Rita Childers, wife of late ex-president, dies at 95


RITA CHILDERS (95), who died yesterday, was the widow of Erskine Childers, fourth president of Ireland, and mother of Labour party MEP Nessa Childers.

She died at Carysfort nursing home, Gleneageary, Co Dublin.

Born Margaret Dudley in Ballsbridge, Dublin, but known as Rita, she joined the staff of the British embassy and was posted to London during the second World War.

She met widower Erskine Childers while working as an attache at the Dublin Embassy. He was, by then, a senior Fianna Fáil politician.

They married in Paris in 1952. It was a mixed marriage – he was a Protestant and she was a Catholic – and the then conservative Archishop of Dublin, Dr John Charles McQuaid, frowned on it. It was later reported in church and political circles that the archbishop apologised to the couple some years afterwards.

Having served as a minister in a number of government deparments, and a period as tánaiste under taoiseach Jack Lynch, Childers was nominated as the party’s candidate in the 1973 presidential election.

He defeated Fine Gael’s Tom O’Higgins.

Mrs Childers assumed a prominent role, travelling around the State with her husband to various events. She rapidly became a well known national figure.

When Childers died suddenly in office in 1974, the then Fine Gael-Labour coalition had little enthusiasm for a presidential election.

For a time, it seemed that Ms Childers would succeed her husband as president.

However, a confidential agreement between the political parties to make her the agreed candidate unravelled when it inadvertently became public.

Former chief justice Cearbhall Ó Dalaigh was instead elected unopposed to Áras an Uachtaráin.

At a later stage, Mrs Childers became a critic of Fianna Fáil and also the office of president. She called for its suspension after Mr Ó Dalaigh’s resignation in 1976.

Over the years, Mrs Childers attended the annual commemoration at her husband’s grave in Roundwood, Co Wicklow.

In 1999, at the 25th anniversary ceremony, she recalled how, seven months pregnant, she had been brought hill walking to the Sugar Loaf mountain.

Mrs Childers is survived by Nessa, a former Green Party councillor who was elected an MEP for Labour in last year’s European election for the East constituency. Funeral arrangements have yet to be announced.