Garret FitzGerald, RIP

by Maria on May 19, 2011

Garret FitzGerald, Ireland’s Taoiseach in the 1980s and a beloved family friend, died early this morning. Politically, I think of him as the man who took Thatcher’s condescension on the chin to create the Anglo Irish Agreement, and the man with the courage to call time on the Catholic Church’s unquestioned dominance of social policy and moral thought in Ireland. Personally, while I can appreciate that Garret had what we call a good innings, wasn’t ill for very long, and enjoyed a final few hours of joyous clarity with some of the people he loved the most, I both wished and believed that he would go on and on.

People think of Garret as a dizzy academic, and not the resolutely calculating man he could be when it came to tallying odds and gaming a scenario. This was the man who coolly reckoned at the beginning of his career that while he was constitutionally more suited to the Labour Party, he would achieve less at the head of it, and so joined Fine Gael. His first job was writing the timetable for Aer Lingus, long before there was software for that kind of organisational nitty gritty. He had an extraordinary memory for this sort of thing; on a walk near Cahersiveen a decade ago, he explained to me the old train route there, the stations it called at, the time of each train and effect on the local economy. He giggled when I said we should call him Rainman instead.

One of the best things Garret did, politically, was to go out over the whole country at the beginning of the 1980s to recruit young people and women into Fine Gael, bringing into public life a new generation, and re-inspiring the women who’d first tuned in to politics with Declan Costello’s tract , ‘The Just Society’. He phone up my mother, Louise, soon after we’d moved to Tipperary and hardly knew anyone, and got her to run. She very nearly won. But having gone out on a limb as a complete blow-in to the community and lost, Mum expected a little consolation. Garret’s rapidfire response; ‘Well of course you weren’t going to win, but you helped to get out the vote for the number 1.”

The general elections of the 1982 period all roll into one, in my memory. It seems like a long period of running door to door with my sister, brothers and other party children, decked out in an endless roll of colourful stickers, always in earshot of a tractor pulling a trailer and speakers blasting out the cheesy vinyl single; “Fine Gael, Fine Gael, oh-oh the future we hail!”. As children on the imaginative cusp of adolescence, we felt in the middle of a great adventure, on a quest to change the whole country, led by Garret the Good. Admittedly, I was ten years old and the finer policy points were a little beyond me.

Our families’ political fortunes and multi-generational friendships had been intertwined since the Easter 1916 journey of Garret’s father, Desmond FitzGerald, and my great-grandfather, Eoin MacNeill, in a truck to a prison camp in Wales. Some of my tenderest memories of Garret are from the time of my aunt Bairbre’s death, now almost twenty years ago. Bairbre was an accomplished historian, schoolteacher and a profoundly ethical woman, who Garret had always cherished. When Bairbre was dying, Garret and my uncle Michael reconciled, following Michael’s earlier departure from Fine Gael to help found the Progressive Democrats. My old friend Colin Murphy reminisced with me today about the morning Garret, my Dad, brother Remy and sisters Annaick and Eleanor followed Bairbre’s coffin in convoy from Dublin to Kerry. Garret gamely let us keep his spirits up on the long journey, but we all fell into the most profoundly speechless silence as hundreds of Bairbre’s and my uncle Joe’s uniformed students lined the bridge over the Laune and up into Killorglin. The morning of the funeral, Garret’s merriment and joy were briefly back as over a dozen of us pounded the breakfast table while Garret cooked the sausages. Emily and Bridget Hourican whipped us all into several choruses of ‘Sausage-maker, Sausage-maker, fast as you can!’, and Garret conducted us with the spatula.

When he came to Washington DC almost two years ago, Garret stayed with Henry and his family and visibly thrived on having the two small boys buzz around him, in between trips into town for dinners with John Bruton and other Irish and American politicians. This was a timely moment for me, because Garret was the first non-DC based family member to meet my then brand new boyfriend, Ed, and sent back a glowing report to Mum. On learning that Ed was in the British Army and had spent time in Northern Ireland, Garret asked for Ed’s regiment, mentally pegged it straight away and said “Oh good. They never gave us any trouble.”

