They all knew the Champ. When Micheál Martin set off down the long road of electoral politics he was armed with all his policies; all that he thought constituents could throw at him on the doorsteps.
Yet many of the people that he encountered just wanted to talk about his father, the Champ.
It was the 1985 local elections. The 25-year-old teacher was running for Cork City Council. His twin brother Paudie hit the streets of Ballyphehane with him.
“Micheál had all the documents there, everything ready,” Paudie remembers. “But a lot of people didn’t want to talk about policy. They wanted to talk about the Champ. Every door we knocked on, people said that they’d been there on the famous night that Paddy took on Joe Bygraves.”
Micheál Martin has a family background that on the face of it might not suggest he was destined to one day become Taoiseach. There is no political dynasty there, no lineage going back to Dev’s parlour.
But he does have a background rooted in the kind of qualities and values that provided him with the sustenance to endure over 30 years at the frontline in politics, all the way to the job he acquired on Saturday.
His father, Paddy, was born on the Old Youghal Rd on Cork’s northside. After school, Paddy worked as a bus driver and ultimately an inspector. He was also among the founders of the National Bus Workers’ Union.
He settled with his wife Lana in O’Connell Ave, in the shadow of the fabled Turner’s Cross soccer stadium. Lana was a local girl from Capwell Ave.
The Martins had five children: Seán, Máiréad, Eileen, and twins Micheál and Paudie.
Outside of work, sport occupied much of Paddy’s time. He played football for St Nick’s, the big-ball poor relation of Glen Rovers. Among his teammates on a Nick’s side that made it to a few county finals was one Jack Lynch.
Boxing was Paddy’s first sport. He was a gifted amateur and represented Ireland 13 times. He was also a regular attraction in the City Hall in the 1940s and 1950s when the venue was frequently jam-packed.
A typical Friday evening sight would be the procession of workers from Fords and Dunlops making their way towards the City Hall, filling out the surrounding pubs, unwrapping sandwiches, and crowding into the venue to catch the latest fight.
In 1951, Joe Bygraves came to town. This Jamaican-born, British-based pugilist was a man on the rise, destined for big things. On the night in the City Hall though, he boxed against Paddy Martin and came off worst.
In the following years, Bygraves went on to win the British Commonwealth title, and in defence of it to defeat Henry Cooper. The latter fighter once knocked down Muhammad Ali, and as each stitch of the Bygraves narrative was sewn in, the status of the man from the Glen who had once beaten him rose another notch in Cork folk memory.
“Every door we knocked on during that local election somebody would say ‘I was at that fight in ’51’,” Paudie remembers. So it was that for Micheál Martin, sport provided a perfect entry to politics, except in his case it was his old man’s prowess rather than anything he achieved himself.
Paddy Martin died in 2012, having in the last 20 years of his life seen two of his sons serve as lord mayor in the building where he had enjoyed his greatest sporting achievement.
On his mother’s side, Micheál can trace a lineage back to involvement in the establishment of the State. Lana’s mother Peggy Ahern was from Lisgoold in East Cork and worked as an attendant in Our Lady’s psychiatric hospital on the Lee Road in the city.
During the War of Independence, she was called upon to assist the escape of Seán Moylan from the hospital. Moylan had been detained in Cork Prison, but with the help of comrades had hatched a plan to get transferred to Our Lady’s on the basis that he was insane.
Once in the psychiatric hospital, he organised to escape over the wall, which he duly did with the assistance of Peggy Ahern. Moylan went on to serve in the Fianna Fáil cabinet in the 1950s as minister for agriculture. The current Taoiseach could conceivably claim that his family had given a minister in Dev’s cabinet a leg-up early in his career.
Peggy Ahern left Our Lady’s in 1923 to marry the future Taoiseach’s grandfather, Mick Corbett. He was from Mitchelstown and a member of the Galtee IRA during the War of Independence. Following the Soloheadbeg ambush in January 1919, which effectively kicked off the war, one of those involved, Seán Hogan, was captured four months later.
He was being transported to Cork for interrogation when a troop of volunteers intercepted the train at Knocklong, Co Limerick, and freed Hogan. Following that, Hogan was hidden away in the mountains, where one of the sentries detailed to protect him was Mick Corbett.
Thus, Micheál Martin could, if he were so disposed, claim a tenuous lineage to the first shots of the War of Independence. Lana Martin died in 2010, the year before her son took over as leader of the Fianna Fáil party.
From such a background Micheál Martin was sprung. Inevitably, sport played a huge role in his childhood, but like many households at the time, current affairs and politics were staples at the dinner table.
