Tuesday 16 January 2018

'Lowry isn't in my future -- but unfortunately he was in my past'

The former minister's ex-girlfriend doesn't even try to disguise her contempt, writes Maeve Sheehan

UP in the 'Big Smoke' last week, Michael Lowry seemed alone and friendless as he raged against the Moriarty tribunal's report. His Fine Gael pal Phil Hogan described him as an "acquaintance". The Dail passed a motion calling on him to resign his seat. To top it all, his one-time girlfriend, Geraldine Mahon, spat that he made her feel "sick".

For all of the chicanery, cynicism and "venal abuse of office" outlined in the Moriarty report, Lowry isn't quite bereft of friends. His public life may be in turmoil but his personal life, by his own admission, allowed him to cope.

Team Lowry is going strong. His family is four-square behind him, as are many of the 14,000 people who voted for him. Local sources say he is in a steady relationship now, following the break-up of his marriage.

It's also fairly widely acknowledged that he owes a lot to the loyalty of his former wife. Holding on to it was no mean feat.

While Lowry was climbing the greasy pole of politics, his wife Catherine was a supportive presence at his shoulder. She appeared by his side, as required, during successive general election campaigns and retreated into the shadows when not needed.

She continued to do this even after the revelations that Dunnes Stores had paid for the renovations on their family home; after he was caught with another woman; after their marital separation, and after the shame heaped on her husband by the tribunal's investigations into his political and financial affairs.

By contrast, Ms Mahon apparently rues the day she met Michael Lowry, and Lowry himself joked a couple of years ago: "What woman would want me?" But 20 years ago, one can imagine he was a thrilling prospect for any young woman.

Catherine McGrath was from a traditionally Fianna Fail family in Tipperary. Since her marriage to Lowry, several of his in-laws have proved to be his biggest supporters.

She was keenly interested in her husband's political career but wasn't keen on sharing the limelight with him. She kept a back seat, raising their three children, Michael, Jonathan and Lorraine, while he embarked on his swift transformation from refrigeration mechanic to businessman with political ambitions.

He left his employer, took their biggest client, Dunnes Stores, with him, and set up on his own. He won a Dail seat for Fine Gael, bought a substantial period home in Holy Cross in 1992 -- the information that Dunne Stores picked up the bill for extending and restoring it for refrigeration services rendered, had yet to emerge. Four years later, he was a first-time minister in John Burton's Fine Gael-led coalition.

At the time Lowry was said to be nervous of getting a big portfolio, but if he was, he settled in quickly -- perhaps too quickly. He declared war on "cosy cartels" of Fianna Fail sympathisers and got wrapped up in things he shouldn't have: Denis O'Brien's mobile phone licence bid, Ben Dunne's rent review -- both heavily criticised by Moriarty -- and Geraldine Mahon, the beautiful wife of New York publican, John Mahon.

Ms Mahon was in her mid-30s and lived in Dublin while her divorce was going through. John Mahon owned a chain of successful Irish pubs in New York.

She was often written about as a socialite who liked going to the races, among other things. According to allegations made by Geraldine Mahon last weekend, Lowry wasn't entirely upfront during their relationship in the mid-Nineties.

"As far as I was concerned, he was single at the time. I was the one that was going through my divorce," Ms Mahon claimed.

The affair was apparently common knowledge in rarefied political circles. By April 1997, everyone knew. The Sunday World staked out the couple on holidays at S'Agaro, an upmarket resort on the east coast of Spain, where they allegedly checked into their hotel as Mr and Mrs Lowry.

His wife Catherine and their children were on holiday in Portugal at the time.

Lowry admitted that his marriage was in trouble and expressed regret, with his eye on re-election.

By then, he was a fallen minister who had been forced to resign after revelations that Dunnes had paid for his house renovations became public. He was exiled from Fine Gael, but remained determined to stay in politics.

A general election was looming. Catherine gallantly rowed in behind him, which was a huge boost to his chances.

Lowry issued a statement acknowledging that he and Catherine had been experiencing marital difficulties which had "been acknowledged by both of us for some time".

Thanks to her, he was able to declare that he had "the total support of my family, my wife's family and my election committee".

When he launched his election campaign, Catherine Lowry stood beside her husband as the cameras flashed and her facial expressions were scrutinised for hints of betrayal. Subsequent reports almost unanimously described her as "dignified".

She continued to play the supporting role to her former husband's political ambitions over the years. Some of Lowry's political rivals noted that she seemed to be less visible at the most recent general election. Perhaps, said one local, it was a sign that they were both moving on.

Their son, Michael, a councillor under his father's Team Lowry banner, told reporters of the toll that the Moriarty inquiry has taken on the family: "We are father and son and when it comes to him being my father and to him in politics, you couldn't ask for someone better to mentor you in life, politics and business.

"Obviously, it has taken its toll on our father and on our family's life for 14 years. We are under constant scrutiny in the media. There's a public perception outside of Tipperary, but it's the polar opposite here."

Going through a marriage separation during such turmoil can't have been easy. According to one local person, it was to the credit of both Michael and Catherine that they maintained an amicable and "very workmanlike relationship".

"Her father is very supportive of Lowry and completely on board. Even the in-laws are all on the Lowry bus."

Michael Lowry still lives in the Georgian pile, with its stunning landscaped gardens, on the outskirts of Holy Cross. Catherine lives in Thurles, and is also in a long-term relationship.

She is involved in the community, including the local drama society, in which she is a leading light.

Not everyone has shown him such forbearance, however, as Geraldine Mahon's remarks showed last weekend. Their liaison ended in pain, acrimony and unwelcome attention.

Maurice Manning, a former Fine Gael senator, came to her defence at the time in the Seanad, describing her as "a very good and fine person" who was "harassed" by the media, "scrutinised" and "abused".

Years later, Lowry acknowledged that she went through "a terrible time of it". When a newspaper tried to interview her last weekend, she told them: "It's an embarrassment to be associated with him. I haven't seen him in 11 years.

"I don't want anything to do with him. He's not in my future, but unfortunately he was in my past."

His reputation might be in tatters but, luckily for Michael Lowry, he still has a loyal family behind him.

Sunday Independent

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