Wednesday 18 September 2019

'Probably one of the cruellest moments of my life was his funeral' - Culture Minister Josepha Madigan opens up about grief

Josepha Madigan never intended to pursue a career in politics, but after witnessing the personal toll of the crash she turned her attention from the courts to the Dáil. Here, she tells Regina Lavelle how gender quotas, the support of her late father and a deep faith all played a role in her taking a seat at Cabinet

Josepha Madigan. Photo: ©Fran Veale
Josepha Madigan. Photo: ©Fran Veale
Proud family: Josepha with her husband Finbarr Hayes and their children, Daniel (12) and Luke (10), on the first day of the Dáil at Leinster House in 2016
Flying high: President Michael D Higgins gives the seal of office to Josepha Madigan as the new minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht in 2017. Photo: Tony Gavin
Josepha, alongside Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy, launches the Local Authority Culture & Creative Strategies in September
Josepha Madigan. Photo: ©Fran Veale

Regina Lavelle

Josepha Madigan, the first female solicitor at Cabinet and Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht is a curious collection of people.

Spiritually, she is a woman of great faith, both traditional - ridiculed as a child by her sisters for having a "little altar to Our Lady" in her room - and less mainstream: as an adult she became a Reiki master, an alternative medicine energy healing technique.

Socially, she is a reformer, but not censorious - she wrote a novel which is described as "racy" when mentioned. And politically, she is remarkable for the speed of her trajectory to power - less than four years separate her election as local councillor and her appointment as Cabinet Minister.

She herself summarises her remarkable advancement as a result of luck and gender quotas. But I don't for a second believe that Josepha Madigan leaves anything to chance. As an illustration of her fortitude, she lost her father and her sister within two years of each other, just as her political career was in the ascent and leaving little time for grief. She not only privately coped, she publicly excelled.

Proud family: Josepha with her husband Finbarr Hayes and their children, Daniel (12) and Luke (10), on the first day of the Dáil at Leinster House in 2016
Proud family: Josepha with her husband Finbarr Hayes and their children, Daniel (12) and Luke (10), on the first day of the Dáil at Leinster House in 2016

In person, she is a very young-looking 49 and glamorous in an intimidating, lawyerly way.

She did practise as a family law solicitor for 20 years, latterly with her brother. Since taking to politics she has been conspicuously active. In 2016, just months after her Dáil election, she brought forward her amendment on divorce; in 2017, she took her Contempt of Court Bill, and she was Campaign Co-ordinator for the Government's Together For Yes campaign, all the while maintaining a busy home life with her husband Finbarr and two sons, Daniel and Luke. She has also been chair of the budgetary oversight committee.

Before we speak, a date is announced to put the divorce amendment to a referendum which, if passed, will reduce or remove the time limit, which currently stands at four years, from the Constitution. I congratulate her. She deflects the praise, saying nothing has been won. She does allow she brought it forward. "It was in the indicative schedule for the referenda and I really pushed for it to go to the people. There's no point in us bringing a referendum unless there's cross party support because we want to make sure it passes."

Josepha comes from a family of lawyers; her father, Paddy Madigan, from Kiltimagh, was a solicitor and Fianna Fáil councillor who resigned from the party over the property tax; her mother, Patricia, is a barrister, from Clonmel. The children followed their parents into law; Josepha, her brother Patrick, and sister Vanora as solicitors, and her sister Carleen as a barrister. The last two sisters, Fenella and Edwina, went into stockbroking and investment banking respectively.

Despite, or perhaps because of, her father's experiences in politics, a public career never beckoned. "I never had a plan to be a politician. Twenty years ago it would have been the one thing I would have said I would never be.

"I saw my father go through it and I saw the slog of the it, and the sheer graft of it and the disappointments of it. But it was obviously in me because I remember going out with him, and seeing the campaigns, so through osmosis I had absorbed an interest in it."

Josepha Madigan. Photo: ©Fran Veale
Josepha Madigan. Photo: ©Fran Veale

Hers was an upbringing that is instantly recognisable, although they did have a childminder, as her father was away, and her mother was working. "[Dad] was at a local level. He wasn't a TD and he wasn't a Minister so it increases incrementally even more than that. My mother managed to work a practice in such a way that she was home in the afternoons when we would come home from school and we had a childminder as well. "It was a different era. So now, we call my husband 'the other mother' because I was back so quickly, because I was self-employed - after six or eight weeks - so he takes a really joint role in terms of parenting. Whereas my father was coming in with chips and the bottle of Lilt and the Chinese. And my mother was the one doing both jobs really."

