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Deconstructing Sweetie: not so veiled a secret

'The golden rule for affairs" Terry Keane once wrote, "is the same as the golden rule for taking up a job: the exit is as crucial as the entering."

Perhaps more than any other this quote encapsulated the spirit of her long-running column in this newspaper; a mischievous double entendre. An in-joke hiding in plain sight. All contained within the nation's weekly dose of stiletto-sharp wisdom.

It also explained, perhaps, why Keane was so upset at the way the final act of the Sweetie saga played out. It was, she knew, altogether the wrong kind of exit. She felt betrayed and cornered.

With her interview on The Late Late Show, the frisson of the open secret, which had beguiled the nation for a decade, was destroyed forever. She was vilified for cashing in her chips. Her family, she said was "aghast" and she herself would quickly wonder if "the price was too high".

At the time nobody seemed to have much sympathy. When Haughey left the political stage Keane had compared him to Othello (as Haughey himself had in his valedictory speech before the Dail) but, now seven years later, she herself was painted as a craven Lady Macbeth.

An old colleague wrote that she had "sold the family silver" and it was thought by some that the reaction to her television confession was so hostile that it might even be powerful enough to bring about some sympathy for the old rogue, whose epic corruption was simultaneously being laid bare at Dublin Castle.

It didn't, but it did have the unexpected effect of relegating Keane to become perceived as some kind of "short-lived entertainment act", a champagne-quaffing, fur-clad villainess, or latterly, in the recent RTE drama, as a preposterously posh gangster's moll.

We saw her coquettishly wrapped in bedsheets, we saw her uproariously necking wine from the bottle but we never saw her writing or working and certainly never, never got an inkling of her own legacy in journalism. And yet Keane, as much as Veronica Guerin or Eamon Dunphy, was a crucial pillar of the Sunday Independent's 1990s dream team and her reign was anything but short-lived.

Imagine for a second; your gossip columnist is having an affair with the sitting Taoiseach of the country. Little wonder Keane was allowed the luxury of having her copy written by a team. More than anything this was astute division of labour. Terry was a talented writer in her own right but like Oscar Wilde, who she was fond of quoting, her genius she saved for living. And as much as journalists are fond of the phrase, a story never does quite write itself.

The Keane Edge, like the woman it was named for, has been the subject of some glaring revisionism. Looking back most of us probably think she was cryptic in her references to Sweetie. When she died obituaries mentioned the fact that she "hinted" at the affair in the column and that it was "flaunted but unknown to most".

Perhaps in the very beginning that was the case - in 1990 she described Lord Henry Mount Charles telling her not to be "seduced by those in power" to general laughter at the table - but as the years progressed she was jaw-droppingly literal much of the time, particularly after Haughey resigned as Taoiseach.

"The international media (CNN et al) are constantly on to my office to enquire as to how the Taoiseach In-Exile Charlie is spending his retirement" she wrote in November 1992, a few months after Haughey left office. "'With Terry of course' is the nonchalant reply. And to those who need to put their fingers in the side (and there are not many) the laughing couple were to be seen having a cosy few drinks (Montrachet and scotch on the rocks) in the pub in Abbeville last Tuesday."

No reading between the lines was necessary there and indeed it's also a myth that she always referred to Haughey as Sweetie - he frequently was called by his Christian name or simply referred to as The Taoiseach.

"If I had a penny every time I was told last week that I was a warm and witty and wonderful person but that The Keane Edge was nasty brutish but too short, why I could probably afford to buy myself a new Taoiseach but I wouldn't since the old one is fine", she wrote in April 1996. In the same year a photo of Haughey appeared in the column with the caption "a private affair". It was an in-joke that was successful precisely because it was so brashly inclusive; there couldn't be a single one of the paper's million plus readers thick enough to miss it. She united Ireland in "pseudo disapproval but absolute fascination".

These days the division between serious reporting and tittle tattle is increasingly blurred; in many instances The New York Times carries the same content as Buzzfeed or Perez Hilton. In straddling the front and back pages of the Sunday Independent Terry was far ahead of her time. This was gossip as hard news. One moment she was titillating with a sighting of Bertie Ahern in the early stages of his romance with Celia, the next she was outright naming the new Attorney General, scooping everyone and proving once again that she had her lacquered finger on the pulse of power.

Haughey's exit from power also emboldened her to fire a few zingers in the direction of his opponents. The marriage breakdown statistics in Albert Reynolds' new cabinet would make it appear that "with these legislators the case for divorce is in good hands", she wrote. "The Irish definition of modern and progressive would appear to mean separated and eccentric."

Mary Robinson, who was resented by Haughey, was frequently derided as "her royal poloness" for her habit of wearing polo necks.

PJ Mara was described as "The Machiavelli Of Merrion Square." She could be playfully cutting but was never cruel. "When it comes to butchery, it's a matter of taste, sometimes I go for the chainsaw and sometimes for the stilletto", she wrote. "Subtlety is all."

The Charlie drama on RTE undersold the level of real love between Haughey and Keane but it was there and is evidenced in the majority of playful references to the former Taoiseach. Sweetie doesn't leave room for others in her heart, she wrote in 1994, and the following year described him as "the greatest living Irishman".

Scrap Saturday had sneeringly described her as "that old biddy" and she returned the fire after the programme was cancelled: "as I used to say to Sweetie, you scrap my Saturday and I'll scratch yours."

While Haughey's finances were being turned over by Justices McCracken and Moriarty, Terry cocked a glorious snook at public disapproval with her constant descriptions of her lavish lifestyle with the man she also called El Supremo.

She writes of her love of fine clothes: "Princess Diana and I have two things in common - we both consort with powerful men and we share the same clothes designer - Paul Costelloe."

And of Haughey's largesse: At one point she describes an auction of a Jack B Yeats painting worth £30,000 and hints that her birthday is coming up in 30 days, followed by a mention of a Trevor Geoghegan masterpiece of the Great Blasket with a reserve of £3,000 ("only 22 days to yours, Sweetie").

She made frequent references to the aphrodisiac effects of the bracing Kerry air and referred to the county as "where it all begins and end for me and Sweetie" (Haughey had a replica of an ancient Ogham stone made and transported to his island retreat in the Kingdom - all at the expense of the taxpayer.)

When she finally went on The Late Late Show to talk about the affair there was audience laughter when she said she thought Haughey had "sorted out" his tax affairs but in the column his relationship with Revenue was a recurrent source of blithe amusement.

"Forgive me sillies if this makes for a cryptic Christmas," she wrote in 1997. "You may find it all too taxing (like it isn't for Sweetie)."

The raw rage we felt at Haughey as his deceits were uncovered has now cooled into something approaching nostalgia - the RTE script in the end seemed faintly admiring of him. His myth was polished, however, at the expense of others, and Terry was one of those.

In the end, The Keane Edge columns, more than that histrionic screen portrayal, are a reminder of how much she added to the gaiety of the nation. Terry sailed serenely above the day-to-day of journalism, basking in for her ghost-written bon mots, while effortlessly embodying the aspirational and apocryphal boulevard society that the Sunday Independent invented and sold.

"It's not easy being a bitch, it's just great fun" she once wrote. "You need courage and encore la courage, you need balls, you need nerve, you need elan, wit and style".

Terry had them all in spades.

A songbird for Charlie's supper - Lucinda O'Sullivan, Page 36

Sunday Independent