Micheál Martin: From sporting goals to political targets

From a family background steeped in sport, rather than politics, Micheál Martin’s upbringing provided him with the qualities to endure 30 years at the frontline of public life, writes Special Correspondent Michael Clifford.
Micheál Martin: From sporting goals to political targets
Micheál Martin in a group photograph also has Micheál’s twin brother, Paudie, 2nd. from the right - Coláiste Chríost Rí school holiday in Corca Dhuibhne on the Dingle Peninsula in 1974. Picture Kevin Cummins

They all knew the Champ. When Micheal Martin set off down the long road of electoral politics he was armed with all his policies, all that he thought constituents could throw at him on the doorstep. 

Yet many of the people that he encountered just wanted to talk about his father, the Champ.

It was the 1985 local elections. The 25-year-old teacher was running for Cork City Council. His twin brother Paudie hit the streets of Ballyphehane with him.

“Micheal had all the documents there, everything ready,” Paudie remembers. “But a lot of people didn’t want to talk about policy. They wanted to talk about the Champ. Every door we knocked on people said that they’d been there on the famous night that Paddy took on Joe Bygraves.” 

Micheal Martin has a family background that on the face of it might not suggest he was destined to one day be the Taoiseach. There is no political dynasty there, no lineage going back to the Dev’s parlour. 

But he does have a background rooted in the kind of qualities and values that provided him with the sustenance to endure over thirty years at the frontline in politics, all the way to the job he acquired on Saturday.

His father, Paddy, was born on the Old Youghal Road on Cork’s northside. After school, Paddy worked as a bus driver and ultimately an inspector. He was also among the founders of the National Bus Workers Union.

He settled with his wife Lana in O’Connell Avenue, in the shadow of the fabled Turner’s Cross soccer stadium. Lana was from a local girl from Capwell Avenue.

Micheál Martin as a 5th Year pupil in 1977. Photo Kevin Cummins
Micheál Martin as a 5th Year pupil in 1977. Photo Kevin Cummins

Outside of work, sport occupied much of Paddy’s time. He played football for St Nick’s, the big ball poor relation of Glen Rovers. Among his teammates on a Nick’s side that made it to a few country finals was one Jack Lynch.

Boxing was Paddy’s first sport. He was a gifted amateur and represented Ireland 13 times. He was also a regular attraction in the City Hall in the 1940s and 1950s when the venue was frequently jam packed. 

A typical Friday evening sight would be the procession of workers from Fords and Dunlops making their way towards the City Hall, filling out the surrounding pubs, unwrapping sandwiches and crowding into the venue to catch the latest fight.

In 1951, Joe Bygraves came to town. This Jamaican born, British based pugilist was a man on the rise, destined for big things. On the night in the City Hall though he boxed against Paddy Martin and came off worse.

Over the following years, Bygraves went on to win the British Commonwealth title, and in defence of it to defeat Henry Cooper. The latter fighter once knocked down Muhammad Ali, and as each stitch of the Bygraves narrative was sown in, the status of the man from the Glen who had once beat him rose another notch in Cork folk memory.

“Every door we knocked on during that local election somebody would say I was at that fight in ’51,” Paudie remembers. So it was that for Micheal Martin sport provided a perfect entre to politics, except in his case it was his old man’s prowess rather than anything he achieved himself. 

Paddy Martin died in 2012, having in the last 20 years of his life seen two of his sons serve as Lord Mayor in the building where he had enjoyed his greatest sporting achievement.

On his mother’s side, Micheal Martin can trace a lineage back to involvement in the establishment of the State. Lana’s mother Peg Ahern was from Lisgoold, East Cork and worked as an attendant in Our Lady’s psychiatric hospital on the Lee Road in the city.

School group on top of Mount Brandon in Kerry Gaeltacht in 1974. Micheál Martin is 6th left, standing, in white polo-neck jumper. Picture Kevin Cummins.
School group on top of Mount Brandon in Kerry Gaeltacht in 1974. Micheál Martin is 6th left, standing, in white polo-neck jumper. Picture Kevin Cummins.

Once in the psychiatric hospital, he organised to escape over the wall which he duly did with the assistance of Peggy Ahern. Moylan went on to serve in the Fainna Fail cabinet in the 1950s as minister for agriculture. The current Taoiseach could conceivably claim that his family had given a minister in Dev’s cabinet a leg up early in his career.

Peggy Ahern left Our Lady’s in 1923 to marry the future Taoiseach’s grandfather, Mick Corbett. He was from Mitchelstown and a member of the Galtee IRA during the War of Independence.

Following the Soloheadbeg ambush in January 1919, which effectively kicked off the War, one of those involved Sean Hogan was captured four months later.

He was being transported to Cork for interrogation when a troop of volunteers intercepted the train at Knocklong, Co Limerick and freed Hogan. Following that Hogan was hidden away in the mountains where one of the sentries detailed to protect him was Mick Corbett. 

Thus Micheal Martin could, if he were so disposed, claim a tenuous lineage to the first shots of the War of Indepdendence. Lana Martin died in 2010, the year before her son took over as leader of the Fianna Fail party.

From such a background Micheal Martin was sprung. Inevitably, sport played a huge role in his childhood but like many households at the time -certainly compared to today – current affairs and politics were staples at the dinner table.

