“THIS is a truly lovely place,” the newly elected Mayor of Limerick, Cllr Gerry McLoughlin, says as he bursts into his office in City Hall.
The Limerick City East councillor was celebrating last week when he was voted in as the 816th mayor of his home city.
It was the first time he has ever had an office to himself – and Cllr McLoughlin admits he has made it his home.
“I come in here first thing in the morning, and I leave late at night,” he said in his first newspaper interview since securing the robe and chains.
His goals for his year in office include aiding the amalgamation of the city, promoting sport, bringing communities together, and – somewhat controversially – erecting Polish street signs around the urban area.
Born in Clare Street to Mick and Bridie, Mayor McLoughlin has had a celebrated career which has taken him across the world, mainly through his rugby exploits.
A stalwart of Munster and Shannon, Cllr McLoughlin also represented his country with pride, not to mention the British and Irish Lions.
It was his decision to travel to apartheid-era South Africa with the Ireland team which led to the loss of his job at Sexton Street, and eventually forced a move to work in Wales in 1987.
He returned home with his daughter, fellow councillor Orla (“she’s a real daddy’s girl”) and son Fionn in 2000 to a much changed city, he admits.
Unlike some, Cllr McLoughlin does not describe his elevation to the first citizenship as the pinnacle of his life so far.But that is not to say he will be any less focused on the position now he has achieved it. “I will focus entirely on it. I understand the role the mayor has to play, and I will put my stamp on it,” he told the Leader.
However, he admitted that when it became clear that Fine Gael were looking to do a deal to give Labour the mayoralty this year, he did say a few prayers.
“I think it is important to stay in touch with the man above. After I visited the Redemptorists for the Novena, I was called into a meeting where I was told there would be Fine Gael-Labour coalition,” he explained.
After he won high office, naturally there was a party. Jerry Flannery’s pub in Catherine Street was the venue, due to his long friendship with Jerry Snr, father of the former Munster and Ireland hooker.
But one absentee in the early stages of the party was the mayor himself.
Taking up the story, he recalled: “I have a lot of involvement with people on the street. I met a young lad who had come out of a car crash. He was homeless – he had been sleeping in the lane beside the GPO. He had no bed for the night, after owing money to one of the hostels. So I offered him a chat, and rang up one of the homeless officials and arranged for him to be helped.”
A man who will go out of his way to help the less fortunate, Mayor McLoughlin is someone who tends to call a spade a spade in the council chamber.
Since his election in 2004 as an Independent candidate, he has been involved in many animated exchanges – including with members of his own Labour group, which he joined in 2006 because he “wanted to be part of a team”.
With the amalgamation of the two councils at the stage of a proposal in 2010, he unleashed an attack on the “country bumpkins” in West Limerick, saying he didn’t have time for them because he believed they had no regard for the city.
That unfortunate comment was retracted the week after, and now the mayor is looking forward to meeting his county counterpart, Cathaoirleach Jerome Scanlan, who hails from the village of Feohanagh in the west.
“I know Jerome well – I served on the health board with him. He is a fine man from West Limerick. We have been working together for the last three years,” he confirmed.
Mayor McLoughlin conceded that at times he can be impulsive.
“You do put your foot in it from time to time – you cannot be everything to everybody. I was never schooled to be a politician. I don’t have a doctorate. I came from a normal family.”
In an interview last year, Mayor McLoughlin admitted he had suffered from depression. He says he feels the “suffering” and “grieving” following the breakdown of his marriage and the new environment in which he found himself were something he had to go through.
Thankfully, the mayor is fully recovered now. Truly at peace with himself, he meditates three times a day (“I thank the Lord I am alive”). In addition, he cycles approximately 20 miles a day. Asked what advice he would give to people suffering, he said: “Don’t let the four walls come in on you. Get out of the house – you need company.”
When he became mayor, he received congratulations from as far afield as Australia where his son Fionn works, as well as members of the city’s rugby fraternity.
The man who he admits is his hero, former Ireland out-half Ollie Campbell, sent on his good wishes.
It is a far cry from his first foray into local politics. In his true impulsive style, Mayor McLoughlin decided one weekday morning ahead of the 2004 local elections he was going to run.
Recalling the day, he said: “I got out of bed, and before Orla could change my mind, I went up to the Leader office and told them I was going to run for the local election.”
The rest is history: Cllr McLoughlin was elected as the only new face in the old Ward Two, and then comfortably retained his seat in the 2009 election, joined by daughter Orla.
He draws on Mahatma Gandhi for inspiration, saying: “We have to love everyone whether we like it or not: we are taught that in the gospel. If you love someone, you give of yourself. I just hope to give of myself for the next 12 months more than I ever have in my life to the cause of putting Limerick on the map.”