The Republic of Ireland is a parliamentary democracy, modelled after that of the United Kingdom. As such, the head of government is the Prime Minister, though in Ireland that post is always referred to by its Irish language equivalent of Taoiseach (tee-shuck, literally means Chief) even in English. The term "Prime Minister" is only used by foreign media, and occasionally foreign leaders, as the word "Taoiseach" would simply fall on confused ears when spoken outside of Ireland. It is for this same reason that this page is titled "Prime Ministers of Ireland" rather than "Taoisighnote of Ireland".
The post was officially created in December 1937, replacing the existing (but functionally identical) title of President of the Executive Council. Though Eamon de Valera was the first person to hold the title "An Taoiseach", his predecessor as President, W. T. Cosgrave, is usually included in historical rankings.
The current (and 14th) Taoiseach is Leo Varadkar, who has held the role since June 2017.
While never actually Taoiseach (he instead held the predecessor role of President of the Executive Council), William Thomas Cosgrave (1880—1965) is usually restrospectively considered the first, as the role was pretty much the same. Often overlooked in favour of his much more famous successor, Cosgrave's largest accomplishment was stabilising the new, confused and violent Irish Free State. In the space of ten years he transformed a nation ravaged by civil war to a fledgling democracy with a budding economy and stable infrastructure. Cosgrave himself was amazed at how well this worked. He retired from politics in 1944 and died in 1965. His son Liam would later serve as Taoiseach from 1973 to 1977.
His Cumann na nGaedheal party would later merge with the Catholic Centre Party and the quasi-fascist Blueshirts to become Fine Gael.
The most well-known (and longest lasting) of past Taoisigh, "Dev" (1882—1975) as he was affectionately known cast a huge shadow over Irish politics which is still there to this day. The current Irish constitution was largely drafted by him in the 1930s; he founded the Fianna Fáil party which has had political dominance for much of the state's existence (though with the direction they're currently headed, that may not last much longer); his protectionist economic policies resulted in an economic war with Britain, which put Ireland's development back a decade or two; he kept Ireland out of World War II, which many historians agree was the right decision to make to defend the still fledgling state; and he maintained a view of Ireland as a quaint rural nation filled with community spirit (and comely maidens). After stepping down from the Dáil in 1959, he became President (a figurehead position) until finally retiring completely in 1973. He died two years later, and an era of Irish politics was over.
His granddaughter Síle de Valera served in the Dáil until 2007, while his grandson Eamon O Cuív has held many cabinet positions.
Portrayed by Alan Rickman in the 1996 film Michael Collins.
John A. Costello (1891—1976) was simply a regular Fine Gael TD (Irish MP) who wanted to see his party in power. Then, in 1948, his party did get in to power, and he found himself in charge. The actual leader of Fine Gael, Richard Mulachy, carried too much baggage from the Civil War for others to accept him as Taoiseach, so Costello was chosen as a compromise. Between 1948 and 1951, and again from 1954 to 1957, Costello headed a motley band of parties in so-called "Inter-Party Governments", where the parties' only uniting factor was a desire to keep Fianna Fáil out of power. As any politician will tell you, coalitions are dangerous because the other party could quickly withdraw support over a key issue, causing the government to collapse. With a coalition of five parties, Costello had this problem turned Up to Eleven. Nonetheless, his administration has a large legacy on the state: it was Costello who declared that the Irish Free State would leave The Commonwealth of Nations and become a Republic, and in 1949 he did just that, establishing the modern Republic of Ireland.
Having spent decades as de Valera's right hand man, Seán Lemass (1899—1971) finally gained leadership of Fianna Fáil — and the nation — when Dev retired to the presidency. He abandoned the old protectionist policies of his predecessor and began Ireland's transformation to a modern industrial power in the 1960s. His efforts received worldwide recognition, and he is the only Taoiseach besides de Valera to be featured on the cover of Time magazine. He was also the last person from the Civil War era to hold the office, a fact he illustrated by promoting many fresh young faces to his cabinet, hearalding the end of the "Old Guard" generation in frontline politics. He's widely recognized for his pragmatism and his vision of Ireland as a modern European country with an industrial, export-orientated economy — in other words, exactly what happened, so some (including some Fine Gael members!) see him as the main architect of modern Ireland. He died in 1971.
