Saturday 17 November 2018

A lifelong labour of love

Joe Jackson

IMAGINE if you woke one morning to find that the person you love most had died during the night while sleeping beside you. It could so easily make you give up on life, right?

But that's not how Peter Cassells reacted in 1977 after he reached out to rouse his wife Marina and discovered she was dead.

On the contrary, Cassells soon realised he was asserting life in triplicate, as it were, while "doing three peoples' jobs at the same time" in the Irish Congress of Trade Unions - even if he did put a picket on his heart for two years.

However, the man's matter-of-life-or-death commitment to work obviously paid off. Little more than a decade later Cassells was general secretary of the ICTU and, over his 12-year period in that position, negotiated five partnership agreements with government, employers, farmers, and voluntary organisations which covered pivotal issues such as wage increases, tax reform and job creation - which means that a great many readers of this newspaper must be more than happy he didn't give up on life.

Now Peter Cassells has decided to put himself forward as a potential MEP for Leinster and he is being backed in that endeavour by the Labour Party, whose leader, Pat Rabbitte, says: "Peter delivers. He is a person of experience, proven ability and vision."

But don't worry, that's about as much of a party political broadcast as I'll allow this interview to become. Instead, let's focus on Cassells's private life - both before and after the death of his first wife. That said though, one can't really separate the man's emotional life from his ideological base as a union activist - given that, since Marina's death, the two great loves of his life both had their roots in his union activities.

Yet before you say 'Marx sure was good to the guy!', think again. Cassells's life-long dedication to worker's rights actually stems more from his background - he is a 55-year-old Navan-born son of a mother who was active in the Irish Countrywomen's Association and a father who was a farm labourer.

"One thing I learned from my father having been a farm labourer was that there was no minimum wage, for example, so I grew up aware of issues like that," says Peter, sitting in the Shelbourne Hotel and alluding to his family of eight, which includes brother Joe who twice captained the Meath team in the All-Ireland Finals. "And later I studied economics and social policy rather than, say, great political philosophers such as Marx or whoever. So my ideological base is rooted mostly in my family - as in the need for people to be respected and treated fairly. My mother is also very much involved in the ICA and organises social events for people with disabilities, so that's all in my blood, I guess."

Even so, after leaving school in 1969 Peter Cassells spent two years working for herbalist Sean Boylan before moving to Dublin to work with the Department of Social Welfare, which is when he began to study economics and social policy at night, "not quite sure" where he was headed, but gradually becoming "more and more aware of union issues". Around the same time (and not gradually but suddenly) Cassells also became explosively aware of matters emotional when he met Marina, "probably at a dance in the Mount Pleasant Tennis Club in Ranelagh", and fell in love.

"It was a classic first encounter," he recalls, smiling. "There was four of us guys and four of them, the banter started and Marina and I clicked immediately. Yet what I remember most is that it was the Easter weekend of 1972 and I told her I was studying that weekend but she didn't believe me and came knocking on the door of our flat on Easter Monday to see if I actually was! She was persistent from the start."

Clearly Cassells was too, when it came to his studies! But, as with the pattern he showed later in life, Peter's persistence paid off. Within a year he began working in the ICTU as its social legislation officer, which was "the best thing" that ever happened in terms of his career. And he grew ever closer to Marina. In other words, his life was at a peak. But was that really the first time Peter Cassells ever fell in love?

"Yes. Marina was the first 'real girlfriend' I had, though there's probably half a dozen people out there who'll read this and say: 'The bastard! That's not what he said to me!'," he responds, laughing. "But I knew Marina was the one from the start, and she was just as sure of me. So then we got married in July 1975."

Sadly, as a portent of things to come, Marina's dad died "about a month" before the wedding which, naturally enough, brought an undercurrent of sadness to what should have been a joyful day.

"He had a sudden heart attack and we did wonder should we go ahead with the wedding at all," Peter reflects. "Because there was that question of how could you really celebrate something like a wedding when there was a death in the family so recently? But then we realised Marina's dad had been looking forward to the wedding so very much, and there also was the idea that us getting married was opening up a new life, so we decided to marry after all."

