Obituary: Bob McDonagh
Founder of a distinguished diplomatic dynasty, he served as ambassador in West Germany, Italy and at the United Nations, says Charles Lysaght
Bob McDonagh, who died last Sunday, aged 91, was one of the leading Irish diplomats of his generation serving with distinction as ambassador to Germany, Italy and the United Nations.
He must surely be the last in a long list of our leading civil servants who were sons of members of the Royal Irish Constabulary and who played a pivotal role running a State that had been founded on the back of a campaign of assassination, directed at the force to which their fathers belonged.
Bob's father, Philip, who rose from the ranks to attain the exalted position of County Inspector for Cavan just before the RIC was disbanded in 1922, was in his late 50s when Bob was born in Tralee in March 1924. The family settled in Sandycove and Bob attended the Presentation Brothers school in Glasthule before joining the civil service as a clerical officer.
When, in 1948, Sean McBride became Minister for External Affairs and expanded his department, Bob entered as a third secretary.
He married, in 1951, Roisin O'Doherty, who was also a third secretary and was a god-daughter of Eamon de Valera. Under the prevailing rules she had to resign from the service. In the late 1950s, Bob became an acolyte of Conor Cruise O'Brien, then a diplomat pioneering a more independent foreign policy. When O'Brien resigned from the department, feeling repudiated after being recalled from the Congo where he headed an ill-fated United Nations mission, Bob loyally took a day's leave to meet him at Dublin Airport.
Having been Charge d'Affaires in Copenhagen, Bob served at headquarters, ultimately heading the Political Division after Patrick Hillery became minister in 1969. He and Hillery, both tense men, were soulmates, sharing the same political views, a capacity for rigorous analysis and an abundance of caution.
It was Bob who advised Hillery not to pursue a proposal initiated by his predecessor Frank Aiken in the Assembly of the Council of Europe, to insert in the European Convention on Human Rights a clause prohibiting discrimination in housing and employment.
Bob was much less at home with Hillery's successor Garret FitzGerald whose scattershot style was not to his taste; he was appalled by FitzGerald's suggestion that development aid be devolved to a body not controlled by the department.
Bob enjoyed a break from the grind at headquarters and a renewal of the conviviality of diplomatic life when appointed as Ambassador to West Germany late in 1973. He returned home in 1976 as Deputy Secretary and was the obvious choice to succeed as Secretary in the following year.
It was not a success. Bob wilted under the strain. It precipitated a crisis in the department, which was encountering similar problems abroad. Taoiseach Jack Lynch told his Foreign Minister Michael O'Kennedy that something must be done. Ambassadors were moved and Bob was relieved abruptly of his post as Secretary in September 1978.
His subsequent appointment as ambassador to Italy heralded a brighter phase in his career. He went on to be ambassador to the United Nations, where he was much valued by Foreign Minister Peter Barry. Shortly before his retirement in 1989, he suffered an irreparable loss when his wife Roisin, whose unstinting support had sustained him in the difficult years, died suddenly.
House-trained civil servant that he was, Bob abstained in retirement from all public comment even when misleading stories about him were published. The loneliness of his later years was assuaged by the constant support of his children, the success of whose careers was a great joy: Philip and Bobby are Irish ambassadors while Sunniva and Feichin are Senior Counsel. He enjoyed good health until the age of 90 despite remaining an inveterate smoker.