INTRODUCED to his audience at the Great Hall in Bunratty as the TD for Limerick, Des O’Malley was quick to remind them that he was “very happily retired”.
“These aren’t the times to be practising the profession of politics if you can at all avoid it,” said the former minister and founder of the Progressive Democrats as he launched Brian O’Connell’s biography of the art dealer and scholar John Hunt.
Mr O’Malley told the Leader that he now followed the political scene “only at a very long distance”. He was not at first keen to speak about the current political scene on a night he said should be about John Hunt.
But he was soon offering views on the recent Seanad referendum campaign; on a supposed compact deal between Eamon Dunphy and Mary Harney after Mr O’Malley stepped down as PD leader; and on Limerick’s year as City of Culture.
And the proposal to abolish the Seanad was a question that had attracted his attention, he admitted.
“I was interested in that alright, very interested because I had suggested that first 25 years or more ago and I was very disappointed that the present government didn’t make the slightest effort to get that carried.”
“As it was it was only beaten by a little over one per cent. It was very, very close and if the government had made any effort at all, the two parties, it would have been carried easily but they made no effort whatever and I think it is shameful that they didn’t. Why did they propose it if they weren’t going to bother trying to sell it?”
While Enda Kenny’s decision not to debate the referendum proposal on TV was widely criticised, Mr O’Malley said that there were “15 other ministers there equally who didn’t bother about it”.
Asked about the performance in government of the only Limerick minister and an old electoral rival of his, Mr O’Malley spoke approvingly of Michael Noonan.
“I think that like good wine, he is improving as the years pass,” he said.It was put to Mr O’Malley that he was of a similar vintage and that with only four years between them, he had bowed out a lot younger than the Fine Gael man. “That is true but I started a lot earlier than him too, remember. I was only in my 20s in 1968.”
That was the year of the by-election following the death of his uncle Donagh O’Malley. One of the candidates who ran for the Dail that year was the late Limerick sportsman, publican and character Mick Crowe, who Mr O’Malley was aware had recently passed away.
“I remember him at the by-election. He stood as an independent and I asked afterwards why he had stood because I didn’t think he was going to get elected. At that time he was manager of some band and if you were a candidate in a by-election back then, you were entitled to five minutes on television to put across your message.
“He used the whole five minutes with the band playing in order that he might get a few bookings for the band. It was very amusing but he didn’t come close to getting elected,” he said.
While he had closely studied the biography of John Hunt, Mr O’Malley did not seem too familiar with Eamon Dunphy’s recent biography in which the journalist suggests he helped deliver the PD leadership for Mary Harney in 1993. According to Dunphy’s account, it was Pat Cox who had the numbers among the members of the parliamentary party but opinion swayed after Dunphy arranged for a poll to be carried in the Sunday Independent on the eve of the leadership election that showed Harney was more popular with the electorate. Mr O’Malley was one of the parliamentary party members voting at the time.
“That reminds me of one of the British general elections when The Sun said ‘It was The Sun what won it’. That doesn’t quite coincide with my recollection of things at the time. However, if it makes Eamon happy, let’s leave it at that,” he said.
The Progressive Democrats were to remain in government until the party founded by O’Malley dissolved in 2008. The party that had championed fiscal rectitude had been part of a Fianna Fail-led coalition that had gone on a spending spree before the bust.
“There was over-expenditure at every level, including at government level, particularly from 2000 or 2002 onwards when things got out of control. I was gone but they were in government. What I regretted was that the two we had in government [Mary Harney and Michael McDowell] were in what you would call spending departments [health and justice]rather than ones where they should have been trying to avoid the spending.”
Another former PD, Liz O’Donnell, wrote this week that no city was more deserving than Limerick of being Ireland’s inaugural City of Culture. Raised in the city, Ms O’Donnell said that while Limerick was all-too-often associated with crime, ghettoes and urban blight, there had always been “a parallel universe” at work where outside of localised social problems, the rest of Limerick had “always been home to a vibrant cultural community of artists, musicians, dancers, poets and patriots”.
According to Mr O’Malley, much of Limerick and the region’s cultural wealth – as vividly brought to life in Brian O’Connell’s book – was down to John and Putzel Hunt, the inspiration behind Bunratty Castle, Cragganowen and the Hunt Museum.
“Things are changing in Limerick and what will happen next year will be an important part of that change and certainly the Hunt legacy – literally its legacy – is central to all of that and without it I don’t think that Limerick could make the claim it now deservedly makes to become city of culture,” he said.
Mr O’Malley told the audience in Bunratty on Tuesday that he regarded John Hunt as the equal of the other great benefactors of the 20th century – Chester Beatty, Hugh Lane and Alfred Beit.
“I think his devotion to this country is no less and his munificence to this country is no less.”
He hoped that with the publication of Mr O’Connell’s biography, the story of the Hunts would be more widely read and appreciated.
Mr O’Malley also supposed that one of the reasons the story of the Hunts was not as well-known as the other three benefactors was because “the Hunt Museum is not on the side of Merrion Square or Fitzwilliam Square or some such place because if it was it would be regarded by those who tell us how to form our tastes in such things that it was very much more important.”