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'You wipe your feet, walk away, forget it, and build a new life for yourself'

Mary Mitchell O'Connor lights up the room in Buswells Hotel the moment she breezes in, dressed in vivid royal blue.

With platinum blonde hair and coral nails, it's no wonder she's the first TD to find herself up against 20-year-old models and glamorous TV presenters as a style icon.

"If you catch me in black, people tell me that's how they know I'm in bad humour," she says with a smile.

Indeed, there were circumstances in the past year that could have caused her to hide at the back of her wardrobe, never mind reach for her darkest suit.

"I used to lead a totally different life than the life I have now," she says.

Mary was a principal in a small school in Co Meath when she decided to walk away from her husband after 15 years together.

"It had got to the stage where we simply couldn't continue in it anymore," she explains, declining to go into the detail.

She cries openly as she recalls the aftermath of the split.

"It was really hard," she says. "It's very important the person you choose to marry and the person you walk up the aisle with. And I made a decision that day when I was going up the aisle that I was going up for life. Unfortunately that's not the way life goes, sometimes."

Referring to the time when the family home was being sold she says: "My lowest moment after the separation was when the two boys and I went to live in a B&B."

She rarely mentions herself without including the two boys -- Conor, 26, a doctor, and Stevie, 25, a trainee accountant with KPMG.

When her marriage ended they gave her strength and a focus and a bond formed between the three that has made them best friends to this day.

"The five years after that were a complete blank. I can't remember anything from that time except making the boys their dinner. We lived on pizzas -- and even to this day I can't stand it."

"I remember I had no car, no house, we were literally living out of a suitcase and I remember ringing my father and crying on the bus," she says, as the tears start to stream down her cheek.

"But you can find strength in yourself and you have to have someone there whether it's parents or good friends to help you through the bad times. I suppose that's what I try to do in politics, when people have problems you actually have to dig down and support them. People will tell you that politicians have a thick neck but you also have to have empathy for people and it gave me that."

"A very good friend of mine, a publican in Navan, gave me great advice, he said, 'Do you know what you do Mary, just wipe your feet on that doormat and you walk away and you forget it and you build a new life for yourself. You can dwell on stuff and be bitter but you have a new life ahead of you and you can succeed.' I was very lucky because it gave me a whole new life when I arrived in Dublin."

But love doesn't seem to be an immediate concern for Mary.

"I'm concentrating on my career now but there's nothing to look at in the Dail at all," she chuckles.

After another stint as a principal in a Dublin school Mary was elected as a Fine Gael TD for Dun Laoghaire at the last election.

Her first year in the Dail has been peppered with hair-raising moments, for instance driving down the steps of Leinster House.

"The Dail hadn't even sat, it was the day before," she recalls. "If a hole could have opened up I would have driven into it and never appeared again. I didn't brake, I just drove straight on; I kept going and I didn't stop until I couldn't drive anymore. I just thought 'oh my God'. And then I had to ring my sons and tell them."

As for Mick Wallace and the infamous insult in which he compared her to Miss Piggy, a remark for which he later apologised, she says: "I just ignore him now. When I see him I just look the other way. Otherwise these people would think it's OK to talk about a woman like that."

"In the Dail chamber we see some men act out; it's testosterone-led. They shout at each other -- I don't think I've ever heard any woman shout in there. It's all about ego and bravado," she says. "The funny thing is, those guys, in their own way, plus my driving episode, really have given me opportunities that I never would have gotten. In a reverse way it has given me a platform for the issues that I want to push."

She has pushed the agenda of education.

"Education is so important for young girls, because, if their circumstances change and they become divorced or separated in later life, they will be financially independent."

At this point, her youngest son Stevie joins his mum and he offers to drive her home.

"I tell him not to look at politics.ie or the internet because he gets upset. It's nameless and faceless, very nasty stuff."

He is shy and retiring, but when asked how he felt the day the male TDs made personal comments about his mother his baby face turns stern and protective: "If I was there that day it would have been a different story."

Sunday Independent