(That also prompted him to tell us about a still painful incident when Irish police had unwittingly arrested British security forces for coming south of the border looking like Provos. He never could get Margaret Thatcher to believe the episode was an innocent one, and not dreamed up as a provocation, and put it down to her inability to imagine herself acting in such a straightforward way. On the whole, though, his stories about her were fond, though not especially warm, and respectful.)

I think Garret lived such a mentally sharp and active life for so long – still writing his regular economics column in the Irish Times to the end – because he was just so curious and endlessly interested in and enjoying the people around him. Every summer, he and his daughter Mary organized a weeks-long summer house rental in the south of France, where a rota of family, friends and especially his beloved grand-children and their friends would come through, with 20-30 people at a time sitting down for dinner. (Everyone took turns cooking dinner and Garret calculated contributions based on a characteristically complex but fair formula.) Just last week, my sister Annaick was telling me about once being exiled to the children’s table. She’s twenty eight. Main course done, Garret went right over to the younger crowd and demanded to know what they were talking about. Books and films, came the answer. “Ah good, much more interesting,” he said, and sat straight down to listen, learn and interject.

Garret was famously devoted to his wife, Joan, and many wondered at how he ultimately regained his energy and many enthusiasms after she died. But he was far more robust than his unworldly public image seemed to suggest. When, fairly late in life, he lost all his savings in the misguided GPA investment, Garret rolled up his sleeves and set to work writing, writing, writing to provide for them both. After Joan died, Garret carried on industriously writing, thinking and talking to his wide and varied circle of family, friends and peers.

More than anything, Garret loved the company of clever women. When my parents turned up on the annual summer holiday, he would decry their failure to bring at least two of their four daughters. Truth be told, he loved to be sat at dinner beside a clever, pretty girl. And while he had the normal allowance of conversational set pieces and an endless array of mind-bogglingly detailed information on obscure topics, Garret always asked lots of questions and listened curiously and carefully to the answers. He was the rare Great Man who relished a real conversation.

One summer, he gave me some drafts for a lecture tour of American universities he was to give in the autumn, talking about US/EU relations. I pointed out he had hardly mentioned Russia, and that relations with then-resurgent Russia were the linchpin of his arguments about Europe and America’s differences of philosophy and material interest. His loud and delighted exhalation – “Ah!” – began a memorable couple of days of discussion, reading, and re-writing. Garret’s intellectual openness and generosity were a joy to encounter.

The last time I saw Garret was at my wedding just before Christmas. He caught my eye as I started up the aisle, and his rheumy smile steadied me in a way I wouldn’t have expected. Garret was a decade younger than my grand-parents, but because both grand-fathers died early, I’ve always thought of him as being just a little of that mold. It has been lovely to be one focus of his curious and pleased interest over the years, to be a cherished knot in the silvery net of friendship between families and generations.

Garret adored his extended family and was always excitedly tender towards his own grand-children in particular. Garret’s children, and especially his daughter Mary, shaped their way of living to place Garret at the hurly burly centre of decades of family life. They generously shared him with many other people, and will miss him the most. But I will leave the final word to my mother, Louise, who told me this morning that “to have known him and been loved by him was enough”.



Chris Bertram 05.19.11 at 12:32 pm

That’s a very fine tribute Maria.


P O'Neill 05.19.11 at 1:05 pm

Really excellent post.

On the lunchtime news RTE played the famous “constitutional crusade” interview with Gerald Barry. The shocker to me was this exchange (roughly paraphrased) —

Barry: But isn’t it true, and this is what Mister Lenihan says, that you can’t do it without persuading Fianna Fail?
Garret: My job is to persuade the Irish people, not Fianna Fail.

Politically and short-term of course Barry was correct since FF blocked some things (e.g. divorce) and made other parts so vicious (condoms!) that the appetite for the agenda waned. But the assumed equivalence in the question of “Irish people” and “Fianna Fail” is something we’re now thankfully free of.

