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Dr Patrick J. Hillery

1923 Born, Miltown Malbay, Co. Clare
1951 Elected Fianna Fáil TD for Co. Clare
1959 Appointed Minister for Education
1965 Appointed Minister for Industry and Commerce
1966 Appointed Minister for Labour
1969 Appointed Minister for External Affairs
1973 As Minister for Foreign Affairs, leads Ireland into the
EEC (EU) and becomes Ireland’s first European Commissioner
1976 Appointed President of Ireland
1983 Re-appointed President of Ireland
2008 Dies in Dublin following a short illness

Patrick Hillery was born on May 2nd, 1923, at Miltown Malbay, County Clare, where his father, Michael, was a popular doctor. His mother was Ellen McMahon. Patrick studied medicine and graduated from UCD in 1947 after which he did postgraduate work in Canada and Switzerland. He married his wife, Maeve Finnegan, in 1955.

He entered politics in 1951 when he stood as Eamon de Valera’s running mate and was elected. Sean Lemass appointed him Minister for Education in 1959. During his six years in the Department of Education he laid the foundations of the comprehensive school system and established Regional Technical Colleges which increased access to third level education. In 1965 he moved for a short time to the Ministry of Industry and Commerce and a year later became the country’s first Minister for Labour, the establishment of which he had suggested to Lemass as a means of improving industrial relations. When Lemass resigned shortly afterwards, he invited Dr Hillery to become the new party leader, but Dr Hillery declined and retained the Labour portfolio under the new Taoiseach, Jack Lynch. While in the Department of Labour he brought forward important legislation on industrial relations and redundancy.

When Fianna Fáil won the 1969 general election, Dr Hillery became Minister for External Affairs just as the crisis in Northern Ireland became critical. He undertook several missions to the United Nations requesting that UN troops be sent to the North. During the arms crisis, he strongly defended Jack Lynch’s leadership, in spite of his own strong nationalist background. A memorable moment in his career came at the 1971 Fianna Fáil ard fheis when he shouted to unruly Boland supporters on the floor: “You can have Boland, but you can’t have Fianna Fáil”. Kevin Boland, a former minister, had resigned in protest at what he saw as a betrayal of Fianna Fáil principles on Northern Ireland.

During his time in External Affairs, he also led negotiations for Ireland’s full membership of the EEC. At Ireland’s entry into the EEC in 1973, Dr Hillery was appointed the state’s first European Commissioner and secured the high-profile social affairs portfolio and be appointed one of the four vice-presidents. While in this post he brought about improvements for migrant and handicapped workers and the setting up of a combat poverty programme. He denied the then Fianna Gael-Labour Irish Government permission to postpone the directive on the introduction of equal pay for women. About the same time that he was informed by the then Taoiseach, Liam Cosgrave, that he would not be re-appointed to Brussels after his four-year term was up, the sudden resignation of the President, Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh, led to Dr Hillery being prevailed upon by Jack Lynch to put his name forward as the Fianna Fáil presidential candidate. He was declared President of Ireland unopposed and inaugurated on December 3rd, 1976. Viewed as a president with dignity and statesmanlike abilities, Dr Hillery was returned for a second term in 1983, again unopposed. During his time in office Dr Hillery welcomed over a dozen heads of state to the country including the then President of France, Francois Mitterand; the Crown Prince and Crown Princess of Japan and Pope John Paul II. He also welcomed King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia of Spain to his native Miltown Malbay and Spanish Point in 1986. During his presidency he demonstrated independence of thought and integrity on a number of occasions.

After his retirement from the presidency in 1990 Dr Hillery remained active, attending official functions and playing golf, a lifelong love of his. He is remembered by those who knew him as a modest, unassuming man with a sense of humour.

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Dr Hillery on the occasion of the dedication of the Dr Patrick J Hillery Public Library, Miltown Malbay, 2003
Dr Hillery on the occasion
of the dedication of the
Dr Patrick J. Hillery Public
, Miltown Malbay, 2003