Caroline O’Doherty looks at a job that comes with no guidelines: the role of presidential spouse.
IT comes with no defined duties, no agreed title and no salary, but the role of presidential spouse is undeniably an important job that can have an enormous influence on how well the president does theirs.
The current incumbent, Dr Martin McAleese, was well into his second term in the Áras before it became widely known how much work he was doing behind the scenes to bolster his wife’s peace-building efforts in the North.
He also used his skills as a dentist to help out with medical teams in developing countries, in particular lending a hand with the destitute and sick in flood-stricken Honduras.
But while he ends his time as First Gentleman with the recently conferred title of senator just as his wife relinquishes hers, he isn’t the only official other half to have kept himself busy in the Áras.
His predecessor, Nicholas Robinson, husband of Mary, was less visible. But the lawyer, historian and authority on caricature was a founder of the Centre for European Law at Trinity College, a co-founder of the Irish Architectural Archive, a director of the Irish Landmark Trust and the author of several academic works.
Of those who came before him, perhaps the best known was Sinéad de Valera, prolific author of children’s books, and Rita Childers, who almost became president herself on the sudden death of her husband Erskine, only for the collapse of the political agreement required to shoo her in as replacement.
Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh’s wife, Máirín, was an Irish scholar and Maeve Hillery a doctor, though they lived their Áras days largely out of the public spotlight, as did Sean T O’Kelly’s wife, Phyllis.
Were he to win the presidential election, David Norris, the only currently single candidate in the 2011 race, would emulate Douglas Hyde as the only man to move into Phoenix Park alone, as Hyde’s wife, Lucy, died shortly before he took on the role as first ever president of Ireland in 1938.
So what can we expect from the next First Lady or First Gentleman, given that the role is largely theirs to make what they will of it?
Like the presidential candidates themselves, they are a mixed bunch who would bring to the Áras very different experiences and expectations.
Never one to shirk a challenge
TRISH GALLAGHER, nee O’Connor, is very much the novice of the group but a woman who is well placed to handle the changes a move to the Áras would bring.
In little over a year, the 37-year-old from Kanturk, Co Cork, has married Sean, whom she’d met at a wedding less than a year earlier; left her native county to live in Co Louth; sacrificed her job in the process as it was Munster-based; and become full-time member of her husband’s campaign team. After that, adapting to another new role would appear to be just another spin in the whirlwind. But Trish, whose ever-present smile, engaging personality and enviable elegance suggests a woman at ease with herself, admits to being a little nervous about the prospect of becoming First Lady.
“I was a little taken aback,” she confesses of Sean’s announcement to her that he wanted to contest the election. “We spent a long time discussing it and it’s something that we agreed together. I spent a lot of time travelling with Sean previous to his announcement and I’ve seen the work he has done and the effect it has on people. I just knew there was a fit and a match between Sean and this role.”
Trish is not only the youngest spouse on the campaign trail, but probably the fittest. While most recently she was Munster sales rep for Vichy Skin Care, her original training was as an outdoor sports instructor in Kinsale and she retains a love of windsurfing, sailing and hillwalking.
Given her interest in healthy lifestyles, it’s tempting to think of how Michelle Obama fills her days as First Lady, championing exercise and healthy eating, but Trish says she has been focusing on supporting Sean in his campaign rather than dwelling on what role she might have in the Áras.
“I would love to get involved [in the office of President] in some shape or form but the role of spouse in itself would be a huge honour and something I would take very seriously.”
As one of seven children — five boys and two girls — brought up on the family farm, Trish would love children of her own and says she wouldn’t mind the inevitable public curiosity that would surround the first baby to be born to a serving president.
“I come from a very humble background and the whole prospect of this is a bit daunting, but it was a joint decision we both made to give our very, very best to it and whatever comes, we’ll just go with it.”
Spirited operator keeps his counsel
DAMIEN is the quiet man of the group — or at least his reluctance to share his thoughts on the role of presidential spouse would suggest so.
He and Dana marked their 33rd wedding anniversary earlier this month, a wedding Dana revealed almost didn’t take place because she was unsure about committing to the evangelical Catholicism that was so important to Damien.
