Keeper Of Castlebar

Sat, Aug 29, 2009, 01:00

INTERVIEW:Fionnuala O’Kelly, wife of the Fine Gael leader, is a former Fianna Fáil press officer. Clearly the Kennys can’t be accused of clinging to civil war politics, then. Kathy Sheridanmeets them on their home turf outside Castlebar

WHAT IS IT ABOUT Edna Kenny that incurs such unparliamentary language among urbanites? That culchie accent and folksy charm? That preachy air of a goody-goody who hoarded his Communion money, kept his Confirmation pledge and married the first Fine Gael lovely girl in range? The lame, Clint Eastwood schtick – balled fist, clenched jaw – designed to convey the killer tension of an uncoiled spring? “I think he’s great,” says one of his ardent supporters, hesitantly. “He isgreat. He saved the party, he really did. But I can understand why people think he comes across as a . . . a boy, a bit of a lightweight.”

But what’s a boy to do? Up close, it turns out he wasn’t such a goody-goody after all, being a veteran of what he calls “a few encounters” before succumbing to a smart, Fianna Fáil Dub-about-town at the grand old age of 40, had the wedding reception in that D4 lair of CJ Haughey, Le Coq Hardi, while enjoying more than a drink or three along the way. And far from being a boy, he is a startling 58 and the longest-serving TD in Dáil Éireann.

For a man pushing 60 in Irish politics, a fit, athletic body and full head of hair are rare enough to warrant a charge of inappropriate presentation or downright fakery. ( The Irish Timesperformed a clinical exam over the lunch table – the hair is entirely his own, without a strand of grey or tell-tale root.) “Vanity is not in his nature. He’s a culchie; real men don’t look at themselves in the mirror,” says his wife, Fionnuala, the sophisticated city girl transplanted to Mayo, who is wryly funny about the mindset of the culchie male. “His approach to clothes is ‘tell me what to wear and I’ll put it on’. Remember all the fuss about the new hairstyle? That only came about because his usual barber was away and the young girl there decided she was going to do something different.”

For Kenny, who was routinely mistaken for one of his pupils while teaching at primary school nearly 40 years ago, the youthful appearance and folksy aura may be an unfortunate combination in public life, where a veneer of gravitas is always handy. But in his personal life, it has done him no harm at all.

When he gets home at the weekend, it’s to a bright, calmly decorated two-storey house on a byroad running through the middle of a golf course, and to a humorous wife who cooks up a dream, rears their three children mostly alone, seems happy in his company without reducing herself to a simpering Nancy Reagan, and happens to be one of the sharpest political brains in the business.

The fact that he managed to snare Fionnuala O’Kelly in the first place should tell us something significant about Enda Kenny. She was the bright postgraduate with a Master’s in French and a diploma in European Studies who applied in 1981 for a job to some anonymous advertiser calling itself “a national organisation in the Dublin 2 area”. It could have been Conquer Cancer for all she knew or cared. In fact, it was Fianna Fáil. Her ignorance of party politics was bottomless, a potentially fatal flaw in a party press officer. “I’d never even met a politician at that point. But from the first day I went in there, I loved it. Whatever about the weaknesses of politicians, by and large they’re fun people, and Leinster House had a kind of college campus atmosphere.”

She couldn’t have been as gormless as she suggests, however. Her father Seán was secretary general of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs. Her mother had also been a civil servant until forced to resign under the marriage bar.

And she was hand-picked by Charles Haughey, who also happened to be her local northside TD. With an admiring look, her husband remarks that she was the “only person who ever threw a file back at Mr Haughey” – and winkled an apology from him.

“He was genuinely fond of me and I was fond of him. It was my first job. I came off the street, with no political knowledge. I was chancing my arm. There were two elections coming up in 1982 and I didn’t even know what a convention was. But he encouraged me to stretch myself.” Say what you like about CJ, but he recognised promising raw material when he saw it. She not only survived at the dark heart of the multiple leadership heaves during one of the most divisive and fearful eras in modern Irish politics, she managed to thrive. Within six years, she had become the first woman government press secretary.

