Death of the President.

Tuesday, 19 November 1974

Seanad Eireann Debate
Vol. 79 No. 1

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An Cathaoirleach: Information on James CI Dooge  Zoom on James CI Dooge  Fuaras an litir seo a leanas ó Rúnaí an Uachtaráin:

I have received the following letter from the Secretary to the President:

Oifig Rúnaí an Uachtaráin,

Baile Átha Cliath.

17 Samhain, 1974.

A Chathaoirligh, a chara,

Is le mór-mhéala a chuirim in iúl duit go bhfuair Erskine H. Childers, Uachtarán na hÉireann, bás maidin inniu.


le dúthracht duit,

M. Ó Flathartaigh,

Rúnaí an Uachtaráin.

Mr. M.J. O'Higgins: Information on Michael Joseph O'Higgins  Zoom on Michael Joseph O'Higgins  The late President Childers was the first President to die in office. At a time which is as sad as it is historic it is fitting that this House should meet in special session so that we may express our sorrow, and have it recorded, that the life of a great, honourable and dedicated public servant has ended so tragically so short a while after his election to the highest office in the land.

[2] Deliberately I have chosen to refer to the late President in the first place as a dedicated public servant because most of us who have served in public life with him over the years have known him best as a politician in the noblest sense of that word—as one who engaging in the art of government did so in the spirit of service and self-giving and not in any selfish spirit of self-aggrandisement. We knew him as one who generously placed his talents at the disposal of the people and as one who served conscientiously with infinite care and genuine concern in whichever post was entrusted to him.

Finally, we knew him as one who, on being elected President, with the utmost integrity and honour vindicated yet again the genius so often demonstrated of the Irish politician truly to rise above party politics when required to do so. Many Members of this House will perhaps remember Erskine Childers best as a Minister of State guiding legislation through the Seanad. I think it is true to say that whichever position one occupied in the House regardless of the political [3] divide, the late President in his work in this House impressed all of us and won many richly deserved tributes even from those politically opposed to him, not merely by his painstaking application to the measure in hand, whatever it might have been, but also by his constant and unfailing courtesy in dealing with points raised and arguments advanced by Members of the House.

In conducting parliamentary business he brought with him a very obvious sense of wholehearted involvement which was both an earnest of his own dedication to his task and a ready recognition by him of the paramount importance of parliamentary democracy.

The late President was, of course, more than a politician. As an individual he was a gracious and cultured person. He was a Christian gentleman, loyal to his principles and convictions and courageous in stating them, but without rancour towards those who disagreed with him.

At this time our sympathy goes out to his immediate family and relatives and I think that our thoughts and our hearts will go out in a very special way to his widow, Rita, and to his young daughter Nessa, who accompanied him on the evening of his death and who witnessed this fatal collapse. Of Erskine Childers it can be truly said that he gave of his best. He served well. He did his duty to the end. I propose that as a mark of sympathy to his widow and relatives, and as a mark of respect, the House adjourn.

Mr. Lenihan: Information on Brian Lenihan Snr.  Zoom on Brian Lenihan Snr.  I wish to second that motion and to join with the Leader of the House in offering sympathy to Mrs. Rita Childers, his daughter, Nessa, and to Erskine Childers' first family. I should like to join in the tributes that have been expressed by the Leader of the House, by the media and public figures of both Church and State in the past few days. Indeed they are but expressive of the views held very strongly by the Irish people in their appreciation of Erskine Childers as a person, as a Minister of State presiding over many Departments for a number of years, and as President of Ireland.

[4] I should like to emphasise one particular facet of his career which has been referred to by the Leader of the House, and that is his 36 years as a practising politician in this country. In this role he was the essence of what a good politician should be. In his concept of hard work, dedication to duty and total integrity, he showed all the attributes that I would hope younger people to come would seek to emulate. His whole approach to politics was a model in this respect. I am certain that Erskine Childers in the future can continue to give real service to future generations if he is taken as a model of what a good politician should be.