That she changed her mind was fortunate for both of them. Damien owned the Ardmore Hotel in Newry, which suffered several IRA bomb attacks but in 1979, a year after their marriage, it was attacked again and damaged beyond Damien’s interest in continuing.
They needed a new career and found it in Damien’s passion for spiritual song-writing. He encouraged Dana to put pen to paper on their honeymoon and they co-wrote the 1979 hit, Totus Tuus, a tribute to Pope John Paul II, which was to open the door to the US for them.
They moved there in 1991 when both got jobs with the Alabama-based Catholic broadcaster Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), Damien working behind the scenes and Dana becoming a presenter.
While in the US, the couple co-founded Christian music label Heartbeat Records, the source of the bitter ownership dispute between them and family members. In 2006, they set up a separate company, DS Music, to record and distribute Christian music.
Damien is accustomed to the campaign trail, having accompanied his wife through the 1997 presidential election, her successful 1999 bid to become an MEP and her unsuccessful outings in the 2002 general election and 2004 European election.
This campaign has undoubtedly been tougher than any but how Damien views the potential reward at the end of it, he declined to say.
Glad to make sacrifice for role
MARY DAVIS’S husband hadn’t considered the title of First Gentleman before, but he quite likes it. “It would be the first time anyone called me a gentleman,” he says, although given that he’s been in the public relations business for the past two decades, he knows plenty about diplomacy and decorum.
Julian, 57, is director and co-founder of the Irish branch of Fleishman-Hillard, the international public relations and marketing company.
The firm has nurtured the images of some of the country’s biggest brands such as Aer Lingus, Guinness, RTÉ and Superquinn. And remember the Budweiser frogs? Julian won an award for making the beer-loving croaking creatures a part of consumer consciousness.
But that’s a long way from where he started out. Born in Dublin, reared partly in Co Tipperary and a graduate of physical education in Limerick, he was working in St Michael’s House in Dublin, the voluntary organisation for people with learning disabilities, when he met his future wife, Mary, who was the physical education co-ordinator.
A visit to St Michael’s from the camera crew of RTÉ’s Let’s Go youth programme led to a regular presenting slot for Julian.
When he turned to PR, Mary, now his wife, was heavily involved in Special Olympics, and it became a passion of his too.
He was proud when she became its public face, and has no difficulty with hers being better known.
“It’s not a problem for me. I’d be delighted if she became President.”
But would he be unemployed? “I enjoy my work and the company is very successful, but I think the guiding principle would be that if my work was to get in the way of Mary doing her job properly or it had any impact or influence on the reputation of the presidency, then I would absolutely give it up.”
Julian has few worries about adjusting to life in the Áras, so long as he and Mary still had time for their friends and their four grown-up children.
“I guess the biggest change would be going from complete anonymity to where you are recognised. That’s a challenge. It wouldn’t be a case of just Mary and Julian saying at the drop of a hat let’s go to the pictures or pop down the pub on a Saturday night but I think you’d get used to that.”
Presidency would be ‘greatest joy’
SABINA Coyne is at the top end of the experience spectrum, having been by husband Michael D Higgins’ side ever since he first entered public life as a Seanad member in 1973.
Opposites may attract but there is something very Michael D in the way Sabina is unselfconsciously expressive.
“If it happens [if he is elected] that would be the greatest joy of our lives — for him to be able to serve and for me to be by his side,” she says without hesitation.
Sabina, from a farming background in Co Mayo, is a trained actress and one of the founders of the Focus Theatre. She and Michael met at a house party in Dublin in 1969 and, like a classic romance, he was instantly captivated by the willowy blonde he spied across the room, while she was in thrall to his eloquence and erudition.
That’s how they remember it anyway, and by the end of the evening they were as good as an item so their recall can’t be too amiss.
Sabina gave up full-time acting when they married and the children — three sons, including twins, and a daughter — came along, but she stayed involved in community theatre and drama education.
She went back to college for her masters in drama when she was 60 and would love to be able to nurture theatre and the arts if she became First Lady.
“My main role would be that of a supporting spouse and doing that with dignity and grace and enthusiasm, and being warm and welcoming and engaging to people from all over Ireland.
“But I do think there could be a contribution to be made in other ways, and I think that would become clearer after a while.”
Sabina is 69, information she imparts with reluctance, not out of vanity but because she says people make assumptions about age and ability. She has no worries about being able to stick the pace of the presidency.