The first Taoiseach without roots in the Civil War, Jack Lynch (1917—1999) enjoyed a fast track career which saw him hold the Education, Industry and Finance portfolios under Lemass, before succeeding him as Taoiseach in 1966. Possibly the least polarising Taoiseach so far, he had an image as a kindly old man, rarely seen without his cap and pipe. One of his first term's signature achievements was negotiating Ireland's entry into the European Economic Community in 1973, alongside the UK and Denmark. Lynch was Taoiseach when The Troubles broke out, and was the first of many Taoisigh who had to deal with the terrorism this would result in. This became a personal nightmare for him when it was discovered one of his own ministers, Charles Haughey, had been involved in running arms to republican groups in Northern Ireland. His reputation was further damaged during his second term, when he faced a backbench revolt over Haughey's re-instatement and policies. He retired in 1979, with Haughey succeeding him.
In his retirement he was well-liked, and turned down the offer of the Presidency in favour of private directorships. He received a number of honours, including the naming of the Jack Lynch road tunnel under the River Lee in Cork. He died in 1999 and his funeral procession attracted huge crowds.
The son of W.T. Cosgrave, Liam Cosgrave (1920—2017) is the only Taoiseach descended from a predecessor. He held office in between Jack Lynch's two terms, and inherited the growing problem in Northern Ireland. As well as this he had a number of his own problems, including the energy and inflation crisis caused by the Yom Kippur War of October 1973, his party's electoral defeat in the presidential election that same year, and the political opposition to his party's planned legalisation of contraceptives, a matter which resulted in Cosgrave (despite being Taoiseach) voted against his own administration in the Dáil. A brief solution to The Troubles ended in failure a year later. Cosgrave was the first Taoiseach to speak before a Joint Session of the United States Congress.
He largely stayed out of public life after his retirement in 1981. In 2010, he made a rare public appearance at the launch of a biography of John A. Costello, his Fine Gael predecessor as Taoiseach. He died in 2017.
Charles J. Haughey (1925—2006) is probably the most polarising of all the people on this list. Opinions on him range from saint to Jerk with a Heart of Gold to Ireland's answer to Richard Nixon. Even before his premiership, he achieved infamy for being one of two government ministers found to be running arms to the IRA during The Troubles. He was dismissed from frontline politics, but staged a return a few years later with grassroots support, much to then Taioseach Jack Lynch's chagrin. He attained the premiership in 1979, and oversaw Ireland's first economic recession in the 1980s. Naturally he was blamed for this, though as well as the typical amount of blame that befalls any national leader during economic hardship, Haughey came in for special criticism. He infamously gave a televised address to the nation in 1980 where he told the public that "we are living well beyond our means", proceeded to crank up government spending, taxation and borrowing for his first two terms, and then introduced severe austerity policies upon returning to power in 1987 - this is a man who was living in an actual mansion and owned his own island.
By the time of his retirement in 1992, his reputation (which had already weathered the economic mismanagement of his first two terms) had been extremely damaged from the revelations. He became subject to numerous tribunals and investigations until his death in 2006. His biggest legacy is the unintended shift in Fianna Fáil's image from patriotic idealists to corrupt greedy politicians.
Taoiseach for those parts of the 80s when Haughey wasn't, Garret FitzGerald (1926—2011) had the advantage over his rival of not being accused of shady financial dealings. He was, however, criticised for being too intellectual at times. He brought the Fine Gael party to its strongest position yet, a feat the party finally repeated and surpassed in 2011. Taking an active interest in the ongoing conflict in Northern Ireland, FitzGerald attempted to co-operate with Margaret Thatcher to find a solution. The resulting Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 fell short of its aims when Thatcher rejected several proposals, and in the end it only really managed to upset both sides.
As well as dealing with The Troubles and the economic crisis, FitzGerald worked on trying to liberalise Irish society. He had only limited success, and a referendum on the legalisation of divorce was defeated in 1986. Nonetheless, his efforts may have played a part in kickstarting the liberalisation that did happen in the 1990s and 2000s.
Retired in 1992, but still attended public engagements despite his advanced age, until his death in 2011.
A government minister under Charles Haughey, Reynolds (1932—2014) became Fianna Fáil leader and Taoiseach after scandals pushed the increasingly unpopular Haughey out of office for the last time. He has had the shortest tenure of any Taoiseach so far, at just two years (other Taoisigh may have had shorter terms, but they at least had more than one). Much of these two years were dogged by controversy, as well as the spectre of corruption visited by Haughey over the party. In 1994, his administration collapsed when it was revealed that the Attorney General had played a part in covering up the actions of a paedophile priest in the country. The Labour Party, who were in coalition with Fianna Fáil, withdrew their support and joined Fine Gael in forming the next government, pending the next general election in 1997.
He retired after the 2002 general election and mostly kept out of public life until his death in August 2014.
