Saturday 17 November 2018

Warm, witty woman is not a cold bimbo

The real Celia Larkin is a kind, intelligent woman who does not deserve to be vilified in the Bertie TV series, says Barry Egan

IDIDN'T recognise Celia Larkin on the documentary, Bertie, last Monday night. I hope you didn't either.

The Celia I know is always available for a long chat on the phone, or a laugh at a lunch in Town Bar & Grill or at a charity ball. The Celia I know is warm-hearted and great at giving advice on relationships and the like -- again, mostly at balls -- to me. She would laugh like a drain when a joke was told.

The Celia Larkin I know is witty and full of fun. When I was in Los Angeles a few years ago interviewing Pamela Anderson, she texted me questions to ask the Baywatch icon.

The Celia Larkin I know is selfless. She got me an interview with Bertie Ahern in 2006. That is her all over. She would go out of her way to help you. She doesn't look for anything in return. She even advised me on my diet. I will never eat fruit at the end of a meal again after what she told me about putrification.

So, the thundering bitch that was portrayed on the Bertie documentary bore no resemblance to reality for me, or, I'd imagine, for the rest of the country. It wasn't enjoyable to watch.

In the first part in the four-part documentary series on RTE about former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, Celia was unjustly vilified as an unlikeable bimbo by members of the so-called Drumcondra Mafia (it was actually Charlie Haughey who first referred to them as that).

When asked on the documentary whether he felt Celia Larkin was in any way important to Bertie Ahern's operation, Chris Wall replied with a blokeish dismissal characteristic of the Drumcondra Mafia: "No."

It is hard to imagine how Wall's churlishness sits with the elegant woman who is generally accepted as having guided Bertie politically, behind the scenes, and who accompanied Bertie when he paid his first visit as Taoiseach to American President Bill Clinton in the White House in December 1997. It is hard to imagine how Wall's churlishness sits with this lady of conviction who stood up to the Catholic Church when it expressed displeasure at her name being on an official invitation to Dublin Castle with An Taoiseach.

Paddy Duffy, another member of the northside mob, added that on Monday night's Celia kickathon, "the majority of us wouldn't be that mad about her. In the social circle it could be quite tense and difficult. She staked her claim, it was her space and people had to skirt around that".

I knew it was coming. In September, Royston Brady told me he had heard that some senior Drumcondra types were less than gracious about Ms Larkin in the interviews for the documentaries that Miriam O'Callaghan and husband Steve Carson (who own Mint Productions, which produced the shows for RTE) were making about Bertie.

"These guys would never have been big supporters of Celia's," Royston said. "They have never forgiven Celia for taking Bertie's affections away from them."

A source high up in RTE concurred with my view that Chris Wall and Paddy Duffy's comments were not so much mean-spirited as inaccurate.

"I wholeheartedly agree and Celia was aware that they were being critical of her but she still declined the interview," the source said.

As is Celia's wont, she has maintained a stoic silence. She famously maintained one during the Fianna Fail leadership contest in 1992 when FF whingers wondered where a future Taoiseach was sleeping at night. But this time, perhaps, Celia needed to give the nation something more than stoic silence. Some believe that Irish history might look unfavourably on a woman who has perhaps kept her counsel too long: there are times when even Celia Larkin should speak up.

On last Monday night's programme, Bertie defended his former partner of 20 years by saying that she was "superb" at "running the operation to service a very busy constituency". (Bertie is, presumably, well used to dealing with Drumcondra hard men. At his going away party in Fagan's during the summer, Bertie came to my rescue when one of that lot rounded on me for having "the effing nerve to show up here". Bertie came over and, shaking my hand, thanked me for all my generosity to him over the years. The unpleasant Drumcondra person backed away.)

Also quick to leap to Celia's defence on Monday's show was her close friend Michael Ronayne. He said that Celia "built up the constituency office".

One source close to Ronayne remarked: "I'm sure that the public noticed that on the programme on Monday night that Bertie Ahern agreed with what Michael had to say about Celia." But the damage, however, was done. The attack on Celia by Wall and Duffy was cowardly.

Watching those two discrediting a remarkable woman, and comparing what they said with Paul Durcan's comment on Pat Kenny's radio show in 2001 -- that Ireland should be grateful to Bertie and Celia "for setting such an open, honest, brave example" -- made me think we were somehow stuck in 1901.

Why Bertie allowed -- if, indeed, he did allow -- someone "superb" to be driven out by these yahoos is a moot point. A source told me that she didn't believe that Celia "was hounded out by them".

