As a special needs assistant at Bunscoil Chríost Rí in Turner’s Cross on the south side of Cork city, Mairéad Martin-Richmond is often asked how she manages financially.
Martin-Richmond, a 59-year-old separated mother of two grown-up children, is a sister of Taoiseach Micheál Martin and says her family’s working-class roots keep her grounded.
She takes after her late father, Paddy, who worked as a bus driver for CIÉ and was a dogged saver who worked as much overtime as he could get. Paddy, known as “the champ” because of his boxing prowess, managed to fulfil his dream of owning a holiday house in Galley Head, west Cork. (He bought it during the recession-hit 1980s for about £21,000). The five Martin siblings each have a share in it now.
While owning a holiday house in West Cork is very much a status symbol for Cork’s upper middle classes (the Taoiseach has a holiday home in Courtmacsherry on the coast), Paddy Martin was far from middle class. He would have agreed with his son’s defence of his working-class credentials when he rounded this week on Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, who accused the Taoiseach of being out of touch regarding the struggles of working people. The Taoiseach said that McDonald “sets out a narrative that I am divorced from reality. What I had to put up with coming from my background and where I grew up was far different from what she had to put up with.”
As Cllr Seán Martin, the eldest of the Martin siblings, said to The Irish Times, he has heard the so-called “well-heeled” description of his brother before.
“He certainly wasn’t well got. It’s nonsense. I think Micheál epitomises what people have achieved in this country. We had a terraced house in O’Connell Avenue with three bedrooms.” The local authority-built house was purchased on a rent-to-buy basis. “We had a happy childhood. We had a solid working-class background. My father was heavily into education.”
Proving this, Mairéad, who bought out the family house in 2013, shows off the encyclopaedias her father and mother invested in for the household as well as books published by the Oxford Press including Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. (Mairéad’s sister Eileen O’Mahony is a secondary school teacher in Carrigtwohill.)
While McDonald’s beef with the Taoiseach was over “Generation Rent”, Mairéad admits that housing in her area “is definitely an issue and it has been for years. Micheál wouldn’t deny that. I would have people coming to my house asking if there’s any possibility that something could be done for them.”
When Mairéad got her first job at the age of 17, she joined the credit union and took out a small insurance policy.
“People were laughing at me,” she said.
She clearly was an old head on young shoulders. But she had the example of her father to guide her. And it has served her well. She grew up with the daughters and sons of men who worked in Ford and Dunlop as well as CIÉ and the post office. She also knew people in the vicinity who lived in overcrowded tenements.
Mairéad, who like so many of her generation had to emigrate in the 1980s (to Holland in her case), says her father “never let us forget about his own background”.
“He was from a deprived area on the north side of Cork and had a tough upbringing. But they got on with it,” she said.
The Martin house on O’Connell Avenue didn’t have a bathroom until Mairéad was 14. Up until then, the family had to make do with a toilet at the bottom of the stairs. “There was a big tin bath in the kitchen where we washed on Saturday night. You’d dry your hair in front of the old fireplace.”
The sittingroom in Mairéad’s house has a big, soft red leather suite of furniture and the Christmas tree, shorn of its decorations, is still up, waiting to be taken away.
Over breakfast in the Beer Garden, a popular pub on Evergreen Street (which oddly enough still has Christmas decorations up in late January), Robert Boyle (79) says he has no time for the Taoiseach and agrees with McDonald that he is “out of touch”.
He wonders why with Government heavy hitters in his constituency, such as Micheál Martin, Simon Coveney and Michael McGrath, more isn’t being done for local people. Boyle complains that his son-in-law’s weekly diesel bill has gone up by €20. He drives to work from Cork to Killarney where he works as a fabricator.
Boyle says that the Martin family “have done well”.
“People had it a lot tougher [than the Taoiseach’s family]. I originated from the middle parish (close to Cork city centre) and saw tough times there. I saw houses with four, five and six families living in them. When we moved to Togher [close to Ballyphehane which adjoins Turner’s Cross] it was like going to a hotel compared to what we were used to,” he said.
“Turner’s Cross at that time [the 1940s] was an uppish place.”
Green Party councillor Dan Boyle was two years below Micheál Martin at Coláiste Chríost Rí.
“We were altar boys together at Christ the King church,” he said.
They also played football together in Nemo Rangers. Cllr Boyle says that, growing up in Ireland in the 1970s, the culture “was not aspirational”.
“I’d describe Turner’s Cross as a kind of classless society. It’s an area where people have always felt comfortable. It never developed the kind of social problems you’d see in other communities. But there was never any great public investment in it other than the building of houses,” he said.
As far as unemployed Laurence Marshall (55) from O’Connell Crescent is concerned, Micheál Martin is “more of a politician than Mary Lou”.
“She says what’s on her mind. He says what you want him to say,” he said.
Marshall has been living in Turner’s Cross for 22 years, having originally lived in Ballyphehane.
“I don’t know what life was like for Micheál growing up here. But it’s not Montenotte,” he adds.