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Declan Lynch's tales of addiction: Was former president of Ireland Sean T O'Kelly a functioning alcoholic?


Cheers: Tom McCaughren in the Palace. Photo: Arthur Carron

Cheers: Tom McCaughren in the Palace. Photo: Arthur Carron

Cheers: Tom McCaughren in the Palace. Photo: Arthur Carron

There was a piece in the main section of the Sunday Independent recently by the legendary Tom McCaughren, author of many successful children's books and former RTE News correspondent. He finds himself here in 50 Ways due to his recollection of the drinking habits of the former president of Ireland, Sean T O'Kelly.

McCaughren recalled a press conference called by the then president in Aras an Uachtarain: "It was well known that he was fond of a drop of whiskey, something she [his wife Phyllis] was said to disapprove of. It was also said that he kept draught barrels of Guinness on tap in the Aras. Whether or not that is true, de Valera is reported to have been worried about his drinking, and my visit to the Aras seems to confirm that Phyllis also disapproved of it... to our surprise, the first thing Sean T did was to ask us to help him move a large table over against the door. Then, when he was sure he wouldn't be disturbed, he took out a bottle of whiskey and asked us to join him…"

You gotta say that life was easier back then for the public figure with a bit of a drink problem - can we say that O'Kelly had a bit of a drink problem?

Yes, we can; indeed, it was felt by some that he had a lot of a drink problem, but then the fact that one of these people was Eamon de Valera might cast a shadow of doubt on the true extent of it - Dev was a man of austere disposition, so his opinion on issues of addiction may have been somewhat unforgiving.

Personally, I would call it like this: in today's culture, any public figure who would place a table up against a door to hide his drinking from his wife, an action that he was willing to perform in the presence of members of the media, would qualify easily as a functioning alcoholic.

And even in the culture of yesteryear, I think it would be fair to say that O'Kelly was someone who was operating at the higher end of the drinking game. It was well known that he 'liked a drop', but that it allegedly didn't interfere with the performance of his duties...

Apart, perhaps, from the time he went to visit Pope Pius XII and inadvertently revealed the Pontiff's thinking on communism when he spoke too freely of their encounter? Would that, perhaps, have been an exception to his avoidance of scandal?

Yes, I do enjoy looking back at the weird acceptance of the culture of drink which prevailed in the Ireland of that time; how a man could get a reputation for drinking too much, and how he could cause friction between the Vatican and the Kremlin, but nobody wondered if perchance there might be a connection between these things?

Moreover O'Kelly was a fervent Catholic, suspected of keeping the Knights of Columbanus informed of the doings of Cabinet. For many fervent Catholic alcoholics back then, it was felt that 'confessing' your sins to the priest was intrinsically better than seeking the help of foreign bodies such as Alcoholics Anonymous.

But Tom McCaughren recalls another distinctive aspect of O'Kelly's public persona, the fact that the aforementioned Phyllis was much taller than he was. Perhaps we can see a kind of strategic thinking here, what a modern media manipulator would call 'distraction'.

In this case, it involved the calculation that in old Ireland, a man walking around with a very tall wife would hope to divert attention from the fact that, in his own quiet way, he was drunk.

Simpler times?

Thinking again of that scene with the table shoved up against the door, and all the rest of it, maybe not so simple after all.

Sunday Indo Living