Also, his time as Taoiseach tends to obscure his achievements in Foreign Affairs, including on Northern Ireland.

Finally, he was very much a pre-Celtic Tiger mindset. The 2000s era official Ireland thought that it was up to the rest of the world to learn about how great we were. Garret was always out learning about the rest of the world (as your anecdotes about his recent travels show).


Thirsty Gargoyle 05.19.11 at 1:52 pm

That’s a beautiful piece, Maria. Thank you.


Colin 05.19.11 at 1:53 pm

In more recent years, in the pages of the Irish Times, I recall him measuring the width of (I think) the corner at Dawson St, to prove (decisively) that the Luas tram wouldn’t fit; consistently exposing the collapse in Irish competitiveness in the run up to the 2007 election, and urging Fine Gael (to no avail) to run on the issue of the economy; and revealing that the Department of Finance had nobody with a Leaving Cert in Economics, let alone a PhD (I exaggerate, but that was the gist of it). His column remained a font of insight and penetrating analysis, and was a lesson to journalists, let alone politicians.


salazar 05.19.11 at 2:11 pm

The signature of the Anglo-Irish agreement (and, to a lesser extent, Reagan’s state visit) gave him pretty much the only significant media coverage he ever got here in the States. How symbolic that he passed away during the Queen’s visit.

Also, I heard a story once about how he looked at an air traffic controller’s chart and determined with a high degree of accuracy where and at what time different flights’ paths would cross. Anyone else?


attracta 05.19.11 at 3:40 pm

A wonderfully insightful piece


Kathleen Daly 05.19.11 at 4:08 pm

Your tribute to Garret brought tears to my eyes. You were lucky to have known him personally. I just knew him from politics and from his writings but have always had great time for the man. Thank you.


Missing Garret 05.19.11 at 5:32 pm

A renaissance man President McAleese called him. Spot on.

A man of intellect and warm human passion. A man of ideas and culture. A polyglot who spoke excellent Irish and French and reasonable Spanish. In short an example. It is a man like this we should hold up and value and not the aggressive self-publicising spiv culture made flesh in the likes of Michael O’Leary.

And a charismatic man who managed to enthuse a huge number of people who would not normally have voted for his party. In fact the most charismatic Irish politician for generations. Haughey liked to play the part of the popular leader but his very presence led to the flight of many natural voters away from his party while Garret achieved quite the opposite.

An example of the worth of service to your country and not just your country or indeed party. His legacy will be much greater than the cute hoors and let’s just hope people can see in him an inspiration for the future.

Garret was that sort of Irish gentleman who didn’t have to loud and vulgar but courteous, intelligent and discreetly cultured.

God bless you Garret, the world is a poorer place without you!


martin 05.19.11 at 6:00 pm

Garret Fitzgerald was the one (the only) politician that I admired when I was growing up in Ireland and this is a wonderful tribute that, like one of your other commenters, brought a tear to my eyes. I was particularly struck by your remark that he enjoyed “a final few hours of joyous clarity”. I assume that he knew the Queen was in town and I hope that he was happy to see his life’s work come to such a fulfilment.


Eimear Ní Mhéalóid 05.19.11 at 6:03 pm

On Morning Ireland today they mentioned the story (should be true even if it isn’t) that when he left Aer Lingus, they found that to replace him it needed four managers and two computers.

I always enjoyed his Irish Times columns, particularly his views on education. He very strongly resisted the idea that this should be about specific training in response to the demands of industry. He must have been the only prominent figure, too, to argue that “the Matric” should be reformed instead of being abolished.

His writing also taught me to ask, whenever certain statistics are being compared between one country and another, “What about the demographics?” – Ireland so often being very different in population profile from the other nation(s) involved.


John D 05.19.11 at 7:19 pm

Beautiful piece. Garret’s heyday was slightly before my time, and hearing the various tributes to him today makes me appreciate what I missed. To think that Ireland could have had a leader who combined courage and honesty with intellectual acumen almost beggars belief. Particularly to someone brought up in the era of Bertie Ahern and the Celtic Tiger.


nick s 05.19.11 at 7:26 pm

Thanks for writing this, Maria. It says a lot more about the man (and about Ireland, I think) than the official obits.


