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Wednesday 25 April 2018

He showed courage, even when death was staring him in the face

Former Attorney General, Paul Gallagher, describes how Brian Lenihan dealt with the shock of his fatal cancer diagnosis and carried on trying to save the Irish economy

Press gang: Special adviser Cathy Herbert escorts Mr Lenihan past the media
Press gang: Special adviser Cathy Herbert escorts Mr Lenihan past the media
Paul Gallagher

Paul Gallagher

Brian's work rate in 2009 was astonishing. He was indefatigable and continued to engage fully in all aspects of political life. He was always optimistic that the measures taken would improve Ireland's financial situation. Nothing could have prepared him, or the rest of us, for the tragic news that Brian was to receive a few days before Christmas 2009, and nothing could have prepared him for what was to be the greatest challenge of his life.

Brian had no inkling in December 2009 that he had any serious illness. The diagnosis of his illness came as a complete shock. Brian's reaction to his illness was as awesome as it was inspiring. I remember talking to him about his diagnosis shortly after it was made.

He was his usual courteous self and appreciative of the inquiry and concern. He was able to talk about his illness and what it meant in a detached, but very focused and realistic way. He made no complaint about his diagnosis. Above all, there was no element of self-pity.

The diagnosis was very serious and the prognosis for recovery was very poor, as he well knew. His decision to continue in office and to carry out his public duties was a reflection of his sense of public duty and of his great personal courage.

He spoke of his decision as if it were the only obvious decision to make and certainly expected no thanks or commendation for it.

It was, in fact, a momentous and courageous decision. He could so easily have given up the struggle against the unremitting tide of financial and economic problems battering the State, and nobody would have blamed him for doing so.

To gain any appreciation of the courage involved in the decision, one has to understand the scale of the challenges he continued to face and the enormity of the burden which he continued to carry and that he knew was unlikely to diminish.

Throughout 2010, I would have seen Brian at Cabinet and would have met him or spoken to him every few days. His performance levels were remarkable. He had no difficulty meeting the tremendously tight timelines in which decisions had to be made and issues confronted, and had no difficulty in confronting the issues.

He did not waste time lamenting his condition, nor did he seek sympathy. I remember mentally remarking on many occasions that, if I did not know he was ill, I would not have even suspected it.

He behaved precisely as he did before, and even when he appeared at Cabinet after treatment, he conducted his usual workload. I did not notice any diminution in his capacity or determination.

His only apparent concession to his illness was to bring a couch into his office to enable him to take a rest during the course of the day when he needed to do so, and to develop a passion for green tea. But apart from these nods to his illness, and a reduction in the large number of public and political commitments which he undertook, he continued to perform at a level which made it very difficult to believe that there was anything really wrong with him.

Every now and again there would, however, be some little reminder of what he was confronting. I remember one day sympathising with him over some problem he had to deal with. He looked at me, smiled and shrugged, and said that every day you are alive is a great day. I will never forget the remark. It was, as usual, made without self-pity or sorrow. It was a remark as simple as it was inspiring.

* * * * *

The Cabinet decided on Sunday, November 21, 2010, to apply for financial assistance from the EU. Brian had to fly out to Brussels that Sunday morning to finalise the agreement and the bailout terms. He rang me from Baldonnell airport. Weather conditions were appalling. He had been up late the night before and had attended the Cabinet meeting at which the decision to apply for a bailout was made.

As always, he was very focused. He was aware of the immensity of what he was doing and its consequences for Ireland. He gave no consideration to himself or what it might mean for him. His only concern was to achieve the best possible outcome for his country. Again, there was no sense of self-pity or regret that he had to discharge this unenviable task.

It was an extremely poignant and historical moment. He was doing something which no other Finance Minister ever had to do. He knew too that he would forever be associated with this event...

Again, however, there was no trace of self-pity or despondency and, above all, no regret that he had continued to fight the battle after the diagnosis of his illness.

Sunday Independent

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