“I would love travelling around the country — it’s so energising meeting people — and I would certainly enjoy trips abroad. When Michael was minister for culture, we made some official trips and it was wonderful, but most of the time when he travelled, to places like Iraq, El Salvador and Palestine, I was at home with the children, lighting candles and praying. It would be wonderful to be able to be with him more.”
She would have to make way for another companion though, as supporters have promised animal-lover Michael D a Bernese Mountain Dog if elected.
A tale of love through politics
ANOTHER veteran of public life, Norma Mitchell, was jokingly referred to by husband Gay’s campaign head, Charlie Flanagan, as the real director of elections.
Flanagan was only half-joking. Norma has played a leading role in every one of Gay’s election campaigns, from the start of his political career 32 years ago.
They met through youth clubs in Dublin. She was dispatched as delegate to a co-ordination committee meeting where Gay was treasurer. He rebuked her when she couldn’t provide details of her club’s fin-ancial status and ordered her to come to the next meeting fully briefed.
She suspected, rightly, that he was more interested in her figure than those of the club and forgave his ruse. In fact, she was rather impressed by it, as well as his “nice eyes and lovely hair”.
Norma says: “We were engaged by the end of 1978 and almost married the following February but the local elections came up.”
Norma and Gay, grand-parents three times over, have four grown-up child-ren, three daughters and a son.
Norma threw herself into her work when Gay was elected MEP in 2004, especially with St Vincent de Paul and Brainwave.
She hopes to continue working with them if she becomes First Lady. “My main role would be to act as Gay’s support. But within the constraints of the office, whatever they may be, I would like to be able to be involved in voluntary organisations and promote and support them whatever way I can.”
Living in the Mansion House as Lady Mayoress has given her some indication of what it might be like in the Áras. “I greeted presidents and saints,” she says, the latter being Mother Teresa.
“It would be a job I would relish. I don’t think there is anything I would find intimidating — as long as they don’t expect me to cut the grass.”
‘A huge wrench to leave my beloved Derry’
OF all the spouses, Bernie McGuinness has to date been the shiest. Her husband’s campaign team announced she would be taking no public part in the campaign, and she has appeared at just one event south of the border.
There are only a handful of photographs of her in circulation and just one piece of recorded interview, from a BBC documentary made in 1985 when she spoke briefly of her fears for the safety of Martin, a former IRA commander and then an elected but abstaining member of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
But privacy is the approach Bernie has adopted throughout her 37-year marriage to Martin — not surprising given that, for much of that time he, and by extension, his family, lived with security threats.
The mother of four — two boys and two girls — and grandmother of five, she kept the family going, providing the support Martin often referred to as his rock.
She’s not keen on flying and her main outside interest is An Grianán, the chipper and diner festooned with photographs and murals from the Derry civil rights campaign, 10 minutes walk from her Bogside home, where she was an employee for many years before taking it over herself.
So how would she cope with leaving her private life for a very public office in the Áras? In written reply, she said: “I have lived my whole life in Derry. Leaving here, even for a life in the Áras, would be a massive change for me, a huge wrench to leave my beloved Derry. But it would be the same for the spouse of any president.
“Martin’s role as negotiator in the peace process and then in the power-sharing government inevitably means that he is in the media spotlight. All of us, Martin, myself and our children, accept that. We deal with it as best we can while still seeing him first and foremost as husband and father,” says Bernie.
Martin isn’t the only one in the spotlight. Bernie’s brother, Marvin Canning, hit the headlines a few years ago when he was charged with kidnapping, although the trial subsequently collapsed, and he is currently facing charges in connection with dissident republicanism.
Bernie says she would hope to keep An Grianán going if she moved to the Áras, for the sake of what she describes as “part of the furniture” of Derry and the jobs it provides.
But at home she’s just as happy to turn the apron over to Martin who she reveals loves to cook for the family. She describes his skills in the kitchen as “good and imaginative”.
And how does she imagine life in the Áras would be? “Of course being the President of Ireland’s wife would be a big challenge and a very new experience for me but I have faced many challenges in my life.
“Martin’s campaign is about ordinary people standing up, declaring they want to make a difference, I can do that if the people decide to vote for Martin.”
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