by ehistoryadmin on April 27, 2023

No Ordinary Woman. Hetty Behan of Rathangan

Karel Kiely

Harriett (Hetty) Behan was born on 27 January 1903, at Rathangan, Co. Kildare, daughter of Patrick Behan (labourer) and Julia Lee. She first worked for the Pig Marketing Board. A founder member of Fianna Fail, she was later employed with James O’Mara and Sons, bacon merchants, Limerick, and then the Irish Press newspaper. She worked for Sean T. O’Kelly when he was a T.D. for a Dublin constituency, before working as a member of the staff of the Leader of the Opposition (Eamon de Valera) and Opposition Whips, and later as private secretary to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Taoiseach, Padraig O‘hAnnrachain. He described her as “… the late Hetty Behan who was the unofficial Chief Whip of the Party and a very close friend of Sean T. O’Ceallaigh[1]”.[2] Hetty retired in February 1974.[3]

Hetty Behan died suddenly on 29 April 1974 at her residence, 8 Clarke’s Terrace, Dublin, and was buried in St. Patrick’s Cemetery, Rathangan. She was survived by two brothers, Joseph (Dublin), Michael (Castleisland, Co. Kerry), sisters, Mrs. Brigid Maher (Rathangan), Mrs. Margaret Meaney (Kells, Co. Meath), Mrs. May O’Neill (Sligo) and Miss Daisy Behan, Rathangan. Her Requiem Mass at St. Mary’s, Haddington Road, Dublin, was attended by the leader of Fianna Fail, Mr. Jack Lynch, and Mr. de Valera, the former President; the Tánaiste, Mr. Brendan Corish and the Minister of Local Government, Mr. James Tully, represented the Government. Almost all the Fianna Fail Oireachtas Party were in attendance, as well as members of the other political parties. The attendance also included Major Vivion de Valera, T.D., Mr. Paddy Smith, T.D., Mr. Michael Hilliard, Mr. Frank Aiken and Mr. Joe Brennan, T.D.[4]

On her death she was described as one of the best-known figures in political circles during the past 40 years. She was a confidence of three successive Fianna Fail taoisigh, Eamon de Valera, Seán Lemass and Jack Lynch, who gave the oration at her graveside in Rathangan.  He said “the passing of Hetty Behan is a tremendous loss to us all and to her country …. She gave wonderful service to the implementation of the institutions of the state and to Fianna Fail”. He thanked people from all parties, including members of the government who attended the removal and funeral. “Their presence showed how popular she was with people on all side of the political divide. We are going to miss her.” A member of the original Irish Press staff in September 1931, Hetty went to work for Fianna Fail shortly after it formed its first government in 1932. In 1948 she joined the office of the Parliamentary Secretary to the Taoiseach, assisting the Government Chief Whip during the terms of the three Taoiseach already mentioned. [5]

Her knowledge of parliamentary procedure was complete, and she was regularly consulted by deputies not only of Fianna Fail but of all parties in difficult procedural points. She could claim to have had the friendship of more deputies from all sides of the House than any other person. [6] It was said that for years Miss Behan and the late Gerry Sweetman, Fine Gael Chief Whip, and Deputy for Kildare “ran” the Dáil between them.[7]

Her brother, Tom Behan was a prominent member of the local Irish Volunteers in Rathangan. He was born on 20 July 1890 at Rathangan, and lived at Bridge Street, Rathangan. He joined the Irish Foresters when a branch was formed locally in 1915. In the aftermath of the Easter Rising of 1916 he was arrested on 29 April and held in the Curragh Camp and Richmond Barracks, Dublin; he was deported on 13 May to Wakefield Barracks, England, and released before August 1916. He was appointed as First Lieutenant, Rathangan Company on the reorganisation of the Irish Volunteers in 1917. Tom took part in the Allen ambush on 20 March 1921. On the night of 11 May 1921, he took part in a gun attack on an RIC patrol on the Kildare Road near Rathangan, and evaded capture. He was appointed Intelligence Officer for 7th Brigade, 1st Eastern Division, on its formation in April 1921. Tom was arrested on 11 July 1921, interned at the Rath Camp, The Curragh, and released on 8 December 1921. A member of the Rathbride Column he was arrested at Mooresbridge, Kildare, on 13 December 1922 and ‘shot dead while trying to escape,’ from a hut at Hare Park Camp, the Curragh. Some reports record that Tom was beaten to death at the scene of his arrest. He was buried in Rathangan Old Cemetery. Spenser’s (Ballon) Bridge was renamed Tom Behan Bridge in August 1939 when a plaque was unveiled by the National Graves Association.

Irish Press, 20 February 1974. Fianna Fáil tribute to Miss Behan. Left to right Mrs. J. Lynch. Senator Kit Ahern, Mr. David Andrews T.D., Miss Hetty Behan, Mr. A. A. Healy T.D., Mrs. Celia Lynch T.D., Mr. Jack Lynch, leader of Fianna Fáil.


[1] Sean T. O’Ceallaigh (25 August 1882 – 23 November 1966); one of the founders of Sinn Féin; launched and edited the “Nation”. Elected to Dáil Éireann in 1918 and Speaker of the First Dáil Éireann, 1919-21. Vice President of the Executive Council (the Government) of the Irish Free State from 1932-38; Minister for Local Government and Public Health 1932-1939; Tánaiste (Deputy Head of Government) 1938-1945 and Minister for Finance 1939-1945. He became the second President of Ireland on 25 June 1945.

[2] Irish Press, 14.10.1982, p. 18, Irish Newspaper Archive

[3] Irish Independent, 12.07.1951, p. 7, Irish Newspaper Archive

[4] Irish Press, 02.05.1974, p. 7, Irish Newspaper Archive

[5] Topic Westmeath (Former Midland), 30.05.1974, p. 10, Irish Newspaper Archive

[6] Irish Press, 30.04.1974, p. 7, Irish Newspaper Archive

[7] Leinster Leader, 18 May 1974 p. 6, Kildare Local Studies, Genealogy and Archives

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