“The news was always on,” Paudie remembers. “Big stuff at Ard Fheis time and that and all the big events of the day like the arms crisis. Dad was a Gene Fitzgerald man.” Fitzgerald was a Fianna Fáil minister in a number of portfolios between 1977 and 1982.
For the boys though, all that was background noise. The main event was out on the street. Paudie remembers the pair of them and their friends playing ball endlessly out on O’Connell Avenue, along with all the neighbours from the warren of surrounding streets; Friar’s Rd, Fr Matthew Rd, Doyle Rd, and Derrynane Rd.
Notwithstanding his family’s long association with GAA and Nemo Rangers in particular, soccer was the game of choice in those days.
Paudie remembers a tactic the boys used in order to get into the games at Turner’s Cross, particularly for the local derbies between Hibs and Celtic.
“There would be huge crowds there for those League of Ireland matches,” Paudie says. “To get in you had to be accompanied by an adult. So we went down half an hour before the game and we’d ask total strangers to bring us in with them.”
Of course, the domestic game was only one element of their love of soccer with the cross channel fare featuring prominently.
“One memory I have was the 1968 European Cup Final with Man Utd,” Paudie says. “There was one telly in the whole parish. Me and Micheál were about eight, and we all went to that house to watch it.
“We also had a great occasion in the 1970 cup final between Chelsea and Leeds. He’s a Man United fan these days, but Micheál was a big Chelsea man in those days — his idol was Peter Bonetti.”
That the Taoiseach’s idol was a fabled goalkeeper is a interesting vignette as his family appears to have a penchant for playing in the position. Seán Martin, Micheál’s older brother, played between the sticks for the Cork minors back in the 1970s, while Micheál’s son, Micheál Aodh, plays in goal for Nemo and this year was the Cork senior keeper through the truncated league campaign. His brother Cillian also plays between the sticks for Nemo.
But while the Martin genes quite obviously teem with sporting prowess, the Taoiseach’s talents lay elsewhere. His childhood friend Kieran Buckley suggests that he might not have stood out in Gaelic football circles as a major talent.
“We had a good team at Críost Rí when we were both there and he was quietly effective rather than flamboyant on the pitch,” he says.
“But he came into his own on the way home from games.”
The reference is to an aspect of Martin that many who knew him through his tender years bring up. He apparently honed a talent as a mimic.
Kieran Buckley remembers those bus journeys back from games around the county and beyond.
“Fellas would be asked to do their party pieces on the way home and Micheál’s was an impersonation of a couple of prominent people. One was Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh and the other was, well, we shall say, a prominent politician.”
Other sources confirm that this was Ian Paisley. The image of the Taoiseach having a busload of teenagers in stitches with his impersonations is not one that would sit with the public profile of the man.
One of his rare faux pas in public was a few years back when explaining some issue about his engagement with personnel from China. He lapsed into what he thought was a relatively respectful impression of how his guests had spoken. Bad move. Impersonations are a littered minefield when attempted by a serious politician, but the episode did become a great source of material for Mario Rosenstock.
Buckley does acknowledge that the public image of the Taoiseach is at variance with his recollections and engagements with the man right up to today. “The perception of him in the media I think often comes across as somebody who is staid and reserved,” Buckley says.
“That’s not the Micheál Martin I know and I know him a long number of years.
“I would consider him to be very convivial, amusing company, and entertaining.
“He’s also partial to more than the odd creamy pint of Murphy's.”
After his primary education in Críost Rí, just around the corner from O’Connell Ave, the future Taoiseach graduated to the senior school.
There also, his capacity for mimicry is remembered, and in particular one occasion when during a free class he took up position at the top of the room and provided impersonations of some of the school’s teachers.
There was always the serious side also, particularly, according to Buckley, his ability in debating.
One of the school’s teachers from those days, Kevin Cummins,remembers Martin like this: “That phrase, a man’s man? Well Micheál was a boy’s boy.
“He was a grand young fella to have around the place; no blackguarding; a pleasant young man.”
Another aspect of life Martin gravitated towards during his schooldays was immersion in Irish culture. This came about initially during school excursions to the West Kerry Gaeltacht.
Liam Burns, who also taught at the secondary school, remembers excursions involving “80 or 90 students being brought down to Corca Dhuibhne Irish college and teachers, bikes, the whole lot, loaded onto trucks outside Críost Rí.
“Go back to the mid-70s and this bunch of lads taken out of Turner’s Cross, Togher, Ballyphehane, and this was their first experience of the country. Many of them wouldn’t have been further than Crosshaven before that,” he says.
“I think that experience gave Micheál his first taste of real Gaelic language and culture and he loved it.”
After school, Martin attended UCC, where he studied for a BA and MA before taking up a post as a teacher in the St Kieran’s College in the city.
During that time he ran for the city council, kicking off his long career in politics.