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Saturday 10 December 2016

Rest, finally, for Garret, a tireless contributor to our lives

Gene Kerrigan at the Mansion House in Dublin

Published 22/05/2011 | 05:00

PAYING RESPECTS: People file past the coffin of Dr Garret FitzGerald in the Mansion House's Oak Room, Dublin, yesterday. Photo: David Conachy
PAYING RESPECTS: People file past the coffin of Dr Garret FitzGerald in the Mansion House's Oak Room, Dublin, yesterday. Photo: David Conachy

The FitzGerald family had been in from 9am. They had private time in the room in the Mansion House where Garret's remains were lying in state, and when they left, over half an hour later, the public had begun queuing.

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The doors weren't due to open until 11, but Lord Mayor Gerry Breen decided to open up and from then on there was a steady stream of visitors, signing the books of condolence and walking past the remains.

As the day goes on, there's a sprinkling of younger people, some mothers pushing buggies, but mostly an older crowd.

Dr FitzGerald lived long enough to see the young people he brought into politics in the 1970s turn grey, the issues that moved them long since settled.

When he took over Fine Gael, it was a series of independent entities, built around the local TDs.

Breaking that stranglehold was the first job. He travelled every constituency, encouraging young people and women to join up, creating alternative power centres to the local chieftains.

The first time I met him was on one of those trips.

Travelling through three counties, in 54 hours, he spoke at seven public meetings, had nine private party meetings, two press conferences, did two RTE interviews, attended a funeral, visited one convent, four hospitals and a bishop.

On the drive between venues he sat in the passenger seat of his Peugeot, flicking through a thick file of correspondence, murmuring into a dictation machine. An overhead light allowed him to work as the evening wore on.

He was warm, generous and easy to like. Hearing I was freelancing, he began listing the foreign newspapers he'd found most lucrative as a freelance -- information totally useless to someone who lacked his specialist knowledge.

Behind Dr FitzGerald's geniality there was a toughness that was required to deal with the rough Fine Gael of those days.

In a corridor of Longford's Annaly Hotel, three locals erupted in rebellion. "I know what's going on," snarled one woman.

"I know the track of the hatchet."

He was a modern social democrat in a backward party, and there were times when the task was wearing.

Canvassing on the day before an election, he was cornered by an elderly supporter.

These unmarried mothers, she said -- it was okay paying them an allowance for the first mistake, but not for a second. "It makes prostitutes of them."

I can still see the pain on his face. To agree would be to go against all he stood for, to argue was to alienate a party supporter.

"I'll note your points," he said lamely.

If he could see the triumphs now attributed to him, he'd be bemused. His was a frustrating time, a country floundering in growing debt, advance and setback, things started and unfinished.

In the Mansion House, the moving line of people stops, held up by an elderly nun. She stares down at the coffin, totally lost in contemplation. Perhaps an opponent of old, perhaps a supporter. Things were never simple.

The line waits patiently until she's ready, then moves on.

Sunday Independent

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