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Saturday 20 July 2019

Brendan Corish's legacy is explored by his son Richard

Last year, Wexford town library helped to commemorate the life, politics and legacy of the late Brendan Corish, to celebrate the centenary of his birth.

Brendan Corish after his election to the Dáil in 1949
Brendan Corish after his election to the Dáil in 1949
Brendan and Phyllis Corish on their wedding day in 1949
John, Brendan, Phyllis, Dick and Philip in 1974

Born on November 19, 1918, to Richard and Catherine Corish, Brendan Corish was educated at the CBS and went on to join the clerical staff at Wexford County Council at the age of 19.

He was elected to Dáil Éireann in 1945 in a byelection for his father Richard’s seat, a seat he had held since 1922. He became leader of the Labour Party in 1960, a role he held until 1977. In the Labour-Fine Gael coalition of 1973 to 1977 he became Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Social Welfare.

He retired from the Dáil in 1982 and Wexford did not have a Labour TD again until 1987 when Brendan Howlin was elected. Brendan Corish passed away on February 17, 1990.

At the ‘Remembering Brendan Corish’ conference in Wexford Library, Brendan Corish’s son Richard spoke of his memories of growing up in a political house, particularly during such turbulent years that included the Northern Troubles.

The following is his speech from that day.

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Eearlier this year, Wexford town library helped to commemorate the life, politics and legacy of the late Brendan Corish, to celebrate the centenary of his birth.

Born on November 19, 1918, to Richard and Catherine Corish, Brendan Corish was educated at the CBS and went on to join the clerical staff at Wexford County Council at the age of 19.

He was elected to Dáil Éireann in 1945 in a byelection for his father Richard's seat, a seat he had held since 1922. He became leader of the Labour Party in 1960, a role he held until 1977. In the Labour-Fine Gael coalition of 1973 to 1977 he became Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Social Welfare.

He retired from the Dáil in 1982 and Wexford did not have a Labour TD again until 1987 when Brendan Howlin was elected. Brendan Corish passed away on February 17, 1990.

At the 'Remembering Brendan Corish' conference in Wexford Library, Brendan Corish's son Richard spoke of his memories of growing up in a political house, particularly during such turbulent years that included the Northern Troubles.

The following is his speech from that day.

A Chathaoirleach, Mr Mayor, Mr President, councillors, ladies and gentlemen, I wish to thank the society for inviting me to address this gathering in Wexford today. The last time I had the pleasure of appearing before you was in 2006, when, on behalf of the Corish family, I submitted the personal papers of Brendan Corish for archiving and to assist further research into Irish Labour. We know they went to a good home.

Today we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of our father on the 19th of November 1918, and recognise his contribution to the Labour Party and the country. I am delighted to participate in this important event and will share with you some memories of our life with Brendan Corish, the man that we, his family, knew. You all remember him as a politician, a leader and a public person, but to his family he was all that and much more.

Philip, John and I were educated at the Wexford Christian Brothers' Schools, Primary and Secondary. Indeed, one of my teachers had also taught our father one generation previously. As children, we became aware that all the other boys had fathers who came home after work but our father spent at least three days away every week, appeared to have no regular working hours and always had people calling to the house. These absences and intrusions into family time became the accepted modus operandi in our lives, leaving my mother to run the house and to deal with the upbringing of three sons from 1950 onwards. She achieved this and more, sometimes in difficult circumstances.

Consequently, there was an early acceptance at family level that our father had another priority which would challenge his work-life balance in no uncertain way. He was well aware of this dichotomy and endeavoured to overcome it. Quality family time was in short supply but he grasped it when he could.

When the opportunity allowed, our father took over from our mother and accompanied us to the local cinema, sometimes weekly, to watch the latest Hollywood blockbuster. On some Sundays, he would take us to Wexford GAA Park to watch hurling and football games, sometimes featuring his former club, the Volunteers.

Otherwise, he enjoyed having his family with him for beach and forest walks, just walking and talking. He liked to explore Carrig River with us and taught us to ride bicycles and to drive his car.

He was a professional politician, although when it came to DIY, he was very much the amateur. For example, his efforts to install a medicine cabinet at home and the resultant devastation still make us smile.

Our favourite memories are of Christmases and our annual holiday in Tramore when we really were a normal family. Such holidays were treasured and represented his payback for time lost, as were our occasional trips to Dublin for special treats during the year.

A typical week in our house in Belvedere Road started on a Monday to the strains of Puccini, Verdi or Rodgers and Hammerstein echoing all over the house while our father washed, shaved and even sang along upstairs. Indeed, I would include these experiences as our first introduction to proper music, even before the Beatles and the Stones. The morning would include visits to our house from Nick Corish, John Howlin and Tommy Carr, who would brief him on local matters. Later, a trip to the Corish Memorial Hall would be necessary to catch up with paperwork and touch base with local representatives and constituents.

Every Tuesday when the Dáil was sitting and after an early breakfast, our father would set out for Leinster House. We would follow reports on radio, TV or in the press which gave us some understanding of his job but were always eager for his return on the following Thursday night. When we were young, his arrival home was accompanied by gifts of Cadbury's chocolate bars which were intended to take the edge off his absence.

