My earliest political memory is of coming home from Sullivan’s Quay primary school as an 11-year-old in Cork city on Friday, December 7, 1979 to discover that Charles Haughey had won the Fianna Fáil leadership election. My late father, Jack Murphy, a painter in the Cork Harbour Commissioners, was looking at our television set in amazement.
had never heard him utter an expletive before and never would again, but on that day he let out an exasperated curse that earned him a stern rebuke from my mother. Like many people, he was shocked that Fianna Fáil’s TDs had chosen Haughey over George Colley, Jack Lynch’s preferred candidate.
My parents were born into homes in Blackpool on Cork’s northside, where Lynch hailed from. While ours was a non-political home, Lynch was spoken of in generally reverential terms. That evening I watched the RTÉ news wondering who this Haughey character was. The following week I followed every news programme I could and fostered a newfound interest in the politics page of Cork’s Evening Echo. I have been obsessed with Irish politics and Haughey ever since.
My 700-page biography of Charles Haughey is the culmination of eight years’ work, but in my mind it has been over 40 years in the making, ever since I decided — as that 11-year-old boy — that I needed to find out more about Haughey and how his victory in the Fianna Fáil leadership election led to the stunned reaction in my home and across the country.
Sullivan’s Quay educated the boys of the inner-city working classes. Our fathers worked in places such as Ford, Dunlop, Irish Steel, Cork Corporation and small local businesses. The occupations were mechanics, breadmen, milkmen, factory workers, painters, plumbers, carpenters, manual labourers, electricians. There were no barristers, no solicitors, no doctors, no accountants, no journalists, no teachers and certainly no university professors.
The feeder secondary school, Deerpark CBS, sent a small few of us to University College Cork and a few more to the then Cork Regional Technical College. Lots of boys went to the state’s training agency, AnCO. Some emigrated and some went on the dole. A 10-minute walk away, one of the city’s two private schools for boys educated the sons of the merchant princes.
When I went to Deerpark CBS, I fell under the spell of two inspiring history teachers, Ray Moran and Kieran O’Halloran, who taught me much of how Fianna Fáil had come to dominate the politics of modern Ireland. Éamon de Valera’s dream of economic self-sufficiency, the return of the fourth green field and a nation of Irish speakers was about as far removed as it was possible to be from life as a teenager in inner-city Cork in the 1980s. As Dunlop and Ford closed within a year of each other in the middle of that decade, the city was on its knees.
When I was studying for my Leaving Certificate, Haughey was railing against the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the economic recession. His return as taoiseach for the third time in 1987 coincided with my entry to UCC to study history.
I had never really considered going to university. UCC wasn’t even a 10-minute walk from my house, but it might as well have been a different world. In my early teens, I played football on its tennis courts with my friends before we were chased off by the security guards. But on a day that changed my life, a teacher named Finbarr Keenan asked me what I was going to do after the Leaving Certificate. I mumbled something about perhaps going to the Regional Technical College, and he told me not to be ridiculous, that I should go to UCC and study history, which he knew I was reasonably good at and interested in. When I asked him how I would pay for it, he told me the state would look after it and that I would get a grant. That evening I told my parents my new plan. In fact, it was my only plan.
Address to the nation
At UCC I listened to wonderful historians such as Joe Lee, Dermot Keogh and Brian Girvin explain modern Ireland. I was a student of Lee when he published his famous book Ireland 1912-1985: Politics and Society, which was ferocious in its criticisms of Haughey. Three decades later I read a letter to Haughey from his favourite civil servant Padraig Ó hUiginn taking Lee to task for “a most uninformed view of our achievements”.
Lee had been critical of Haughey’s handling of the economy after his infamous televised address in January 1980 telling the nation to tighten its belt. The distinguished historian claimed that in the policy document The Way Forward, written in 1982, Haughey had finally determined to treat the disease he had diagnosed but whose spread he had been instrumental in assisting by not following through on his words.
While my journey with Haughey began in Sullivan’s Quay, it took off when I went to DCU in the mid-1990s to undertake a PhD with Eunan O’Halpin. I was fortunate enough to eventually secure a lectureship in politics in the university. When I started to read more and write about Irish politics, Haughey loomed ever larger. As the years passed, I became increasingly convinced that despite everything that had been written about him, his life story had never really been told.
In 2010, the Haughey family donated his private papers to DCU and gave me access to them after they had been catalogued. I had the advantage of working at the university but also, I think, of being seen by the Haugheys as a neutral political commentator who called things as I saw them. I told them a biography based on his papers was badly needed but also that it had to be a book that covered his whole life, warts and all. The result is this book.
Haughey’s papers cover his life from his birth in September 1925 in a small house in Castlebar, Co Mayo, where his father was an Irish army commandant, to his death at his home in Abbeville, his Co Dublin estate, in June 2006. They are housed in some 246 boxes, many of which contain up to five sub-boxes. Taken in its voluminous whole, the archive will be a treasure trove for historians of modern Ireland for years to come.
