Jim O’Callaghan on growing up with five strong women – ‘The house was dominated by feminism to a certain extent’

Superhero: Jim O’Callaghan, Fianna Fáil candidate for Dublin Bay South on the canvas trail. Photo: David Conachy.

Charlotte Bronte wrote in her 1857 novel The Professor about “the value of sisters’ affections. There is nothing like it in this world.” There are possibly very few Irish politicians who understand this as astutely or as deeply as Jim O’Callaghan. His childhood in the family home in Cornelscourt was all women, surrounded as he was by four sisters – from Kathleen, four years his senior, to Miriam and Anne, right the way up to Margaret 10 years older than him – to say nothing of his authoritative mother Miriam. . .

“The house had five strong independent women,” he smiles. “It always full of my sisters and their friends, talking endlessly,” Jim says looking back. “The presence of so many women probably made me a good listener. The main effect was that my father and myself sought sanctuary in Croke Park most Sundays.”

Asked what was the emotional and psychological effect on him of growing up in a such a house, Jim laughs and says that like most Irish men, “I’m not really that aware of my emotional self.

“I had five women looking out for me in the house. It was dominated by feminism to a certain extent.”

Is he therefore more in touch with his feminine side then? “There are other ways of looking at it. That I was messed up by it,” he jokes.

What would his wife say about him? “I think my wife would say I have a good insight into women from growing up around them, and that it was to my benefit. It was great fun growing up in our semi-d with so many older sisters. It was a very loving and secure environment. I don’t know what impact it had on me but it might have made me more aware of how women think,” he says.

“All of my sisters had lots of close friends and they also based themselves in the house. All of them were great talkers. Most of the time I just got out of the house to play football in the back garden with my friends. That was my real passion growing up.”

His sisters also, unsurprisingly, “had boyfriends who would arrive over” in the house. Jim can only remember the ones who played football with him – “that was the only test of approval I applied to boyfriends,” he explains. “My favourite was the guy who not only would play football with me but he’d bring his Manchester United strip and boots to the house as well in order to take penalties against me between two apple trees. We became great friends but the relationship with my sister didn’t survive. He probably spent too much time playing football with me,” he smiles over tea in a pub on Baggot Street last Monday lunchtime.

He and Julie became good friends “before we started going out with each other. I was probably more interested than her at first but ultimately she capitulated.”

That process of romantic capitulation was aided by Jim sending her tapes of Woody Allen doing stand-up (Broadway Danny Rose is one of Jim’s favourite films) and bringing her for trips to the Antrim coast in his “tiny” car – whereby Jim, something of a giant, would look almost like Julie’s bodyguard next to her, with his big head banging against the roof of the car as they bumped along on their date: “A very large person stuck in a small car with a normal-sized woman!” he recalls with a laugh.

Another time as Jim was trying to woo Julie, he invited her to watch him play rugby thinking his undoubted athletic prowess would surely win her over.

“Julie has no interest in rugby but she happened to be at a Leinster match in which I was spear-tackled, nearly landing on my head, by two large players from the USA rugby team. Needless to say, it didn’t engender any further interest in rugby on her part,” he smiles.

Be that as it may, Julie found something very charming about young Jim. As Jim’s eldest sister Margaret told me: “When I was a fellow in History in Cambridge, Jim came to Sidney Sussex College to do a Masters in Law. In fact he did two masters in Cambridge, graduating with an LL.M and an M.Phil. in Criminology. By then he was in his early 20s. My friends all loved him, which was interesting.” Julie obviously loved him too, because they were married in July 2001, about a year after they got engaged, and honeymooned in France.

Jim and Julie, who now live in Ranelagh, had been living together in Mount Pleasant Avenue since 1999. “It was a slow romance but we both knew we were serious about each other from the beginning. I realised she was the right person for me. We read each other pretty well, we suit each other pretty well.”

What is the secret of their happy marriage? “It’s built on friendship.”

I found Jim at times a tad reticent, even shy, about shining a light on the inner recesses of his psyche. He is just that rare breed: an Irish politician who doesn’t like to blow his own trumpet. “Unusually for a politician, I don’t like being the centre of attention,” he says. “I’m not great talking about myself.”

So I asked one of the women who knows him best – Jim’s eldest sister Margaret, a well-known historian working in Queens Belfast . . .

