Tuesday 25 July 2017

The Coveneys: All you need to know about 'the Kennedys of County Cork'

As Fine Gael's leadership ­battle heats up, our reporter looks at the large and high-achieving family behind Simon Coveney

Pauline Coveney welcomes her children Tony, Rebecca, Rory and Andrew on their return to Crosshaven from their round-the-world voyage in aid of the Chernobyl Children's Project in May 1999, a year after their father, Hugh, died. Photo: Michael Mac Sweeney
Pauline Coveney welcomes her children Tony, Rebecca, Rory and Andrew on their return to Crosshaven from their round-the-world voyage in aid of the Chernobyl Children's Project in May 1999, a year after their father, Hugh, died. Photo: Michael Mac Sweeney
Hugh Coveney chats to Chernobyl Children's Project founder Adi Roch
Simon Coveney on his mother Pauline's wedding day to Dr Paul McCarthy. Photo: Donna McBride/ProVision.

Graham Clifford

"He's Fine Gael blue, and the bluest of the blue" remarks one supporter as we wait for Simon Coveney at the Corrin Mart outside the north Cork town of Fermoy last week. A family of sheep frolics playfully in the evening sun. A united flock outside and something similar inside.

Simon Coveney has not always had it easy at places such as this. During his almost five years as Minister for Agriculture, there were often days when disgruntled farmers spoke of the former agriculture studies graduate in less glowing terms.

He arrives half-an-hour late. A local party worker informs him quickly that there's an elderly lady, ninety plus, who's made it to the meeting this evening and suggests it might be nice to welcome her by name. Simon duly scribbles down the details.

Everyone is waiting for the starting gun to be fired in the Fine Gael leadership race and the ducks are being lined up in anticipation. It's a time for clichés.

On thing is sure: in Cork, the name 'Coveney' carries significant weight. One of the prosperous 'merchant prince' families of the city, the Coveneys came from old money and built on it through the generations.

Theirs is a political clan. For many, Simon is still living in the shadow of his late father Hugh, a former Cork Lord Mayor, Minister for Marine and Defence and a junior Minister for Finance. He was an ace yachtsman to boot. The pier in Crosshaven - a Cork village synonymous with sailing - is called the Hugh Coveney Pier.

Simon Coveney
Simon Coveney

"Hugh had real charisma, a twinkle in his eye," says a local supporter. "Simon's well-liked but he's different. He's steady whereas Hugh had that something special."

Hugh Coveney was demoted from the Department of Finance after allegations of improper conduct in 1995.

The Moriarty Tribunal questioned Coveney about whether he had a secret Ansbacher account.

But you'll struggle in Cork to find anyone who'll speak in critical terms of the father of seven.

Simon Coveney on his mother Pauline's wedding day to Dr Paul McCarthy. Photo: Donna McBride/ProVision.
Simon Coveney on his mother Pauline's wedding day to Dr Paul McCarthy. Photo: Donna McBride/ProVision.

A tragic end

At the point where Hugh is thought to have entered the sea at Roberts Cove, a lone gull hovered overhead on a May evening last week. This majestic spot and the Atlantic waters below saw the tragic end of one chapter and the reluctant beginning of another as a mourning Simon decided to stand in the Cork-South Central by-election after the death of his father on March 14, 1998.

On the day before he died, Hugh had updated his will - so, inevitably, many who wondered if the 62-year-old had taken his own life.

The autopsy said he died by accidental drowning. Hugh had fallen while trying to rescue one of his dogs, hit his head on the way and probably fell into the water while concussed, it said.

Hugh Coveney chats to Chernobyl Children's Project founder Adi Roch
Hugh Coveney chats to Chernobyl Children's Project founder Adi Roch

For Hugh's widow Pauline and his seven children who ranged in age from the eldest Patrick, who was then 27 to David, who was 15, the rumours and loose talk hurt.

Simon would say later in an interview: "The speculation around whether or not he committed suicide was unfortunate, from our point of view. It was a non-issue for the family because when you knew him as well as we knew him, you'd know the very thought of suicide would have been something that would've never entered his mind. He was an incredibly positive, mentally strong person."

Locals recall how difficult it was for Simon to fill his father's huge shoes.

Big shoes to fill

"Sure the boy was only 25, he didn't want that. But fair play to him, he showed courage and by God, the rest of the family held him up when he needed it," one neighbour tells me in Minane Bridge where the Coveneys lived at the time of Hugh's death.

The Coveneys form a formidable family of achievers. All seven have excelled in their respective fields, from business to media, medicine to law, management to politics. They are expected to take an active interest in their brother's campaign.

