Mary O'Rourke at the William Carleton summer school Photo: © Michael Fisher

Mary O’Rourke at the William Carleton summer school Photo: © Michael Fisher

Mary O’Rourke’s speech in August at the William Carleton summer school in Clogher, County Tyrone, made headlines when she proposed a coalition between her party Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. She also gave an interview to Lise Hand of the Irish Independent. This is her speech which can now be viewed on youtube in three short sections of about six minutes each. Her main proposal can be found in Part 3, “To think the unthinkable”.

(I was very pleased to accept Michael Fisher’s invitation to come here today to Clogher and to talk on the theme “How Differences Can Be Accommodated”.  I appreciate that the theme and the speakers to it will be mostly reviewing the Northern Ireland situation.  I have chosen to talk about my own mixed political background to the theme of the Summer School.)

Mary O'Rourke at the William Carleton summer school, Clogher Photo: © Michael Fisher

Mary O’Rourke at the William Carleton summer school Photo: © Michael Fisher

PART 1 Family History: to watch the video click here

“I talk in my book “Just Mary” of my parents’ mixed political backgrounds. Not many people know that: until I put it in my book. My father was from Kilfenora County Clare where his father was of the very…a great follower of the old Irish Party and in time a follower of Michael Collins. My father, the young boy, imbued that from him. And indeed my cousin is here today Dr Dudley Edwards through my father’s mother late lamented and early lamented. But he was imbued with that kind of politics. He went off the UCG (University College Galway), where he met my mother and she was Ann Stanton from Drumcliff, County Sligo. Now she mixed and she was from a strongly republican background. Indeed my grandmother, her mother, was left with a clutch of six children when her husband was brought over to her mortally wounded, on the door of a pub at a local skirmish in Sligo and he died three or four days later and she was left…I think it was the era of no great big social welfare or anything like that…she was left with a clutch of children to bring up and to educate and they had twelve acres of land (of not great land) at the foot of Benbulbin. Now she was very lucky. She had a cousin who was very central in the nuns’ community in the Ursulines in Sligo and she took each one of the girls one by one and educated them, brought them into school, clothed them, fed them, made them boarders and they got (a) powerful education, so much so that three of them got scholarships directly to university out of the Ursulines in Sligo. So I went back there some time ago to look at the records and I was amazed. They have a wonderful woman there an elderly nun who’s looking after all of that. But she had it beautifully collated and ready for me and I thought to myself I don’t learn from a background like that what my mother was: it was a great feat to get to college and to do her BA and all of that. But along the way anyway she met my father Patrick Joseph Lenihan from Kilfenora County Clare. And when they met their different…their varied political background went out the window because love came in. And once it did, that was that. They fell for one another very heavily and they decided that they would get married. And going back to my grandmother she was so republican, instead of minding her business when she was herand knowing that she should be going careful she made her a safe house I heard one of the other speakers talk about the term “a safe house” she made the same house of her little farmhouse and everyone who was on the run or who was in trouble or whatever was welcome there. I’ve often thought of her spirit: instead of saying to herself ‘how am I going to manage now? I’ve no money and I’ve to manage and do she went out and she and in fact one of her sons Roger  Roger Gandon who was the boy soldier on the mountain in the skirmish when there were six of them taken Michael McDowell”s uncle, Eoin MacNeill’s son, Brian (MacNeill). He was the one who alerted that they were coming for them. The bodies were brought down and my mother   and the bodies were laid out…the six bodies…as they are called now Noblel Six. So that was the background of my mother and as I say the background of my father. My father fought in the Free State Army     He fought in Athenry when he was a student then after that he fought in many other skirmishes of that war. We were always conscious growing up my two brothers and my sister we were always conscious of our mixed political background. But when my father first went…Sean Lemass was the Minister in the Fianna Fáil government…had met my father in the old civil service and ike thought well he’s a good guy and he sent him to Athlone to set up an enterprise called General Textiles Limited. It was an embryonic cotton factory. There were about five or six of them set up around Ireland at the time to give employment state investment  but it was a time for that and he sent him to Athlone. And he came home and said to my mother one day “Pack your traps Annie we’re going to Athlone!”   Now she was glad she was halfway to Sligo and he was halfway to Clare I suppose. They came to Athlone with three children and I was…my mother was pregnant with me, so I’m the only Athlone person out of that clutch of people. But when the local elections came in 1943 in Athlone town my father went as a Ratepayers’ Association candidate. It was another title for Fine Gael so he was (true to his) roots and he went on that occasion as a Ratepayers’ Association and he had poll. Now later on Sean Lemass got at him: ‘Hey, I didn’t send you to Athlone  to be running Fine Gael’ but he went for Fianna Fáil and in time he became Mr Fianna Fáil Athlone. In 1965 he went for the Dáil and got in and for five short years. He died in 1970.”

