Mary O’Rourke is a person who needs little introduction. A proud Athlonian, she rose to prominence as an integral figure within the Fianna Fáil party, serving as Minister for Education, Health, and Public Enterprise between 1987 and 2002, and as Deputy leader of the party from 1994 to 2002.
During those years the people of Ireland got to know the public Mary - the politician, public representative, and speaker. However, since her retirement from public life people have gotten to know more about the private side of Mary O’Rourke - the mother, wife, and aunt; her likes, dislikes, personality, and humour.
Much of this has been achieved through personal interviews, her many media columns and through her recently published memoir, the aptly titled Just Mary. Now, Mary is gearing up for the launch of her second published work - Letters of My Life.
I caught up with the woman herself recently for a chat about what people can expect from her newest project and how it all came about.
“Gill Books were publishing a book on Theodora FitzGibbon, a fabulous writer, cosmopolitan, and European person in the last 40 or 50 years,” Mary says.
“I was selling my Just Mary and I got talking to Nicki Howard, now in charge of Gill Books. I was telling her I used to teach English in Summerhill. When there, I couldn’t get some of the girls into books no matter how hard I tried. Theodora FitzGibbon was a marvellous writer at the time and had wonderful English. I used to say to the girls to go in and buy the Irish Times and read her pieces.
“I was telling this to Nicki and she asked me if I would do a foreword for the book on Theodora, and I did, in which I recounted that tale. So she got great feedback on the foreword and asked whether I had other tales to tell. I have lived and worked in so many different circles, so Nicki asked me whether I would think about writing letters to a certain amount of people - that is how it all came about.”
Mary is understandably cautious in discussing the book’s content ahead of its release, but she did give a little insight into what people can expect: “I have written 20 letters to 20 different people,” she says.
“I thought through my life up until now, examining the many people I have met and searching for the ones that I found most interesting. Sometimes these people would have interacted with me in a peripheral sense, and some would have in a very real sense - they are academics, political figures, ordinary people, people who worked with me.
“Each letter is a hook to roll out some meaningful interlude I had with that person. It is all about connections to other people. I am writing to them because of their connection to a time of my life.”
While describing the book as personal in nature, Mary made the decision not to include letters to her beloved late husband Enda, or to the nephew with whom she shared such a close relationship, both privately and in her working life, the late Brian Lenihan Jnr.
“No, I haven’t written to Enda or to Brian Junior,” she says. “I did that deliberately. Enda and young Brian mean so much to me, and frankly speaking I can talk to them whenever I want. I know that might sound daft to some, and I am not saying they are sitting here beside me now, but often in quiet moments I do talk to them in my mind, so I thought - ‘No I won’t do that’.”
Despite this decision Mary says the book is still very much personal: “I found there was a therapeutic aspect to writing the book, I got a lot of things off my mind doing so. It is very personal. I definitely wear my heart on my sleeve in a big way, there is no doubt about that, and I by far prefer to write about real life - it is far more interesting than fiction.
“People have lived life - it is real, full of ups and downs - and that there is the reality of life. It is far more compelling.”
Mary O’Rourke’s Letters of My Life will launch in Dublin on October 5 and will be available from all reputable book stores.