Tuesday 21 November 2017

Review: The Widest Circle: Remembering Michael Sweetman Edited by Barbara Sweetman FitzGerald

A&A Farmar, €20.99

Rosita Sweetman

The living beating heart of this book, The Widest Circle -- Remembering Michael Sweetman, is in the contributions by Michael's children, his brother David and, of course his wife, Barbara. Each one unique, heartfelt, beautiful.

There's always something ineffably sad about a book produced in honour of a friend departed; this book, produced 39 years after Sweetman's death in the Staines plane crash of 1972, carries the poignant photograph, taken just a month before, of Michael in the garden with his six adored and adoring children -- twins Caroline and Michele, Patrick, Rachel, Christopher and Timmy.

It's the everyday, black-and-white and grainy domesticity of a loving dad in a garden in Dublin, their innocence in the face of the enormity of the catastrophe to come, that makes it so poignant. Here is the clever, loving, handsome centre of their, and their mum Barbara's world -- in four weeks he will be gone forever.

Talking of photographs, the picture of baby Michael and his mother is truly beautiful; the little boy with his huge eyes is curled in a loving and proud embrace by his beautiful, Huguenot-descended, mum, Mimi La Touche. He was her adored firstborn and almost a year to the day after his death, she had a stroke from which she never recovered. His father Paddy (my godfather), his brother David, and sisters Elizabeth, Mary, Kate and Margaret, within 13 months lost their brother ("the rock of strength on which our family stood") and their mum.

Apart from being a beloved son, and adored husband and dad, Michael was also the great hope of the Fine Gael party in the Sixties. He was central to its reinvigoration, moving it from its old blueshirt conservative straitjacket, into the modern, liberal era.

It was the time of the "Just Society", Tom Higgins running for the presidency -- Michael wrote his speeches -- the emergence of Garret Fitzgerald and Declan Costelloe, all urging a more egalitarian, realpolitik that would appeal to the younger generation.

His day job was in Coras Trachtala, or the Irish Export Board, (bringing him and his young family to Montreal and New York), and later the Confederation of Irish Industries, and it was his combination of pragmatism (learned from business), and politics (learned from family) that put him in pole position for helping to bring about change.

Barbara recalls walking past Dail Eireann together when they were young, and Michael saying: "Don't let me go into politics"; but politics was in the family DNA.

As author Charles Lysaght writes, the (Catholic) Sweetman family of the 18th Century was unusual in that they were successful brewers (they sold the firm on to Guinness), and equally successful and vigorous campaigners for rights of "Papists", Catholics.

John Sweetman was involved in the United Irishmen with another John, a Nationalist MP in the 1890s and subsequently a founder of Sinn Fein, followed by our grandfather Roger Sweetman, a Sinn Fein deputy in the first Dail. In the Sixties there was Gerard Sweetman (formidable Minister for Finance) and my dad Edmund Sweetman, who ran for the Senate. And then there was Michael.

When he and Barbara returned from their second trip to Montreal, Michael threw himself into the local political scene. Europe, and Ireland, were on the cusp of profound political changes and for a bright and ambitious young man, politics was at the heart of the action.

Ireland was still in the economic doldrums. Stagnation was the reality -- on all levels.

Michael teamed up with the "young tigers" of Fine Gael and of the Labour party, as well as with activists in the North. By a terrible twist of fate, writes Paddy Harte, a gun battle in the North resulted in the postponement of a conference he and Michael had set up. This allowed Michael to take the plane to Brussels on which he, and 118 others, lost their lives.

It was Michael's passionate conviction that Ireland should go for full EU membership, (the alternative, as he saw it, was to forever be "a crummy suburb of England"); he died just a month after an overwhelming vote in favour of EU (then EEC) membership.

Politics aside (many thought he was on his way to become Fine Gael's next leader), Michael had an equally vigorous home life -- beautifully recalled here by his children. There was the 10-acre fruit farm near his parents' home, Johnsbrook in Meath, which he visited every weekend, the vintage wine business run by himself and brother David, the fishing, shooting and holidays in Donegal and the sacrosanct Sunday mornings with classical music.

The stand-out "In Memoriam" piece has to be artist Michele's Ode to My Father -- read aloud, much to Michele's delight, by Olivia O'Leary at the book's launch. There's a beautiful piece by Timmy to the "father he hardly knew" and a clutch of wonderful interviews by Caroline with political friends and colleagues of her father's -- Brendan Halligan, Jim Dooge, Donal Flynn.

This book is a wonderful tribute to his memory by Barbara. Her children, and grandchildren, in attendance at the launch, where 500-plus people crammed into the huge rooms of the Irish Architectural Archive on Merrion Square to celebrate, are a living tribute to her.

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