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.
Tags: Garret FitzGerald