Mary O'Rourke on her nephew Brian Lenihan's death: 'People were inclined to heap the whole economic disaster upon him and I had to learn to live with that'
In an extraordinary interview, Mary O'Rourke tells our reporter about Charles Haughey, her last conversation with her beloved nephew Brian Lenihan, the deaths of her big brother Brian and husband Enda, her thoughts on her own death, and why the sexual urge is gone.
Mary O'Rourke's journey into the past is a sometimes dark, painful one.
But it is a journey nonetheless lit up like a lantern by the love she felt for those she lost along the way.
The 80-year-old former Deputy Leader of Fianna Fail can remember her last conversation with "young Brian", as she calls her nephew, the late Minister for Finance, Brian Lenihan.
It was near the end of May, 2011. She was in the kitchen in Athlone boiling the kettle one morning when the phone went.
"Ah, Brian, great to hear from you," Mary said to him before asking her nephew - who had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at Christmas, 2009 - how he was. . .
"I'll tell you something," he replied. "I'm exhausted tired. I slept all night and I woke up and I want to go to bed again."
"I knew then that he was coming towards the end," Mary says now. "I'd seen people who had been very ill and they get very tired."
In response to young Brian saying he was exhausted, Mary tried to be "motherly or auntie" about it and told him that "sleep is very good for you. I quoted the lines from Shakespeare's Macbeth to him: 'Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care.'"
"That's a lovely line," Brian said.
"He'd know it himself, of course. He knew everything," says Mary proudly now, adding that she taught Latin to Brian when he was twelve - "he would cycle to my house once a week" - and he would always want to be taught the next chapter straight after they finished one. "He was voracious to learn."
"Say it again," Brian told Mary that morning in 2011.
Mary said it again and the two lines after it from Macbeth too: 'The death of each day's life, sore labour's bath/Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course/Chief nourisher in life's feast.'
"That's lovely, Mary," Brian said.
"That was our last conversation," Mary says. The pancreatic cancer claimed his life ten days after that.
"He didn't seem to outwardly suffer, but of course he must have had, no matter how very good the treatment was that he was getting. The only thing, I suppose, is pancreatic cancer is swift, very swift. You don't linger."
Mary "felt to the quick" the way Brian - because of his position as Minister for Finance - was treated after his death in relation to the state of the Irish economy and the deals done. "I knew that Brian knew what he was doing. People were inclined to heap the whole economic disaster upon him. I had to learn to live with that too. There is only so much you could be anguished about. But I felt for him in the illness. He kept up the good face. I used to think, 'You're suffering.' He retained his good spirits."
In terms of her brother Brian Lenihan senior's passing on November 1, 1995, Mary recalls that his physical demise was more lengthy because he underwent a liver transplant in America. "And the day before he went, the fella, the specialist in the Mater, said to me that he would have five good years from the rejig. And he had six."
How did she feel when Brian stood unsuccessfully for the Irish presidency in 1990 - and the whole controversy over "on mature recollection" in relation to a phonecall with President Hillery?
"We were gutted as a family for him but also inspired by how he dealt with it and how he was inspired to fight a great campaign around the country. Politics isn't a story of Pollyannas. We were humbled that he still got the top vote from the people of Ireland," Mary told me. "Mary Robinson went on to be a great President."
"He was as he was," she says of the former Tanaiste, Minister for Foreign Affairs, and Minister for Justice. "The joie de vivre you saw - that was Brian, except he was much more thoughtful about reading and books and poetry and all that than he ever, ever admitted. It's not that he didn't admit it, but it didn't come to the surface."
And Mary? What is she like beneath the surface, underneath it all?
"Underneath it all! How right you are," she laughs over a pot of tea in The Shelbourne; I poured - she poured her heart out.
"I'm thoughtful, too. I suppose most are thoughtful. I quite like my own company. While I love all my friends, family and grandchildren," she says referring to Jennifer, Luke, Sarah, Sam, James and Scott, "I am never afraid of being alone."
Mary's husband Enda died, aged 65, in January, 2001, after he was taken ill at their home. I ask her to tell me how she felt when she shut the door after the funeral.
"He was buried on a Thursday. I went to the Cabinet meeting the following Tuesday. That was just a weekend. I stayed in Dublin on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, and came home on the Friday."
What was that Friday like?
"I remember pushing in the front door with the key and saying: 'Enda's not here.' Because he would always be there and we'd have a talk. You know what I did? And I still do it. I put the radio on in my bedroom, the radio in the kitchen and the radio in the living room. So everywhere I go in the house there are voices, or music. I had to do it. I wanted clamour. I wanted a voice. I missed his voice - apart from everything else I missed. I missed him and his physical presence."
Does she ever sleep on his side of the bed now?
"No. I go in the middle. Funny you should ask me that, about a month after he died, [her son] Feargal was down from Dublin with me for a weekend and he came into my bedroom and he said: 'Oh, ma. You're over on Enda's side.'"
Would she ever go over to the other Enda's side?
Will she die a Fianna Failer?
"Ah, no. I see the good in all of them. I often have complimentary things to say about Enda Kenny, or about somebody in Fine Gael. There is quite a lot of good in them. I'm not that dopey that I can't see that side of them. I think it is awful the way they [Fine Gael] are going on now."
Mary says Enda would need "Sir Galahad to be standing up for him. This thing of 'Time he went!', I think, is kind of cruel."
Was it any less cruel in her day?
"No, when you think of Charlie Haughey and all the heaves, that's true," cackles Mary.
Could she imagine Haughey saying he had found his mojo? "No. He would never have admitted to losing it, not alone finding it."
Asked what was Haughey like, Mary comes over almost coy: "He was grand. You see, I wouldn't have known . . . you'll say 'Don't be acting the innocent.'"
Don't be acting the innocent, Mary!
"But seriously, I didn't . . . everything that was going on at the time . . . Terry [Keane] - well, I did know about that because Terry told everyone, didn't she? She sort of did. She did in the end, anyway. And PJ [Mara] started to be quite bold in the bar here, didn't he? He'd say ribald remarks and it would get back. But by God, he was good at his job. Look at the percentage Fianna Fail got. Now I know it was different times and people have different tastes now but he kept Fianna Fail at above 40 per cent for all those years. . ."
Is politics less tribal now?
"It is less tribal now," answers Mary, who served as Minister for Education, Minister for Health, and Minister for Public Enterprise, and who retired from politics in 2011, "because they have to be less tribal. They have to consult with Micheal Martin and he in turn has to consult with his front bench. So that must be kind of different from lording it up, as in - 'It is all your fault!' Do you know when they used to shout that across the Dail. I would have loved to have got up there and shout it back at them: 'How dare you! It isn't all our fault!' They blamed all the stringent measures we had to bring in; that it was all our fault. And that used to really annoy me. You know when they were going on and on?"
Mary says she remembers reading somewhere that Brendan Howlin was walking along Baggot Street and it suddenly struck him: 'We're almost bankrupt. We won't have the money to pay the teachers and the nurses.'
"Now that is not correct," she says. The two Brians - An Taoiseach Cowen and Lenihan - had done the deal with the Troika, she says, and the money was guaranteed. "Ok, it was a horrible rate of interest, and it put a terrible cloud over us for years until we shook it off, but they had done the deal."
What was it like for Mary personally during the 2011 election when Fianna Fail took such a hammering from the electorate?
"That is very funny that you should ask me that," she says. "Because I was so well-known, people weren't going to be rude at the door in Athlone to me because they would meet me the next morning in Dunnes Stores or in the post office. I live in the town of Athlone. So they weren't going to say, 'I'm not going to vote for you', and shut the door. I had none of that. I was treated with politeness."
Would Mary have preferred if they had told her their views on her and Fianna Fail?
"I kind of knew. They weren't as whole-hearted, let me put it like that, but they were not rude."
When the day of voting came, Mary knew in her heart that she was not going to get elected again.
"And I said to myself: 'God - you've had 32 years, Mary. Don't go weeping about that now.'"
Was that a sad day for Mary? With a sadness deepened by the fact that after giving her life to politics - while Enda effectively minded the kids at home - when Mary lost her seat there was no husband to come home to.
"No. I was very lucky. My son Feargal came down from Dublin and [her other son] Aengus in Athlone. I have a lovely niece," says Mary referring to Grainne who she writes about in her new book, Letters of My Life, "and she is a great friend of mine. A woman friend. She was there. And she came to the count with me, which was a very noble thing for her to do, seeing that the word back from the count was: 'You're gone.' So she came with me, and Feargal and some old friends came to the house. But in the end, I went to bed on my own."
Without wanting to know about Mary O'Rourke's bed, did she ever feel she wanted to have another relationship after Enda died? "No. No. I never wanted to. I go out with guys to the films or to the theatre, coffee, whatever. I like men's company. I like talking to you today. I like men's company. But I would never like to go to bed with a guy."
I say to her that I am more interested in her heart than her sex life. When Enda died, was that it with love and romance for her?
"Yeah, I think so. I had a very good relationship with him, all over the place; I had a very good relationship with him, in every sense of the word. And I would never get that again. Ever. Ever."
Does she not think Enda would have wanted Mary to not be on her own and to be happy?
"Oh, he'd want me to be happy. I think he'd be a bit jealous!" she laughs. "He'd want me to be happy alright but I don't think that want would extend to: 'I'd like to see her akimbo with somebody.' So, romance is done with me now. Maybe it is expressed now in my love for my grandchildren."
So she is ruling out being in, say, New York and meeting somebody lovely who has a shared interest in politics and falling in love?
"I have loads of interests. I talk about books with people. No - I am not . . . the sexual urge is not there. Now, I'd always say, 'That's a good looking guy' if I saw a nice fellow."
I say to Mary O'Rourke that I am talking about sharing her heart not her body. "To share the heart? No. I wouldn't feel like it, sharing it. But I am lucky in friendships, both men and women, that I am able to share a lot. But they are purely at that level."
Mary is going to the cinema next week (she doesn't say with who) in Athlone, to see The Siege of Jadotville; she also recently went to see Spotlight. "Very good. I like films. I also read a lot. I like reading about politicians. I read Tony Blair's. It doesn't seem that long ago that he was the darling of Downing Street." Discussing legacies, Mary believes that Young Brian has been "completely rehabilitated. I am very happy about that, yeah, of course. I say: 'Good for him.' I used to spend my time on programmes fighting the corner for him. But gradually people began to realise. I think that was one of the things that featured - only it was below the radar - in the bad turn-out that Fine Gael had in the last election. They spent so long saying, 'It's all your fault' that people started saying, 'Now, hold on now, you're in government. Just get it right, will you.'"
Mary seems to have gotten it right in her book, Letters of My Life. It is a fascinating read, quite, quite different from Mary's last book four years ago, Just Mary. "It was a big success and I stayed in touch with Nicky Howard at Gill, the publishers." In Letters of My Life, Mary has written a letter to "20 people past and present, close and distant, living and deceased" - from ex-FF minister Ray MacSharry to her brother Paddy to Mo Mowlam, former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, to Sheryl Sandberg, CEO of Facebook. . .
"I reviewed her book," Mary says of Ms Sandberg, "and then her husband died and I felt really, really sorry for her. It didn't matter what money she had, or what job she has, she was left rearing two very young children."
Mary writes in the book that she didn't like the notion of 'lean in' - to encourage women to embrace challenge and risk in the workplace.
"Lean in? I wanted to jump in!" she laughs. "Do you mind if I lean in?" she guffaws.
I say to her that if she had leaned in in Fianna Fail when she started off in politics in the early 1970s, she'd have gone nowhere. "I'd be sitting here talking to Mary Muldoon!"
Does Mary ever think about her own death?
"No, I don't," she says, "because I don't think we die, you see? Of course, we die and people cry but I think you're not down there. I think the spirit is [here]. I frequently feel that Enda and Brian junior are with me. I'm not daft enough to think they are physically with me.
"But I'd often be at home, maybe reading, maybe thinking about what I'm going to do next, and suddenly I'd feel they were there; one or other of them. I feel their spirits still. I mean, Enda is 15 years dead. I feel his spirit still."
Their wedding anniversary was only recently, September 14. Mary felt Enda's spirit "very strongly that day". She looked at the photograph of the two of them on their wedding day - 1960 - and thought: "Two lovely, innocent people." They got married in the Hudson Bay Hotel and went on their honeymoon to the Channel Islands. "That's life. He's gone."
She goes to Mass, not every Sunday but pretty regularly. "I would pray. I would pray for somebody I knew was sick." She mentions a friend who has cancer and that she wants God to make better again. Mary doesn't say her prayers inwardly; she speaks them out loud.
"I can do that!" she chortles. "Sure, I am living on my own!"
Would she ever say a prayer for Fianna Fail to get in at the next election? "They are going to get in anyway. I only wish Brian junior was with them."
Letters Of My Life by Mary O'Rourke, priced €19.99/£17.99, is published by Gill Books on September 30
Sunday Indo Living
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