“I’m 10 years older than Jim and I remember hearing my father on the phone to his brother in Kerry in delight on the morning when he was born,” Margaret said of James Jeremiah O’Callaghan who came into the world on January 5, 1968 in Hatch Street in Dublin. “Myself, Miriam and Kathleen joke that our mother really loves Jim best of all. That is probably not true but then he is very special to all of us. Our father was a great supporter of his daughters but he was absolutely thrilled with Jim,” Margaret adds.

“Jim was a really affectionate and fun younger brother. He seemed to be born with an equable disposition. He was someone who always did his own thing although with four older sisters and a house that was always full of our friends, mostly female, he heard a lot more than he should have done.”

“Jim always does his own thing and is his own person. He is totally reliable, absolutely dependable, fantastic in a crisis, and has a brilliant sense of humour. Miriam has spoken about the death of our sister Anne and how it devastated us all. Jim was in the US when Anne became really ill. It is hard to lose your sister and your father in your mid-20s,” Margaret said referring to Anne’s death in February of 1995 from cancer and dad Jerry’s in May that same year of a stroke.

“Jim had barely started work as a barrister so that was a really hard time for him. He had to stand on his own feet earlier that he might have expected, both emotionally and financially.

“It was a terrible tragedy, particularly for her young daughters, her husband and our mother,” says Jim. “We all experience bereavement but it is particularly unfair when young children are exposed to it. It was hugely traumatic for everyone, but the biggest tragedy of that was Anne herself [dying] at 33, and for her two kids in particularly. Losing a sister is very difficult when you’re 27, as I was, but losing a mother when you’re two or five is very, very difficult. So it was very difficult for them; and for my mother as well.

“People don’t expect to lose a child. Anne was desperately unlucky. People can be lucky or unlucky when it comes to health, and Anne didn’t get any luck. There is good news from it because her husband [Greg Jones] is now with another woman, Eleanor, who is a great friend of the family. The two girls Katie and Lizzie have grown up beautifully. They are fine girls, young women now. So that is something very positive out of the tragedy of Anne’s death.”

What are his abiding memories of Anne? “She was great fun, extremely popular and had a very positive attitude to life. She valued her family and her many friendships.”

Of his late father Jerry, Jim says that “he was a quiet Kerryman. Kerry was very important to him and I think he never really left his native county even though he was ‘exiled’ to Dublin when he started working in the civil service in 1938 as an 18-year-old. He was 50 when I was born so I never knew him as a young man but my memories of him are very happy. He always supported me and even though he came from a Kerry GAA background he was happy to support me when I started playing rugby.”

As Margaret explains of her bro’s rugby career: “Jim was quite a star in the rugby world about which I knew zero.”

His illustrious rugby career however, nearly, ended abruptly, as Jim recalls. “When I was in school a friend and myself played club rugby for Bective Rangers. We played on a team coached by a great character called Tonto. He put together a very good team, most of whom were barmen from pubs where he drank in Dublin. Although I was only 16 I was playing with men in their 20s and 30s.” “It was great fun and we went on to win a Leinster Junior Cup. All went horribly wrong however when Tonto managed to get the team photo published in the Evening Herald.

“This was spotted by my school principal and the powers-that-be in Leinster rugby, and caused me a lot of trouble. Tonto told me it was my own fault and that I should have worn a mask in the photo – which to this day is on the wall in Bective Rangers.”

Mask notwithstanding, Jim played for Ireland Under-21 in 1989 when he was in UCD. After getting his law degree from UCD he went to do a masters in Law in Cambridge where he also played rugby there from 1989 to 1991 captaining Cambridge for a time. When he came back to Ireland, Jim played second row for Leinster from 1992 to 1995. “Probably the biggest match I played was against the world champions Australia in Lansdowne road in 1992 after they won the World Cup in 1991.”

Around that time when Jim played the Irish Students’ rugby team, a fella by the name of George Hook was their coach. “He was a good coach,” says Jim adding that he will be at the Aviva Stadium this afternoon with his 12-year-old son Luke to watch Ireland play Wales. “Ireland is going through a rebuilding phase. There are lots of very talented young players coming up but we will miss the presence of Paul O’Connell. I think it will be difficult for us to retain the Championship but hopefully I’m wrong. Joe Schmidt is a great coach and I wouldn’t underestimate him.”

Nor, should we, it would appear, Jim O’Callaghan …

A few clued-in observers who saw him “warm-up” for Micheál Martin at the Fianna Fail Ard Fheis last month in City West, Dublin talked of him as not just as the rising star of the party but as a future Taoiseach one day.

