Monday 18 December 2017

Noel Whelan: Aged eight, I talked over a microphone, with speakers on top of the car, encouraging people to vote for my father

Noel Whelan (47) is a barrister, an author, an 'Irish Times' columnist and a political commentator. From Ballycullane, Co Wexford, he lives in Ranelagh, Dublin with his wife, Sinead McSweeney, and their son, Seamus (seven)

Barrister and author, Noel Whelan. Photo: Dave Conachy.
Barrister and author, Noel Whelan. Photo: Dave Conachy.

Ciara Dwyer

If I'm awake at 7.30am, I'll have Morning Ireland in my ear. I'm not a morning person, because I sometimes work until 2am. We have a seven-year-old boy, Seamus. He usually comes into our room at 7.30am. He knows not to wake us until 8am. He'll sit on the bed and watch something on the iPad until then. If I'm in town, I'll walk him to school. He is good fun. When I'm not in town, my wife, Sinead, will walk him to school. She works as a director of public policy at Twitter.

Then I'll get a few newspapers and read them over breakfast. I'm a news obsessive. Sometimes I can't resist checking the headlines online before I go to bed at 1am, but I prefer having the hard copy. I like turning the page, and getting the black ink on my hands. Reading it online doesn't give you the same feel for what is fresh, topical news, in order of what the newspaper sees as priority. I'm a big fan of reading opinion pieces. Maybe, in part, because I write one myself.

Then I have to get my act together and go out to court. I'm a barrister. For that, I'm in Dublin half of the year, and in Waterford the other half. If I'm in Dublin, I'm usually in the Central Criminal Court. I primarily prosecute. I run a trial a week, sometimes two. It's everything from brutish assaults, to unpleasant sexual assaults, to straightforward thefts. When you're in court, the case has to consume your attention from 10am until 4.30pm. As lawyers, we tend not to dwell on the cases too much once we get out of court.

I go down to Waterford on Tuesday mornings, and I'm there until Friday. I'm from Ballycullane in Wexford. My mother ran a post office there for 50 years, and now my sister runs it. I come from a family of 14 - me, mum, dad, eight brothers and three sisters. There is a cottage, next to the post office, which myself and Sinead bought five years ago. That's where I stay when I'm down there. Growing up in a big family was fantastic - a purpose-built community. It makes you independent, but also it made me value my own space. We had five acres out the back that fed us, and we had a shop out the front that we worked in. Those mid-week days in Wexford mean I can spend time with my mum and check in with the rest of my family.

In Dublin, in the evenings, we try to eat with Seamus before we put him to bed. It's about the conversation. He has some idea about politics. During the recent General Election, when canvassers came to the door, he wanted to talk to them. It's inevitable that politics is a feature of his life, because children are usually interested in the same sport as their parents. My wife often says that when she travels in the car with me, and we're listening to Claire Byrne on a Saturday, there are four panellists in the studio, but we have a fifth one in the car.

Occasionally, I itch to get back into politics, and I did for the marriage equality referendum campaign. I was strategic adviser to the directors of the campaign. I felt it was an important issue. We realised the personal stories worked. Surprising voices went out of their way to tell people why they were voting 'yes'. In the campaign, we created a tone and an atmosphere; a calmness and thoughtfulness; a space in which people like Mary McAleese would be strongly heard. But also, Ursula Halligan said she never would have dared tell her story if this had been a screaming match. The key was that this would be a positive, uplifting campaign, and people would feel they were doing something really important for others. Afterwards, I was involved in writing a book about the campaign and also, for the past four General Elections, I have done a book - The Tallyman's Campaign Handbook.

Politics is in my blood. My dad, Seamus, was a Fianna Fail councillor in Wexford. I first did election campaigning in 1977, when I was eight years of age, talking over a microphone, with speakers on top of a car, encouraging people to vote for my father. He ran for the Dail in 1977, but didn't get elected. Politics and elections are something I've loved ever since. I passionately believe that if you want to improve things, then you have to get in the game to do it.

Sometimes people ask how do I do it all, and the answer is, sometimes, I don't. Or sometimes it's just by the skin of my teeth. And secondly, I have a lot of very good help. I have a secretary who works part-time for me in the law library. And Kathryn Marsh - who did the Tallyman book with me - is a big researcher. Also, I have a strong partnership with my wife, Sinead.

We are both busy people; both kids from relatively humble backgrounds, who got our breaks originally through working in politics. That's where we met. She was a parliamentary adviser to Bertie Ahern, when I was an election candidate for Fianna Fail in 1997. We make our relationship work by making time for just us - a walk, or a bite to eat when Seamus has gone to bed. We have a childminder in the house with us. It'd be impossible otherwise.

I don't have a book on the go. I read about 40 books-of-evidence a year, which are much more dramatic than any novel. But when I have good breaks, my mind needs to come down. Then I'll read proper fiction. I listen to podcasts as I walk and at weekends - sometimes I bring the dog and the young fella. I was very old becoming a father, 40, but it's wonderful. It forces you to be a child, and to be less serious, and more relaxed, and more easy-going. It's unconditional.

They say if you take a child at five, you can see how he is going to turn out at 50. That's why the first five years are so important. All I can say is - we've done our best. He talks to us, and I hope he still talks to us when he's a teenager. He was doing karate on a Saturday morning, but after three classes, he came home and said that he didn't want to do them anymore. He said, 'I just want to spend time with ye'.

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