Lynn Ruane: ‘Having a baby at 15 stopped me when I could have begun to use heroin’
Watching friends die gave the Senator the drive to experience life, motherhood and education
Senator Lynn Ruane, who has just written her autobiography, in Killinarden, in Tallaght. Photograph: Dave Meehan
Senator Lynn Ruane tells me about the tattoos on her arms. There’s a rose for Jenny, a childhood friend who died in a road accident when they were in their early teens. She and another friend told the tattooist that they were eighteen. Her daughter Jordanne’s name is beneath the Rose and above that you can also see, now partially obscured, the name of Jordanne’s father, Alan. On her other arm there’s the figure of St Christopher for her dad. “He used to say St Christopher was the patron saint of travellers, so when I went on my travels for days and he couldn’t find me, St Christopher would mind me.”
Above this there’s Badb the Celtic war goddess. “She’s about transformation, for me.”
There’s a poppy and a cocoa leaf which represent her work with addicts. Nearby are Medusa and Balor, a one-eyed Celtic monster. “Everybody he looks at dies. [when] all my friends were dying, I thought ‘Oh my god, that’s me, I’m Balor.”
I’m more connected to who I was than who I’m becoming. I light up more when I’m talking about the younger years
And the flowers - there are a lot of flowers – these represent the months friends died and family members were born. There’s a gladiolus for August, to mark her daughter Jordanne’s birth. There are two snowdrops, for January, because her younger daughter, Jaelynne, was born then but it was also the month her friend John died in prison. She herself was born in October, she tells me, pointing at a chrysanthemum. And her friends Curly, Tracy and Daithi died in October. There are a lot of flowers. She has names for them all.
Ruane has written a fascinating memoir. It’s called People Like Me and in it she recounts her journey from the Killinarden Estate in Tallaght to Seanad Eireann. It’s not your typical political memoir. Ruane finds it hard to see it as a “political” memoir at all. “I’m more connected to who I was than who I’m becoming,” she says. “I light up more when I’m talking about the younger years.”
When I arrive at the house where she has lived on and off since she was two-years-old, now with her mother and daughters, she’s straightening her hair after a morning at the gym. We’re soon out in her car and she’s pointing out places mentioned in the book “to bring it to life a little bit.” She’s warm, insightful and funny. She’s also incredibly open. Someone once told her, she says, “You’re only as sick as your secrets.”
The cul-de-sac was a wonderful place to grow up, filled with newly moved young families. She recalls herself and her brother out playing rounders and “the odd game of IRA, where you got battered” and she recalls her dad cycling from town on “a little racer” with work to be completed by her sewing machinist mother. Her mother now works in the nearby Uchiya thermostat factory. Her father died of Lewy body dementia in 2013.
She may have always had some issues with authority, she says. She was told not to return to preschool “because I karate chopped some boy over a tractor”. In primary school she had a run in with a cruel teacher who lied about her behaviour and, she adds, with comical disgust “stopped me going on School Around the Corner!” When, years later, she discovered Jordanne was to have the same teacher, she took her out of the school.
Her first serious upset in life was discovering, at the age of ten, that her father had had a family before. More shocking, to her, was learning that her father was twenty years older than she thought. “I felt a huge sense of loss. I felt I had twenty odd years more than I had. [I said] ‘You took twenty years from me.’
‘We didn’t Lynn. They didn’t exist.’
‘They did exist. They existed for me… I got really angry. They went from having authority to ‘F**k off, you lied to me.’”
The next huge event in her life was when her friend Jenny was knocked down and killed on the main road when Lynn was just 13. She saw it happen. It had a huge effect on her. She morphed from someone who was an altar girl (she points out the church) to a drinking teenager who hung out at the local snooker hall and was barred from Killinarden House (she points it out).
Why was she barred? She laughs. They used to hang the smallest of their friends over the counter by the ankles “and then we’d reef him back up and he’d have all the drink.”
