Running for office
Government life, with its long hours and endless functions, can take its toll on a politician’s waistline, as Mary Coughlan will vouch. But the agriculture minister’s diligent action to lose weight has paid off and she is determined now to stay healthy, writes Lucille Redmond
The North-South Ministerial Council has just met at Harvey's Point Hotel and the staff smile proudly. Here in Donegal, Minister for Agriculture Mary Coughlan is among her people, in the warm glow of support.
“Sure, Mary's been in politics since she was a wee cutty,” they tell me. She still looks like a cutty — the charming northern word for a young girl — but until September, the 42-year-old minister was looking less wee than she liked after 20 years of politics.
Endless hours of constituency work, the Dail, a life spent in cars and at dinners — it's a terrible business for anyone with any idea of eating well, she explains. She used to snatch a tiny breakfast, snack in the car and the office, then have a big dinner with a couple of glasses of wine.
And the weight piled on. Mary is a tall woman, pretty and blonde, but she was beginning to have the kind of childbearing hips of which her farmer clients might approve — even, horrifyingly, to look like a good hoult, a fine sonsy figure of a woman. Something had to be done. And in Mary's big, comfortable, rambling house, she tells me exactly how she did it.
But first, hospitality kicks in and Mary sets out slices of apple pie and a couple of scones and tea for us in the kitchen while her husband, David, and her sister- in-law, Triona, make me welcome.
A soldier, who appears small and grim patrols the environs in full uniform and helmet, with a realistic-looking machine gun — her 10-year-old son, Cathal. Meanwhile, her eight-year-old daughter, Maeve, peeks in and disappears again.
To combat her burgeoning weight problem, Mary explains that she hired a neighbour, Enda Coyle, to be her personal trainer.
By pure coincidence, the ascetic looking Enda arrives at the door to begin the morning training session.
“It's good that Enda's a neighbour — he keeps me honest. I have to do the exercise and keep to the diet, and he runs with me,” explains Mary. When he started the job just eight weeks ago, Enda looked at the life Mary had been living and they worked out a rigorous regime of diet and exercise.
This isn' t a woman to take things easy. She's lost a scary two stone in eight weeks. Now she's pushing hard to keep the weight off and the fitness up. Up until this regime began, Mary’s idea of breakfast was a quick cuppa and toast. On such a meagre start to the day, Mary inevitably felt hungry by midmorning, which lead to sugary snacks later on; a minute on the lips, months on the hips.
Enda, the light of truth in his eyes, suggested pinhead oatmeal, but this was a bridge too far. “My aunt said she could make granola — not too sweet, with natural sugars — and now I eat this for breakfast.”
Out went the fatty snacks and in came elevenses of fruit and nuts, a good lunch of fish, turkey or chicken with lots of vegetables, another 4pm fruit break, and a light dinner. Fats, alcohol and sugar were blacklisted. Mary's constituency office in Donegal has followed her into the changes, with fruit replacing fatty treats and chatty walks replacing chats at the desk at break-time.
“I do weight training twice a week for 30 minutes and run for 30 minutes, though I'm pushing for 60,” she says in the comfortable kitchen of the rambling house in Frosses on Coughlan Avenue, named after Mar y ’s uncle, Clement — the first TD of the family.
Enda adds: “We change the programme every four weeks to stop the body getting used to the exercise and compensating.” Every now and then the two of them do circuit training, running one exercise into another to give the heart a good workout.
Mary's husband, David Charlton — a garda in Glenties — and young Maeve and Cathal watch with great amusement as she races up and down the stairs and takes off down the country roads with Enda.
When Mary became a minister — first with the now extinct Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands in 2001, then as Minister for Social and Family Affairs in 2002, and now Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food — clothes assumed a new importance.
You get the feeling, looking at this rangy woman standing in her kitchen in comfortable jeans and top, that she isn't really a dedicated clothesaholic. But a woman at the top in politics is expected to be dressy.
Male TDs can get by with a couple of suits and a few shirts and ties. Not so easy for a woman, she says, pushing away that tempting apple pie as it winks at her across the table.
