Erskine Childers took office in May 1973 and served until November 1974, when he died of a heart attack, the only person to date to have died in the office. A Fianna Fail stalwart, son of his namesake father who was infamously executed during the Civil War, Childers was a popular enough man whose Presidency had no real incidents of note.
Given the short length of his Presidency, I am at a loss to really focus on a particular moment. I considered discussing the fallout of his death, and the bizarre manner in which his wife, Rita, was selected and discarded as his possible successor (which I briefly covered here), but that would not be a moment in his Presidency.
Childers, according to the few sources that you might be able to find on his last 18 months, had plans for the Presidency and his tenure in Aras an Uachtarain. He wanted to be a pro-active head of state, and proposed the creation of a “think-tank” to help plan the future of the nation.
In this, he was opposed by the government of Fine Gael, and the then Taoiseach, Liam Cosgrave. They were tired enough of, now, nearly thirty years of opponents Fianna Fail in the office, and may have been bitter at the second electoral defeat of the highly fancied Tom O’Higgins against Childers.
Either way, Cosgrave was not interested in Childers vision of a more hands-on Presidency and gave a flat denial to any idea of such a “think tank”. Cosgrave met with the President only once a month to give him a rudimentary briefing – the very limits of his constitutional obligation – and that was that.
Childers became reportedly frustrated at the lack of actual power that he had in his role, despite his nominal status as the first citizen. It is suggested by some that, being unable to really do anything that he considered of value, he thought about resigning the office, but we will never know just how true that this idea is.
Childers died before he could leave a real distinguishable mark on the office. He maintained his predecessors busy schedule, a never ending round of speeches, visits, travelling and the like, a routine perhaps borne out of his frustration of being unable to actually affect things in the way he wanted. Perhaps it was this busy lifestyle that brought about the heart attack that killed him, which occurred after a speech to the Royal College of Physicians on the subject of drug abuse.
What does this teach us about the Presidency? That it is an office that has very clear limits, and anyone who desires to ascend to that office would do well to realise this. The President is, at its heart, a figurehead position, one that has only a few powers of note. None of those powers satisfied Childers, who wanted to do things that he could not do in the job.
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