John J. Hearne casts a watchful eye over Constitution Square in the Viking Triangle.
A native of Waterford, Mr. Hearne (1893-1969) was credited by Éamon de Valera as having been the architect-in-chief and draftsman of the Irish Constitution of 1937. He has been referred to as “Ireland’s Thomas Jefferson”.
John Joseph Hearne was born in Waterford City on 4th of December 1893, the child of Richard Hearne and Alice Mary Hearne (nee Power). He was the fourth son and the sixth of seven children. The family resided at 8 William Street, Waterford. Richard Hearne was one of the owners of Hearne and Cahill, boot manufacturers, with a factory located at 15 Broad Street, Waterford.
Richard Hearne was a prominent citizen in the city and served as mayor on two occasions between 1901 and 1903.
John Hearne attended Waterpark College, run by the Irish Christian Brothers, which was located near his home. He entered University College, Dublin, where he received BA and LLB degrees. These were
years which witnessed the rise of Sinn Féin and the political mood of the college reflected this. Hearne, however, continued to support the Irish Party. This was not entirely surprising, given the fact that its leader, until his death in March 1918, was John Redmond, who represented Waterford City in the Westminster Parliament.
He spent some years in St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, training for the priesthood before leaving to study for the bar at King’s Inns. In 1919 he was called to the bar. In 1922, with the outbreak of civil war, Hearne joined the Free State Army. He was appointed command legal officer of the Western Command with the rank of commandant on 12 October, in circumstances described by Calton Younger:
Sean McEoin had recently been promoted to major-general and appointed GOC of the Western Command, an appointment he accepted reluctantly. He was a man of action and didn’t want to be tied down by administrative work. He would accept the command, he told Michael Collins, only if he were given a legal officer and a quartermaster. Collins quickly produced John Hearne, who was rushed down to O’Callaghan’s, the military outfitters, where he exchanged his natty lawyer’s dress for an army uniform. Having been issued with a large revolver, he took his place in McEoin’s car to travel to Athlone. As they set off, Hearne suddenly realised that McEoin had no escort and asked rather anxiously where it was. McEoin laughed. ‘Haven’t I got you?’ he said and, pointing to the revolver added, ‘and that’.
Hearne remained in the army until 19th November 1923, when he resigned his commission.
Hearne entered the civil service in that year as assistant parliamentary draftsman in the Office of the Attorney General, a position which gave him the expertise later used to draft the constitution. In the autumn of 1937 Hearne was made a senior counsel in recognition of his work on the constitution and in 1939 he was called to the inner bar. In that same year he was appointed Ireland’s first High Commissioner to Canada, a position he held until 1949. From 1950-60 he served as ambassador to the United States. Retiring from the diplomatic service in 1960, he returned to the parliamentary draftsman’s office for a brief period in November 1960, remaining there for one year. Hearne died on 29 March 1969, aged seventy-six years. President Éamon de Valera attended his funeral mass and burial.
The new Irish constitution was drafted and adopted at a time when democracy was under threat in many European states and totalitarianism on the rise. In 1937 Hearne acknowledged the conflict between two opposing systems of government: This constitution is presented for the approval of the Dail and the country at a juncture in human affairs which has no parallel in the annals of mankind. The world is in the throes of a conflict of political philosophies which has divided it into two academies and bids fair to divide it into two camps.
In the context of the spread of totalitarian government, an aspect of the constitution was the recognition accorded to the Jewish congregations in Ireland. This was a unique feature, the only constitutional provision in the world, then or since, to give such express recognition. And this was done ‘at a time in history when the greatest agony of that people had already begun in Europe’. It was certainly appreciated by the representatives of Dublin’s Jewish community, as was made clear in a letter to de Valera: They note with the greatest satisfaction and due appreciation that the ‘Jewish congregations’ are included in the clause giving equal recognition to the religious bodies in Eire: and they respectfully tender congratulations on the production of such a fair and just document.
John Hearne was one of the most distinguished civil servants in the history of the Irish state, who has left an enduring legacy to later generations. He played a fundamental role in the making of the 1937 constitution. His consummate skills and expertise facilitated the realisation of de Valera’s vision and the production of a document which enshrines principles of democracy and personal liberty. As a lawyer, he had a profound understanding and sense of what a constitution and laws mean in the life of a free people, writing in 1937 words that had meaning then, and still have meaning now, largely because they were written by a man who exemplified the best qualities of professional dedication and commitment in the service of the citizens of the Irish state: During a long period of our history, the whole of our national effort has been a struggle to secure for our people the right to make their own laws. It was inspired by the purpose of a people possessing an ancient civilisation and the consciousness of a great future, that their national laws should not only be made by themselves, but should be made to foster and reflect the social and political order of a distinct Irish commonwealth. A nation’s laws are as much part of its national life as are its language, its literature, its arts and its particular outlook upon the great public questions of the age.
The supreme tribute was paid to John J. Hearne by Éamon de Valera. In a copy of the constitution presented to him by the president on Constitution Day, 29th December 1937, the day the constitution came into operation, de Valera wrote the following dedication: ‘To Mr John Hearne, architect-in-chief and draftsman of this constitution, as a souvenir of the successful issue of his work and in testimony of the fundamental part he took in framing this, the first free constitution of the Irish people’.
Courtesy of Dr. Eugene Broderick