Keeping It In the Family

There’s been no polling published this month so far, so I thought I’d do something a little different this week, and take a look at Irish political families. I don’t know enough about other countries to say how widespread this is, but Ireland is notorious for its politics being full of people connected by family ties – in some cases, they can be considered full-blown dynasties.

I’m not drawing any conclusions on if this is right or wrong, or good or bad, this is just something that I think is interesting and was fun to research.

Looking at the current make-up of the Dáil, the Seanad and the MEPs who represent Ireland, it’s easy to see that even a century on from the first Dáil, this is still very much the case. Nearly 30% of representatives have or have had another family member – either by blood or by partnership – who holds or has held elected office in Ireland.

Note that this includes two recently resigned Senators – Michael D’Arcy (FG) & Elisha McCallion (SF) as their replacements have not been elected yet. There’s no database for this; it was put together from my own research, so there may be some I have missed.

It’s a pretty widespread thing across parties, though the levels of ties vary. The Green Party number looks high, but bear in mind this isn’t only measuring blood relations, but partnership as well. Therefore, for example, Pippa Hackett and Steven Matthews appointing their partners to their vacant council seats once they were elected to the Oireachtas would be included in this count. The Greens are also interesting here because despite the high rate of family political ties, nobody has had a political antecedent in the party itself – their forebears were all in FF or FG, which given the relative newness of the Green Party, make sense.

Fianna Fáil, unsurprisingly to some, feature a swathe of the children of former TDs, most notably Seán Haughey, son of a former Taoiseach. They have the most blood relations of any of the political parties, in some cases dating right back to the first Dáil. Indeed, I believe FF are the only party that currently have multiple relatives of former Taoisigh currently sitting in the Oireachtas – Haughey, Lemass, de Valera and Cowen.

Fine Gael is broadly similar, albeit it at a lower rate. There’s plenty of former TDs’ children, most notably Simon Coveney, Helen McEntee and Michael Creed, and of course a relative of a former Taoiseach in Richard Bruton. There’s also Charlie Flanagan, but it feels like FG would just prefer if everyone forgot about his dad, but, ah… you know what? Let’s just move on and look at some historical political families.

Let’s start with the first head of government of the Free State, WT Cosgrave (technically he wasn’t Taoiseach as that term was only applied after the adoption of Bunreacht na hÉireann in late 1937)

WT might not have managed to be Taoiseach, but his son Liam, who held the position for one term before losing the 1977 election in the most ineptly-executed gerrymander in history. He would later pass his seat to his son, local criminal Liam T. Cosgrave, who retired in the early 2000s amid serious corruption allegations (Liam T. escaped the main allegations after the trial against him and others eventually collapsed, but he would collect a minor conviction along the way for breaking SIPO regulations) thus effectively ending the dynasty.

Kevin O’Higgins was in effect Cosgrave’s Tánaiste (though similar to the above, the role didn’t take on that name until 1937) and had quite the dynasty of his own; at multiple points there were three of them sitting together in the Dáil. Interestingly, O’Higgins is descended from the Sullivan family, who had quite the dynasty of their own in the House of Commons, with five different family members serving as MPs for Ireland between 1874 and 1918. The dynasty sputtered out in the late 70s, and the political careers of grandson Chris O’Malley and his wife Aideen Hayden were not long ones.

Obviously there’s plenty of high-profile political families like Cosgrave and O’Higgins – and yes, there’s more to come on this – but there’s also ones you might not be as familiar with. The Belton and Gibbons dynasties are probably less well known but had a pretty good run. The Gibbons represented Carlow-Killkenny for various parties for a long period of time, but I’d never encountered the name before until researching this piece.

Patrick Belton might be a bit more widely known, either for his participation in the IRB and the Easter Rising, or his later pivot to out-and-out fascism (and unlike Charlie Flanagan’s dad, Belton’s pivot more or less killed his political career). But I certainly wasn’t aware that his descendants, including Avril Doyle, had been elected at national or European level for over 60 consecutive years. I think, regardless of all else, it’s pretty neat that they spent so long participating in the democracy that Belton spent the latter part of his life trying to destroy.

I was surprised in the process of researching this to discover that there hasn’t been – as far as I can tell anyway – a family that has held unbroken national or European office since the first Dáil. There are two who have come close, and neither of them should be a huge surprise:

Seán Lemass’ family have held office almost unbroken since 1924, lasting 88 years until Seán Haughey lost his seat in 2011. They are the only family to have produced multiple Taoisigh (though as noted above, this is due to a technicality in WT Cosgrave’s status), with Lemass himself leading the government from 1959 to 1966, and of course his son-in-law Charlie Haughey leading three governments between 1979 and 1992.

The future of this dynasty is unclear – Seán Haughey is on track to lose his seat again in the next election, and both Cathal Haughey and Hannah Lemass failed to get elected in the 2019 local election (the former came close; the latter did very poorly). Which brings us to Ireland’s other ancient dynasty with an unclear future, and perhaps the best known of all:

Éamon de Valera and his descendants have been a constant presence in Irish politics, barring two and a half years in the mid-80s. In the 102 years since the first Dáil, a de Valera has held office for 100 of them, including an unbroken 62-year streak. I’m not going to recount de Valera’s influence over Ireland, as everyone is familiar with that, but his legacy continued in politics long after his ascention to the symbolic role of president, and long after his death. The continued presence of his relatives in elected office is only a small part of that legacy, really, but it’s a reminder of the outsize influence this man has had on Ireland.

The continuation of de Valera’s dynasty is even more murky than Lemass’. While Ó Cuív isn’t at risk of losing his seat, he in his 70s and I’m not aware of any further descendants of the long fellow active in Irish politics – though I may of course be missing someone. I don’t think there will be any tangible change that results from no longer having the de Valera family involved in national politics, but as the last enduring family from the first Dáil, it will be an symbolic milestone.

I want to close off with two little footnotes. Firstly, while the achievement of the Lemass and de Valera families are remarkable, there’s one that I think has an even more impressive legacy, in its own way:

Although there were some breaks in it, the Grattan family, of whom Henry Sr is the best known, had national representatives across three different centuries, from 1760 until 1977. This is both absolutely mad and incredibly impressive, and I can’t find any other family that came close to covering such a broad swathe of time.

Secondly, and finally, here’s a political family that, despite knocking around for a good while, ultimately wasn’t very successful when it came to politics, most of them having relatively short careers. But, their talents lay elsewhere, so you’ve probably heard of them anyway.

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