- 1935-2003 (Accumulation)
Level of description
Extent and medium
2 boxes and metal case
Name of creator
John Ernest Lester was born on 27 September 1888 in Carrickfergus, County Antrim, to Robert John Lester and Henrietta Mary Lester (née Ritchie). The Lesters owned a grocery shop on the Ormeau Road, Belfast, and Seán attended the Methodist College in Belfast until the age of 14 when he began working for the Belfast & County Down Railway in Bangor. Due to being colour-blind, he was forced to leave his railway job and began a career in journalism with the unionist North Down Herald newspaper in 1905, where one of his colleagues was Ernest Blythe. In the next few years he would go on to work for several newspapers including the Dublin Evening Mail, the Dublin Daily Express, and the Galway Connaught Tribune. During this period, he developed an interest in Irish nationalism and politics, Lester joined the Gaelic League, and subsequently the Irish Republican Brotherhood in 1908 and Sinn Féin in 1909. It was around this time Lester changed his name to Seán. Lester was with Eóin MacNeill in 1916 when the Rising began and therefore did not take part in the fighting. He began working at the Freeman's Journal that year as chief reporter and then as news editor covering the ensuing significant years which saw the War of Independence, foundation of the Irish Free State, and Civil War.
Lester's friend and previous colleague, Ernest Blythe, who was by now Minister for Finance, suggested that Lester should join the Department of External Affairs, and thus in 1923, Lester took Blythe up on his suggestion and began working as Director of Publicity. He quickly rose up the ranks to the third highest position in the department, and in 1929, was chosen to act as Ireland's Permanent Delegate to the League of Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. Despite his reservations about his age (he took up his post at the age of forty), not being able to speak any languages other than English or Irish, or that he had never been abroad before, Lester quickly established himself as a diplomat of note in Geneva and worked towards getting the Irish Free State elected onto the influential League Council, which he achieved in 1930. His distinguished work for the Council and with various League committees in the following years led to his being seconded from the Irish service to the position of High Commissioner of the League of Nations in Danzig [Gdansk, Poland] in 1933.
As High Commissioner, Lester came under increasing pressure over the next few years to maintain the authority of the League of Nations in the region, as the Nazis gradually gained more and more power. Following an increasing policy of intimidation and undermining of Lester’s authority by the Nazis, which included placing guards around his house and questioning those who visited him, Lester was promoted to Deputy Secretary General of the League of Nations in Geneva and left Danzig in December 1936.
With the outbreak of the Second World War, Lester struggled to keep the League headquarters in Geneva running as its staff and resources were slashed, various sections were moved to Princeton, USA, and Montreal, Canada, and the pro-Nazi Secretary General, Joseph Avenol, resigned and left for Vichy France in August 1940. Lester then assumed the role of Acting Secretary General of the League, and courageously held out in Geneva with a skeleton staff and limited resources until the end of the war. At the final assembly of the League in April 1946, he was awarded the title of Secretary General, retrospective from 1940. His final task as Secretary General was to formally dissolve the League and dispose of its assets.
Lester returned to Ireland and retired initially to County Wicklow and then to Recess, County Galway, where he indulged his passion for fishing and spent the remainder of his days. He had received the Woodrow Wilson award in 1945 for his courageous service to the League of Nations during the war, and received honorary doctorates from Dublin University and the National University of Ireland in 1947.
The Seán Lester Diaries were donated to Dublin City University by Patricia Kilroy and Ann Gorski, daughters of Seán Lester, on behalf of the Lester family in 2008. The diaries had a remarkable journey in getting to this final destination: as the Second World War progressed and fearing that the Nazis could invade Switzerland at any moment, Lester placed his diaries in a metal case (which also forms part of the collection at DCU) and buried this case next to a bench in the Palais des Nations, the headquarters of the League of Nations in Geneva. This accounts for why the diary entries stop in 1942. After the war ended, Lester dug up the case of diaries and returned with them to Ireland. The diaries were then kept in the possession of the Lester and Kilroy families.
Immediate source of acquisition or transfer
Content and structure area
Scope and content
The collection mainly consists of eleven diaries written by Seán Lester from 1935- 1942 when he was High Commissioner of the League of Nations in Danzig [Gdansk, Poland], then Deputy and subsequently General Secretary of the League of Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. Lester's diary entries and the numerous letters, telegrams and other documents included in the diaries give an invaluable insight into his work in the League of Nations, the momentous historical events that were taking place, and his personal thoughts and struggles during this period. The first diary opens with the following entry by Lester written in October 1935: 'So I've opened a diary at last, the odds are against a dozen entries.' In fact, Lester would go on to write hundreds of entries over the next few years, recording the background workings of the League 5 of Nations with accounts of meetings, public events, conversations with political leaders and diplomats, transcripts of telephone calls, copies of letters he sent, and many of the letters he received and pasted into the pages of the diaries. They provide an invaluable insight into some of the most significant historical events during this period, including the rise of the Nazis in Danzig, the increasing persecution of Jews, the failed attempts to appease Hitler in the run-up to war, and the eventual outbreak of the Second World War.
