By John Scall
Although best known for his involvement in racing, former Taoiseach Charles J. Haughey played Gaelic football and hurling at club level with some distinction. Born in Donnycarney he was educated by the Christian Brothers in Fairview, a noted GAA nursery. He won a county medal with Parnells in 1945 – a noteworthy year for him because he also achieved notoriety then for burning the Union Jack outside Trinity College.
On the pitch he was known for his fiery temperament. He was suspended for a year for striking a linesman. His brother Jock won an All-Ireland medal in 1958 when Dublin beat Derry, the county of birth to both his parents. Charlie regularly engaged in what Donal Trump calls ‘plausible hyperbole’. He was fond of talking up his interest in the GAA. Páidí Ó’Se enjoyed the company of the great and the good none more so than that of the Charlie Haughey. Páidí recommended one of his tradesmen friends when Charlie needed some work done on his mansion in Kinsealy.
His friend travelled to the estate early one Saturday morning and rang the doorbell. Mrs Haughey answered and then called her husband to deal with the situation. When he arrived at the front door Charlie looked at the man and said, ‘You should know that in the circumstances you should have gone to the back entrance.’
The man apologised profusely and duly went around to the back door. Charlie was waiting for him and guided him to the cellar where the work was needed. At the end of the day when the job was done Mr Haughey duly was called to inspect the work. He expressed satisfaction and said, ‘I suppose you want to be paid.’ Charlie went away to find his cheque book and returned with a cheque.
The man was dismayed at how small the figure was but felt too intimidated to complain. That night Páidí rang the Taoiseach to express his friend’s dissatisfaction. Charlie listened to the complaint, cleared his throat theatrically and said, ‘The signature on that cheque is worth much, much more than any money.’ Then he hung up.
Páidí credited Haughey with one of his biggest achievements. ‘In 1985 I was captain of Kerry. I was not that long married and my wife packed my bag for me the day before the All-Ireland final when we headed to Dublin. That night though I discovered to my horror that she hadn’t packed my lucky underpants. I had worn them in each of my previous six winning All-Ireland finals and I was absolutely convinced that if I didn’t wear them we wouldn’t win the final again.
So in a panic I rang my mother. She told me to leave it with her. I rang her back an hour later. She said: ‘’I have arranged for them to travel up on the train in the morning. I rang Charlie Haughey. He will send his car to Heuston station to collect them and he will have them in Croke Park for you in plenty of time for the game.’’’
Pat Spillane had reason to query the depth of Haughey’s affinity for Kerry football. ‘I missed out on my own meeting with Charlie. I came very close. I was in the Schelig Hotel the morning after the Dingle Regatta and Charlie and his entourage were coiffing champagne.
They were loud and boisterous and I heard one of them say: “There’s Pat Spillane over there.” ‘Charlie swanned over to the table beside me and tapped the man on the shoulder and said: “Pat Spillane I presume.” The astonished guy replied: “I wish.” ‘Charlie turned on his heels and walked back to his party as if nothing happened. So much for his great knowledge of Kerry football.’
In 1998 I interviewed CJH for a book I was writing at the time. The interview took place at 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning in his stately home in Kinsealy. When I was shown in he greeted me stiffly with a hesitant handshake and a smile so tight it would take a crowbar to prize it open. He was clearly weighing me up. Throughout the encounter he was clearly suspicious especially after I produced a recording machine.
Stories of his lavish hospitality were legendary so after he showed me into his study and said ‘we will have refreshments’ I was intrigued to see what magnificent hospitality awaited me. How was I literally going to taste the high life for the first time? Would it be croissants specially flown in from Paris that morning or would it be smoked salmon sent from Kinsale? He made a call on the telephone at his desk.
Shortly afterwards a ‘maid’ entered with extraordinary deference – to him not as much to me. She had a beautiful tray with a stunning silver teapot and cutlery and china to match. At the risk of sounding ungracious I was a little disappointed to see that in this sea of splendour the refreshments amounted to . . . a plate with four Digestive biscuits.
As we ate and drank I expressed great surprise that he had a copy of a biography of Mary Robinson on his desk. The end of his time as Taoiseach had coincided with her time as President of Ireland and relations between them could be described politely as ‘tetchy.’ He was surprisingly sparing of her in his comments. However, he absolutely lacerated her advisor Bride Rosney. When I talked he looked out the window and did not seem to paying attention but then he out of the blue he would make the most incisive comment. I was in no doubt that whatever else he might have been this was a man of a formidable intellect, one who got 100% in his Leaving Certificate Latin exam.
At the end of the conversation when I prepared to leave Charlie said, ‘And of course you will let me see the piece before publication.’ It was said in a way that was a command not a request by a man not used to having his authority questioned. Despite my misgivings I duly sent on him what I had written. Shortly afterwards I received a letter back from him inviting me to Kinsealy a second time to discuss some minor amendments he wished me to make. Another Saturday morning I duly made my way there again for 9 a.m.
I arrived to meet a different man. All his suspicion had melted away and he was full of the charm that I had seen often during some of his television appearances. Discretion prevents me from revealing too much. But he spoke about the late Irish rugby coach Mick Doyle who had invited him to launch his autobiography. He had asked Doyler if it was only about rugby. Doyler replied, ‘It’s 20% rugby and 80% sex.’ CHJ said in response, ‘You got the balance just right.’ We parted after a few more Digestive biscuits.
I thought that would be the end of my dealings with him. Not so. The following Friday evening I received a phone call. The conversation was short and sweet. ‘This is Mr. Haughey. Could you come out to see me tomorrow morning at 9?’ His tone indicated that he clearly did not expect me to decline his invitation but he gave me no clue as to why he wanted to see me.
The next morning I had the same anxious feeling in my stomach as I journeyed out to his home that I had the morning of my Leaving Cert Irish exam. In our original interview he had spoken to me about when his horse Flashing Steel won the Irish Grand National in 1995 that the trophy had been presented to him by the former Taoiseach John Bruton and he had made a complimentary comment about his political adversary.
However, that week a series of revelations had appeared in the media about ’irregularities’ in his finances. John Bruton was publicly very critical about CJH. Charlie ‘instructed’ me to take out the kind comments about Bruton. As I left Charlie inquired if I would like a photo of him to use in the book. When I said yes he invited me back for my fourth visit to Kinsealy.
This was different. Charlie was tied up on the phone so it was his wife who greeted me. She showed me into a room which was clearly where the coats were hung up and the sheer size of it gave me an understanding just how big the parties hosted in that house must be. Some time later Charlie arrived and gave me a tour of the bottom floor of the house. What struck me was the sheer volume of the number of photos of him with leading figures on the world stage like President Mitterand and Bob Hawke.
Then as the tour was complete he brought me back to the cloakroom to collect my coat. I got a revealing insight into what he thought of his cabinets. All his photos with them were hanging there at the very back where virtually nobody would ever see his Ministers. In fact the photos of his horses were much more prominent than his cabinets. He was a keen horseman, though he did have a few famous falls in his career.
He was once alleged to have said that he chose black and blue as his colours because he was black and blue so often following riding mishaps. He laughed when I quizzed him about the veracity of that remark, ‘I think you’d have to take that as apocryphal!’
I asked him what advice he had for me to live a happy life. He answered immediately, ‘Life is too short to be drinking bad wine!’
Taken from John Scally’s The People’s Games: A GAA Compendium, published by Black and White.