Advocate of active presidency who promoted communities


Margaret 'Rita' Childers:MARGARET “RITA” Childers, who has died, was the widow of president Erskine Childers, an advocate of the concept of an active presidency and a supporter of the development of communities.

It was her husband’s brief period as president which brought her to public notice – but the events which followed his death troubled her and left her disillusioned with the behaviour of politicians and especially with that of Fianna Fáil, her late husband’s party.

She was concerned at what she saw as a growing gulf between people and politicians and saw the presidency as an office which could help narrow that gulf.

She was the sixth child of Mr and Mrs Joseph Dudley of Elgin Road, in south Dublin. Her Cork-born father (a native of Buttevant) was a solicitor and a founder of McCann, Fitzgerald, Roche and Dudley.

She attended the Dominican Muckross College, as well as Loreto and Sacred Heart schools, finishing her education at 17 and going to work as secretary to an antique dealer.

In 1942 she got a job as assistant to the press attache in the office of the British representative, Sir John Maffey. The following year she went to London, though the war was on, to work at the Irish section of the ministry of information. She later returned to Dublin as assistant press attache at the British embassy.

Erskine Childers, then minister for posts and telegraphs and a widower with five children, met her at a diplomatic lunch in Dublin in 1952. “It was a great miracle that we met,” she said later. “It turned out that we were such good companions, there was a mixture of qualities that blended.”

Their interest in each other blossomed and they married at the Church of St Joseph, Avenue Hoche, Paris, on September 16th, 1952. Their child Nessa was born four years later.

Erskine Childers was elected president in 1973 and he and Rita took to the role with enthusiasm. From the start they kicked against the restrictions imposed by the regulations governing the post.

Erskine Childers was seen by the public as very much an “out and about” president – a break with tradition at the time. It seems likely that his wife’s support helped him to make that break. She later said that had he taken Civil Service advice he would rarely have left the Áras.

In a letter to The Irish Timesin 1976, Rita complained that Áras an Uachtaráin was “rigidly administered by the Civil Service” and she recounted how her husband once took himself into town to buy the largest felt pen he could find with which to write “over-ruled” on the “long, tedious memoranda” generated by officials.

Then came what she called “those terrible days” of November 1974 when her husband died suddenly. Immediately, speculation began about his successor, sparking a chain of events which caused his widow great pain.

On the evening of Erskine Childers’ burial, television pictures of Fianna Fáil supporters clapping and shouting their support for Jack Lynch as the next president angered her. There was also a report about annoyance over seating arrangements at the funeral that distressed her.

“The nation and my family had only just said goodbye to him at Derrylossary [in Co Wicklow] when this almost unbelievable degradation of the presidency began in Dublin,” she said later.

The coalition government asked her through indirect contacts if her name could be included on a list of suggested agreed candidates to be discussed with Fianna Fáil.

She agreed, but the news was leaked and her name was rejected by Fianna Fáil. Reports that her name had been put forward as a political ploy hurt her greatly. “I saw how, once again, a woman in Ireland can be regarded as a mere baggage,” she said later.

Perhaps unwisely, she announced that she would be an independent candidate for the presidency. Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh was announced as an agreed candidate within a few days and she withdrew her candidacy.

Rita Childers remained active around the country. She urged women to take a greater part in public life and believed that “moderate” women should be involved in the women’s movements. Men, she said, were quite frightened by the advance of women.

As long ago as 1976 she was warning about the growing apathy towards politicians, a phenomenon for which she blamed politicians themselves.

She continued at long as she could to travel the country promoting the development of communities and advocating a return to neighbourliness. She believed strongly that power should be devolved to the regions.

She is survived by Nessa Childers, a former Green Party councillor who was elected a member of the European Parliament for the Labour Party for the Ireland East constituency.

Margaret (Rita) Childers: born Dublin, 1915; died May 9th, 2010