Remembering Garret FitzGerald (1926-2011)

By Kevin O’Sullivan

It was early July 2005. I was sitting in Garret FitzGerald’s front room, in the midst of an hour-long conversation about his time as Irish minister for foreign affairs, when my interviewee stopped me in mid-sentence. I’d been asking him why Ireland had refused to open full diplomatic relations with Portugal until – as I had it in my preparation notes – 1975, after the Revolution of the Carnations and the fall of the Caetano regime. ‘1974’, FitzGerald corrected me. But being a confident young postgraduate less than a year into my PhD, I was standing my ground. ‘No’, I said. ‘I believe it was 1975.’ ‘Really?’ came the reply, shocked less, I think, at the response than at the idea that he might have made an error in his dates.

He mumbled something and left the room – in a rather sprightly fashion I might add – and I sat there for a while, wondering where he’d gone, and who’d eventually find the stone from one of the cherries he’d been eating after lunch and dropped under his chair. (It makes for a nice little moment on the tape.) About five minutes later he returned brandishing a copy of the annual State Directory and an admission that yes, I had been correct. We carried on our conversation from there, passing through his story of enraging the Germans over the Irish insistence on spending someone else’s money (on foreign aid – but plus ça change nonetheless), on the way to borrowing the Fijian foreign minister’s glasses in Lomé, west Africa, in 1975, but without me ever finding out why – or where – he held a private collection of official publications in the comfort of his own home.

Listening to the many tributes from the great and the good yesterday reminded me of the frequent Wednesday afternoons FitzGerald spent at the contemporary Irish history seminar at Trinity College Dublin and the many conferences at which he would offer his comments and recollections – often lengthy, but why change the habit of a lifetime? – on a variety of subjects, from Sunningdale to the future of the Irish language. Yes, FitzGerald’s intelligence and contributions to public life may have skewed the discussion on his career somewhat – unsurprising for a man with two autobiographies and at least the same number of ‘reflections’. (See William Murphy’s fascinating piece in Éire-Ireland for evidence.) And yes, it will be intriguing to watch as historians unpack the pieces of his political career. But at least he was there to discuss and to engage with everyone from senior researchers to lowly (though he would never have put it that way) postgraduate students. However problematic his decision-making in the 1980s and however much it contributed to that melancholy decade, watching him on RTÉ’s Prime Time in March, when he admitted that he had taken some wrong decisions during that period, was a reminder of how few of our politicians – former or current – have the willingness or the ability to engage at his level of critical analysis.

So it was a measure of the man that when I returned to the same front room to interview him again last year, FitzGerald delighted in recounting the research he’d been conducting into education in 19th century Ireland. His obvious excitement at his findings and the contribution they might make to historical debate highlighted an innate curiosity and a desire to discuss, debate and generate conversation. Yet that spirit of inquiry was not limited to Ireland. When I heard the news of his death yesterday morning, my mind was cast back to another brush with the former Taoiseach, in February 2005, a few months before our conversation about Portuguese diplomacy. That year I was involved in organising the annual conference of the Irish History Students Association, a gathering of undergraduate and postgraduate papers from across Ireland and beyond at Trinity College Dublin. In our efforts to advertise and get bums on seats – we’ve all been there – we sent a message to the convenors of the TCD Contemporary Irish History seminar mailing list to ask them to send on the programme and details of the event. To our eternal surprise, there, some days later, was a message in our conference inbox from FitzGerald’s secretary. Dr FitzGerald, the e-mail read, would not be available to attend the conference, but was very interested in the paper to be delivered on 6th century Gaul. Would it be possible to obtain a copy?

Ní bheidh a leithéid ann arís, whatever your opinion of him.

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11 Responses to “Remembering Garret FitzGerald (1926-2011)”

  1. Patrick Says:

    I had forgotten about 6th century Gaul! Hope we sent him the paper? Brilliant piece Kevin

    • puesoccurrences Says:

      Ha – I remember us sending his message on to the person who gave the paper, but I’m not sure whether it ever got to him in the end. Kudos, though, to FitzGerald for even being interested in the first place.

      Kevin

  2. Ciara Meehan Says:

    Great piece, Kevin. One of my favourite memories of interviewing Dr FitzGerald is his intrigue with my slim-line digital recorder. I remember him asking where would the tape possibly fit – we then had a great chat about technological advances. It’s those off-point conversations (like your story about the cherry stone) that always make listening back to interviews entertaining. Even if his point of view was not always agreed with, his generosity with his time for researchers will be sorely missed.

  3. Eoin Magennis Says:

    Very good post Kevin and, like Ciara, it mirrors my own experience of sitting in that room a few years ago talking about cross-border matters. His openness about discussing the recent past in an unguarded manner made him pretty much a rarity in the Irish political elite. More entertaining was his ability to go onto other topics – from 18th century Newry to the decline of Irish in the Cooley peninsula. I wouldn’t always have agreed with him but when you did disagree he made you challenge your own thinking. Perhaps that, more than anything else, will be his lasting legacy – prompting people to rethink their own views on many subjects, historical and political.

  4. Caoimhe Says:

    Mention should also be made of the historical community’s debt to Garret FitzGerald as Taoiseach for his enlightened attitudes towards archives, the preservation of documents and public access to them on a properly-organised basis. Would that more of his predecessors had followed in his footsteps.

  5. Ida Milne Says:

    Great piece, Kevin.

  6. Felix Larkin Says:

    Lovely piece, Kevin – a richly deserved tribute. It was always a wonderful experience to see and hear him at the contemporary history seminars in Trinity – so utterly without pretension, no standing on ceremony, just wanting to participate and add to the sum of human knowledge and wisdom. I can think of nobody else of such stature who would have done that, and that is surely a measure of his greatness.

  7. puesoccurrences Says:

    Thanks for all the responses folks. I think that they’re a measure of the generosity FitzGerald exhibited, and the time he made for all of us. But also, as a number of you point out, of his awareness of the importance of discussion and the need to make a contribution to the greater public debate.

    Kevin

  8. Póló Says:

    A few titbits to add to the store:
    http://photopol.blogspot.com/2011/05/garret-fitzgerald.html

  9. Kate O'Malley Says:

    Lovely piece Kevin, a fitting tribute.

  10. Eoin Bairéad Says:

    Hi
    In his “Miriam meets” interview (together with Mary,his daughter) Garret mentions the riot outside TCD when Charlie Haughey & others burned the Union Jack on VE day. He didn’t mention (nobody does) that there had been a riot the previous day when TCD Students burned the Tricolour, and that Charlie’s riot was a response. Garret also said that Charlie was “pro-German” during the war. The 1st riot is mentioned in McDowell & Webb’s book Trinity College Dublin, 1592-1952, but nowhere else I can find – I was told about it by a participant in the 2nd riot. And nowhere can I find ANY reference to Charlie’s views on Nazi Germany, although it’s becoming clear that Dev (and,by implication, Fianna Fáil?) was pro-Allies from the start. In fact it was Garret himself who described our position in WWII as “non-combatant” rather than “neutral”.

    2 questions please. Any primary source for the 1st riot? And any primary source for Charlie’s views in WWII.

    Thanks

    Eioin

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