One element that attests to politics not being on her radar was her decision to write the "racy" novel. (Having not read the book I can not say whether it merits the epithet.) Since all politicians have their pasts raked over upon taking office - certainly high office - she would have known this would be raised.

It transpires that, at one point, she was taking writing quite seriously. "I had an agent - that's what people don't know - and there was a publisher interested, and I felt bad for my agent that it wasn't published at the time. I decided to self-publish in 2011. I don't regret writing that book at all because it gave me the courage to do my law book." She is finishing a second work of fiction, and intends to go to Annaghmakerrig next year to work on it. "I'm a total bibliophile," and she "probably did have aspirations to be writer, I'm still a writer but I have enough self-awareness to know I'm not Philip Roth."

With a legal career and a nascent desire to be an author, why enter politics?

She says the fallout from the crash was the catalyst.

"I remember the moment sitting on the couch around 2010 and it was after the whole banking disaster and people were talking about non-perishable goods and about not getting money from the ATM. It was a really bleak, dark time. I had a client who killed himself, through the recession, going through marital breakdown. It has a huge impact on people, especially when there's no finances there, and they're under huge stress.

"I just said to myself, 'I have to do something. This can't happen again'.''

She canvassed for Olivia Mitchell whom she admired.

"I had no intention of running myself. [Mitchell] said to me in 2014, 'Would you run for the local elections?' I looked to see if she was talking to somebody else behind me. But then I thought it was a good way of finding out if it suited me, if I had something to offer, if we worked together. Then she stepped down for the General Election, which nobody could have planned. Then because I was a woman, I was put on because of the gender quota.

"I have the strange accolade of being the first gender quota candidate in Cabinet, which I have mixed feelings about because you like to think you can make it on your credentials."

I admire that she refers to hers being a gender quota seat. Too often those who have benefited from such opportunities disown them once advanced, resetting the hurdles for those that follow.

She has been accused of bias in offering a series of bursaries for female artists "to commemorate Constance Markievicz" in partnership with the Arts Council. There is a total of €100,000 to be split amongst five artists. Considering we've spent €6,000 polishing doorknobs for Prince Charles, €20,000 a head seems restrained by comparison.

Her abiding regret, she says, is that her father, "my biggest fan really", never got to see her success.

"My dad died two weeks before I was elected as a local councillor, which was really terrible. The only reason I kept going through the campaign is because I could hear him in my ear saying, 'Keep going'. Then my sister (Edwina) was diagnosed three months later with stage four lung and bone cancer, and then she died in August 2016. We had a really rough period - four years; two years with my dad and two with my sister.

"From a personal perspective it was difficult because I'd two elections - a local election and a General Election, and grief often hits later. You're numb at the time. But they're still with me. Somewhere."

She continues: "Probably one of the cruellest moments of my life was his funeral. He was always ringing me every day, even from the hospital, saying, 'When are the posters going up?' I'd be saying, 'They're going up tomorrow, Dad. They're going up tomorrow.' The day of his funeral I was in the hearse and the posters were up on the pole. It was a really cruel moment," she says, looking down.

"That would be a big regret, that he didn't get to see any of the things that I've done. Because he ran in the General Election and the European Election and the Seanad Election and he wasn't successful in any of those even though he was a successful councillor."

There is an understanding of how unforgiving the public eye can be, that only those who have lived it can truly appreciate. Family members must go through the process at a remove, to watch their loved ones get dissected, but there's no substitute for experience, and clearly Josepha feels the loss of her father very keenly. "My mother is a great support, obviously, to me too. But at the time, because he was so particularly interested in politics, he would have been a confidant of mine. And I found that a huge void, particularly when my own career was in the ascension. It was like losing your bedrock. As someone said once, 'Well, you've internalised his advice'."

That advice, and her own innate ability, seem to have worked. She recently marked her first year in Cabinet, and has already mastered the defence of her bailiwick. Spending on her Department will always come in for criticism - it is an easy target in peacetime, never mind when viewed through the prism of the homelessness crisis.

