Liam Collins: PJ Mara was a renaissance man with sharp line in flippant retorts
Haughey's press secretary hid an analytical mind that was rarely off duty when it came to politics, writes Liam Collins
Published 17/01/2016 | 02:30
Patrick (PJ) Mara, the debonair former government press secretary associated mainly with the Fianna Fail Taoiseach Charles J. Haughey, was something of a renaissance man whose flippant retorts concealed an analytical mind and a ruthless streak when it came to his leader's wishes, either with the media or within the party itself.
Although not as malevolent as Haughey, Mara could at times adopt a highly personalised and vicious tone about those he thought were prying too closely into Haughey's affairs, or as he said himself, "nibbling at my leaders bum"
Long known as 'PJ' in the journalism world he really only became a widely known public figure as a result of Dermot Morgan's satirical radio show Scrap Saturday where 'Mara' was a central character and the butt of Haughey's ire when things went wrong. In that it was very close to the bone.
In his leisure time, although he was rarely 'off duty,' Mara was a well-known 'man about town' socialising mainly with a laddish group of cronies in the Horseshoe bar at the Shelbourne Hotel or at long Saturday lunches in the nearby Unicorn restaurant.
It was a moveable set which included Shane Ross, Noel Pearson, journalist Sam Smyth, the writer Colm Toibin, Paul McGuinness, public relations woman Eileen Gleeson, Michael McDowell, barristers Adrian Hardiman and Gerry Danaher, Vincent Browne and Mary Harney - although they might not necessarily be grouped together, they were mostly competing with each other for attention.
Mara also had an affinity with north Dublin which led to a long and close personal relationship with two prominent figures from the Drumcondra area of the city where he grew up, the man who would become a billionaire, Dermot Desmond, and the well-known pundit on sporting and other matters, Eamon Dunphy.
Dressed in a pinstriped suit and habitually with a cigarette in his mouth (or about to be lit) PJ was witty, convivial and had a ready repartee. But he was also extremely well read and au fait with obscure political and historical references.
He also had a ruthless streak in carrying out orders from 'The Boss', whether that required Brian Lenihan Snr. 'falling on his swords' as Tanaiste after the Duffy tape affair during the 1990 Presidential election campaign, or forcing headquarters candidates on an obdurate Fianna Fail organisation when he was director of elections for Fianna Fail in 2002.
He was beloved of journalists for such quotable quotes as "uno duce, una voce" quoting Mussolini (one leader, one voice); or declaring an election campaign open with the simple phrase "it's show time". But sometimes such repartee was not appreciated by 'The Boss' who told him angrily after one such episode: "You go into that room where they (political correspondents) all hate me, and you give them that!" Born Patrick Mara in March, 1942, he was the son of Garda John Mara and his wife Sabina and brought up in a corporation house on Millmount Avenue, Drumcondra, Dublin. His father died when he was just seven years of age. Educated at St Patrick's national school and Colaiste Mhuire in Parnell Square in central Dublin, he spent summer holidays with his mother's family in Oughterard, Co Galway, and later, like most boys of his era, working in a summer job, in this case for a greengrocer on Dorset Street called Joe Connolly.
After completing his Leaving Cert, he got a job in Boland's Mills before moving to Belfast to work for the cigarette company Gallahers. In 1964 he married Breda Brogan who came from a large family in Kinvara, Co Galway and they moved into a flat in Waterloo Road in Dublin 4.
He started a small clothing company, Beeline Products in Hay Market, Dublin which he later sold to Arthur Ryan and the fledgling Penney's chain. With his profits he moved to a house in Seafield Avenue, Clontarf and went into the carpet and furnishing business, a career which he later glossed over, but reluctantly described to those who knew him closely as "a f……g disaster."
Having joined Fianna Fail in 1963 he was appointed a delegate to the Dublin North East Comhairle Dail Ceanntair and got to know the three local TDs, Charles J Haughey, George Colley and Eugene Timmons casually.
Everything changed for Fianna Fail and Mara on May 6, 1970 when Taoiseach Jack Lynch sacked Haughey as Minister for Finance, leading to the Arms Trial. It somehow fired his imagination and every day Mara and a coterie of Haughey supporters, including another youthful and quite successful businessman Albert Reynolds, would attend the trial to lend support to the fallen minister.
With the acquittal of Haughey the following October their fortunes were to become entwined for the rest of their lives. Haughey and Mara had become kindred spirits and a foil for each other; Haughey taciturn and vicious, Mara always with a smile and quick retort.
As one of Haughey's drivers he toured the Fianna Fail 'chicken and chips" circuit wooing the party grassroots and planning a comeback path for 'The Boss'. "You had to do a days work first", PJ later told Tim Ryan for his book Mara "finish up at 6pm and head off to Tipperary, Cork or Kerry. And we always came back the same night. That was the rule. We often drove back to Dublin from functions in Bandon in West Cork that would have finished at 2am. It was tough but enjoyable". Haughey got through two Jaguar cars during the period.
After standing unsuccessfully in the Dublin Corporation Number 2 area in 1974 and 1979 Mara decided that he was better suited to what was then known as "the smoke-filled back rooms" where strategies and heaves were plotted, rather than putting himself forward before an unappreciative electorate.
