FitzGerald, Joan (1923–99), political confidante, was born 24 March 1923 in Liverpool, England, elder of the two children of Charles O'Farrell (d. 1956), a former colonial civil servant, with Galway roots, who had served in west Africa, and his wife Frances (1889–1974), daughter of Charles Brenan, owner of Dublin's Phoenix brewery. The O'Farrells were in Liverpool in 1923 to escape the civil war in Dublin. They then moved to Sussex, where in 1928 Charles O'Farrell suffered a mental breakdown and tried to drown his infant son and kill his wife. The five-year-old Joan ran for help and never forgot the incident. Her father committed himself to an asylum, where he eventually died. Her mother had little money – the Brenan family had been wealthy until their father became involved in lawsuits and bankruptcy in the early twentieth century – so moved with her children to live with her sister, Emily Brenan, an economist with the League of Nations in Geneva. Emily Brenan was also Joan's godmother and paid for her education. After five years in Geneva, where Joan learned fluent French, they all returned to Dublin and lived in Booterstown Avenue, while Joan attended Sion Hill and then UCD, where she studied politics and economics. In her third year she met (25 November 1943) at the French Society the 17-year-old first-year Garret FitzGerald (qv), who later wrote in his diary: ‘she is very witty in a nice quiet way’ (FitzGerald, 32). In the closing weeks of the second world war he proposed marriage. Joan, who had graduated BA (1944) and was doing a diploma in social science, was at first wary and confided her fears that her father's mental illness might be congenital, but she was eventually persuaded. While Garret finished his degree she worked as a welfare officer in a factory and in an administrative capacity in UCD; they were married in Booterstown church, Dublin, on 10 October 1947 and then lived in the top floor of the house of her mother and aunt in Booterstown Avenue. Over the next decade, while Garret worked as research and schedules manager for Aer Lingus, they had two sons and a daughter and moved into 75 Eglinton Road.
When, in the early 1960s Garret began considering a political career, she was at first reluctant. Her oft-stated dislike of politics was in part a legacy from her grandfather, a friend of C. S. Parnell (qv), who had passed on to his daughters the sense that politics could ruin lives. Her reluctance led Garret to withdraw at the last moment as Fine Gael candidate for Dublin South-East in 1965; however when he stood for the seanad a month later, she accepted the inevitable and was supportive, although her loyalty was always to him personally rather than to the party. That she disliked politics came as a surprise to those who saw her filling so well her role as TD's, then minister's, then taoiseach's wife, since she seemed temperamentally suited to it: she was astute and intuitive, especially about character; she had a forceful personality and strong views which she enjoyed arguing; and she was highly gregarious, rejoicing in friendships across the political spectrum. Her ability to remember names and details about those she met was a great help to her more forgetful husband; it sprang from genuine warmth and interest in people, and made her an excellent canvasser. She had a particular rapport with children and was devoted to her eight grandchildren.
After four years as an opposition TD, Garret was made minister for foreign affairs in Liam Cosgrave's coalition government. These years (1973–7) were, he wrote, ‘the high point of our joint career’ (FitzGerald, 195). He felt the ‘joint’ was merited since Joan had significant input to supporting staff, particularly spouses on foreign postings. Having overcome a fear of flying, she accompanied him everywhere; and her fluent French, commitment to Europe, and social skills were a great asset to Ireland as the EEC's newest member. These were also her last years of good health. She had suffered for years from lymphodoemia, which caused swelling of the limbs but did not prevent her exercising. However in 1977 she was diagnosed with arthritis in the knee and thereafter her descent to invalidism was rapid; by 1980 she had difficulty walking and a number of years later was confined to a wheelchair.
Poor health did not prevent her playing an active behind-the-scenes role in Fine Gael's two terms of government in the 1980s (1981, 1982–7). Garret trusted her judgement and she was directly responsible for two important postings: Professor James Dooge as foreign minister (1981–2) – he was an unlikely choice as he was not then even a member of the oireachtas, but she knew that with anyone else in that position Garret would have adopted an unduly hands-on approach – and Peter Sutherland as attorney general when he was still only 35. But most useful to her husband was her strong moral sense and her critical, independent mind which preferred arguing to pandering. The opposite of the adoring, uncritical spouse, ‘she was constantly vigilant lest I be tempted to compromise my principles in some way’ (Garret FitzGerald, Irish Times, 19 June 1999). Others saw her practicality and directness as a useful complement to Garret's more intellectual approach, and credited her steeliness with weeding out the front bench in 1981.
Ideologically the couple were in agreement, being liberal catholics who favoured reforming the doctrinaire elements of the constitution, and introducing divorce. Theology was a cherished interest; in the 1980s she initiated an annual conference in living theology and she amassed a large theological library, which after her death was presented to UCC. She favoured church reform, arguing specifically for the ordination of women and of married priests.
Termed the most influential partner of a premier in modern Irish history, Joan FitzGerald was the quintessential matriarch, presiding with natural authority over family and friends. Irascibility made her formidable; sudden tornado rages inspired fear, and she delivered frequent sharp put-downs in her inimitable bark, once telling the British European commissioner, Lord Soames, that he was the rudest man she had ever met after he ignored her at a dinner (he became a firm friend). Her strength was enabled by her marriage, celebrated as the strongest in Irish politics. Garret's uxoriousness was occasionally criticised and gently ridiculed; the editor of one Waterford paper complained that he spent too much time with her, and she was famous for constantly interrupting cabinet meetings with domestic calls – allegedly twenty-eight in one day. But he was aware that her imposing exterior hid inner insecurity – after her death he wrote: ‘[Her early] experience left her emotionally very vulnerable: she needed to be absolutely secure in any relationship she formed . . . She remained in need of constant reassurance – and in that perhaps lay the key to the closeness of our relationship’ (Irish Times, 19 June 1999).
Her declining health influenced his decision not to stand for election in 1992. Two years later she took her last holiday – the FitzGerald holidays in France and the west of Ireland were famous as large convivial gatherings of family and friends, often stretching to over twenty guests. In 1995 she was confined to bed and was nursed at home in 30 Palmerston Road, with friends continuing to call at all hours and to have dinner at a table set beside her bed. She died 12 June 1999 peacefully at home, with Garret beside her. Her large funeral went from Donnybrook church to burial at Shanganagh cemetery.