Ready for the long road and long term

WHEN he was still a political greenhorn Cork’s Fianna Fáil powerhouse Joe Walsh offered Micheál Martin advice: “You should be prepared for the long road and the long term”.

Almost 22 years after he was elected to the Dáil, the new figurehead of Fianna Fáil has tip-toed his way to the pinnacle of the political family which defines him.

For the former minister born in August 1960, to a working-class family in Turners Cross, Micheál always knew where he was headed but equally believed he would be around long enough not to rush.

In front of his parliamentary party two weeks ago Micheál tried to convince his colleagues to topple their leader Brian Cowen. To do this he recounted his life and all Fianna Fáil had done for him. It was his “vehicle of opportunity” and he wanted the emerging generation to feel the same.

As a child he played football, soccer and rugby on the land known as ‘The Narrow’ on O’Connell Crescent, just around the corner from his home. He was as active as any boy his age with an older brother Sean, his non-identical twin Padraig and two sisters Eileen and Máiréad.

He describes himself as extrovert, a talker, while his twin brother Padraig backed him up in the physical stakes. By the time he got to sixth class he was already getting a taste for his vocation.

His teacher, Tom Landle, had him and his classmates engage in mock parliamentary debates. They practised broadcasting for an in-house programme called Around the World in 15 Minutes.

“Doing radio work like that gave me a lot of confidence in terms of writing and speaking,” Micheál wrote in a reflection of his time in school.

However, like most boys, notions of political promise were relegated behind dreams of winning an All-Ireland for Cork.

His father Paddy, an Irish amateur boxer known as The Champ, used to bring him to football matches and whetted his appetite.

Aged 12 he played in a school’s football final against the North Mon. He was promoted from corner-back to half-back but he lost. When he was dropped the next year his ambitions took a hit.

A year later Micheál still made an audacious bid for the minor team at Nemo Rangers but had to content himself with the opportunity to give rousing pre-match pep talks to the players. In these he rolled out his comic impressions of Reverend Ian Paisley.

His football exploits did not end there. He was in the squad of a skilful underage Nemo side that got through to the County minor final in October 1978.

Micheál was listed as a sub in the defeat to the Dulhallow outfit Pobal Uí Chaoimh, the first rural club to bring the title out of the city in a generation.

The defeat to the team named in honour of the O’Keeffe family was not to be the last time he tussled with this clan.

In later years his struggle to become Cork’s top political dog was defined by his battle with his future cabinet colleague Batt O’Keeffe.

The Martin-O’Keeffe wrestle for the upper hand in Cork South Central began in 1987 and the antagonism continued until the Ballincollig man moved to represent Cork North West 20 years later.

Micheál and his family recall a happy childhood. His father came from the north side of the city. His mother, Eileen ‘Lana’ Corbett, was from O’Connell Avenue in Turners Cross.

She was from a staunchly Republican background. Her father, Mick, had been involved with the Old IRA and her mother, Margaret, was instrumental in Cumann na mBan.

Her first date with Paddy Martin was a shared prayer at the Devotions. He was not from the same Republican stock. However, he had canvassed for Jack Lynch.

Paddy was a bus driver on the No 4 route. He was powered by a spirit of social justice, organising the Widows’ and Orphans donations and managing the ex-boxers’ fund for destitute former athletes.

When it came to Micheál’s first bid for public life in 1985 he said the presence of his father over his shoulders on the doorsteps of Ballyphehane was crucial.

He only got the chance to run because party leader Charles Haughey had ordered Fianna Fáil to freshen up tickets. Each electoral area had to have at least one candidate under 25.

When it came to young candidates the son of The Champ was the quintessential fresh face Haughey had in mind.

Micheál was already tuned in. He recalled watching the 1977 Árd Fheis speech of Jack Lynch and the headline which followed that election: “Landslide for Fianna Fáil — 20 seat majority”.

In secondary school at Coláiste Chroíst Rí he was inspired by his english teacher, Tony Power, who taught the aspiring public representative to argue and debate.

During the summers he was brought to Irish college in Corca Dhuibhne perfecting a fluency in the language.

When Micheál got to UCC, a privilege for which he gives credit to his parents and Fianna Fáil’s education policy, he studied history and Irish and took an immediate interest in a Cumann named after the man who defined that policy, Donogh O’Malley.