When Haughey replaced Jack Lynch in December, 1979, PJ proved that he had backed the right side and his future was assured. He was appointed to the National Executive of Fianna Fail and became vice-chairman of the national organisation committee in 1981. He was appointed a senator by Haughey in 1982 during a turbulent era of three quick elections, but failed to win a seat in the senate election of 1983.
With Fianna Fail going into opposition Frank Dunlop, who had worked for Jack Lynch and had an uneasy relationship as press officer for Haughey, opted to join the new administration and work for Fine Gael minister John Boland.
Two former journalists, Tony Fitzpatrick and Ken Ryan were running the Fianna Fail press office and Mara started coming into the office two days a week to "help out" as he was much better connected with a number of editors and influential political journalists.
Although Haughey's closest aide, it wasn't until 1986 that he was finally appointed Government Press Secretary with another close Fianna Fail advisor Fionnuala O'Kelly, now the wife of Fine Gael Taoiseach Enda Kenny, appointed Head of the Government Information service.
"An excellent raconteur, he was a fund of witty and politically astute stories of life in Fianna Fail. He kept the political journalist entertained with anecdote and impersonations of the leading lights in the party, including his boss. His indiscretions soon became legendary, but they were often so scabrous or libellous that they were unprintable," says one political correspondent of that era. "Journalists believed they were getting the inside track on what was happening in government but at the same time they never got much usable information."
The writer John Waters said of him: "PJ Mara doesn't so much do a job as weave a spell." Yes, little happened without Mara knowing about it. As a former senator he could flit between the members and public bars in Leinster House. He was well liked across the political, social and media spectrum and he was a vital source of intelligence for the often beleaguered Haughey. Every morning the two, whose offices were across a corridor from each other in Government Buildings, would consult the newspapers and try to spot the political ambushes of later in the day. In the evening, Mara would cross 'the tunnel' to Leinster House to brief the political correspondents.
According to Dermot Morgan's script for Scrap Saturday PJ would ask 'The Boss: "What will I tell them this evening then, Taoiseach?" and Haughey would reply: "Tell them f…. all."
He was instrumental in persuading Haughey to do a famous interview with John Waters for Hot Press magazine which was littered with the F word - which most mainstream journalists deleted, fearing for the sensibilities of their readers. "Mara, you've finally blown it, I'm ruined, get out of my sight," Haughey ranted when Mara entered his office the following morning.
Ireland's presidency of the European Union in 1990 was a great success for Mara, who charmed or cajoled most of the influential British and European journalists into a grudging admiration for Haughey. Shortly afterwards he bought himself a trophy home on Wellington Road in Dublin 4, not far from where he had rented a flat as an impecunious newly-wed
The dethroning of his hero Charles Haughey in 1992 left Mara looking for a new career. As a 'man about town' he was well connected, but the sheer madness of politics don't always prepare people for civilian life. Paul McGuinness, former manager of U2, said: "PJ always had an excellent career ahead of him, he looked on politics almost as another branch of show business and so adapted very easily."
However, the transition wasn't easy as he had earlier became embroiled in the affairs of Century Radio and long after its collapse came under investigation from the Moriarty Tribunal, which found that he had not co-operated with it after failing to disclose the existence of an offshore Isle of Man bank account.
He settled eventually for a position with Tony Ryan, then the boss of high-flying aircraft leasing company GPA, which crash-landed the following year when the flotation of the company (sale of shares) was called off at the last moment and the company went into liquidation. PJ Mara had something of a political revival during the long reign of Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, but never again did he enjoy such access as under Haughey, nor did he want to undertake the drudgery associated with much of political life and the constant turmoil it involved. However he was co-opted to the Fianna Fail re-election committee in 1997 and much of the party's election strategy was worked out in the drawing room of his Wellington Road home. He and Bertie Ahern had been part of the 'set' who met in Abbeville during Charlie Haughey's leadership of Fianna Fail most Saturdays, but they were never really that close.
However, he was chosen by the Fianna Fail leader as Director of Elections in 2002, something that was not universally popular because of Mara's ruthless insistence that the candidates with the best chance of winning be selected, even above party hacks and loyalists.
Although he would also participate in the 2007 election Mara had by then largely withdrawn from political life and would later insist that he had been "a private citizen" for many years.
After 35 years at the heart of political life his contacts went right through the higher echelons of the public service and political establishment, making him invaluable for those looking for access or insights into what was going on in the corridors of power.
Mara & Associates worked as a corporate advisor to Tony O'Reilly and he was a favoured guest at gatherings at his lavish Kildare estate Castlemartin. He later joined Denis O'Brien's Digicel organisation and became a director of Digicel PNG, a subsidiary of the Caribbean-based telecoms company, in 2003.
He travelled widely on behalf of the company and greatly enjoyed the challenges of working in emerging markets. He was also appointed to the board of the Irish arm of the aid agency, UNICEF, and was a director of Galway University Foundation.
His wife Breda died in 2003. They had one son, John.
At the age of 71, PJ Mara fathered a daughter by a Dublin based corporate lawyer, but insisted to inquiring journalists that he was now a private citizen who had been out of public life for over a decade and was entitled to his privacy.
This reclusiveness was somewhat shaken by the colourful portrayal of PJ in the RTE biopic Haughey in which the actor who played him, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor had most of the best lines.
PJ Mara, who had been in ill-health for some time, died last Friday at the age of 73. He is survived by his son John and daughter Elena, whom he had with partner Sheila.