The day I met PJ Mara we were both green and looking a little lost. I had been sent by a newspaper in Dublin to cover an event in the offices of the Construction Industry Federation. I stepped out of a lift to be met by Mr Mara.
“How are you?” he said, proffering his right hand for a shake, his left to rest on my shoulder, as if greeting a dear old friend. He hadn’t an iota who I was.
He had just started out in the PR game and was flying by the seat of his pants. He pulled me into a conspiratorial huddle and wearing a face of one who was rummaging in his memory, he whispered: “You’re...?”
I told him my name and his hand came down on my shoulder again like a man who’d had just suffered a momentary loss of reason.
Then he nodded to a pair of suits who were loitering nearby and asked me who they were. I hadn’t a clue but my excuse was I was young, green, and hadn’t a clue about much of anything. A few minutes later I spotted him in animated discussion with the pair of suits.
He was ideal for the PR business because he hadn’t been taught a thing and learned it all from dealing with people through half a lifetime in politics.
With his natural charm, wit, and intelligence, he was made for it, but he only concentrated on chasing the big bucks when he was finally done with his first love.
In an age of hyperbole, the term “larger than life” gets kicked around a lot. Mara was the original and the best in that regard. His legend has reached down to the generations of politicians and journalists who came in his wake.
He was installed as government press secretary by his boss, friend, and comrade Charlie Haughey.
Mara had no experience in the media, but it didn’t take him long to make the role his own. His modus operandi was on a different planet from today’s world of spin. Instead of attempting to portray the taoiseach as a paragon beyond any personal or political reproach, he presented as a figure with a few human flaws, which, as he well knew, managed to enhance Haughey’s aura of danger.
Press secretaries are supposed to be neither seen nor heard in the public domain, but Mara had the profile of a high- ranking politician when in the job. The wider population got to know him through the character of ‘Mara’ in Scrap Saturday, the satirical radio programme that aired in the late 80s and early 90s.
Another take on Mara was delivered to the huge audiences that tuned into the TV drama Charlie last year, which featured Tom Vaughan Lawlor in the role of Haughey’s hapless and dapper sidekick.
PJ MARA'S LAST INTERVIEW: ‘Lobbying is a way of life’
His impact on political life was summed up by the fact he had a biographer, the journalist Tim Ryan, who penned a book on him soon after he finished up in Government Buildings.
After leaving his full- time role, he still returned to lead the charge for Fianna Fáil at election time. In 2002, he launched the Fianna Fáil campaign with the quip: “Okay folks, it’s showtime.”
Five years later, he attempted to quell Vincent Browne at the party’s election launch when Browne was getting stuck into Bertie Ahern over the latter’s finances. Browne reminded Mara on that occasion that he wouldn’t be silenced because all had remained silent when Haughey had been in charge.
Since the announcement of his death yesterday, Mara’s many friends in high places have been eulogising about the man, but he will not be as fondly remembered in other quarters.
His role as Haughey’s enforcer and confidante leaves him exposed to the accusation that he was at the heart of things when politics was polluted by the former taoiseach and others who grabbed what they could.
How could he not have known what was going on? Mara always claimed that he didn’t know because he didn’t ask.
His presence at the interface of business and politics saw him feature in a walk-on role at the Planning Tribunal.
The second interim report criticised him for not ‘fessing up about opening an offshore account, even though no money had ultimately been deposited in it. Mara’s response at the inquiry when asked why he opened the account was that he had had “bad thoughts”.
He did make a lot of money later in life and, after losing his wife Brenda to cancer, he went on to father a daughter at the age of 71 in 2013. In an interview with this newspaper at the time, he said he was delighted to be a parent again (he had a son from his marriage).
“I never change nappies. I am not a new dad. I didn’t do it the first time round and won’t do it now,” he said.
In that interview, he went on to castigate a new law on lobbying, an activity from which he had enjoyed a lucrative stream of income since leaving politics. It was “bullshit and heavy-handed” he said.
It would have been seen as precisely that when Mara was in his prime, but those days, like some of the characters they threw up, are behind us now.
PJ MARA'S LAST INTERVIEW: Mara ‘happy to be father again’ at 71
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.
PJ MARA'S LAST INTERVIEW: Banking inquiry would absolve Fianna Fáil of blame
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