We saunter back to reality after the warmth of the holidays

We have finally jumped from 2017 to 2018 and even though I am compiling this on January 4, it seems as if half the country has not yet gone back to work. There is a general air of ‘let us wait until the children go back to school’, which will be next Monday. So for the moment there is still the remnants of festivities around.

And, of course, next Saturday we will have Nollaig na mBan or Little Christmas, whatever you like to call it. When I was out on New Year’s Eve with a group, only one of them had ever heard that January 6 was called Nollaig na mBan, so it made me look it up. It appears that the reason it was called that was because the hard work associated with Christmas, mostly women's work, was considered accomplished by then, and so January 6 was supposed to be a special day out for the ladies. So, there you have it!

It was lovely to have the family all together and to, again, note how the children have grown and the new ideas they now have, and to see my two sons, their wives and all the children happily mingling together during the holidays. Yes, I am lonely. Feargal and Meave and the children are gone back to Dublin. Aengus and Lisa and their children are, of course, still in Athlone, and are so readily hospitable to me always.

Recently we saw the releasing of state papers from 1987 after a thirty year moratorium. For me, it was hugely interesting because that was the year I went into cabinet as Minister for Education with Charlie Haughey as Taoiseach. Lo and behold, one of the first articles in the Irish Times dealt with the cuts in education which were to be implemented and, in particular, to Charlie saying to all of us as Ministers, “Now, there is to be no special pleading from any particular department”. But, of course, special pleading there was, even though it did us little good.

I was also interested to note that Colm McCarthy was the person employed to prune every department, working with Department of Finance officials, to see what overlap there was, what sort of spending could be cut, with the result that he became known as 'An Bord Snip'. So well I remember all of this, and to have a whole article devoted to education and the cuts which were laid out for that really brought it all so vividly back to me.

The three big spending departments were education, social welfare and health, so we were for the chopping block. The Department of Finance and Colm McCarthy put forward the most outlandish proposals, many of which never reached decision stage, but many of which did, and which were certainly the source of ongoing rows and arguments during 1987. I also noted, via the papers, that I went to London in my capacity of Minister for Education with Gerry Collins, Minister for Foreign Affairs, and Ray Burke, Minister for Justice, to a conference reviewing security.

But, of course, much of the papers released dealt with the whole Northern Ireland situation. Every day sees more and more of the papers being released, and how vivid they seem when one can remember so well the events outlined in them.

What films did you enjoy during the Christmas break? I particularly enjoyed Casablanca, the old film with Humphry Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. I know it is so long ago, but I had never seen it and it was wonderful. Equally, I enjoyed Rommel – Desert Fox, which made a great story about the German general and the whole carry on of the Second World War, Tobruk and El Alamein. Wonderful stuff!

And then, of course, last Friday night there was the replaying of Gay Byrne’s Late Late Show from 30 years ago, where he entertained the Dubliners and many other such groups. Many people have already seen that at various stages, but I had never seen it. So, I was very lucky to be able to absorb it fully. It struck me so much that Gay Byrne was a consummate operator. The way he ran that whole show and kept pace, and in touch, with the various groups as they came on. But, the stars of the show were the Dubliners, all of whom have passed away except for John Sheehan, who is alive and well and still performing.

Charlie Haughey was on that programme too as Taoiseach, full of banter with Gay and with many of the participants on the stage, so it was a great night’s entertainment and very much in tune with the opening of the state papers. I hope Gay is responding well to his treatment. It is such a worrying time for himself, Kathleen and their wider family.

On Monday last, New Year’s Day, we had wonderful rugby. The first match was between Leinster and Connacht and you could view it on TG4. I was out with Aengus and Lisa and we all enjoyed looking at it. Connacht put up a marvellous performance and it was a rip-roaring match: an exciting, physical and dogged effort from both sides. Eventually, Leinster triumphed, but only just. As I said before, Connacht are really in the ascendancy and well done to them on an excellent game well played, despite being pipped just at the end.

Later on BBC2, we had Ulster versus Munster. Again, a truly astounding match. At half-time, Munster were winning 17-0. And yet, the second half came along and, lo and behold, Ulster played their hearts and bodies out and finally were the winners. It was extraordinary to watch. It would certainly rouse you up and get you out of any stupor you might be feeling in the post-Christmas era.

During the long days of Christmas, I finished David McCullagh’s book on Eamon De Valera – all 500 pages of it. It is a marvellous read and I would advise anyone to try to get their hands on it. I was lucky in that I had a gift voucher given to me earlier in the year and I used it to buy the book. But, I am sure it will be in the libraries of all of the towns where the readers are. So, I would exhort you to put down your name for it, to get your hands on it and to read it.

You do not have to be Fianna Fáil to do so, let me tell you that, because David McCullagh points out all the foibles and virtues of De Valera throughout his long, long life. Feargal bore it back to Dublin with him and already he is ringing me saying ‘remember such a thing, and such a thing’. So, if you get a hold of the book, or if you have it yourself, be sure to share it because it is such a terrific read.

Next week we will be full of 2018 and what it will hold for us.

In the meantime, this is my lot for now.

Mind yourself and go safely.

Slán go Fóill,

Mary O’Rourke

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