This was to be the springboard for so much of his adult life.

In October 1981 Mary O’Shea, daughter of Midleton retailers Tom and Mary O’Shea, joined the Cumann. Micheál and Mary became very close friends. She was a key part of his canvass when he ran for a position on the students’ union.

They were such good friends Mary initially ruled out a relationship. Eventually Micheál’s local Cumann secretary took him aside and asked him if he fancied Mary.

He stumped up the courage and invited her to a party. Fortunately for him, she refused. It was April Fools Day and when he arrived at the party he discovered he had been given a bum steer and he was the only person there.

The couple did start dating until later that month — it was Micheál’s first relationship.

By then he had begun studying for his Higher Diploma, a path to becoming a teacher. But Mary got a job working as a youth organiser at Fianna Fáil headquarters in Dublin.

“It was tough being away from each other. It never would have worked if we didn’t have the common interest in politics,” Micheál recalled in a later interview.

After qualifying Micheál got a job in the now closed St Kieran’s on Cork’s Camden Quay, where he was the ASTI shop steward.

In 1985 he became chairman of Ógra Fianna Fáil and was a meticulous canvasser. Three years later he ran for a seat on Fianna Fáil’s powerful Committee of 15.

He took the train to the Árd Fheis in Dublin’s RDS. He quickly pressed the flesh with the Cork delegates when he boarded, but at Mallow switched trains so he could spend time canvassing the cohort from Kerry.

During the summer of 1985 he was also elected to the city corporation. Two years into his council career Micheál was selected to contest for a Dáil seat.

Then, when Mary phoned him in 1989 to say Charles Haughey had called a snap election, he was flung into a campaign which would soon see him leave his new substitute teaching post at Presentation Brothers’ College.

It was a busy year. On New Year’s Day 1989 Micheál and Mary got engaged. The following June they got married. The couple had just bought their home and he was still paying for the unsuccessful election campaign of 1987.

Three years on he was given another hectic itinerary when he benefited from an inter-party agreement in the council and he became Cork’s youngest ever lord mayor.

Like any mayor’s tenure there were arguments and spats. He led bids to bring the Tour de France and the Eurovision Song Contest to the city. He championed the dredging and restoration of the Atlantic Pond.

All the while he used his gentle manner to tighten his grip on the Cork South Central constituency. He first irked local councillors when he had his brother Seán Martin take his seat on the council benches.

Later on his other bother, Padraig, was positioned to oust long-time supporter Deirdre Forde.

Micheál was always articulate and clean cut. A cabinet portfolio was only a matter of time and, when he was asked his favourite responsibility, education was his wish.

Bertie Ahern offered him the department in 1997 and this began a 13-year cabinet career which took him to health, enterprise and foreign affairs.

He rarely got his hands dirty. But in 2000 he was dragged into the Tribunal investigation when he, along with Batt O’Keeffe, admitted taking a political donation from developer Owen O’Callaghan, who was embroiled in controversial disputes over a separate development in west Dublin.

But Micheál was vociferous in defending his name. When Tom Gilmartin made surprise allegations against him in June 2007 the then minister dispatched his legal team to counter any suggestion of wrongdoing at the next available sitting.

His greatest asset has been his clean-cut image, which exposed him to ridicule during his major political victory — the smoking ban — but sheltered him from the slurs Fianna Fáil attracted through its persona as a partying and business-friendly organisation.

He diligently kept Fianna Fáil backbenchers onside and happily travelled the country to assist with their concerns.

In June 1999 Magill magazine polled Fianna Fáil TDs on their preferred choice of future leader and Micheál was first choice.

Yet, when the vacancy finally arose in 2008 he stepped aside and allowed Brian Cowen a clean run at the leadership of his party and the Government.

Being such a prominent and busy politician was difficult for a man who has always exuded a closeness and affection for his family.

He and Mary had five children. Micheál Aodh, born in 1994, was followed by Aoibhe and Ruairí, who died when he was just five weeks old in 1999. Cillian was born in 2000.

His sister Leana arrived three years later but passed away late last year of a heart condition.

The trauma was borne privately by the Martin family and he has been anxious for it to continue in this way.

But their losses have still happened in the public eye and have been the low points in a long road for one of the country’s long-term political figures.

Picture: Micheál Martin‘s homecoming as Minister for Education at Turners Cross Cork in 1997

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