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Noel Lemass

While Sean Lemass fulfilled his great talents in the service of the nation, we will never know what sort of public life his older brother, Captain Noel Lemass, might have lived.

Last weekend, we gathered at the Featherbeds on the Old Military Road where a monument marks the place where Lemass’ body was found three months after his disappearance in July 1923. The Civil War had ended two months earlier.

The Irish Times reported on the 16th October 1923 on the Coroners’ inquest into the death of Noel Lemass.

The inquest took place in the Town Hall in Rathmines.

Representing the state was John A Costello later to become Taoiseach of the Inter Parliamentary Government in 1948 and 1954.

A barrister named Mr Lynn represented Noel’s brother Sean. Mr Lynn tenaciously insisted on introducing witnesses that would provide evidence of industrial scale witness intimidation.

Representing the next of kin was Mr William Redmond MP, a son of the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, John Redmond. He was already a TD by the time of the IT report - that he was described as an MP underlines a rare distinction of having been both an MP and a TD at the same time.

Crowded into the small hearing room were political figures that spanned almost a century of Irish history.

Noel’s parents had clearly been worried sick at the disappearance of their son. They had placed a ‘missing person’ ad in local papers and had written to the Lord Mayor of Dublin looking for any information as to his whereabouts.

Sadly his remains were found at the Featherbeds some three months later on the 12th of October.

It was bad enough that he was dead, but that he had been tortured and then mutilated layered horror on top of grief. That it had been carried out under the protection of the State authorities was a stain on the Irish Free State.

Maybe, if his parents were poetically minded, the thought that he had lain at a place called the Featherbeds with its incredible view of the Dublin and Wicklow mountains may have eased some of their pain.

Noel’s father gave evidence at the inquest that he identified the remains by the clothes he had been wearing and by the rimless glasses in the pocket.

The horrific events catapulted his younger brother Sean into public life.

Sean didn’t mention Noel in public throughout his career. In his keynote address, the Taoiseach Micheal Martin recalled that in an interview in 1969 Lemass said that these things were best forgotten.

Lemass was an exception in refusing to rake over the coals of the Civil War. His silence on the matter poses a challenge to us today. This is particularly true around interfaces in Northern Ireland where historical figures are ever present in murals and narratives of community identity.

At Noel Lemass’ inquest in 1923 Mr Lynn called Christopher Tuite, Stillorgan, to give evidence. Mr Tuite described how Free State soldiers had come to his house in the middle of the night and threatened him if he gave evidence identifying Lemass’ killers. The death threat was contained in a note that concluded - “Lemass is gone, and the earlier he is forgotten the better”.

99 years later and thanks to the work of the commemoration committee and the stone marking the awful deed clearly he not forgotten. The challenge posed by Sean Lemass is to understand the difference between history and politics.

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