John Downing on the remarkable rollercoaster career of Finance Minister Noonan as he approaches his 70th birthday next week
Slowly, Michael Noonan turned and asked the other people in the car: "How could the Fine Gael party have chosen such an ugly man to lead them?" It was mid-May 2002 and he had spent hours each day for the previous fortnight gazing at his own image on the 'election battle bus' travelling in front of his campaign car. Noonan was approaching his 59th birthday and headed for political oblivion as the party he led was days away from electoral meltdown.
But nobody – least of all himself – could have believed that less than nine years later he would be back at the heart of Irish public life carrying the hopes of a fretful bankrupt nation as Finance Minister. Now, just days from his 70th birthday, this widowed father of five adult children, and grandfather of 10, has the confidence of a man who feels he has little left to prove.
Ten days ago, easily fielding questions on EU matters at the Oireachtas Finance Committee, he had no compunction in saying: "Ah . . . I've lost my place in my notes, now." Then he joked about how his 'embarrassment threshold' had shifted over the years.
The journey from political margins back to the centre of power politics is testimony to Noonan's considerable ability. It is also replete with bizarre happenings, 'what-if?' style political musings – not least the total implosion of long-time opponents in Fianna Fáil.
But at the centre of Noonan's journey is also the poignant story of his beautiful wife, Flor, afflicted by progressive Alzheimer's disease for the final 14 years of her life. Few beyond the family knew that even during that ill-starred 2002 campaign, he was already worried about his wife's eroding mental capacities.
Florence Knightley came originally from Castlemaine in Co Kerry and they met while both were primary school teachers in Dublin. The early photographs of the young couple show how easily he must have been smitten by this elegant beauty.
For most of their 43-year marriage they lived in a modest semi-detached home in Dooradoyle, on the southern fringe of Limerick city, and both taught in schools near their homes. Their three sons and two daughters got their education at these schools.
Michael Noonan was himself the son of a schoolmaster, originally from Loughill, on the bank of the Shannon Estuary, just on the Limerick side of the border with Kerry. All of his political life has been in Limerick city, a tough cauldron of frequent polemic, where he has won 10 Dáil elections.
Noonan is not lacking in the quick putdowns which are a useful survival skill. Once, when upbraided by a supporter about his poor vote in comparison with that of the late Jim Kemmy, he delivered a one-sentence treatise on Irish political culture: "I represent Limerick in Dáil Éireann – Jim Kemmy represents Dáil Éireann in Limerick."
He won national prominence in December 1982 when Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald appointed him Justice Minister. He managed the fallout from Fianna Fáil phone-tapping scandals and other controversies, including a bruising industrial relations battle with the Prison Officers' Association.
This was at the height of the Northern Troubles and the family home became a mini-fortress surrounded by gardaí around the clock. He was later Industry Minister and in the 1995-97 Rainbow Coalition he served as Health Minister, a job which was to give him much subsequent political grief.
Noonan and Enda Kenny were more often on opposite sides in 30 years of Fine Gael's internal wars, starting with Noonan voicing leadership ambitions as early as 1993.
Kenny, as party chief whip, helped party leader John Bruton defeat Noonan and other rebels in a February 1994 heave. But, when an extraordinary turn of events in December of that same year saw Bruton head a new Rainbow Government, he included both men in his government team. Noonan got the more senior job of Health Minister to Kenny's appointment at the Department of Tourism and Trade.
Noonan tried to talk about quality of life and then tried to out-bribe Fianna Fáil who had the upper hand throughout. Kenny happily stayed far away, taking an occasional public pot-shot at party efforts under Noonan.
One of the few lively moments in a dull 2002 campaign delivered an iconic photograph of Noonan being struck in the face with a custard pie in Boyle, Co Roscommon.
Even before full count results, Noonan quit as leader on Saturday evening, May 18, 2002, after just 15 months' leadership. The party had lost 23 seats which left question marks over its very existence.