“Anyone who tries to get elected as a party candidate to the Dail would love to lead their party,” he says after first laughing off the question. “For most, it never happens. FF is still rebuilding and I would hope to see a FF Taoiseach in the future, whoever that may be,” says Jim who joined FF in 2003, was elected to Dublin city council in 2009 and was re-elected in 2014.

What drew him towards politics, was growing up, he was “always interested in history and politics. I didn’t come from a political family but politics was discussed a lot at home. A lot of people are interested in politics but hesitate about getting involved because they don’t know how to get in or they simply haven’t got the time because of their busy schedules.

“I always thought that if you’re interested in politics you shouldn’t decide to leave it to others. It’s not a closed shop and people who don’t have TDs or councillors in their families should recognise that they too can break into politics. When I was growing up the country was overshadowed by the violence in the North. Ultimately, politics solved that intractable problem. I was very impressed by the role FF and Bertie Ahern played in that resolution and decided to join FF on foot of that.”

He notes that his father “was quite a measured man who dealt calmly with issues. I’d like to think I have a similar temperament. He also enjoyed reading history and was very interested in politics but, as a civil servant, he very much kept any political preferences to himself.”

What kind of man is Jim O’Callaghan?

“I’d like to think that I am a tolerant and compassionate person,” he says. “I think one of the most important aspects of life is how people treat others. I think it is important to be polite to and respectful of everyone I meet. In politics you meet hundreds of different people, many of whom are facing crises that can’t be resolved without outside help. I hold a clinic in the inner city every Wednesday and the people who attend are proud and brave people who have been exposed to really difficult circumstances,” he says.

“Many of them work yet can’t afford rent because of increasing rents. They are in urgent need of city council accommodation, which is not available. Those people need and deserve the respect of the state and its politicians who try to serve them. Even though I cannot solve their urgent requirement for housing I try to do as much for them as possible in a respectful way.”

This respect is not always reciprocated, often with hilarious and unintentional results. Jim was asked by an elderly constituent to call over because she had a problem that she didn’t want to discuss on the phone. Having arrived over to her flat, Jim soon realised that she was quite lonely and, more than anything, simply wanted to chat. “We chatted for about 10 minutes and then I asked her what it was she wanted my help with. She replied by saying she had some items on a high shelf in her kitchen that she couldn’t reach and had heard I was a tall man. I got them down for her. At least I was able to do something useful and immediate,” he laughs.

Long of leg and short of guff, 6 foot 6 inches Jimbo exhibits more of his self-deprecating charm the next day when I bump into him canvassing in Portobello. I end up inviting Jim and the five other FF types on the campaign trail with him into my house nearby for tea. Drinking out of a David Bowie mug (he is more a fan of Cincinnati indie deities The National – he is looking forward to their gig in Marlay Park this summer), Jim is soon recollecting, with the election looming, election days past. “Election day can be great fun. Most candidates help to bring elderly people to the polling station which is a real public service since, without lifts, many would not be able to vote,” he says, as I am killed making tea for the five of them.

“Obviously, the expectation is that people you drive to the polling station will vote for you. I recall at the last local election, which was a wet and windy day, a woman from Rathmines had repeatedly phoned me looking for a lift to the polling station. Eventually and with much difficulty I arrived over to her and spent a long time assisting her into the car, driving her to the polling station, helping her into the polling station and then bringing her back home again. As I left her back into her house and was thanking her for voting for me, she told me that she had voted for my running mate Daniel Donnelly! Daniel had a good laugh when I told him that story.”

My baby is crawling on the floor as I wonder what kind of future in Ireland can she look forward to when she grows up. I ask Jim why anyone should vote for him considering when Fianna Fail was last in government it left the country in chaos.

“The country faced a very severe economic crisis between 2008 and 2010. FF was partly to blame since it should have taken steps to puncture the property bubble before it got out of control. But property bubbles are, unfortunately, not unusual. What made the recent economic crisis so severe was that it combined a bank collapse, a euro crisis and a fiscal crisis. This affected many European countries. What has marked Ireland out from those other countries is that we are getting out of that crisis. The reason is because a plan was put in place in 2010 by Brian Lenihan and Brian Cowen.

“That plan had devastating electoral consequences for FF but it prevented the country going the same route as Greece. That plan was opposed by Fine Gael and Labour in opposition; they are now seeking re-election for following that plan. That’s pretty cynical. Also FF has a record that extends beyond the recent crisis and that helped to make this state a successful independent Republic.”

Jim will fix it?

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