger.

It was fascinating to read of Lester and Switzerland during the war. It surely was a miracle that the Swiss were permitted to remain neutral. Perhaps the Germans were intimidated by the terrain of the country rather than the Swiss army, although I fancy the Swiss would have been doughty fighters.

It was sad that Seán Lester did not get the support and credit he deserved from his own countrymen. However, I do know that he was greatly regarded by my father  (but his long absence with the League of Nations and as the Governor of the free city of Danzig diminished his role with his colleagues in Dublin - note added later in January 2015). Most great men are not concerned if they do not get credit for their deeds as long as the job is well done.

Yours sincerely,

Editors's note - (The following is for people like me who don't
Seán Lester
know certain things, courtesy of Wikibooks) -  The League of Nations was an international organisation founded as a result of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919–1920. The League's goals included disarmament, preventing war through collective security, settling disputes between countries through negotiation, diplomacy and improving global welfare. The diplomatic philosophy behind the League represented a fundamental shift in thought from the preceding hundred years. The league was dissolved in 1946.

RM - It is unusual for me to add a later note to a letter of this nature. In the Irish Times of the 23rd of December 2010 the following report was found among its archives:

In 1909 two young men are cycling over the fertile well-farmed countryside of North county Down.  One of the cyclists is Ernest Blythe, a reporter, later to be a minister in the new Free State government.  His friend is a young man hoping to learn the tricks of the trade from Blythe and carve out a career for himself in journalism.  His name is Seán Lester. Lester was sworn into the IRB by Blythe, and he was quietly active in the Irish National Movement.  However, he did not take part in the Easter Rising.  Thomas Clarke is recorded as having said that he knew no one better equipped to write a history of those times than Lester. Lester finally rejected the gun in favour of politics and diplomacy.  He became High Commissioner of the Free City of Danzig in the years leading up to World War II and later acting secretary-general of The League of Nations, a position he maintained until the formation of the United Nations as the war came to a close.

Douglas Gageby in 1979
The author of Lester’s career, Douglas Gageby, was born in Dublin in 1918.  After attending the Belfast Royal Academy and then Trinity College, Gageby joined the Irish Press.  From there he went on to help found the Evening Press, where he stayed until moving to The Irish Times to act a joint Managing Director. He edited The Irish Times from 1963 until 1974, was recalled to the post in 1977 and retired as Editor in 1986. He was married to Sean Lester’s eldest daughter, Dorothy May. My father knew Gageby well so I called on him (the author) after his book was published and I kept in touch with him subsequently at his house in Bushy Park Road. He was a fund of knowledge about many of those who were part of the media at his time and he was a  reminder of the many  contemporaries whom I met and  talked to after I had become active in encouraging my father to write has memoirs after he had retired from politics.

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