Saturday 18 November 2017

When Mary met Brian

Angela Phelan

The sparks flew and there was real chemistry between them. So it's no wonder then that last week their year-long courtship culminated in marriage. ANGELA PHELAN has all the details behind the year's best kept secret

Anyone browsing through the Tanaiste's official diary would have noticed nothing particularly different about the entries for Friday November 30. Fridays are always busier than other weekdays for Bertie's deputy, with a slew of meetings specifically scheduled for the day: end of week wrap-up meetings and frequently an out of town evening dinner or other social function.

In the run up to this week's budget, not to mention the soundings for next year's general election, Mary Harney's diary for last Friday had been jam packed for several weeks.

No one could have interpreted a dinner at Moyglare Manor in Kildare that evening as a de facto wedding breakfast. Nor did the 4.30pm entry, penciled in several weeks ago, give any indication that it would possibly be the single most life-altering event in the 48 years of Mary Harney's life.

There were no bells and whistles flagging the appointment that would make the last day of November the happiest day of Harney's eventful life. Only her immediate family and a tiny group of close friends would have been aware of what a red letter day November 30, 2001, would always be for Mary.

And when the news broke the following day that the Tanaiste had married Brian Geoghegan, the man she had become increasingly close to since the beginning of the year, the country rejoiced for the newlyweds. Everyone was especially delighted that Mary had found a partner for life who already, her friends say, has transformed her.

The day started early in the bride's Sandymount home. She donned her routine work uniform, a smart, dark business suit. Then her driver arrived to pick her up just before eight o'clock. What was perhaps a bit out of the ordinary for Mary was the attention she had paid to the ensemble she would change into later in the afternoon.

The previous evening, with help from her sister Geraldine, she had checked, then double-checked, the lavender crepe coat and dress with exquisite beading detail designed by young up and coming Irish designer Synan O'Mahony. Having again checked on the matching accessories laid out in her guest room, it's safe to say her heart was skipping a beat. They had got this far without alerting anyone; would they now be able to make it through that final furlong without arousing the interest, especially considering that the paparazzi sensed nuptials were in the offing?

Again, it was a routine stop at her hairdresser en route to the office. It was the same quick wash and blow dry, no special request for a big day makeover, no calls to Celia for advice either.

Then it was time to get down to the business of running the country. During the morning, between meetings, Harney took a few personal calls from friends who knew the significance of the day. Even they were amazed at her sangfroid.

She must have been thinking that the omens were good when she played a major role that day in resolving the dispute between Greencore and the beet growers. But then Tony Blair would have to pick that day of all days for a trip to town for a meeting of the North South Council.

The only time when Mary's heart began to miss several beats was when that meeting in Dublin Castle, due to finish in the early afternoon, ran late. Add to that Dublin's chaotic traffic on Friday afternoons, which was exacerbated by Blair's presence in the city, and no wonder the Garda Traffic Unit got a call to provide an escort for the Tanaiste's car.

At about 4.10pm, walkers in Sandymount saw and heard the sirens of the motorbike cops, who whipped the unmarked black Mercedes through the labyrinthine traffic. Stopping outside Harney's home, the front door was opened by her sister Geraldine who was on hand to help her dress. Then within 10 minutes both women left the house to make the short journey to Dublin's Registry Office in Lower Grand Canal Street, arriving 10 minutes late for the wedding ceremony, which had been scheduled for 4.30pm.

Awaiting them was the 58-year-old groom, wearing a dark lounge suit, white shirt and subtle silk tie. He had slipped in earlier with his sister Isabel. She and Geraldine would be the witnesses to the best-kept wedding secret of the year. The only others there were former Dublin footballer Gay O'Driscoll, Geraldine's boyfriend and Renagh Holohan, Mary's best gal pal.

The civil ceremony, during which the couple exchanged gold wedding bands selected from Tadgh Kearney's jewellery shop in Limerick, was over in less than 10 minutes. Mary hadn't even been able to try the ring for size in advance. In fact it was a little bit big and has now returned to Limerick for sizing.

Having signed the registry, the newlyweds and their little group headed first to Holohan's house in Sandymount for champagne and "to let the traffic die down" before heading out to Moyglare House where 20 close friends and family were waiting for Brian and the new Mrs Geoghegan.

With pheasant for dinner and excellent claret, by all accounts it was a party to end all parties that went on until the wee hours with speeches and of course champagne toasts to the newlyweds.

It all started at the beginning of the year when Mary met Brian. She, of course, was a household name having begun her political career in 1977 as one of then Taoiseach Jack Lynch's nominees in the Senate.

The late Taoiseach often told me, over the years, that Mary Harney had one of the sharpest political brains he had ever encountered. Obviously the electorate concurred because in the general election of 1981 Harney was returned as one of the Fianna Fail deputies for Dublin South West. And she would be involved in changing the political landscape in Ireland forever when she was one of the founders of the Progressive Democrats in 1986.

Brian Geoghegan was already well established and respected nationally as director of economic policy at IBEC even before he and Mary hooked up. Indeed Mary obviously had recognised his abilities because it was she who appointed him Chairman of Fás.

A quiet, intellectual, easy-going man with a good sense of humour, he is confident enough of himself to allow Mary to take the limelight and to be there in the background for her.

The couple had met through work and at social functions many times before that fateful dinner early in the New Year. Geoghegan had been separated from his wife for several years and an ensuing relationship was also coming to an end.

For Harney it was business as usual at that dinner which she attended alone and at which she found herself seated next to Brian. For the following three hours the couple chatted easily about current events and the usual social niceties. At the end of the evening both agreed they had really enjoyed the evening and would like to meet again. At 48 and 58 respectively neither expected this to be love's young dream.

So how does one go about dating a Tanaiste? Initially the couple enjoyed quiet dinners in discreet restaurants without attracting any special attention. Mary would also cook cosy Sunday lunches for the pair of them at her home. She continued to attend formal functions on her own but from the beginning Mary was smitten and like all women, she started to confide in her girlfriends.

"Did you hear Harney's in love?" one of her friends told me over lunch in Dobbins sometime in March. Shortly after that I was able to confirm it for myself.

At a dinner in the Berkeley Court later that month I sat with the couple. It was one of their first public outings together and yes the chemistry was palpable, as was the body language. She was guest speaker at the dinner and as always delivered a first rate, thought-provoking speech without notes. "She's wonderful, isn't she?" Brian enthused to me.

Shortly after that she went on the Late Late Show and in the course of the interview told Pat Kenny, and by extension the whole country, that she had found someone very special and that this time it was "the real thing". Shortly after professing her new love, without naming him, to the nation, Geoghegan's divorce was finalised. The cognoscenti noted that the tidying up process was nearly complete, freeing the way for the couple to marry.

Personally I was thrilled for Mary when I picked up my mobile on a sun-drenched beach in Spain to be alerted to her wonderful news. What a far cry it was from a dismal wet day two years ago at Galway Races. We were seated together at a lunch party when Bertie arrived late with Celia. Mary had arrived with her gal pal Holohan.

Harney looked awful and seemed rather glum. She seemed totally drained, tired and looked worn out. During lunch Celia came over to chat to us and when she left the table Mary, always one to shoot straight from the hip, remarked to me: "Isn't Bertie so lucky to have her. I hope he realises it. It's so different when you have no one to look out for you, when you are alone," she said, looking wistfully across at the Taoiseach and his partner.

This wasn't a woman whining about her lot, it was simply the stark reality for a particularly hard-working deputy prime minister and it seemed to me she wasn't, at that minute anyway, too happy with her lot.

Life had begun to change for Harney around the time she took on that onerous office. Now her life was subject to the tyranny of an always packed diary. No longer was she able to have those great long, carefree gossipy lunches and dinners with all her friends.

And then along came cupid in the form of Brian Geoghegan. In jig time Mary Harney was transformed from a workaholic politician to a woman in love who now has someone who equally loves and cares for her.

On Monday night when she welcomes her guests to her office for her annual pre-Christmas drinks party, it will be another reason to celebrate. What a year it's been for her and it's not over yet. During the Christmas holidays the couple will have time for their delayed honeymoon.

I hope they live long, happily and very healthily ever after. They both deserve to.

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