In a new biography of the Sinn Féin leader, Shane Ross dismantles the prevailing narrative about her life before politics and says the road that may lead her to the taoiseach’s office is littered with riddles
Mary Lou McDonald’s career so far poses many puzzles. The most frequently asked question is how a middle-class, privately educated woman has emerged as the leader of a united Ireland movement that has traditionally been driven by Northern working-class males, many of them unapologetic advocates of IRA violence.
Another question has attracted even more immediate attention. Do the IRA veterans, the volunteers, the backbone of Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland, approve of her? Is their acceptance of her leadership conditional? Or, worse still, do the Northern hard men control her? What is the new leader of Sinn Féin’s true relationship with them? Is she mistress or servant?
Is she a true believer, a real republican or an adventurer, an opportunist, like many other politicians? Did she spot an opening for a young middle-class southern woman in Sinn Féin over 20 years ago and go for the gap with gusto? Did she tailor her convictions accordingly?
Critical commentators frequently dub her an ‘enigma’ because they have never been able to fathom how a charming girl from upmarket Rathgar made the jump over to what many of them consider the dark side. Some are horrified that such a thing could happen, but maybe they should start looking for answers in the obvious places. None of them have probed the impact on her of the two principal men in her home life: her father, Paddy McDonald, and her husband, Martin Lanigan. Nor have they sought to determine the influence of her mother, Joan, or her strong-minded sister, Joanne, or her other siblings. All we know is what Mary Lou has told us. Her own account of her early life is determined by a very powerful airbrush. It is supported by an even more powerful broad brush.
She has always protected the men in her life from public scrutiny. Her carefully hidden father is an unpredictable character who might merit a biography in his own right. Mary Lou has given him the full airbrush treatment.
Her husband, Martin Lanigan, the father of the couple’s two children, Iseult and Gerard, has been even less visible than Mary Lou’s father. He appears almost nowhere in public with her, which has prompted inevitable curiosity. Her mother is regularly wheeled out by Mary Lou with gratitude for being a stable force when her father was absent. Despite the disruption caused by her parents’ separation when Mary Lou was 10, she always doggedly insists she had a happy childhood and that hers was a very close family. Presumably she excludes her severed father from the happy family unit but, when pressed, says that she loves him.
The skilfully spun narrative of her early years is the story of a highly conventional education and childhood. She rattles off the CV: the private convent school education, a degree from Trinity College, a postgraduate year in Limerick and working a few short-term, humdrum jobs. A pretty ordinary middle-class biography.
Hence the surprise that she opted for Sinn Féin, the party currently associated with rebels and underdogs. Mary Lou’s early life and activities do not sit comfortably with her political destination. The unvarnished truth is far from this almost universally accepted, but unchallenged, version of her life before politics, which is hopelessly incomplete, with many aspects of her background and political activities hitherto unexplored and unexplained. The road that may lead her to the taoiseach’s office is littered with riddles.
Mary Lou’s reluctance to reveal more than the bare minimum about her family and her upbringing has opened a vacuum that has enabled many misleading yarns about her to gain traction. Her family home and her school, Notre Dame des Missions, both lay within the same prosperous Rathgar–Churchtown neighbourhood. The locals liked Mary Lou, but they didn’t like her party. The slightly bitchy, but accepted, local narrative was different from the Sinn Féin-approved official political version.
It normally went as follows: Mary Lou, leader of Sinn Féin, grew up in a large house in one of the most affluent suburbs of south Dublin. Her parents were separated. Her father was a successful builder who could easily afford to pay for the private convent education.
Her mother was sufficiently well off not to need a full-time job outside the home. She was still living in the big house, although all four of her children had left the nest and were enjoying different, but highly successful, lives. Mary Lou had glided from Fianna Fáil into the least likely of all political homes — Sinn Féin.
Sinn Féin has never yet won a Dáil seat in Mary Lou’s childhood home patch. Most of her neighbours there probably voted Fine Gael. Their main concerns were about the iniquities of property and income taxes. They were stunned by her rise in politics, puzzled that a
community like theirs could produce such a pleasant, well-spoken girl who ended up as an apologist for the despised IRA. She was the girl who got away.
Of course, the prevailing chronicle of her background was only partly true. Her father was far from a well-heeled builder, effortlessly paying all the household bills and school fees. More often than not, he was an unemployed building contractor. He was gone, but not forgotten. His finances were dire, his income erratic, giving rise to serious insecurity in the McDonald home.
