Monday 20 May 2019

Councillor Jim to retire after three decades

Reporter David Medcalf paid a call to the Manor Kilbride home of Jim and Kathryn Ruttle, who recalled how Jim broke away from his party roots and became a firm fixture of West Wicklow politics for 30 years

Ah yes, Manor Kilbride, where the three counties meet, a most unlikely launch pad for a political career which has lasted more than three decades. Jim Ruttle, safely on the Wicklow side of the border, stands at the doorway of the family farm and points to the ridge on the opposite side of the valley. That is Kildare. Then, turning to the right, he indicates a patch of forestry not so very far away. That is Dublin.

'Ours is the fourth farm in from the County Dublin border,' the 67 year old confirms. 'I was always on the very edge, with no vote at all behind me. 'We are four generations here, through my mother's family - the Valentines. My mother's family was from Donard and my cousins still live there.'

His mother Jane Valentine, an only child, married Earnest Ruttle who came of German Pallotine stock, descended from immigrants who arrived in Ireland early in the 18th century. They built Fort View House in Rathkeale, County Limerick, where a branch the clan remains resident to this day.

Jim's grandfather, however, was a good National Hunt jockey who came east to be near The Curragh when he became a trainer. He was highly successful in that role, producing a brown horse called Workman to win the Aintree Grand National of 1939, ridden by Tim Hyde. The training yard was at Hazelhatch in Celbridge but the future councillor turned out too big to make a jockey.

Instead, he concentrated on farming, lending a hand with the dairy herd in Manor Kilbride, or thinning turnips and making hay. The family supplied milk to Hughes Dairy in Rathfarnham for many years.

Jim had his early education near the Sally Gap at Cloughlea, the last Church of Ireland pupil to attend lessons in the school established by the local landlord for the children from tenant families, irrespective of religious denomination. From there he went on to secondary at the Vocational in Blessington, followed by two years at Saint Macartan's Tallaght, sitting the Leaving in 1971. He then progressed to take his Green Cert at the agricultural college in Gurteen, Roscrea.

His prospects at that point were good: 'My mother used to say that dairy farming was the nearest thing you could have to having a job but not having to leave home. The cheque came in every month and you knew what you were going to get, no question of a slump or a collapse in the market.'

Of course, the daily grind of milking poses demands, and Jim quotes a neighbour who described the 365 days a year commitment as an outdoor prison. It turned out that he was not required to serve a sentence in this particular institution: 'In 1975, we got brucellosis. It is a terrible disease, contagious abortion, and it wiped out our herd of Friesians.'

He opted to join the Department of Agriculture soon afterwards, working as a livestock inspector in places such as Leitrim, Waterford, and West Cork before being posted for the last 20 years to Naas. His career included a stint as a meat inspector at the Garden County Fine Foods pigmeat factory in Blessington, where colleagues included GAA president Jack Boothman.

Politics were always part of life for the future public representative, as both his parents were members of Fianna Fáil. When a teenager, he helped his dad put up 'Let Lemass Lead On' posters which assisted Fianna Fáil to victory in the general election of 1965.

'As a young boy, I went to cumann meetings with my parents and met men like Paudge Brennan from Carnew who was TD for Wicklow back in the sixties. Attachment to Fianna Fáil in those days was something you were born to - it was a family thing. There was a tradition in my family of involvement in community things and I was of that way of thinking'

However, it was as a member of Macra na Feirme that he first began drawing attention to himself.

'Macra is a great organisation for developing self-confidence among young people,' he muses, looking back at his time taking part in stock judging competitions and on farm task teams. He remembers that neighbour Seán Eustace - destined to be national president of Macra - was also involved as they won the famous cross-country quiz one year. Jim also discovered that he had the knack when it came to impressing an audience, winning medals in public speaking.

On the Fianna Fáil front, Manor Kilbride became for a while part of the mid-Dublin constituency which stretched from Wicklow Gap to Rathgar. The young man served notice of his ambition by becoming party secretary in this richly varied territory. He was still no more than 27 years of age in 1979 when, now restored by another boundary change back to Wicklow, he was chosen to be FF's county chairman.

Jim Ruttle was clearly showing up prominently on the radar of the decision-makers in party HQ. When Michael Yeats left the Senate in 1980 to become an MEP, the whippersnapper near Blessington was drafted in to take his place. June 20, 1980 - he remembers the date as readily as if it was his birthday - was the day he took the Seanad oath, before taking a place in the chamber between Flor Crowley and Ken Whittaker.

His spell in the national parliament lasted precisely one year, brought to a halt when a general election was called by Charles Haughey. The outgoing senator was put up in Wicklow as running mate to Paudge Brennan, securing 2,600 votes but never seriously threatening to become a TD. He had to wait more than seven years before becoming a local public representative, co-opted to fill the seat created by the death of Blessington publican-cum-councillor Jim Miley in November of 1988. Then in 1991 came the turbulent events which put him outside the party fold.

'The Fianna Fáil convention was held and a coup took place - I was ousted off the ticket,' he recalls. He and wife Kathryn are too polite to mention the name of the instigator of this 'coup' but the strategy spectacularly backfired, as the ousted man took the plunge and ran on his own account.

Kathryn remembers: 'We had about four weeks to get organised.'

The four weeks were well used. They found they were pushing an open door with voters who felt that the newly independent candidate had been treated badly. The result was a massive swing away from the Soldiers of Destiny, who lost their two seats out of the three in the district.

Cllr Ruttle polled more than 1,900 first preferences to romp home with more than three times the tally of his former colleague. FF was left without a presence in west Wicklow as Godfrey Timmons and Labour's Tommy Cullen were also deemed elected. The election of 1991 set Jim Ruttle on a dcades-long unbroken stint on the council, speaking up for the district which remains at one remove from the rest of the county.

'West Wicklow is an unusual place. There is no connection whatsoever with the rest of the county apart from the GAA and the county council. Other than that, there is nothing, no social contact. People over here would never be socialising in Bray or Greystones, Arklow or Wicklow town. They don't meet people from there or marry people from there. We don't have the accent either at all. I sometimes refer to it as the Gaza Strip over here, isolated from the Palestinian homeland by the mountains.'

He found his best survival strategy over the years was to team up with other non-party members of the council, particularly the Fox family, Susan Philips, Darren Nolan and Miriam Murphy. He also made it a point not to go grandstanding as he preferred to work with others rather than raise hackles.

'I am a man for reaching consensus with people who advance my agenda. Other fellas are always going on the paper calling for this, or protesting about that but they are not able to do anything because they have alienated so many people.'

He has used his position to influence education policy and admits that he is always drawn to farming issues as well rural planning matters.

Backbone to the 30-year presence was the grandly titled Councillor Jim Ruttle West Wicklow Independent organisation which will continue in existence for just a few more weeks.

'The best end of Fianna Fáil left with me and they knew their business,' remarks their leader as he looks forward to retirement. The organisation always had an annual fundraising dinner, the first in Poulaphouca House and the final one at Tulfarris Hotel in October. The plan is to have a concluding thank-you function in the coming months as he reverts to being a full-time cattle farmer.

He confirms that he is not passing on the baton and feels that the FF party he left all those years ago should be able to re-capture the seat he took in such traumatic circumstances back in 1991.

Wicklow People