They also chart Lester's career in the League of Nations as it developed in tandem with these events: the increasing pressure and intimidation he faced as High Commissioner in Danzig from the Nazis as they undermined the authority of the League, his promotion in late 1936 to Deputy Secretary General in Geneva (essentially as a form of appeasement to the Nazis), and his assuming the role of Acting Secretary General of the League after Joseph Avenol left Geneva for Vichy France in 1940. The diaries also show his courage and determination to keep the League (albeit, only its basic functions) running throughout the course of the Second World War.
Details of Lester's personal life and struggles during this period are also recorded, particularly the torment and loneliness he felt being separated from his wife Elsie and three daughters Dorothy Mary, Ann and Patricia following their evacuation from Geneva to Ireland in 1940. Ireland is never far from his thoughts during the period, and the diaries feature numerous correspondence with Irish friends, accounts of brief trips home for Christmas and family holidays to Connemara in the years up to 1940, and reflections on Irish current affairs and political figures. One of the most notable entries in the diaries is Lester's extensive account of his meeting with James Joyce and his family in Geneva in December 1940. The Joyce family had fled their home in Paris the previous May and sought Lester's help in obtaining a visa for their daughter Lucia; the Nazis had refused to issue her with a visa and she remained in a mental health clinic in German-occupied France. A related letter from Joyce to Lester prior to this meeting is also included in the diaries, as is correspondence between Lester and members of the Joyce family and friends following the death of James Joyce in Zurich less than a month later.
The collection also includes a metal case in which Lester – fearing that the Nazis could invade Switzerland at any moment – placed his diaries before burying them next to a bench in the Palais des Nations, the headquarters of the League of Nations in Geneva. This may account for why the diary entries stop in 1942. Also included in the collection is an address book kept by Lester during the period of the diaries, and a television documentary about Lester written and presented by John Bowman which includes a segment on the diaries.
Appraisal, destruction and scheduling
System of arrangement
Numerous letters, telegrams, cards, newspaper cuttings and other documents were pasted, stapled or simply inserted loosely by Lester into the leaves of the diaries. As far as is possible, the original order of these items in the diaries has been maintained and/or recorded. Any loose items that could potentially fall out of the diaries during consultation, or material that needed to be removed from the diaries for conservation reasons, have been rehoused in archival folders.
Sometimes the dates of the correspondence inserted by Lester into the diaries does not match up with the dates of the diary entries – this is usually due to the fact that letters were received at a later date (once war broke out, letters often arrived weeks or months after they were posted). Lester also sometimes places a letter with a diary entry discussing similar topics. The covering dates for the individual diaries do not always lead cleanly from one to another – some covering dates overlap, usually due to correspondence with earlier or later dates being inserted in with the diary entries. Again, the original order of the correspondence has been maintained but it is possible that some of the loose material fell out of the diaries at some point over the years before they were donated to DCU and was placed into a new location in the diaries.
Each digitised diary is linked below in its original order and combined as PDF
Conditions of access and use area
Conditions governing access
Available by appointment with the archivist at DCU Library Special Collections & Archives.
Conditions governing reproduction
Language of material
Script of material
Language and script notes
Physical characteristics and technical requirements
Numerous items are written or typed on very thin paper which could tear or crease very easily from handling. Many of the letters and other documents that were inserted into the diaries are crumpled in parts from being exposed from the edges of the diaries. Numerous letters and diary entries are handwritten and can be difficult to read in parts. A finding aid and quite accurate transcriptions of the majority of the diaries are available on the UN Archives in Geneva website. See: Pp 274 Sean Lester's Diary, 1935-1947 (Series) (https://biblio-archive.unog.ch/Detail.aspx?ID=32586). Diary P1/3 does not appear to been included in these transcriptions.
A finding aid is available on the DCU Library website and in the DCU Library Special Collections & Archives reading room.
Another finding aid and transcriptions of the majority of the diaries are available on the UN Archives in Geneva website. See: Pp 274 Sean Lester's Diary, 1935-1947 (Series) (https://biblio-archive.unog.ch/Detail.aspx?ID=32586). Diary P1/3 does not appear to been included in this finding aid.
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Allied materials area
Existence and location of originals
Existence and location of copies
Related units of description
Gageby, Douglas. The Last Secretary General: Seán Lester and the League of Nations. Dublin: Town House, 1999.
McNamara, Paul. Sean Lester, Poland and the Nazi Takeover of Danzig. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2009.
Walters, FP. A History of the League of Nations. London: Oxford University Press, 1952.
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Finding aid prepared January 2019.
Felix Meehan, Archivist, Special Collections and Archives, DCU Library.