She's not the kind to spend hours grazing in the shops, though. Mary Gallagher, who helps to mind Mary and David's children, also minds her clothing needs — more suits and formal outfits now, and more structured clothes since she's slimmer.
Ms Gallagher takes out sample outfits from Verve, Leaf and Vanilla in Donegal town and McElhinny's in Ballybofey, so Mary can choose and approve. “You should see the wardrobe that goes into the back of that car,” the minister says with a troubled smile.
It's a complex work-week. On Monday mornings (after her home weight training), she has a day of deputations and meetings, probably followed by a function at night, then into the car for the drive to Dublin.
Functions are the bane of the health-conscious politician. For everyone else it's a rare party, where you let your hair down and your belt out. For the TD, it's every second night and you have to be careful of the food... and the drink.
“I phone ahead to ask for something like a chicken salad,” she says. But the salad often doesn't arrive for ages, leaving the minister slavering while everyone else is lashing back the buttered spuds and steak in pepper-cream sauce.
The deoch isn't as big a problem for pols as it used to be, because of the tightening of drink-driving laws. “For instance, at the Ministerial Council, we counted one bottle of wine on the table – and 21 bottles of water!”
Just listening to her working week would make you wilt.
Heading from Donegal to Dublin on Monday night, she has Dail duty on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, with Cabinet meetings starting at 7.30am. The days stretch on into the evening, all now fuelled by low-fat meals and fruity snacks.
There's a gym in the Dail, but the hours don't suit, so Mary goes to a private gym on the way to her Stepaside home in Dublin on Tuesdays.
On Fridays she's back in the Donegal office and, on Saturdays, she has her constituency clinic and a function at night.
Sunday is family time, “at home — if I can”. But at least once, and often twice, a month she has to be in Brussels on a Sunday and then she does a workout in the gym of whatever hotel she's staying in.
The family hasn't had it easy. Mary was always cracked about politics, joining a cumann at just 16, but she was persuaded to stand for the Dail under sad circumstances.
Her uncle Clement had been a TD for just three years, after a career in local politics, when he died after a car crash.
Mary's father took his seat, but three years later he too died suddenly, after a short illness. She wasn't yet 22 when she was coopted on to the local council. The next year, 1987, she was the youngest member elected to the 25th Dail.
She met and married David when he was a garda serving in the Dail.
“We got married when I was in politics and the children were born into politics,” she says. “They've grown up with it — it's our life and they've never known anything else.”
David was on duty in his patrol car eight years ago when the car hit a patch of black ice. He nearly died in the accident and had to have a leg amputated; it was a terrifying and traumatic time for his family
Their son, Cathal, was born profoundly deaf, but got a cochlear implant — what's known as a “bionic ear” — last year, under consultant Laura Viani, and as a consequence he can now hear. The implant required a year of preparatory work for the family first, and a further year since, as Cathal gradually learned to interpret his hearing.
The childcare is “a straight role reversal,” says Mary. “The kids have their dad at home every night, and they have my mother, sister, and a pile of babysitters — the Meitheal approach to childrearing!”
There's a good school 100 yards from the house and the children have GAA, music, dancing, soccer and other activities. “It's just a great place to grow up. You couldn't have better.”
Mary has had to miss out on childhood moments — the parent teacher meetings, the tooth fairy — but David does all that.
She doesn't think political children are as likely to go into the family trade as her own generation: “It's just too hard.” She has lost contact with many good friends, she says, simply because the endless political schedule doesn't allow her to see them. For example:
“My brother's getting married, and the first thing the family did was ring me to tell me to block that weekend.”
Women's magazines make it all look easy, she says. “It's not easy. I can cook — that's one thing. David's also a good cook. And at least once a week we try to eat at home together.”
She denies, not altogether convincingly, that it's any more difficult for a woman than for a male politician. Apart, of course, from the wardrobe question.
As we leave, mobile phones are out and arrangements are being made; people to be rung back, children's day to be arranged. And maybe another little run.