herald

Monday 22 October 2018

Step forward Fionnuala -- Taoiseach's wife and his perfect partner as he runs country

Enda Kenny owns only one pair of Calvin Klein underpants. He is a terrible cook whose speciality is sausages burnt to a cinder. He has a terrible habit of coming home from cycling or football and walking his mucky shoes over a newly cleaned floor.

All this information comes from the one person in a position to know -- Fionnuala O'Kelly. The Taoiseach's wife and Ireland's new first lady obviously realises that her husband is never going to be a domestic god. As last week showed, however, this Dublin woman is also one of the Mayo man's greatest assets -- and without her unwavering support, he might never have made it to the top.

Unlike Prince Philip or Michelle Obama, the Taoiseach's spouse has no official title. When distinguished guests come to town, however, she is representing the country almost as much as he is. By common consent, Fionnuala has done that brilliantly so far -- impressing everybody during the visits of Queen Elizabeth and Barack Obama with her warmth, grace and stylish wardrobe.

There was a telling moment last Monday morning when the Kennys and Obamas lined up for a photo-shoot on the steps of Farmleigh. At the last second, Fionnuala spotted that switching the wives around would make for a more symmetrical picture. A quick word with Michelle later and the change was made, giving Mrs Kenny the added bonus of putting her arm around the most powerful man on the planet.



EXAGGERATE

Fionnuala's influence over Enda would be hard to exaggerate. As a former PR woman, she picks out his suits, chooses his hair style and gives him advice on how to speak. Although they often go for long periods without seeing each other, she is the first person he will call whenever a political crisis blows up.

Fionnuala once said her main job is to look after the family home so that Enda can concentrate full-time on his public duties. While this does not exactly make her a feminist hero, there is no doubt that his job would be impossible without her.

If life had taken another direction, she could easily be running her own PR firm -- but instead she raises three children in Mayo while her husband puts in 18-hour days on the other side of the country.

This is a story of love across the Leinster House divide. As a Fianna Fail press officer during the 1980s, Fionnuala watched Charlie Haughey ruthlessly put down a series of leadership heaves. When Enda was on the brink of being toppled himself last June, she stiffened his resolve and helped him to beat off Richard Bruton's challenge by a handful of votes.

On the day that Enda was elected Taoiseach in March, Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin remarked that Fionnuala was still remembered with great fondness on their side of the Dail.

Kenny responded with the barb: "Perhaps if she was still with you, you wouldn't be in the position you are!" Enda and Fionnuala may come from very different backgrounds, but they do have at least one thing in common. Their fathers both won All-Ireland medals in Gaelic football, Sean O'Kelly for Kerry and Henry Kenny for Mayo.

Fionnuala, who grew up in Clontarf, studied French and German at UCD and then took a course in public relations.

One day in 1981 she saw an advert for PR work in "a national organisation in the Dublin 2 area". It was only when she turned up for an interview that she realised the "national organisation" was Fianna Fail. Although she found Charlie Haughey a bit scary at first, her vivacious qualities shone through and she spent the next decade looking after the Soldiers of Destiny in Leinster House.

She became known as the only person with the nerve to throw a file back in Haughey's face when he stepped out of line -- and even managed to force an apology out of him.

Enda Kenny likes to describe the moment when he first set eyes on his future wife. "I was speaking in the Dail chamber and this apparition appeared up in the press gallery, hair flying, blue dress," he recalls. "And I said -- now this I must see again!" He gave her a wink -- the rest is history.

After leaving Fianna Fail, Fionnuala became RTE's director of public affairs, but moved to Mayo because she believed the family would have a better quality of life away from "narrow middle-class Dublin".

Her friends describe her as intelligent, funny and self-deprecating -- but also extremely private and protective of her family.

As the Taoiseach's wife, Fionnuala knows that her job is to be seen and not heard. She rarely speaks in public and was almost invisible during the recent General Election campaign. Given the positive reception to her appearances over the last week, however, we can expect to see more of her in the future -- and for her husband, that can only be a good thing.

During a rare joint interview, Enda Kenny once asked his wife, "Are there times you could strangle me?" Even if the answer is yes, she is certain to keep it to herself.

Fionnuala O'Kelly will carry on standing by her man -- because as long as she does, the Taoiseach will always look that little bit better.

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