Wednesday 28 June 2017

I will always cherish the day we got away from it all

Mary Hanafin

VISITORS to Castletown House on a sunny summer's day last July might have thought they spotted two government ministers having a working lunch.

In fact, Brian Lenihan and I were enjoying an afternoon chat, as friends do. When fixing the lunch date, Brian suggested I find somewhere cultural, "away from it all".

We escaped to Celbridge where we enjoyed a tour with the OPW guide, a lazy lunch and a long chat.

Of course, Brian knew all the details of the original family in the house and could enlighten as much as he learnt.

For hours we chatted about our families, friends, Ireland, government, Fianna Fail -- a long, precious afternoon.

Now I realise just how precious.

Shortly after Brian and I left college we overlapped as stagiaires -- or interns -- in the European Parliament, and I remember sharing pizza with him in Luxembourg. After that a double friendship began, as my late husband Eamon was a great friend of Brian's wife Patricia, so we enjoyed weddings, dinners and parties shared with mutual friends.

All of us mourn the loss of a great friend, a dedicated minister and talented statesman.

As a TD in Dail Eireann, Brian could master the brief quickly, speak without a note and get to the nub of the issue instantly. To each of his ministerial briefs he brought extensive legal knowledge, deep understanding and a very caring attitude.

Brian's command of language impressed everyone no matter what the audience. He could enthral a small gathering with witty stories, enliven a cumann meeting, enthuse an Ard Fheis of thousands or articulate our country's concerns to European Council meetings.

I have never met anyone as well-read as Brian. History, biography, poetry -- he could quote at will. His knowledge of world affairs and the historical context for current events always amazed me. There was a line from Shakespeare for any event. He also loved to speak as Gaeilge and many is the cupla focal we shared.

His fluency in French stood to him in good stead at European meetings and we loved to tease him at cabinet meetings about his special relationship with French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde!

The Department of Justice was probably Brian's natural home. He was easy with the law, an expert on the Constitution and a firm supporter of the rule of law.

Both his grandfather Joe Devine and father-in-law Tom Ryan were garda superintendents and Brian was very proud of their contribution to the State as much as the political contribution of the Lenihans.

He loved being Justice Minister and would have loved a longer stint there, but he was also happy to take on the challenge of Finance Minister. He was the right man in the right place at the right time.

Brian was always conscious of the enormous responsibility placed on him as Finance Minister. In good times it is important, in bad even more so. The major decisions are well documented, but not the meetings that preceded them. The discussions on an informal and formal level with colleagues, his grasp of every portfolio and not just his own, his anxiety that each minister's department should get some joy out of difficult decisions.

Budgets were not just about balancing the books but about people's lives. I valued his appreciation of my work and his efforts to support it. Other Finance Ministers might not have valued Tourism and Culture, but an extra €5m was found to promote Irish culture in the US this year.

Over the past year, Brian's cabinet colleagues marvelled at his energy and commitment. He never allowed his illness interfere with his work.

I used to fuss about him, saying he should rest or go home but he shot me down every time, saying he was grand and the doctors felt his work was keeping him going.

Despite intense meetings, long days, weekend briefings, European Councils, Brian never missed a day. Not only that, but his ability to understand and articulate was second to none. He had the most extraordinary intellect, and could draw on knowledge most of us had long forgotten or, more likely, never knew.

Many is the phone call that I received on a Saturday morning to chat about where we were at.

The prognosis was bad. Fianna Fail, not health. He rarely discussed his health, preferring always to discuss candidates, constituencies and conventions.

None of us expected the election result in Dublin, but if there was to be only one Fianna Fail seat in Dublin I am so glad it was Brian. I would have hated his political career to have ended otherwise. He carried on a very proud Lenihan tradition of public service.

Brian Lenihan the politician, devoted his life, energy and work to his country.

Brian Lenihan the man, shared happy days with Patricia and dreamt dreams for his children Tom and Claire.

On my mantlepiece are the photos of us as cabinet colleagues. But the photo I cherish most is the one stored in my phone of my friend Brian taken at a very special, long lunch in Castletown House.

Codail go siochanta a chara dhil.

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