She added: "Her relationship with Bertie unravelled and they grew apart but only then did she withdraw from St Luke's. The lads never succeeded in really undermining her. But no doubt they were thrilled when the relationship fell apart as it got her out of their hair."

Somehow I don't think the Celia Larkin I know will be unduly bothered by the hatchet job on her. She told me at the Irish Tatler Women Of The Year Awards at the Mansion House a few years ago that her philosophy on life was that there are ups and downs but "if you don't have the downs, you never know the ups. They are all part and parcel of life".

She added: "Most of us live either in the past or the future; and you miss a lot of the richness of what life is by doing that. I find that since I moved to Killaloe, I sit on the patio and I enjoy things I forgot about. The rooks and crows go home at 9.30 in the evening at this time of year and you can see the sky is black with them flying home. I had forgotten

those things happened because I was so caught up with life in the city that I didn't see the simple things like that."

The Celia Larkin I know inherited this zen-like calm from her mother Sheila and her political brain from her father Paul, a civil servant who was active in the trade unions. "Both my parents would have politicised me," she said.

After a long lunch on Kildare Street a few months before the Tatler awards, I said to Celia that she was softer and gentler than the 'Ice Queen' that is often portrayed in the media. "Does it matter?" she said, smiling.

I said it did when she was clearly the victim of political expedience and St Luke's spin. "I can't be responsible for what people write," she replied. "You can't live your life by what people think or say about you."

I offered her the opportunity to tell the nation what Celia Larkin was really like then.

"I'm fair and I'm loyal. They're two very strong points I have. I hope I'm compassionate and open-minded but not so open-minded that my brains would fall out. I'm willing to let other people have their views and their beliefs. At the same time, I'm hard on myself in terms of what I expect of myself. I'm probably more compassionate towards others; and if there was anything I'd like to change about me, it's that I could be a bit more compassionate towards myself. I'm an oul' softie really," she said.

Her charm was so palpable over lunch that you could see why political pundits believed that the most fascinating element of Cherie Blair's visit to Dublin in 1998 was the blossoming of Celia. The Finglas lady outshone Cherie on that visit and stepped onto the world stage. The woman whom the Irish Times described as "a stylish eminence grise confronting the limelight" was comfortable in the spotlight in a way that Vera Cosgrave or Maureen Haughey or possibly even Miriam Ahern never were. Celia and Bertie were a public representation of a New Ireland. They went on State trips to China together, hung out with Bill and Hill in Dublin. It can't have been anything but difficult when the relationship ended.

I remember asking Celia that day if she found that friends she had thought were there for her were no longer her friends when she and Bertie broke up.

"In any circumstances where people split up there is a change in your social scene," she said. "That's true for anybody under any social circumstances. I still have some very good people who were my friends -- and they are still my friends. People who were acquaintances obviously were acquaintances in a particular set of circumstances and they move on. But that happens in every relationship. There weren't sides."

There appeared to be sides in the Drumcondra Mafia, I said.

"I think this is a fallacy, the Drumcondra Mafia thing," she said with a smile. "I really don't want to get into that at all. I am not going down the line of talking about Bertie. I am not going to analyse his circumstances now or talk about private matters."

Apropos of seemingly private matters, I mention that the late Terry Keane had written in her Sunday Times memoirs that when Charles Haughey saw a photograph of Celia commiserating with Mr Justice O'Flaherty after his resignation from the Supreme Court in 2000, Haughey said: "He (Ahern) hasn't the courage to go himself -- he has to send his woman. That's Bertie."

"I didn't meet Justice O'Flaherty," Celia told me. "I met Kay, his wife, whom I knew. I don't jump ship with people. If I'm someone's friend, I'm someone's friend. I knew Kay. She was always very nice to me when I met her, so I went to see Kay. It wasn't going to condemn or condone anything or any circumstances . I was going to see Kay who was upset, as simple as that."

In terms of her much-vaunted political influence on Bertie, Celia smiled and said that, "I don't know whether I did or I didn't (have political influence). I think it's too much of a loaded question. Bertie and I had a long history together. I have respect for him and he has respect for me. I want to keep it that way".

Near the end of the meal, I mentioned something about Ahern saying he was going to retire when he's 60. Could she imagine the man with whom she spent 20 years -- the man who put Ireland on the international map as much as Bono did -- being content to potter about in his garden?

"I'm sure Bertie will find something that will occupy him very well," she replied. "I'm sure he won't retire to sit on his couch."

Well, not for long, we hope.

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