An Irishman's Diary

 

WE HAVE BEEN blessed with our presidents, if not our politicians. Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh was born in Bray, Co Wicklow, 100 years ago – on February 12th, 1911. His resignation as the fifth president of Ireland in 1976 precipitated a constitutional crisis.

The Bray Cualann Historical Society has published a handsome centenary issue of its journal, which President McAleese is launching on February 8th. Edited by Colum Kenny, it commemorates this fascinating town and its most famous citizen. Michael Kelleher celebrates the centenary of another much-loved institution with an article about Bray Public Library.

Ó Dálaigh graduated with a BA in Celtic studies from UCD and the degree of barrister-at-law was conferred on him by King’s Inns; he was called to the bar in 1934. At the time he worked as Irish-language editor of then recently-founded Irish Press. In 1934 he married Máirín Nic Dhiarmada, a Gaelic scholar born in India, where her father had been a teacher with the Royal Munster Fusiliers. They visited Gaeltacht islands during their honeymoon. In the same year Cearbhall contributed an article on the Virgin Mary to the Capuchin Annual.

Ó Dálaigh made little impact as a junior counsel, in the opinion of Ronan Keane: “. . . his somewhat diffident personality was not ideally suited to the rough and tumble of practice at the bar”. In his youth he held radical republican views. He contested two Dáil elections as a Fianna Fáil candidate but was unsuccessful on both occasions. He was made attorney general in 1946 – at that stage the youngest person to hold the office. Appointed chief justice in 1961, he became the first Irish member of the court of justice of the European Communities, to which Ireland acceded on January 1st, 1973.

His tenure was short-lived, however, due to the sudden death of President Erskine Childers in November 1974. Ó Dálaigh was nominated without opposition to succeed him. In his inaugural address, he noted that he shared a birthday with Abraham Lincoln; likewise, he would try to bind up the wounds of his troubled land.

His ambition to extend the boundaries of the office as far as the Constitution permitted was not helped by an uneasy relationship with the Fine Gael-Labour coalition government. The strained relationship reached breaking point when he referred the Emergency Powers Bill to the Supreme Court. It was a time of national tension with the Troubles spreading South, culminating in the murder of a British ambassador in Co Dublin in July 1976. Given the provisions of the Constitution on the liberty of the individual, it seemed wise to Garret FitzGerald (then minister for foreign affairs) to have the draconian legislation tested in the courts.

The minister for defence, Patrick Donegan, held a contrary view. In the course of impromptu remarks at an Army function, he described the president as a “thundering disgrace”. Ó Dálaigh, offended by Donegan’s outburst, sent him a strongly-worded letter of protest. He was particularly incensed that the comments were made by the minister at an Army function, since the president was titular commander-in-chief of the Defence Forces.

Donegan’s subsequent apology did not satisfy Ó Dálaigh’s sense of justice. Neither was he mollified by what he considered a lukewarm response from the taoiseach, Liam Cosgrave. He resigned on the following day, saying this was “the only way open to me to assert publicly my personal integrity and independence as president of Ireland, and to protect the dignity and independence of the presidency as an institution”.

In an Irish Timeseditorial, Douglas Gageby said the constitutional crisis could have been avoided. The president had acted within the Constitution and therefore was not a political figure. “His reference of the bill was accompanied by no statement suggesting he had reservations; had the court found the bill completely correct, Mr Ó Dálaigh would, in total silence, have had to sign it, regardless of any personal views.

As it was, the bill was found constitutional, but the court surrounded its use with qualifications. Is one to interpret Mr Donegan’s boorish reaction as reflecting regret at having to follow the letter of the new law?” The resignation effectively ended Ó Dálaigh’s public career. He and his wife retired to Sneem, Co Kerry. He died suddenly in March 1978 and was interred in Sneem cemetery after a State funeral. (Máirín Ó Dálaigh died in 1994.) In a prologue to his poem, A Resigned President, John Montague wrote: “Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh’s smile reinstated words like goodness, gentleness, generosity, words that had lost their meaning, crudely devalued . . . Such qualities attract hatred from the unbelieving, the cynical.” He continued: “With Chopin’s funeral march resounding in/ the hushed streets of Sneem/ that watchful ring of snowy mountains . . .”

Charming and erudite, Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh had a deep interest in the arts. He represented the intellectual, as opposed to the redneck, tradition in Irish public life. Caroline and Tomás Mac Anna recall his last act as president was returning a book to them in the Abbey Theatre: Independent Peopleby Halldor Laxness, the Icelandic Nobel laureate. Mary Dudley Edwards remembers Ó Dálaigh as a loving godfather.

Journal of the Bray Cualann Historical Society. No 6, €9.99.