ALTHOUGH she grew up in a political household newly elected County Mayor Mary Linehan Foley never had a burning desire to get into politics.
“My father was involved in politics for 43 years. It was just like any other house, some houses were GAA, some were soccer, ours was politics.”
The independent councillor, 53, who has been a public representative for 26 years, said it was her father’s blessing, along with life events that created a political draw for her.
“When my father retired he kind of said to me ‘You know, Mary, I think you are the one for the politics, in this house.’”
The new County Mayor, who was elected unanimously by her colleagues last Friday said since becoming a politician, she has always enjoyed her work.
“I love people, I love being around people. I grew up in a pub, Moby Dick, and there was always people around me, so it’s not like work for me, I love dealing with people, if I can help people I love it.
“I don’t look at it as a job, I don’t view it as tedious at all, I look at it as something I love doing.”
Starting out at Town Council level, Ms Linehan Foley originally followed in her father’s footsteps and became a member of Fianna Fáil.
“I had been a member before election, through my father. I got elected, stayed with Fianna Fáil until 2014, six years ago, I was the Mayor of Youghal on three occasions.”
Mary said, at times, she did feel restricted by the party line. “I did find that as a member of a party, sometimes, because I am very vocal and I can be a bit of a rebel in the sense that if I feel something isn’t right, I’ll say it, if I feel something is right I’ll say it. Sometimes in a party, you can be restricted by chief whip or restricted in what you believe yourself might be different to what the party believes.”
The County Mayor said she went with it because as a member of the party you do.
“They were a party that I believed in and that is why I was with them, but that changed. It changed in the sense that I felt I was going forward and I presumed I was going to be on the ticket when the municipal districts were being established and town councils were being abolished. I believed that I would be on the ticket to go for the municipal district and Cork County Council.”
Despite being a loyal Fianna Fáil representative for 20 years, Mary was not put forward for election as a candidate in the Youghal/East Cork area.
“I met with the party leaders because I had heard whispers there might be someone else on the ticket and they might not be putting two on the ticket for the Youghal/East cork area and they assured me ‘no, you will be on the ticket there is no problem there’.
“There was a convention night in the Midleton Park hotel in February, and I got a phonecall from Fianna Fáil HQ, to tell me I wouldn’t be on the ticket, there wouldn’t be another candidate and basically, that was it.”
Ms Linehan Foley said the news hit her hard. “I was devastated. I felt hard done by. I thought about packing the whole lot in, I knew how hard it is to be an independent because it does help to have a party behind you when you are going forward to election, you have party colleagues who can support you in other districts. I discussed with my family and with close friends and basically my husband John said to me, ‘You are not going to leave this stop you doing something that you love, and I think we should give it a shot as an independent’.”
Six years later, elected unanimously as County Mayor by her colleagues, Mary said it was something she could never have foreseen.“It was a special day. I was blown away by the support I received. I’m very lucky to have a very good relationship with all the councillors and parties, which is great, because we are all in it together, we are all there for the same reason, for our constituents.” The mother of five said being an independent and being able to voice your opinion unchecked, was very liberating.
“For the first 12 months, I found it a bit surreal, I was so used to having a party. Sometimes you are going up to County Hall and there are certain issues being raised and you might feel like you wish you had a party advisor to tell you ‘This is the A and B and this is the grey area here’.
“You do feel alone sometimes, rarely, but sometimes and it is only natural. But the majority of times, it is great to be able to go in and speak my mind and there is nobody waiting outside the door to say ‘sorry that is not party policy’.”
Married 30 years to John Foley, the County Mayor, who was born in the Mother and Baby home Bessborough, said she is very lucky to be well supported by her family over the years — both her adopted parents Maureen and Paddy and her husband and children; Gemma, Kane, Dainia, Clara and Shauna.
With her youngest daughter Shauna getting Leaving Certificate results this year and hoping to study Criminology at UCC next September, Mary said it is the perfect time for her to become the County Mayor “The last is flying to roost, I will have more time for politics. At the moment, it’s a case of they are older now, so I am able to do what I am able to do so there is no pressure on me for babysitters.”
Over the past 25 years, the County Mayor who was adopted at a young age by Paddy and Maureen Linehan, found her birth mother, along with her two birth brothers Gavin and David. “It wasn’t straightforward to find my birth mother. I went searching when I was pregnant with Gemma because I wanted to access my health records.” Mary said she had to pay for a private investigator to find her mother through the Bessborough home.
“I had to pay them (Bessborough) for a private investigator and they found her. At that time she was in London, she left Ireland after she put me up for adoption, and moved to London. They found her and found some of her family in Waterford.”
Mary said it was phonecalls for the first few months and said it was hard going mentally, processing everything.
“You are meeting a stranger basically, a stranger who gave birth to you. It’s a tough road, it is not an easy task to find your birth people, but it is a necessity and a right.” She said she was very lucky to have been raised by Paddy and Maureen. “I was a bit of a wild child, they were probably challenged by me at times,” Mary said. “My father Paddy was a gentleman, a real peoples’ person. He loved people, loved the bar.
“People would come in day and night and it was like his office. So it came quite naturally to me after growing up with that.”
Ms Linehan Foley, a fan of autobiographies and the radio, but has never watched a thing on Netflix, said she wished Micheál Martin well as the new Taoiseach. “It is great to have a Cork Taoiseach and even better to have an East Cork Mayor,” she said.
Looking ahead, Mary said through these strange Covid times, her message will be to stay positive and when Plan A fails, always look for a plan B.
“I would be a firm believer in thinking positive. I don’t think I could do the job I am in if I didn’t love what I do. I don’t think I could cope with it.
“The day that I don’t love it anymore I guarantee you, I will be gone.”