THE countdown is on for County Mayor Gillian Coughlan as she prepares to hand over the chain of office this month.
But before then, she will host the Cork County Mayor’s Midsummer Charity Ball, on June 10 - in aid of a number of worthy charities.
I caught up with the West Cork woman to talk about her introduction to politics, the highlights of the past 12 months as mayor, and the upcoming fundraising ball.
Councillor Gillian Coughlan’s grandfather delivered milk in Bandon where she was born and bred. She was educated by Presentation Sisters at both primary and secondary school.
“I am very proud of my Presentation heritage,” she said.
“The vision of Nano Nagle not to let anyone behind, her vision of educator as enabler.”
She says she had a very positive school experience and remains friends with a core group she met at that time. Having a group of women in good times and bad is her good fortune.
She was very inspired by her teachers, in particular the late Mrs Margaret McCarron, to whom she credits her love of history and for imbuing in her a grá for the Irish language.
At school she was inclined to speak up about issues that bothered her. She began thinking about how people are represented, how does the world change and who brings about that change. For a time, she toyed with the idea of studying medicine but instead chose history and political science at Trinity College Dublin.
During her college year she participated in the Historical and Philosophical societies and enjoyed debating. She came to understand that cliques can wield great power and influence. She loved living and studying in Dublin and here again made a great group of friends.
INTRODUCTION TO POLITICS
Her husband Donough Coughlan’s late father, also Donough, was a town councillor in Bandon and active in the Workers’ Party and old Sinn Fein. Her husband, while not involved in politics, galvanised the Mayor’s interest in politics and republicanism.
When Fianna Fáil approached her to run for election to Bandon Town council, she accepted and joined the party. This was a hugely transformative time which she describes it ‘as a lightning rod moment’. She was unsuccessful in that local elections of 2004.
For the elections in 2009, Mayor Coughlan was determined to win a seat. She had huge voluntary support and a strong team working on her behalf. This time she topped the poll in the Kinsale Bandon Municipal district.
Being elected Mayor of the town council in 2011 propelled her into the limelight. Serving on the council for five years gave her a great sense of possibilities in politics. When then Minister Phil Hogan abolished town councils,Mayor Coughlan ran unsuccessfully for a county council seat.
She did run for the Árd Comhairle of Fianna Fáil under Micheál Martin’s leadership - a seminal moment as it broadened her horizons as she met party members all over the country.
In 2016, she ran for Fianna Fáil nomination to contest a seat in the general election. The selection did not go her way. She was co-opted to the county due, she feels, to the work she did during the nomination process as she garnered great party support.
BULLYING IN POLITICS
Mayor Coughlan says: “The issue of bullying within political parties is very current. Bullying can happen in any workplace and is not exclusive to women. It seems more prevalent now. The positive to take from it is that people are speaking up and I welcome the way they’ve expressed hurt at their treatment by colleagues. I hope their courage will help others speak up.
“Bullying leaves a person very vulnerable. It can destroy lives. People who bully others perhaps suffered the same treatment themselves as it was accepted behaviour at some period. It is important that we all give respect and set good examples in our public and private lives.
“The GAA slogan is great - ‘Give respect, get respect’. We could all adopt that.”
She continues: “Mobile technology means there is no escape now, teenagers (and adults) are aware when they are excluded from the WhatsApp or Snapchats.
“We are always contactable. If someone is displeased with you, they can announce it to the whole world. It is so dangerous and so easy.
“Mobile phones are weapons of mass destruction. What people forget is that it can also be damaging to your own reputation.
“Often, negative posts are knee-jerk reactions rather than any real badness and just highlight the shallowness of society.”
A YEAR AT THE HELM
Cllr Gillian Coughlan is grateful that she was unopposed in running for Mayor of the County. She pays tribute to all the county councillors across all parties for their support.
She is very pleased that the hard work, passion, and commitment of her fellow councillors meant that they signed off on the County Development plan during her term in office.
“It truly is a joy to travel the county and support local endeavours such as tidy towns, beach clean-ups, monuments, schools, and biodiversity projects.
“There’s an amazing amount of voluntary work all supported by Cork County Council. There’s a wonderful amount of expertise in County Hall.”
The council is striving to improve the road network, a project which fell behind due to the economic crash. She is pleased that there is more investment now from central government. Cork does have the longest network of roads in the country. It is also gratifying to see investment in greenways, cycleways, and walkways.
Mayor Coughlan aspires to see a walkway from Dunmanway, where the River Bandon rises right through to where it enters the sea at Kinsale.
“There are so many hidden gems along the Bandon River Valley. There is more to the Valley than 20th century history,” she says.
She is delighted to host the County Mayor’s charity Ball on June 10. Her chosen charities are the Red Cross, Breakthrough Cancer Research and West Cork Women against violence.
Funds raised will support refugees via the Red Cross.
Breakthrough Cancer Research works to discover better target treatments.
West Cork Women against Violence supports those who are disempowered by violence in their lives. It is important to support the local community and help change behaviours and attitudes.
The black-tie affair promises to be a wonderful night, of music, local Cork produce and a few surprise VIP guests. County Hall will be transformed for the night. Patricia Messinger of 103FM is the MC.
PLANS FOR THE FUTURE
When her term finishes at the end of June, after a short break, Cllr Gillian Coughlan will focus her energies on council work. She is ambitious about the regeneration of Bandon town centre. She is very excited for the future of the town and “would love to see more private investment in it, to match the considerable investment by central and local government over the last number of years.”
Asked if she would consider running for nomination as the Fianna Fáil candidate in the next election, she says: “I will seize the opportunity if it arises and be very proud to represent FF, which would an amazing privilege.”
Mayor of the County of Cork, Cllr Gillian Coughlan, concludes: “I am hugely fortunate to have wonderful support from my husband Don and children Aidan, Maeve, and Ronan.”