Making His Mark at Home and Abroad

Clare Champion, Friday, January 10, 2003

Miltown Malbay has recently honoured its native son, Dr Patrick Hillery, by naming the local library after him. Clare Museum Curator, John Rattigan, looks at the political career of the man, who served as President of Ireland, for two terms.

Over the last two years, the Clare Museum has received in installments a large collection of objects presented to Dr Patrick Hillery during his glittering political career. Most refer to his activities during his two terms as President of Ireland from 1976-1990, but some date to an earlier period when he served in various government ministries.

Patrick John Hillery was born on 2 May 1923 in Miltown Malbay, Co. Clare. Educated at Rockwell College and University College Dublin, he graduated as a Doctor of Medicine as his father had done before him. However, his career went off in a different direction in 1951 when he stood for Fianna Fail in Clare and successfully won a seat. Under the Lemass government of 1959, Hillery was made Minister for Education. He excelled in his position and was responsible for much innovative thinking, preparing the ground for comprehensive schools, regional technical colleges and institutes of higher education in the 1960's.

He served briefly as Minister for Industry and Commerce from 1965-1966, and took over the Labour portfolio from 1966-1969.

The outbreak of the troubles in Northern Ireland was one of the problems that dominated the Hillery period as Minister for External Affairs from 1969-1972. In 1970, at the request of Taoiseach Jack Lynch, he made a secret visit to the Falls Road, Belfast, to assess the social and political situation there, a move which recently declassified documents claim angered Unionists.

The other major feature of his period in External Affairs was the negotiations for Ireland's entry into the European Economic Community. Ireland, along with the UK and Denmark, joined the EEC in January 1973, but by this time Hillery was serving as Vice-president of the Commission of the European Communities, with special responsibility for social affairs.

Dr Hillery was approached in 1976 to stand for election in the Presidential Election following the resignation of President O'Dalaigh. He reluctantly accepted the nomination and was elected unopposed, becoming the 6th President of Ireland on 3 December, 1976.

One of the functions of the President is to represent the people, and in doing so, receives foreign heads of state and makes state visits abroad. This is reflected in the recently donated collection, by a number of gifts and presentations from foreign heads of state such as former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, and the late President of Israel, Chaim Hertzog.

At home the President undertakes a wide range of engagements with particular emphasis on valuing the contribution of local community and self-help groups. Consequently, there are a large number of presentations made to Dr Hillery from parish committees, national voluntary organisations, etc.

In 1983, Dr Hillery was elected for a second seven-year term in office. His two periods as president were considered rather quiet, although in 1982, there was controversy when he declined to accept Fianna Fail phone calls urging him to consider refusing a dissolution of the Dail, which proposed a tax on shoes.

Following the expiry of his second term in office, Dr Hillery retired from public life. He is still affectionately remembered in Clare and only recently, the branch library in Miltown Malbay was named after him. Dr Hillery and his wife Maeve, whom he married in 1955, now divide their time between their homes in Dublin, Spanish Point and Spain.

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