Thursday 22 August 2019

Better half: the woman who steadied Enda's resolve at time of a FG heave

Wing woman: Enda and Fionnuala arrive onstage at College Green before US President Barack Obama speaks on May 23, 2011.
Wing woman: Enda and Fionnuala arrive onstage at College Green before US President Barack Obama speaks on May 23, 2011.
John Meagher

John Meagher

The occasion was the Fine Gael Presidential dinner last month and Enda Kenny had a few words of praise for his wife. "Fionnuala, you are down there," he said. "I know you put up with an awful lot. You're a great woman, the best I met."

While his words were decidedly short on panache and ever so slightly clumsy, the warmth of the sentiment behind them couldn't be faulted. The Taoiseach was paying tribute to a woman who is not just his wife and mother of his three grown-up children, but the figure many believe helped transform him from journeyman politician into international statesman.

Unlike Samantha Cameron or Michelle Obama, Fionnuala Kenny largely shuns the limelight and most members of the public would probably struggle to pick her out of a line-up. But her reluctance to play the 'first lady' role should not be mistaken for apathy. Far from it: this was a woman who is steeped in the rigours of politics and who for years looked like enjoying a more notable career than her husband.

Born and reared in the middle-class Dublin district of Clontarf to civil service parents, Fionnuala was the third of seven children. She studied French at university, before undertaking a course in public relations. In 1981, she answered an ad for a PR job with "a national organisation in the Dublin 2 area" and it was only when she turned up for interview that she realised it was for Fianna Fáil. By her own admission, she knew little about party politics, but she impressed in the interview and was given the job.

She would spend the next decade working closely with Charles Haughey and his spin doctor PJ Mara. Dáil legend has it she threw a file at Haughey in the course of an argument - and even managed to coax an apology for him.

The controversial Taoiseach was said to be a huge fan of her work ethic and she, in return, liked him. "I was genuinely very fond of him and of his family," she once said.

Fionnuala soon got noticed in Leinster House. One of those admirers was Enda.

"I was speaking in the Dáil chamber," he once recalled, "and this apparition appeared up in the press gallery, hair flying, blue dress. And I said, 'Now, this I must see again!'" Fionnuala's response: "I never noticed him at all."

But she would certainly notice the Mayo TD when he set about wooing her.

"He sort of crept up on me," she recalled. He even ventured to the Fianna Fáil Christmas party - and got thrown out for his trouble. When they eventually got together, they kept their relationship as private as they could - although the rumours that circulated in the Dáil would add to the frisson of their cross-party alliance.

After almost a decade of courtship, Enda proposed in the summer of 1990. He was 39 - she, six years his junior. They would marry in January 1992.

Fionnuala's career was in the ascendancy at this time, while her husband's seemed stuck in first gear. Having headed up the Government Information Service towards the end of her stint with Fianna Fáil, she landed a plum job working as the director of public affairs at RTÉ.

In 1997, after the births of their three children - Aoibhinn, Ferdia and Naoise - Fionnuala made the difficult decision to give up her career and bring up her family in Castlebar where, she felt, she could give them a better quality of life.

But while she may have retreated professionally, her consummate political nous hardly wavered and she is credited with changing Enda's image and demeanour and offering him valuable advice when withstanding Richard Bruton's leadership heave in June 2010. She had seen three vicious internal heaves challenging Charles Haughey's leadership - all resisted - and that experience would prove invaluable when her husband was under pressure.

On the day Enda was elected Taoiseach in March 2011, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin remarked that Fionnuala was still remembered with great fondness on their side of the Dáil. Kenny responded with the rejoinder: "Perhaps if she was still with you, you wouldn't be in the position you are!"

While the pair may come from very different backgrounds, they do have at least one thing in common. Their fathers both won All-Ireland medals in Gaelic football - Sean O'Kelly for Kerry and Henry Kenny for Mayo.

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