Elsewhere in the House, a fair-haired young deputy from Mayo had had a wunderkind start of his own. By the time O’Kelly arrived, Enda Kenny had already been a TD for five years, having landed in the Dáil at the age of 24 after a by-election following the death of his father, Henry, and a five-year teaching stint punctuated by some shotgun assaults on rats scratching under the school floor. His big loves were handball, Gaelic football and the Islandeady club. Fitness was such a priority that he was 28 before he took his first alcoholic drink. Given the drinking culture of Leinster House at the time, it must have been hard to avoid. “In those days,” he says almost wistfully, “you’d hear the Rose of Traleeon a Tuesday at six o’clock, wafting from the Dáil bar.”

He was about 30 and had “been around the field a few times. A few encounters,” as he puts it, with manful discretion. Anything to distinguish them? “Very decent people.” Anything at all? “Well, people used to say you’ll know when it happens. And this day I was speaking in the Dáil chamber and this apparition appeared up in the press gallery, hair flying, blue dress. And I said – now thisI must see again.”

Fionnuala, meanwhile, is ladling out a delicious pappardelle salad. What did she think of him? She pauses. “I never noticed him at all,” she replies finally. But he persisted – gate-crashing the Fianna Fáil Christmas party – against threatened ejection. “And away we went,” he says, in the tone of a man whose work was done. Then, indignantly, he asks why Fionnuala is not being asked to give her side of the story. “Ask her when did it dawn on her that I was the one? She had a long list of potential suitors.”

Fionnuala plays along. “He was always very friendly around Leinster House. Part of the thrill was that I always knew we could never end up in a serious relationship.” The Montague-Capulet element gave it “added spice. It was almost like an affair, except no one else was involved. And it was patently obvious it was going nowhere.”

Her swain begs to differ: “I thought it . . . ” But she carries on: “It was off for a while, and I was seeing other people, and I found myself thinking ‘they’re not half as funny or as interesting’.” . “He kind of crept up on me.”

What’s funny about this story is that despite that “away we went” imagery of prince charging in to scoop up fair maid, it took him another 10 years to creep up on her long enough to make her Mrs Kenny.

By all accounts, the two of them were happy bachelors. She was a busy girl about town, high on her job, with no interest in having children. He enjoyed the freedom to have a drink or two and roam the country, unencumbered. Just one story illustrates the mood of those halcyon days. John Farrelly, a colleague, was getting married, and Kenny and a few of the lads – including Maurice Manning and PJ Lindsay – set off for west Cork. En route, it was decided one of the company needed emergency “counselling”, and a detour was made to Jim White’s hotel in Lisdoonvarna. A week later, they still hadn’t made it to west Cork. “Why do you think it took 40 years for him to get married?” asks Fionnuala.

In the meantime, as a couple, they survived potential relationship killers, such as when he took her climbing on Mount Snowdon in Wales, with the promise of a train journey back down the other side. The snow got heavier, the ice increasingly treacherous, and the train never appeared. This meant a 50km walk around the mountain. “And I stillmarried him,” she says.

Anyway, he finally proposed. “Like a recurring decimal, something had to be done,” he says. “He has this way of inveigling you into doing things you don’t want to do,” she says. And he did at least make an occasion of it. The scene was Inisheer, where a forefather of his had been a lighthouse keeper, a rather lovely metaphor in his view. “I went down on one knee with the Atlantic washing up and surf breaking all around us, and asked her to be my wife,” he says. “And then I was down that aisle like the hammers of hell.”

Hmmm. Perhaps you might have phrased that more delicately, Enda. Or not at all. His bride shoots a meaningful look. “I wouldn’t say it was like the hammers of hell,” she says. “My mother had died the November before that and I wanted her first anniversary to pass before we had the wedding.”

