Life Lessons: New book goes behind the public image of well-known faces

A judge, garda commissioner and abbot can surprise you in private, says Catherine Shanahan

FORMER Supreme Court judge Catherine McGuinness was “much too cheeky” in school; former garda commissioner Pat Byrne yearned to be a train driver; and matchmaker Willie Daly remembers when back-to-front trousers kept newly-wed men in check in the marital bed.

Such are the nuggets in Life Lessons, a new book by Rita de Brún. McGuinness and Byrne are just two of the 21 well-known faces who reveal their ‘life lessons’ to her.

Judge McGuinness says her father “liked things to be done decently and in order” and that in her own life, she likes “things done that waytoo”. Of her career as a judge, she notes she often presided over cases in which people, after “agreeing on matters of large sums of money”, then sat arguing for hours “over something as trivial as a set of saucepans”.

“There have been occasions on which I have felt inclined to say: ‘I will buy you a set of saucepans. Could we just go home now? It’s ten o’clock at night’.”

The judge admits she has always enjoyed observing people but believes the Irish are too harsh on politicians. They are “by and large” not financially corrupt, “but they may engage in the subtle corruption we all go in for — the use of contacts, the acknowledgement that who you know can be important”.

Of her future, Ms McGuinness says she fears becoming helpless. She hated leaving the Supreme Court, but had to because of her age.

It turns out former garda commissioner Byrne isn’t a fan of prison. He says many people who come out of prison are “a bigger danger to society than they were when they went in”.

However, he believes people convicted of crime do pay the penalty and should have certain entitlements on the inside.

“I don’t care if they get to watch Sky Sports while they’re inside,” he says. “Their liberty has been taken away and that is the point. Criminals go to prison as a punishment; they do not go for a punishment.”

Of clerical abuse, he says he “saw, first-hand, the very many barriers our investigators faced in getting to the truth” that the Church prioritised its own protection.

Of white collar crime, he says the reason it has not been adequately addressed here is because “it is so rarely reported” — the tendency among employers is to sack the culprit and keep quiet about what happened.

Nowadays, Mr Byrne says his struggles are no more than deciding as to whether or not to have a glass of wine in the evening.

Matchmaking supremo Willie Daly, who says he has “drifted” from his own wife in recent years, describes how before, it was “common to see young women with toothless old men for husbands”.

Why? Because the men could give the woman a home. Simple as.

After all his years, he believes that women “are born to be monogamous” but “men are not”, although he says “most men are better than they get credit for”.

But there is a minority out there however who “are more interested in repeatedly experiencing the excitement of being with someone new”. They can’t stay faithful.

Mark Patrick Hederman, fifth abbot of Glenstal, has some pretty emperical views on sex. He says sexually active men are “habitually directed towards, and committed to, the achievement of orgasm at least every three days”.

In order to remain celibate, “one trains oneself to interrupt this cycle,” so that “the need for such gratification decreases”, he says.

However, he doesn’t believe everyone who wants to devote their lives to God should be required to be celibate.

Was he not a monk, the person he would most like to be is Swiss tennis player, Roger Federer.

RTÈ sports commentator, Marty Morrissey, might have been an airline pilot, had he not got hooked on commentary after his first performance, on the back of a tractor and trailer in West Clare. He has attracted many fans since, some of whom write to him, including women who enclose photos of themselves. Nowhere in Ireland offers him anonymity anymore, he says. And while being an only child forced him to go out and make friends, he professes to being shy.

“I am not in Copper Face Jacks every Friday night...Although they very kindly sent me a gold member card recently,” he says.

There are dozens of other insights in Life Lessons, for anyone interested in seeing what moulds a crusader, a poet, a politician, a diplomat. What we get is a series of interesting little vignettes of childhood, career and family life that give us insight into what made these people become what they are today.


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