James Wogan 05.19.11 at 7:34 pm

Maria, thanks so much for sharing this piece with us. It was a joy to read and a fitting tribute to the man. Miss him already.


Mrs Tilton 05.19.11 at 7:49 pm

Thank you, Maria. Though I concede it’s a low bar and might thus be deemed faint praise, I assure you it is not: Fitzgerald was to my mind the best Taoiseach Ireland has had so far. Shall we not see his like again? I certainly hope we do.

Otherwise, what MG said @8.


Aisling 05.19.11 at 7:57 pm

Lovely piece.


Eamonn 05.19.11 at 9:23 pm



Enda H 05.19.11 at 9:58 pm

Great piece, Maria.

As an undergrad, in or around 2006, I remember spotting Garret walking through Trinity one afternoon. My friend and I plucked up the courage to approach him and tell him we appreciated everything he did for the country and that his achievements are not overlooked by the generation still reaching maturity.

It is a remarkable testament to the kindness and sincerity of the man, a former leader of this country, that he gave us his house phone number and invited us around to talk politics. Too blushed barely for words, we never made that call. A pity.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.


Frank Schnittger 05.19.11 at 10:26 pm

Thanks, Maria, for a great tribute.

I have written my own little tribute to Garret at the European Tribune and also on Daily Kos at

I obviously didn’t know him personally like you guys, but my one encounter with him illustrated the points you made perfectly.


EWI 05.19.11 at 10:59 pm

Fitzgerald was to my mind the best Taoiseach Ireland has had so far. Shall we not see his like again? I certainly hope we do.

This really isn’t the day for it, but it does bear mentioning that Garret was the original bank bailer-outer (AIB/ICI), something that appears to have disappeared down the popular memory hole (as has his huge debts subsequently being forgiven by the very same bank).


conall 05.20.11 at 7:26 am

He was an ‘elegant failure’, but I have the fondest memories of him when he lecturered to us engineers about business (UCD 1963)


Alex 05.20.11 at 9:58 am

Also, I heard a story once about how he looked at an air traffic controller’s chart and determined with a high degree of accuracy where and at what time different flights’ paths would cross.

I wonder if he was applying Henry Tizard’s method* or whether he independently reinvented it?

*Assuming one is faster than the other, draw a line between the two targets and make it the base of an isoceles triangle


Marc Mulholland 05.20.11 at 1:27 pm

It was sad news – he was a great Irish statesman and public intellectual.


jaybee 05.20.11 at 2:38 pm

A very fine tribute, Maria.

Garret’s death does have me wondering though if this now leaves TK Whitaker and George Ivan Morrison to dispute the title of greatest living Irishman?

Seamus Heaney is unavailable to contest the title at present while he’s re-visiting some of his more famous lines (“Don’t be surprised if I demur . . .”)


Martin 05.20.11 at 4:39 pm

Irish politicians cause despair and cynicism because of their lack of talent, lack of statesmanship, their greed, their lack of integrity, and their lack of a true service ethic.

Garrett is one of the few in my lifetime who shone as a welcome deviation from the dismal norm, and he was an inspiration.

Ireland needs many more like him. Very sorry to see him go.

Thanks for the article.


Maria 05.22.11 at 7:10 am

Thanks all for the very kind words. I’m really glad to have written something that struck a chord and in some way got across the kind of man Garret was. (And MG, I agree with every word you wrote.)

The hundreds (thousands?) of reminiscences of Garret to be found on the web in the past couple of days astonished even me. Did the man never stop chatting to people, helping them with research, inviting them home for cups of tea? I don’t know where he got his energy from.


Leo Traynor 05.22.11 at 10:06 am

A beautiful piece that sums up the essence of a wonderful man. A polymath and a gentleman in the true sense of the word.

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