Erskine Hamilton Childers, Fianna Fáil politician who serves as the 4th President of Ireland, dies on November 17, 1974. He also serves as Tánaiste and Minister for Health from 1969 to 1973, Minister for Transport and Power from 1959 to 1969, Minister for Posts and Telegraphs from 1951 to 1954 and 1966 to 1969. He served as a Teachta Dála (TD) from 1938 to 1973.
Childers is born on December 11, 1905, in the Embankment Gardens, London, to a Protestant family originally from Glendalough, County Wicklow. He is educated at Gresham’s School, Holt, and the University of Cambridge. In 1922, when Childers is sixteen, his father, Robert Erskine Childers, is executed by the new Irish Free State on politically inspired charges of gun-possession. After attending his father’s funeral, Childers returns to Gresham’s, then two years later he goes on to Trinity College, Cambridge.
After finishing his education, Childers works for a period in a tourism board in Paris. In 1931, Éamon de Valera invites him to work for his recently founded newspaper, The Irish Press, where Childers becomes advertising manager. He becomes a naturalised Irish citizen in 1938. That same year, he is first elected as a Fianna Fáil Teachta Dála (TD) for Athlone–Longford. He remains in the Dáil Éireann until 1973, when he resigns to become President.
Childers joins the cabinet in 1951 as Minister for Posts and Telegraphs in the de Valera government. He then serves as Minister for Lands in de Valera’s 1957–59 cabinet, as Minister for Transport and Power under Seán Lemass, and, successively, as Transport Minister, Posts and Telegraphs Minister, and Health Minister under Jack Lynch. He becomes Tánaiste in 1969.
Fine Gael TD Tom O’Higgins, who had almost won the 1966 presidential election, is widely expected to win the 1973 election when he is again the Fine Gael nominee. Childers is nominated by Fianna Fáil at the behest of de Valera, who pressures Jack Lynch in the selection of the presidential candidate. He is a controversial nominee, owing not only to his British birth and upbringing but to his Protestantism. However, on the campaign trail his personal popularity proves enormous, and in a political upset, Childers is elected the fourth President of Ireland on May 30, 1973, defeating O’Higgins by 635,867 votes to 578,771.
Childers quickly gains a reputation as a vibrant, extremely hard-working president, and becomes highly popular and respected. However, he has a strained relationship with the incumbent government, led by Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave of Fine Gael. Childers had campaigned on a platform of making the presidency more open and hands-on, which Cosgrave views as a threat to his own agenda as head of government. Childers considers resigning from the presidency, but is convinced to remain by Cosgrave’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Garret FitzGerald.
Though frustrated about the lack of power he has in the office, Childers’ daughter Nessa believes that he plays an important behind-the-scenes role in easing the Northern Ireland conflict, reporting that former Prime Minister of Northern Ireland Terence O’Neill meets secretly with her father at Áras an Uachtaráin on at least one occasion.
Prevented from transforming the presidency as he desired, Childers instead throws his energy into a busy schedule of official visits and speeches, which is physically taxing. On November 17, 1974, just after making a speech to the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland in Dublin, Childers suffers a heart attack. He dies the same day at Mater Misericordiae University Hospital.
Childers’s state funeral in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin is attended by world leaders including the Louis Mountbatten, 1st 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 is buried in the grounds of the Church of Ireland Derralossary church in Roundwood, County Wicklow.