Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh, Fianna Fáil politician, judge and barrister who serves as the fifth president of Ireland from December 1974 to October 1976, dies on March 21, 1978, in Sneem, County Kerry. He serves as Attorney General of Ireland from 1946 to 1948 and from 1951 to 1953, a Judge of the Supreme Court of Ireland from 1953 to 1973, Chief Justice of Ireland from 1961 to 1973 and a Judge of the European Court of Justice from 1973 to 1974.
Ó Dálaigh, one of four children, is born on February 12, 1911, in Bray, County Wicklow. His father, Richard O’Daly, is a fishmonger with little interest in politics. His mother is Una Thornton. His birth name is registered in English as Carroll O’Daly, which he uses during his legal career, and which is recorded by some publications.
Ó Dálaigh has an elder brother, Aonghus, and two younger sisters, Úna and Nuala. He goes to Saint Cronan’s Boys’ National School in Bray, and later to Synge Street CBS in Dublin. While attending University College Dublin (UCD), he becomes auditor of An Cumann Gaelach and of the Literary and Historical Society. He also becomes Irish language editor of The Irish Press.
Ó Dálaigh is a committed Fianna Fáil supporter who serves on the party’s National Executive in the 1930s. He becomes Ireland’s youngest Attorney General in 1946, under Taoiseach Éamon de Valera, serving until 1948. Unsuccessful in Dáil and Seanad elections in 1948 and 1951, he is re-appointed as Attorney General of Ireland in 1951. In 1953, he is nominated as the youngest-ever member of the Supreme Court by his mentor, de Valera. Less than a decade later, he becomes Chief Justice of Ireland, on the nomination of Taoiseach Seán Lemass. He is a keen actor in his early years, and becomes a close friend of actor Cyril Cusack. It is commonly stated that Ó Dálaigh and Cusack picketed the Dublin launch of Disney‘s Darby O’Gill and the Little People in 1959, for what they felt was the film’s stereotyping of Irish people. However, there is no known contemporary reference to this having occurred.
Ó Dálaigh is an opponent of the United States bombing of North Vietnam.
In 1972, Taoiseach Jack Lynch suggests to the opposition parties that they agree to nominate Ó Dálaigh to become President of Ireland when President de Valera’s second term ends in June of the following year. Fine Gael, confident that its prospective candidate, Tom O’Higgins, will win the 1973 presidential election, having almost defeated de Valera in 1966, turn down the offer. Fianna Fáil’s Erskine H. Childers goes on to win the election that follows.
When Ireland joins the European Economic Community (EEC), Lynch appoints Ó Dálaigh as Ireland’s judge on the European Court of Justice. When President Childers dies suddenly in 1974, all parties agree to nominate Ó Dálaigh to replace him.
Ó Dálaigh’s tenure as president proves to be contentious. While popular with Irish language speakers and with artists, and respected by many republicans, he has a strained relationship with the Government of the 20th Dáil, particularly with Minister Conor Cruise O’Brien and Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave.
Ó Dálaigh’s decision in 1976 to exercise his power to refer a bill to the Supreme Court to test its constitutionality brings him into conflict with the Fine Gael-Labour National Coalition. Following the assassination of the British Ambassador to Ireland, Christopher Ewart-Biggs, by the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), on July 23, 1976, the government announces its intention to introduce legislation extending the maximum period of detention without charge from two to seven days.
Ó Dálaigh refers the resulting bill, the Emergency Powers Bill, to the Supreme Court. When the court rules that the bill is constitutional, he signs the bill into law on October 16, 1976. On the same day, an IRA bomb in Mountmellick, County Laois, kills Michael Clerkin, a member of the Garda Síochána, the country’s police force. Ó Dálaigh’s actions are seen by government ministers to have contributed to the killing of this Garda. On the following day, Minister for Defence Paddy Donegan, visiting a barracks in Mullingar, County Westmeath, to open a canteen, attacks the President for sending the bill to the Supreme Court, calling him a “thundering disgrace.”
Ó Dálaigh’s private papers show that he considered the relationship between the President (as Commander-in-Chief of the Defence Forces) and the Minister for Defence had been “irrevocably broken” by the comments of the Minister in front of the army Chief of Staff and other high-ranking officers. Donegan offers his resignation, but Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave refuses to accept it. This proves the last straw for Ó Dálaigh, who believes that Cosgrave had additionally failed to meet his constitutional obligation to regularly brief the President. He resigns from the presidency on October 22, 1976, “to protect the dignity and independence of the presidency as an institution.” He is succeeded as President of Ireland by Patrick Hillery.
Ó Dálaigh dies of a heart attack on March 21, 1978, less than two years after resigning the presidency. He is buried in Sneem, County Kerry.