On a personal note, I first met him shortly after he was elected Fianna Fáil TD for Athlone/Longford in 1938. I was then a young boy and it was his approach to me as a young boy that brought me into politics. I should like to emphasise here that he, by his commitment, which he showed in the manner of his death, to all aspects of public life, to his belief that public life can be organised for the benefit of the common good through the parliamentary process, by his commitment to this basic belief which he at all stages held and emphasised, despite the unfortunate happenings associated with his father's death, out of that rose Phoenix-like and offered at all stages since he entered public life an example of what unselfishness, commitment and integrity, backed up by hard work and dedication, can achieve in a real man. Indeed this was a man.

Mr. J. Fitzgerald: Information on John Jack Fitzgerald  Zoom on John Jack Fitzgerald  On behalf of the Labour Party and on my own behalf I wish to extend deepest sympathy to Mrs. Childers and the Childers family on the death of our President, Erskine Childers. The grief and the loss of a husband and father is shared by us all in the loss of our first citizen. We pray that God will comfort the Childers family and that their grief will be tempered by the knowledge that it is shared by the nation as a whole.

Erskine Childers had one of the longest and most distinguished public careers during the first half century of our independence and freedom. [5] He served the people as an executive in a semi-State body, a Deputy, a Parliamentary Secretary, a Minister of State and finally as President. His life is an example to all of us who are engaged in public affairs of what can be achieved by devoted service to the common good. His death after such a short period as President is tragic. He has demonstrated that the office could be used to foster goodwill and understanding throughout the island and to create a new interest in community affairs within the Republic. His death has cut short the promise of new and exciting developments in the office of the Presidency. The whole nation mourns the loss of its first citizen.

Professor Quinlan: Information on Patrick Michael Quinlan  Zoom on Patrick Michael Quinlan  On behalf of the graduates, students and staff of the National University and on my own behalf I wish to be associated with the expressions of sympathy to Mrs. Childers and family on their grevious loss due to the untimely death of our beloved President, Erskine Childers.

In the short space of a year and a half since his election to the Presidency he truly established himself as President of all the people. He was singularly successful in articulating a meaningful and valuable role for our Presidency in the EEC era as an active and stimulating patron of voluntary community effort. This he wisely identified as an essential and equal partner with the Government in our national development, if we are to conserve and develop all that is best in our national heritage amid the bureaucratic dangers and the challenging economic and leisure opportunities of the European Economic Community.

He was at one with Horace Plunkett, Father Finlay and Canon Hayes in stressing the vital need for community involvement and development. It is my hope and prayer that his successor will be wise enough and humble enough to continue this vital work, so well begun by Erskine Childers. It is, I venture to suggest and certainly hope, the most valuable of his many valuable contributions to our national life. May the ever [6] quickening development of voluntary community action in our midst be his most enduring monument, with his epithaph writ on his country's mind: he loved his country and served his kind. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam uasal, i measc na laoch go léir a fuair bás ar son Éireann.

Mrs. Robinson: Information on Mary Robinson  Zoom on Mary Robinson  I should like to join my colleagues in paying tribute to Erskine Childers. I think the words most frequently used in relation to the late President refer to his dedication and his capacity for hard work. His greatest achievement as President was to carve out a new role for the Presidency in Irish life. I believe that we, the Members of the Seanad, can pay the greatest tribute to our late President by applying ourselves with the same dedication and with the same capacity for hard work to carving out a new and positive role for this House so that it too can play a more meaningful and a more constructive role in the life of the nation.

Dr. West: Information on Timothy Trevor West  Zoom on Timothy Trevor West  I should like to join in this tribute to the late President Childers. We shall all remember his success in broadening the scope of the Presidency, his wide interest in culture and in the arts, his consideration for youth and for underprivileged groups and his remarkable ability to bridge the gaps between our differing traditions. I think one could truly say he was one of those few privileged people with whom no group of Irishmen would not feel at home. He would have felt at home with every group of Irishmen.

