He was the confidant come press secretary during the 1980s for taoiseach Charles J Haughey . He would later become the “ruthless”, if highly successful, director of elections for Bertie Ahern, helping to secure a hat-trick of victories in 1997, 2002, and 2007.
Flamboyant, colourful, and gregarious, his legend was cemented after he was portrayed as Haughey’s foil in the RTÉ sketch show Scrap Saturday, where he was caricatured as the fearful lackey to the overly dominant Haughey.
Mara was born in 1941, and grew up on Millmount Rd in Drumcondra on Dublin’s northside. The son of a garda from Co Meath, who died when he was at school, his mother, whom he adored, reared him and his sister on her own.
Mara went to the all-Irish speaking Christian Brothers secondary school, Coláiste Mhuire, on Parnell Square, but never went to university, which he would regret in later life.
He began work in Boland’s Mills briefly before securing a job in Allied Textiles in Chapelizod. While still in his early 20s, he met and married Breda Brogan from Kinvarra in Co Galway.
He then set up his own clothes company, Beeline, which he later sold to Penneys. Mara and Breda had a son, John.
Mara’s association with Haughey began as he supported him following the arms crisis in 1970 and he was Haughey’s constant companion during the wilderness years after he was sacked from cabinet.
Mara was appointed to the Senate in 1982 and later as Fianna Fáil press officer in 1984, when the job had been turned down by others.
He gained a reputation as an outrageous raconteur which allowed him develop friendly relations with political correspondents, who often were left speechless at his visceral, if witty, impersonations of his political masters.
Unusually, Mara would often socialise with opposition members, including Fine Gael’s Maurice Manning, who would become a lifelong friend. Having little time for overly earnest politicians, Mara and Manning would seek comfort in the absurdities of life and Mara would often be found in the company of the Dáil’s more irreverent personalities.
Some of them would later go on to form a group which became known as “the Hypothermiacs” who would meet for a few pints at Smyth’s pub, Haddington Rd, as several members were smokers.
Sometimes, though, Mara’s informal style landed him in trouble with “the Boss”. On one occasion, he jokingly told a room of political correspondents that “from now on it will be uno duce, una voce” and he goose-stepped Nazi-style up and down the room.
The episode was reported by Geraldine Kennedy in The Sunday Press, to his grave annoyance.
After Haughey left power in the early 1990s, Mara was in demand from some of Ireland’s biggest business figures including Tony O’Reilly and Denis O’Brien, who sought out his PR and lobbying expertise.
He returned to the political world in 1994 as Bertie Ahern’s director of elections.
His mercilessness saw Ahern and Fianna Fáil win three elections in a row. His “Ok folks, it’s showtime” quip at the Fianna Fáil manifesto launch in 2002 in the Shelbourne Hotel has taken on legendary significance.
However, tragedy struck when his beloved Breda died in 2003 after a long illness. He suffered another setback when the Flood Tribunal found he had received substantial interest- free loans in the 1980s from businessmen Oliver Barry and Dermot Desmond.
The tribunal found Mara failed to co-operate fully by not disclosing a foreign bank account. Mara would later feel vindicated as he was awarded his costs.
In June 2013, he became a father again at the age of 71, when his partner Sheila gave birth to a baby girl. He is survived by his son John, daughter Elena, and partner Sheila. He is predeceased by his wife Breda, beside whom he will be buried in Kinvara, Co Galway, tomorrow.
TRIBUTES: ‘An astute advisor and tremendous ambassador’
He was great fun, a very, very, very erudite man. He had that gift of winning people over and impressing them and he used it to great effect... He was a person of great humanity and intelligence who actually made a massive contribution to politics in this country... There was a kindness and an intelligence to him and that’s why he was non-partisan in so many ways.
PJ Mara was an amazing friend, colleague, and intellect who made an indelible impression on everybody he worked with. He joined the Digicel Board in 2003 and made a vast contribution to our strategic direction and growth. He was an astute adviser and a tremendous and insightful ambassador.
He was extraordinarily intelligent. He worked from instinct. Anybody around party politics who knew him knew how formidable he was when he put his mind to it to get things done. His record speaks for itself. Bertie Ahern’s three in a row, not many could have done that. And I knew he was extraordinarily proud of that... he really did believe in the State, he loved this country passionately.”
While PJ was best known for his work in the political and communications sphere, it was his deep personal commitment to the cause of children’s rights that drew him to support Unicefs work for children throughout the world. PJ was a valued director of Unicef Ireland and he brought his vast experience to bear in support of the board of directors.
As a member of the board of the 2003 Special Olympics World Games PJ Mara used his considerable experience and insight of media relations to advise on how the media could assist in stirring the imagination and generating the enthusiasm among cities, towns and communities across the island to embrace the thousands of athletes from around the world and their families during their stay in Ireland.
He also knew how government ‘works’ and used his knowledge and contacts to ensure that the goodwill of all government departments and politicians was harnessed for the success of the Games. He continued his support for Special Olympics Ireland as a member of the Board of Patrons Of Special Olympics Ireland over many years up until his sad passing.