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A Master of style and substance

DR Rhona Mahony impressed with her succinct delivery and stylish image in Leinster House for the hearings on abortion held by the Oireachtas. Yet, how much do we know about the country's most powerful female medic? asks Anna Coogan

Name: Dr Rhona Mahony. Age: 42. Title: Master of the National Maternity Hospital, Holles Street. Family: Married to dentist Daragh Fagan, mum to Lorna (14), Sarah (12), Daragh (10) and Hugh (6). Lives in Clontarf.

Job description: Head obstetrician at our busiest maternity hospital where 10,000 babies are born every year, about 27 each day, and the equivalent of one-in-eight of children born in the State. She has overall responsibility for mums and babies' health, for the 700 staff who work in Holles Street, and for the hospital's infrastructure and budgeting.

Achievement: First ever female Master of a Dublin maternity hospital. Dr Mahony is a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist, and specialist in foetal and maternal medicine. She is an expert in clinical research and has been published in a range of international academic journals.

Education: Graduated in medicine from UCD with first-class honours in 1994. (She was 17 when she began studying medicine). She won the John F Cunningham medal in obstetrics and gynaecology.

Image: Fashion-conscious yet never attention-seeking and overall exudes a well put-together professional elegance. The gynaecologist once revealed in a magazine interview that she's not a label snob and likes to mix Dunnes and Penneys with high-street staples. She said, "At 5ft 2in, I'm never without heels -- I'm a fan of wedges because I can run in them. I always seem to be running."

Career Ladder: After graduating she did an internship in St Vincent's Hospital and at this point decided obstetrics and gynaecology were for her. She started in the Coombe in 1995, as a Senior House Officer. She describes this as a "very formative period" and appears to love medicine as much for the great minds she meets along the way as well as for the opportunity to make her own formidable contribution.

She said: "I suppose in terms of teachers, I'd have to mention Professor Colm O'Herlihy and Professor Michael Foley, who was such a committed teacher and was so interested in students and teaching.

"Malachy Coughlan also left a deep impression on me, he was like a security blanket -- he taught you and told you that you could do anything, he was brilliant for encouraging you and I don't think I met anyone throughout my career that I liked as much -- he was just a brilliant teacher."

Background: She grew up in Raheny on the northside of Dublin, and was the youngest of three. She started school at age three after badgering her mother to let her join her two older siblings. She went to school in Clontarf and all her friends from that period are still her friends today.

She has said: "I'm very lucky to say that -- it's been a lovely constant throughout my life. I loved sports, I played a good bit of tennis, did a lot of running -- I was a bit of a tomboy actually so I think I was about 12 before I even wore a dress."

She does not come from a medical family, but knew from an early age that medicine was for her. "I always said I was going to be a doctor -- right from the age of the first Fisher-Price doctor's kit that I got for Christmas. Later on, certainly when I went to second level, I was very clear that I wanted to do medicine -- I think I always knew."

Ambition: Dr Mahony quickly rose through the ranks and has admitted to struggling to get the right work-life balance. "I was Registrar at age 25/26 and you have quite a lot of responsibility then and that is very difficult. You see very difficult things, it's not easy and your world is very serious. Sometimes I did feel that quite acutely, I'd see my friends living in Barcelona for two years teaching English and I sometimes did worry if I was going to miss that part of my life."

On work-life balance: "I haven't got the work-life balance right yet, but I keep trying. There are times when I'm still at work at seven or eight. My husband completely blows out of the water that line that men can't multi-task. I'd never have been able to do this job without him. He's hugely supportive. It's great to go back into being another person when I get home. It's a lovely contrast to the day, to switch back into that other life. I don't use the title 'doctor' outside work."

Hobbies: Running, tennis, and the theatre -- she is a regular at The Gate Theatre. She said: "I'm in bed before 11pm. I love reading about the Mitford sisters and Churchill -- all the 1930s England period would be my specialist topic. I sleep well, but I do worry about things. I might be worried about a patient. I don't disengage as quickly as I'd like to, but I try."

On the abortion debate: "As a woman, I'm offended by some of the pejorative and judgmental views that women will manipulate doctors in order to obtain termination of pregnancy on the basis of fabricated ideas of suicide ideation or intent.

"Nobody is talking about opening up the floodgates. When women are so distressed that they are willing to take their own lives, they need to be listened to, they need to be believed and they need appropriate medical care.

"Abortion in Ireland is a criminal offence which is punishable by penal servitude. That law stands today. And I need to know that I will not go to jail, if in good faith, I believe it is the right thing to save a woman's life, to terminate her pregnancy. I want to know that I will not go to jail and I want to know, by the way, she will not go to jail.

"It's not about terminating pregnancies by destroying babies. It's about saving women's lives."