Susan Denham salutes John Hearne at insightful ‘Waterford 1100’ lecture
Addressing a sizeable attendance at the Large Room on Monday evening last, Mrs Justice Denham recalled the decorated legal and diplomatic career of Mr Hearne (1893-1969), who was grew up on Waterford’s William Street.
A commemorative blue plaque, the brainchild of the Waterford Civic Trust, is erected on William Street in his memory.
Mr Hearne’s parents, Richard Hearne of Drumrusk, Passage East (born 1850) and Alice Mary Power, were a reputable family in city business.
Richard was apprenticed to leather merchant manufacturer Edward Walsh and would later inherit Mr Walsh’s business (on Broad Street) and go on to serve as Mayor of Waterford on two separate occasions in 1901 and 1902 as member of John Redmond’s Irish Parliamentary Party.
Said Mrs Justice Denham: “The Munster Express once wrote of the business that it was ‘known in every corner of Ireland’, had a ‘national reputation’ and was ‘one of the staple industries in Waterford’.”
John Joseph, the youngest of seven children – three girls and four boys- was an accomplished student and attended St John’s College seminary in his mid-teens following his initial education at Waterpark CBS.
“The College records show that Hearne spent about a year at St John’s before continuing his studies for the priesthood at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth from 8th August 1911,” said Mrs Justice Denham.
“I understand that it was unusual but not exceptional for a student to transfer from a local seminary in Maynooth. He transferred with the assistance of a scholarship from Waterpark College.” He studied there from 1911 to 1916.
She continued: “After four years John Hearne graduated with a B.A. degree in Philosophy and Arts. In 1915, he began the first year of his Theology degree, and in 1916 he was enrolled for the second year of this degree. It would appear he did not return to Maynooth to complete this degree. Ultimately, he made a decision not to be ordained a priest…his family were disappointed about this, but his father Richard supported him in the decision. It must have been a controversial choice to make in a devout family.”
Mrs Justice Denham told the Large Room gathering that John progressed to the King’s Inns in 1916 to become a barrister and was admitted to the college a few months after the Easter Rising. Come November 1919, he was called to the bar by Lord Chief Justice Thomas Molony.
Politically, he remained true to his father’s Irish Parliamentary Party roots and would canvass for Captain Willie Redmond in the March 1918 Waterford bye-election following the death of John, Captain Willie’s father. Captain Redmond would go to defeat Sinn Féin and retain the ‘Redmondite seat’, taking almost 62 per cent of the vote, a success extensively reported upon by The Munster Express at the time.
Having served in the Free State Army during the Civil War in 1921, from which he was decommissioned in 1923, Mr Hearne became Deputy Parliamentary Draftsman in November of that year, and would work out of the Attorney General’s office for five years.
From there, he went on to work as an Assistant in the Department of External (Foreign) Affairs, attending Commonwealth Conferences and was also a mandated representative at the League of Nations.
Mrs Justice Denham outlined John Hearne’s commitment to public service, best exemplified by his working relationship with Eamon de Valera, with whom he would have been ideologically opposed on several fronts.
After De Valera came to power in 1932, it was evident that he would be keen to create a new Constitution given his opposition to the Oath of Allegiance, and that he duly did via Bunreacht na hÉireann (1937), which John Hearne played a huge role in drafting.
“Mr Justice Hogan of the High Court has written of how John Hearne produced such an elegant and comprehensive document, single-handedly, within a short time frame, and that is a tribute to his skill and imagination as a constitution drafter,” said Mrs Justice Denham.
“Five of the fifty articles of the Constitution are devoted to Fundamental Rights. I have stated previously that the Constitution was ahead of its time.”
She continued: “It is clear from the documents now available from the archives that the drafters of the Constitution, de Valera and Hearne understood the power structure being established. It was a visionary approach to a democracy with three organs of State, where the Superior Courts were entrusted with judicial review of legislation. The Constitution is a living entity in the sense that it must be construed as of its time.”
Referring to its composition, Mrs Justice Denham said: “He worked (at home) in the late hours of the night and early morning. His son. Maurice recalled how his mother used to stay up late making countless pots of tea and plates and sandwiches while his father and Eamon de Valera worked on the draft Constitution in the family home. The first printed draft was ready on 15th March 1937.” And it was adapted by Referendum later that year.
Two years later, John Hearne was appointed as Ireland’s High Commissioner to Canada, the first role he held in what would prove a stellar diplomatic career, and in 1945, in recognition of his service to the State, he earned the Freedom of Waterford city.
In 1950, he was appointed by Taoiseach John A Costello as Irish Ambassador to the United States, the first Irishman to hold such a distinguished post and remained in Washington until 1960.
Said the Chief Justice: “Hearne did important work in improving the relationship between Ireland and the US, which was strained because of our neutrality during World War II and by not joining NATO.
“On St Patrick’s Day 1952, John Hearne presented a small box of shamrock to President Truman, and started the tradition of the Shamrock Ceremony with the Taoiseach and US President in the White House each year. He organised the successful first visit of an Irish President, President Sean T Ó Ceallaigh, in 1959.”
In the final decade of his life, John Hearne worked as a legislative consultant to the governments of Nigeria and Ghana in the wake of their independence, which he was encouraged to do by then Taoiseach Sean Lemass.
On March 29th, 1969, John Hearne died at the age of 76, conscious and proud of his Waterford upbringing and lineage throughout his esteemed legal and diplomatic career.
“John Hearne treasured his links with Waterford,” said Mrs Justice Denham. “He grew up learning about local figures such as Thomas Francis Meagher, the man who is synonymous with our National Flag, the tricolour…
“It was not until 1937 that the flag was formally recognised by the State in Article 7 of the Constitution. John Hearne would have been conscious of this in discussions with Eamon de Valera, and how coincidental it was that another Waterford man should have been involved in restoring the tricolour in this way.”
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Mrs Justice Denham concluded, “John Hearne was a patriot. Waterford can be proud of him, and his legacy, which continues to benefit Ireland today.”