Micheál Martin: ‘You will always say you have the kids you lost’

Micheál Martin with his son Cillian
Even as they were coping with their grief after two of their children died, Micheál Martin and his wife, Mary, had no choice but to keep going

“Nineteen-ninety was a great year,” says Micheál Martin. “It was the year Ireland did so well in the World Cup. Cork won the double. I look back on it and say, What a year!’”

And well he might, as that was also the year the Taoiseach married his college sweetheart, Mary. Four years later the couple’s first child, Micheál Aodh, was born.

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“We said we’d take our time, settle in, enjoy one or two years of married life,” Micheál says. “We always wanted children. There was never any doubt but that we’d have children. Mary always said she wanted a larger family. She had this idea of a family of five at the time, because of her own background. Both of us came from families of five children.”

Micheál says he was very excited during the first pregnancy. “You’re talking to the baby and everything. It was just a lovely, lovely time.”

He describes the birth as a “beautiful event”, even if his friends weren’t quite as enthused by the level of detail shared in the aftermath. “You leave the maternity that night and you go off with two or three of the lads, and there was I going on about the placenta and the nutrition of the placenta – the obstetrician had told me all about it and was showing it to me – and the lads had had enough. ‘One birth and he’s lost it!’” he says, laughing.

“Aoibhe was born then, two years later,” Micheál continues, adding that Mary drove herself to hospital while she was in labour. He was at an Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland meeting in Dublin, as opposition spokesman, when the call came; he managed to make it back to Cork just in time.

Mary and Micheál Martin with baby Aoibhe and Micheál Aodh
Mary and Micheál Martin with baby Aoibhe and Micheál Aodh

In 1999 the Taoiseach’s son Ruairí was born. Shortly afterwards, his world was turned upside down. “Ruairí died of a cot death after five weeks, which was utterly devastating. A trauma of that kind never hit me until then, so your certainties kind of ebb away a bit. What I always say is that Micheál Aodh and Aoibhe took us through that, because when you have children and you endure trauma like that, you have to get up the following day.

“In the aftermath of that you’re obviously knocked out: you’re very, very down. You feel for quite a while that your spirits will not lift. It was April 1st he passed away. The birds are singing, but you don’t want to hear that at six in the morning, and yet that’s what you hear. I thought I’d never say that I hate the sound of the birds singing. But that passes in the medium term.”

Micheál found “routine and getting back with life is the only way. You can’t just stay down. You have to get back up again, and you have to go through the routines of life. There’s always new experiences come in life that will lift you. It’s not easy, and you don’t forget, and you live with it, but you have to try and pick yourself up.

Micheál and Mary Martin with young Micheál Aodh and Aoibhe. Photograph: Eric Luke
Micheál and Mary Martin with young Micheál Aodh and Aoibhe. Photograph: Eric Luke

“With Micheál Aodh and Aoibhe, I remember getting up on those immediate mornings after Ruairí, and they had children’s games to play and you’re playing with them and you’re almost going through it mechanically, but you’re still doing it, you’re getting the breakfast. They probably don’t realise, but it was they pulled us through that.”

The Taoiseach and Mary went on to have two more children, Cillian and Léana. But unimaginable tragedy struck again, when Léana died unexpectedly at the age of seven, causing him to question everything.

“I don’t know,” Micheál replies when I ask how he managed to continue in his role as minister for foreign affairs in the face of such loss. “It was an awful time. We didn’t expect it. It was unexpected even though she had challenges, cardiac issues. People were very good to us. The country was going through a terrible time as well – the economic crash at the same time.

“The first three weeks were a blur after Léana’s passing. Life was not meant to hit you so hard. After Léana, yes, I did weigh it up whether I’d carry on or not. I’ll reflect on that til the day I die: why do you do things? I’ve a view that it’s a certain inner thing that you keep going.

