Mary Mitchell O’connor
Ireland’s most glamorous and outspoken TD on putting her life back together
Some people just can't help standing out and Fine Gael backbench TD Mary Mitchell O'Connor is one of them. Two years ago, while most newbie TDs were figuring out where the coffee dock was or how to negotiate the Leinster House revolving door, she made headlines by driving her car down the Dail plinth and by being labelled Miss Piggy by the Dail's version of Statler and Waldorf. If you're operating off the principle that it's better to be looked over than overlooked, she's doing well since her dramatic Dail entrance.
I'm interviewing the 53-year-old former school principal over a few days in the Dail. I'd need a colour wheel to describe her various outfits. On the first day she's impossible to miss in an electric-blue outfit with matching coat. Before my eyes had time to adjust, the blue look was dispensed with the following day in favour of a bright orange and black dress with geometric striping that wouldn't be out of place on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.
She's not shy about being a one-woman rainbow coalition. Mary's own website proclaims that her colourful attire has “ripped through the grey and dreary conventions of a conservative Dail Eireann”.
“I like colour! I'm sorry, but it's the first thing I go to when I go to a shop. But half my wardrobe is actually black,” she says.
Even when she dresses drably, it still causes a stir. “In my old school, for Halloween, the kids and the teachers would dress up. I'd wear one of my black dresses and sometimes I'd put on the witch's hat. There was this little boy and he refused to come to school because of the principal wearing black. The mother came in and asked me not to wear black!”
Mary's bumpy exit from the Dail back in March 2011, when she drove down the steps, brought her to public attention for the first time. “I learnt to drive on a tractor,” she says, “keep going straight and keep between the hedges. I drove down the steps but, in my defence, if you drive round by the front of the Dail it looks like it's at the same level. I think someone else has done it since. I picked my moment though, as the TV cameras were there and the photographers. If there was a hole in the ground, I would have driven in. I was very embarrassed.”
It wasn't a happy ending for the car. “I ended up having to change the car,” she says. “It was a red Hyundai with my name emblazoned on it. I didn't do the suspension any favours. It kept going, but it was an old car, so I changed it a year later.”
A more hurtful episode in July 2011 was Mick Wallace's comment, picked up by Dail microphones, about her personal appearance. The Wexford TD said: “Miss Piggy has toned it down a bit today.” It provoked laughter from Luke ‘Ming' Flanagan and Shane Ross. Wallace subsequently apologised.
“I've kind of forgotten it, but it was extremely hurtful. When you comment on a woman in that kind of form I take it that they were commenting on me personally. If they said it about me politically, it would have rolled off me. I didn't like it, even though Miss Piggy is great herself. She's an icon really,” says Mary. “It was unfortunate, to be fair, that they were picked up. I would have a distant relationship with them now. I just couldn't be very friendly with them because I think that's giving someone laissez-faire to say what they like.”
A group of her friends decided to make light of the Miss Piggy incident, with the aid of some appropriate confectionery. “One of my best friends got me this cake in the shape of Miss Piggy and we had great fun with it. We had a bit of a slicing party!”
Her inner primary-school principal comes out when she casts a cold eye over the rowdy bunch in the independent Opposition benches. If she had the power to initiate Dail naughty steps, you can be sure they'd be on them. “There's bad behaviour in the chamber. You have the independent Opposition,” she says, “that's really where it's coming from, but we do have our own hecklers within the Government parties. As the saying goes, empty vessels make the most noise.”
Who's getting on her goat at the moment? “For example, Finian McGrath gave a speech suggesting we row back on our smoking laws. It’s rubbish and a really bad message. We know it kills 5,200 people every year.”
While the independent TDs are testing her tolerance, a dietary intolerance test she took has resulted in dramatic weight loss. “I feel great and have gone from 13st to 11.5st. I did an intolerance test and found out that I was intolerant to dairy and yeast. It took me six weeks to get my head around that. I stopped eating dairy and wheat and lost a stone and a half. I loved things like goat’s cheese, but that's gone — it’s oatcakes and hummus now.”
Her current life as a TD for Dun Laoghaire is very different from the life she envisaged when she was younger. She grew up on a farm near Tuam in Milltown, Co Galway, and trained as a primary teacher in Carysfort College. She worked as a teacher at Scoil Cholmcille in Skryne, Co Meath, eventually becoming the principal there. “I got married in Meath,” she says. “My husband was a garda from Sligo. I had two boys — Conor, 27, and Steven, 26 — and we lived in Seneschalstown. Conor is now a doctor and Steven has just qualified as an accountant.”
Her life was shattered when her marriage broke down and she took the decision, aged 38, to move to Dublin on her own with her children, then 11 and 12. “The marriage broke down in 1999 and we came to a decision to split up,” Mary says. “It was a very low part of my life and it was a very difficult thing to walk away from the family home, which was sold. We'd built that house.