The house, Ard na Gréine, where Paddy parted ways from Joan, Bea, Mary Lou, Joanne and Patrick in 1979, was indeed one of the finest in Rathgar. It stood on its own grounds on Orwell Road, next door to the Russian Embassy. When Ard na Gréine was offered for sale in September 2015, it carried a price tag of €2,250,000. But the fable of the McDonalds living in ‘a mansion in Rathgar’ was debunked when the truth came tumbling out. Ard na Gréine has been divided into apartments for many decades, long before the McDonalds began to live there in the early 1970s.
Mary Lou’s parents were tenants in a house that had been converted into flats. They never owned a house of their own. Today, Joan is a life tenant in one of the apartments. Mary Lou and her siblings were not to the manor born. They were ordinary flat-dwellers with a good address. And their out-of-work, out-of-sight father often struggled to pay the rent.
No doubt Joan shielded her children from the unpredictable activities of their father. Mary Lou consistently credits her mother — not her father — with the determination that all four of them would receive a first-class education. The result of Joan’s endeavours was remarkable. Inside the apartment was a dedicated place for each child to do their homework. The family work ethic was strong and it paid off. One of Paddy McDonald’s proudest boasts, even today, is that all four of his children received degrees from Trinity College Dublin.
Paddy McDonald was no angel. He married Joan Hayes on April 3, 1967. The wedding took place in the Roman Catholic church in Monkstown, Co Dublin, five days before Joan’s 21st birthday. Paddy was only 23.
Their first child, Beatrice (Bea), was designated male at birth and confirmed her transition in 2021. Bea’s sister, Mary Lou, was born on May Day 1969 at the National Maternity Hospital on Dublin’s Holles Street. Mary Lou has always portrayed her mother as an unsung saint. The two pivotal figures in her early life could not have lived more different lifestyles. Paddy was wild, Joan a rock of common sense. Both are still alive.
Researching this book, I have met gardaí who arrested Paddy, lawyers who defended him and publicans who loved him. Mary Lou’s father is what is often euphemistically called a ‘character’. He has left a trail of trouble wherever he trod. Some of those he has met along the way describe him as a daredevil, others as a lovable rogue; a number mutter unprintable expletives under their breath. Mary Lou prefers not to talk about him.
Paddy was reared in middle-class Rathmines by his parents, Bernard and Annie. He had four older sisters, Maeve, Nora, Joan and Phyllis. Maeve, the eldest, died in February 2022, while Phyllis, the youngest, predeceased her in December 2019.
The surviving aunts of Mary Lou speak of their niece with great fondness. They are, understandably, more reticent, but equally affectionate, when their wayward brother’s name is mentioned.
Paddy started his working life as a small building contractor, following in his father’s footsteps. He entered the workforce in his teens and had already built his first house when he was 21. Business was buzzing in the early years of his marriage. He saved money and made a profit of £5,000 in the first six months of 1970. He, Joan and their two children lived in comfortable rented accommodation in Eaton Brae, Rathgar.
The McDonalds were upwardly mobile. Paddy’s progress was not hindered by his Fianna Fáil contacts or, more pointedly, by his membership of the party of builders and strokers. He played rugby for Palmerston. Kevin Fitzpatrick, former president of the club, remembers him as a “rough diamond. He was a prop forward, a square-jawed man; he could be very funny. He was in and out of the first team.”
Mary Lou was barely a year old when, on a summer night in 1970, Paddy’s world collapsed. Her father was a passenger in the back of a Volkswagen that was involved in a head-on crash. The accident nearly killed him. It was around midnight when he saw the approaching headlights, as the Volkswagen tried to overtake another car.
His next memory is nearly 24 hours later. He regained consciousness in the Meath Hospital, hearing the voices of his wife and his sister Phyllis by his bedside. He learned that he had been hurled through the windscreen. A priest had given him the last rites. Mary Lou was nearly fatherless at the age of one.
In November 1985 Paddy told Magill magazine that he had suffered multiple life-changing injuries in the crash. His back and neck were badly damaged. But, like many self-employed people, he needed to return to work rapidly. He had a wife and two children to support and a valuable countrywide contract with Telefusion (Ireland) to fulfil. Ten days after the crash he was back on the job.
Life for Paddy would never be the same again. The injuries he had suffered caused him to feel dizzy at work. He could no longer climb up poles or crawl along roofs because of the vertigo he would suffer. He was unable to monitor the activities of his workforce. He underpriced jobs, something he had never done before his mishap, and lost all confidence in his ability to function effectively.
Despite medical treatment and physiotherapy, after two months he began to realise that his health was not improving, and so his livelihood was threatened. He decided to go down the compensation route. An employee of Paddy’s steered him into the arms of a lawyer called Brendan O’Maoileoin of Michael B O’Maoileoin Solicitors — an introduction Paddy would rue in the years to come.
