WHEN Kathleen Lynch was on a ministerial state visit to Shanghai, she was once asked a pertinent question.
“‘Where’s my school blouse?’ Ruth asked me on the phone,” recalls Kathleen, who is mum to said Ruth, as well as Thomas, Eve, and Valerie.
“So yes, to them I was always just mum!”
“I took the phone off Ruth!” recalls Kathleen’s husband, Bernard. “Calls from home to abroad were very expensive then!”
Kathleen was first elected to the Dáil in a 1994 by-election, for Cork North Central, and served as Junior Minister for Mental Health and Disabilities during the Fine-Gael-Labour Government between 2011 and 2016, when she retired from politics.
Now she has stepped down, it means the forthcoming general election will not involve weeks of electioneering, knocking on doors, and being on the end of some choice comments — good and bad!
So will Kathleen look forward to spending more time with her family and 10 grandchildren now she is taking a back seat?
“That’s part of the plan, she says. “Bernard and I are planning on doing a bit of travelling too, to Berlin and Paris. We both like travel.
“I asked a pal of mine the other day; do people go on holidays in June! We used to always have to go in August.”
She is looking forward to another luxury.
“Not being elected, I can say ‘no, I have other plans’ now! Up to this I had to say ‘Yes’ to everything, on call 24/7. Having time for myself and managing it will be a big change. Nobody on their death bed says they should have spent more time at the office.”
At the office, at the Dáil, Kathleen was never daunted about being part of the ‘big boys club’.
“Not being a pub person was a slight disadvantage,” she admits, “but I got on well with all my male colleagues. The first time I entered the Dáil, I didn’t know where the female toilets were! That was daunting. The volumes of work and the screaming and roaring that went on was daunting. But there was never a chauvinistic atmosphere in the Dáil.
“I had a good friend in James Reilly; he’d give you credit. Loyalty is huge to me. My staff who worked with me were always loyal and worked well with me. Being outside of Dublin, four days away from home, then working from home; there was a lot of juggling to be done.”
She has held on to her friends, old and new.
“I still meet up with my friends from the Northside, says Kathleen.
“In the office I was the Minister. To them, I’m always Kathleen. To me, they are always Joan or Mary. My friends have the cráic, asking me am I doing my own shopping? I tell them it’s the maid’s day off!”
Everyone is the same to Kathleen, “prince or pauper”, and she and Bernard love spending time with their grandchildren.
She has impressed her values on her children.
“They are well-rounded, resilient and capable.”
She is old-fashioned and likes being ‘the boss’.
“I have never had cosmetic work done,” says Kathleen, when I marvel about her clear skin at 66.
“My niece was on the bus the other day and overheard a conversation between three ladies about that very subject; discussing if I’d had any plastic surgery!
“When she told me, I said to her, can tell me how much it is, where I went for the procedure, and who did it!”
Kathleen, who never drank or smoked, does believe in keeping old age at bay.
“At my gym every morning in Blackpool when we’re lifting light weights, the instructor says to us, ‘Remember, you’re pushing away the commode!”
Holding that thought is good motivation.
“It sure is,” says Kathleen, who knows all about motivation. She suffered a serious accident at the age of 10 when she was hit by a bus, spending seven years in hospital as a result.
“They took everything off my legs, and left me with the bone. I had to learn how to walk again three times.”
She had to learn to take things in her stride.
“I remember when I was made Junior Health Minister, I was so excited,” says Kathleen.
“I went up home to Farranree to my mother’s house, where my brother now lives. All the family were sitting at the kitchen table and I swept in announcing my appointment, showing them the headlines in the papers.”
What was the reaction?
“Put on the kettle! I was told!”
It is not easy to deflate Kathleen Lynch. How did she cope with losing her seat twice, in 1997 and 2016?
“Of course, you’d be absolutely disappointed,” says Kathleen, who is backing John Maher, the newly-elected Labour councillor, to win a Cork-North Central seat.
“You wouldn’t be normal otherwise, especially after having done so much work.”.
“When it happened in 1997, it was completely unexpected, totally unexpected. In 2016, we were half prepared, even though up to the final close of poll you feel you’re still going to do it.
“But you get on with it, because when I lost my seat in 1997, two years later my mother died and that event put things in perspective. That was the worst thing that ever happened to me.”
Kathleen cites the highlights of her career as free GP care for the under sixes and mental-health funding.
Although she believes Labour must pass on the torch to the future generation she wouldn’t encourage her own children go into politics.
“Politics has changed. Sometimes, what’s said about you affects those around you even more. They can be hurt more than you by abuse on a daily basis.”
What sustained Kathleen during her reign in Irish politics?
“Resilience and courage,” she says.
“And having some input into change for the better. I was thrilled to get free GP care for the under sixes. My daughter brought her child to the GP when the child was sick. Between the doctor’s visit and the medicine, she paid out well over a €100. Nobody can come up to that as well as paying out for childcare.”
Kathleen believes in equality for all.
“I’d like for social class balance to be given the same priority as gender balance.”
What does she think of the Labour’s leader?
“I think Brendan Howlin is an exceptional leader,” she says.
Will she miss the buzz of being in the lime-light?
“I think this is the right time for me to step back and allow the new generation to put their name forward. I thought that inside my own head for 18 months.
“Young women are much more confident now. They understand the importance of a work/life balance.”