Mara took his lampooning with good grace, realising that people who are upset will not stay annoyed if they are laughing, writes Ryle Dwyer
Patrick James Mara — known to all as ‘PJ’ — was a brilliant political adviser to Charles J Haughey. He served two brief Seanad terms in 1981 and 1982 as one of the Taoiseach’s appointments but he was best remembered for his roles as press secretary of Fianna Fáil in opposition from 1983 to 1987, and then government press secretary from 1987 to 1992 during Haughey’s final period in power.
He demonstrated his brilliance as Fianna Fáil director of elections in the three successful general elections of 1997, 2002, and 2007.
Although frequently lampooned in comedy sketches on radio and television — especially by the late Dermot Morgan on Scrap Saturday — Mara always took this in good grace. He appreciated the political value of humour, because he realised that people who are upset will not stay annoyed if they are laughing.
Maybe his real secret was that he never took himself — or anyone else, including his infamous boss — too seriously. He would warn media interviewers before a private interview with ‘the Boss’ not to ask questions about private business affairs, or the Arms Crisis.
“No auld Arms Trial shite now!” he would insist.
Mara developed his close relationship with Haughey in the wake of the arms crisis during the wilderness years in which Haughey was out in the political cold within the party. He re-established himself by going to social functions throughout the country. Mara accompanied him to those dinners, and frequently drove him home afterwards.
During the 1977 election campaign, Jack Lynch visited Haughey’s constituency to campaign at the Northside Shopping Centre, where the gathering crowdinterrupted trading. One businessman complained to Mara that they were undermining his business.
“Would you ever go and fuck yourself,” Mara snapped. Indignantly, the man complained to Haughey about the way he was treated. “He told me to ‘fuck off’,” the man said.
“And I’m now making it official,” Haughey replied.
In the wake of the publication of the report of the New Ireland Forum, a dispute developed within Fianna Fáil over Haughey’s handling of the issue. Des O’Malley was expelled from the parliamentary party during the ensuing rumpus.
When asked about this, Mara, who was very well read, replied with the fascist slogan used by Mussolini’s supporters: “Uno duce, una voce!” (one leader, one voice).
The comment was made facetiously and not intended for publication. Mara reportedly goose-stepped around the pressroom in Leinster House with an index finger over his upper lip as a moustache. “We are having no more nibbling at my leader’s bum,” he announced.
“You go into that room where they all hate me, and you give them this,” Haughey fumed after reading the report. “It was just a throwaway line,” Mara replied. The reporter who broke the story “has no sense of humour”, he explained.
“You must resist your baser instincts,” Haughey said. “Put a button on your lip.”
PJ MARA'S LAST INTERVIEW: Banking inquiry would absolve Fianna Fáil of blame
A brilliant raconteur with an inexhaustible font of witty remarks, epigrams and inside stories about happenings within Fianna Fáil, Mara was a great mimic. He could be outrageously irreverent about Haughey.
After the furor of the ‘Uno Duce’ remark, Mara began referring to his boss as the ‘Caudillo’, the title used by Franco as Spanish dictator. Many of Mara stories were unprintable, because they were either ribald or potentially libelous, but journalists felt he was giving them an invaluable insight.
He talked with journalists, not down to them. His off-the-cuff remarks and humorous asides cut through official pomposity and political blather. He never allowed the job to turn his head, but always conveyed the impression of considering himself one of the lads. Despite his playful sarcasm, Mara was always loyal to Haughey.
“When I want to know what the Irish people are thinking, I ask PJ Mara,” Haughey once said, obviously parodying de Valera’s famous remark about looking into his own heart. “And do you know what he says to me? He says: ‘Would you ever cop yourself on?’”
While Haughey was carefully cultivating his political image in opposition in December 1984, Mara sought to extend the boss’s appeal to younger people by arranging an exclusive interview with John Waters of Hot Press. Haughey liberally sprinkled his remarks with expletives during the interview and, much to his horror, he was quoted literally.
Outraged when he saw the interview, Haughey ordered Mara out of his sight. But then Haughey got some very positive feedback about the published interview actually connecting with young people. This was the real man, not the politically correct image created by media.
The proper Charlie was a bore, whereas the real Haughey was a much more exciting individual who admitted that he robbed orchards as a boy, and regretted missing out on the thrill of joyriding as a young man.
He even expressed regret at not having been a bit younger when the sexual revolution of the 1960s took place.
By midday, Haughey had recovered his buoyancy and invited Mara out to lunch as his way of apologising.
Garret FitzGerald’s advisers were depicted as ‘National Handlers’ whereas Mara ridiculed the depiction of himself as a ‘handler’ by describing himself as a ‘National Fondler’.
PJ Mara will always be fondly remembered by politicos from all sides of the House.
PJ MARA'S LAST INTERVIEW: ‘Lobbying is a way of life’
Compiled by Conall Ó Fátharta
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.
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