Life Mothers & Babies

Thursday 2 October 2014

A very private affair

How President Mary succeeded in bringing up three bright children out of the media spotlight. By Richie Taylor

Published 09/04/2009 | 00:00

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Wedding bells: Emma McAleese in rare photograph
President McAleese and her husband Martin with children Justin, Saramai and Emma

The news this week that President Mary McAleese's eldest daughter Emma is to marry came out of the blue to many. The younger members of Ireland's first family have enjoyed a very low profile, unlike the British royals who seem to live, and very occasionally thrive, in the media spotlight.

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And even here, relatives of some of our public figures have made the headlines. When Bertie Ahern was Taoiseach, his daughters Cecelia and Georgina, estranged wife Miriam and his then partner Celia Larkin all lived their lives very much in the public eye.

But dentistry student Emma (27) and her siblings, twins Justin and Saramai, have remained almost invisible -- despite their mother holding the highest office in the land.

They have appeared in public only on a handful of occasions -- most notably in a TV documentary on the Presidency and again at a photocall when the then US President Bill Clinton and wife Hillary visited the Phoenix Park.

The three McAleese children have lived in the high-security surrounds of áras an Uachtaráin since their mother was first elected in 1997, rarely appearing in public with their mother or father. Thanks to this they can live lives of relative normality, as most members of the paparazzi probably wouldn't even recognise them -- until now that is.

A spokesperson for the President confirmed that Emma, a student at Trinity, has become engaged to her Kerry-born barrister boyfriend Michael O'Connell, son of the legendary Kerry GAA footballer Mick O'Connell. The couple, who have been together for five years, haven't set a date for the wedding yet.

But while their lives have been gloriously gentrified and private, reality has occasionally impinged on the privileged existence of those in the áras.

Back in 2006 Emma, who reportedly has a low security risk tag attached to her, made the news after it was revealed that she was being ferried to work in Dublin by a garda, one of those supposed to provide 24-hour armed special branch cover to her mother. No Garda protection is supposed to be assigned to Emma during working or social hours.

Faced with criticism, the President's office issued a brief statement saying: "We do not comment on security-related matters. The deployment of Garda resources is a matter for Garda management." But rank and file garda were believed to be upset, claiming that their profession was being demeaned.

Twins Justin and Saramai McAleese have managed to keep an even lower profile than Emma. And their friends, acquaintances and work colleagues obviously respect their privacy as well.

But Justin (23), did stick his head above the parapet in 2006 when he started a blog while attending the Washington-Ireland leadership programme that includes summer internships in Washington.

During his stay his blog told of trips to the White House, the Library of Congress and his work with the international PR company Weber-Shandwick. He didn't identify online who his mother was but said his parents back in Ireland were "thrilled". Justin also posted pictures of parties he had attended and spoke of his "local" pub, not too far from the White House.

And apparently Justin is something of the odd-man-out at home, where the other four members of the first family are fitness fanatics, who either work out every morning or else jog or run in the grounds of their home. Martin in particular is a keen runner, who regards his wife's efforts to be more jogging than running!

But Mary and Martin McAleese's three children are nothing if not high achievers. Emma first studied electrical engineering at UCD and then worked for the ESB, but later left to study dentistry at Trinity College, following in her father's footsteps.

Justin completed a Masters in UCD's Michael Smurfit Business School, later becoming an accountant in Dublin. Saramai completed her Masters in biochemistry at Oxford, going on to study at Maynooth College.

And mother Mary is proud that the younger members have remained more or less out of the spotlight, with no bad behaviour or student-style high jinks bringing disgrace to her high office.

She revealed: "It was nothing that I did, it was actually something that the media did. They gave the children peace and they gave them space. That meant an awful lot to us. They have managed to live everyday lives, and lived reasonably good lives. It would have been awful for them if every time they walked out the door they felt that they had to keep looking over their shoulders all the time."

While Emma is sporting a diamond ring on her engagement finger and has been spotted looking at wedding dresses, very little is known of the private lives of Justin and Saramai.

The President has revealed in recent years how Saramai was miserable when she left their native Rostrevor at the age of just 12 to live in áras an Uachtaráin in Dublin. She missed her school, her friends and her grandparents.

Mary and Martin encouraged her to follow new pursuits and activities, and because Justin and Emma were both involved in rowing, they took her down to the club at the Liffey. With the strong encouragement of a coach there she adopted the sport, which she later told her mum was a turning point for her in settling in down here.

There is already speculation that Emma and Michael could hold their wedding reception in the áras.

The President still has two-and-a-half-years left in office and would undoubtedly be delighted to see her first born tie the knot either in a marquee in the grounds or in the magnificent house itself.

And as she will only be 60 when she steps down, she hasn't ruled out the possibility of writing her memoirs at the family farm in Roscommon. She said: "I might very well do that. But I might, if God is good, have some grandchildren by then. Although there's not a lot stirring in that direction yet, especially with Emma doing a five-year dental course. But you don't know what lies ahead."

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