President Robinson's New Broom
A chara, - I picked up the new authorised biography of Mary Robinson and turned to Chapter 13 - "New Broom". I read in disbelief: "The Aras was a neglected place - people literally crept along the corridors whispering". What odd behaviour! I am tempted to ask what was so intimidating in the new regime that made mature adults act in this way. I certainly never saw such peculiar behaviour in my 15 years in the Aras.
I read on. "Many of the existing staff were elderly, a number of them lived in and there was a convent-like atmosphere in the house." Could it be that Reverend Mother had finally arrived?
And then I came to the part that really incensed me. I quote again: "I wanted to have a happy Aras, inviting, welcoming and reassuring to people. Those who came from the inner city or the country could get a cup of tea - have fun. There was no way that could have been done in the old regime". Whew! Did Mary Robinson really believe that there was no hospitality offered to guests at the Aras before her time? What on earth gave her the idea that nobody had fun there? The truth is that despite budgetary constraints, there was always enough in the Presidential kitty to ensure that the tradition of Irish hospitality did not have to be abandoned by the Irish Head of State.
Dr Hillery, who had a gift for putting people at their ease, always had a cup of tea with his guests. There was often great hilarity and often the impromptu song and dance.
I loved working in the Aras. I never found it drab or cold - indeed, I found the work more interesting and varied here than in my former civil service posts. There was always a good atmosphere among the different strands - civil service, household staff, gardai, aides-de-camp and garden staff. The Presidents under whom I worked expected high standards which we, the staff, strove to meet and we were always well treated by them in return. There was no way that they would have tolerated a shoddy house or an inadequate staff.
It was Dr Hillery who insisted that the household staff be put on a proper footing in regard to wages and conditions of service. It was he who had them put on the OPW payroll to ensure that they got the best deal possible. When the axe fell, the OPW did look after them and got them alternative jobs which helped to ease the trauma.
We were all uplifted by Mary Robinson's words in her inaugural speech: "I am of Ireland - come dance with me in Ireland". Sadly, many of mna an Aras were not included in that invitation. - Is mise, Peig Ni Mhaille,
Former Personal Secretary to President Cearbhall O Dalaigh and to President Patrick Hillery,