Frank Brennan introduced Mary O'Rourke Photo: © Michael Fisher

Frank Brennan introduced Mary O’Rourke Photo: © Michael Fisher

PART 2 Brian Lenihan’s speech at Beal na mBláth 2010: to watch the video click here

“So you say why am I telling you all this? Fast forward to Sunday, the 22nd August 2010 in County Cork when Brian Lenihan, the then Minister for Finance, spoke at the Annual Commemoration of the life and legacy of Michael Collins. Brian Lenihan was greatly honoured to havend  August 2010 in  Béal  na mBláth received this “quite unexpected offer from the Collins Family and the Commemoration Committee” and he expressed so publicly on that occasion. I have spoken to Dermot Collins since then, who initiated the invitation to Brian and he was quite emphatic that he and the Committee were unanimous in wanting Brian Lenihan to have this privilege.

I went to Béal na mBláth on that occasion with two friends from Athlone and will always be glad that I did so as I have the eternal memory of Brian standing clear and tall and confident but humble as he spoke at that hallowed spot.  I quote directly now from his Speech:

“The differences between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael today are no longer defined by the Civil War nor have they been for many years.  It would be absurd if they were. This period of our history is  graadually moving out of living memory. We ask and expect those in Northern Ireland to live and work together despite the carnage and grief of a much more recent and much more protracted conflict. Nevertheless, keen competition between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael remains as I am very aware every time I stand up in the Dáil but the power of symbolism cannot be denied, all the more so as we move towards the centenaries of the Easter Rising and all that follows. If today’s commemoration can be seen as a further public act of historical reconciliation, at one of Irish history’s sacred places, then I will be proud to have played my part”.

Brian went on to say in his talk that he had taken:

a particular interest in Michael Collins’ work as Minister for Finance between 1919 and 1922.   In a meeting room in the Department of Finance, where I have spent many hours over the last two years, hang pictures of all previous Ministers.  They are in sequence.   Eoin Mac Néill’s portrait is the first because he was actually the first to own that office in the first Dáil though he served for less than ten weeks.  The picture of Collins is placed second and regularly catches my eye.   He is the youngest and I dare say, the best-looking, of us all”.

Brian went on to say “there is no substantive connection between the economic and financial position we come from today and the totally different challenges faced by Collins and his contemporaries. But as I look at those pictures of my predecessors on the wall in my meeting room, I recognise that many of them, from Collins through to Ray MacSharry, had in their time to deal with immense if different difficulties.  I am comforted by what their stories tell me about the essential resilience of our country, of our political and administrative system and above all of the Irish people.

That is why I am convinced that we have the ability to work through and to overcome our present difficulties, great though the scale of the challenges may be, and devastating though the effects of the crisis have been on the lives of so many of our citizens.” Brian’s closing lines on that memorable day in Béal na mBláth were ‘the spirit of Collins is the spirit of our Nation and it must continue to inspire all of us in public life, irrespective of Party or tradition’.”