‘The marriage broke down in 1999... It was a very low part of my life and it was very difficult to walk away from the family home, which was sold’
“It wasn't a bolt from the blue. It's the little things that you remember from those times. In that part of my life, I played golf and was a member in the Royal Tara Golf Club. Before it happened I was trying to bring down my handicap, but I have never played golf since I left Meath,” she says.
After the marriage breakdown she did numerous interviews for other teaching jobs in Dublin and eventually got one in Glasthule. “I wanted to get out of Navan and Conor had got a scholarship to Belvedere. It was difficult to get a job because you were separated, even in 1999.
“I was broken-hearted leaving Meath. For the following five years I just worked. I made dinner for the boys and made sure they studied and never came outside the door, until they did their Leaving Cert,” she added.
She commuted from Meath for two years because she couldn't buy a house. “The transition period was awful. I found it really difficult to buy a house with gazumping and that. We had deposits down and I remember ringing Daddy one day on a bus with the two lads, and I was bawling crying.”
Eventually, with some advice from old neighbours from Skryne, she bought a house in Castleknock. “That time was the lowest point and it has made me a good politician and a good principal.”
How did she cope raising her boys in Dublin? “I came from a home where there was good parenting. I would hear myself, in my mother's voice, saying the very things that I hadn’t liked — ‘What time will you be home?' and ‘Where were you?'
“One thing about us is that we've always had a very happy home. We get on very well. We pull together. They are absolutely wonderful lads and really gave me no trouble. I feel parents can't be friends with their children. Children need parents,” adds Mary.
She also had to cope with other tragedies since, such as her younger sister dying of colon cancer at 44 and her brother going blind from retinosa pigmentosa.
Initially, Mary got a judicial separation and didn't divorce until five years ago. “Sometimes you may need a divorce if you are getting married again but I had no plans in that direction. Remember, as well, I was
teaching in a Catholic school. Then the time came and I got a divorce about five years ago.”
I ask her if she's still religious, even though being separated caused her problems when looking for a teaching job in Catholic schools. “I am a practising Catholic. I know I am divorced in the middle of it all. It's the same for me within Fine Gael — I buy into something. Sometimes I found it hard but you have to uphold the Catholic ethos in those schools.”
Eventually she got the principal’s job in Glasthule, south County Dublin, and also caught the political bug. She had been friendly with the MEP Marian Harkin and, with her encouragement, she began to look for a political party. She was drawn to the PDs and joined in 2003. By 2004, she was one of their elected councillors in Dun Laoghaire.
Her own life experience means that she's passionate about women's rights and the family law system. She feels particularly for women who separate later in life with no financial resources.
“If you're a woman, and you gave up your career to look after your children and you separate late in life, you have no pension. There are women in bad situations that have reared their children and find themselves separated and divorced.”
The TD is very keen to get the message out to women going through really bad times that things can get better. “You can be really down and you can rise up. For women it's a really important message. Lots of women contact me if they're separated or divorced.”
She joined Fine Gael shortly after the 2007 general election when the PDs imploded in the wake of their disastrous performance and the resignation of party leader Michael McDowell. She moved to the Dun Laoghaire constituency and became very active as a councillor in a host of local issues such as housing and development.
In 2011, she secured a nomination to run for Fine Gael in the general election. “Head office put a thing out that there had to be a woman, but they didn't think it would be me, which is kind of gas! But I had done the homework,” she says.
She won one of the hard-fought four Dail seats in Dun Laoghaire, up against political big beasts such as Eamon Gilmore, Mary Hanafin and Sean Barrett.
One of the keys to her success is empathy. “I like people and I like hearing their stories,” she explains. “If, for example, they were out of work, I'd ask them to email me their CV. I'd have a look through it — maybe at the weekend — and then I would meet them and go through it very quickly if they were going for an interview. I'd also ring them before they were going for the interview.
‘I have huge empathy for women who are treated badly. I’ve cried, I’ve laughed with people. If I lose empathy, I will leave’
“In particular, I have huge empathy for women who are treated badly. I've cried with people, I've laughed with people. I just met a woman this morning who has buried her child and is not really aware of the medical circumstances of their death. If I lose empathy, I am going to leave,” she said.
There's been much debate about the abuse TDs get, but Mary even makes contact with people who send her abusive emails or letters. “I have met some of them. They were really nice people in tough situations who have lost jobs. I would go to meet them in a public place,” she says. “I'm not going to be putting myself in danger.”
She is a very emotional person and wells up frequently during our conversations. Even the sight of the national flag over the Dail makes her emotional. “I come in here some mornings — and I look at the flag and I say, ‘We have to make the right decisions. It's my kids, my grandchildren, and we owe it to them.' If we have turned the country round, we'll feel good. I want to do the best we can and this is the way we do it.”
