Saturday 16 December 2017

Mary, Mary, never contraryMary: Why I will always be grateful to Charlie . . .

In the latter stages of her long political career, Mary O'Rourke was often referred to as "Mammy" by her Leinster House colleagues. It was half praise and half exasperation. Like most Irish mammies, nothing seemed to faze her and she was never shy about telling those around her what was right and what they should be doing, whether they wanted to hear it or not. She enjoyed deflating pumped-up egos with a withering Mammy-style observation and every now and then she was deliciously indiscreet.

So the prospect of Just Mary: A Memoir raised hopes of all kinds of revelations, put-downs and amusing asides from nearly four decades in political life. But Mammy O'Rourke is surprisingly guarded in what she says in her book. Perhaps she felt that because this was her memoir, she needed to show more gravitas.

That is understandable, but slightly disappointing. One might, for example, have expected her to get her own back on Michael O'Leary for the notorious Ryanair ad featuring a cartoon of her in the bath, which was a full page in all the papers. (At the time she was Minister for Public Enterprise -- which included transport -- and O'Leary was conducting his ongoing battles with Aer Lingus and the DAA.) But there is not a mention of the cartoon, or even O'Leary, in the book.

Similarly, what she has to say about Charlie Haughey is surprisingly generous given the allegations that he siphoned off a chunk of the money that had been raised for her brother Brian's liver transplant operation. The appeal for funds launched by Haughey had been massively oversubscribed.

"Haughey did not plunder any of the funds which should have gone to my brother," she writes. "It was the leftover money he plundered and of course that should have gone back to the subscribers or perhaps been donated to further research . . . I suppose we took the pragmatic view --Brian got the funding he needed to enable him to have a life-saving operation in the US. It could be said that what happened to the leftover money -- and whether this was a mortal or a venial sin -- is for the historians to decide."

Her affection for Charlie probably began in early 1983 when he was choosing a Shadow Front Bench. "I am going to make you Shadow Minister for Women's Affairs," he told her in a weekend phone call to Athlone. But she told him she didn't want it because she didn't want to be pigeon-holed like that.

"Oh I see Missy," said Haughey, "Particular, aren't you?" And he put down the phone. "Well that's you f***ed then", her husband Enda told her. But three hours later Charlie rang back and offered her Shadow Minister for Education.

She was on her way, and she never forgot Charlie for it. Later in the book she writes: "Charlie Haughey gave me that opportunity from which so much flowed in my life and I will always be grateful to him." She says she is not blind to the "venality" of what he got up to later on "but I do think it is only right to give proper recognition where it is due".

She is also very admiring of Haughey's leadership qualities. "He had an air of competence about him, a stately demeanour and a confidence which meant that he was equal to any occasion: you wouldn't have seen him, for example, having his hair ruffled at the Council of Europe, like Enda Kenny." (In spite of her attempt to be serious, she can't resist the odd dig.)

She had an impressive career at Cabinet level, as Minister for Education, Health and Public Enterprise (in all she held senior ministerial office for over 10 years). She was also deputy leader of Fianna Fáil under Bertie Ahern and, later, leader of the Seanad.

It was a career with a few downs as well as all the ups, not least when she lost her Dáil seat when a vote management plan by Bertie's team went awry. Bertie's behaviour afterwards left a lot to be desired. Her overall portrait of him is fair, especially in relation to his achievement on the North, but less than flattering. She never quite knew what was going on behind what she calls those "limpid" eyes.

Measured though she is on what she reveals about her political life, she is refreshingly open and direct about her personal life. After marrying Enda, she had trouble getting pregnant, even though they wanted a family immediately. "It wasn't because we weren't trying -- we had a very active sexual life -- but it just didn't happen," she writes.

After three years they sought the advice of an eminent gynaecologist. She praises Enda for having a semen test at a time when such things were not so accepted. He was okay and the doctor explained to Mary how to monitor her temperature so they would know the best time to make love.

"Enda would say 'Oh God!' when I would announce in the middle of the day that we had to go to bed," she writes. Six months later she was pregnant. "So that ended that trauma in our lives for the time being -- but I always think how well we managed it together," she writes, her enduring love for her late husband almost tangible in the text (Enda died in 2001).

They assumed everything would be alright from then on, but three years later Mary again could not get pregnant and they adopted, something that was not usual at the time for a couple who had already had a child.

But Mary was never limited by the usual. From her time as a teacher (she loved Latin) to her successful career as a politician, she was open-minded, modern and clear in her thinking. She refused to tolerate sexism and also pays tribute to Enda's enabling role at home (long before anyone had heard of the term house husband) when she was away on political business.

She loved her time in Education, perhaps not surprising since she had been a teacher. Her time in Public Enterprise included the notorious Eircom flotation, which lost money for investors all over the country. She doesn't really deny that they made a mess of it but makes the point that so many experts and opposition politicians like Ivan Yates (who said on radio that Eircom shares were like "money for old rope") were all in favour and were only worried that the shares might be priced too low.

The section near the end of the book in which she deals with the approaching death of her beloved nephew (and former Finance Minister Brian Lenihan is particularly moving, all the more so because it is written with restraint and dignity. She describes how she noticed that his voice, once so full of vigour, had become like that of an old person and how, as the end neared, he admitted to wanting to sleep all the time.

She describes April of last year, the summer of 2011, when Brian was spending as much time as he could with his young family. "That month was warm, with golden evenings and for Brian it must have been particularly poignant, as he knew time was marching on." He died on June 10.

In many ways, Mary O'Rourke's story exemplifies the best qualities that Fianna Fáil activists once had.

She is solidly middle class with a strong work ethic (a Loreto girl), a desire for excellence, a commitment to public service, and an expectation of, even a feeling of entitlement to, a leadership role in whatever she does. That came from her parents and especially her father, a bright civil servant in Revenue whose potential was spotted by Seán Lemass, Minister for Industry and Commerce in the 1930s, who was setting up factories in various places. He needed someone to set up a textiles factory in Athlone and he called on PJ Lenihan to do it for him.

Those were the days of nation building by Fianna Fáil. Mary's father, after making a success of Gentex, went on to be a TD in the 1960s. And in time Mary followed.

There is so much to be got through in the book -- Brian's ill-fated run for the presidency and his sacking; why Garret FitzGerald was very different from his wise old grandfather image; how she made Albert Reynolds spray the sandwich he was eating all over the room; why Alan Dukes was "very Machiavellian"; Pádraig Flynn, Bertie, Tom Gilmartin and planning; and why the ones really to blame for our economic woes are Mary Harney and Charlie McCreevy. And that's only some of it.

With so much ground to cover, it's not as detailed as one might wish. Like Frank Sinatra always did, she leaves you wanting more.

Overall, it's a fascinating story, full of unexpected connections (for example, her father's first cousin was the famous head of history at UCD, Robert Dudley Edwards) and insights and achievements (she and Brian Snr were the first brother and sister to be ministers in an Irish government). It's a great read, and not just for the Mammies of Ireland.

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