Joe Christle

 

Courage was Joe Christle's hallmark. Youthful courage to embark on those northern barracks raids; intellectual and moral courage to forsake violence when he saw its absurdity without a social programme; and, finally, Camusesque courage to adapt to a more prosaic - but infinitely more fruitful - career as a family man and law lecturer.

Only those who endured those dark times, can imagine what a prison Ireland was in the Fifties. A Soviet-type control was exercised by the Church and the backward-looking political parties. Violence seemed the only outlet for those who wanted a better or united Ireland.

Joe Christle broke the mould when he abandoned the gun for more constitutional means of achieving his dream of a just society. There seemed little point in liberating Northern pensioners from their 45 shillings a week for the 28 shillings pittance in the independent South.

But it wasn't an overnight transition and Joe was charged with stealing gelignite in Athy, appearing at the Bridewell on the same 1958 morning as the Pike Theatre's Alan Simpson. Amnesiac witnesses led to the case's collapse, but visiting Joe's French wife during his imprisonment, as she tried to stem the rain tide through a leaking roof, was a tangible reminder of the sacrifices also made by revolutionaries' wives.

Joe also broke the mould when, as a white-collar ESB man, he assisted the manual workers in their desperate bid for a modest wage increase. His efforts won them success at the price of his promotion prospects and, like his brothers Brendan and Colm, he continued his night studies until he also qualified as a lawyer.

It was in the 1961 general election that he finally stood as an independent in the Crumlin-Drimnagh area. The working-class constituents welcomed one of their own who best understood their deprivations. Joe's popularity, however, proved too much for the vigilant clergy and party bosses. Two days before the election, pulpit intervention ensured that he failed to secure a seat - by a mere 300 votes. What he might have achieved had he been elected is still a painful memory for his supporters.

Thereafter, Joe concentrated on raising his talented family and his new career as law lecturer in Rathmines college. Through his innovations and his influence on young lawyers and barristers, he finally achieved far more than on any of those border raids.

It was his infectious enthusiasm, leadership qualities and complete selflessness which won Joe such support in the eventful Fifties and Sixties. Among his brainchildren was the National Students Council, whose most spectacular action was the removal from London's Tate Gallery of Berthe Morisot's Jour d'Ete. This led to the reopening of the Hugh Lane bequest question and the subsequent agreement to finally allow the pictures to hang in Ireland.

Joe's interest in sport led him to inaugurate the Ras Tailteann cycle race, which is now one of Ireland's premier events. The international successes of Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche were also the logical outcome of his pioneering work. Joe wasn't above using the cycling to make a political point and the flying of the tricolour led to chaotic Northern scenes during the 1956 Ras.

The tall Dubliner bestrode Cookstown's wide main street like a colossus, as he shepherded bloody survivors to safety, and without losing his characteristic sense of humour. As a policeman and wild onlookers rained embarrassingly accurate kicks and blows on this writer, Joe hurried over and said: "I think they want us to leave." Even the RUC man laughed.

Joe knew full well that, but for an accident of birth, the roles would have been reversed. And it was that intelligence and empathy which distinguished him from the blind proponents of violence. He was a humanitarian rather than a dogmatist and, in later years, his Rathgar home was open house for those with a variety of problems. His work, studies and life were devoted to helping others and the hundreds of disparate characters who attended his funeral bore witness to the depth and range of his influence.

A rare good-natured man in an increasingly selfish society, Joe Christle will never be forgotten by those who had the privilege of knowing him or working with him - in whatever guise. With his brothers and sons, he made the name of Christle a rare badge of achievement and pride. B.L.