Monday 18 February 2019

Who was Bertie's da?

Farmer, religious novice, family man, Republican hardliner, 'murder suspect' ...

In the wake of the Fallon affair, WILLIE DILLON profiles the mysterious - and controversial - Con Ahern

In April 1970, shortly after Garda Richard Fallon was shot dead by paramilitary gunmen during a Dublin bank robbery, detectives called to Bertie Ahern's home in Drumcondra. It wasn't the first time that gardai investigating subversive crime had come knocking on the future Taoiseach's door. But it wasn't 18-year-old Bertie they wanted to speak to. It was his father.

Con Ahern had seen military action during the Civil War, fighting on De Valera's anti-Treaty side. He had been arrested and interned by the Free State forces. In jail, he took part in two hunger strikes. When the hostilities eventually subsided, he was the last Republican prisoner to be set free.

The gardai who called to the Ahern household in 1970 were working off intelligence information which was hopelessly out of date. Con Ahern was one of the "usual suspects" who the authorities visited whenever a Republican crime was committed.

There was nothing to suggest that Con Ahern had the slightest involvement in the killing of Garda Fallon, or that he approved of it. He was then in his 60s. A whole new generation of violent Republicanism was being born and Mr Ahern was not a part of it.

Many years later, his son - who had then become Taoiseach - recalled the day. "When Garda Fallon was shot, we were visited, as we had been on all the previous occasions," he told biographers Ken Whelan and Eugene Masterson in 1998. "But they finally decided that, at that stage, my father was too old."

The Ahern family link to the Garda Fallon murder investigation is the most bizarre twist yet in the saga of Bertie Ahern's alleged trip to Manchester in 1994 with a briefcase full of money. The source of that story - dismissed as baloney by the Taoiseach - is his former garda driver Martin Fallon, a brother of the murdered man.

Nobody has ever been convicted of Garda Fallon's killing. The penalty at the time for murdering a garda was death. The Fallon family has campaigned for years to have the investigation re-opened.

So who was Con Ahern and what influence, if any, did he have on his youngest son's political thinking? Though Bertie has spoken about him over the years, he remains a somewhat vague figure.

He was born into a farming family at Ballyfeard, near Kinsale, Co Cork, in 1904. He grew up during a time of unprecedented political turmoil. He was too young to fight in the War of Independence, but took a very active part in the Civil War. On his release from internment, he returned home. But he had a fractious relationship with his own father who drank heavily.

In the early 1930s, Con Ahern left for Dublin to study for the religious life with the Vincentian order. But his vocation didn't work out. "It's not clear whether he didn't like the study or just wasn't able for it," says John Downing, author of Most Skilful, Most Devious, Most Cunning, a 2004 biography of Bertie Ahern.

"They decided to move him to All-Hallows in Drumcondra for a year to allow him to think. They discovered that he was a very skilled farmer. He eventually became farm manager."

In Dublin, he met and married Julia Hourihane, from West Cork. They had five children, of which Bertie was the youngest. Up to his death in 1990, Con Ahern is said to have never gone back to his home place in Co Cork again.

"Both my father and my mother were Republicans - hardline Republicans," Bertie told Whelan and Masterson in their book Taoiseach and Peacemaker. "My father would have continued his activities with Republican groups up until the '30s. He served all his stints and was proud of them all."

Like most of his Civil War contemporaries, Ahern senior didn't talk much about his exploits. Things had happened which everybody was happier leaving in the past. But he recalled that the night Michael Collins was shot, he and his cellmates prayed for the fallen Free State leader in prison.

In a radio interview in 2004, the Taoiseach described his father as an interesting guy and a hard worker, but also as "a tough man".

"He was very nice to us as kids. But he wasn't a big affectionate man. He was tough and physical. If somebody got on his nerves, he'd clock them as quick as he'd look at them."

When the Northern troubles flared in the late '60s, Con Ahern cautioned his son against becoming involved in the rapidly developing turmoil.

It was speculated that the gardai investigating the Garda Fallon murder in 1970 may have believed the Ahern home was a safe house for Republicans. Bertie dismissed suggestions that their house was used to hide guns.

Last year, the Taoiseach told the Sunday Independent his father was very much a De Valera and 'united Ireland' man. But he added: "I think ultimately he was against sectarian violence. He never liked to see civilians caught up in any kind of atrocities. While he was a tough man and a hard man, he was very much a law-abiding and peaceful man."

On his death bed, Con Ahern urged his son to fight the political revisionists. He feared those who would take the history of the 1920s and '30s and present it in today's very different terms. "That was the last piece of advice he gave me."

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