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Aodhán Ó Ríordáin: ‘I was 41 when Anna came along ... Being a dad hadn’t crossed my mind’

Parenting in My Shoes: Anna was born during the referendum on the Eighth Amendment. ‘Is she a second-class citizen because she’s a girl?’

Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, father to five-year-old Anna, says it “wasn’t really” part of his life plan to be a dad. “I was late to it,” the Labour TD explains. “I was 41, almost 42, when Anna came along.

“I grew up in a big family . . . there was five of us, four boys and one girl. I was always very fond of my dad, who passed away last July, but being one [a dad] didn’t really cross my mind that much. So, when she came along, my mind and my heart were opened up to a whole new array of emotions – most of which are based around worry.”

Finding out he was to be the father of a daughter is something Ó Ríordáin says he was very comfortable with. “I was a teacher in a girls’ school for 11 years so I’m familiar with girls and how they operate, how they interact with each other. I had assumed she would be a girl.

“Maybe the profession I work in, in teaching, you’re surrounded by women. And obviously teaching in a girls’ school, it was all girls. And I did a lot with them – football, gaelic football. So there was something about me and if there was going to be a child in my life I was pretty sure it was going to be a girl, because it just was a fit.


“I remember worrying a lot during the pregnancy. I didn’t get this Hollywood moment, when the baby’s passed to your arms and there’s this huge rush of emotion apparently. I didn’t get that. I think with mammy there’s a natural physical bond immediately, and for the father there’s an overwhelming sense of uselessness, really.”

The birth surprised Ó Ríordáin. “They come out purple . . . I wasn’t expecting that. And then you expect again that there’s like 14 people in the room, and there isn’t. She came out purple and then it’s ‘do you want to cut the cord’, and I was ‘absolutely not, no – I want my first mistake to be something else [other] than that’.”

Anna was born during the referendum on the Eighth Amendment, Ó Ríordáin explains. “All the talk during the time was about pregnancy and about women’s rights during pregnancy and then she’s born and you’re [wondering] ‘is she a second-class citizen because she’s a girl, because she’s born in this country?’ And this was a very emotional campaign, and you try to divorce your personal circumstances from it, but you couldn’t.

“I am conscious of feminism and of the girls I taught, in the school in which I taught, because I taught in a profoundly disadvantaged area. And so you are aware of the subtleties around inequality . . . and the subtle expectations of girls versus the expectations of boys.”

Anna being an only child isn’t something that concerns Ó Ríordáin as she has plenty of friends from school and extra-curricular activities. He does observe, however, that “she knows what buttons to press. She can say ‘Daddy’ in a very cute little way that melts my heart.

“She’s well able to stand up to me and she’s well able to give out to me. There’s always leaflets in the back of the car. There’s always canvas cards or letterheads, or leaflets I’ve been giving out around the place. And if she decides that she wants to wind me up, she’ll say ‘daddy’s so serious. He’s so serious. So serious.’ It does work.”

Reflecting on his past as a teacher of older girls, he says: “I remember being a teacher of girls who are of a certain age and the commercial pressures on them when they’re about 10, 11, 12. They try to manipulate them into being more aware of their sexual power than of their human power, and these are the things they need to worry about. So, they’re forced in to deciding which boy band they liked. Or which member of which boy band they fancied the most. There’s this messaging thrown at them, the clothes that were now available to them to wear.

“These children really are being bombarded in subtle ways . . . that this is the power you have . . . it’s a sexual power. It’s relationship power. It’s not economic power or human power or leadership power. This is where you fit in the world. And I’m really conscious of that.”

Ó Ríordáin believes his role as a teacher has helped him navigate certain aspects of fatherhood, namely learning to step back when it comes to conflict and also knowing the value of apologising when you get something wrong. “This idea that you have to be perfect and unimpeachable and that you have all the answers just doesn’t stand up to any scrutiny.”

He believes it’s important for children to know that adults make mistakes too, and own them and says they’re more likely to mirror this behaviour if they witness it. Growing up, Ó Ríordáin says his family were very religious. “We didn’t just go to mass, we went to all the sacraments as a family. And we went to confession and I remember thinking, why is my mam going to confession. My mam has nothing to confess. Parents don’t do anything wrong”.