"They're an incredibly strong and lock-tight family," says humanitarian Adi Roche who has known the family since the late 1970s. "All of them will be there for Simon now when he needs them. They'll support and encourage him."

Adi Roche played a significant role in the Coveneys' history.

At the time of Hugh's death, five of his children were sailing halfway across the globe to raise funds for Roche's Chernobyl Children's Project when the message reached them by primitive email that tragedy had struck.

"The children learned from their parents the importance of active citizenship and they've all shown just how much they take that to heart," says Roche. "The entire Sail Chernobyl Project was Hugh's idea and he trusted his children, he knew they were strong, focused and could do it. He knew they would fight for and look after each other…and they still do."

After Hugh's funeral, the crew, with the exception of Simon who remained behind to steer the ship at home, returned to their round-the-globe sailing mission. Skipper duties were handed over to younger brother Rory - now an RTÉ executive.

Three years after the tragedy Pauline, Hugh's widow, remarried to a Midleton-born doctor, Paul McCarthy, who carried out medical research for the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline. The family home in Minane Bridge was sold.

Pauline, herself a former Lady Mayoress of Cork, now lives with her husband in nearby Currabinny. The family still owns farmland beyond Roberts Cove.

A loyal following

Simon Coveney is not universally beloved in Cork. Just last year he faced protests in his home city because of the Government's multibillion euro plan to tackle the housing crisis, and earlier this year he was accused of threatening the Oireachtas committee on the future of water.

"You'd get some in the party in Cork who'd back Leo (Varadkar - Coveney's chief rival for the Fine Gael leadership) I reckon," one Fine Gael Party member says. "Not many now, but some. For the older members, the Coveney name is gold but younger lads don't feel they know Simon so well and feel he's overly rigid."

Fine Gael Senator Jerry Buttimer who canvassed for Hugh back in the 1994 by-election and who has developed a strong bond with Simon, believes the apple hasn't fallen far from the tree.

"Hugh was a gentleman and personified everything that's good about politics. He was very civic minded and did all he could for Cork. I think Simon has that same work ethic."

In Minane Bridge there's no doubting where the loyalties lie. Anita Dempsey who runs the local shop has known the Coveneys for years.

"You don't get nicer people, we're very proud of them," she tells me amid the budding roses in her garden. "They're hard workers, every one of them, and they believe they have the ability to be the best. If Simon is elected as leader, I just know he'll do an amazing job"

At the bar counter in Butlers, Bertie Collins, "a Fianna Fáil man with a name that would fit in either party," he jokes, is nursing a pint of plain. Bertie Ahern's father, Sonny, came from just over the road, they say. Even though the area is not staunchly Fine Gael, he says locals would be delighted to see Simon given the top job. "Jesus, he'd be quite able. I don't think he'd do us any harm, anyway."

The lady of the house Margaret Butler adds: "There'd be great support for the whole family. Pauline used to help me as a driver with the meals-on-wheels run I used to do, she was fantastic, so reliable. That's the way the family are, and sure everyone had great time for Hugh."

The Coveneys are, in some ways, the Kennedys of County Cork. A large, good-looking family that rubs shoulders with the well-to-do at the local yacht club and also the farmers in the mart. Personal tragedy, success in business and political triumph have all occupied a life of ups and downs. Many will be interested in the next chapter of their family saga.

Who's who in coveney clan

Patrick (47)

The eldest and chief executive of food giant Greencore. Father, rugby fan and sailing enthusiast.

Simon (45)

Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government and a possible Taoiseach in waiting.

Married with three children.

Rory (43)

Head of Strategic Partnerships with RTÉ. Rory is also a Director at Benefacts, the database of Irish non-profits. Prior to joining RTÉ in 2007, he worked for the Department of Foreign Affairs. Father of three.

Andrew (41)

A Surgical Registrar in Cork University Hospital. Studied at Royal College of Surgeons and the Royal College of Physicians in Ireland.

Involved in research with UCC and still a regular sailing competitor.

Tony (41)

Manager at the five-star Four Seasons hotel in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Tony is a graduate of the BA in Hotel and Catering Management course at GMIT in Galway.

Rebecca (39)

After spending some time living abroad and working in corporate law, Rebecca married William Egan and is believed to have recently purchased a home near Simon's in Carrigaline.

David (35)

The baby of the family and a solicitor practicing in commercial property law having qualified in 2014 after training at a leading commercial law firm. Received a Bsc (honours) degree in Government and Public Policy from UCC in 2007.

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