“The news was always on,” Paudie remembers. “Big stuff at Ard Fheis time and that and all the big events of the day like the Arms Crisis. Dad was a Gene Fitzgerald man.” (Fitzgerald was a Fianna Fail minister in a number of portfolios between 1977 and 1882.) 

For boys though, all that was background noise. The main event was out on the street. Paudie remembers the pair of them and their friends playing endless ball out on O’Connell Avenue along with all the neighbours from the warren of surrounding streets, Friar’s Road, Fr Matthew Road, Doyle Road, Derrynane Road.

A young Micheál Martin pictured on a school holiday in Corca Dhaoibhne on the Dingle Peninsula in 1974, which he went on with classmates from Coláiste Chríost Rí. Picture: Kevin Cummins.
A young Micheál Martin pictured on a school holiday in Corca Dhaoibhne on the Dingle Peninsula in 1974, which he went on with classmates from Coláiste Chríost Rí. Picture: Kevin Cummins.

Paudie remembers a tactic the boys used to get into the games at Turner’s Cross, particularly for the local derbies between Hibs and Celtic.

“There would be huge crowds there for those League of Ireland matches,” Paudie says. “To get in you had to be accompanied by an adult. So we went down half an hour before the game and we’d ask total strangers to bring us in with them.” 

Of course, the domestic game was only one element of the love of soccer, with the cross channel fare featuring prominently.

“One memory I have was the 1968 European Cup Final with Man Utd,” Paudie says. “There was one telly in the whole parish, me and Michael with about eight, and we all went to that house to watch it.

“We also had a great occasion in the 1970 Cup Final between Chelsea and Leeds. He’s a Man United fan these days, but Michael was a big Chelsea man in those days, his idol was Peter Bonetti.” 

That the Taoiseach’s idol was a fabled goalkeeper is a interesting vignette as his family appears to have a penchant for playing in the position. Sean Martin, Michael’s brother, played between the sticks for the Cork minors back in the 1970s, while Michael’s son, Michael Aodh, plays in goal for Nemo and this year was the Cork senior keeper through the truncated league campaign. His brother Cillian also plays between the sticks for Nemo.

But while the Martin genes quite obviously teem with sporting prowess, the Taoiseach’s talents lay elsewhere. His childhood friend Kieran Buckley suggests that he might not have stood out in Gaelic football circles as a major talent.

“We had a good team and Chriost Ri when we were both there and he was quietly effective rather than flambouyant on the pitch,” he says. 

“But he came into his own on the way home from games.” 

Micheál Martin on left back of internal Senior League team 1977. Picture Kevin Cummins.
Micheál Martin on left back of internal Senior League team 1977. Picture Kevin Cummins.

Kieran Buckley remembers those bus journeys back from games around the county and beyond. 

“Fellas would be asked to do their party pieces on the way home and Micheal’s was an impersonation of a couple of prominent people. One was Micheal O' Murahertagih and the other was, well, we shall say, a prominent politician.” 

Other sources confirm that this was Ian Paisley. The image of the Taoiseach having a busload of teenagers in stitches with his impersonations is not one that would sit with the public profile of the man.

One of his rare faux pas in public was a few years back when explaining some issue about his engagement with personnel from China he lapsed into what he thought was a relatively respectful impression of how his guests had spoke. Bad move. Impersonations are a littered minefield when attempted by a serious politician, but the episode did become a great source of material for Mario Rosenstock.

Martin’s schoolfriend, Kieran Buckley, does acknowledge that the public image of the Taoiseach is at variance with his recollections and engagements with the man right up to today.

“The perception of him in the media I think often comes across as somebody who is staid and reserved,” Mr Buckley says. 

“That’s not the Michael Martin I know and I know him a long number of years. I would consider him to be very convivial, amusing company and entertaining. He’s also partial to more than the odd creamy pint of Murphys.” 

After his primary education in Chriost Ri, just around the corner from O’Connell Avenue, the future Taoiseach graduated to the senior school. 

There also his capacity for mimicy is remembered, particularly one occasion when during a free class he took up position at the top of the room and provided impersonations of some of the school’s teachers.

There was always the serious side also, particularly, according to Kieran Buckley, his ability in debating.

One of the school’s teachers from those days, Kevin Cummins remembers his like this: “That phrase, a man’s man? Well Micheal was a boy’s boy. 

“He was a grand young fella to have around the place, no blackguarding, a pleasant young man.”

Another aspect of life that he gravitated towards during those schooldays was immersion in Irish culture. This came about initially during school excursions to the west Kerry Gaelteacht.

Liam Byrne, who also taught at the secondary school remembers excursions involving “80 or 90 students being brought down to Corca Dhuibhne Irish college and teachers, bikes, the whole lot loaded onto trucks outside Chriost Ri.” 

“Go back to the mid 70s and this bunch of lands taken out of Turner’s Cross, Togher, Ballyphehane and this was their first experience of the country. Many of them wouldn’t have been further than Crosshavan before that.

“I think that experience gave Micheal his first taste of real Gaelic language and culture and he loved it.” 

After school, Micheal Martin attended UCC where he studied for a BA and MA before taking up a post as a teacher in St Kieran’s College in the city. During that time he ran for the city council, kicking off his long career in politics.

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