Brendan O’Maoileoin was even more ‘colourful’ than Paddy. He was a former member of the Fianna Fáil national executive and a two-time candidate for the Seanad. He lost his seat on the national executive in 1970 and was easily defeated in his Seanad bids on both occasions. He lived in a grand-sounding house in Dundrum named Altamont Hall and sent his sons to Stonyhurst, the upmarket English Roman Catholic public school.
O’Maoileoin was confident of a satisfactory outcome to the compensation claim, but three years after the accident, Paddy had not been awarded a red cent. His business staggered from month to month. Paddy, wary of ladders, was unable to supervise most of the work. Jobs went wrong with regularity. Paddy felt his workers were exploiting his inability to climb on to the roofs to monitor their activities.
O’Maoileoin was suspiciously busy when Paddy came calling. Legal proceedings were moving tortuously slowly. They dragged on into 1973, with no explanation for the delay. It was the year he and Joan were blessed with twins, Joanne and Patrick, born on Halloween. Suddenly Paddy had six mouths to feed. He was finding it difficult to support his wife and children. Around this time brushes with the law began happening to Paddy with alarming frequency.
Drink was an ever-growing menace. His troubles were coming in big battalions. He landed himself in embarrassing scrapes. While researching Mary Lou’s family history, I met a garda who had arrested a sozzled Paddy over 50 years ago for the relatively minor offence of refusing to get off a bus in Rathmines. It was Christmas Eve and Paddy was blotto. The garda put him in a cell and left him to cool off while he resumed his patrol. When he returned at around 2.30am, Paddy was out of the cell haranguing the puzzled duty sergeant.
On February 28, 1973, the day of the general election, Paddy landed in a spectacular scrape. He was a loyal and loud Fianna Fáil supporter, working for candidates Philip Brady, Ben Briscoe and Gerard Buchanan in the constituency of Dublin South Central. Paddy drove a truck carrying the Fianna Fáil posters around the constituency. After parking it illegally near the Harold’s Cross dog track on election night, he defiantly got back into the truck when a tow-away vehicle arrived to take it to the compound.
A row broke out. Paddy refused to remove himself to allow the truck to be taken away. The truck, the posters and Paddy all ended up locked in the corporation compound. The following day the Irish Independent, tongue-in-cheek, told the story, together with a large picture of the truck, the offending posters and the bold Paddy, embedded in the driving seat. The story was headed ‘The van behind the wire!’.
Forty years later, Mary Lou McDonald aped her father’s election-eve drama when, not only did she refuse to leave the Dáil when suspended, she also implanted herself in the chamber itself for several hours, challenging the ushers to remove her physically. She brought Dáil proceedings to a close.
Both acts of defiance escaped unpunished. Paddy and his candidates had the last laugh. Both Brady and Briscoe were elected. Gerry Buchanan was beaten but was appointed a judge a few years later.
During 1973, things went from bad to worse for Paddy McDonald. He was still receiving physiotherapy and medical treatment for the accident. His business was in free fall. In 1974 his money ran out. Further inexplicable delays in the legal case were causing him huge stress. So were the Montessori school fees for Bea and Mary Lou.
Paddy, full of bravado, regaled his pals in the pub with cock-and-bull stories of how he had tossed a coin with the school principal for the kids’ nursery school fees. His savings spent, Paddy borrowed from the bank.
Brendan O’Maoileoin became even more elusive. While Paddy was sinking, O’Maoileoin was flying: he had moved to a newly renovated office in Dublin’s Lower Fitzwilliam Street. Paddy was calling every day; the temperature was rising. On one occasion, he became involved in an altercation with the receptionist when he tried to leave the office with his file.
As Paddy tells it, he was beginning to flounder in 1975. He could not sleep and he was taking Mogadon in increasing quantities. He was receiving treatment from a top psychiatrist. His marriage was in danger and he was drinking like a fish.
Just as Paddy thought he might crack up, a meeting was arranged with O’Maoileoin and his barristers in the Four Courts. Paddy recalls a mention from the lawyers of an offer of a £3,000 settlement, but he told them of the scale of his personal incapacity, that he needed more than £30,000, considering his permanent state of ill health, his four children and the loss of his normal working-life expectancy.
His senior counsel reassured him that he would get him ‘a fair settlement’, but warned him that the taxman would take a big slice of any notional £30,000 award. Paddy McDonald didn’t give a hoot about the taxman. He would deal with him in due course. He was now desperate for money; he didn’t even have the cash for his bus fares. He couldn’t pay the rent on the family apartment for Joan, Mary Lou and her siblings.
