Garret FitzGerald, RIP

Garret FitzGerald, Ireland’s Taoiseach in the 1980s and a beloved family friend, died early this morning. Politically, I think of him as the man who took Thatcher’s condescension on the chin to create the Anglo Irish Agreement, and the man with the courage to call time on the Catholic Church’s unquestioned dominance of social policy and moral thought in Ireland. Personally, while I can appreciate that Garret had what we call a good innings, wasn’t ill for very long, and enjoyed a final few hours of joyous clarity with some of the people he loved the most, I both wished and believed that he would go on and on.

People think of Garret as a dizzy academic, and not the resolutely calculating man he could be when it came to tallying odds and gaming a scenario. This was the man who coolly reckoned at the beginning of his career that while he was constitutionally more suited to the Labour Party, he would achieve less at the head of it, and so joined Fine Gael. His first job was writing the timetable for Aer Lingus, long before there was software for that kind of organisational nitty gritty. He had an extraordinary memory for this sort of thing; on a walk near Cahersiveen a decade ago, he explained to me the old train route there, the stations it called at, the time of each train and effect on the local economy. He giggled when I said we should call him Rainman.

One of the best things Garret did, politically, was to go out over the whole country at the beginning of the 1980s to recruit young people and women into Fine Gael, bringing into public life a new generation, and re-inspiring the women who’d first tuned in to politics with Declan Costello’s tract , ‘The Just Society’. He phone up my mother, Louise, soon after we’d moved to Tipperary and hardly knew anyone, and got her to run. She very nearly won. But having gone out on a limb as a complete blow-in to the community and lost, Mum expected a little consolation. Garret’s rapidfire response; ‘Well of course you weren’t going to win, but you helped to get out the vote for the number 1.”

The general elections of the 1982 period all roll into one, in my memory. It seems like a long period of running door to door with my sister, brothers and other party children, decked out in an endless roll of colourful stickers, always in earshot of a tractor pulling a trailer and speakers blasting out the cheesy vinyl single; “Fine Gael, Fine Gael, oh-oh the future we hail!”. As children on the imaginative cusp of adolescence, we felt in the middle of a great adventure, on a quest to change the whole country, led by Garret the Good. Admittedly, I was ten years old and the finer policy points were a little beyond me.

Our families’ political fortunes and multi-generational friendships had been intertwined since the Easter 1916 journey of Garret’s father, Desmond FitzGerald, and my great-grandfather, Eoin MacNeill, in a truck to a prison camp in Wales. Some of my tenderest memories of Garret are from the time of my aunt Bairbre’s death, now almost twenty years ago. Bairbre was an accomplished historian, schoolteacher and a profoundly ethical woman, who Garret had always cherished. When Bairbre was dying, Garret and my uncle Michael reconciled, following Michael’s earlier departure from Fine Gael to help found the Progressive Democrats. My old friend Colin Murphy reminisced with me today about the morning Garret, my Dad, brother Remy and sisters Annaick and Eleanor followed Bairbre’s coffin in convoy from Dublin to Kerry. Garret gamely let us keep his spirits up on the long journey, but we all fell into the most profoundly speechless silence as hundreds of Bairbre’s and my uncle Joe’s uniformed students lined the bridge over the Laune and up into Killorglin. The morning of the funeral, Garret’s merriment and joy were briefly back as over a dozen of us pounded the breakfast table while Garret cooked the sausages. Emily and Bridget Hourican whipped us all into several choruses of ‘Sausage-maker, Sausage-maker, fast as you can!’, and Garret conducted us with the spatula.

When he came to Washington DC almost two years ago, Garret stayed with Henry and his family and visibly thrived on having the two small boys buzz around him, in between trips into town for dinners with John Bruton and other Irish and American politicians. This was a timely moment for me, because Garret was the first non-DC based family member to meet my then brand new boyfriend, Ed, and sent back a glowing report to Mum. On learning that Ed was in the British Army and had spent time in Northern Ireland, Garret asked for Ed’s regiment, mentally pegged it straight away and said “Oh good. They never gave us any trouble.”

(That also prompted him to tell us about a still painful incident when Irish police had unwittingly arrested British security forces for coming south of the border looking like Provos. He never could get Margaret Thatcher to believe the episode was an innocent one, and not dreamed up as a provocation, and put it down to her inability to imagine herself acting in such a straightforward way. On the whole, though, his stories about her were fond, though not especially warm, and respectful.)

I think Garret lived such a mentally sharp and active life for so long – still writing his regular economics column in the Irish Times to the end – because he was just so curious and endlessly interested in and enjoying the people around him. Every summer, he and his daughter Mary organized a weeks-long summer house rental in the south of France, where a rota of family, friends and especially his beloved grand-children and their friends would come through, with 20-30 people at a time sitting down for dinner. (Everyone took turns cooking dinner and Garret calculated contributions based on a characteristically complex but fair formula.) Just last week, my sister Annaick was telling me about once being exiled to the children’s table. She’s twenty eight. Main course done, Garret went right over to the younger crowd and demanded to know what they were talking about. Books and films, came the answer. “Ah good, much more interesting,” he said, and sat straight down to listen, learn and interject.

Garret was famously devoted to his wife, Joan, and many wondered at how he ultimately regained his energy and many enthusiasms after she died. But he was far more robust than his unworldly public image seemed to suggest. When, fairly late in life, he lost all his savings in the misguided GPA investment, Garret rolled up his sleeves and set to work writing, writing, writing to provide for them both. After Joan died, Garret carried on industriously writing, thinking and talking to his wide and varied circle of family, friends and peers.

More than anything, Garret loved the company of clever women. When my parents turned up on the annual summer holiday, he would decry their failure to bring at least two of their four daughters. Truth be told, he loved to be sat at dinner beside a clever, pretty girl. And while he had the normal allowance of conversational set pieces and an endless array of mind-bogglingly detailed information on obscure topics, Garret always asked lots of questions and listened curiously and carefully to the answers. He was the rare Great Man who relished a real conversation.

One summer, he gave me some drafts for a lecture tour of American universities he was to give in the autumn, talking about US/EU relations. I pointed out he had hardly mentioned Russia, and that relations with then-resurgent Russia were the linchpin of his arguments about Europe and America’s differences of philosophy and material interest. His loud and delighted exhalation – “Ah!” – began a memorable couple of days of discussion, reading, and re-writing. Garret’s intellectual openness and generosity were a joy to encounter.

The last time I saw Garret was at my wedding just before Christmas. He caught my eye as I started up the aisle, and his rheumy smile steadied me in a way I wouldn’t have expected. Garret was a decade younger than my grand-parents, but because both grand-fathers died early, I’ve always thought of him as being just a little of that mold. It has been lovely to be one focus of his curious and pleased interest over the years, to be a cherished knot in the silvery net of friendship between families and generations.

Garret adored his extended family and was always excitedly tender towards his own grand-children in particular. Garret’s children, and especially his daughter Mary, shaped their way of living to place Garret at the hurly burly centre of decades of family life. They generously shared him with many other people, and will miss him the most. But I will leave the final word to my mother, Louise, who told me this morning that “to have known him and been loved by him was enough”.

First published on Crooked Timber on 19 May, 2011.

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