Friday's routine was almost a rerun of Monday's with the addition of branch meetings, clinics and callers to the house seeking his assistance. Friday nights were more family-focused with visits to the cinema or take-away fish and chips to kick off the weekend.

Weekends themselves were a mixture of work and leisure. Saturday mornings meant an unhurried breakfast with the family and the morning papers. Afterwards his time was spent in the Corish Memorial Hall and in clinics. Saturday afternoons brought the sound of horse-racing reverberating throughout the house and much-needed relaxation for our father as he followed the fate of his one pound Yankee bet around various courses in Ireland and the UK.

Time did not allow him the luxury of enjoying all the benefits of an engaging hobby. However, horse-racing, and later greyhound racing, along with walking his dogs, were therapeutic in counteracting the stresses of local, party and national politics. We all tried to share in these pursuits.

Sunday mornings were reserved for attendance at Mass but most afternoons meant branch meetings throughout the county which our father attended while our mother brought us to the nearest beach or forest park until these sessions would end.

Later, our patience would be rewarded by soft drinks in the local bar/grocery with him and the attendees afterwards.

The workload increased as the responsibilities of party leader and ministries were foisted on the full-time TD. The three-day Dublin trips eventually became five days and more. Family weekends were compressed into hours and minutes.

These years were fraught with difficulties as political events exploded into unrest. During the 1970s, our house in Wexford became the target for protests and pickets, and the poisoning of his favourite Springer Spaniel, Monty, was a cruel and cowardly deed which affected us all.

Also, our mother became the recipient of bomb threats on our home which introduced a new element of pressure on all of us. Around this time, our father informed Philip, John and me that due to a Cabinet decision, if one of us was taken by a paramilitary organisation in furtherance of its objectives, no concessions for our release could be made by him or the Government. As we were on our own in such circumstances, it could not have been easy for him to support that decision.

The assignment of personal protection to myself and Philip in Wexford became a serious restriction on our social lives, and in fact on more than one occasion we managed to outpace the intrepid assigned Gardai while they endeavoured to carry out their duty. Anyway, we all survived except poor Monty!

You may wonder how all this disruption and intrusion led to a happy marriage and a functional family. In truth, this way of life was what we, as children, grew up with and were used to and accepted. The responsibility borne by our mother was not what she expected when they married. You will all be familiar with the saying 'behind every successful man is a strong woman' and our mother bore that accolade with distinction, because she understood that our father was driven by his commitment to his constituents, his party and country.

In short, we all lived his journey. Our mother answered house phones and manned front doors, entertained the great and the good and was by his side at party and national events. I became my father's driver at the age of eighteen before one was provided by the Party and attended conferences, meetings, funerals, bye-elections and referenda campaigns with him throughout the country. Philip entered local politics which took off some of the pressure, and we all helped out at election times. As we got older, there was an empathy on our behalf with his calling and our participation was at least an opportunity to be with him in his world.

Our father had a strong affinity for Wexford and its people, and a relocation to Dublin to make life easier was never considered. While our mother was a Dub, he was not a city person and the road south leading out of Dublin at the end of the week offered a form of release from the stresses of national politics.

Nonetheless, on arrival home, he would still spend an hour on the phone to Brendan Halligan, regaling events. Remember these were pre-mobile phone times.

He was a man of conviction. This is typified by his refusal to allow our purchase of South African goods during the apartheid protests and his forbidding us shopping in Dunne's Stores while they refused to recognise their employees' trade union.

Some say he was a devout Catholic while others say he was a committed Christian Socialist. He was not dogmatic in his approach to religion or life, and while he ensured that we were brought up as Catholics, he never imposed adherence to creed or policy, but preferred to lead by example.

He was a humble man. He did not consider himself to be above others and taught us to be the same. He could walk and talk in the corridors of power in Ireland and Europe but still maintain a rapport with those he met on the main street in Wexford. His greeting of 'How are ye, Hon' still rings in our ears today.

He was not a complainer. Even when matters were going against him, he tried not to let his work impinge upon family time, but often we could sense the pressure he was under, especially in the 1970s. By the time he retired from active politics in 1982, he was tired.

In contrast when he knew he was dying from cancer, he bore his challenge with immense courage, and we had ample opportunity to spend valuable time with him in his last months.

One may wonder if we were a normal family at all. In many ways we were, but there were always intrusions as evidence that politics does not have opening and closing hours. Our mother is grateful that none of us followed in our father's footsteps as she is fully aware of the strain that relationships, and especially marriages, endure when a family member is in the service of the public. He was a reluctant candidate prior to his nomination in the by-election of 1945, but once elected he accepted the responsibility thrust upon him and got on with the job.

Today marks a milestone and an opportunity to reflect upon the life and work of Brendan Corish. While the world saw him as a professional politician and made its judgement accordingly, to his family he was a husband, a father and a role model. We miss him to this day and still remember his jovial ripostes to constituents on Wexford's streets, his dud horse-racing bets and walks with his dogs at Curracloe. His family, his town and his people were important to him and he never forgot them. We recognise the involvement of Wexford County Council and Wexford Library in facilitating this event. Indeed, the Irish Labour History Society has invested time and energy in endeavouring to preserve our father's legacy and for this the Corish family is very grateful.

Enniscorthy Guardian

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