'I saved Bertie from belt on head'
Untold 'insider' account of crutch attack on former Taoiseach in pub
Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern was lucky to escape serious head injuries when he was attacked by a man with a crutch in a city centre pub last year, it can be revealed today.
Former Irish Independent Education Correspondent John Walshe, who spent three and a half years as special adviser to former education minister Ruairi Quinn, has told how he bore the brunt of the blow aimed at Mr Ahern in Sean O'Casey's pub, beside the Abbey Theatre, on November 8 last.
In the first full account of the highly publicised incident, Mr Walshe told the Sunday Independent: "I took the hit for Bertie whom an irate drinker wanted to belt on the head with his crutch. Instead my shoulder took the brunt of it and Bertie's head just got a glancing blow."
The incident occurred at the retirement party for Ruairi Quinn's former driver, Nashie Grady, who chauffeured Mr Ahern in the early 1990s when he was minister for finance, and Mr Quinn when he took over the same position in 1994.
On the night of November 8, Mr Walshe said Nashie was holding a "lively" farewell party in Sean O'Casey's pub on Malborough Street, just down the street from the Department of Education buildings.
Mr Ahern arrived shortly after Mr Quinn had said a few words of praise for the popular driver. The two politicians exchanged pleasantries, but there was no love lost between them. The party continued into the evening and Mr Quinn and his wife Liz had just left the bar when the drama unfolded.
"Nashie didn't see what was coming and neither did anybody else," Mr Walshe recalls. "On the far side of the bar were a few stragglers who had been drinking in the pub from earlier in the day, one of whom kept looking in our direction.
"I had just gone over to talk to Nashie and Bertie when I heard a shout. Before I could turn around I felt an almighty whack on my left shoulder. He tried a second lunge but was quickly surrounded by retired garda friends of Nashie and ushered out the door. The gardai were called and he was taken away for questioning."
Mr Ahern was visibly shaken by the incident, but did not want to press charges.
"Bertie was shaken but OK and he didn't want to make a fuss about it and certainly did not want to press charges. Mostly, he seemed embarrassed by the occasion, and even the Labour people gathered in the bar could hardly feel anything but sympathy for the life that a former Taoiseach had now clearly become accustomed to.
"I guessed rightly that the story would get out and go viral and I knew I had to leave the pub fast - the same idea clearly occurred to Bertie. He didn't want to be part of a big story. The last thing I wanted was to be named in stories headed, 'Quinn's adviser takes the bullet for Bertie' or some such.
"I made my excuses and left, just before [INM Political Editor] Fionnan Sheahan and a photographer came to the pub from the nearby Independent offices in Talbot Street. One of Ruairi's staff went out and spoke to Fionnan, talking down the whole event, and suggesting the crutch made contact with the bar rather than with Bertie.
"The blinds were drawn in the pub, and the bar manager made clear to everyone that there should be no further conversations with journalists. After that the night went back to normal. A DJ arrived, the drink flowed once more, and all those gathered danced until the early hours. There may have been a few sore heads the next morning. I didn't have one because of my hasty exit - but I had a very sore shoulder.
"Fortunately, nobody revealed my unwitting role in saving Bertie from a right belt on the head, but the story of the attack got acres of media space the next day."
Mr Ahern's attacker, Ray Connolly, subsequently said that he lashed out at Mr Ahern because he became "extremely annoyed" when he overheard the former Taoiseach talking about the "good old days".
However, Mr Walshe said: "He said he lost it when he heard Bertie laughing all night long about the good old days. If he did, he had great hearing because he was on the far side of a very noisy pub."
John Walshe's memoir of his spell as a ministerial adviser - 'An Education: How an Outsider became an Insider' - is published this weekend, but his account of the pub attack is not included in the book