What a difference two years can make. In 2009 Hildegarde Naughton was to be seen resplendent in 19th century US army fatigues, bestride a horse, and brandishing a Colt .45 pistol in the publicity shots for the musical Calamity Jane.
Four months later she was being hoisted aloft supporters’ shoulders having won a Galway City Council seat for Fine Gael on her first run in an election. Not only had she secured an impressive 1,061 first preferences, she eventually reached 1,466 votes and ousted long serving councillor and former mayor John Mulholland in the process.
Cllr Naughton’s image as a ‘pistol packin’ dame’ seemed justified during her first year in City Hall by doing what centre-right politicians normally never do - vote against re-zonings and condemn practices which see developers plans prized ahead of the good of the city and its citizens.
Fianna Fáil were horrified. Labour were over the moon. Cllr Naughton was emerging as the most unlikely of radicals.
Her strong principles, ethical stance, and ability to connect with voters saw her drafted on to the Fine Gael ticket for the 2011 General Election, where she again performed well. Indeed her 3,606 first preferences saw her come ahead of then sitting senator Niall Ó Brolcháin; long serving TD Frank Fahey; and then mayor Michael J Crowe.
Although it was not enough to win her a seat on that occasion, the outcome was still clear. Cllr Naughton has a future in politics and could very well be a prospective TD for Galway West.
On Wednesday June 29 Cllr Naughton was elected Mayor of Galway city - the culmination of her rapid progress in politics to date.
“It’s beginning to sink in,” Mayor Naughton tells me as we sit for the interview on a Wednesday morning. “It’s an honour to be mayor and I’m looking forward to the year ahead. It will be an exciting 12 months, I plan to fulfil my duties to the best of my abilities and so I have taken a leave of absence from my job teaching at St Pat’s.”
Power, though, comes at a price, and Cllr Naughton found that before she could don the mayoral chain, she had to make a public retraction of remarks attributed to her during a debate on the Galway City Development Plan, in which she said a “nod-and-wink” political culture and “vested interests” were involved in the re-rezoning process.
Without the apology, she would not have got the votes she needed to become mayor. Her detractors will accuse her of abandoning her principled stance on planning in order to further her career. However there are many who what happened as an orchestrated attempt to humiliate Cllr Naughton and ‘put her in her place’ for daring to take the stance she did.
For her part the Mayor is determined to draw a line in the sand on this issue and move on.
“I had to clarify comments I made over my stance on re-zoning of land in the city,” she says. “It was not a personal attack on anybody, it was a political charge. I still believe there has been over re-zoning in the city, by about 140 hectares, for commercial/industrial land. If anyone thinks I have sold out I would ask them to look at my voting record in the chamber on planning. It speaks for itself and I am proud of it.”
At times like these the Mayor can probably take heart from the words of the Spanish Jesuit writer Baltasar Gracian: “The sole advantage of power is that you can do more good,” and she is determined to use her period in the office to get ideas flowing on how best to plan and develop Galway - socially, culturally, and infrastructurally - into the future.
“The Mayor is mainly a ceremonial role but I want to extend it,” she says. “One of my objectives is to reduce the disconnect between the citizens and the establishment - the councillors, City Hall officials, major bodies in the city. I want to start a debate so that the citizens can have an active role in decision making, and show that City Hall is not just some building at the edge of the city centre.”
Mayor Naughton’s chief aim in office is to get the balling rolling on a number of projects - the development of a music school/concert venue; the extension of the Salthill Promenade to Silverstrand; and facilitating the ideas and creativity of Galway’s citizens in a productive way.
“I’m looking for new ideas and ways of achieving goals,” she declares. “I will have an open door policy for public input. Galway has people of every skill, capacity, capability and I’m sure many of them have good ideas and proposals to make. These are the people I want to hear from. I also intend to meet community groups, business groups, etc, so that we can come up with common goals to plan for the future with and that we can achieve.”
Allied to this is her idea of developing a civics programme for fifth and sixth class primary school pupils, which will see the Mayor visiting each primary school in the Galway City Council area to speak on the role and workings of local government.
“I think it’s important that they understand how local government works,” she says. “As a primary school teacher I feel I can connect with that group, let them know what we do, and create an interactive programme for parents, teachers, and pupils.”
But what of the Mayor’s plan for a music school and the extension of the prom? This is not the first time such ideas have been put forward.
“The last time we had a major infrastructural development in Galway was the Quincenntenial Bridge and that was 1985!” she says. “We need to keep tourists in Galway city. Many come and see the Spanish Arch and think ‘That’s it!’ but there is so much more, such as the prom overlooking the world famous Galway Bay.
“I want to see the prom extended to Silverstrand and that will not only be good for tourists but good for Galwegians as well as it will benefit health, exercise, and quality of life.”
Mayor Naughton is also keen to support the development of Galway docks and see it become a harbour which can accommodate cruise liners and bring more tourists to the city.
Regarding the music school she said a site must be identified and funding sought. “I will be pushing for this and set up a steering committee to look into the idea,” she says. “All this will take time, but let’s get a start on it so we can be ready.”
Yet the question all this runs up against is: ‘Where will the money for it come from?’ With the State in recession and money sucked up by the EU/IMF bailout and dead and zombie banks, there is nothing to go around.
“That is why I want groups to come to me with ideas so we can start to set things up and explore funding possibilities for programmes, and make sure people know where their money is going,” she says. “Look at the example of Galway Cathedral, that was build partly through donations from the Galway Diaspora. We should look at encouraging people with Galway connections to invest in the city.”
The singing councillor
Outside of politics, Mayor Naughton is a keen singer and an active member of the Patrician Musical Society, and she has played leading roles in many of its productions over the last decade, including Yum Yum in Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado, Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, and as Calamity Jane.
“I loved the role of Calamity Jane!” she says. “I love character led musicals. It’s a chance to be someone completely different and music is a great way to get away from the day job. I also loved playing Eliza Doolittle as it allows you to go from an unsophisticated cockney girl into a real lady. There are diverse roles within that part.”
During her time as mayor, she will not get the chance to take part in this year’s Patrician production, but her 12 months in office will not go by without at least one or two appearances on stage. “I might take part in some concerts around Christmas,” she says. “I couldn’t go without it for that long.”
Then there is the matter of that unforgettable first name - Hildegarde.
“I’ve no German connections,” she says. “My mother just liked it. I think I’m called after Hildegarde of Bingen, a German saint from the 12th century [who interestingly was also a songwriter]. Nobody calls me ‘Hilda’, even at school I always went by the full name. You don’t come across the name much, but I remember when out canvassing for the General Election I met a woman named Hildegarde. I couldn’t believe it. I was nearly more interested in her than I was in telling her about myself!”