From teenager to Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar was driven. He excelled academically at the fee-paying King’s Hospital school, thrived in debating and student politics, and won a prize for history, writes Political Editor Daniel McConnell.
A BOY of privilege growing up in Castleknock, Leo Varadkar, the new Taoiseach, was the son of an Indian GP and a Waterford nurse.
He attended the nearby fee-paying school, the King’s Hospital, as a day pupil and the years he spent there were formative in his journey to the Taoiseach’s office.
He showed incredible ability, focus, and ambition, and a remarkable willingness to be a winner.
From day one, his academic focus was not in question, but from testimonies obtained by the Irish Examiner, it is clear he was driven to be the best, even in the highly competitve environment of the King’s Hospital.
According to his year head, at the end of the first term: “Leo is a most talented young man, who will have a very bright future with us. Socially, he has made a most encouraging start and I am very optimistic for him.”
A year later, the same head noted Varadkar’s progress with satisfaction.
“Leo is a quiet, positive young man, who gets on with life with a minimum of fuss. He is very cooperative in every way and I am very optimistic for his overall development in the years ahead,” said his end-of-year report.
But Varadkar was a reluctant sportsman, and was not keen on the school’s two main sports, rugby and hockey, which were compulsory in the first two years of his schooling there.
“He wasn’t madly keen on sport, but he had an interest in cricket, cycling, and reading. He did a bit of rowing. He wouldn’t have been mad keen on rugby or hockey. He had other interests,” said someone familiar with his time at the school.
Beyond his academic efforts, the young Varadkar began to branch out into other activities, with debating and student politics becoming his focus.
By the time of his Junior Cert year, his teachers highlighted his involvement in those outside activities.
“Leo is a mature young man and has enjoyed much success through his enthusiastic participation in activities such as debating. He has been a positive contributor to the student council,” his year head said.
To be a member of student council, you have to be elected by your peer group to be their representative, so, clearly, at this young early age, Varadkar’s leadership abilities were obvious to those around him.
While Varadkar’s interest in science (he became a medical doctor) is well-known, he also had a keen interest in history.
His third-year history teacher said of him: “Leo continues to show exceptional perception and astuteness in all that he does.”
But the young Leo was stubborn and forthright in his views, which often led him into heated debates with teachers and fellow pupils. “He would get involved in robust conversation in class, and he would have strong opinions on certain figures and historical periods, but he always came from a position of being informed. He had done his homework,” said one.
When in transition year, his European studies teacher wrote about him: “He is intelligent, informed, and articulate. Leo contributed a lot to the class”.
“Leo’s knowledge of detail is excellent and he combines this with an analytical approach which shows excellent comprehension”.
By the time he was approaching his Leaving Cert, the young Varadkar’s competitiveness had come to the fore and he won a number of accolades from the school.
He excelled in debating and, in his last year, he won the Anderson medal for oratory.
In his final year, he won the history prize, which was unusual for someone who would go on to study medicine. He also won the prize for chemistry, based on his Leaving Cert results.
When he went to Trinity College Dublin (TCD), initially he studied law, but then switched to medicine.
Did Leo date at the time?
“I wouldn’t have any recollections, but there was nothing untoward. I don’t think there were any issues of boyfriends, at that stage. It wasn’t on the agenda,” said one fellow student.
It was in Trinity College that Leo found his political voice in earnest. He joined Young Fine Gael, which would become his main social outlet during his time at college.
It was here that he made his first run for the county council, but failed. He resolved to never lose again.
Despite his current image of being a liberal lion, Leo Varadkar, in his late teens, was an arch conservative, according to several of his friends at the time. “He was very shy and awkward. The media perception of him today is very different to the reality,” said one friend. “He was socially awkward; obviously we have a soft spot for him,” the friend added.
Asked if Varadkar ever fell foul of college authorities, his friends said he and they spent their time causing trouble in the political party.
“We were causing trouble within Fine Gael. It has been covered about us trying to change the rules as to how to vote the leader and the various European campaigns,” a friend said.
But he was very conservative in his outlook and he held those views until recently.
“Oh, he was very conservative, all the way along, and right up until the point he came out, two years ago,” the friend said.
“He wasn’t in the Frances Fitz or Garrett Fitzgerald side of the party. He sees himself more as a Christian democrat, rather than a social democrat. But he came in from a non-political background.
“He does genuinely believe in public service, which his predecessor didn’t always. He has become far more pragmatic, because of his leadership ambitious,” one of his oldest friends tells me.
But he was also tribal. In Young Fine Gael, he and other Dublin members would have gone to war repeatedly with their counterparts in UCC and NUI Galway.
“Patrick O’Donovan and Leo clashed hugely, but they seemed to have buried the hatchet recently,” the friend added.
According to those around him, Fine Gael has always been his social outlet.
“He would have gone on holidays with branch members. It is only since he met Matt, and came out, that he seems to have a wider group of friends, which is great. It has been good for him and helped his interpersonal skills,” the friend added.
Twenty years on from leaving King’s Hospital, and 15 years from his days at Trinity College, Leo Varadkar, the gay son of an Indian doctor, is the leader of our once Catholic-dominated, insular country.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved