Tuesday 10 December 2019

Our family will celebrate Father's Day but my dad won't, says senator

Senator Ronan Mullen tells Philip Ryan why he moved home to Galway to help care for his elderly father with Alzheimer's

Tragic decline: Ronan, here with his dad Tom and mother Maura, has seen his father’s mental health gradually get worse
Tragic decline: Ronan, here with his dad Tom and mother Maura, has seen his father’s mental health gradually get worse
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

Today, fathers throughout the country will be celebrated by their children. Some will wake up to breakfast in bed and a new pair of socks. Others will be brought out to lunch or for a few pints down the local.

Sons and daughters scattered across the four corners of the world will ring home to catch up with their fathers.

It's a family day. A day for children to give back a little bit of the bucket-loads of love and support they received from their dads.

On a small farm in Ahascragh, Galway, Senator Ronan Mullen and his family will celebrate Father's Day like any other family.

Ronan, along with his brother Ivan and sister Paula, will join their mother Maura and father Tom for dinner and some chat.

Tom will do a fair bit of the talking. He'll chat away about whatever grabs his attention - the farm, the weather, old friends. He'll talk about his sons and daughter but, tragically, he might not realise they are sitting there with him.

He probably won't even be aware of why his family are gathered in their home or why he is receiving gifts from his adoring offspring.

"We will celebrate Father's Day but he won't," Ronan says. "He'll be there and he'll be honoured, but he won't be celebrating Father's Day," he adds.

Tom is one of more than 55,000 people living with dementia in Ireland.

He was diagnosed with Alzheimer's four years ago and those who care or cared for a loved one with the disease know it doesn't get better with time.

It was his sister who first took Ronan aside to tell him things were getting bad.

"It wasn't that I was in denial but it shook me into awareness, a greater level of observation, and once I started observing I saw the decline and the decline didn't appear rapid, but it was surer, unfortunately," he says.

"There were moments when he brought the tractor down the road and he didn't come back because he got temporarily disorientated about where he was and then neighbours left him home. He was probably driving fine but he just lost his sense of direction of where he was going."

At 81, Tom is physically strong from years of working on the farm but, mentally, he is deteriorating.

He will recognise Ronan but not always as his son. He trusts him and likes to have him around, but sees him more as a friendly face than his own flesh and blood.

"I might help to dress my Dad or put on his shirt and he'll say something like, 'ah thanks a million, sure we were always great friends', so I don't know who I am in that moment… I'm somebody he likes," he says.

For Ronan and his siblings, it's tough to see the father they knew as a hard worker, straight talker and terrible singer become almost childlike as the disease takes hold.

But for their mother, Maura, who is now her husband's full-time carer, it's devastating.

"There's sadness in all our lives but I think of my mother, Maura, who's really carrying the cross at home. She loves her companion but she has lost her companion," Ronan says.

The senator moved home last year to help ease the burden on his mother. He wants to ensure she still has a life of her own when all is said and done.

"I want my mother to get her life back when all of this is over, we want to love Dad as long as he's left to us but she won't get her life back in the sense of being able to travel a bit or go away with her friends in terms of, like, a few days away can't be contemplated now and that's sad for her," he said.

So when he's not up in Dublin for Seanad sittings, he will help his dad get dressed and have a shower in the morning. He makes his breakfast and generally keeps him company around the house.

When he is coaxing his dad out of his jumper or trousers, Ronan thinks back to happier times on the farm.

He drifts back to trips to cattle marts, where, in between decades of the rosary, his father recited poems for his son to learn. He still remembers those poems to this day but his father doesn't.

"This is a part of life, suffering is a part of life and it's our job to try and leave this world a better place than we found it, so I see it as an opportunity to give - not to be too maudlin about it - I see this as an opportunity to give back some of the love that I received," he says.


Before agreeing to this interview, Ronan and I spoke at length over coffee and on the phone.

He's nervous of the press. He believes there's a "rotten media culture" and journalists are failing to tell the truth about the issues he campaigns on. As a conservative Catholic and pro-life campaigner he sees what he calls a "liberal group think" in the mainstream media, especially in RTE.

"The Late Late Show has on several occasions promoted abortion by presenting stories in a particular light and they have not yet managed, in the case of foetal abnormality, have not given the floor to families who did not have an abortion when they got those diagnoses and who believed that their child either deserved to live," he says.

He is also critical of the newly appointed Communications Minister Denis Naughten, who last week dismissed suggestions of a liberal agenda at the station in an interview with the Sunday Independent.

"Denis's comment is only failing to spot as Minster for Communications that there are issues of fairness and balance in the media, it's really an amazing ignoring of the elephant in the room," he says.

"I admire his politics and his astuteness but that to me is too much pandering to the media, that is old politics not new political behaviour," he adds.

His views on abortion are well known, but what is less known is that he's related to pro-choice campaigner and anti-austerity alliance TD Ruth Coppinger - his uncle is married to one of her mother's sisters. This is possibly all they have in common.

Coppinger has demanded action on the UN Human Rights Committee ruling, which found Ireland's abortion laws to be cruel and inhumane to women. Ronan thinks the committee is an overtly "ideological body" and its ruling should be ignored by the Government.

He also campaigned against the Marriage Equality Referendum as he believes children should have a right to a mother and a father.

The campaign failed and the referendum was overwhelmingly passed, but Ronan still thinks it was the wrong outcome.

"I think that a lot of people voted for the Referendum out of a sense of kindness that I can only applaud, but I believe it was the wrong moment - maybe not the wrong moment - but the wrong question to address that kindness on, because it was a referendum on marriage which is tied into what children are entitled to expect in their lives," he says.

He's not expecting an invitation to the Panti Bar any time soon. "Mr Panti Bliss doesn't know it, but he and I have at least one good friend in common," he jokes.

His conservative views make him a pariah on social media. For his own peace of mind he has a friend keep an eye on his Twitter and Facebook accounts.

"Once upon a time when certain people would have the toilet wall to write on, now they have Twitter," he says.

Those who regularly pillory him online for his views are trying to undermine his happiness, he says.

"That is why people abuse each other, that is what bullies do. So why give them the space to do it, you would almost be colluding with them?" he asks.

"I notice that on occasions there are people who would be utterly polite to you if you met them and who have what I would call responsible jobs could be obnoxious on social media and it is almost as though they have some sort of anonymity and they are letting their dark side out," he concludes.

Sunday Independent

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