Childers, Margaret Mary ('Rita') (1915–2010), civil servant and community activist, was born on 25 February 1915 in the family home at Elgin Road, Dublin, the sixth of eight children of Joseph Dudley , a solicitor, and his wife Marcella (née Vereker). Both parents were from well-connected catholic families in Cork and Mayo, and her father was a partner in a well-known legal firm in Dublin who were solicitors for Independent Newspapers. Margaret (usually known as 'Rita') attended Loreto and Sacred Heart schools, and Muckross Park College, but her father's long illness and early death in 1929 meant that there was no money to send his daughters to university. After a short secretarial course, her first job, when she was 17, was as secretary to a Dublin antique dealer, and then for five years she was assistant secretary in the welfare department of the St John Ambulance Brigade, running three canteens in inner-city Dublin for malnourished mothers.
In 1942 she went to work as assistant press attaché in the British representative office in Dublin; Sir John Maffey (qv) was the UK 'representative to Éire' at the time. She moved to wartime London in 1943 to work at the Irish desk in the empire division of the British Ministry of Information, working for Nicholas Mansergh (qv), and then briefly in the British Foreign Office. She came back to Dublin in 1946 as assistant press attaché in the British embassy. In early 1952 she and the widowed politician Erskine Hamilton Childers (qv) met at a diplomatic lunch event, and a relationship soon grew between them. Childers was ten years older than Rita, with five children, but the main stumbling block as they planned marriage was that he was protestant and she was catholic. Archbishop John Charles McQuaid (qv) forbade their marriage in Dublin, alleging hurtfully that Miss Dudley lacked a dowry and that this mixed marriage was her last chance of marrying at all. A religious ceremony was only possible outside Ireland, and the couple were married in the church of St Joseph, Avenue Hoche, Paris, on 16 September 1952, with Cornelius Cremin (qv), the Irish ambassador, as best man.
Childers was at the time Fianna Fáil minister for posts and telegraphs, and later held other ministerial posts, including minister for transport, and minister for health and tánaiste. Rita Childers often accompanied him on official visits and hosted social events in their home; with her experience of diplomatic life and her cultured background she was an ideal companion for her husband, and he came to rely greatly on her.
In June 1973 Erskine Childers was elected president of Ireland, and there was considerable public interest in his elegant and well-dressed wife. In the first few months of the presidency, Rita encouraged her husband as together they tried to bring changes to the role of the president and to the protocol that governed public appearances. The previous president, Èamon de Valera (qv), had been old, and very traditional in his manners; the expectation was that Childers would continue in the same vein, and the Fine Gael–Labour coalition government insisted that the president should not speak out on policy questions. Childers sought a more active role, and he and his wife travelled widely round Ireland, visiting socially deprived areas of Dublin as well as state events. Given more time, his presidency might well have modernised the role very considerably.
However, on 17 November 1974, just after delivering a speech in the Royal College of Physicians, the 69-year-old president suffered a massive heart attack and died shortly afterwards. He was the first president to die in office, and his sudden death was heartbreaking for Rita Childers and their only child, Nessa (b. 1956), who had accompanied her father to the dinner. The sudden death took all the political parties by surprise, and jostling political negotiations to find a successor to the office began with rather unseemly haste.
The whole experience of bereavement was made much worse for Rita Childers by the unfolding of a maladroit attempt to have her stand as a candidate to succeed her late husband as president, the first woman to be in the running for the office. The sequence of events is not now entirely clear; her possible candidature was very quickly leaked to the press, possibly by a government minister, either inadvertently or more likely to embarrass Fianna Fáil. However, it gradually became clear that Fianna Fáil, and possibly other parties, were not prepared to accept her, perhaps because she was a woman, or for other unstated reasons. She announced at the end of November that she was thinking of standing as a non-party candidate, but in the event had to accept that she lacked support from the political establishment. In due course, she publicly congratulated Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh (qv), who emerged as the successful unopposed candidate, with support from both the coalition partners and Fianna Fáil.
Rita Childers publicly snubbed the Fianna Fáil party in February 1975 by refusing to attend the annual mass for deceased party members, stating that the 'late president would not benefit from the prayers of such a party' (Ir. Times, 4 February 1975). With her experience as a press attaché, she understood how to make use of media channels to embarrass those who had so clearly rejected her. She also shared her husband's dislike and distrust of Charles J. Haughey (qv), who was then assiduously rebuilding his political reputation. In 1976 she commented publicly on the controversy surrounding Ó Dálaigh's resignation, alleging that the coalition government had no respect for the office of president, and that the office should be suspended to avoid further discredit.
In the years afterwards, Childers maintained a fairly high profile, with speaking engagements to women's organisations and community groups. She urged women and young people to take a greater part in public and political life, and advocated the fostering of a sense of community throughout society. She took part in an ecumenical peace march organised by the Irish Countrywomen's Association in 1975, and on many occasions spoke out against the abuse of alcohol in Irish life.
In 1995 Childers found a small automatic pistol in a cabinet that had been owned by her husband; possession of this weapon, given by Michael Collins (qv) to her father-in-law, Robert Erskine Childers (qv), had provided the grounds for the latter's trial and execution in 1922. She presented the gun to the Defence Forces, for eventual display in the National Museum at Collins Barracks.
Rita Childers, aged 95, died in Carysfort Nursing Home, Dublin, on 9 May 2010, and was buried beside her husband in Derralossory churchyard, Co. Wicklow.