Terry was so much more than a mistress

THEY kept it secret for 27 years, although everybody kind of knew.

The relationship between Terry Keane and Charles J Haughey was surrounded by concentric circles of media, politicians and public. The inner circle knew. The outer circles guessed or denied or were mystified.

I’d known since I was a teenager. Working for Mary Kenny on the then Irish Press as fashion and beauty correspondent, you got to go to fashion shows and receptions launching new cosmetic lines.

Terry Keane would always be there, in the best seat, surrounded by other grande dames of what were still, back then, called the women’s pages of the newspapers.

Early on, someone muttered that she was Charlie’s mistress. MISTRESS?

It was a term out of a book. It couldn’t be true. But then, one night, she talked to me about him and all doubt went. She was his mistress, and proud of it.

She saw herself as a Madame Pompadour figure, almost publicly recognised, giving sage counsel and being made privy to great secrets.

It said much about the Ireland of the time that nobody ever exposed the relationship. One of the key reasons — often ignored in examination of the Great Affair — is that it was oddly anachronistic, as far as the media back then was concerned. The early ’70s, for women journalists in particular, were filled with excitement and novelty.

Women’s liberation was the big topic of the day, and the quantum shift in thinking about women and their role in society was largely shaped by journalists like Mary Cummins, Mary Maher, June Levine, Mary Kenny, Nell McCafferty and Janet Martin. The excitement was palpable, the context it created cellular: a group of older women journalists continued to deal with the traditional topics like cooking and clothes, while the younger ones gravitated to more social issues. Terry Keane and her affair were on the sidelines of ’70s feminism.

In addition, the aggressive investigative writers of the time, like Vincent Browne, tended to see the relationship between the leader of Fianna Fáil and Terry Keane as a side issue. They were much more interested in CJ’s money and where it came from.

Even senior figures in FF weren’t sure about it. One minister tried to persuade me, when I worked for him, that the relation-ship was no more than a friend-ship and that rumours to the contrary were created by the media and by the Dublin 4 sophisticates — most of them, he assured me, Fine Gael — who found Haughey repellent.

Then came The Keane Edge, Anne Harris’s inspired use of what she turned into the Terry Keane brand, with its side references to “Sweetie”. Even at that point, those theoretically closest to CJ, including his son, Seán, were not sure of the extent of the relationship.

They thought — hoped — she was just spinning a yarn.

One of the reasons was concern for the innocent bystanders. As The Keane Edge covered trips taken, bottles of champagne shared and comments made in semi-intimate situations by “Sweetie”, politicians and journalists alike winced at the mortification their families must have suffered. It was assumed that Maureen Haughey had made her decisions long ago and was in her marriage for the long haul.

Terry Keane’s children were, inevitably, exposed to cruel comment but seem to have been sustained by the deep affection that ran between them and their mother.

The full revelation, when it came on Gay Byrne’s Late, Late Show, came out of left field and illustrated the naivety affecting media people about their own business.

Terry Keane was jump-started into a confession she subsequently regretted by the upcoming publication of a book about the affair.

It made no sense for her to pre-empt that book by announcing the facts herself. She should have known it would create a frenzy of competition among the print media, which would give the story much more currency than if she — and he — had kept their mouths shut. That she told all and gave photographs of them to a Sunday paper was a financial quick win and a long-term disaster that wrote finis to all contact between the two of them.

What she had wanted to portray as an almost royal relationship of two fine minds, conducted in clever unorthodoxy, simply looked tacky, and she later made another Late Late appearance to say so.

She said she still loved him, but was indubitably part of the meltdown of the wider love affair the nation had with him. She suffered grievous illness, but continued to work.

When Nuala O’Faolain’s impending death was discussed on Joe Duffy’s programme, she came on the line to talk about her own cancer and how she managed it, stressing, again and again, the importance of family support and the simple joy of being surrounded by her children and their children.

She sounded calm, dignified, warm and real, as if, through illness, she had become much more than the faux Madame Pompadour role she had inhabited for 27 years.

Her family must have been proud of her.


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