"The Gaeltacht is really important for people in terms of Irish. And in terms of the arts - theatre, film, opera, music - when there's nothing left that's the thing that people hang on to. I think it's absolutely justified. We're doubling the spending on culture by 2025, which is unprecedented. Irish people are very creative, they need it for their soul."

Though Culture is not the most high-profile portfolio, a Cabinet seat is a Cabinet seat, especially when you've been in the House all of five minutes. Was she nervous? "I was definitely a little apprehensive, although I knew everyone. The thing I like about the Taoiseach is that he lets everyone have their view. He will say, 'Be succinct'.

"So I only really speak if it's relevant or if it's something important, or something I should say, like the divorce referendum, things that are close to my heart… I'm a bit direct like that sometimes and maybe a bit blunt."

Ah, her trademark bluntness, used to great effect during Mass-gate. To recap: in June Josepha turned up for 6pm Saturday evening Mass.

"The priest didn't turn up. I think somebody came out and said, 'You're just going to have to do the Mass.' So I introduced the people to the church. The congregation were lovely." According to reports, she led readings from the altar, but didn't give the Gospel. It was recounted as "saying Mass"; there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Josepha responded to call attention to the lack of priests to cover services, and then for the Church to ordain women, and priests to be allowed to marry. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin entered, accusing her of having an "agenda".

Six months on she is unrepentant. "There should be women priests and priests should be given the option to marry. I've two uncles that were priests and I've an aunt who's a nun. I don't see why that shouldn't happen."

Her equanimity may be to do with having the last word. "I think the Archbishop apologised," she takes a beat, "in his own way."

Indeed, she seems to be a person of unusually strong faith. "I met a friend recently and she said, 'Remember the first time I met you when we started Blackhall [Place, the Law Society], and you told me about the little altar you had in your room?'

"It's a bit embarrassing but anyway," she continues, "of a little altar to Our Lady, when I was about 12. My sisters always slagged me about that. I always did have faith. It's one of the reasons why I do what I do. It's really who I am ultimately."

So, were you an outlier in your family then? "No," she refutes, emphatically, "I wasn't a Holy Joe or anything like that. I was lots of fun and all those things. I used to write little notes and put them behind Our Lady every week for that something I wanted, or for somebody else," she laughs. And if I didn't get it I'd put something else."

She doesn't recount whether Our Lady received a note before she met her husband, a personal trainer and advertising executive "on the 15th of March 2000 at Lillie's Bordello, where we never went actually but my friend had a ticket. The theme was leopard print or red, and I wore a leopard print skirt. He was from the Northside and I'm from the Southside, and I said, 'Oh this won't last.'

"But we're still together, 17 years later. We moved to Mount Merrion in 2002 and we've been there ever since. We're very different. I love books, reading, writing. He's very into movies and sport, and my two sons are mad into sport - rugby, soccer, Gaelic. I have a dog, Poppy, a Cocker Spaniel, she's nine. She's the little bit of balance in the house."

In 2007, before either the "racy" book or politics, she qualified as a Reiki master. Reiki is the practice of faith healing through the palms, a sort of modern day laying on of the hands. Where did the interest come from? "I've always been intrigued by the human experience, by life, and why we're here and the universe and how they interlink. I suppose it's one of the reasons I did law. (Law was preceded by French and German at Trinity.)

"With law, I've always been interested in what's behind something. I became a Reiki Master in 2007. It's like prayer to me, in a different form. I am a member of the Catholic Church and I don't think they're irreconcilable."

She strikes me as someone acutely aware of the precarity of a political career, always operating as if it's her last week in the post. A week after we speak Micheál Martin put paid to speculation of imminent election when he quietly arranged for a year-long extension of Confidence and Supply. But she'll be ready for an election if it comes - she notably remarks that three weeks into her tenure as TD, she was sitting down with Enda Kenny to hammer out the Government negotiations, "we were talking about election back then..."

Her trials by fire seem to have taught her to be neither cautious nor afraid. "There's no point regretting, saying I should have done this and I should have done that," she says.

Her obvious ambition and work ethic may put noses out of joint, but her underlying strength and tenacity will serve this curious collection of people well.

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