“I don’t think Leo Varadkar’s memoir will have stories like that,” I say.
She laughs. One of the remarkable features of the book, and of Ruane herself, is that despite the sadder elements, she can still conjure up the joy of mad teenage friendships. “At that age you’re like ‘no-one understands me. My teachers don’t understand. My ma’s a bitch’ and you find comfort in each other.”
She tells the story of a wild party that happened, improbably, in a priest’s house. “I worry I’m making this stuff up,” she says. “I ring my friends and say, ‘Was that real?’ The amount of people I had to ring to find out whose feet went through the ceiling of the priest’s house.”
We drive into another area, Cushlawn, where her friend Tracy introduced her to the music of Tupac Shakur. “She’s dead now,” she says. This was a centre for the anti-drugs movement in the 1990s. “There was a vigi hut right there.”
She was not a fan of the vigilantism. She feels that suffering addicts were often scapegoated and abused and that many of the participants at the movement’s public meetings weren’t actually local. “I remember sitting across here on the field smoking hash outside Tracy’s house [asking] ‘Who owns all the cars?’”
There were a couple of men in the community, really bad alcoholics living in complete poverty. They would swap their prescription Benzos with us for flagons and stuff
These were wild years for her, she says. She dropped out of school. She remembers joyriding and experiencing heavy handed Garda violence as a “flimsy teenager”. She recalls an armed garda pointing a gun at her when she was ineptly escaping a stolen car in “Spice Girl boots.” “If he picked up speed he’d have caught me in two seconds.”
She lost a small piece of her nose when she intervened during a fight and a girl sliced her with something “Some glass or a knuckle duster…. If I drink out of a can the ring pull still catches,” she says, pointing at the tip of her nose.
As the months and years passed they all began using more drugs. They moved from stimulants to downers. “There were a couple of men in the community, really bad alcoholics living in complete poverty. They would swap their prescription Benzos with us for flagons and stuff.”
After years of working with addiction services later in her life, she now knows that new drugs move through the city from region to region from the city centre out to the edges. “To get to us in Tallaght it moves through Crumlin, Drimnagh, Dolphin’s Barn. It starts in town like the 77 bus.”
Later, she says, “[There’s] so much trauma associated with drugs around here. That’s the difference between this community and other communities. We don’t have the safety net… We take more risks because we’ve less to lose.”
She has thought a lot about why she never tried heroin. Many of her friends smoked it. She once had a bag in her possession but instead of using it she sat up researching it on the internet. She thinks that she was too concerned with control. She didn’t like the “complete obliteration” that came with downers. She met Alan and eventually became pregnant with Jordanne at the age of 15. Just at the right time, she says. “It stopped me right in that moment where I could have begun to use heroin.”
She started attending An Cosán, an educational centre for women started by Katherine Zappone and Ann Louise Gilligan, and she began to reengage with education and to develop her political instincts. She recalls talks there from two politicians in particular. Sean Crowe from Sinn Féin seemed to understand the lives they lived. The other man, who she doesn’t name, suggested that the parents of single mothers like Ruane should build extensions for their children. She laughs. “He thought that was a realistic suggestion.”
She started working in addiction services and became incredibly committed. While working in Bluebell Community Centre she met a new colleague John Bissett who she thought, at first, due to his clothes and accent, was “a service user.” He was in fact an extremely intelligent man with a PhD. “I was blown away by that… You can be from the flats and have that on your name... It became an ambition.”
We arrive at a restaurant near the Square in Tallaght called Peachtree East. It’s run by friends of hers and is named after another friend who died, Christopher, who had a habit of calling people “peach.”
She seems to know everyone who works here. Some, like Val, who later brings us coffee, are very close friends. We sit down and order food (sea bass for her and haddock for me), and Ruane’s eyes brighten as she talks about the work she did with homeless addicts. She recalls men with dirt so engrained in their skin “they were like birthmarks.” She recalls lonely people “who just wanted a hug.” She recalls reconnecting a homeless man with his elderly father before he died. “I’ve been told stuff I could never repeat about what people have been through… I miss helping people, making those connections.”