Frank Brennan with Mary O'Rourke & Mary Kenny Photo: © Michael Fisher

Frank Brennan with Mary O’Rourke & Mary Kenny Photo: © Michael Fisher

PART 3 Time to Think the Unthinkable: to watch the video click here

“Well here we are now in 2013 and here I am too, somebody who was in successive general elections elected on behalf of the Fianna Fáil Party and proudly representing my constituency of Longford/Westmeath. And yet and yet and yet surely it is not too fanciful for me to put forward today as the theme, my theme, for this Summer School that it is time that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael would bridge the political divide between them and give serious thought to coming together in a political coalition come the next General Election. I know quite well that there are plenty who will dismiss my reflections here today as ‘Summer School Speak’ or even the wild rantings of somebody who has left the political system. No, no, no, there are no wild rantings. It is very easy to dismiss my thoughts in that cavalier fashion. We, as a people, have long forgotten that the bone of contention between us as Parties since the Civil War is the Treaty signed in London in those far off days. I put the thought out there conscious that I can do so coming, as I do, from a lifetime of observing the tribal political theatre that is Dáil Éireann – coming, as I am, from someone who has reflected in historical terms long and hard on the thoughts I am putting forward today and coming as I am from a mixed political background. We are in the end the products of our background. And though growing up we knew all that about my mother and my father, it didn’t somehow come in on us. It didn’t kind of weigh upon us, but yet, of course, it had a bearing.

I was inspired to do so by the generous thoughts and reflections in the speech Brian Lenihan made in Béal na mBláth.  It is, to my mind, one of the most generous non-tribal speeches ever made by anyone in either Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael or Labour. But I am most of all inspired by what has been able to be done in Northern Ireland, of the differences which have been overcome and  accommodated. Is it not time to bury the totem poles and fly the common flag of Michael Collins and Éamon de Valera? I quote finally from the last sentence of Brian Lenihan’s speech:

But even if we can never know how the relationship between Collins and de Valera might have evolved, surely now we have the maturity to see that in their very different styles, both made huge contributions to the creation and development of our State. Neither was without flaws but each had great strengths. Each was, at different periods, prepared to operate with the constraints of the realities facing him without losing sight of his greater vision of a free, prosperous, distinctive (and dare I say it here in Clogher: some time) united Ireland.”

Is it not time now in this year of 2013 to note the similarities and to forgo the differences?   Is it not time for us to think the unthinkable – to allow our minds to range over the possibilities which could emerge from the voices of the electorate in two to three years’ time. It is enough that the mind is engaged and that is all I ask for. To engage the mind on this possibility and to reflect on the courage and vision of those who have gone before us.

Now I don’t usually…very rarely…do I actually speak from scripts. I like to talk naturally. But I did feel that this was an important occasion. I did feel that the theme and the principle of what I had to say was very important, so that’s why I actually sat down with Brian’s script there (left hand side) and my own black pencil (right hand) and I thought and wrote and thought  and wrote. And I hope you…I am sure you will accept it in the way in which I have prepared it and that

A little funny interlude to us all. I forgot to say that when I started to make my way in politics..

and I used to say ‘And what about my mother? Is she not important’

Women in politics…no no…they’re not top dog.

So that used to be the taunt I would get. You’re not really Fianna Faíl…..But of course we are…

and if you ask me something I will be delighted to answer and thank you for listening closely to me. Thank you”.


Dr Frank Brennan introduces Mary O'Rourke at the William Carleton summer school

Dr Frank Brennan introduces Mary O’Rourke at the William Carleton summer school

Former deputy leader of Fianna Fáil Mary O’Rourke made an interesting suggestion in her address to the 22nd annual William Carleton summer school in Clogher, County Tyrone, earlier this month. Her speech was reported and analysed by the Irish Independent and Sunday Independent. It was the subject of reports and editorials in the Irish Times and The Examiner (the latter very unfairly in my view referred to an unnamed ‘unfashionable’ summer school as the location for her talk).

During her speech which can now be viewed on youtube, she referred to an address made at Béal na mBláth by her nephew, the late Brian Lenihan (junior) TD, who was then Minister for Finance, in August 2010. She put forward the suggestion that the time had come for a realignment of the main parties that emerged from the Irish Civil War, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, into a Coalition.

