'I had all of my life's desires - a beautiful son, a lovely house, great husband, but I was depressed'
Published 01/05/2014 | 08:43
Former TD and deputy leader of Fianna Fail Mary O'Rourke talks about love, having children, her teaching career and how she got into politics.
Walking through the Midlands town of Athlone with Mary O'Rourke is what it must be like accompanying One Direction through Dundrum Town Centre.
Cars honk, tourist coaches stop in the middle of the road, drivers salute her and people walking on the streets make a beeline to chat to the genial former TD who served as deputy leader of Fianna Fail and was also leader of the Seanad.
Mary is great company and has a kind word for everyone as we enjoy tea and pear cake at the Left Bank Restaurant.
She is also a refreshingly honest breath of fresh air in a world stultified by political correctness.
Athlone is the centre of the universe for Mary, who turns 77 next month and has lived there very happily all of her life.
Her family moved there from Dublin when her mother, Annie, was pregnant with her. Sean Lemass had asked her dad, Patrick Lenihan, to run the Gentex textiles factory there. He would later own the Hodson Bay Hotel. In 1965 Patrick was elected as a Fianna Fail TD, a seat he held until his death, aged 67, in 1970.
Mary was the youngest of Patrick and Annie's four children -- always the tagger-on, she says, laughing.
She has a sister, Anne, and two brothers who have passed on. Brian was also a TD, and was actually elected before his father, and Paddy was a councillor.
"My parents met as students in Galway University, and he got a job in Revenue and she taught secondary school at Loreto in Bray, which was then a boarding school," says Mary.
"She said if she ever had daughters we would go there, and we did. I was only 12 and my sister was leaving the year I came in.
"She was the good girl and I was a bit rebellious, so I got into trouble at times. I was distinctly unhappy, always hungry, bored and cold, but I now realise that I got a great education there with the library and resources."
When she left school at 17, Mary went to UCD and studied Latin, history and English. She didn't want to become a teacher, and when her parents asked her to come back and work with them in the hotel, she was delighted, as she had actually met her husband, Enda, there when she was 18.
"I thought he was very good looking and had this Spanish, dark look about him," she says. "I really fell for the physical side of him. He was very nice and calm, and I was a bit over the top, so we were very different."
Enda and Mary dated for two years, but decided to split up as they felt they were too young to get so serious.
Mary met another man, but her heart was with Enda, and they got back together six months later. They were engaged when Mary was 21 and married a year later. They decided to start a family, but it didn't happen for a while.
"I thought it would be easy, as my sister and brothers had no problems having children," she says. "I went to a gynaecologist in Dublin and he wasn't concerned as I was only 25. Enda even went to get tests and his sperm were 100pc mobile.
"We were put on calendars, and it was sex to order, so I would say, 'Right Enda, it's time', and he would say, 'Would you ever get back to work!'"
Appropriately enough, Mary's gynaecologist was the son of Fianna Fail founder Eamon de Valera, and happily Eamon Junior's advice did the trick.
Mary became pregnant and was thrilled to become a mother to baby Feargal, but suffered with post-natal depression.
Enda would come home to find her on the floor in tears while feeding the crying baby. He rang a doctor who sent Mary to Dublin to see a psychiatrist.
"I went on medication and got great advice, so gradually I came out of it," she says. "At that time, nobody talked about it -- and they still don't, really.
"I was dying for this child -- every Irish woman would love a son. I had all of my life's desires -- a beautiful son, lovely house and great husband, but I was depressed."
Encouraged by her father, who said he would pay for a childminder as he felt guilty for asking her to work in the hotel, Mary gained a HDip at Maynooth when Feargal was two. She became a teacher of English and history at Summerhill secondary school and loved it. She wasn't very strict, she says, and the girls she taught knew exactly how to get her to start chatting in the middle of a lesson.
When it came to getting pregnant again, Mary said she and Enda thought they had cracked the code, but it didn't work out that way.
When Feargal was four, they adopted Aengus at only six days old. Mary loved him the minute she saw him, and has always felt exactly the same love for both of her sons.
As she was always interested in politics, she eventually gave up teaching and got a position on the county council.
As she progressed in her career and had to put in long hours, it was Enda who kept the home fires burning.
"Enda owned a dealership, so he was able to be Mam and Dad at home with the kids," says Mary.
"I was still terribly worried as I didn't think the lads would cope without me, but they were fine. I wouldn't be sewing on their buttons or killing spiders, but I was full of love for those boys."
While Feargal is the head of the PricewaterhouseCoopers tax services practice in Ireland, Aengus has followed his mother into politics and is running in the forthcoming local elections.
Mary is helping him canvass in his constituency, which covers the whole of Athlone and south Westmeath. What kind of reaction is she getting at the doors?
"I get a great reaction," she says. "I know I don't annoy people, like other politicians. A lot of politicians are just so full of themselves these days, which is ridiculous. I never went on like that -- you're only there because you're elected, not because you have some marvellous brain."
She met so many characters along the way, she says, and Charlie Haughey, in particular, was a huge personality. He made sure they all met particular standards, and didn't put up with long speeches.
Being Minister for Education was a career highlight for Mary, and while she loved going around the country and meeting teachers and students, the most challenging aspect was dealing with the teachers' unions.
"It was never an easy ride," she says.
"I liked Health as well, but was devastated when I was sacked after three months, but I understand now that it was because they wanted all new people."
A particularly low point was losing her nephew, Brian Lenihan, who was 52, to pancreatic cancer in 2011. He was Finance Minister at the time, and worked tirelessly in his post throughout his illness.
"Brian was battling an illness, battling the public and battling the bullying from Europe on his own," says Mary.
"I think of him as a patriot because he died for his country.
"As well as being my nephew, we were workmates as well, and I think of him a lot.
"I always feel his presence very strongly, which is a comfort, and sometimes I even think I physically see him, but of course I don't. He is just very much with me still."
Another terrible time was losing Enda in 2001. Mary says a day doesn't go by when he doesn't cross her mind.
"Enda was always so encouraging, and I never would have got so far in politics without him," she says.
"He thought there was nothing that I couldn't do, and he made me believe that. I love talking to people, but I suppose I do get lonely at times.
"I feel solitary enough, which maybe comes from living by yourself. I have six lovely grandchildren that I see all the time, which is great, and Brian's widow Ann, my-sister-in-law, is my best girlfriend. I'm also on the board of the Cappagh Hospital Foundation in Dublin."
The "Mammy of the Dail" rose to great heights in politics and says that she was disappointed, but not devastated, when she lost her seat in 2011.
Actually, she says she doesn't think the glass ceiling exists in politics, and that maybe women are simply afraid to break through it.
"I think a lot of women are intimidated by politics, as they see the men on TV sniggering at each other, but I liked all of it," she says.
"I don't think women should be put off by the male dominance in politics, but they should be prepared to take the good with the bad.
"It's not all about being on Vincent Browne or Prime Time."