Longford man who brought razzmatazz to midlands Ireland
While getting on with his countless other schemes he became a central figure in ours
Former taoiseach Albert Reynolds with his wife, Kathleen, in 1996: he got a palpable buzz out of life and people, without a drop of alcohol passing his lips (apart from a sip of champagne in September 1994 when the IRA declared a ceasefire, his life’s great achievement). Photograph: Frank Miller
It was 1977, the general election was in full swing and the one feature that could not be ignored – apart from Fianna Fáil’s brazen, vote-buying manifesto – was Albert Reynolds’s tanned visage. It gleamed out of the full-colour (a first), highly personalised (another first) posters blitzing the entire Longford-Westmeath constituency.
The man himself was bounding through both counties, patting babies and pinning the odd fiver beneath a pram hood, trailing a heady air of money, glamour, ferocious energy and US-style razzmatazz. It felt like Hollywood come to Longford.
The long-standing FF incumbent, Frank Carter, was the immediate victim but to the rest of us campaign veterans, it felt like the end of something. A glitzy, new element had landed in town.
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How long he had had his eye on the Dáil goal was never clear. In 1961, when my father, Joe Sheridan, was rejected – again – at a Fine Gael convention, he took the risky, costly route of running as an Independent.
Among the first campaign volunteers were fellow Longford men Albert Reynolds and Jimmy O’Brien. Albert had an extraordinarily effective way of establishing himself as a helpful, practical presence in people’s lives.
While getting on with his countless other schemes in life – not to mention his adored wife, Kathleen, and seven children – he became a central figure in ours. He regularly called to our Westmeath home – a 35km diversion on his Longford-Dublin journey – to drive our father up to Leinster House and hung around the Dáil before driving him home.
Occasionally he would speed us ingrates back to boarding school in Co Wicklow, chain-smoking, chomping on Mars bars (a grown-up who admitted, thrillingly, to hoarding biscuits beneath the bed), chatting endlessly, amiably, unpatronisingly. Sometimes he talked so much he ran out of petrol, my father recalled. There is little doubt that those long drives ignited Albert’s interest in active politics, as opposed to his previous drive-by involvements in FF byelection campaigns.
It’s fair to say his decision to stand in Longford-Westmeath created a certain frisson between the two men, especially since Albert’s brother had sided with Joe, but they remained civilised – in public, anyway. In the event, my father headed the poll and Albert swept in with him, headed for his own office in Leinster House at last.
With his sharp suits and succession of big, shiny motors – a Jaguar, a Daimler or an unmissable white Mercedes – Albert represented a radical changing of the guard. A man with a private swimming pool. In Longford.
A man who was clearly going places, inhaling food and exuding limitless energy, late for everything, hitting the country roads in spots (with more than the odd crash), getting a palpable buzz out of life and people without a drop of alcohol passing his lips (apart from a sip of champagne in September 1994 when the IRA declared a ceasefire, his life’s great achievement).
To many observers of that hard-drinking culture, his ability to weather boring drunks into the dawn while stone-cold sober, verged on miraculous. A useful talent in the early hours, observed others, for a keen listener and memory man when in the company of important people whose tongues are loosened by alcohol.
He bought a drink for the populous aftermath of my wedding in the bleak 1980s, gravitating with a grin towards the most boisterous of the pint-skulling lads at the bar, while he sipped tea rather daintily from a cup and saucer.
Affable, full of chat and folksy references – “hang on, let the dog see the rabbit” – the lads might have laughed at him to begin with, adopting the right-on attitude of the time, but fell for him in the end, bonded in a raucous chorus of Four Roads to Glenamaddy. In truth, there was no electoral gain for him there and he knew it. It was just fun.
Albert Reynolds was many things – ruthless, tricky, cunning, scheming, stubborn, clever, a generous boss, affectionate, loving and beloved – but he never pretended to be something he was not.
A child of Longford and Roscommon, probably the least fashionable counties in Ireland, he was neither a poet nor a visionary, just a practical, pragmatic, one-page man who based much of his business success on the ballrooms of Ireland with his brother Jim, in the era of sheepskin coats and Brylcreem.
It was all about timing. In his 1994 biography of Albert, Tim Ryan wrote that those ballrooms of romance “fully belonged to the category of a social service. Alcohol-free, they stood out like an oasis of glamour and warmth around the country . . . They buried the local dances where stiff-lipped parish priests glared across the dance floor at warm-blooded couples. The ballrooms gave the country a new romance.”
Albert probably perceived more romance in the cash-flow ledgers. He had always been a trier, from his first job in a hardware shop, to railway clerk, to enterprises in publishing, bacon, bingo, fish exporting, hire purchase, cinema, pet food and a few unfortunate fires to premises in between.
The best bit of advice he ever got, he once said, was in his first job. “It is not a question of being someone,” said the old office boss in the hardware store, “but rather choosing to do something and doing it better than anyone else.”
On his triumphant return home after his elevation to taoiseach, there was no country ’n’ western caterwauling from the platform. His speech was all about business; efficiency, effectiveness and enterprise would be the stamp of his leadership, he said. His voice wobbled slightly only when he thanked Kathleen, then in recovery from cancer.
Yet so much of the commentary about him then and since came laced with the snobbery towards a virtually obsolete showband culture.