The Recorder: the journal of the American Irish Historical Society. Spring and Fall 2011: Paddy O’Hanlon’s “End of Term Report.”
Confession time: I approached this book with my prejudices bristling. For a start it’s not your conventional book but the Spring and Fall 2011 edition of The Recorder, the journal of the American Irish Historical Society. As a rule I come out in hives when faced with academic writing; add to that the fact that the entire edition is given over to a book about politics over the past 40 years, told from an SDLP perspective. As I reached for the book my stomach started asking my head some serious questions, like “Why are you doing this to me?” But I opened it and what do you know? This is a book with some weaknesses but many delights.
O’Hanlon, a founder-member of the SDLP, does two things in it: he tells the story of his personal life, even making his short career as a politician part of that personal life; and he details his role in drafting the Good Friday Agreement. The second of the two I found mildly tedious. Fourteen years on from the signing of that Agreement, I’m more interested in its out-workings than I am in who drafted what bits. But the first of the two – the account of O’Hanlon’s personal life – at times is simply terrific.
It’s the honesty that does it. He’s especially honest about the drug that politics is – how you get the high from success, recognition, status; and how you get the withdrawal shakes when all that’s taken from you. He’s good at describing his first day at Stormont; he’s even better at describing what it feels like when the electorate reject you:”The next six months were ego rough, a lot of pain and a mountain of bullshit from the loser, a lot of late nights in assorted pubs and dubious company, and me with talk for four sets of teeth, explaining why I was an important man. The street calls pointed to something different, a satisfaction that I was an ex-MP, and there is nothing as X as that. A person stopped me in the street one day and asked me if I used to be Paddy O’Hanlon and it was a killer comment, almost as good as the graffiti saying that Enoch Powell was a count”.
The description of his lapse into alcoholism and the departure of his wife links with his failure at the polls, and is equally frank and well-told. So too are his efforts to live a life free of alcohol, and later, that hurdle cleared, the bewildering, numbing arrival of his wife’s cancer. The final few chapters, as I say, told me rather more about his input to the Good Friday Agreement than I cared to hear.
He was an interesting man, O’Hanlon. A “border cub,” a politician, a drinker, a barrister, a novelist, a playwright, a singer. Above all, he was a truth-teller and that’s what sends energy coursing throughout much of the book. He died in 2009 at age 64. Ar Dheis Dé go raibh a anam uasal.