Secretary-General of the League of Nations
1940 – 1947
Seán Lester was born in Carrickfergus, Co Antrim, in 1888, and his family moved to Belfast when his father opened a grocery business on the Ormeau Road. After attending Methodist College, in 1905 he started work as a journalist on the North Down Herald in Bangor. It was around this time he changed his first name from John to Seán, in line with his nationalist beliefs. He joined the Gaelic League and the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and then Sinn Féin, and always considered that nationalism was not for Irish Catholics alone.
Seán Lester next worked on newspapers in Dublin, including the Freeman’s Journal. In 1920 he married Elizabeth Tyrrell, daughter of a Belfast alderman, and they had three daughters. After becoming Director of Publicity for the Department of External Affairs of the Irish Free State, in 1929, in a move that shaped his further career, Lester was appointed Ireland’s permanent representative at the League of Nations in Geneva. He played a central role in his country’s election to the League’s council, and subsequently chaired committees for international conflict resolution.
Seconded to the service of the League, in 1934 Lester became High Commissioner in the League-controlled free city of Danzig (Gdansk). He attempted a compromise between the German and Polish populations, and worked hard to protect the city against Nazism. When he protested against the oppression of non-Germans by the Nazi-controlled City Assembly, Lester became the subject of a harsh intimidation campaign. He resigned in 1937 and returned to Geneva. His courageous stance in Danzig is remembered in Poland still.
Lester was made deputy Secretary-General of the League, but its power was greatly weakened by political upheaval. After the outbreak of war in 1939, the French Secretary-General Joseph Avenol wanted to capitulate with the axis forces that he saw as the eventual victors. Lester and he clashed, and Avenol resigned. Seán Lester became acting Secretary-General in September 1940, but it was a thankless task. Lester considered that keeping the League going until the post-war period was the hardest time of his life. He was under considerable strain at work and was separated from his family in Ireland. In April 1946 he presided over the final assembly of the League, working on its administrative liquidation until August 1947, when he left Geneva. He was retrospectively made Secretary-General of the League from 1940-1947.
Seán Lester retired to Connemara to fish and garden. He received an honorary doctorate from Trinity College, Dublin in 1947 and another from the National University of Ireland in 1948. For his distinguished service in maintaining the League through the war, in 1945 he received the Woodrow Wilson Foundation award. Although the League of Nations failed in its ambition to prevent further world conflict, in his work for the League Seán Lester embodied the best ideals of international co-operation. He died in hospital in Galway on 13 June 1959, and is buried at Christ Church in Clifden.
Location of plaque: 164 Ormeau Road, Belfast
Date of unveiling: 22 February 2013
Radio Coverage on 22 February 2013
Report of Plaque unveiling available HERE