John Bruton (b 1947) holds the honour of being the Gerald Ford of Irish politics. When Albert Reynolds' government collapsed in a cloud of corruption allegations due to the defection of the Labour Party, Bruton's Fine Gael formed a new government with them and he became Taoiseach. The Bruton years saw marked economic growth and an improvement in the standard of living, but a worsening situation in Northern Ireland. A series of IRA attacks in London and Manchester, as well as the IRA killing of an Irish police officer had increased the pressure on politicians to do something. Bruton's attempts to end the crisis with diplomacy led to him being dubbed "John Unionist" for his acquiescence to Unionist demands, as well as his rather verbose welcome to Prince Charles when the latter made the first British royal visit to Ireland since independence.
Bruton had high approval ratings and was widely expected to win reelection in 1997, however he lost in a surprise upset to revitalised Fianna Fáil party, now lead by Bertie Ahern. While Fine Gael gained seats, they still finished in second place and coalition partner Labour lost half of their seats, putting Ahern in a better position to form a government. He remained leader of Fine Gael until the party removed him in 2001, and in 2004 left Irish politics to become EU Ambassador to the United States. Since then, Bruton has been active as an elder statesman, having unsuccessfully petitioned for EU Leadership posts and was widely speculated to be candidate in the 2011 Presidential Election, though he eventually declined to run despite possibly having the full support of his party had he did. He has also been an active political commentator who hasn't been shy about sharing his contrarian opinions, which has caused headaches among the political establishment who increasingly wish he'd just shut up and go away. Some of his more unpopular opinions was when he called the 1916 Easter Rising a "mistake and an unjust war" in 2014 and when he came out against the legalization of abortion in 2018, being one of the only high-profile mainstream politicians to oppose it.
Leading Fianna Fáil in a three consecutive terms from 1997 to 2008, Bertie Ahern (b 1951) was, at one time, regarded by many as one of the best Taoisigh the nation has ever seen. He presided over the "Celtic Tiger" period of incredible economic and industrial growth, oversaw the permanent ceasefire of the IRA and end to The Troubles, and helped to establish a power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland. He has been referred to as "the most skilfull, the most devious, the most cunning of them all". This praise came from Charles Haughey.
But the good times were not to last. By the mid to late 2000s, economic forecasters were warning that economic decline — perhaps even a recession — were on the way. Ahern's response to these forecasters was one of complete dismissal. Also around this time, details of shady personal finance deals and unexplained transactions started to surface. While decrying these allegations as unfair personal attacks, Ahern was left with no choice but to stand down as Taoiseach in May 2008. He remained in the Dáil until 2011 and had his eyes on the Presidency. His reputation has been somewhat sullied by his personal revelations, as well as how quickly Ireland's booming economy collapsed into a recession under his watch, though he will argue that none of this is his fault. This tendancy towards arrogant statements, especially in the last few years of his premiership and afterwards, have led to a marked decline in his popularity, to the extent that he wasn't even considered as a candidate for the 2011 presidential election.
He was the first bachelor Taoiseach — a previous marriage had ended in separation some years before he achieved office. For most of his tenure he was in a relationship with businesswoman Celia Larkin, who was once mistakenly introduced by Mexican President Vincente Fox as "the Taoiseach's wife". He has two daughters: Georgina is married to Westlife singer Nicky Byrne, and Cecelia is the best-selling author of P.S. I Love You.
Representing Laois-Offaly in the Dáil between 1984 and 2011, Brian Cowen (b 1960) served in a number of ministerial posts from 1997 up until his appointment as Finance Minister in 2004. Became Taoiseach when Bertie Ahern resigned, and despite initially high approval ratings saw the total collapse of both own and Fianna Fáil's popularity. In early 2011, he stepped aside as leader of Fianna Fáil and announced he would not be contesting his seat in the February election. Neither move did much to appease public anger.
Enda Kenny (b 1951) is notable for several things: at 59 he was the second oldest 'first time' Taoiseach (only Lemass was older) and is the current Father of the Dáil having represented Mayo since 1975. He also initially held the largest majority in the Dáil of any Taoiseach ever thanks to the best ever performance of both Fine Gael and his coalition partners Labour and the worst ever result for Fianna Fáil. He then proceeded to slowly run this advantage into the ground, eventually reaching public approval ratings so low they rivalled the previous government's. However, he did manage to become the first Fine Gael Taoiseach to retain the office (albeit without Labour) when he successfully pulled together a minority government after the 2016 general election.
Enda Kenny's successor as leader of Fine Gael and as Taoiseach, after winning the leadership contest against Simon Coveney in 2017. Notable for being Ireland's first gay Taoiseach, the first to be of mixed ethnicity (with an Irish mother and an Indian father), and the youngest to ever hold the office. Despite this, Varadkar is regarded as one of the furthest right-wing politicians in mainstream Irish politics.