Monday 18 December 2017

Nicky McFadden

The Fine Gael TD was a hugely popular politician who battled tirelessly for her local community.

Nicky McFadden
Nicky McFadden
Members of Fine Gael at the funeral of Nicky McFadden TD. Photo: Frank McGrath
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

'IF you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two impostors both the same ... " Rudyard Kipling wrote. Seldom can there have been a better embodiment of the maxim than Nicky McFadden, who took on her life's triumphs and disasters with the same calm magnanimity. It was an attitude to stand her in good stead in 2012 when, in a twist of fate, the highest high – outside of the birth of her children – and lowest low were crowded into a turbulent but relatively brief period.

The first of these defining moments came when she was elected to the Dail during 2011. Her family had been steeped in local politics for a generation but in winning the Longford-Westmeath seat for Fine Gael, Nicky had set a new bar. It was also the culmination of a lifetime's work and seemed like just reward for a single mother whose intelligence, warmth and dedication to local issues made her an immensely popular figure in Athlone. It was as though, in the words of her friend, Mary Mitchell-O'Connor TD, Nicky's life was "beginning all over again".

In fact, tragedy was waiting. In the months after she won her seat, Nicky began to notice changes in her voice and eventually presented herself to Professor Orla Hardiman, a neurologist in Dublin's Beaumont Hospital. She diagnosed Nicky with Motor Neuron Disease (MND), an illness that, for many, is synonymous with a death sentence. And yet Nicky met the tragedy head on and was unbowed. After the painful news of the diagnosis had sunk in, she went out and bought herself a pair of Christian Louboutin shoes. She had dinner with friends. She travelled to New York with family. She publically expressed her commitment to representing her constituents. When I sat down for an interview with her in June of 2102, she told me that she intended to fight the illness every step of the way.

I believed her because Nicky was a battler. Her family knew her as an optimist through and through, and she had already come through more than her share of grief and adversity. Born in 1965, she grew up the eldest of three girls. As a child, she had a naturally sunny disposition – her sisters Aine and Gab knew her as 'Rosie' because she tended to see the world through rose-tinted glasses, always searching for the good in people. Her father, Brendan, who passed away last year, was the mayor of Athlone and her sister, Gab, would also go on to hold the same office.

Her Aunt Kay was also involved heavily in local projects and was like a third parent to Nicky and her sisters. Nicky's mother, Kitty, died in 1993, which was also the same year Nicky separated from her husband – a few years later Nicky would become one of the first people in Ireland to obtain a divorce. The marriage gave her her beloved children, Eoin and Caren Hardiman, and three years ago Caren gave birth to Nicky's granddaughter and the apple of her eye, Matilda.

Unlike many politicians who live their lives in the bubble of Leinster House, Nicky had a long career before entering politics and carried with her friends from each stage of her life (some of those who gave readings at her funeral were friends from childhood).

She worked for eight years as a medical secretary and also worked for a time with the ESB. A former community worker, she was unsuccessful the first time she ran for Athlone town council but topped the poll by a record-breaking margin on her second try in 1999. In 2007, she unsuccessfully contested the Westmeath-Longford seat in the general election but later that same year was elected to the Seanad. Four years later, in the so-called Fine Gael Spring, she was elected to the Dail.

As a TD, Nicky retained the homely genuineness that made her such a likeable figure but her soft exterior belied her fierce ambition and willingness to fight hard on behalf of her constituents.

Her grandfather had been a sergeant major in Custume Barracks in Athlone and she vehemently opposed its downgrading. Even through her illness, she continued lobbying for local causes: a new gym for the sports centre in Athlone and for a dressing room for the theatre. The effects of the recession and the consequent job losses in her constituency were a constant concern. For such an articulate woman, it seemed especially cruel that the Motor Neuron Disease struck first at her voice and as the disease progressed, her sisters, Aine and Gab, became "my eyes, my ears, my bodyguards". Even when she had to be carried into Leinster House, she made sure she was there to cast her vote.

Her funeral was attended by the Taoiseach and the President – a fitting tribute to a woman who had achieved so much for her community.

However, political success was not even the greatest achievement of Nicky McFadden's life. It was as a mother, sister, daughter and dear friend to so many that she made her greatest impact.

She will leave an enormous hole in the lives of those who were privileged to know her.

Sunday Independent

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