Mr. Horgan: Information on John S. Horgan  Zoom on John S. Horgan  I should like to add my voice to the expressions of sympathy which have been made, and stress one point which has been mentioned, and that is the President's devotion to the cause of youth. It was, I think, a most remarkable thing in him: this unfeigned and transparently joyous interest he took in young people and the way in which he related with them on all occasions he met them. He knew as well as any man that youth are the future of the nation, and for a man in the autumn of his life he showed an extraordinarily keen sense of anticipation of what the spring would bring.

[7]Dr. Martin: Information on Thomas Augustine Martin  Zoom on Thomas Augustine Martin  I should like to add my voice to those who have spoken in tribute to the late President Childers and to repeat all our feelings of his remarkable dedication, his hard work and skill, his concern, his integrity and the consummate courtesy with which he conducted every office with which he was entrusted and, above all, of his magnanimity and his greatness of mind and of soul which formed for us the model of behaviour and which make his passing so very grevious.

There is one aspect of President Childers which I should like particularly to stress and that is his high intellectual seriousness. It was a quality which marked all his public utterances and which shone forth from all his public acts. It was concerned with the highest possible standards in culture and living. He was interested in the arts, he was interested in poetry and literature, he had an enormous concern for the young and he saw the relationship of art and literature to that concern, and he did not see the arts or the pursuit of the intellect as anything decorative or frivolous but absolutely central to man and to our sense of community and the building of community on the highest possible spiritual standards. He exemplified the old Roman virtue of gravitas in its highest possible degree and his passing has left a great void on the one hand but also has provided us with a very radiant example of what our Irish society could achieve.

Miss Walsh: Information on Mary Walsh  Zoom on Mary Walsh  I would like to add my humble tribute to the memory of our beloved President and offer my heartfelt sympathy to his bereaved widow and family. It is true to say that the Irish nation was shocked by the sudden passing of President Childers in the early hours of last Sunday morning. I think I can say without fear of contradiction that nowhere was his passing felt more deeply than in my native County Wicklow, the county of his adoption, the county which he loved so dearly, because as everybody knows his first incursion into the political life of this country was as a mere boy when he campaigned openly on behalf of his cousin, Robert Barton, the only remaining signatory to the Irish Treaty.

[8] His passing has brought to an untimely close what had promised to be a most distinguished Presidency. In deed, it may be said that the major contributory factor of his sudden tragic death was his devotion to duty and his zeal to fulfil the promise he had made so frequently in his now famous Presidential whistle-stop tour when he promised to become a President of all the people. This we can say he fulfilled to the end.

It was indeed ironic that his last day on this earth was spent working in the gardens of Aras an Uachtaráin and I feel it is only fitting that his mortal remains should be laid to rest in the Garden of Ireland, high up in the mountains he loved so dearly. As a member of the premier body of that county, and on behalf of every citizen of Wicklow, I feel I am voicing the sentiments of everyone when I say how deeply proud and honoured we all were that the first citizen in office in the service of this nation should have chosen as his final resting place our dear beloved County Wicklow. When the history of our county comes to be written, may his illustrious name be inscribed in its long list of honoured patriots who died before him in Wicklow—names like Fiach MacHugh Ó Broin, Charles Stewart Parnell, Billy Byrne of Ballymanus, Anne Devlin, John Redmond and many more patriots that have gone before him. My prayer is that his grave may become a place of pilgrimage and an inspiration to future generations of Wicklowmen and for that matter of Irishmen, and that the soil of Derralossory may rest lightly on his noble brow. Ar dheis láimh Dé go raibh a anam.

Question put and agreed to.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on James CI Dooge  Zoom on James CI Dooge  The views which have been expressed in this debate, which are clearly reflective of those of all Members of the Seanad, will be conveyed to the widow and the family of the late President Childers. The Seanad is now adjourned.

The Seanad adjourned at 3.25 p.m., sine die.

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