Friday 9 December 2016

Enda, my boss, the feminist intellectual

The Taoiseach went the extra mile to help women and do them justice, says his speechwriter, Miriam O'Callaghan

Miriam O'Callaghan

Published 13/03/2016 | 02:30

LEADER: Enda Kenny on his way to see President Higgins at the Aras. Photo: Tom Burke
LEADER: Enda Kenny on his way to see President Higgins at the Aras. Photo: Tom Burke

For the last five years, I have been chief speechwriter to the Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Fine Gael might not be my natural political habitat, but I believe in Enda Kenny. I admire his compassion, his insight, his ordinariness, his warmth, his feminism, his huge intellect. That noise you hear is the self-appointed Hibernian intelligentsia guffawing. Jackasses, knock yourselves out.

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It's been a hectic but terrific five years, not least since the Department of An Taoiseach is run by a consummate professional and gentleman, Martin Fraser. I was privileged to work with the Taoiseach on his most effective speeches, particularly on the State apology to the women of the Magdalen laundries.

Having spent so much time with the women, he wanted to do them justice. Since I had gone to a convent school with a Magdalen laundry attached, I had insight that would help. The Obama tribute lines that were 'plagiarism'? God help us. With Barack Obama himself listening and the world's media watching, nobody would ever know.

It is a measure of Enda Kenny as Taoiseach and as a man, that no matter how late it was, or how tired he was - and boy, does he work - if a speech happened to go especially well, I would get a text or a call to say "thank you". I would say what all speechwriters do. 'Delighted. But remember, it's your speech, not mine'.

Since taoisigh and prime ministers have non-stop schedules, usually they have a team of writers and one person they like to work with on particular speeches.

Someone who knows them, what makes them tick, what they believe in, what they read, the kind of things they want to say. That writer thinks, reads, they have a brain.

Over the years then, I have been bemused by the stories that I work only on the "language" of the Taoiseach's speeches. Something that was news to us both. But could it be because I am a woman? And it is accepted that women who are speechwriters to leaders of countries are a veritable tundra of thought.

Intellectually barren, we take the naturally gigantic thoughts of men and magic up words around them. In our homes, we don't have furniture, we have a Versailles of mots.

My teenagers lounge on angelicity. My favourite reading spot is under superflux. In place of a fridge, I have a famished castle which I lent to the playwright and columnist Hilary Fannin. A woman. My pets are asphyxia and congealment.

We women speechwriters leave the anti-convulsants in the box, lest we miss a verbal tic. We scry into rain-barrels at the full moon, watch carefully the habits of voles, examine the scat of foxes, make barefoot circles in the dew, "sound our barbaric yawp" through the suburbs, are devotees of Madame Blavatsky and John Dee. We are Rainwomen of language.

Big men think big thoughts, which they pass to us. Then we little women apply emotion and ejaculation. Tears and Tourettes. Patriarchy as chips on our ickle shoulders? Not a bit of it. We have a lip for curry sauce.

Since we are the political incarnation of Amma, would you like a hug with that?

But little women are prone too to the horrifying epiphanies that we know, once they are mansplained to us, are a kind of pre-thought. We'd never cope with the real thing. Pre-thoughts, like, say, that globally QE has failed, growth is mostly fumes, the entire financial architecture on which we have built our lives must change.

Little women worry uselessly about climate change and the wind in Ireland - reader, do you wonder about that wind? - and the colour of the grass that my sister and I call emergency green.

Little women feel for the people of Lahinch opening their front door to what looks like the entire Atlantic, spilling the souls of our coffin-ship dead.

Rinsed of thought, we wonder when the State will start giving us grants to weather-proof our homes? Those tiny three-bed semis we bought at Cote d'Azur prices were never built to withstand the north-Atlantic monstrosities excavating Bronze Age forests and disappearing Massey Fergusons.

We worry too about other little women and the little men sitting frightened in houses they are about to lose, or will never own, despite a lifetime working to pay for them. Transfixed in our kitchens, we wonder was it gift or instinct that saw us paint them Dead Flat in Mouse's Back and Savage Ground and Bone and Borrowed Light and Elephant's Breath and Twine and Mizzle, the colours of insanity or entanglement, amnesia or oblivion?

We are conscious of the karma of children, mothers and fathers condemned to 'a family life' in hotels and B&Bs.

And we watch politics in modern democracies and the rise and rise of the professional advisor class, with good suits and better teeth. You can tell a lot by the smile of a nation.

A couple of years ago, I flew to be with my son the day he buried his friend. After the funeral, we came upon Jean-Claude Juncker and his apparently all-blond, all-blue-suited election entourage, their glossy, snub-nosed people-carrier nudging its way across the cobbles of a European city. Sharpshooters on the roofs, haughty locals in black, sneering at sweating Germans and the M&S Teal-and-Turquoise mob. All of us the popolo minuto - the little people - held behind scorched barriers, while the professional Europeans swept past us to an ancient palace scorched by the Bonfire of the Vanities.

All of us Europeans, all of us democrats, but I wondered if for those of us outside the barriers, our votes had become homage?

And if they had, what did that mean for our Union of Peoples? And particularly now, with an ocean of humanity crashing against our borders, but leaving our conscience and comfort untouched?

But I am encouraged and relieved by Jean-Claude Juncker's insight into the refugee crisis and Europe's political and moral obligation. Like Angela Merkel, when it comes to the refugees, Juncker is showing humanity, strength and leadership. Not a focus group in sight.

Back home, now that gender quotas are working in the Dail, let them work too in the backrooms. Let the parties hire more women and when they do a good job, pay them as much as the men. (I have a friend opening a cafe soon; 10pc discount if you speak Gaeilge, 20pc off for women to reflect the gender pay gap.)

And to the government parties in particular, I say hire people who tell you what you need to hear. And women can be fierce prone to that. No actual thought, though. Just the blessing of the idiot savant, the curse of the extra X chromosome.

Surround yourselves with people who know what it's like to have chest pain when the bills drop like bombs into the hall; who know the lunatic agony of a toothache when they can't afford the dentist.

Find people who have experienced what it's like to live on the minimum wage or have survived on the dole. Or gender-fixed or gender-fluid, someone who volunteers in the community?

I have to admit, I'm a late recruit to the gender-equality war. Over the last 25 years, I joined many women in the grand silence.

It goes on to this day. If we need jobs, clients, projects, we roll our eyes at each other, say the Serenity Prayer and carry on.

Yet, in every sector, every day, women are shrunk to fit the tiniest version of themselves. But it's life, it's the cultcha. And to keep a roof over our heads, the banks want our principal, not our principles.

It was motherhood made me a feminist. With my son, I was determined he would be a man who valued and respected women. He's almost 19 now and bingo.

With my daughter? In her career, I want her to be recognised and rewarded for her intelligence and the quality of her work, not be defined or diminished or mansplained by her gender.

Now the 31st Dail is over and my writing contract is up. Right now, I'm polishing up my CV for Frank Underwood, though truth be told, I don't have the stomach for a threesome with Claire. Or a twosome with anyone.

And if you happen to bump into Birgitte on a gleaming morning in Copenhagen? Maybe you'd put in a word. For my words.

And ask her, please, where she finds those beautiful earrings? Cos, you know, we're women.

Sunday Independent

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