Inspired by Bissett, Ruane eventually went to Trinity via their access programme (TAP) ultimately to study philosophy, political science, economics and sociology. Going to Trinity wasn’t as big a culture shock as you might expect, she says, though she did realise that the people there generally had very different life experiences than her. When she told stories about her life “they looked shocked” and she began to realise “it’s not really supposed to be like this.”
Mad stuff went through my head rather than ‘I was raped’... everything else sounds better than ‘I was raped’
When she got involved in student politics in Trinity she was heartened that students got behind her despite her being concerned with issues that didn’t affected them directly. “[I was] working in the area of gender and class and prison and drugs and they went ‘actually yeah’.”
In 2015 she realised, when helping to devise consent classes in Trinity, that she herself had been raped. She spoke about it publicly. It had been after a party in her own home five years before. Someone she didn’t know got into her bed and raped her. She had never recognised this as rape before. She’d buried it. It still amazes her. “Mad stuff went through my head rather than ‘I was raped,’” she says. And then, at one point, she started to feel sorry for her rapist rather than face the pain of it. “Everything else sounds better than ‘I was raped.’.”
Does she think she processed this at the time? “Not to the extent I should have,” she says. “I went to the Rape Crisis Centre and it was the first time I ever cried about it. It was the first time I told somebody in that setting where I didn’t try and minimise it. When I told my mam and told my kids and told [my partner] Ronan I was constantly thinking of their reaction and feelings about it… But when I was in that space with the counsellor I started roaring crying.”
Afterwards she rang her friend, the Social Democrat politician Gary Gannon, and asked him to go for a drink. They had two gin and tonics each and she went home. “I think I only told him the next day where I’d come from.”
Recently, she says, writing about it again is prompting all sorts of emotions. And as she wrote the book she found she wasn’t able for TV or radio interviews. “I felt unpredictable,” she tells me a little later. “I felt out of control… When the whole stuff was happening around consent and rape and the metoo movement it reached a point where I had to say, ‘Please stop calling me, I can’t come on and talk about this.’ I never told them why. But I was just so afraid that I was in such a vulnerable position it would come out there and then on the television.”
After we’ve eaten, Ruane’s senate colleague Alice Mary Higgins joins us in the restaurant. They work together in the Seanad in a loose, left leaning block. Though she sometimes feels it’s “copping out”, Ruane doesn’t feel like official party membership would suit her. Today they’re meeting to coordinate their approaches to various upcoming bills and debates before the Seanad reconvenes. It’s a flurry of bills and committees and amendments with Higgins scribbling notes. “I can’t remember how to be a Senator,” says Ruane at one point and they both laugh.
Afterwards, Higgins says she has one issue with Lynn’s book. “She undersells herself on the legislative work,” she says. “Legislation is being able to ask questions like – Why? How? and why not?... Why is this here? Who are these decisions benefiting or negatively affecting? How could we change that?” Ruane, she says, is excellent at asking these questions.
Ruane puts part of this down to a lack of confidence because she didn’t perform as well in college as she might have liked. Higgins points out that she was juggling her final year of college with childcare and being a Senator and “She still did fine.”
“It was just average,” says Ruane.
Higgins laughs and notes that because Ruane is a perfectionist, “That’s gutting for her.”
Class is killing us
Leinster House was much more of a culture shock than Trinity, Ruane says, but she got good advice from friends. One, Chekov Feeney, suggested a dress code that did not hide her tattoos. Gary Gannon said, “Be Lynn Ruane. Why are you trying to be anything else?”
She has found herself really liking some politicians that she would disagree with on many political issues – Simon Coveney and Michael McDowell, to name just two – but she also feels many Irish politicians simply don’t understand the cruelty of the class system.
