Miriam Lord: No sour grapes as catering staff recall Haughey

Former taoiseach ‘liked his grapes polished’, Oireachtas chef tells Ryan Tubridy

Charles Haughey in 1987. “He was really into his food; almost fanatical about it,” said Oireachtas chef Julie Lyons. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

Charles Haughey in 1987. “He was really into his food; almost fanatical about it,” said Oireachtas chef Julie Lyons. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

 

The most arresting statement to come out of Leinster House this week wasn’t uttered in the Dáil or in the Seanad. Instead, it came from Julie Lyons, a chef in the Oireachtas catering operation, who was talking to Ryan Tubridy about Charlie Haughey during a live broadcast from the corridors of power.

“He liked his grapes polished,” she declared, stopping startled listeners in their tracks. It seems CJH required his grapes to be pristine before they were served on a plate with cheese.

“So we used to have to polish them and make them shiny.”

Dubliner Julie has been feeding politicians (and everyone else who toils in Leinster House) for 27 years and is now cooking for her seventh Taoiseach. She began working in Government Buildings – freshly unveiled and refurbished by Haughey in 1990 – when he was expanding its capacity for entertaining and fine dining. She is now line manager in the main Leinster House kitchen. “Things were very ostentatious back then,” she tells us. “We would have polished the grapes anyway, but Charlie was very particular and he would actually come in to check that they were shiny. He was really into his food; almost fanatical about it.”

He used to entertain visiting dignitaries to lavish dinners in the Italian Room, while he chose to dine in Government Buildings rather than use the facilities in Leinster House.

“He had a huge kitchen there, it was like an Aladdin’s cave for a chef.”

Sometimes Charlie, who was big into his seafood platters, asked Julie to cater for events in his Abbeville mansion in North Dublin.

“He used to give us £50 as a tip, which was a lot in those days, and he’d always come in to personally to hand it to us.”

The only sweet desert he liked was Gateau Diane – a luscious layered meringue cake with lashings of chocolate cream and rum.

“It was the recipe from Le Coq Hardi, his favourite restaurant in Dublin. He would often ask me to make one and then send the driver around to my house to collect it.”

Julie also prepared meals for the then taoiseach when he travelled to Inishvickillane, his private island off the Kerry coast. But she wasn’t allowed on to the island. Instead, a male chef was flown over by helicopter to do the cooking.

The days of fine dining continued after Haughey, with Albert Reynolds and John Bruton preferring to dine in the more rarefied surrounds of the refurbished Government Buildings. Bertie Ahern couldn’t be doing with all that sort of thing. He put a stop to it.

Julie’s real mission on Thursday morning was to make sure Ryan Tubridy got his “blind date with a book” book. A charity drive is under way in the Leinster House canteen at the moment to raise money for St Michael’s House in Ballymun. Books are signed by people who put romantic (or funny) messages in them before wrapping them in plain paper. The purchaser then opens it up for bedtime reading.

Ryan’s buke was signed by female politicians and staffers. “We are the same age, only I am small and fat,” was one the messages. A lot of phone numbers were written down, along with messages, many of which aren’t fit to print. It was great to see Tubridy recognising the catering staff and ushers during the broadcast. Leinster House would grind to a halt if it wasn’t for them, getting on with running the place while the politicians throw the shapes.

Oireachtas golf society tees off all-male AGM

The Oireachtas golf society held its AGM this week. It was an all-male affair and the members met in the members’ dining room. Fianna Fáil’s Robert Troy was elected captain, taking over from Killarney-based Fine Gael senator Paul Coghlan. Robert will host his captain’s prize competition at the end of next month in Mullingar golf club. The new vice-captain is Independent TD for Clare Michael Harty, so the politicians can look forward to a nice day out at Lahinch next year. Unless he takes them to play the Trump course in Doonbeg.

Independent TD for Galway West Noel Grealish is secretary and assistant secretary is John Flaherty, the captain of the guard in Leinster House. Former TD for Labour and Kildare Jack Wall is public relations officer. He does nothing, which is why he is showered with compliments and returned to the position every year. Glowing tributes were paid to the president of the society, former Fianna Fáil senator Donie Cassidy, who is two years into his three-year term.