Bill O'Herlihy

Bill O’Herlihy

Now at the same commemoration of the death of Michael Collins at the hands of anti-treaty forces at Béal na mBláth in August 1922, former Garret FitzGerald media advisor Bill O’Herlihy has made a similar suggestion. The PR executive and broadcaster told the crowd he had been ‘fascinated’ by the suggestion made by Mary O’Rourke eighteen days ago.

Mr O’Herlihy’s speech had been widely reported on RTÉ News as well as in the Irish Times and Irish Independent, along with For a full copy of his comments, you can click here (link via Irish Times website).

Béal na mBláth memorial for Michael Collins Photo: © Coppeen Heritage Colum Cronin

Béal na mBláth memorial for Michael Collins Photo: © Coppeen Heritage Colum Cronin


Dr Frank Brennan (William Carleton Society) with Mary O'Rourke and Mary Kenny Photo: © Michael Fisher

Dr Frank Brennan (William Carleton Society) with Mary O’Rourke and Mary Kenny Photo: © Michael Fisher

A leading article in today’s Irish Times newspaper (based in Dublin) carries the following editorial, based on Mary O’Rourke’s address to what the Irish Examiner without naming us rather unfortunately called an ‘unfashionable’ summer school in Clogher, County Tyrone. You can view the speech in full here.

The William Carleton Society’s annual international summer school since its inception in 1992 has welcomed over 300 guests of such stature as the Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney, John Montague, Polly Devlin, Barry Devlin, Eugene McCabe, Gerald Dawe, Frank Ormsby, John Wilson Foster, Michael and Edna Longley, Bernard McLaverty, Sam McAughtry, Theo Dorgan, Susan McKay, Diarmaid Ferriter, Declan Kiberd, John F Deane as well as our patrons Dr Joseph Duffy, Maurice Harmon, Noel Monahan, Mary O’Donnell, Jim Cavanagh and Sam Craig, our honorary director Owen Dudley Edwards and the late Norman Vance, Gus Martin and one of our most enthusiastic supporters, Benedict Kiely.

Mary O'Rourke signing copies of her Memoir

Mary O’Rourke signing copies of her Memoir

A Grand Coalition?

There was nothing new in a suggestion by former Fianna Fáil minister Mary O’Rourke that her party and Fine Gael should put aside past differences and participate in a future coalition government. What was different was her attempt to present such a development as the desired legacy of her late nephew and minister for finance Brian Lenihan.

Mrs O’Rourke is a canny political operator, a trait that appears to run in the genes of the Lenihan family. Her speech to the William Carleton summer school and subsequent radio interviews were designed to open up public discussion on a possible realignment of political forces while undermining the ambitions of Sinn Féin. After decades of disparate coalition governments, the notion of a Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael arrangement may pose less of a visceral challenge to voters than the prospect of Sinn Fein entering government.

That’s the nub of the issue. Should the present Government complete its term of office or break up under fiscal pressure, Sinn Féin is likely to be in a powerful position to offer support to either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael in a bid for power. Rather than see that happen, the former Fianna Fáil education minister has proposed a grand alliance of traditional opponents.

Such an outcome, she acknowledged, would depend on the electorate. In attributing the “thought” of such a coalition to her much-loved nephew, however, she exaggerated. Certainly he delivered a powerful speech at Beal na Blath, commemorating Michael Collins and acknowledging his contribution to the State. But he did not suggest a coalition of the civil war parties. He spoke of accepting differences of approach in good faith and of a need to work together to build a viable economy, even as keen competition remained. At the time, support for Fianna Fáil had collapsed and a deal with Fine Gael was unthinkable. By raising the prospect of coalition now, as an effective political memorial, Mrs O’Rourke is being, as always, pragmatic.  

Honorary Director WCS summer school Owen Dudley Edwards gives Mary O'Rourke a copy of Carleton's autobiography, with Bonnie Dudley Edwards Photo: © Michael Fisher

Honorary Director WCS summer school Owen Dudley Edwards gives Mary O’Rourke a copy of Carleton’s autobiography, with Bonnie Dudley Edwards Photo: © Michael Fisher