Friday last, while driving through the foothills of the Wicklow Mountains, a small sign on a damp country roadside caught the eye. It directs motorists towards the grave of President Erskine Childers, the only Head of State who died in office.
President Childers suffered a fatal heart attack in November 1974 while delivering a speech to the Royal College of Physicians in Dublin; his time in the Aras spanning less than 18 months.
Following his State funeral, President Childers was laid to rest in Derralossary, where he was interred in a plot also containing his first wife Ruth Dow (who died in 1950) and son Erskine Barton Childers (died 1996).
Today, this Church of Ireland graveyard, just a short walk from Roundwood (“Ireland’s highest village”) is largely overgrown, its church now reduced to a roofless shell.
Its grounds are largely unkempt, with grass rising to the knee in parts. A well-beaten path to the Childers plot, just inside the graveyard wall beyond a locked wrought iron gate, led this column to its location.
As the elements teemed down from a grey sky, a prayer was said at the Childers graveside before the rain jacket was dispensed and the comforts of vehicular transport returned to.
One imagines that Presidents across many nations are interred in the grandest of surrounds and in the most marble etched of locations.
In other words, one would be left in no doubt that beneath the magnificent tribute built atop the deceased that a figure of national greatness and admiration doth lay here. After all, even unknown soldiers have been provided with the stateliest of tombs.
Not so with President Childers, who was buried near his childhood home in Glendalough, a raised plate of stone the only element of his resting place to distinguish it among the near 70 headstones in Derralossary.
With a harp at its head, the plate reads: “God be in my head and in my understanding. God be in mine eyes and in my looking. God be in my mouth and in my speaking. God be in my head and in my thinking. God be at mine end and at my departing.”
President Childers died five years before I was born, but he was the only such office holder whom I ever heard my elders speak of with heartfelt reverence and respect.
Those words left a lifelong mark – why else would someone stand in the driving rain to say a prayer at this man’s graveside?
Childers made the Presidency relevant to people, something he shared in common with Mary Robinson, who, above all others defined why we need a President, a figure that, irrespective of our political biases, we can all look up to.
While doing a bit of homework for this week’s effort, an interesting letter from the National Archives, written in the wake of President Childers’ passing, was happened upon.
It was written by Mr Alan Graham, the then head of the Scout Association of Ireland; its essence capturing the impact which Erskine Childers made during his brief tenure as President.
Addressed to the State Funeral Co-ordinator (a Mr P O’Sullivan), Mr Graham volunteered the services of the 31st Dublin Group (Rathfarnam) at the President’s interment at Derralossary.
“The late President was not only a friend of youth in general,” he writes, “but of many young people in particular; this is itself extraordinary for a Head of State; we therefore feel that a guard of honour would be a fitting, albeit small gesture to this great man – it would in effect say ‘thank you’.”
The Scouts’ kind offer was not availed of by the State, but there’s little doubt that the gesture would not have been lost on the late President. It demonstrated the cord he’d struck with the youth of Ireland.
Today, the President’s Award (Gaisce) continues to strike that one and same cord. Next year marks the scheme’s 25th anniversary, a key element of the late President Patrick Hillery’s legacy to the nation.
The award rewards the civic endeavour of our energised youth in a manner than no other organ of the State comes near to equalling.
Ask any who have received an award (or their proud families) about what Gaisce symbolises and one finds another reason to take pride in our Presidency.
Last week, the White House announced that Mary Robinson is to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honour that can be bestowed upon a civilian. A humbled Mrs Robinson said that she would share this award with those who’ve supported her throughout her public life, a public life largely defined by her time as President of Ireland.
No doubt, such magnanimity would meet with the approval of the late Erskine Childers.