Call for Carrickfergus-born Sean Lester to be honoured

By Stephen Walker
BBC NI political reporter

image captionSean Lester incurred the wrath of German dictator Adolf Hitler as the Nazis tried to seize power across Europe

A Carrickfergus-born diplomat who opposed the Nazis in the 1930s should be honoured, according to a historian and author.

Dr Paul McNamara said Sean Lester, who was the last secretary general of the League of Nations, has been overlooked and his contribution to history has been forgotten.

Mr Lester, who was born in 1888, worked as a journalist in Bangor, County Down, and Portadown, County Armagh, before he began an illustrious diplomatic career first with the Irish government and then the League of Nations.

He was high commissioner in the Baltic port of Danzig and incurred the wrath of German dictator Adolf Hitler as the Nazis tried to seize power across Europe.

Dr McNamara said he would like to see a street named after the diplomat or a postage stamp created to mark Sean Lester's life.

Speaking in a BBC Radio Ulster documentary A League of His Own, Dr McNamara said the County Antrim diplomat has been ignored.

"We have a tendency to celebrate some pretty tenuous links with some great events, and here we have a person who's in the cockpit of diplomacy in one of the big trouble spots of Europe in the 1930s," he said.

Fascinating figure

Mr Lester was a fascinating figure. He was from a unionist background and was a pupil at Methodist College in Belfast.

At an early age he became interested in Irish nationalism and changed his name from John to Sean. He joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood but later rejected the use of violence.

Mr Lester's only surviving daughter, Patricia Kilroy, was with her father in Danzig in the 1930s and she remembers how tense those times were.

The family telephone was bugged, their letters were read and visitors to the building were photographed and often followed.

Yells in the night

They were dangerous times. Patricia Kilroy recalled that "even as a child I noticed sometimes there would be yells in the night".

She added that "anybody anti-Nazi had a difficult time".

She thinks her father's work with the League Of Nations has largely been forgotten.

Speaking in her Dublin home, she told the BBC, "a man of peace never gets the accolades that a warrior or a fighter gets".

During his time in Danzig, Mr Lester opposed Nazi attempts to limit freedom of speech and he criticised moves by Hitler to silence his political opponents.

The diplomat incurred the wrath of Hitler, who called for Mr Lester to be removed by the League of Nations.

image captionMr Lester's daughter Patricia Kilroy and grand-daughter Lucy Kilroy

His grandson John Gageby says his grandfather showed great courage.

"He was in the right place at the right time," he said. He added that he was a good negotiator and "a very good human being".

Mr Lester's granddaughter Lucy Kilroy said the Nazis loathed her grandfather. She told the BBC ,"they absolutely hated him" and said he "was the most despised man in Germany".

Sean Lester finally left Danzig and spent the war years in Geneva where he was the last secretary-general of the League of Nations before the United Nations was created in 1945.

He retired to Ireland where he spent his final years with his family and he enjoyed many hours fishing, which was his favourite past-time.

He was once talked about as a future president of Ireland but rejected any idea of running for office. He recorded in his diary at the time that "a non-political president is rather unlikely ".

Earlier this year, historian Dr Eamon Phoenix helped the Ulster History Circle unveil a plaque on Belfast's Ormeau Road, where Sean Lester lived as a schoolboy.

Dr Phoenix thinks Sean Lester should be regarded as a major figure.

He told the BBC: "He is the most famous Ulsterman probably to grace the international stage, even though most people in Carrickfergus, where he was born, or Belfast, where he was reared, would hardly know him."

Mr Lester died in 1959 three months shy of his 71st birthday.