Hotelier and country music impresario Donie was recently honoured with the Irish Hotels Federation president’s award at a black-tie dinner in Cavan’s Slieve Russell hotel. He was presented with his gong by the IHG president Joe Dolan (a great name, given Donie’s showbiz connections) who runs the excellent Bush Hotel in Carrick-on-Shannon, Leitrim.

The society bestowed honorary membership on two stalwarts at its AGM: former Fianna Fáil minister for finance and EU commissioner Charlie McCreevy and former Fine Gael minister for the environment and current EU commissioner Phil Hogan. This new status entitles them to nothing, which will be a novelty for them.

No doubt Charlie and Phil are delighted for their friend, Kildare-based developer and auctioneer Arthur French, who took over as chairman of Knock Airport yesterday. French is originally from Claremorris. Also attending one of his first board meetings was Seán Mulryan of the Ballymore property group, who is from just across the country border in Castlereagh, Co Roscommon.

Clinton supporter Brian O’Dwyer, who is international chairman, came over from New York for the meeting but will be back in plenty of time for the big St Patrick’s Day parade next Saturday. Grand marshall of this year’s parade in the Big Apple is Loretta Brennan Glucksman, co-founder of Glucksman Ireland House at New York University and chair emeritus of the American Ireland Fund. And also marching (at least some of the way) will be the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar.

Norris joins forces with Labour in Seanad

As a result of reshuffling in the Seanad, David Norris has been technified. The Independent university senator, thanks to some gentle persuasion from former Trinity colleague Ivana Bacik, joined a five-strong technical group with Labour this week. When Senator Denis Landy resigned in November due to health issues, it left just four Labour senators. A minimum of five is needed to form a group and get speaking rights.

Fortunately, Trevor Ó Clochartaigh left Sinn Féin around the same time and he joined the Labour quartet to make a new technical group. Then Trevor got a big new job with TG4 in Connemara last month and quit the Seanad, leaving the Labour senators without speaking rights again.

Happily for them, David Norris stepped into the breach. Norris was very angry on Thursday when an amendment he had tabled on the Technological Universities Bill was defeated after Fianna Fáil voted against it. He was outraged because, he said, the Fianna Fáil senators had agreed to support his amendment but did a U-turn at the last minute on the instruction of “a member of the other House”. In other words, a TD.

As he loudly protested, leas chathaoirleach Paul Coghlan repeatedly asked if he was “insistent on being disobedient”. Norris at first pretended he couldn’t hear before answering: “Yes, absolutely.”

Coghlan suspended the session for 10 minutes, much to the delight of a party of schoolchildren from Limerick who witnessed the row from the public gallery. Upon resumption, Norris continued to give out. He said he would be writing to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges on the subject of Seanad independence.

“Those in Fianna Fáil apparently did not know what their party’s policy was, [they] agreed with us and then telephoned a member of the other House to be given instructions. That interrupts the autonomy of Seanad Éireann and I protest against it.”

Having belatedly received their riding instructions from on high, the Fianna Fáil senators didn’t tell Norris they were welching on the deal. Rather than suffer his wrath, most of them chickened out and didn’t turn up to vote.

“I am leaving this House in protest,” fulminated Norris. “The senator may leave,” shrugged Coghlan. So he did, with two of his new technical group colleagues, Kevin Humphreys and Ivana Bacik, flouncing out after him in a touching show of solidarity.

Politicians urged to spin around Kerry

Brendan Griffin, Minister of State at the Department of Tourism and Sport, sent an email around this week looking for politicians to join him in this year’s Ring of Kerry charity cycle.

“It would be great to get a group of colleagues to take part and I assure you of a memorable weekend in the Kingdom if you choose to participate!” he wrote. Enda Kenny used to be a regular at the event, which is Ireland’s largest one-day charity fundraiser, but now that he’s no longer taoiseach we’re not sure if he’ll be making the trip this July.

Griffin is hoping as many TDs as possible will sign up for the 175km “fun” cycle and help raise money for local and national charities including Pieta House, the Irish Kidney Association and Enable Ireland.

Brendan has good sense of humour to go along with his charitable side. The Castlemaine man signs off his appeal with a cheeky swipe at Leo’s beleaguered strategic communications unit: “Please let me know if you would like to be part of our group, which has a working title of ‘the Spin Unit’.” And then he adds: “This may be reviewed. . .”