The best President we never had
Published 15/05/2010 | 05:00
Rita Childers, who died this week at the age of 95, could and should have become the first female President of Ireland 16 years before Mary Robinson entered Aras an Uachtarain.
She was denied her place in history by one of the most bizarre episodes in the annals of Irish politics. In the words of one academic this week, "She was the best President Ireland never had."
She was born Margaret Dudley in 1915 in Ballsbridge, one of nine siblings. Her father, a lawyer, died when she was 14, and the family had to drastically cut its budget. As a result, Rita was denied a third-level education, something which always caused her regret.
Leaving school with her Leaving Cert, she stood out as a free spirit with a formidable intellect. In an era when a woman's place was the kitchen, she forged a high-powered career as a single woman working as a press attache in the British Embassy in Dublin.
One of the most colourful characters on the diplomatic circuit was her embassy boss, Reggie Ross Williamson. It was Williamson who introduced Rita to her future husband, Erskine Childers, the recently widowed Fianna Fail minister for posts and telegraphs, and a father of five.
According to the couple's only daughter, MEP Nessa Childers, their marriage was match-made by Reggie. "He was the diplomatic world's equivalent of a dating agency. He spotted the two of them separately and decided they were made for each other.
"My mother was then 38 and was not going to marry just for the sake of getting a husband. She took a fair bit of persuasion but she finally said yes when he proposed to her during a walk in the mountains."
But the course of true love didn't run smooth. The killjoy Archbishop of Dublin John Charles McQuaid took a dim view of the proposed marriage between Catholic Rita and Protestant Erskine.
Nessa said: "I don't know how publicly McQuaid disapproved, but he refused to marry them, except privately in a sacristy. So they went to Paris and married there.
"My father had to take instruction in Catholicism. His instructor was Giovanni Montini who later became Pope Paul VI. My father thought there was going to be so much trouble over the mixed marriage that he should convert to Catholicism.
"Montini told him no, don't convert. Stay with your own church and do what you think is right."
Erskine's political status meant that Rita had to give up her diplomatic post on conflict-of-interest grounds. But her talents did not go to waste. She was a guiding influence on her husband's career as he rose through the ministerial ranks, becoming Tanaiste in 1969 and finally President in 1973.
Nessa said: "She was very resourceful and strong. She possessed a certain type of political intelligence which was very important to my father. She had a clarity of vision about people, which is a great asset in politics. She could see the worm in the apple.
"I could see in her qualities that I lack and that perhaps my father lacked. She could always see the knives aimed for his back before anyone else."
Erskine Childers himself was Irish political royalty. His father, Robert, author of the classic spy thriller Riddle Of The Sands, had landed guns for revolt against Britain in 1914. Before facing the firing squad during the Civil War, he made the teenage Erskine promise to shake the hand of each government official who had signed his death warrant as an act of reconciliation.
While Nessa describes her parents' marriage as the "great passion" of both their lives, their shared love of politics brought an extra-strong bond to the relationship.
"She wrote his speeches some of the time. My dad wasn't much of a writer. But she was much more than a writer. She was a person to always get things done."
Rita's talents as a doer were pressed into service on the May day in 1973 when the votes were tallied and her husband was declared the fourth President of Ireland. Erskine's rival for the Aras was Fine Gael's Tom O'Higgins.
A frail-looking 67-year-old Childers was expected to lose out to the younger man. Nessa said: "My father's own party, Fianna Fail, didn't expect him to win so they hadn't even bothered to set up a press conference for the result of the election. My mother had to head off to Mount Street and organise the press conference herself."
Tragically, just over a year into his presidency, Erskine died of a heart attack. Behind the scenes, the ruling FG/Labour coalition and Jack Lynch's Fianna Fail agreed that Rita would become President without an election. But the deal came horribly unstuck before Rita had even been informed.
A reporter asked a FG TD who was hard of hearing to comment on the fact that a local council had nominated her. The TD misheard the question and, thinking the news of the cross-party decision had become public, confirmed that Rita would be the next President.
According to one academic: "This infuriated Jack Lynch, who believed FF had been set up. Lynch is portrayed as a saint, but he was very touchy. Lynch withdrew support from Rita and nominated Cearbhall O Dalaigh. Ireland was in economic crisis, the Troubles were raging, and no one wanted an election, so FG and Labour just said okay, he'll do."
Was Rita hugely disappointed?
"At the time I think she was just paralysed with grief for my father," says Nessa. "But yes, I think she probably was disappointed. I do think she would have been an outstanding President, and totally separately from being my father's wife."
In the decade following her husband's death, Rita carved a niche as a popular public speaker, often tackling issues close to the heart of her late husband, such as public health. Approaching the age of 70 she learned to drive for the first time, and after retiring from public life 20 years ago she turned her new skill to exploring the Irish countryside from her home in south Dublin.
She is survived by her daughter Nessa.