Childers, Erskine Hamilton (1905–74), politician, and fourth president of Ireland, was born 11 December 1905 at 13 Embankment Gardens, Chelsea, London, the elder of two sons of Robert Erskine Childers (qv), British soldier, civil servant, and author, who later became prominent in the Irish republican movement, and Mary Alden Childers (née Osgood), daughter of Dr Hamilton Osgood, physician, of Beacon Hill, Boston, Mass., USA. Though reared and educated in England, he spent childhood summer holidays with his father's maternal relations, the Bartons, at Glendalough House, Annamoe, Co. Wicklow.
Education and early career
After attending a private kindergarten in Battersea, and a preparatory school in Sloane Square, he entered Gresham's School, Holt, Norfolk (1918–24). As a sixteen-year-old schoolboy, he was allowed one brief visit with his father in the latter's Dublin prison cell prior to his execution during the civil war (November 1922). Imbued with his parents’ ardent republican convictions, he made his first public oration at a Sinn Féin election rally in Dublin in August 1923. He continued his education at Trinity College, Cambridge (1924–8), graduating BA in history and politics. After working as a travel agent in Paris (1928–31), he moved to Ireland, where he became advertisement manager of the Irish Press (1932–5). He was secretary of the National Agricultural and Industrial Development Association (1935–9), and secretary of the Federation of Irish Manufacturers (1939–44) (latterly the Confederation of Irish Industry).
Becoming active in Irish politics, Childers served from 1933 on the national executive of Fianna Fáil, and was unsuccessful in the March 1938 election for the first Seanad Éireann convened under the 1937 constitution. The question of his citizenship, and consequent qualification for elected office, arose at intervals throughout his political career (his father having died prior to the formal establishment of the Irish Free State on 6 December 1922). He received a certificate of naturalisation (dated 2 March 1938, the day of his nomination as a seanad candidate) under the 1935 nationality and citizenship act, which empowered the government to grant natural-born citizenship to a person, or to the immediate family members of a person, who had rendered distinguished service to the Irish nation.
Dáil career and early government service
Selected as running mate to two sitting Fianna Fáil TDs in the three-seat Athlone–Longford constituency in the June 1938 general election, he defied expectations by unseating one of them, commencing a thirty-five-year tenure in Dáil Éireann (1938–73). Though not a heavy-vote-getter, save for the very end of his career, and typically scraping in on a late count, he never lost an election. As TD for Athlone–Longford (1938–48), he familiarised himself with the midlands constituency by travelling extensively by bicycle amid the transport restrictions of the Emergency. After a boundary revision, he represented the Longford–Westmeath five-seater (1948–61). On its reduction to four seats, he was moved to three-seat Monaghan (1961–73), a risky but successful gambit by which Fianna Fáil hoped to attract the constituency's sizeable protestant vote while holding their traditional republican support. A constituency rival of Fine Gael leader James Dillon (qv), Childers first won back a seat that Fianna Fáil had lost to Sinn Féin in 1957, and then was returned over quota on the first count for the first time in his career in 1965.
A backbencher till 1944, he spoke frequently in dáil debates on economic matters and industrial development. Serving as parliamentary secretary to the minister for local government and public health (1944–7), and to the minister for local government (1947–8), he was active in reorganising the county engineering service, and in formulating the 1947 public libraries act. Deeply involved in road safety issues, he introduced the first regulations regarding width, elevation, and curvature of roads. He chaired an internal departmental group that recommended radical innovations in road building policy that went unheeded by government, involving the state taking the initiative from local authorities in road planning, and quality of roads taking priority over job creation in road building.
In opposition for the first time after the 1948 general election, he was employed as Dublin manager of Blackwood Hodge, a British-based engineering company (1948–51); though he resigned on entering cabinet, he was accused of a conflict of interest when the firm secured an OPW contract. On appointment as minister for posts and telegraphs (1951–4) he was, at age 45, the youngest member of cabinet; many of his colleagues had been associates of his father in the troubles of 1919–23. Taking an enthusiastic interest in the broadcasting service, he allowed the important innovation of unscripted discussions of controversial topics on Radio Éireann. He constituted the five-member Comhairle Radio Éireann in 1953 to oversee the operation of the station and to advise the minister (who retained statutory responsibility) on policy; the service was thus accorded an intermediate status between a government department and a fully independent statutory body. He appointed (1953) Maurice Gorham (qv), an experienced veteran of the BBC, as director of broadcasting, the first to come to the post from outside the Irish civil service. Childers defended the role of the Radio Éireann Symphony Orchestra in the cultural life of the nation, against criticism that it was a wasteful expenditure on an elitist taste, and he urged the need for a permanent concert hall.