He hassled and harried O’Maoileoin to no avail, until his faith in his solicitor was finally shattered. He even considered, in his own words, “doing away with O’Maoileoin”.
Drink was landing him in more trouble. In early 1976, he was back in court. On February 17, Cork’s Evening Echo and the Irish Independent both carried a story about an excitable neighbour of the Russian Embassy, on Dublin’s Orwell Road, storming into the high-security citadel in the early hours of the morning.
Headed ‘Russia Embassy parties keep children awake’, the Echo’s narrative ran as follows: “Late night parties in the Russian Embassy in Dublin keep young children in the neighbourhood awake until the early hours, an accused man claimed at a Dublin court yesterday. He went to the embassy to lodge a complaint but was surrounded by ‘six KGB men’ after he had thrown a length of rubber at an official inside the grounds, he told Justice TP O’Reilly at Rathfarnham Court.”
The Irish Independent account, headlined ‘Saw Red at the Russian Embassy’, told of how McDonald ‘blew his top’ about ‘Russian high-jinks’ and how Garda Aubrey Steedman added that Paddy had been “shouting about the KGB and seemed to want to be arrested”. He also appeared to have had “drink taken”.
Paddy McDonald gave an assurance to the court that he would not repeat his behaviour and he walked away an innocent man. He was to spend much of the next decade fighting his corner in front of the beaks.
In 1977, seven years after the car crash, his personal crisis deepened and he began to behave increasingly recklessly. Paddy says he was told that the court had awarded him ‘hardship’ money until the compensation case was settled, so, even though he no longer trusted the word of his own lawyers, desperate, he accepted a cheque from O’Maoileoin for £1,100.
When the court case was held the next week, the bombshell dropped. O’Maoileoin took the stand and revealed that the compensation case had been settled in 1975, two years earlier. Paddy McDonald had been kept in the dark; he promptly told the court that the lawyers had settled the case without his authority. He remembered only the £1,100 cheque, which he had understood was to tide him over until a settlement was reached.
He was shattered, emerging from the court dazed, his hopes of a rescue package dashed. The court had told him that it was open to him to pursue O’Maoileoin for negligence, not misconduct. O’Maoileoin vanished into thin air. Paddy went home that night devastated.
His marriage finally cracked under the strain. In 1979 they separated when he moved out of the family home. Undeterred, Paddy soldiered on. He was back in court in 1980, running an action to establish negligence against O’Maoileoin and another for damages. The High Court found in his favour, adjudging O’Maoileoin to have been negligent. O’Maoileoin appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, which found against him in March 1982. The exact compensation remained unsettled until 1985 when the amounts were finally decided by the High Court. Paddy McDonald was awarded £15,000 damages and £12,000 special damages to include loss of earnings. On top of that he was awarded £22,780 for interest and costs.
It was a pyrrhic victory. It may have been groundbreaking in successfully calling a solicitor to account, but it left Paddy and his separated family still buried in deep financial trouble. He complained that the sum awarded for his loss of earnings was paltry, considering that back in 1970 he had made £5,000 profit in the first six months alone. His life was in bits. His family was split asunder, partially at least due to the pressure caused by the stress of his accident and by unscrupulous lawyers.
He spoke of his 18-year-old child Bea, who had just started third-level education, of his 12-year-old twins and of his elder daughter, Mary Lou, aged 16, who had just finished her Inter Cert; according to him, at that time she wanted to do law in university. He confessed to being “very bitter” and having obligations to his wife, Joan, but he couldn’t “fulfil them”.
One of the reasons he could not fulfil the obligations was that O’Maoileoin didn’t pay up. In 1987 Paddy petitioned the High Court to bankrupt O’Maoileoin and he won his case. In 1988 the issue was further complicated when it emerged in court that Paddy McDonald had accepted unspecified sums from O’Maoileoin in discharge of his claims. It is not known what agreement he had finally reached with his former solicitor. However, O’Maoileoin’s bankruptcy still stood undischarged. There were other creditors in the queue.
Paddy’s story since his separation from Joan is one of finding work wherever he could, at home and abroad. He has done construction work in Ohio, has worked in restaurants and pubs in Galway and the United Kingdom, has operated in the Middle East, most notably in Saudi Arabia and in Hong Kong.
Mary Lou McDonald has always been understandably reluctant to talk about him. It is difficult to know what effect his antics had on her childhood, but they were hardly positive.
This is an edited extract from ‘Mary Lou McDonald — A Republican Riddle’ by Shane Ross, which is published by Atlantic Books on October 6