A life at the coal face of local government

With over 40 years of service at town council level, retired Killarney councillor Sean O'Grady has a wealth of experiences to share in his new memoir.

Stephen Fernane

Tales of the 'ghost train' to the 1955 All-Ireland final, humorous anecdotes as an altar boy, and life in the poverty stricken lanes around Killarney form the focus of Sean O'Grady's new memoir entitled: 'The Wonderful Life of a Councillor'.

The book offers a retrospective appraisal of the retired councillor's life and his involvement in local politics for over 40 years. "As a political person I thought it was important to say what I experienced in my time as a councillor," he says. Sean admits he was never a good man at keeping a diary but he always had a good memory.  "My son probably summed it up best when he said of my memoirs 'You want them to know that you were here', which he put in a nutshell. I hope it will give a few pointers to people."

'What kind of a gobshite do you think I am?' is an interesting subtitle to the book which is intended as an ironic and slightly open question leading to how we interpret differences between democracy and misguided democracy.

As well as local politics, Sean touches on aspects of the national and international vision of democracy in the book with a view to making sense of how local government should be run. He abhors the 2014 abolition of town councils and lays out his assessment as to how and why they should be revived. Sean also decries what he calls 'the imposition of fiscal strategies' in local governance. 

"Local politics is not a business. It is a democratic institution mandated by government. Fiscal matters are important but it is not the be all and end all. If it was, then all we'd have to do is get all the Chamber of Commerce groups to look after the country. The basic premise I feel is wrong for serving society's ills when we keep seeking fiscal solutions all the time. There is also the societal factor to consider, such as education and health."

Sean served as an Independent, Labour and Official Sinn Fein councillor throughout his time in politics. His 'Left leanings' stem from his time representing workers as a Shop Steward in Liebherr. But prior to this, Sean, as a boy, sold coal and turf to the homes of poor people around Killarney. Sean witnessed poverty at the coalface and it stayed with him all his life.

"Donal [his brother] and I used to earn a few bob with the turf man when we were children. 

"The housing conditions of some of the people, newly married people, wasn't great. I met lovely young couples who were starting out their lives together in total poverty. It really moved me. I used to read fairly extensively too and I read a lot about workers' rights and nationalistic feelings. That aspect evolved to encompass my views on where people were going and how they lived their lives, and the conditions they lived in. I just felt there had to be something other than fiscal improvements."

Sean writes warmly about his late father, John, who was a harness maker by trade in Killarney. Originally from a Fianna Fáil background, John served as a Sinn Fein Councillor in Killarney Town Council from 1963 to 1974. John O'Grady was widowed early in life and Sean talks about his father with high admiration for the way he balanced his home life with work and his political career. Sean's father ran a busy workshop where everything from politics to football was debated at length. This workshop became known locally as 'The Dáil' and a place where the young Sean was captivated by the topics of the day.  "It was a place you learned a lot if you listened," Sean says.

"There was debates and discussion about everything. He [his father] was a great man and I was very influenced by him even though he never spoke to us ideologically about anything.  "He wasn't into that. He never even gave us a lecture on politics. We just knew what he was and with my mother dying young, leaving nine of us, we knew he was a very caring man. 

"The fact he was able to care for his family and still be in politics without his wife was tremendous. We had great admiration for him." Lastly, Sean insists that he has enjoyed the journey of looking back on life and collating its experiences. He says that people are at the heart of this experience and he talks passionately about the diversity of the individual. Sean is a man who believes in celebrating the diversity of the human race. 

"To think we can all have our own way of influencing our surrounds is something that intrigues me," he says.  So, is he glad he wrote the book? 

"I think that's something I can only answer in 12 months' time. Someone said to me recently that 'I'm brave' to write my memoirs. You don't want to be told this when writing about people. The one thing I can say is that even though the book is hard-hitting in places, there is no malice attached to anything I've written."

The Wonderful Life of a Councillor: ‘What kind of a Gobshite do you think I am?’ will be launched on March 22 at The International Hotel, Killarney.