That new life was tragically short-lived. Within two years, Marina noticed she had "blood circulation problems in her hands - that the blood wouldn't go to the tips of her fingers" and was "in immense pain". She went to her GP, who referred her to a Dublin hospital where the ailment, leukaemia, was treated but "got worse and worse". Worse still, initially, no one told Peter or his wife that her leukaemia was terminal.

"What happened was that one evening Marina's pain was so bad I had to call the doctor and he said: 'Well, there's not much point in putting her back in hospital.'," Cassells claims. "Then he said: 'They haven't told youse, have they?' And he was right. We hadn't been informed that Marina was dying. They'd obviously told him and maybe it was his job to tell us, but that's how we found out.

"After the doctor told me, we told Marina, though she'd actually worked it out for herself. And she went fairly quickly, about three months later. Though we'd no idea when it would actually happen."

But how did Marina, at only 29, respond to being told she was dying? "It was extraordinary, really, her attitude was very much looking out for me, worrying about how I would deal with her death," says Peter, giving what I tell him has to be the most touching definition of love I've heard in a long time.

"It is that, isn't it? But that's how Marina responded. She started saying things like: 'I am going and it's time for you to start thinking about moving on.' She also was, naturally enough, asking questions like 'Why me?' and 'Why has this happened to us?' But mostly she was concerned about me."

Yet what "sticks most" in Peter's mind is Marina telling him that, after she died, he must fall in love with another woman. "She just told me: 'You are too young to be alone.' That, too, is a measure of Marina's love," he says. "But after that morning I found her dead - I actually panicked and started shouting for her sister, who was staying with us, to get help, but I knew it was too late - I did immerse myself in work for those two years.

"I certainly wasn't on the market for another partner. My work took over my life and became my personality. Certainly, in the weeks after the funeral, I didn't even want to go back to our home and have to sleep in the bed Marina died in, so I spent practically all my time in the office."

But subsequently, after graduating to the post of economics and social affairs officer with ICTU, Peter met Carmel Foley in Sicily, where he had brought a youth summer school and where she was visiting as part of the Department of Foreign Affairs. Their "holiday romance" graduated into a 15-year love affair - with restrictions, imposed at the start, by Cassells himself.

"When we became partners at first it wasn't in the sense that we were living together, because what I'd been through did make me say to Carmel things like: 'Keep your freedom until you've seen the world.' Which she did, at one point, by going to Washington as a diplomat," he explains. So does this mean Peter still was keeping love at arm's length?

"Well, Carmel and I never married and she probably would attribute that to the fact of what happened to me in terms of Marina," he responds, cautiously. "And that, partly, is true. But after Washington, Carmel went to Luxembourg. Then, after she gave that up, she headed the Council for the Status of Women, then the Equality Authority, before becoming the Director of Consumer Affairs - which she is now. But we did live together through all those years, had a great life and really enjoyed each other's company, even though we never did marry."

Cassell's sense of caution and sensitivity in relation to this subject is understandable. That relationship actually ended in 1993 after he fell in love with one of his ICTU co-workers whom he would, in time, marry - though not until a decade later.

"I was still very much in love with Carmel when I met Paula, but that's how it is when you fall for someone new," Peter muses, admitting it "wasn't easy" telling Foley the relationship was over. "It's not like I went in to Carmel and said: 'Pack your bags, you've been replaced.' The whole thing took a number of years. Yet, in the end, Carmel and I did remain friends."

Why did Peter finally decide to marry again? "To make a public commitment to Paula and a public statement to her friends, my friends and our families."

Peter and Paula Cassells do not, however, have a family of their own - Cassells never had children which is "not necessarily something" he regrets - but they "look after" Paula's 27-year-old brother who has cerebral palsy. Peter himself also is heavily involved in the Irish Wheelchair Association and helps campaign for better facilities for people with disabilities.

Summing up, he sees himself as "so lucky" to be able to say his life now is "at another peak" - more than a quarter of a century after losing Marina. Yet, one does wonder what on earth prompted him to "give up the day job" and take such a huge gamble on the forthcoming European elections.

"Most of the things I've been fighting for all my life, such as worker's rights and social conditions, are all now dictated by policies made in Europe," he replies. "So if I really want to continue changing the world - and that's always been my goal - I need to move out onto that broader stage. That's just who I am."

©Joe Jackson

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