Enda looks at her wryly: “Are there times you could strangle me?” “I’ve said it often enough,” she sighs. The strangling threats, however, usually relate to his propensity to “drag in muck and dirt” from his cycling, mountaineering and footballing exploits. “I’m quite neurotic about the house,” she says. How bad is it? The mutt in the garden, for example – is he allowed inside? Enda’s eyes widen comically. “You can bet your life the dog’s not allowed in!”

Like many women, she blames herself for this “neurosis”, but she manages to be funny about it. “I do everything right and nobody else can do it right, and they have to do it my way.” So you are the order keeper in this family? “I am. And I resent being cast as the order keeper. Dad is so much fun!” she says with a despairing laugh, just as Ferdia, the soft-spoken, freckled 15-year-old, pokes his head around the door to say the neighbour won’t be collecting them to go bagging turf, as the weather is too bad.

It’s a small vignette of what keeps the city woman anchored so far from the lights. You couldn’t bag turf in Sandymount, where their three children were born, and where she did her utmost to keep working after the second arrived. She doesn’t confirm that she left her Fianna Fáil job to marry the roaming Fine Gaeler, but it so happened that she moved to RTÉ as PR manager the summer he proposed.

And then, as soon as she laid eyes on Aoibhinn, their first-born, the 35-year-old with no interest in having babies “fell in love”. So much so that she went straight into having a second, Ferdia, juggling her unpredictable job with babies, bi- location and a spouse with an unpredictable job of his own. Every Friday evening she was at Heuston Station, grappling with buggies, babies and bags, for the long train ride to Castlebar, where they lived above the constituency office. And every Sunday evening she did it all again in reverse, with a kind of rostered cavalry in the form of her four sisters, a childminder and her widowed father, who had never changed a nappy until he found a great talent as a grandfather (he recently studied Leaving Cert maths in order to tutor his grandchildren).

When Naoise, the youngest, was born in January 1997, Fionnuala faced a return to work in RTÉ. Another Eurovision loomed and there was a general election, a husband who was now a minister and “gone out of the country”, and – a possible clincher, this – the invention of the “breakfast meeting”. “Breakfast meetings must have seemed like a good idea to some people, but they had no concept of my little life. It just wasn’t physically possible for me to continue.” She opted for a year’s leave of absence and never returned to RTÉ.

After 17 years at the centre of Irish political and media life, was it a tough decision? “Again, it crept up on me. If my mother had still been alive, I don’t know if I could have done it. She was a woman who had to give up her job and made such sacrifices to put the seven of us through education. And there was guilt – I felt I was letting womankind down.”

By then, however, other considerations were kicking in. Aoibhinn was starting school, and because every weekend was spent in Castlebar, the little girl was missing weekend play-dates and birthday parties. On one occasion, Enda made a special weekend trip to Dublin to take her to a child’s party.

The transition wasn’t easy. “It didn’t happen overnight. But when you have young kids, it really doesn’t matter where you live; you get involved in the school and the parents’ committee.” And she is certain of one thing: a rural environment is better for children. “Kids have a great quality of life in the country. There’s a much better social mix in rural Ireland, there are no fee-paying schools around, so everyone is thrown in together. Middle-class Dublin is very narrow,” she says with feeling.

Does she miss her old life? “I miss the social outlets of work. I had jobs where I was in the know – people would ring me to find out what was happening. I missed the cup of coffee in the morning, and being able to catch up. But it’s very difficult to have everything.” Surely Enda passes on some quality gossip? “He’s hopeless. He doesn’t recognise what makes interesting gossip.” (It has to be explained to him that gossip is not always “trivial”.)

It’s only when she mentions the interior- design course and her reasons for doing it – not for employment, but to while away the long nights when the children were small and early to bed – that the solitary existence of a rural politician’s spouse comes into focus. “It’s different now that they’re teenagers. Now I’m doing the taxi till 10 at night.”

