1974 – Erskine Childers, fourth President of Ireland, dies.

In a lengthy and distinguished career as a TD, Childers role in cabinet included Minister for Posts and Telegraphs, Minister for Transport and Power and Minister for Health. His father Robert Erskine Childers was executed by Irish Government forces in the Civil War.

Erskine Hamilton Childers (Earchta Ó Slatiascaigh; 11 December 1905 – 17 November 1974), served as the fourth President of Ireland from 1973 until his death in 1974. He was a Teachta Dála (TD) from 1938 until 1973. Childers served as Minister for Posts and Telegraphs (1951-1954, 1959-1961, and 1966-1969), Minister for Lands (1957-1959), Minister for Transport and Power (1959-1969), and Minister for Health (1969-1973). He was appointed Tánaiste in 1969.

His father Robert Erskine Childers was a leading Irish Republican and author of the espionage thriller The Riddle of the Sands, and was executed during the Irish Civil War.

Early life:

Childers was born in London, to a Protestant family originally from Glendalough, County Wicklow. Although also born in England, his father, Robert Erskine Childers, had had an Irish mother and had been raised by an uncle in County Wicklow, and after the First World War took his family to live there. His mother, Mary Alden Childers was a Bostonian that was from a family directly related to the Mayflower landing in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Robert Erskine Childers and his wife, Mary, later emerged as prominent and outspoken Irish Republican opponents of the political settlement with Britain which resulted in the establishment of the Irish Free State. Childers was educated at Gresham’s School, Holt, and the University of Cambridge, hence his striking British upper class accent. In 1922, when Childers was sixteen, his father was executed by the new Irish Free State on politically-inspired charges of gun-possession. Before his execution, in a spirit of reconciliation, the older Childers obtained a promise from his son to seek out and shake the hand of every man who had signed the death warrant. After attending his father’s funeral, Childers returned to Gresham’s, then two years later he went on to Trinity College, Cambridge.

Career:

After finishing his education, he worked for a period in a tourism board in Paris until the then Taoiseach of Ireland Éamon de Valera invited him back to Ireland to work for the Irish Press. He became a naturalised Irish citizen in 1938. A member of Fianna Fáil, he held a number of ministerial posts in the cabinets of Éamon de Valera, Seán Lemass and Jack Lynch, becoming Tánaiste in 1969. Erskine’s period as a minister was controversial. One commentator described his ministerial career as “spectacularly unsuccessful”. Others praised his willingness to take tough decisions. He was outspoken in his opposition to Charles Haughey in the aftermath of the Arms Crisis, when Haughey and another minister, both having been sacked, were sent for trial amid allegations of a plot to import arms for the Provisional IRA. (Haughey and the other minister, Neil Blaney, were both acquitted.)

In a political upset, Childers was elected the fourth President of Ireland on 30 May 1973, defeating Tom O’Higgins by 635,867 votes to 578,771. Childers, though 67, was a vibrant, extremely hard-working president who earned universal respect and popularity, in the process making the office of President a highly visible and useful institution. However, he died suddenly of a heart attack in November 1974, while making a public speech to the Royal College of Physicians in Dublin.

Funeral:

Childers’s state funeral in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, was attended by world leaders including the Earl Mountbatten of Burma (representing Queen Elizabeth II), the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and leader of the Opposition, and presidents and crowned heads of state from Europe and beyond. He was buried in the grounds of the Church of Ireland Derralossary church in Roundwood, County Wicklow.

Succession:

Initially it was expected that President Childers’ popular widow, Rita, would be offered the office of president to continue his work, but it went instead to the former Chief Justice, Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh.

Family:

Childers married Ruth Ellen Dow in 1925. After her death he was married in 1952 to Rita Dudley. Childers was survived by his second wife, and children from both his marriages. A son, Erskine Childers, by his first wife, was a UN civil servant and Secretary General of the World Federation of United Nations Associations. A daughter by his second wife, Nessa Childers, was elected to the European Parliament for the Labour Party in 2009, representing the East constituency. His son, Rory W. Childers is a practising cardiologist at The University of Chicago Hospital.

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