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Couple's marriage marked by love and devotion

Garret FitzGerald with his wife Joan, whom he frequently consulted on matters of state.

ON the final page of his recently published memoir Garret FitzGerald wrote that where he had been particularly blessed was in the quality of his family life.

His wife Joan, he said, was a wonderful partner to have had, and they had just over 50 years together.

It's clear from that book, 'Just Garret' and many other instances that the former Taoiseach was a 'family man' in every sense of the word.

One of the things that people found so endearing about Garret was that obvious love of family, and his enduring love of Joan who died in 1999.

One of the anecdotes people love telling about the former Taoiseach is how he once turned up on the campaign trail in a pair of odd shoes. He had dressed in the dark not wishing to disturb a sleeping Joan.

When Joan died, aged 76, the then Fine Gael leader John Bruton, recalled how the couple were absolutely devoted to one another throughout their long and happy marriage.

He remembered back to election campaigns where Joan, who was then wheelchair bound, toured the country with her husband despite suffering what must have been an enormous amount of physical pain.

Friends remember Joan's wonderful sense of humour, sharp intellect and lack of tolerance for political pomposity. The couple were devoted to each other and spoke frequently on the telephone each day, with him seeking her counsel. These could apparently sometimes include Joan ringing during one of Garret's interminable cabinet meetings to discuss the shopping list.

He frequently consulted her on matters of state and it was she who came up with the unusual idea of appointing the late Jim Dooge as Foreign Affairs minister, after Garret appointed him as one of his Seanad nominees.

For many years Joan had a pathological fear of flying (which she overcame) and as a result her husband also tried to avoid it, and did his best to travel by train even if it sometimes involved a 20-hour trip.

Despite an extremely busy public life, Garret had been able to go home for lunch almost every day. Joan's health began to deteriorate in 1977. She suffered from severe arthritis and became wheelchair bound, before eventually being bed-bound for the four years before her death.

There is a lovely passage in Garret's recent book where he remembers being in the holiday home of friends in Schull in the summer of 1983, during a glorious month of August. The house had a sea view and their friends arranged for he and Joan to have two beds, side by side, on the lawn, heads resting on pillows, lying between sheets. "Before long we were spending many of the summer days head to head in two beds, our faces sheltered from the sun by a huge parasol," he wrote.

The couple met in UCD in 1943, when Garret described himself as "obnoxious and cocky" and "very juvenile". Three-and-a-half months after he first proposed, she agreed to marry him. They married in 1947.

They had three children, John, Mary and Mark. John, an economist with the ESRI, will often be heard commentating on radio. He is married to Eithne FitzGerald, who topped the poll for the Labour Party in Dublin Central in the Spring Tide of 1992, before losing her seat at the next election. Mark, the youngest, is the CEO of property firm Sherry FitzGerald. Garret had 10 grandchildren.

For the past number of years Garret lived with daughter Mary, an artist, and her husband Vincent, and their two daughters, in adjoining houses which had been opened in to each other, in Ranelagh in Dublin.

He loved travelling, and family members frequently holidayed together. In 2009, they hit the headlines when around 20 family and friends were quarantined in a French chateau after two members of the group had contracted swine flu.

Once Garret hit 80 his cardiologist told his daughter Mary that he would really need to be accompanied on his trips. As a result a family member would always travel with him and sometimes be called on to give him oxygen mid-flight.

In his first two years of being an octogenarian this involved covering 140,000 miles and 27 countries.

Garret was interviewed recently by Miriam O'Callaghan on her Sunday morning 'Miriam Meets' programme on Radio One. Close to the end of the programme she asked him if he believed in an after life.

It would be nice if there is, Garret responded, but you just have to "wait and see".

Irish Independent