It crops up in a different context, when a good wine is poured and she remarks that it’s unusual to have wine with meals in their house. “Enda’s never here and I wouldn’t open a bottle on my own. And after Sunday lunch, he’s going somewhere like a football match, so he wouldn’t be drinking.” Could he not just stay home on a Sunday? “He does have to do something. His relaxation time is so short, and I like to see him doing something with it.”

There is no self-pity in this, no recrimination. He interjects at times with generous comments – to say that she was earning more than he was when she was the head of the GIS , that she created a job by employing a full-time childminder; that the children have been reared by her. He turns to her: “You’ve reared them all. You take all the flak. I couldn’t do what I do, leaving here on a Monday night any time between 10.30pm and 1am after doing meetings and then maybe not getting back till Saturday night. The weekend for us is a half day on Sunday.”

Wherever he is, he talks to the children every morning and evening. “Distance doesn’t matter to kids – as long as you talk,” he says. “There is no routine for him, and the kids take that for granted,” she says. “And when he’s home, he is brilliant fun. There are kids whose daddies are sitting in the chair with the paper and talking to no one, or are down in the pub or who just have no interest in them.”

They’ve clearly worked out a way of living and a mutual respect. She is the organised one who likes to have a plan. He’s the one who says it will all work out. And does it? “It does. Absolutely. He doesn’t do stress and he doesn’t do worry. He has a very sunny disposition and that’s so easy to live with. He’s never contrary, and he takes that completely for granted. Problems for him are just there to be got over.”

She admires his ability to switch off in a way that she can’t. “I don’t read the papers till Sunday night. It’s too stressful. But he’ll switch off just like that and he’ll come to play with the children.” Do the papers bother him? He reflects before he answers. “If you were to be sensitive about what they were saying about you – especially in the early days – you’d crawl into a hole and never be heard of again. If you have a sense of conviction, that’s what keeps you going. It’s not easy though,” he says grimly. “Joe Walsh said he dealt with it by not buying or reading papers in 14 years.”

On their current Kerry holiday, all domestic newspapers are banned until September 1st, by order of Fionnuala – although one suspects she is the one who does all the reading.

Does Fionnuala – the former spin doctor – recognise the Enda Kenny regularly mocked for lacking a popular reach? “I do realise that Enda hasn’t the reach is very much the view in the media,” she says. “But go out with him and you’ll see it’s not true; you’ll hear people saying ‘God, he’s not as dullas ditchwater’. It’s partly his own fault. He hasn’t ever pandered to . . . Or maybe he’s more focused on policy and getting the structure in order than other things.”

She believes that merely being in the top job confers its own aura of authority. “John Bruton’s ratings were disastrous before he became Taoiseach, but with the job came authority. And look at what Enda has done; 10 years ago, you would have said it was impossible.”

He interjects: “None of the leaders on the back wall of the Fine Gael parliamentary party room could be said to have beaten Fianna Fáil in any election. We’ve done it now.”

He mentions the sense of invincibility that once hung around Bertie Ahern, particularly noticeable, he says, around RTÉ before the leaders’ pre-election television debate. “I saw the hangers-on, and felt not just the air of resentment, the sense of hostility and deep psychological pressure, but the deep sense of anger that someone could have the temerity to try and take away what was ‘our’ right for the past dozen years.”

What does he have to say to people who have doubts about his ability to lead? “I say: ‘Go to hell! I’m going to lead the best government ever!’ ”

He does exude energy, and in Kerry, there will be mighty activity for the man Fionnuala describes as “the Duracell bunny with extra, extra long-life batteries”, and who needs only four hours’ sleep a night. “Normally I go for 18-20 hours a day,” he says. “It takes a week for that to soak out of you. Your head’s on fire half the time. You’re expected to be an expert in all things.”

There will still be the required five o’clock catch-up call every evening – “as party leader, you can’t just disappear” – but the plan includes golf at Waterville (he plays off 13); climbing Carrauntoohil and cycling the Ring of Kerry with the children.

Then it’s back to business, he says earnestly, preparing plans for an election.

“And home doesn’t figure largely in them,” adds Fionnuala.