Micheál and Aoibhe.
Micheál Martin with his daughter Aoibhe

“There’s two choices in life: you either continue to stay down or you get back up again. It was very difficult at the time. I remember coming back, and at the time we had to make a decision to do a budget of €6 billion, I think, and do the troika deal, and do the four-year plan. It gave me great clarity, because doing the right thing was the only thing that mattered then for the country. These are politically difficult things, but that didn’t bother me, because of what had happened.

“I didn’t know what the future would hold for me then. The idea of quitting just wasn’t there, and I think in the end it was the right thing to do, because it gave the children and everybody meaning in life. You carry on. And again I always recall those early months afterwards. Sport was important – the kids playing sports, you’re going back out to watch them. These simple things; you’re back out meeting other people.

“What is very important in those situations is your wider family, who were fantastic. They pulled us through. Brothers, my twin brother especially, and Mary’s sister, Ann, they were there for us during that very, very difficult time. And then your club matters, just getting back to those simple things, parents, Mary’s friends calling to her. Getting out exercising, getting out walking. Doing simple things.

Micheál Martin with his son Cillian
Micheál Martin with his son Cillian

“Immediately in the years afterwards, we were very conscious, and certainly the kids were, they’d go, ‘Do your politics, but don’t bring Léana and Ruairí into it.’

“Even now I’m self-conscious about that,” he says uncomfortably. “There’s always been a bit of us that’s held the privacy thing. On the other hand, other families go through bereavement, and you can help those. At times you may be in a position to help, to talk to families. But everyone goes through it differently. There’s no one way of dealing with grief or trauma.”

A difficult question for Micheál is when he’s asked how many children he has. “You will always say that you have the kids that you lost.” But describing himself as a father of five “can be awkward for people”, he admits. “You don’t want to make it awkward for other people, because they may not know, but you don’t want to say someone wasn’t part of our lives and our family.”

He is grateful for the “richness of the lives we had with Léana in particular, the eight years. She was fabulous, and they were a great eight years.” (Léana died shortly before her eighth birthday.)

“Mary’s very good. Every year there’s a calendar that she gets and she sends it to the family. Luckily, we took lots and lots of photographs, and it just brings back those shared memories and the happy times we had together.”

Micheál Martin with his daughter Aoibhe
Micheál Martin with his daughter Aoibhe

The Taoiseach says he believes his experiences have influenced his politics. “I would have always been a fighter for children,” he says, “even though some people might say you aren’t, or you didn’t do this, or you didn’t do that. I would think in the aftermath of Léana that I would fight very hard. I still get angry with the system. Even as taoiseach I get angry with the system. I don’t like parents having to fight so hard for things in education, things in health that should be more accessible – from therapies right across the board to timely interventions and procedures. I would like to think it gives me some sense of understanding of what other parents are going through with sick children.”

Having a parent who is a public figure is something the Martin children were quite aware of growing up. “The kids were never impressed with me going in for parent-teacher meetings, because they were a bit sensitive and self-conscious of me as a minister, so Mary wanted their lives as natural and normal as possible.

“I think we were very lucky, growing up in Cork and having the children in Cork,” he says. “You know when the children start going to school and you develop friendships with parents. They all looked after them that way; we were very fortunate. The media were very good about it. The media never really inquired ... and I’m very thankful for that. By and large, they were allowed to grow up as ordinary individuals. As they get older it’s probably been a bit more difficult.”

Having adult children is a bit easier, the Taoiseach says, though he admits “you worry as much”.

“What I really enjoy watching them growing up is they have really, really good friends – that’s important,” Micheál says, explaining that many of his children’s friends are the children of his and Mary’s own friends, with friendships having developed and strengthened over the course of many holidays in west Cork. “They all have similar interests, basic interests in sport, swimming in the sea – they all do that, as we had. I don’t think you could wish for anything more than that. They’ll all get jobs and careers and all of that, but once they have life balance. I think it’s important, and that sense of engagement and participation.”