Of course, she's still very upset at the loss of her Fine Gael colleague Shane McEntee, who died from suicide at Christmas. “I knew him well as I had lived in Meath so long. I knew the McEntee family. Shane was the nicest person, very hard working. I have relatives and friends in County Meath and I'd hear he'd always be calling into farm houses, turn up at every meeting and was really genuine. I feel very upset.
“Gerry, his brother, an eminent surgeon, said what he said about online abuse. We get nasty emails but it has to be said we also get lovely cards, too.” She then shows me a sheaf of thank-you cards from constituents. One card from an elderly woman says that when she sees Mary's photo it says to her: “I care and I will do my best!” Mary's thinking of using it as her next campaign slogan.
Despite a desperate four years of recession, she’s confident about the economic future of the country. Before the promissory note deal was struck, this is what she told me. “I think Michael Noonan and an Taoiseach have been very forthright and feel we’re close to a deal. When you’re making a deal, shouting and roaring and insulting, megaphone politics doesn’t work.”
During the course of our interviews, news of Anglo Irish Bank’s liquidation and the ECB deal broke. “I was in the Dail until 3.30am,” she says, “and I really felt we were in the middle of something really historic. I’m delighted and I had full confidence that Michael Noonan and an Taoiseach would make a deal.”
Were the Government TDs kept informed
to any degree about the negotiations? “The Taoiseach would have informed us at the Fine Gael parliamentary party that they were making successful progress and doing the right thing,” she says. “We were expecting it very soon. I knew we were close.”
Again, the tears come, as we discuss the promissory-note deal. “It was very emotional in the Dail that night. Just to think that we’d done something good for Ireland. I understand — to make that point again — that the Opposition have to oppose, but their grandstanding that night was difficult to understand.
“There are 1.8 million people working in the country. We lost 250,000 people related to construction,” she continues. “We will not wave a wand and get 250,000 back into construction. We have to develop new areas of growth. Look at all the different companies coming into Ireland, like Amgen’s €150m investment in my constituency,” she says.
Even as a former PD, she's dismissive of Michael McDowell's call for a new party. “That is a load of shite if he thinks he's going to set up another party. He was the first fellow to walk off the field. When I see him saying he wants to resurrect the party and that there's a gap,” she goes on, “and I was in that party! He walked out first. And I trained football teams and I tell you if they did that to me, they'd never be back in the team again.”
Mary has no such jaundiced views of her own party leader. “I think Enda is tough. I think he knows exactly where he's going and what he wants for the country. He doesn't have to be involved in everything, yet he knows everything.”
She goes on: “I don't know where he gets the energy from. I think he's physically fit — a steel hand in a velvet glove. I think he has turned this country around and rebuilt our international reputation.”
What about his reluctance to engage in public debate or subject himself to interviews? “He's the leader of the country so he can't be doing willy-nilly interviews,” she says.
Playing fantasy politics for a minute, which ministry would she like? “I'd love Education. I'd look at helping parents. Often when we get the kids into school, some have lost out already. Speech therapy should be attached to schools, not the health system. Mathematics needs to be looked at, as I'm not convinced about Project Maths.”
She's sceptical about the rejigging of school patronage that is being spearheaded by Ruairi Quinn. “I saw statistics after all the talk. Very few parents voted [in the patronage survey]. Is it because they are not interested? I don't think so. Is it because they are the silent majority and they're happy? Maybe.”
James Reilly also gets her backing, despite all the controversies over primary-care clinics. “Swords is one of the biggest-growing areas,” she says. “There were 100 on a list, a junior minister reduced it. Ten more were added to it. I think the bigger picture is what's being done in our hospitals. We've cut billions from that budget but when you get into the system — it's still a great system.”
Roisin Shortall's resignation didn't impress her. “When you are in a party, it is important for the good of the country that you do your best. If you are a junior minister, like being a junior reporter, you have to do what the editor tells you. If I was running a school and everyone was doing their own thing, you couldn't run a school.”
Despite her hectic life, she makes sure that she has time to herself. Sunday is fenced off as her day, mainly to sit on the sofa and read the papers. She also goes to movies — with some surprising choices. “I've seen Seven
Psychopaths and Jack Reacher and really enjoyed them. I love watching cookery programmes like Rachel Allen and the Barefoot Contessa — I love her!”
Finally, I ask if she's in a relationship or would she ever contemplate remarrying. “I am going to put my energy into my job at the moment. I've had a number of relationships since my marriage breakdown but nothing long-term. I'd say I'd be hard pleased! I have loads of good male and female friends.”
Would she go out with a politician? “There would be too much politics,” she laughs. “Going out with politicians means too much political baggage!”
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