During a second spell on the opposition benches, Childers worked as Irish sales manager and director of Pye Telecommunications (1954–7). On Fianna Fáil's return to government, he became minister for lands, forestry, and fisheries (1957–9). He reorganised the fishery board, Bord Iascaigh Mhara, and launched initiatives to expand fish exports. He sought to improve productivity in forestry operations, pursuing the goal of a cost-efficient and profitable enterprise. While the yearly target for state tree planting was achieved for the first time, his efforts to stimulate forestry on privately owned lands foundered, despite increases in planting grants, and provision of technical advice.
Minister under Lemass and Lynch
In the new Fianna Fáil administration headed by Seán Lemass (qv), Childers became minister for transport and power (1959–69), assuming authority over a new department with responsibility for certain functions transferred from the bloated Department of Industry and Commerce. On his recommendation, the government appointed Thekla Beere (qv) as the first woman secretary of a government department in Ireland. Continuing the thorough reorganisation of CIÉ as mandated under the 1958 transport act, Childers closed uneconomic rail lines despite strident criticism. After persuading government to purchase the B & I Steam Packet Co. (1965), thereby breaking the British monopoly of passenger transport on the Irish Sea, he initiated a modernisation programme for the company, which included introduction of car-ferry vessels, ro-ro freight capacity, and a new management structure. In 1961 responsibility for tourism was transferred to his department, an area in which he had a keen interest and professional expertise. He established eight regional tourism organisations funded by An Bord Fáilte (1962), thereby counteracting the deficiencies of a Dublin-centred service, and leading to the establishment of a network of tourist offices countrywide. He promoted such tourism innovations as farmhouse accommodation, ‘medieval banquets’ in restored castles, artistic festivals, and the summer school movement (he had opened the first Yeats Summer School in Sligo (August 1960)), and took a special interest in development of the Irish youth hostel organisation, An Óige. Long an advocate of improved relations with Northern Ireland, he signed an agreement with the Stormont commerce minister, Brian Faulkner (qv), for construction of a North–South electricity interconnector (1967). Childers supported Jack Lynch (qv) over George Colley (qv) in the 1966 Fianna Fáil leadership contest. In the subsequent cabinet reshuffle, minister for posts and telegraphs was added to his portfolio (1966–9).
The senior member of cabinet after the 1969 general election, Childers was made tánaiste and minister for health (1969–73), and became vice-president of Fianna Fáil in July 1970. Exercising his characteristic capacity for compromise, he steered the 1970 health act (already at an advanced stage when he assumed office) through the oireachtas. The act, described by Childers as ‘an exercise in decentralisation and coordination’ (Barrington, 274), effected major administrative changes in the health services, but less significant improvements in access. The dispensary system for lower incomes was replaced with a free ‘general medical services’ scheme, in which patients chose their doctor, who was compensated by the state on a fee-for-service basis. Eight regional health boards were established to administer health services (including management of public hospitals), replacing administration by local authorities; however, Childers conceded an amendment granting local councillors majority representation on the boards. A central Comhairle na nOspidéal was established to regulate appointments to consultant posts in public and voluntary hospitals. The only important extension of eligibility was a compensation scheme for expenditure on drugs above a specified threshold. Childers allowed various amendments that conceded to the interests of voluntary hospitals and consultant physicians, including provision for private practice in public hospitals. With the financing of health services becoming an increasingly contentious political issue, Childers in 1971 imposed a health levy on middle and higher incomes.
Childers believed that he had an obligation to his father's memory to promote reconciliation within Ireland, and between Ireland and Britain. During the Northern Ireland troubles that erupted in 1969, he proved a steadying influence within Fianna Fáil and the government; his customary calmness, reserve, and gravitas leant him a reassuringly statesmanlike demeanour on radio and television appearances. Abhorring political violence, he was a vehement critic of the IRA, and insisted that every gun fired in Ireland postponed the day of eventual national reunification. During the 1970 arms crisis he evinced a public aversion towards his sacked cabinet colleagues, Neil Blaney (qv) and Charles J. Haughey (1925–2006); his distaste for Haughey's eventual rehabilitation by Fianna Fáil was palpable. Childers was named minister of the year in 1970 by Newsweek magazine, a testament to his international profile. Although his unequivocal position on Northern Ireland created divisions within the Fianna Fáil organisation in Monaghan, in the February 1973 general election he topped the poll for the first time in his career, and was elected on the first count.