Micheál Aodh and Cillian with their dad.
Micheál Aodh and Cillian with their father

And just because he’s their dad doesn’t mean the Taoiseach’s children let him off the hook when it comes to querying some of the restrictions imposed over the pandemic. “During Covid they’re giving it hell. I get emails from them. They’ve read everything to do with Covid – ‘You should be doing this. You should be doing that. We should be out training. There’s no evidence to suggest X,Y and Z.’ To be fair to them, it’s been tough on them.

“Cillian’s had two years in college now, and his first year was truncated – he got to March of 2020. This year he hasn’t had college. Next year he’ll be probably doing an internship or experience, so it’s not the same university or third-level experience that we’ve all had. And the older two now have started jobs, but they’re working from home. But, look, life is what it is: you’ve got to deal with it and respond to it.”

In the age of social media and the trolling that can happen online, Micheál says he tells his children to be careful. “You have to develop a certain immunity against the trolling, because the trolling is just nonstop.

“It’s a bit of a narrow bubble as well. It’s one of the things in politics I worry about, in terms of how politics is going, that it’s very short-term now. It’s almost down to what was trending at the weekend in terms of policy responses. It lacks a more analytical part which is very important in policy development, that we take space and time to engage, discuss, analyse and decide.”

Micheál Martin arrives to cast his vote during the 2016 general election with wife Mary, son Micheál Aodh and daughter Aoibhe
Micheál Martin arrives to cast his vote during the 2016 general election with wife Mary, son Micheál Aodh and daughter Aoibhe

He thinks his children understand about trolls, but adds “They would be of that generation that are very much the social media generation and so it probably influences them more.”

There have been many highs for the Taoiseach over the course of fatherhood. “I love Christmas with the kids, and we’d some great times – certainly the holidays without question,” he says, recalling camping breaks in France and west Cork with his family. “A simple thing like Dunworly Bay, it’s a beautiful beach down in west Cork. On a hot August day you could have 200 or 300 people on that beach, everyone excited. The kids running up and down. The tide’s coming in and all the kids decide they’ve got to stop the tide. That’s as high as it gets, and then we’d go up to Mary O’Neill’s in Butlerstown and they’d have the Tayto and the Ribena.

“The sporting occasions have been great,” he says excitedly, remembering 1999 in particular – the year he took Micheál Aodh to Thurles. “It was also the year we got to an All-Ireland football final, and they were magical days. He had the glorious couple of years with that Cork hurling team. He went to every match and he’d be adding up the scores.”

Micheál Martin and wife Mary, together with Aoibhe, Micheál and Cillian
Micheál Martin with his wife, Mary, and their children Aoibhe, Cillian and Micheál Aodh

A Féile final with Cillian and a hockey tournament with Aoibhe also feature on his list of parenting highs, not least because he “was allowed go” to his daughter’s final.

And even the Taoiseach takes his eye off the parenting ball sometimes, ending up on the front page of the Examiner in the process. “I used to cycle a lot with the kids, Léana and Cillian, the younger ones,” he says. “You know the way as a parent you can be a bit absent-minded? I parked the bike, Cillian’s on the back of the bike, and of course his weight [the bike falls over], and it breaks the window of the pub. But luckily I catch him before he goes through the window of the pub. Being the daredevil that he was, he didn’t seem to be too excited.” 

Parenting in My Shoes
Part 1: Vicky Phelan
Part 2: Lynn Ruane
Part 3: Keith Walsh
Part 4: Victoria Smurfit
Part 5: Billy Holland
Part 6: Joanna Donnelly
Part 7: Eileen Flynn
Part 8: Matt Cooper
Part 9: Hazel Chu
Part 10: Ciara Kelly
Part 11: Dil Wickremasinghe
Part 12: Alison Curtis
Part 13: Dáithí Ó Sé
Part 14: Brendan O’Connor
Part 15: Anne Dalton
Part 16: Gary O'Hanlon
Part 17: Paula MacSweeney
Part 18: Stephen McPhail
Part 19: Michelle O'Neill
Part 20: Jacqui Hurley
Part 21: Colm O'Gorman
Part 22: Mario Rosenstock
Part 23: Micheál Martin