Friday, October 17, 2008

Sean Lester and the League

Some diaries written by Sean Lester, one of Ireland’s most distinguished statesmen and the last Secretary General of the League of Nations, have just been donated to Dublin City University. They cover a period when he was working for the League of Nations, and his first years as its Secretary General. They will only be open to the public in five years time. However, other diaries of his, covering the same period, are held by the United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG) Library, and much of the text is available online.

Wikipedia gives a short biography of Lester, as does the UNOG Library website. Born in County Antrim, in 1888, he was an Ulster Protestant, but, already as a youth, turned to Irish Nationalism and joined the Gaelic League, and then the Irish Republican Brotherhood. He worked as a journalist for a number of northern papers, before moving to Dublin, where he rose to become news editor of Freeman’s Journal. After the War of Independence (ended 1921), Lester took a job in the Irish Free State government as Director of Publicity, and then, in 1923, moved to the Department of External Affairs.

In 1929, Lester was made Ireland’s permanent representative at the League of Nations in Geneva, but later was seconded to the organisation and became its High Commissoner for Danzig (a Free City, at the time, under the auspices of the League, and the scene of growing tensions between Germany and Poland) from 1933 to 1937. He was then appointed Deputy Secretary General, and, in 1940, to the top job, as Secretary General. Subsequently, he oversaw the League’s winding down and the transfer of its functions to the United Nations. On returning to Ireland, he declined to seek any permanent office; and died in 1959.

Earlier this month, Dublin City University Library announced that it had received a donation of ‘a collection’ of Lester’s diaries, covering the period 1935 to 1941. In a short statement, the university said it is ‘extremely grateful to Sean Lester’s daughters Ann and Patricia, and the Kilroy and Gageby families for this remarkable gift’, and that the documents will become publicly available after a period of five years - i.e. in 2013.

However, lots of Lester’s diary writing is already freely available on the internet, thanks to the UNOG Library, which already holds a collection of Lester material. At the heart of this collection, the Library says, is Lester’s diary written between 1935 and 1946, when he served with the League. His notes, the Library says, were inspired by ‘minor and major events, the working of the League of Nations, personalities he met, political developments, some family matters, and fishing’. A large part of the journal (1935-1941) was hand-written in note-books, the rest was typed on loose-leafs by Lester himself or his secretary, with date and place and often annotated ‘private’, or ‘secret’, or ‘confidential’.

After Lester’s death in 1959, these notes were mislaid and presumed to be lost. However, the Library explains, in 1980 an important part of his journal was found covering much of 1935-1941. It was then thought that this was all that had survived. They were, therefore, copied and bound together with some less interesting papers. Subsequently three more batches of papers turned up including the rest of his journal for 1934-1946, and all his other papers from 1929 to 1959. But even this material, the Library further explains, which was bound into a second volume, is by no means complete, even for the 1935-1941 period. Some time later, a further box of papers, covering most of Lester’s life, was found, including ‘private diary entries, general S. Lester’s notes, correspondence, press, etc.’ In fact, some of the most important papers for 1935-1941 were among them and are not therefore in the two volumes, the Library says (for instance, as regards ‘the 1936 crisis’).

The two bound volumes (as described above) were donated to the UNOG Library in 1981 by ‘Sean Lester’s daughters: Dorothy Mary Gageby, Patricia Kilroy and Ann Gorski’. And the text of these diaries, at least from 1935 to 1941, is available on the Library’s website. Here are two short extracts from nearly 70 years ago.

14 November 1938
Mother died on November 7th, just over 86 years of age. I had been with her a week before, but had returned to Geneva. She was the sweetest, the most unselfish, and most Christian soul, I have known. Her kindness and charity, unswerving faith, devotion, and love made her shine like a lamp in darkness.

16 November 1938
Following the assassination of a Secretary at the German Embassy in Paris by a frenzied Polish-Jewish youth of 17, whose parents had been maltreated, the Nazis launched a pogrom, burning synagogues and destroying houses and shops and imprisoning thousands of poor wretches. Then a fine of 1,000,000,000 marks as a levy on what is left of Jewish property, compulsory restoration of property destroyed, prior to turning it over to Aryans, expulsion from all retail trades, etc, etc. The world has been aghast - horrified once more by the monster. And one looks to see Chamberlain’s difficulties in a policy of appeasement still further increased.

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