Former president Patrick Hillery dies at 84

Former president Dr Patrick Hillery died today at the age of 84 following a short illness.

Former president Dr Patrick Hillery died today at the age of 84 following a short illness.

Dr Patrick Hillery. president designate at Government Buildings in November 1972
Dr Patrick Hillery. president designate at Government Buildings in November 1972

Dr Hillery, originally from Co Clare, served two seven-year terms as President of Ireland from 1976 to 1990.

His long and distinguished career in public life began in 1951 when he was elected alongside Éamon de Valera as a Fianna Fáil TD for Clare.

He held a number of ministerial posts (Education, Industry and Commerce, Labour and Foreign Affairs) prior to being appointed Ireland's first EEC Commissioner in 1973.


He held the post of vice president of the then Commission of the European Communities, with special responsibility for social affairs until 1976, when he was elected President of Ireland.

Patrick Hillery was born on May 2nd, 1923, at Miltown Malbay, Co Clare. He received his secondary education at Rockwell College, Co Tipperary. He went on to study medicine at UCD where he qualified as a doctor in 1947.

He was elected to Dáil Éireann in 1951 and was to remain a TD for Clare until taking the post in Brussels 21 years later.

He had the unusual distinction of being elected president twice unopposed. The first time, in 1976, the post was virtually imposed on him by his own party at a time of crisis following the resignation of President Cearbhall O Dalaigh.

Despite letting it be known privately that he did not wish to stand for a second term, he was prevailed upon to do so by the leaders of the three main parties and was again elected unopposed in 1983.

He was inaugurated for a second term on December 4th, 1983 at a low-key ceremony in Dublin Castle.

During the 1990 presidential campaign, which was evenutally won by Mary Robinson, controversy erupted over an incident during Dr Hillery’s first term in office in 1982 when the Fine Gael-led government of Dr Garret FitzGerald collapsed after losing a Dail vote.

At the time several Fianna Fáil ministers were alleged to have telephoned Áras an Uachtaráin in an attempt to persuade president Hillery not to dissolve the Dail at the request of Dr Fitzgerald but to call on the then Fianna Fail leader, Charles Haughey, to form the next government.

The late Brian Lenihan who was the Fianna Fáil candidate to succeed Dr Hillery in 1990 first denied that he had been one of those who telephoned the  Áras but was later forced to change his initial claim after the tape of an interview with a research student in which he said he had telephoned was then released.

Many believe the incident cost Mr Lenihan the election.

Dr Hillery is survived by his wife Maeve, his son John and his grandchildren.  He and his wife also had a daughter Vivienne, who died in 1987.

President Mary McAleese led tributes to Dr Hillery and said she had learned of his death "with deepest sadness".

"Dr Hillery made an enormous contribution to this country at key times in the vital and necessary development of this state.

Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said Dr Hillery had served two terms as president "with great dignity, skill and generosity.

"In volatile political times, he was a cool head, who exercised his powers wisely, and assiduously protected the independence of Ireland's highest office."

He said an offer of a state funeral has been accepted by the Hillery family and the details will be announced later.

Former president Mary Robinson said her predecessor was supportive of the ways she wanted to change the presidency, and funny, warm and generous when they met before she was inaugurated.

Eoin Burke-Kennedy

Eoin Burke-Kennedy

Eoin Burke-Kennedy is Economics Correspondent of The Irish Times