Public style and private life
Throughout his career in government, Childers was known for efficiency and capable administration, more than for leadership. He had an insatiable appetite for information, especially in the form of statistics, about every aspect of his brief, and issued endless streams of memoranda to senior civil servants regarding the minutiae of the department's remit, and to cabinet colleagues on matters pertinent to their departments; the latter generated more amusement than annoyance. Though shy and aloof, he was innately courteous, and an effective public speaker. Earnest to the point of eccentricity, he had a reputation for parsimony, and committed some legendary gaffes. He once approached a party colleague, Senator Mark Killilea, for a dáil pairing, then exacerbated the blunder by writing a sincere explanatory letter to the Irish Times. Though his family's religious background was Anglican, both his parents held unorthodox views, and he was reared without a strong denominational identity. After rejecting all dogma in youth and early manhood, in his middle years he developed a deep Christian commitment, and embraced the ritual and dogma of the Church of Ireland. One of Fianna Fáil's few protestant TDs, and the party's only protestant government minister, he responded to critics in Britain and Northern Ireland by attesting to the tolerance enjoyed by protestants in the political, commercial, and professional life of the republic.
From 1933 Childers resided at 68 Highfield Road, Rathgar, Dublin. Small in stature, with a large head, he had a high forehead, accentuated in later years by a receding hairline. His recreations were gardening and walking (especially in the Wicklow mountains). He married (1925), at age 19 and while a Cambridge undergraduate, Ruth Ellen Dow (d. 1950), six years his elder, daughter of Albert Nelson Dow, a forester and banker of Exeter, New Hampshire, USA. A social science graduate of Wellesley College, Massachusetts, she contributed freelance journalism to American newspapers, wrote a children's novel, and worked in various social services in Ireland, assisting in the development of social work as a profession. They had three daughters and two sons (Erskine Barton Childers (qv), broadcast journalist, writer, and UN official, and Roderick Winthrop Childers, professor of cardiology at the university of Chicago). Childers married secondly (1952) Margaret Mary (‘Rita’) Dudley (1915–2010), a catholic, daughter of Joseph Dudley, a Dublin solicitor, originally from Co. Cork. Entering the British civil service in 1941, she worked in the office of John Maffey (qv), UK representative to Éire, and in both the Ministry of Information and the Foreign Office in London, before becoming assistant press attaché in the British embassy in Dublin. They had one daughter, Nessa Childers (b. 1956), who was elected Labour Party MEP for Ireland East in 2009.
President of Ireland
Standing in 1973 for the Irish presidency, Childers declared his intention, if elected, to expand the dimension and character of the office, by inspiring ‘social patriotism’, and stimulating ‘enlightened examination’ of non-divisive matters. He aspired to assemble a presidential think tank to produce ideas for the Ireland of the future. In a two-way contest with Tom O'Higgins (1916–2003) of Fine Gael, he received fifty-two per cent of the votes cast (30 May 1973), and was inaugurated as the state's fourth president on 25 June. The election of a member of the protestant minority was interpreted as symbolically significant amid the continuing sectarian strife in Northern Ireland. During his brief tenure (1973–4), he attended the funeral of the French president, Georges Pompidou, in Paris (April 1974), and made an official state visit to Belgium, the first ever by an Irish president to a European country (May 1974). His remarks on American television about the Northern Ireland situation (July 1973), which he believed expressed the agreed consensus of all constitutional parties in the republic, irritated the Fine Gael–Labour coalition government, which thereafter restricted the subjects on which he could comment publicly.
Moments after addressing a dinner of psychiatrists at the RCPI, Kildare St., Dublin, Childers suffered a heart attack, and died several hours later in the Mater Misericordiae hospital on 17 November 1974, the first Irish president to die in office. His state funeral in St Patrick's cathedral attracted the largest assembly of foreign dignitaries on Irish soil to that date. He was buried in Derralossary churchyard, Roundwood, Co. Wicklow.