Political spouses’ supporting role is vital to the health of this society

There was definitely a hint of regret for Pat O’Malley that she hadn’t been able to fulfil other ambitions, writes Victoria White.

Political spouses’ supporting role is vital to the health of this society

“I SOMETIMES wonder why it is his head which has to go above the parapet,” Des O’Malley’s wife Pat told me in a Limerick hotel a quarter of a century ago.

Pat, who died last week, was in election mode. The Fianna Fáil/PD government formed three years before had fallen apart when Albert Reynolds told the Beef Tribunal that Des O’Malley was “dishonest” in stating that Reynolds had exhibited favouritism towards Larry Goodman as minister for industry and commerce.

Reynolds stuck stubbornly to the word “dishonest” even though it was going to blow up the coalition, in the face of the offer from O’Malley’s counsel that Reynolds might call O’Malley “incorrect” instead.

In his book on the PDs, the writer Stephen Collins records an entry from Fianna Fáil press secretary Sean Duignan’s diary: “I kept willing him to get back to defending his own decisions, to leave O’Malley out of the damn thing… Albert paused for what seemed like ages and then he said that one word — ‘dishonest’. I think we’re bollixed.”

I was on one of my first real assignments as a freelance journalist and I was preparing to make a total hash of it. I hadn’t the faintest idea why the coalition had collapsed. I had no idea what Pat O’Malley was talking about when she said: “Sometimes I wonder does Albert understand the nuances of words. I honestly think he didn’t understand that telling an untruth under oath in court amounts to the same thing as perjury.”

What saved me was my tape recorder, which for once didn’t limit itself to recording the dishwasher behind the bar. I had had many such horrible experiences in my first forays into journalism and indeed I had once reconstructed an entire interview from memory.

But I recorded Pat O’Malley’s words and managed to turn in an explosive interview which stunned the editor at the newspaper which had commissioned it. I heard her talking on the phone to the editor-in-chief, explaining she had expected a light, feelgood interview as part of a series on — wait for it — “party leaders’ wives”. She insisted that she had not commissioned a political interview.

She even asked me to hand over my tapes because she knew me too well. It could have been another reconstructed interview. But it wasn’t. The thing was, Pat O’Malley was amazing. When I asked her how she would feel about her husband going into government again she said: “Oh I don’t know. I’d say Dick Spring [then leader of the Labour Party] is on the way up!” To say a comment like this was unheard-of in the run-up to a general election is an understatement. What about “the electorate is sovereign”, and all the blah, blah, blah which politicians and their supporters come out with to this day?

Pat O’Malley spoke her mind. Once my editor had satisfied herself that the interview was genuine she wanted to splash the quotation about Dick Spring under the photograph. Her veteran sub-editor, smoking a large pipe and thus fuming both physically and metaphorically, refused.

“It was a joke,” we chorused.

It was also the truth. Pat O’Malley spoke the truth.

Born Pat McAleer in Omagh in 1940, she met Des O’Malley in UCD. He proposed after three days but she made him wait four years, during which time she worked as a teacher. They married in 1965 and she became pregnant almost immediately. She was also plunged straight into campaigning for Des when his uncle Donogh O’Malley died.

Des won a seat and Pat had a child, the first of six children in eight years. Her young interviewer considered this a fate worse than death, but did ask her if having the children had given her satisfaction and she said: “Well it did and it didn’t.” There was definitely a hint of regret that she hadn’t been able to fulfil other ambitions.

I distinctly remember her saying “I was going to take on the world” but my tape recorder must have hiccupped at that point because it’s not in the article.

She added, however: “I’m feeling grateful that I did take the time with them because they’re extremely responsive children, very independent and outgoing and they give me great pleasure.”

She wasn’t prepared to play down the sometimes catastrophic impact of her husband’s political career on her life. In my wildest dreams I could never have imagined that I would one day find her words applying to myself, briefly a minister’s wife, raising a young family alone.

I remembered her motto was “you can’t be waiting for Des” as she forged her own life with her own friends, “many of whom would certainly not have a PD point of view, feminist friends and left-wing friends”.

She said her children resented their father’s continual absence — as did he. But she seemed devoted to him and defended him passionately, even though her opposition to the founding of the PDs in 1985 was legendary. She cautioned accountant Paul Mackay about her husband: “If you get involved with this man… it is like becoming involved with Jesus Christ. Once you declare yourself for him you have to forget everything else and be with him.” She was, in Mackay’s immortal words, “acting up”. She even threatened to disrupt the PDs’ launch. A family friend had to be called to drive her away from the building and talk her down over lunch.

I love the passion, the bolshiness, and the faithfulness. She must have had a big impact on her husband’s ideas particularly on issues such as contraception and abortion which caused friction between Des and FF, and through him she had a big impact on life in this country.

But she was also a faithful public servant in the forgotten role of sustaining family life on her own, as have been so many political wives and a couple of husbands: From Kathleen Reynolds to Finola Bruton to Fionnuala Kenny to Enda O’Rourke to Patricia Ryan who gave up sharing her husband Brian Lenihan’s last few months while he battled for this country’s life.

The supporting role is unfashionable but as we remember Pat O’Malley, we should record how vital it is to the health of this society. And celebrate a relationship which kept giving through the decades, something which puzzled her young interviewer very much a quarter of a century ago. And be glad that they had the time after politics for which she said she longed: “I just hope it will happen with enough time for us both to live this life, walking and sauntering around and going out to dinner. I think it would be bliss.”

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