The Haughey who stalks the pages of 20th-century Irish history is more often than not a venal, shallow, one-dimensional character who pursued ambition to the exclusion of everything else. His purchases of Abbeville and Inishvickillane, the Blasket island off the Kerry coast, are viewed as evidence of a gauche, empty character obsessed with material things.
Such is his reputation that he can be accused of almost any misdeed, from subverting the state from within to behaving like some sort of Latin American dictator. To some of his critics, he was a kept man who undermined and debased Irish democracy through a series of corrupt acts, committed in return for huge sums of money to support his lavish lifestyle. To his supporters, and there are still many despite the revelations about his finances and his extramarital affair with Terry Keane, he was far-sighted and ambitious in what he wanted to achieve for Ireland.
The reality is far more complex and nuanced. Haughey had multiple political personas. There was the Haughey who rose from the poverty of Donnycarney to the office of taoiseach. There was the Haughey of the arms trial whose liberty would have been lost for years in the event of a guilty verdict, and the Haughey at the beginning of the peace process.
There was the Haughey on the international stage engulfed in controversy over the Argentinian invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982, and the Haughey as president of the EU’s Council of Ministers at the heart of the debate about German reunification in 1990.
There was the Haughey of economic triumph and despair as the state lurched close to bankruptcy in the early 1980s and regained international confidence at the end of that decade, both under his watch. There was the defiant Haughey of the tribunal era. Ultimately, there was the Haughey at the centre of Irish politics for over three decades and the Haughey whose legacy still casts a large shadow on the Irish state.
But there was more to Haughey than these multiple public personas. There was the Haughey who enjoyed horses, holidays, international travel, bees, deer, the GAA, the sea, wine, children, grandchildren, sailing and fast cars. There were car crashes, a plane crash, a near-fatal sailing accident and numerous and often lengthy hospital stays, a couple of which saw him close to death.
While I spent countless hours in Haughey’s archive, I needed to find out what those who knew him really thought about him. This led me on a journey all across Ireland. It began in Baskin Lane in north Dublin where his widow Maureen lived until her death in 2017 and told me of the 60-plus years they had spent together.
It led me to Swatragh in south Derry, where Haughey’s parents came from and where I was shown the dugout where Haughey’s father hid out during the War of Independence.
It took me to Sligo on a cold day in early January 2017 where Ray MacSharry, who played a crucial role in Haughey’s election in December 1979, told me of his experiences in the hectic days of the 1980s when he was tanáiste and twice minister for finance. It took me to Athlone to Mary O’Rourke, and Galway to Máire Geoghegan-Quinn to hear of how Haughey’s cabinets worked.
It took me to Abbeyfeale in Limerick to Gerry Collins who knew Haughey for over 40 years, and shared highs and lows, and to Trim in Meath to Noel Dempsey who was one of the gang of four who inflicted the first cut in the lead-up to Haughey’s political demise.
It led me to a friendship with the unorthodox civil servant Padraig Ó hUiginn, described by Haughey as being as wise as old Satan himself. We had various memorable conversations about growing up in Cork, the woes of Cork hurling, Haughey’s volcanic temper and his battles with the tribunals. It took me to Waterford, another friendship and more memorable discussions about Haughey’s early days in office with his former private secretary Seán Aylward. Tales of Haughey’s impeccable timekeeping, razor-sharp brain, short fuse, rows with Margaret Thatcher and much else tripped off his tongue.
In the midst of the Covid crisis of 2020, I managed to talk to Paddy Terry, then the grand age of 100 but sharp as the proverbial tack, about Haughey’s time in the Department of Justice in the early 1960s.
He told me how shortly after becoming minister for justice in 1964, Haughey visited Mountjoy Prison, saw the condemned cell there and was so revolted by the whole atmosphere that he resolved to do away with the death penalty. He faced opposition: the mantra in his department was the remark sometimes attributed to Oliver Cromwell, and long used by proponents of the death penalty: “stone dead hath no fellow”. But Haughey did remove the death penalty and reformed the succession laws.
Talks with Haughey’s family, friends, supporters, civil servants, political rivals and enemies gave me a much more rounded picture of the man and what made him tick. His long-time rival Des O’Malley had lost none of his enmity towards Haughey when I spent a morning in his feisty and engaging company as he warned me against the dangers of falling under Haughey’s spell, even a decade after his death.
Haughey dominated Irish politics in the latter half of the 20th century but also had the most extraordinary private life. In writing this biography I neither wanted to lavish praise on Haughey not demonise him.
Instead, I wanted to humanise him beyond the caricature and hope I have succeeded somewhat in that aim.
Haughey by Gary Murphy (Gill Books) is out now