For Anna, the fact that her father is a politician and visible on TV is “completely normal”, Ó Ríordáin says, “but I think there will come a point when she thinks it isn’t normal and I think I would possibly like to be out of this profession, when she is aware.

“You do want your little one to be proud of you. But I wouldn’t want my job, or what I do to be a negative in her life. Or that she’d have that sickly feeling of ‘something has happened’, or there’s a controversy. Or someone in school feels differently and therefore she has to not have that simplicity.”

If Anna was to follow in her dad’s footsteps and venture into politics in the future, Ó Ríordáin admits he would struggle if she had different politics to him. “I will not be able to cope with that,” he says laughing.

Ó Ríordáin was very close to his dad who died last summer. He acknowledges, though, that his dad came “from a generation that didn’t say things out loud. He was never going to catch you by the shoulders and say, ‘son I’m so proud of you’. These things just didn’t happen. He said it in other ways.

“And when he passed we found lovely little things that he wrote about the day I was elected in 2011 and what he felt about me and the achievement. And that his own dad would be so proud if he’d known that an Ó Ríordáin had been elected to the Dáil. And that stuff is so emotional to read.

“I don’t think we realise that our own parents are walking around with a percentage of their soul just taken out of them because their parents are gone. I don’t think any of us ever comprehended that.

“No matter how old your parents are when they pass, I think a little bit of you dies when they go and there’s the finality of it. Because I don’t think you ever know somebody as well as your parents because you know them all your life. And they know everything about you, and they formed you and they raised you.”

Anna was a great comfort to Ó Ríordáin in his grief, he explains. “We were driving somewhere and I used to put my hand back just so she’d hold it, to make sure she’s okay . . . and she knew I was upset, not because I said anything, and she put her cheek against my hand. I’ll always for the rest of my days remember that moment. That’s when I cracked completely.”

Coming from a religious family, Ó Ríordáin says he has brought “social justice Catholicism” forward with him. “The rich weren’t really at the top of Jesus Christ’s [teachings]. His interest was in the poor, in the disadvantaged, in the despised, in the leper, in the fallen woman.”

Ó Ríordáin says he doesn’t attend mass, but he has an interest in the “underpinning ethic of the religion I grew up with. But I’ve no interest in that judgementalism.

“My own upbringing was Catholic, but it wasn’t narrow-minded Catholic”, he says. In bringing that to parenthood Ó Ríordáin explains his daughter attends a Catholic school and learns about God and Jesus there. “I’m not going to tell her it’s not true because I didn’t have any evidence that it isn’t.”

While homework isn’t something that causes upset for five-year-old Anna at the moment, Ó Ríordáin says, “if it becomes something that you dread – and I dreaded it – and as a teacher, you spend so much time correcting it and setting it, you wonder why don’t you just let them run out and run around, go to their club, do their football and interact with their families.

“I think sometimes we do things because we feel we have to or, because the school around the corner does it and therefore it would give a bad impression of us. I’d get rid of it.”

Football is one of Ó Ríordáin’s great loves in life and he’s hoping Anna develops a similar love for it. But he’s conscious at the same time not to impose it on her as he doesn’t want it to become something she comes to “dread”.

“When I was a child, I had a paper round and I used to absolutely dread it. I hated it. But I don’t think I ever told my parents how much I hated it. I used to get teased. I was tall, so when you’re younger and you’re tall you’re supposed to just accept abuse because ‘ah sure you’re big, you’re well able for it’. But you’d be absolutely tortured.”

And this experience has spilled into Ó Ríordáin’s worries about parenthood. “I worry about her growing up. I worry about her being tall,” he admits. “I hated it when I was younger. In all the photographs I stuck out. That’s why I stoop when I walk.

“You can always tell somebody, if they’re privately educated, because they walk differently.”

As for the highs of parenthood, it’s all about the laughter. “Her laugh is the music of my life. My job as a parent is to walk into stuff, and to make her laugh.”

Parenting in My Shoes

Jen Hogan

Jen Hogan

Jen Hogan, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health and family