She recalls Leo Varadkar’s reaction after she gave a speech about class that she had worked on for weeks. “I’m talking about all my friends who are dead and how class is killing us and the moral significance of class,” she says. “I’m giving a sociological context, a philosophical context… and I’m hoping one of them will land.”
He responded, she says, by talking about the communist countries. He never commented on the number of her friends who had died. “I really think Leo thinks he could have born in one of the halting sites here with a massive family, with no money, no education and he would have worked his way through the system to be the Taoiseach of this country.”
You go running at that glass, trying to get out, trying to dig your way under, and you’re tired and you’re beaten and you can’t get out
She has an analogy she uses when talking to kids about class. “You know the Simpsons movie when they have this big globe comes down over Springfield and they can’t get out and they’re all in there and they’re all lovely and have all these ambitions and aspirations but there’s this big thing around them,” she says. “I visualise Tallaght being like that [for many people]. You go running at that glass trying to get out, trying to dig your way under and you’re tired and you’re beaten and you can’t get out of this state-imposed snow globe.”
Why did she want to write this book? One reason, she says, is she doesn’t want people to think that it’s been easy. That all someone has to do is this course or give up that drug and that then everything will be fine. She recalls getting a call telling her another of her friends had died moments before giving a speech to mature students at TAP. “I get up and give a twenty-minute speech about how wonderful education is but without adding, ‘but if you’re from a community like mine your friends still might die.’”
She talks about having a sort of survivor’s guilt. “Sometimes I feel, ‘Why me? Why am I doing okay? Why am I not dead? Why am I not on drugs?’” She is aware that many other politicians do not feel the need to ask these questions.
Writing the book was also about taking control of the narrative. “I was afraid of people taking my life, my past, how certain things happen in a community and misrepresenting them through me,” she says. “We don’t often get the chances to tell our stories and to shape our own narratives.”
The people whose opinions she cares most about are her family and her community. Her daughters, eleven-year-old Jaelynne and eighteen-year-old Jordanne, had copy approval over the parts of the book that concerned them. She was impressed by both their perspectives. Jordanne, a talented actor, gave permission for a section about her own struggles with mental health and, ultimately, a diagnosis of Asperger’s. “I cried a lot during that process. I kept going back to her ‘Are you sure you want this?’ And she kept saying ‘I’m fine.’ I said, ‘Is it accurate?’ and she said ‘It’s accurate for you’… She really thinks that if someone else can learn or relate then she’s okay with that.”
‘Tallaght is who I am’
She wants to represent her community well. She speaks of a box of letters she has from friends in prison. She tells me about people she knows with literacy problems who want to be able to get an audio version of her book. She talks about Jordanne’s father Alan, who has addiction issues and is also serving time. And she also stresses that there are plenty of people in Tallaght who have no such issues and are just working and living their lives. “Tallaght is who I am and the local people around me are my neighbours and my friends. I realised when I wrote the book that it’s their approval I wanted most.”
Did she foresee the twists and turns her life would take? She says that she did, up to a point. “When Jenny died, I was faced with mortality all of a sudden. I realised very quickly that me living to old age wasn’t necessarily a certainty and at that stage I thought, ‘Just do whatever you want. And if you manage to come out the other side of that and reach about sixteen, have a baby… because then you’ll get to experience motherhood just in case you die young… If you become a mother and still manage to live’ – I didn’t know what was going to happen to this child, if I died young – ‘then you might go to college and have a career.’”
Did she really plan all that at thirteen? “I wrote it down. It’s on fancy paper in my attic: Experience everything. Become a mother. Go back and get an education. And then move into the career you want… I didn’t see politics at the end of that, but by the time I was 21 or 22 I remember going ‘What the f**k do I do now? I’m still alive. I’ve only planned up to here.’” She laughs. “I thought I was ready to retire.”
People Like Me by Lynn Ruane is published by Gill Books