Wednesday 11 December 2019

Flashback 1987: Mary Coughlan is elected as youngest TD

This weekend 29 years ago, a 21-year-old Mary Coughlan was elected, the youngest TD of the 25th Dáil

Young blood: Mary Coughlan at age 21. Photo: Tom Burke.
Young blood: Mary Coughlan at age 21. Photo: Tom Burke.

Ger Siggins

Awkwardly leaning back, with boots not quite suited to tending the cattle that looked on, Mary Coughlan was enjoying her first day as a Fianna Fáil TD for Donegal South-West.

'Dawn breaks… on a new political career' rang out the headline above Tom Burke's photograph on page one of the Irish Independent of February 20, 1987. It heralded the election of the youngest TD of the 25th Dáil, and the sixth youngest ever to serve in the Oireachtas (beaten only by William J Murphy, Joseph Sweeney, Lorcan Allen, Kathleen O'Connor and Ivan Yates).

"At 21, the UCD graduate in social sciences is the youngest and without doubt, the most attractive TD elected to Dáil Éireann," went the report, which also remarked on her bare feet and white dressing room as she made coffee in the kitchen of her Donegal home.

The early start to Coughlan's political career sprang out of two family tragedies, when her TD uncle, Clem, was killed in a car crash in 1984, and his successor, her father Cathal, died suddenly in 1986.

Coughlan was co-opted to the county council but the general election came around before the by-election was held. She topped the poll, winning a seat on the first count.

"I don't wake up this morning and think 'I'm a TD now'," she told the Irish Independent reporter. "The first thing I thought was 'God, I wonder how Charlie is doing?' I jumped up and put on the radio and made myself a cup of tea."

On a special day for her and her family, she remembered her father: "My father and I were very close. I worked with him in Dublin helping him to write speeches or anything else he needed help with."

Coughlan was one of 81 TDs who allowed Fianna Fáil to govern with the help of independents and Fine Gael's Tallaght strategy - which didn't oppose policies that were in the national interest - for the next two years. She was re-elected with a reduced vote, and continued to serve on the back benches for 13 years, until she was appointed as a junior minister for Gaeltacht and the islands.

She was promoted to cabinet as Minister for Social and Family Affairs in 2002, and later held the senior post at Agriculture; Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Education and Science; and Health and Children. Following the resignation of Bertie Ahern, Coughlan was appointed Tánaiste for the duration of the Brian Cowen-led government that fell in 2011. Mr Ahern later complained that Ms Coughlan "bad-mouthed" him behind his back in his final days as Taoiseach, while remaining "nice" to his face.

Leinster House played another important role in her life, as it was there she met David Charlton, a Garda who was on duty at the time. Romance blossomed and they married in 1991. Mr Charlton lost a leg in a road accident but remained in his job. He died of cancer in 2012.

Mary Coughlan lost her seat in the swing against Fianna Fáil in 2011, taking less than half the number of votes she had won four years before. She retired from politics but has been actively supporting Pat 'the Cope' Gallagher as he bids to be returned next week.

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