Meet the Varadkars: ‘Handsome, beautiful 38-year-old doctor becomes PM of Ireland’
Miriam Lord pays a house call to Miriam and Ashok, the parents of our next taoiseach
Leo Varadkar’s parents, Miriam and Ashok, at home in Blanchardstown. Photograph: Alan Betson
If you didn’t know the full story, you might be inclined to think that Miriam and Ashok Varadkar have already lost the run of themselves, and their youngest child not even taoiseach yet.
Miriam answers the front door dressed to the nines in an elegant cobalt blue cocktail dress. Her husband rushes down the hall to greet us, impeccably turned out in a grey pin-stripe suit with a blue-and-white-spotted silk square billowing from the top pocket.
As you do, at home in Dublin on a normal Friday afternoon.
Miriam explains they have just returned from doing a short piece with RTÉ in a local hotel. They felt they had to do it, for Leo. The minute she gets into the front room she kicks off the high heels.
“Thank God for that. I couldn’t wait to get out of these.”
It’s a week, almost to the hour, from those heady scenes in the Mansion House when Leo Varadkar’s parents entered the Round Room during the leadership election count and were instantly surrounded by reporters and photographers. What was that like for them?
Miriam looks at her husband. “Last Friday. Where were we?”
The last few weeks have been so hectic, it’s something of a blur for them.
I knew he would reach the top in whatever he chose, but a taoiseach? No
They are still coming to terms with the fact that their baby is about to take charge of the county. “I knew he’d be a leader,” says Miriam. “I knew he’d be something. I knew he would reach the top in whatever he chose, but a taoiseach? No.”
The Varadkars met in the 1960s, when Ashok was a junior doctor in an English hospital and Miriam, a farmer’s daughter from Dungarvan, Co Waterford, was a student nurse. She was 18 when they set eyes on each other, and they married when she was 21. After a short stint in India, they returned to Ireland with Sophia, their first born. Sonia followed, and then Leo.
Ashof doesn’t call himself an immigrant. He says he sought work in England after he graduated in India because, just like it is now, young people like to travel and get experience after they qualify. But romance intervened and he stayed on this side of the world.
He was adorable, a gorgeous baby and then he went into Fine Gael. And that’s it
Leo, it seems, was the perfect son. Never put a foot wrong.
“He just didn’t,” says his mother. “He was too good to be true, actually.”
Ashok, who was at the birth, says he was quiet even when he was born.
“We had two girls already, so there was terrific excitement when he came along,” says Miriam. “Can you imagine?”
“Everyone adored him. He was adorable, a gorgeous baby and then he went into Fine Gael. And that’s it.”
Was that a surprise?
“He never said it. We just found out.”
His father hoped his son would follow him into medicine – and he did, for a little while. “And then he became a member of Fine Gael.” Ashok shrugged. “Maybe he was revolting.”
Congratulations cards are lined up on the mantelpiece, three deep. “Oh, they’re ours. I’ve a big pile in the other room for Leo. They’re sealed.”
He’ll see them when he comes for Sunday lunch tomorrow, as he always does.
A political family
From the age of 10 their son began to develop a huge interest in politics. This pleased Ashok, who comes from a very political family in India. His two eldest brothers were both involved in the freedom movement against the British; one of them was arrested and served a year in jail as a political prisoner.
There were rows “all the time, all the time” about politics between father and son.
“I’m a socialist,” says Ashok.
“A Champagne socialist,” laughs Miriam.
But the father is able to list his son’s achievements while in young Fine Gael and recalls with pride that he was selected to join an intern programme in Washington for young leaders. “I think it was with the Republicans,” he sniffs, rolling his eyes.
There were ructions when he was 15 and he said he wouldn’t do the transition year
There was one time, though, when perfect son Leo tried the patience of his parents.
Miriam explains: “There were ructions when he was 15 and he said wouldn’t do the transition year. There was war in the house and that was the only time ever I thought, This is just not Leo.”
He was in such a hurry to get into college that he argued strongly against doing the extra year. “He gave me the dates and he had all the figures prepared to prove to us why he should get into university quicker.”
Such was his resolve, Miriam went as far as enrolling him in another school while they tried to convince him of the benefit of staying with the friends he would make for life and the benefits of learning about life and the world during transition year.
At the last minute, Leo changed his mind.
Having come to terms with a son in Fine Gael, it was no big deal to the family when Leo told them he is gay. His sexuality has been a major feature of the media coverage since he became leader of the party.
“I don’t like it. I don’t like it,” says Miriam. “Why can’t they just write on the newspaper, ‘Handsome, beautiful 38-year-old doctor becomes the prime minister of Ireland? Why can’t they write that? I don’t like it.”
When are the media going to look at his achievements other than being gay?
Ashok muses that the media is trying to help people understand, rather than criticise. And it’s not an issue with the Irish media.
“Well you can look at it that way as well, but when is it going to stop?” continues his wife. “When is it going to die down? When are they going to look at his achievements other than being gay?” It’s not a big thing to his family. “We just want him to be happy. I’m just wondering when will all that stop.”
Although they both agree that it “might do good for other gay people, like in India . . . In India, there’s a kind of anti-gay thing as well. They’re not as tolerant as we are.”
Until now, their son has had a relatively benign reception in the national press. From Wednesday that will change.
It worries his parents. They know the coverage will be different, and not always for the better.
“I feel sorry for him, that he has to face all that.”
“It will be terrible, but I’ll have to cope with it,” says his mother. “I’ll probably get angry and break the television, but sure, what do you do? Nothing. Put your lipstick on and walk out the door – that’s it.”
I’ve made him taoiseach
They hope he can still go to his concerts, to Electric Picnic. They hope the experience doesn’t change their “baby”.
“He’s a big man. We’re only his parents. I’ve done my bit. I’ve made him taoiseach!” says Miriam.
We’ll be fine; we can start booking restaurants under another name
They don’t think it’ll change their lives.
Ashok was the local GP until he retired seven years ago. Miriam was the practice nurse.
“In this area people know us and they treat us as they have always treated us. If we go in to town, people won’t know who we are. We’ll be fine; we can start booking restaurants under another name.”
The Mansion House experience last week came as a bit of a shock.
“It was awful walking in. The photographers were all in our face and I just wanted them to go away. You don’t know what to do, whether to talk to them, whether you’re doing the right thing or wrong thing. We’re all new to this. It’s difficult. When you’re not political, as well, it’s difficult,” says Miriam.
But for their son to become taoiseach, that’s special. “I know it’s a huge honour but it won’t change our life. It just won’t.”
Leo’s 90-year-old grandmother, Monica, is delighted by his success. She recently moved into a nursing home but visits her daughter Cora, who lives on a dairy farm across the road, every day.
Have they any advice for their son, who will become taoiseach on Wednesday?
“He never asked for it and we never give it. He’s a big boy,” smiles Miriam.
There’s just one thing. “I want him to look after the most vulnerable . . . to work for those who need help. He shouldn’t forget about those people,” says Ashok, pointing out that his son’s views have “matured” over the years. “I can see that he’s changed so much that he’s thinking about people, those who don’t have that much.
“If I have had any political influence on him over the years, that’s the only one thing.”
Will he heed his father’s advice?
“I think he will.”