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  • Between Change and Tradition:The Politics and Writings of Garret FitzGerald
  • William Murphy (bio)

Garret Fitzgerald has been lauded as a modernizer.1 Over five decades he has advocated a pluralist Republic of Ireland that is an enthusiastic participant in the European Union and has a closer relationship with Northern Ireland and Great Britain. In 1964, the year before he became a professional politician, he took the opportunity to address in print many of the issues that would preoccupy him during his political life. This personal manifesto appeared in the journal Studies under the title "Seeking a National Purpose."2 He has since written that the article was in part motivated by a desire "to give notice to my future colleagues of my basic political stance."3 Perhaps the most interesting aspect of that piece is the impression that emerges of a man who, while enthusiastic about change, was concerned that this should be shaped by clear principles and that those principles should be rooted in tradition. If he has been a modernizing force in Irish politics and society, then it is also evident that he has been a cautious modernizer, an amalgam of progressive opinions and conservative values. [End Page 154]

FitzGerald's public career was well underway by 1964, having begun in 1948 when he first augmented his salary as a manager at Aer Lingus with income from free-lance journalism.4 Since then he has been an enduring voice in the political and intellectual life of Ireland. He has been a public servant, journalist, consultant, advocate, academic, and politician. He has not been taoiseach since 1987 and retired from Dáil Éireann in 1992, but in 2008 he is still prominent. Although not at the center of public discourse in the way he once was, FitzGerald is chancellor of the National University of Ireland; appears to have an insatiable thirst for seminars, summer schools, and symposia; and writes a weekly column in the Irish Times that remains influential. Throughout a life of high-speed speaking and incessant writing, FitzGerald has generated an implausible volume of words, providing a boon and a barrier for those seeking to evaluate his contribution to Irish society. In later years a significant proportion of his writing has been devoted to "reflection" upon his life and work. Two volumes of essays informed by, and often referring to, his public career have appeared,5 augmenting a lengthy autobiography. Leaning more heavily on the past is in part a natural impact of aging, but FitzGerald has always emphasized history.


He was born on. February 1926, the son of Desmond FitzGerald, then Minister for External Affairs in the government of the Irish Free State, and his wife Mabel. Both Desmond and Mabel were dedicated Irish nationalists, Mabel more radical than her husband.Between 1913 and the Treaty of December 1921 they were committed to the revolutionary movement; both were in the General Post Office in 1916. Desmond spent four stretches in prison between 1915 and 1921, but occupied a significant role as Director of Publicity to Dáil Éireann—effectively chief propagandist to the revolution—between [End Page 155] 1919 and 1921. Mabel was active in Cumann na mBan, managing her husband's first successful election campaign in 1918 while he was in Gloucester Prison.

Desmond and Mabel were insiders in the nationalist Ireland that emerged from the revolution, but they were not typical. Desmond was born into a lower-middle-class, Catholic, Irish family in London. He had aspired to be a poet, was a minor figure in what would become known as the Imagist movement, and was a friend of Ezra Pound. Mabel McConnell was a child of a wealthy, Presbyterian, distilling family from Belfast. She spent a ten-week stint as secretary to George Bernard Shaw in 1909. When it ended, he provided her with a reference, stating that she was "a pleasant and capable young lady,"6 a bland description that reveals nothing of her challenging and independent-minded character. Despite her family's disapproval, Mabel eloped with Desmond in 1911. Upon marrying, they traveled to an artists' colony in Brittany, Mabel pregnant with Garret's eldest brother. Desmond was a...


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